HC Deb 06 April 1948 vol 449 cc115-27

6.18 p.m.

Mr. William Teeling (Brighton)

We have listened so long to the Budget that it is a little bit of a strain to switch over to a completely different subject. The Adjournment Debate comes under the heading of "The Princes Hotel, Hove," but that is only part of the subject with which I wish to deal. I am more concerned with the future than the past. I am fully aware that this hotel has been lost for ten years. It has now been taken over by the Electricity Board. Had I known more about this earlier in the year and had the sale been less secretly arranged, it is quite likely that we would have been able to stop it.

It was suddenly announced in the Press that the local council were about to discuss this matter, but it had been frequently discussed in private with members of the council, about which we knew nothing. Finally, when I brought this matter to the attention of the House, the different Ministers, to whom I hoped this matter might be one of great concern, announced that it had really nothing to do with them at all, because it was a question for the Electricity Board. We have already discussed in this House the question of the advisability of handing over to these boards responsibility for what Ministers call "details." I do not think we have yet heard what "details" involve. I do not think this is a party issue; I am inclined to think that it may affect all parties as the years come and go, no matter who comes into power. Everyone will want to know what exactly a board can or cannot do.

The particular question I am trying to put before the House tonight is how these boards are slowly but surely taking over property which could very well be used for other purposes, particularly for housing, and whether it can be stopped. The housing problem affects not only my constituency, but almost every other in the country. My constituency in particular, Brighton and Hove, lives almost entirely by catering for the holiday visitor, for the tourist, and generally on entertainment. It may well be that other con- stituencies will be affected by the taking over of their main industry for use by one of these nationalised boards. What is the Government's policy in this matter? Shall we find ourselves in a position where, after some Ministers have washed their hands of what the boards do, those boards will take over property which is vital to an industry which another Minister is working hard to develop?

I speak with particular reference to the holiday industry in Brighton and Hove. We are all agreed that we want to obtain dollars from the tourist at present; that we want people-to come to this country from the United States and other hard currency areas and, to a certain extent, from other parts of the world as well. Brighton and Hove are centres that are very well known, not only throughout this country but throughout Europe and the United States. They are known for their Regency architecture, and their historical background. There was a time when America herself was developing this particular type of architecture. After the war, we tried to get our hotels freed and sufficient furniture for them so that they could welcome people from abroad. To a certain extent we have succeeded. I do not think it would be unfair, or an exaggeration, to say that of all the hotels in Hove the best known one is, and always has been, the Princes Hotel. It is famous not only in this country, but abroad. It may be within the recollection of some Members that during the last few months several of us visited Japan. While there the Emperor's brother, at a luncheon party, asked what had happened, during the war, to the Princes Hotel at Hove. He had come over for the Coronation, and, whether it was the Royal Family or the Foreign Office I do not know, but somebody had told him that the best hotel he could stay at for a short visit was the Princes Hotel at Hove. It is not only in Japan but also in America that this hotel is well known.

Over a long time valuable goodwill was built up, and that is why I am particularly worried about this matter. The board are coming into the place and moving into an industry which is vital to our dollar position. The board are taking over properties without adequate attention being paid to what they are doing by the different Ministries. I feel that there must have been a lack of planning and co-ordination in this matter. When trying to encourage the tourist traffic the best hotels should be developed. If these boards are to be allowed to run their own show in detail it is possible that they may take over property in different parts of the country that could be better used for some other purpose—such as earning dollars.

The Minister of Fuel and Power answered a Question of mine before the Recess, when he said that he had given no instructions whatever to any board about taking over property that could be used for housing purposes. I did not pursue the point with him, as I felt it was a little unfair because the Table had refused to allow me to point out why I was asking the Question. I was asking it as a supplementary to one which I had put earlier to the Prime Minister. The Question I put to the Prime Minister was: … what is the policy of His Majesty's Government with regard to the purchase by Departments of properties which can be shown to be capable of being used for housing purposes; and if he will direct the Ministers concerned to impose that policy on the Nationalised Boards for which they were responsible. The Prime Minister replied: In view of housing needs the Government are anxious that accommodation capable of being used for housing purposes should not be purchased by Government departments and other bodies and used for other than housing purposes where this can be avoided. I would like the House to remember the word "avoided." The right hon. Gentleman went on: Defence Regulation 68C.A. covers this"— that regulation says that the prior consent of the local authority must be obtained— by providing that consent must be obtained to the diversion to other purposes of any housing accommodation which has been so used any time since 31st December, 1938, and this extends to hotels and similar accommodation. The Regulation applies equally to nationalised industries and to private individuals, and the present arrangements should ensure that such accommodation is used for living purposes where this is practicable."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th March, 1948; Vol 448, c. 786.] Later, I asked the Minister of Fuel and Power whether he had given any instructions to his Department on those lines, and he replied: "No." I would like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary if he would explain why that is so? If the Prime Minister definitely says that it is the policy of the Government that housing should come first, why are these nationalised boards at least not advised, if not indeed ordered, that they must leave housing property alone as far as possible? I know the answer will be, as the Prime Minister said, that in the case of the Princes Hotel "the local council accepted this proposition." But, on the main issue, I would like to know exactly what the Ministry can and will do in future, because it is to the future that I am looking. What are the Government going to do with regard to the housing problem as a whole?

I think that the country ought to know something about the way in which the Princes Hotel has been taken over. We are told that the council agreed to this. That is not entirely true. The council did in public agree to the whole question by a considerable majority, and when it was brought up again, after it had been aired by me, they again agreed to the proposal by a majority, one of the aldermen saying that they would be made a laughing stock if they altered it now. Certain members of the council pointed out that had they known the details, they would not have consented in the first instance. They said that they were not properly informed about it, and that they did not know hat the property could not be requisitioned. I would like the Parliamentary Secretary to explain more clearly to the country as a whole that property cannot be requisitioned for these purposes without the councils agreeing according to Defence Regulation 68CA. I cannot find in any of the documents which I have here, any statement that the council was warned on this point.

Let us see how it all began. I know that the hon. Gentleman's Department have been in touch with the Hove town clerk, so that the Parliamentary Secretary might reply to me as to what happened. I know that the Electricity Board made a statement in the Press, to which I replied in "The Times." I think that the answer which they have been given is that according to the Local Government Act the council acted absolutely correctly, that the whole thing was done in public and was done properly. That is not, if I may say so, absolutely true. A lot happened before the council met in public. For instance, there is the town clerk's report dated January, 1948, which refers particularly to a meeting on Friday, 2nd January, when a Mr. Burnell, the clerk of the London and Home Counties Joint Electricity Authority, visited the Mayor and Town Clerk. He pointed out that he had come on behalf of the Chairman of the South Eastern Electricity Board, which had been considering the purchase of offices for its headquarters' staff. He told them that there were a number of places in which they were interested, including the Princes Hotel, and he went on to say—and this is in the Town Clerk's report—that the Board would not come to a decision except with the full agreement of the local authority concerned, and that the chairman had asked him to find out the reactions of the whole council to the suggestion that the Board should set up headquarters in the Princes Hotel. Then comes the remark: It might be that the Board could requisition the premises and avoid the question of the consent of the local authority. Mr. Burnell stresses that whatever might be the legal position they did not intend to do anything of this nature. That would seem to be in the nature of a threat of requisitioning. I have here a letter from one of the people who sold the property. The last paragraph says: So far as the owners of the hotel are concerned, it is indeed difficult to 'negotiate' with a prospective purchaser who is armed with powers of compulsory acquisition That letter is dated only 1st April. The council it seems pointed out that for some time past they have been interested in developing Hove, and that they had been pressing for the Princes Hotel to be reopened; that only within that last week an approach was made to the hotel on the matter, and they had been informed that it was unlikely that the hotel would be re-opened before Christmas, 1948. Remember that date; it could be opened by Christmas, 1948. It has been empty for the last two years. Tenders had, I believe, been invited for the necessary work which would take at least nine months to carry out after the tender had been accepted. Mr. Burnell said that the Board had made inquiries, and they "thought it exceedingly unlikely that the premises would ever again be opened as an hotel." That raises another point. No one knows who "they" are; and who says that the premises will never be opened as an hotel? They say that they have had expert opinion and that the Brighton and Hove area was more than sufficiently provided with hotel accommodation. Yet, when we come to the summer season, people are being turned away because it is impossible to get into the hotels, especially at the weekends. So that statement is entirely untrue.

These experts also state that the premises are not suitable for use as a modern hotel without considerable structural alteration, and that apart from proposals put forward by the Board the premises would remain empty for many years. I feel that there is no reason why that should be so. While the premises were empty the local authority was losing a considerable amount in rates. So it was pointed out to the council that under the Local Government Bill now before the House of Commons it was provided that the hereditaments occupied by the Electricity Boards, except premises used as a dwellinghouse, would not be rated or included in the valuation list, bill the British Electricity Authority would make a payment year by year for the benefit of local authorities.

With this background the council were invited to do what they could and make up their minds. Then, as the hon. Gentleman will remember, we had the statement in the Press from Mr. Norman Elliott. We all know what good work he did during the war. But what did Mr. Elliott do over this matter? He came down to see the council and met them after a General Purposes meeting. They had already finished the meeting, and there was nothing on the agenda about this. The Press were asked to leave, and this matter of great importance was discussed privately and out of the blue. It was in December when Mr. Norman Elliott walked in, and I understand from the council that he informed them that he did not know what he was expected to say. He told them all about where he had been to school, what a good rugger player he was, and got all the members of the council interested, so that in the end they finally adopted this really ridiculous proposition for Hove.

At the next meeting, the mayor said that, having gone so far, they could not go back. Finally, it was agreed that they would let the Electricity Board take the property. They were rushed into it. Then the resolution was put for the first time in public. At the request of the Electricity Board it was proposed to add strengthening words to it to say that the council welcomed the proposal. On 9th January Mr. Elliott in a letter said that, briefly, the proposal was that the South-Eastern Electricity Board, which would be responsible for the electricity supply in Kent, Surrey and Sussex, should purchase Princes Hotel and make it the headquarters of the Board. The headquarters would house the Board's secretariat and senior officials and would also probably be the headquarters of the consumers' council for the area. The fifth and sixth floors, and possibly the fourth floor would be made into residential premises for the headquarters staff. He went on to say that if there were any surplus office accommodation he would be most happy to enter into negotiations with them. He also said: I am fully conscious that your council would wish to preserve the pleasant amenities of the Hove sea front and I can assure you that Princes would be kept in first class condition and that all the reasonable requirements of your council in this respect would be a first consideration of the Board. Should the Board's headquarters come to Hove, this would also bring to Hove many most desirable ratepayers and I am sure that the most happy relations would exist between the Board and your council. From the information I have it seems probable that if my Board does not take the Princes Hotel the building may go derelict and this, of course, would be most undesirable for Hove. All this is just part of a series of threats and bullying. The actual position is that we have a town which has 2,000 people without homes and of the 2,000 on the housing list 1,000 are really extreme cases of urgency. Why was it not possible to put some of these families into the Princes Hotel if it is not possible to turn it into an ordinary hotel? I, personally, cannot see why that could not be done.

There are two avenues of approach from the hotel into the centre of the town. The Electricity Board have taken two large houses attached to the hotel to house people who perhaps are considered to be desirable ratepayers, yet some six or seven houses in those particular avenues have already been taken over by the local council to house local people. Why could not they have also had these two houses? I am informed that over 200 people are going to move into homes in Hove in order to take part in the workings of the Electricity Board. We have had quite good enough service as it was before, and where the boards are at present situated they have found plenty of room to work. Why is it now considered necessary so greatly to increase the premises? The answer is that they are taking over the areas of Kent, Surrey, Sussex, and it is the tendency of bureaucracy vastly to increase the number of people at the head of affairs. Several of the undertakings which are being taken over have had their headquarters in London. These headquarters are now being sold and the people working in them are to move into Hove. How is that going to help the people in Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells who were so well served before? If a central office is wanted, why not have it in London?

I maintain that the only reason is because someone likes to be going to Hove. It is rather pleasant to be at the seaside and Hove is rather a pleasant seaside to be at. I can hear someone saying, "To hell with the 2,000 people there who want homes! Why should we be bothered about that?" That is the new bureaucracy which is coming in. I do not understand how a Socialist Government or indeed any Government could defend this present action. We have heard the Minister of Health saying that there are not nearly sufficient houses at present to house all those in need of homes. Yet here is an hotel, which could be used for the purposes of conversion into a block of flats, being used to accommodate the staffs of this new Electricity Board. In Hove, too, there are old people who are in large houses and would be much better off in flats where they would not have to use stairs to the same extent. They would gladly get out of their houses if they could get flats, and those houses could be used to accommodate some of the local families who are in such need of accommodation. Why cannot something like that be done?

If the answer is that this is a question for the local authority I do not agree, because on more than one occasion, when the local council wanted to requisition local property, the Ministry of Health prevented them taking over houses. The Ministry, when I asked a Question, said that other people from outside were going to move into the property. Therefore, the Ministry of Health, if they wanted, could take an active part in this matter and do something about it. We are left at the present moment with the position that an hotel, which could have been taken over to house something like 6o families, is being requisitioned to provide accommodation for the new staff of this Board. It is said that 200 families are going to move into the town of Hove, which has its housing difficulties without this new addition to the local inhabitants. They may be desirable, wealthy, better class people, but they are coming in ahead of all others.

The local council to my mind has been pushed into this thing. It was done secretly at the start, but why I cannot make out. There has been a certain confusion. We have been told by the papers that there was nowhere else for this headquarters to go to, but others have informed us that there were other places where it could be accommodated with much less inconvenience, and with a great saving of money to the nation as a whole, whereas in this instance the amount of money that has got to be spent on this place to put it right for these civil servants will be very considerable and when we take into account the money that the Admiralty spent previously, there will be really no worthwhile saving at all. We have also to remember that the taking of this hotel is damaging the main industry of the town of Hove.

There seems no reason why the Board should not remain where the branches always were before or why it should not have gone to London as a centre. The whole thing is now signed and sealed, and it may seem rather late for me to raise it. However, it is not my fault that I was unable to raise this matter on the Adjournment earlier. I have to ballot for it. I have already pointed out that this is not a political issue. It is going to affect any Government which comes into power no matter what Government it is. Whatever Government is in power must see that these Boards do not proceed contrary to the policy laid down by the Prime Minister. In this particular case it is the policy in relation to housing. Another time it might be something else. We have to remember that this hotel could have been used as an hotel, or it could have been converted into flats to accommodate some of the local homeless. Already there had been several demands as to why nothing had been done to convert the building and I have raised the matter myself by Questions to the Minister of Health. I still believe that something could have been done if energetic action had been taken by the Ministry of Health.

Although this matter may now have been signed and sealed, I am raising it because it may occur all over the country in different ways. That is why I want the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power to say something in regard to situations such as this. I hope he will be able to tell us that this kind of thing will not happen again, and that he will not fall back on the statement that this is a matter for the local council and that we ought not to be talking about it here. To my mind the local council were only pushed into it at the last minute and they did not know the proper facts because they were not told them by the officials of the Board.

6.48 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power (Mr. Robens)

I usually listen with great interest and attention to the Senior Member for Brighton (Mr. Teeling), but I must confess that on this occasion I have listened to what is really a private feud between him and his local council. The Debate has ranged not only over my own Ministry but over the Ministries of my hon. Friends who are here on the Government Front Bench with me—the Ministry of Works and the Ministry of Health—and I am indebted to my hon. Friends for a good deal of the material that I shall use in replying to the points that have been raised.

When the Senior Member for Brighton looks at his speech in HANSARD tomorrow, or perhaps when it is suitably sub-edited in his local Press, I am afraid he will see that what he is saying is a very severe reflection upon the council as a whole, and an even worse reflection upon the abilities of the town clerk who is responsible for advising the council of the powers which it possesses. I am utterly amazed to hear for the first time this afternoon about all these apparently in-the-dark negotiations. I was a member of a fairly large municipal authority for some years, and I am certain that I would not have been a party to negotiations of the kind that have been described without saying something about it. That, again, is a matter for the council, and not for my Ministry. The Government have given all the powers to local authorities which are necessary to enable them to do what the hon. Member has suggested. He has referred to Defence Regulation 68C (a) which was made in October, 1945. That regulation provides that no premises used for housing accommodation at any time since the end of the year 1938 may be used for other than residential purposes without the consent of the local authority or, in the case of application by a Government Department, the consent of the Ministry of Health. This was not a case of application by a Government Department.

I might interpose at this stage and say that throughout these negotiations the Ministry of Works have in no way interested themselves on behalf of the British Electricity Authority and that any statement that they have done so is quite wrong. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate—because he sits on the other side of the House and shares the view that there should be freedom for the people of this country to please themselves fairly well—that we cannot force anybody to buy a hotel or, even if they own a hotel and keep it empty, force them to open it and take in tourists. This hotel was one of the earliest to be de-requisitioned. In point of fact it has been closed, I understand, for two years.

Mr. Teeling

There was war damage.

Mr. Robens

Nevertheless, we must remember that it was in November, 1946, that the Ministry of Works granted a licence up to £25,000 for the first phase of rehabilitation after derequisition, and that no work was put in hand. The licence lapsed. If there was no desire on the part of the owner to get busy with the tourist trade and to make the hotel habitable, once again—

Mr. Teeling

I do not think it was the same owner.

Mr. Robens

It is the same piece of property. We cannot help it if it continually changes ownership. Let us not overlook the fact that the hotel, and adjoining property presumably, have been empty, and that the council have powers to requisition the property for purposes of housing. I understand that the council were most anxious that the property should be brought back into use as a hotel. I understand that the council gave every encouragement to the owners in their expressed intention to carry out repairs that were necessary in order that the property could be reopened as a hotel.

When the council came to consider the conversion of that particular piece of property for residential purposes for the housing of some of the 2,000 people who are, I understand, without accommodation, they did not regard its requisition and conversion into housing accommodation as altogether an economic proposition. Therefore, they did not take the action which they had full power to take in order to meet the situation which the hon. Member is asking us to deal with this afternoon. The council has all the powers; the hotel has been empty for two years. The council could have done precisely what the hon. Gentleman is asking should be done.

I will turn to the question whether the council were under the impression that if they did not give consent to the British Electricity Authority to obtain the hotel, the property would have been requisitioned. I can find no evidence for that. Again, it really is a gross reflection upon the town clerk, who must have some responsibility in this matter. He should know the law in respect of requisitioning. He would know quite well that the British Electricity Authority is a public corporation and stands in the same relation to this as any other enterprise of that character stands, and has no special powers to requisition.

I cannot say anything about the argument that may have taken place in the very interesting interview behind locked doors, and I have not troubled to find out anything about it. It is not our business to interfere in the day-to-day administration of the British Electricity Authority. If it had been a private company wanting these premises for a similar purpose it would not have been possible to secure private information of negotiations. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Fuel and Power feels that the purchase of this hotel is not a matter that comes within the power which he has under the Act in relation to direction.

Therefore, while it has been most interesting to learn this afternoon of all the negotiations which took place, those negotiations were between a public corporation and the local authority. The local authority had all the power they wanted to please themselves whether they granted permission for the new use of that property. They decided, as a council, that they would agree, as the planning authority, to the new use to which the British Electricity Authority wanted to put it. I cannot understand why this Adjournment Debate has taken place at all. It is not on a matter with which Parliament is concerned at all at this stage. Parliament has already delegated powers to the local authorities to deal with the matter to which the hon. Gentleman has referred.

Mr. Teeling

Has not the Ministry of Health also power?

Mr. Robens

Of course, the Ministry of Health has powers, but they are negative. They are not positive in the sense that the Ministry can go to the council and say, "You must requisition this property and turn it into houses." The Prime Minister made a statement, to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. The statement applied not only to public corporations but to all people in business of this or a similar character who wish to acquire premises. The British Electricity Authority, along with all other firms, would take note of what has been said. While the hon. Gentleman has given us a lot of information this afternoon, there is nothing he has said that he ought not to have said to the council. He should really have been making his speech to the council and telling them that they had not done their job, if that is what he feels about it.

Regarding the acquisition of this property by the British Electricity Authority, I repeat that it is a matter of day-to-day administration. We have no intention of using our powers under the Act to give directions on a matter of this character. The area boards of this undertaking must be left as free on these matters as is any other business, private or public. It is clear that the council, having all the authority to deal with this type of business transaction, exercised their powers. They are guardians of the powers that they possess in the interests of the ratepayers and of their citizens. Whatever they may have done is a matter between them and the citizens of Hove. The speech made by the hon Gentleman ought to have been made to the council and not to this House.

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