HC Deb 16 March 1951 vol 485 cc2067-72

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Mr. Royle.]

4.8 p.m.

Mr. Irving (Wood Green)

I am raising this matter on the Adjournment today because I believe that the Wood Green Borough Council are suffering an injustice at the hands of the Ministry of Works. For many years the officers and staff of the Wood Green Borough Council have been working under great difficulties due to lack of suitable municipal office accommodation. At the end of the war, the council decided to embark upon a scheme to provide this accommodation, and invited the Ministry of Works, the county council and other interested bodies to join in the scheme. The Ministry of Works were very collaborative and decided to come in. After some negotiation, they undertook to take 12,000 superficial sq. ft. for office accommodation for Government Departments. Very little progress was made until 1947, when the site of the "Fishmonger Arms" was bought at a cost of£27,500.

In 1948, the borough council's engineer had an interview with the Government Department and submitted a plan. The first proposals for the urgent preparation of a detailed plan were accepted. From that time onwards, there was constant consultation between the Ministry of Works and the borough council with regard to plans and layout. Conferences were held, and submissions were made to the Ministry of Health. The scheme received preliminary approval. Meanwhile, many of the plans had been altered to suit the requirements of the Ministry of Works.

Unfortunately, it became necessary for the nation to suffer cuts in capital expenditure, and this was one of the schemes that suffered. The Ministry of Health informed the council in December, 1949, that owing to the national position it would be impossible for them to sanction the scheme being proceeded with. Meanwhile, the architects had been busy preparing plans, and submitted later an account for£700. The Ministry of Works refused to meet any liability in connection with this item. The Wood Green Borough Council think that as the plans were submitted to the Ministry of Works and were frequently altered to suit their requirements, now that all the work has been scrapped the Ministry of Works ought to meet the£700 architects' fees.

The point is that the plans which were prepared for the original scheme have not been scrapped entirely, because a modified scheme has not been prepared. It is obvious that the borough council will have to meet the cost of architects' fees for the modified scheme. In connection with the original scheme, the borough council are justly entitled, I think, to ask the Ministry of Works to meet the£700. The Minister of Works has achieved quite a fine reputation as a businessman. He has undoubtedly been a great success in the business world. He is not only a success since he became Minister of Works but he is one of the outstanding successes of the present Administration. I was very pleased to see him standing at that box yesterday, deputising for the Prime Minister—coming events, I hope—but he will not get much further unless he deals justly, particularly in regard to the architects' fees for the Wood Green Borough Council.

4.13 p.m.

Mr. Messer (Tottenham)

Before the Minister of Works replies, I should like to mention that I have an interest in this question, because Wood Green was at one time part of Tottenham and was a constituency represented in this House by Percy Alden. Wood Green has suffered ever since it has been a borough by the inadequacy of its municipal offices. The council were compelled to take an old mansion in a park. We all know the circumstances in which we have been placed during the last 20 years. They have made it very difficult for Wood Green to branch out as it should have done and obtain adequate municipal premises.

The mansion in which they are working is quite unsuitable to an authority such as Wood Green, which is a very important one indeed. I am not sure, but I believe that the mansion is suffering from dry rot, which may have its effect on the deliberations of the council—I do not know. What I do know is that local government is most important and can do its work properly only if it has proper facilities.

In this connection the council did their best, and when there appeared to be an opportunity to get a site they tried to do so, but one difficulty is that Wood Green is over built. There are no vacant sites. The site chosen was being used for other purposes, but it was a heaven-sent opportunity. I submit that the council had reason to believe when they proceeded with their plans, that the development of those plans received the consent of the Ministry of Health and that they had some hope of the materialisation of their requirements. As the Government had already agreed to the plans reaching that stage, when in course of time they say that such things must be restricted, they ought surely to accept some measure of responsibility for the plans, which are no longer of any use.

What is required more than anything else at the present time is the retention of the confidence of local authorities in the Government. We shall not get that degree of co-operation between central and municipal government unless local authorities can be assured that, when they get the measure of consent which is implied in the agreement, the Government will take their share of the responsibility when the necessity, imposed by the Government itself, comes for an alteration in those plans in the interests of the ratepayers of a borough which is crowded, like my constituency. I urge the Minister to give consideration to this point.

4.16 p.m.

The Minister of Works (Mr. Stokes)

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mr. Irving) for the felicitous way in which he tried to seduce me into accepting his recommendation. I can only say that I hope that he does not have his desire so far as I am concerned. The debate is a most unusual one to me, speaking as an old-time back-bencher who raised many things on the Adjournment, in that I am now answering something about which no Parliamentary Question has been addressed to me and very little time has been given to me to ascertain the whole story. I make no real complaint about that, but only mention it in the form of an excuse why I shall probably not give my hon. Friend as good an answer as he might otherwise have got.

Mr, Irving

I gave the right hon. Gentleman notice a week ago. I received confirmation of that.

Mr. Stokes

Certainly, Sir. It is true that I had notice a week ago, but if my hon. Friend had spent even the limited amount of time that I have in dealing with Government Departments, he would know that a week is not a very long time in the scheme of things. But that does not matter.

The situation, as I am advised, is simply that my Department is not legally liable. The claim for£700 odd which was lodged on 31st March last, may be one which my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green or my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Messer) think the Government ought to meet, but I am advised to the contrary. I would emphasise that I am sure that both my hon. Friends will admit that the dispute is one between a local authority and my Department and that no personal pocket is involved. I want to stress that, so far as I am briefed, my Department made it clear all along that we should only be interested in taking on this new accommodation if it could be provided in reasonable time; and the important word is "reasonable."

As my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green said, the proposal was first made in 1945. A very considerable period of time has elapsed since then, and even today the situation is uncertain. It is no use blaming me for the fact that the work has not gone ahead. I do not think either of my hon. Friends suggested that it was the fault of my Department. But the fact remains that there is still uncertainty, and if they look at the facts they will find that it took some three years for the plans to be submitted, while my hon. Friend says that I have had lots of time in a week to answer all this.

But when we asked for accommodation and said we were willing to take it provided it could be supplied in reasonable time, I do not think that lapse of time can be regarded as reasonable. If I am asked to do so, I am prepared to accept that the delay which has occurred is not entirely the responsibility of the local authority. But no commitment was made by my Department, and the fact that there was a certain amount of uncertainty in the middle of 1949 as to who said what, does not affect the situation.

On 5th October, 1950, some six months ago, the Town Clerk of Wood Green advised us that the Council had decided to go ahead without us. On the evidence that has so far been produced—and in reply to the hon. Member for Tottenham what happens in regard to dry rot in the Wood Green Council is nothing whatever to do with me—I do not see on that evidence that, at present, there is any reason why I should depart from the advice given me by my legal advisers that we are not liable and should reject the application. At the same time, as my hon. Friend knows, I am a perfectly reasonable person and, in the light of what he has said, I will have another look. However, I am bound to say that on what I know today it does not look to me as if my Department will accept the liability.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-one Minutes past Four o'Clock.