HC Deb 22 December 1954 vol 535 cc2819-28

3.3 p.m.

Mr. A. G. Bottomley (Rochester and Chatham)

This is the first time that the Under-Secretary of State for War has been here to reply personally to a query raised by me on an Adjournment debate. May I express the hope that in looking at the matter which I am about to raise he will apply to it the same energy and gallantry as he showed both as a diplomat in the Soviet Union and as a soldier in Yugoslavia?

If the hon. Gentleman looks at the file on this question he will find that it shows nothing but delay and dilatoriness on the part of those who have been responsible. It is little to be wondered at that one of the local newspapers said: For more than four years these 200 year-old barrack blocks have been looking down on the weeds that have sprung up on the deserted parade ground while the War Office and the Admiralty dicker about their future. The paper then suggests that I might hint, gently, of course, so as not to hurt anyone's feelings—they are probably thinking of the festive season—that the people who have to pay the piper are getting a little bit tired of having no tune.

The Under-Secretary will find that the only thing done in the last four years as a positive measure has been the action taken in changing the name of the barracks from Royal Marine to Medway. This matter is of great importance to my constituency because rates are being lost the receipt of which is necessary for the well-being of the town, and the local shopkeepers and traders are suffering in their businesses. This is of vital local concern.

I should not have raised the matter for that alone, but this question is one of national importance, too. We must recognise that our defence burden is much heavier than we can afford, but we must have it to prevent aggression and to retain our freedom and liberty. At a time when we are having to do that we certainly should not waste money. The impression I have as a result of inquiries in this House is that a good deal of the money spent on defence is, in this connection anyway, being wasted.

The original estimate to put the Royal Marine barracks at Chatham into a reasonable state of habitation was. I am told, about£135,000. Subsequently, the figure was put at£250,000. Rumour has it that now the figure is£500,000. I believe that a good deal of this additional burden is due to neglect and the way in which the whole buildings have been allowed to deteriorate in the last few years.

It was a great blow to the town when we lost the Royal Marines from Chatham. Indeed, the Admiralty recognised the importance of the matter. They invited a very strong delegation from the constituencies of Gillingham and Rochester and Chatham, and the First Lord told the delegation that everything that was said was of a confidential character which must be treated as such. We respected that. Also present, in addition to the First Lord, were the Permanent Secretary and the General Officer Commanding the Royal Marines. We acknowledge the respect that was shown to the delegation. The General Officer Commanding the Royal Marines was able to convince us that the Marines had to go elsewhere because of their training requirements.

Before that, we were given a solemn assurance by all present that another shore - based establishment—H.M.S. "Ceres"—would take their place. We were told that the matter was confidential and that Parliament had to be told first. To the best of my knowledge, Parliament has never been told that H.M.S. "Ceres" is not coming—at least, not by the First Lord. It is true that the hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden), at the end of an Estimates debate, pressed the Parliamentary Secretary to the Admiralty to answer a question I had asked, and he promised to consider the matter, but the First Lord has not made that statement to Parliament which he said was necessary. It is true that he told me privately that other arrangements would be made. He said that it was intended to transfer the Marine barracks to the Army.

There were doubts during the period of office of the Labour Government about H.M.S. "Ceres" coming to Chatham and those doubts were reinforced in a letter sent to me in September, 1950. In October, 1950, in reply to a Question, the Civil Lord of the Admiralty said: There has been no decision in the Admiralty that H.M.S 'Ceres' should not be transferred to Chatham. The position is that the adaptation of the Royal Marine barracks to accommodate the 'Ceres' involves a substantial amount of building work which has had to be considered in the light of the requirements of defence programme. The decision has now been taken that the work involved in adapting the premises for H.M.S. 'Ceres' should proceed."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th October, 1950; Vol. 478, c. 2782.] At that time the then Mayor of Chatham was considering making representations about the use of the site for housing purposes. That would have been very useful for the local authority, but upon that assurance he dropped the suggestion. It was not until 1952 that the new First Lord invited a deputation to the Admiralty, when we were told that H.M.S. "Ceres" was not coming.

At the time when the decision to transfer H.M.S. "Ceres" to Chatham was negatived, I was a member of the then Government. I had no knowledge of the decision. If I had been informed I certainly should have raised the matter with the Prime Minister. I asked the then First Lord to raise the matter with the Government as a whole, because this involved the breaking of a solemn promise by a previous First Lord. I regret that, to this day, to the best of my knowledge, the First Lord of the Admiralty has not pursued the matter further. I have dealt substantially with the Admiralty, because I believe that in the main this is its responsibility. The bulk of the criticism must be levelled at the Admiralty. But the War Office cannot escape responsibility, because in due course the First Lord told me privately, as I said a moment ago, that the Royal Marine barracks would be transferred to the Army.

The Secretary of State for War sent me a letter in which he said that was so, and that the Royal Engineers were going there. That was subsequently confirmed by the Under-Secretary, who said that it was still intended to use the barracks for the Royal Engineers. I have now received a full report of the work to be done. You can be assured that everything possible will be done to carry out the work as speedily as circumstances permit. And the date was 19th November, 1953.

In due course I put a Question on the Order Paper. The Under-Secretary of State replied, on 23rd November: Negotiations for the transfer of these barracks to the Army are still proceeding. I cannot understand that, because if they are "still proceeding." how is it that the Under-Secretary of State could tell me that a full report had been received, and that work was to be carried out as speedily as possible? In his reply the Under-Secretary continued: It is now clear from the detailed examination which has been carried out that much more work than was originally anticipated would have to be done on them before they could be fit for occupation. In the altered circumstances, I am unable to say when the barracks will be ready for occupation."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd November, 1954; Vol. 533, c. 114.] It is monstrous to put one in the position of being told that the Army are taking over the barracks, and that the Royal Engineers are going in, and then for one to receive a reply that negotiations are still proceeding. It would appear that someone is being misleading or that there must be a much better answer given today than we have so far received. Not only has Parliament been ignored, but also the local government authorities. To this day the local council has not been told that H.M.S. "Ceres" is not coming to Chatham. It is too bad to treat elected members of local authorities in that way and a statement should be made before—

The Civil Lord of the Admiralty (Mr. Wingfield Digby)

The hon. Member will not deny that in the Navy Estimates debate in 1952—as long ago as that—the Parliamentary Secretary did make this point. It was made clear, and I think that it would have received adequate publicity.

Mr. Bottomley

That is not good enough. The First Lord himself promised to make a statement to Parliament, and, as I have already said, towards the end of the Navy Estimates debate, when I raised the matter, the hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden), had to press the Parliamentary Secretary for the answer which was given. If the Civil Lord is suggesting that that is the way in which Parliament should be treated, and that solemn promises are to be broken, or that that is the way the local authorities are to be informed, then all I can say is that it is not the way in which to treat responsible people, and I am surprised that the Civil Lord should suggest it.

Mr. Digby

It was a proper reply to give on the subject at the time. A statement was also made in another place about the same time, so it cannot be said that the public was not duly informed.

Mr. Bottomley

I do not wish to pursue this matter, but if the Civil Lord is proposing to content himself with that, I consider that it is not a good augury for the future. Were I the Minister, I should not be content to tell a local authority, or Parliament, that that was the way they were to be informed of a decision which, as I have said, was taken in most solemn circumstances.

The members of the Medway Chamber of Commerce, who were interested, suggested that they might look at the place with a view to taking it over for industrial purposes. What was the reply in that case? I admit that these are my own words, but the reply amounted, in effect, to, "Mind your own business." That is hardly the way in which to treat a responsible organisation.

I do not wish to take up the time of the House, but there is a lot more that could be said about this matter. There is a tradition between the Medway towns and the Services which will remain unimpaired whatever happens. But people in the Medway towns look upon this as an example of inefficiency at the centre, and of Ministerial muddle. Unless we get a decision about what is to be done with this valuable site in the future, I shall believe that what a noble Lord, a very high-ranking naval officer, had to say in another place is substantially true. He said, "It is a sign of a decadent mentality in Her Majesty's Government."

3.15 p.m.

Mr. F. A. Burden (Gillingham)

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Rochester and Chatham (Mr. Bottomley) for allowing me to intervene in the debate. I cannot go all the way with the right hon. Member, particularly in his criticisms of my right hon. Friend the First Lord about the information which was given. As a matter of fact on 6th March, 1952, when I pressed this matter—and I have spoken about it on several occasions—the Parliamentary Secretary made it perfectly clear in a statement that the "Ceres" was not coming to Chatham. That was published in the local papers, or at least copies of the speech and the information were sent to the local papers.

There is fault on both sides of the House, because the decision to remove the Royal Marines from Chatham was taken by the former Labour Government. That is what caused this present difficulty. Although, at the time, it was promised that "Ceres" would come to Chatham, it was decided by that same Government that "Ceres" should not go there. That Government did not inform the people of Chatham of that fact when they had the opportunity of so doing. They made the decision, and I submit that they ate just as guilty, in fact more so, than my right hon. Friend the First Lord.

Mr. Bottomley

That was three years ago.

Mr. Burden

This is an unfortunate matter. I have no doubt that the Admiralty files on this matter are very sizable and I believe that far too much space has been taken up in HANSARD over it. It has now become not even a hardy annual, but is being brought up at frequent seasons of the year. It is a difficulty which is causing great concern in the Medway towns. Perhaps an indication of that concern is the frequent manner in which the right hon. Member for Rochester and Chatham and I ask for information on this subject. It is the cause of considerable loss of profit and business to tradesmen in the Medway towns and it has meant a considerable reduction in rateable value—about£4,000, I understand.

All the time those buildings are left unoccupied they are deteriorating. There is a crying need for accommodation for the Services, and I have frequently had cause to raise with the various Ministries concerned the difficulty of obtaining Service accommodation in my constituency and in the Medway towns. I hope that my hon. Friend, who has only recently taken up his office, will have some information for us today which will give satisfaction to us, and not merely delayed hope, in this matter.

I believe that the "buck" has been passed a little too often, and that it is time that a definite and final decision was made about what is to be done with these barracks. I hope that today we shall see the end of stonewalling. We know that there are difficulties and that expenditure has to be kept down as much as possible. But it appears to me that, if there is a shortage of accommodation for the forces—and there is in the Medway towns—some use can be made of these barracks. As I say, I hope that today we shall see the end of the need for these frequent interventions, not only from the right hon. Gentleman opposite but from myself, and that we shall have satisfaction.

3.20 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. Fitzroy Maclean)

It may be useful if, first, I say something about the past history of this case and try to explain just how the War Office became involved in what had hitherto been a purely naval engagement. The Medway Barracks—as they are now called—at Chatham, are 174 years old. They were occupied for many years by the Royal Marines, but in 1952 the Admiralty decided that it did not need them any longer and offered them to the War Office. Last year, after a preliminary examination, the War Office let the Admiralty know that it was prepared to take over the barracks, provided that, upon further detailed examination, they proved suitable, and also provided that agreement could be reached regarding the terms of the hand-over. It was also necessary to reach agreement concerning certain related sites and buildings, such as married quarters, which formed part of the barracks.

The right hon. Member for Rochester and Chatham (Mr. Bottomley) suggested that the reply which I gave him in the House last month sought to qualify the undertakings which had been given him at one time or another that the barracks would be occupied by an Army unit. I must point out that the War Office, all along, has said that its intention was to take over these barracks if negotiations could be satisfactorily concluded, and provided that those negotiations included a careful scrutiny of what was offered, so that it could be sure that in undertaking this very considerable work of modernisation it was taking on a sound economic proposition and not something which was going to be just a waste of public money. That was made quite clear at the outset, and we have since stated that it is our intention to take over these barracks as soon as we were satisfied upon those points.

The right hon. Gentleman also complained at the delay which has ensued since the matter was first raised. There again, I must point out that before taking a final decision in a matter of this kind we were bound to satisfy ourselves about a number of important points. One cannot forget that a very considerable sum of public money is involved—the right hon. Gentleman himself mentioned various quite considerable sums—and when it is borne in mind that the buildings in question are 174 years old it must be agreed that it was clearly necessary to make quite certain that the life of these buildings and the probable cost of their future maintenance would justify the considerable capital expenditure involved.

It has also been necessary to prepare a detailed breakdown of costs, to make sure that the cost per head for each soldier thus accommodated would not be greater than if we scrapped the whole project and provided brand-new accommodation—which is an alternative possibility. Finally, we had to make quite sure that, after they had been reconstructed, the barracks would be large enough to house the depot of the Royal Engineers for which they were needed. That has not been an easy point to decide. Upon investigation it did not look as if they would be large enough, and there had to be a certain amount of discussion to discover whether the Royal Engineers could reduce the number of soldiers for whom they required accommodation, or whether we could fit in more than we thought possible in the first place.

All that is bound to take time and a great deal of detailed planning, and detailed planning inevitably takes much longer when one is trying to fit a unit or formation, or any number of soldiers, into old buildings which are not necessarily suited for the purpose, than when one is building completely new accommodation to meet one's needs. It is a question of trying to adapt these very solid buildings to meet our needs, rather than to start off with a completely new project.

Even so, a final decision would have been very much nearer by now if it had not been for the comparatively recent discovery that the barracks contained a considerable amount of dry rot—the full extent of which is not yet known. That has made the planning of alterations even more difficult than it would otherwise have been, because we cannot be sure that some parts of the buildings will not have to be written off altogether and simply pulled down, in which case the question of how many men can be accommodated will be re-opened.

It has also made it necessary for us to review the whole question of costs, because it is well known that repairing the damage from dry rot can be a very expensive business. We have therefore had to institute a separate inquiry by experts in order to ascertain the full extent of the damage by dry rot, so that we can satisfy ourselves before starting operations that the undertaking really would be an economic proposition, and that we should be justified in taking over these barracks from the Admiralty.

In conclusion, I should like to assure the right hon. Gentleman that I very much regret the considerable delays which have necessarily arisen, and that I appreciate the very genuine anxiety of the people of Chatham that these barracks should have remained unoccupied for so long. There has been a long and happy connection between Chatham and the Services in general, and between Chatham and the Royal Engineers in particular; and we are extremely anxious that, if it is at all possible, that connection should be further consolidated by the transfer of the depot of the Royal Engineers to these barracks. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that I, personally, am taking all possible steps to ensure that the investigation is expedited, and that a final decision in this matter is reached with the very minimum of delay.