HC Deb 15 November 1955 vol 546 cc373-82

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

11.54 p.m.

Dr. Horace King (Southampton, Itchen)

Five years ago I appealed to the then Minister of Agriculture against the transfer of the Ordnance Survey Office from Southampton to Wellingborough. Tonight I repeat that appeal. In the present appeal I am supported by my hon. Friend the Member for the Test Division of Southampton (Mr. J. Howard), so it is an all-party civic appeal. We are speaking for the whole of Southampton.

May I begin by repeating a tribute I paid five years ago to Ordnance Survey men and women. In detail, accuracy, skill, science and artistry our British maps are second to none in the world, and we are fortunate to possess in civil servants at Southampton and Chessington a highly-skilled and exceptionally loyal and conscientious body of civil servants.

Having said that, the only critical note I would strike tonight is to express the regret that the Minister, while being his usual gracious and courteous self to the hon. Members concerned, has refused throughout to see the staff side. The men are members of the Institution of Professional Civil Servants, and I think he might have acceded to our request and to their request that at some time he should receive representations from the staff side. We profess to believe in joint consultation, and I am one who believes that the Government should be model employers in that respect. I am strengthened in that by the fact that the Postmaster-General has been good enough to permit his men to see him over some similar proposed transfers.

I do not want to repeat my former speech. The Minister, I am certain, has read the debate held in this Chamber five years ago. But briefly, the Government decided in 1948 to disperse certain departments from London for security reasons. The Ordnance Survey, although it was already a provincial department, was caught up as part of the transfer, largely, I believe, because Chessington was near London, and it was decided to move O.S.O. from Southampton to Wellingborough. Let us look first at security. Even if moving from Southampton was right in 1948, surely things have changed now. This is the world of the hydrogen bomb. A hydrogen bomb dropped on London will break windows in Birmingham. In a tiny island like ours no place is safer than any other. The only defence against modern war is no war. That is the common view, I think, of all intelligent humanity today.

Anyone who was present in this Chamber when the right hon. Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) described the atom-bomb experiment, in which a steel ship was vaporised, must regard the moving of a map-making headquarters from 70 miles south of London to 70 miles north of London as displaying a hypersensitive regard for security—as a straining at a gnat if ever we should swallow the camel of world war.

And if the staff side agreed in 1948 to the main lines of the dispersal programme—even then they reserved the right to disagree on the individual items, and pointed out that O.S.O. did not come in the category of a London department—it is now certain that, with the vast changes that have taken place in the development of nuclear power, the staff side which doubted in 1948 the wisdom of the move, and which opposed in 1950 the proposed move, is now emphatically and wholeheartedly against the transfer of Ordnance Survey from Southampton to Wellingborough today, and they said so plainly the moment it was broached again in July this year.

The only other possible reason for moving from Southampton is that it may be necessary to bring the two sections together again. But if there is a case for re-amalgamating what the Second World War split in two, surely the common-sense solution is to bring the two parts together back in their historic home of Southampton. The Ordnance Survey has been in Southampton for over a century—possibly a century and a half. Surely it is wrong to seek out a third spot and to uproot the two sections, when we have there the basic home of O.S.O.

At Crabwood, Southampton, the O.S.O. already has the land. It is not agricultural land. On part of it are the temporary buildings which house the greater part of the service today, plus the old buildings in the centre of the town. At Wellingborough agricultural land is being taken over. Allotment holders will have to be dispossessed. I understand that they have had notice. We need all the food we can grow in this island. It is wrong that we should throw away the site which we possess, to prevent some food being grown in Wellingborough. Any needed development could take place steadily at Crabwood without interfering with the work; but starting again in Wellingborough will mean a period in which the Ordnance Survey Office will be divided into three parts. It will be a long period of unnecessary complication which can be of no value to efficiency or security.

I understand that the project will cost about £4 million or £5 million. The Chancellor of the Exchequer wants to cut State capital expenditure. I seriously suggest that here is a project which might well go by the board. No one, except the security men, whoever they are, wants it. Southampton does not. The staff do not believe that it is necessary. I hope that the Treasury will turn away from other tempting cuts which it is considering making, to make this one. It is one which will secure an unopposed passage through the House, and the Treasury must be human enough to like an occasional agreed measure.

We plead tonight as Southampton men, and for Southampton men. We do not want to lose some 1,500 of our citizens, or some 6,000 if we include their families. We are a proud town, and are proud of the Ordnance Survey Office. These men will have grave problems to face if a move is made. Do not let us forget that during the war they accepted all the dislocation caused by the split. I remember friends of mine who travelled up and down to London during the blitz. Many have had to get rid of Southampton homes and start again at Chessington. Now, for those in Southampton and Chessington, it is proposed that all that should begin again.

What are the hardships? They will have to sell their Southampton homes, and will have to pay much more to buy new ones. Mortgages are now at a higher rate of interest. If they live in council houses they will have to join the queue again, unless they are to be housed in a colony or settlement or in barracks. They do not want any of these solutions. They want to live in a mixed community, as they do in Southampton.

They have children. These will have their schooling interrupted. If there is one thing that can be regarded as certain in connection with education it is that harm done by interrupting a child's school career. That is why I have often pleaded for the Service man's child, and the children of the men of the Foreign Service. I am glad that the Government have done something for both those classes.

Some of the children of the men of whom I am speaking have left school and are apprenticed or articled. To move at their age is even more difficult. Many of the men have their roots in Southampton or Chessington. Such roots are not lightly torn up by middle-aged folk. I would admit, if the transfer were necessary, that such hardships are the price often paid by a State servant. He pays that price loyally and gladly; but the case of those for whom I am pleading is that they are not convinced that all this uprooting is necessary. In 1950 I could say that some 1,350 out of 1,500 signed a request that they be left in Southampton. I can now say that Southampton and Chessington, and the recognised organisation, the Institution of Professional Civil Servants, are unanimously against the change.

I believe they are right. I was against the transfer in 1950. Today the security case for moving has become a footling one, but the economic and financial case against moving has become a powerful one. The human and civic case has always been present. It is with these factors in mind that I ask, on behalf of the citizens of Southampton, that the Minister should go to the Cabinet and get this decision reversed. I am happy that I shall be supported in my plea by the hon. Member for Southampton. Test and the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Smithers).

12.5 a.m.

Mr. John Howard (Southampton, Test)

I rise to support my neighbour in Southampton, the hon Member for Itchen (Dr. King), who has already admirably outlined the issue at stake in the question which we wish to put before the Minister. This is an issue on which political opinion in Southampton is united, the point being that we do not want to lose the Ordnance Survey Office. It has been in Southampton since 1842, when it moved from London, and its 1,500 employees with their families form an integral part of Southampton.

The idea of a move was first mooted in 1947, but the principles on which it was based have changed. At that time the arguments in favour were based partly on the then Government's declared intention of achieving a better social and economic balance throughout the country, partly on strategic considerations, defence matters and war-time conditions, and partly on a dispersal agreement to take Civil Service staffs out of the London area. In arguing the merits of the present case we come up against the blanket of defence.

In seeking explanations, we have been muffled by defence requirements, and we are unable to get any logical explanation in support of the move. I am far from satisfied that the strategic considerations which appeared so essential in 1947, and again in 1950, when the matter was raised in the House, still operate under today's conditions. In tonight's debate, Hampshire is taking on the Ministry of Agriculture, but it is to the Minister of Defence that we should look for answers.

We are entitled to ask for some support from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. We are seeking to cure inflation by rigidly controlling all capital expenditure which is not immediately necessary, and here we have an opportunity of saving about £4 million which it is contemplated spending in Wellingborough in order to move the office from its present site to Northamptonshire. Is it not time for the Treasury to say "No," to the Ministry of Defence and to tell it that it cannot have the money until it has advanced a proper reason, and until it has reconsidered the situation and assessed the present risk against the expenditure involved in the move?

I referred earlier to the removal of the Civil Service staffs from the London area and the strategic considerations which arose in 1947. That dispersal agreement was, in fact, made in 1948 with the Whitley Council, and although the agreement may have been valid then, in point of fact Departments are drifting back into London. Whenever a Department vacates a building in London, it is filled by a business concern so in fact there is little reduction in the overall spread of London, and the size is still the same. One of the original arguments on which that agreement with the Whitley Council depended was that it was intended to reduce the size of London. In fact, that has never been done and in consequence we can reasonably say that any arrangements made at that time are no longer valid. They can certainly no longer be used to justify the uprooting of 1,500 people from a town such as Southampton, which is 80 miles from London.

I should like to stress four of the many advantages of leaving the office where it is and moving the Chessington Department to Southampton. First, Chessington is within the Green Belt outside London, and sooner or later the temporary office must be moved from there. Secondly, certain of the machinery in the department at Southampton requires renewal now, and not in four or five years' time, when new buildings are set up to receive the machinery. Thirdly, we shall be saving some £4 million capital expenditure immediately, and probably a number of million pounds in any event if we merely build on to the existing installations at Southampton. The site cost at Wellingborough, I understand, is only about £5,000, the amount paid to an allotment association, and I do not think we are likely to incur a very heavy loss if we abandon the site. Fourthly—and it is the overriding advantage of the concentration of the whole department at Southampton—it will cause the minimum disruption to the lives of the servants of the Department, which I think is the consideration the Minister should have prominent in his mind.

12.11 a.m.

Mr. Peter Smithers (Winchester)

I should like briefly to support the two hon. Members who have put the argument very fully. I do not wish to take up the Minister's time, but I should like him to know that some of my constituents still work in the Ordnance Survey Office, and I think that on human grounds there is a case to be made here. The hon. Member for Southampton, lichen (Dr. King) said that civil servants loyally accept the consequences of being in Government service and of having to move wherever they are required to go. It is worth pointing out that, while one joins the Navy in order to see the world, one does not necessarily join the Ordnance Survey Office in order to tour England, and I hope that will be borne in mind. This is a service which ought to settle down in one place, and it does suffer from being moved around. A move should not take place unless it is vitally necessary. I do ask my hon. Friend to give this matter the most sympathetic consideration.

12.12 a.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. G. R. H. Nugent)

May I say at once that my right hon. Friend and I fully accept the gravity of this disturbance to the staff at Southampton, and indeed at Chessington, and I sympathise most deeply with the views that have been expressed by my hon. Friends the Member for Winchester (Mr. Smithers) and the Members for Southampton. Test (Mr. J. Howard), and Southampton, Itchen (Dr. King), who raised the matter. I accept the view that the disturbance of some 1,760 people who are now working at Southampton and of about 960 people who are now at Chessington is a very serious matter indeed; but I do have to confirm that the position and the reasons for making this move are today exactly the same as they were five years ago when the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) answered for the Government of the day and explained why the move had to take place.

Certainly such a major disturbance should not take place unless there are the most cogent reasons for it, but those cogent reasons do exist today, and did exist when the Government of the day considered this matter in 1947. The Government decided in 1947 that Southampton was no longer the right place for the Ordnance Survey Department because the Ordnance Survey does work of first importance during peace-time and work of vital importance during wartime, when it becomes, as it were, a sub-department of the War Office. It includes amongst its personnel highly trained men and women of the greatest possible value, apart from their human value, and it includes equipment, maps, plates and so on which are of first importance strategically as well as otherwise.

The Government of the day took the view that Southampton was a city which, as a principal port, had such strategic importance as a target to any enemy country that it simply was not safe, in the interests of our country, that this vital department should remain located there. I have to confirm that this matter has been looked at again and, indeed, that it was looked at again in the early part of this year; that the decision taken in 1947 was confirmed; that the same strategic considerations which moved the Government of the day in 1947 still obtain; that in those circumstances it is essential that the Survey Department should be moved; and that Wellingborough is still the right place to which to move it.

I am afraid that whatever views hon. Members may have—and I sympathise with them—none of us can tell for sure what would be the effects of atomic warfare if it ever happened, and we must take note of the most expert opinion that we have, which is unequivocally that it is safer for this most important department to be moved to Wellingborough. That is advice that we cannot disregard, and so we are obliged to go ahead and make the move.

The fact is that the existing premises were damaged in the last war. As a result of the damage, and for strategic reasons as well, the move of part of the staff was made to Chessington, and at present the staff is working in most difficult circumstances, split up into two major units spread over a number of temporary buildings, and so on. Of course there is an urgent need to get them together again as soon as we can.

I should like to explain the arrangements that we have made for the move, to try to reduce as far as it is humanly possible the element of disturbance which will occur to the staff and their families. I fully accept that it is a very serious matter for them from the housing point of view, from the point of view of their friends and relatives and from the point of view of schooling, but I think that we have provided an accommodation programme in Wellingborough which will ensure that there is adequate housing provision there. Naturally those concerned cannot transfer their roots, but at least we can ensure that the accommodation and amenities of life are ready as gradually they move up there.

My hon. Friend the Member for Test made the point about the need to reduce public expenditure. I should explain that the programme is phased so that building does not start until the end of 1957—September, 1957—and it continues and will finally be completed by 1968, so that the immediate need for economy in public expenditure will not be affected by this programme. On the question of the expenditure of £4 million, I should like to make the point that in any event it would be necessary to build a completely new unit for the Ordnance Survey. It could no longer make do with the old premises.

Here are details of the provisional arrangements to move the staff. I hope that these details will at least reassure hon. Members that this has been worked out with great care to try to reduce the disturbance as far as is humanly possible. Building will start in September, 1957, and the first staff move of 320 is scheduled to take place in 1960. The second group of 150 will move in 1961. The third group of 290 will move in 1962. In 1962 the building of the first stage will finish and in 1963 the fourth group of 145 will move.

Stage two of the building will start in April, 1962. In 1964 the fifth group of 440 will move, and in September, 1964, the building of the second stage will finish. In 1965 the sixth group of 350 staff will move. In 1966 the seventh group of 220 will move. The third stage of building will start in 1964 and finish in 1966. In 1967 the eighth group of staff will move and in 1968 the ninth group will move. By then the whole of the staff—both the Southampton and the Chessington groups—will have been brought together.

This programme has been carefully phased to ensure that the building in which the work will take place will be completed in stages so that the housing provision in the Wellingborough area can be made simultaneously with it and the work of the department can continue. As the staff have known now for seven years that this move was hanging over them, that this was inevitable—the announcement was quite definite—and as it will be twenty years from the time that announcement was made before the move is completed, it means that a very large number of the staff will have joined knowing that this move was inevitable. Whilst I still accept that there is a big element of personal disturbance to the lives of these men and women, it means that a very large number of them who were there originally will by then have retired, and, as I have said, a significant proportion of them will have joined knowing that there was a likelihood of the move.

I hope that what I have said tonight will reassure hon Members that we have done our utmost to arrange this move in a manner which will create the least disturbance and will cater for the human needs of these people. I must ask them to accept the fact that the strategic necessity is absolute in the view of those best qualified to judge, and that no Government who failed to take such advice would be discharging their responsibility to the people.

I ask the staff to accept this decision, hard though it is, in that light—that this is a decision taken to meet the best interests, the strategic need, and indeed the safety of, the nation. I trust that they will accept my statement that the matter has been fully and ably ventilated by hon. Members and that we have arranged the move in the best way we can, and that the matter can be allowed to go forward.

Dr. King

Am I to understand from the Minister that the question of security has again been considered at the highest level since the development of the hydrogen bomb, and since the new techniques and the whole question of the relationship between the two world forces have undergone such a dramatic change as has occurred in the last three years?

Mr. Nugent

Yes, the matter has been considered again by the War Office—in the early part of this year.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes past Twelve o'clock.

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