HC Deb 04 February 1958 vol 581 cc1153-60

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

11.51 p.m.

Mr. Charles Grey (Durham)

In raising this matter tonight, I should like to get a decision from the Financial Secretary to the Treasury about the siting of Government offices in Durham. This question has exercised the minds of Durham County Council and the City Council ever since the transfer of the Land Registry was promised in 1948. Ten years is rather a long period, and then to have nothing finalised at the end is something that needs explaining. There is a feeling in some quarters that there has been dilatoriness and no real attempt by the Government to carry out their promised intention. For that reason, and to get the Government to make a decision, I have sought this opportunity to raise the problem. All those concerned have been patient and cannot be blamed if they are now showing anxiety and asking that the Government should make up their minds.

It was part of the Government's dispersal policy to remove some Government Departments from London. Pensions went to Blackpool, the Ministry of National Insurance to Newcastle, Income Tax to Wales, and in 1948 it was decided that the Land Registry Department should be sited in Durham. It was hoped that this would be completed by 1960, and when the decision became known to Durham County Council and the City Council, their plans were obviously coloured by this fact.

The consequential commitment which Durham City Council entered into was the acquisition of land over and above their normal housing requirement, and a site of sufficient size was acquired to house these officials and to meet local housing needs. It was estimated that as a result of this Crown Department coming to Durham, housing accommodation would be required for the families of 800 or so employees. That would probably mean about 2,000 people. What happened between 1948 and 1952 I do not know, except that there were two General Elections, the second of which did not prove to be the success that the people intended it to be. The Government were very quiet. It is often said that when individuals are quiet one does not know what they are up to, and the same can be said of Governments, especially this one.

In July, 1952, this silence was broken, and a letter from the Minister of Housing and Local Government to the Durham County planning officer said that the move of this Department was still on. Then, in 1953, the City Council heard rumours that the move was off, and asked the Minister of Housing and Local Government about them. On 20th October, 1953, the Council received a letter which said that nothing could be said definitely, as the Cabinet had not then made a decision on the general problem of the dispersal of Government Departments, but that a decision was expected before the end of the year.

The end of the year came, but there was no decision. On 8th March, 1953—nearly six months later—a further letter was received saying that the Land Registry would not be going to Durham but to Harwell; but the Minister said that four other Departments were being considered. The plan was that Durham City Council should go on as though the Land Registry was to go there in about 1960. Therefore, even if the Land Registry was not to be in Durham, we were to get something equivalent to it.

From then onwards there have been many attempts, without success, to get the Government to name the Department. It culminated in the Financial Secretary receiving a deputation from Durham County Council and from Durham City Council. That deputation was received on 21st December, 1953. My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) was in attendance, and so was I. My hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Mr. Ainsley), though not then a Member of this House, was also there, as Chairman of the County Council, and he can confirm what transpired.

We were told by the then Financial Secretary—now Minister of Housing and Local Government—in his own sweet manner that something as good, if not better, would take the place of the Land Registry. We were quite pleased, and thanked the Minister. But the months passed by, and when, after six months we had heard nothing further, I put down a Question on 5th May, 1955. I was told that it had been provisionally decided that the Salaries and Pensions Branch of the Ministry of Education, comprising about 350 posts, would be transferred to Durham, and it was hoped that it would be possible to transfer part of some other Government Departments to Durham as well.

With that reply I was, again, quite pleased. My spirits rose, and I thought it was already "in the bag," and that something had been achieved. Nothing had been achieved, however, and there have been later attempts to get the Government to state what other Departments were to go to Durham, and I can quote from the documents I have before me.

I have a letter from the Deputy Secretary of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, dated 10th February, 1956, stating that the Treasury had specific proposals in mind for the transfer of an office in addition to the Ministry of Education Branch, but that it was still under discussion with the Department concerned. There is another letter, in answer to a letter from the Clerk of the Durham County Council of 24th April, 1956, from the Deputy Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, stating on 9th May, 1956, that there was still no news. Again, in answer to a letter from the Clerk dated 2nd October, 1956, the Deputy Secretary of the Ministry stated that it was just not possible to make any forecast with regard to the site requirement for Government Departments in Durham. Finally, in a letter dated 11th February, 1957, it was stated that no suitable Department had been found to take the place of the Land Registry, but that despite the lack of success, the search for an adequate substitute for the Land Registry was continuing.

These letters show some of the attempts which have been made, and this debate tonight is a further attempt. There is much talk about cutting down Government expenditure; it has cost a fortune to get a decision on this matter. I hope that we shall have one tonight. What baffles me is this. Why all the hedging? Why does it take such a long time to come to a decision? Is there a struggle with the Civil Service Clerical Association, the members of which do not want to leave London and come to the North?

I do not mind saying that there is a feeling in certain quarters that one of the reasons that the Land Registry did not come to Durham was the strong objection raised by the Association, by people who did not want to come to the North. I cannot really say whether this is so or not, but if it is, the immediate answer is that there is no loss of prestige in coming to our very fine old university city, as the Financial Secretary himself will agree. In fact, anywhere near it is quite a good place to live; and I believe that our city probably ranks as one of the finest in the world, and it has facilities which will give good satisfaction to most types of people. There is the added advantage from the point of view of a Government Department that it can prove itself quite adequate to provide the right type of labour needed for such important work.

I hope that the Financial Secretary has come prepared to say what Government Departments will come to Durham, thus putting an end to the uncertainty which has lasted for far too long.

12.3 a.m.

Mr. William Ainsley (Durham, North-West)

At this early hour of the morning, I want to say no more than a few words in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Durham (Mr. Grey), because I have had knowledge of this business from the beginning. As he said, when Government Departments were being dispersed from the City of London, we were promised the Land Registry in the City of Durham, although we had to keep quiet at that particular time. The city authority made arrangements to receive the Land Registry Department and obtained the approval of the county planning authority.

Then, after some delay, as my hon. Friend has said, we formed a deputation to meet the Financial Secretary to the Treasury as he was then, now the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Housing and Local Government. He was so impressed by that deputation that he promised his support and influence. We pointed out that the county education committee made a substantial annual grant to Durham University, and said that we hoped that our young people under training would be suitable for the Civil Service.

The Minister suggested that there was another section, dealing with further education, which he was considering. This was not so large as the Land Registry Department, but he said that he felt sure he could bring in another Department so that, together, they would equal the strength of the one already promised.

That would mean that about 1,000 Civil Servants would settle in or near the City of Durham. This would give local employment and would help to alleviate the unemployment problem which we are now facing, particularly in the west of Durham.

We left that meeting feeling sure that the present Minister of Housing and Local Government would use his influence to give us the development which he promised, but it is evident that, as Parliamentary Secretaries and Ministers move on to other Departments, no record is kept of promises that have been made.

Bearing in mind the time and the money spent, the planning approval given and the ground already prepared, we feel that even at this late hour the Minister should again repeat the promise made in those early days.

12.6 a.m.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. J. E. S. Simon)

One thing which is certain in this debate is that it is a pleasure to reply to a debate initiated by the hon. Members for Durham (Mr. Grey) and Durham, North-West (Mr. Ainsley). They are political neighbours of mine in the North-East, and very agreeable, kind and congenial neighbours they have been. I wish that I could satisfy them in every way, but the Minister who satisfies his interlocuters on an Adjournment debate is yet to be found.

I go some way in agreeing with the hon. Gentlemen. Any civil servant, businessman, or in fact anyone, who finds that his duties lead him to the City and County of Durham can count himself fortunate.

I remember well that awe-inspiring first appearance of the cathedral and the castle on top of the hill, and that dramatic Norman nave in the cathedral. The hon. Member for Durham said that ten years is a long period. It is not a long period in the history of Durham.

During the war I served a good deal of time with fellow soldiers from this city and from the North-East. I know that anyone who finds himself working in their midst can count himself, also, singularly fortunate.

But I must come to the question of dispersal policy. I think it was accepted generally after the war, certainly by the Socialist Government, that there was a tendency for London to expand disproportionately and to attract employment at the expense of other parts of the country. Certainly many people felt, and feel, that the country as a whole is thrown out of balance if a metropolis can attract a disproportionate amount of the administration, the business and the legal life of the country.

I as a Tory find nothing alien to my views when it is put forward that it is a function of Government to maintain a proper balance not only between town and country, but also between province and metropolis. The planning powers exist in order, among other things, to help to see that the pull of the metropolis does not run away with social trends.

One of the elements in the plans of those whose task it is to seek to preserve a proper balance is unquestionably the decision that as many civil servants as possible should be moved out of central London and sent to other places. In 1948 an agreement was reached with the Staff Side of the Civil Service National Whitley Council covering dispersal of about 45,000 civil servants.

The hon. Member for Durham quite fairly asked about the attitude of the Staff Side. I am bound to point out that it agreed to that. But, on the other hand, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Durham, North-West would be the first to agree that it is important that in the actual moves that affect the lives of individual public servants we should carry the staff associations with us as far as that can be done. There should be the closest association, and, if possible, agreement not only on the general policy of dispersal, but also on the individual moves which will affect the lives of the individual public servants.

About 20,000 civil servants have already been dispersed to centres out of London. Both hon. Gentlemen mentioned the case of the Land Registry, and I think they appreciated that when that was really closely examined it was found that the Land Registry as it has developed is primarily a district registry for London and the home counties and that it would have meant a serious loss of efficiency to have moved it to Durham.

Having turned down the move of the Land Registry, for what I am sure both hon. Gentlemen would agree were thoroughly good reasons, a search was made for other Government Departments which might be able to move part of their staffs to the north-east of Durham. The hon. Gentlemen mentioned a meeting with my predecessor now the Minister of Housing and Local Government. I have the Press notice of the deputation which the hon. Member for Durham attended, and, I think, the hon. Member for Durham, North-West in his former capacity. What the Press notice said was that The deputation asked that some other Government Department of similar size should be sent to Durham in place of the Land Registry whose projected move to Durham had been cancelled. Mr. Brooke promised to give consideration to this request. That was the agreed Press notice.

I know that my right hon. Friend has such a disarming manner that no doubt the hon. Gentleman went away, as he said, with his spirits raised; but that was the agreed Press notice that was put out at the end of the meeting. However, as I said, I am not able to give any final answer tonight, but I can say that every effort will be made to find a suitable Department to go to Durham. However, Members will appreciate that at the moment there is everywhere a severe restriction on the capital programme in the public sector. This is no moment for incurring great expenditure on Government Departments, Government building and so on, but I am sure that, with the spirit that animates the north-east of England, not least the men of Durham, the hon. Member will not despair, but will look forward to the time when a major part of a Government Department will be able to move to the North-East, to Durham, and get the benefit of living in that ancient and noble city, in its turn bringing the contribution that can be made to local life by a body of civil servants.

Mr. Ernest Popplewell (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West)

I am interested in the observations of the hon. and learned Gentleman about the dispersal of central Government Departments. Do I understand that it is still Government policy to decentralise and send Departments to various parts of the provinces, or has a change taken place and is it the intention not to pursue that line? Can the hon. and learned Gentleman make the position clearer?

Mr. Simon

I am able to reassure the hon. Gentleman. There has been no change in policy. There may be a change from time to time in tempo, but it is still the intention to relieve London of some of the administrative burden when is placed on it.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes past Twelve o'clock.