HC Deb 04 February 1965 vol 705 cc1380-94

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

8.34 p.m.

Mr. Ivor Richard (Barons Court)

It is with a sense of temerity that I now come south of the Border and start talking about railway land in the centre of London. However, there it is. The ways of Parliamentary democracy are strange, and often weird. I am grateful to have the opportunity of raising this matter tonight, because it is of great concern to my constituents and to many other people who live in and around London. When local authorities in London consider where they are to build their council houses from now on they see that almost the only land available in London on which they can build without first having to pull something down is railway land, or the two airports about which we have heard in the last two days.

In my constituency there are some acres at the North End Road railway sidings which are nicely located, and on which the local authority would like to get its hands in order to be able to put up some council houses. So far, it has not been able to do so. A solution may emerge in time.

First, I want to deal with the scope of the problem, and the object of my raising it tonight, and then what I hope the Ministry can do. I am told that in the metropolitan County of London about 3,000 acres of land are owned by the Railways Board. Of that land, about 136 acres is at present occupied by railway terminals. Perhaps I could come back to that in a moment. In Middlesex, there are about 4,805 acres of railway land, of which 1,440 are owned by the London Passenger Transport Board. The amount of land released by the Railways Board to the counties is 216 acres in Middlesex and 685 acres in London. On any view of the matter there is a lot of land still owned by the Railways Board in Middlesex and in London.

A large part of the calculation in arriving at the total acreage of railway land consists of most of the land on which tracks are laid and stations and the rest of it are sited. A large part of that would, in any circumstances, be needed for railway purposes, but particularly since the ban on office building was imposed, on 5th November last year, I would think that there were reasons for hoping that the Board might find itself in a position to release more land for municipal development than has hitherto been the case.

It seems to me that there are two points to consider. First, can more land be released by the Railways Board, and, secondly, is the best use being made now of the land which it is prepared to release and has already released? On the question whether more land could be released, perhaps the House would like to consider for a moment the statutory provision which regulates releases between the Railways Board and the London County Council. It is Section 87 of the Transport Act, 1962.

By that Section transport boards are required, particularly so far as London is concerned, to consult the London County Council as to the use of their land in the administrative county of London so far as that land is not required for the purposes of their business, and to submit for the approval of the Minister of Housing and Local Government proposals with regard to the use of that land in a manner which is consistent with proper planning and which, in particular, is consistent with the need for keeping a proper balance in the use of their land as between new office accommodation and other accommodation for trade, business and industry on the one hand, and new living accommodation … on the other hand … Pausing there for a moment, one specific thing that it is required by Section 87 that the Board takes into account is the balance between new office accommodation and other accommodation. To a certain extent the balance has been disturbed, now that an office building ban has been imposed, and I assume that is one thing that the Railways Board will not now have to take into account.

Negotiations have, as I understand it, been centralised, and take place directly between the Railways Board and the L.C.C. and not at regional level. In August of last year, in the process of consultation, the London County Council sent 134 detailed plans to the Railways Board, asking the Board to define once and for all the sites for redevelopment as the Board saw them. I understand that up to about 10 days ago—I regret that my information is not more recent—20 plans had been sent back.

About that, I would make two points. The first is whether the Railways Board has enough technical staff to deal with this sort of highly technical matter, for 134 plans take a lot of looking at and time to deal with. I wonder whether additional staff might be taken on or reallocated within the Board so as to deal with this part of the matter.

My second point is a more natural one. If someone goes to the Railways Board and says, "Once and for all, tell me what sites you are to release" there is, of course, an inclination on the part of the Board to hoard. I make no criticism of the Railways Board about this; it is a natural inclination and one of which we may all be guilty from time to time.

There is an inclination to say, "Perhaps we had better not throw that away. Although we cannot use it today, we might be able to do so in the future." Therefore, one is never quite sure of the amount of land which the Railways Board has released or whether this natural inclination to hang on to it because it might need it in the future has played any part in arriving at their calculations.

I do not attack the Railways Board. The London County Council tells me that it is very pleased with and grateful for the co-operation which it is now receiving from the Railways Board in drawing these plans, getting them agreed and also in trying to sort out what should be done with the land which the Board is prepared to release. It is still impossible for us to tell at this stage exactly how much more land the Railways Board at present possesses which it might possibly be able to release for municipal development, particularly in the London area, unless there is again a searching review, particularly having regard to the changed circumstances.

We all know, for example, that within the last three or four months additional land has been released from the Bishops-gate goods yard which has now been offered for development. That may perhaps be a special case because of the fire there. The land and the buildings on it may no longer be available or suitable for railway development and possibly the Board is, therefore, now prepared to release it whereas it was not prepared to do so before.

I believe that there are 10 acres in Wandsworth which, judging from the rumours, might well be released by the Railways Board for municipal development in the future. In Middlesex, also, there are rumours—I put it no higher—of 80 acres in the Lea Valley which the Railway Board may be prepared to release for development. I believe that it is called Pickett's Lock, though I may be wrong about that. These three instances within the last month or two, although one does not wish to found a case on them, give ground for suggesting that the Railways Board should go back and have another look at the amount of land which it has and the amount of land which it might possibly be prepared to release for development. What we want to know is whether the Minister can ensure that the Board has this further look to see that the absolute maximum amount of land is released which can be released.

That is the first part of the argument. The second part is whether the best use is being made of land which the Board has already said that it is prepared to release. I am told that the Railways Board, in the London County Council area, has said that it is prepared to release about 615 acres—at least, that is the L.C.C.'s calculation; the Railways Board's calculation was about 685 acres.

It is here that the office ban will have its greatest effect if it has any effect at all. I think, for example, of decking over the central termini. To put houses over a terminal station is an incredibly expensive job and the L.C.C.'s own estimate was that if one built over the railway termini one could use 56 acres for housing, but that it would cost £2,000 to £6,500 per dwelling. This is highly uneconomic and for this reason, not unnaturally, the local authorities have not been inclined to start building houses at these prices. On the other hand, what had been proposed to go over the termini, as I understand it, was some commercial development, perhaps some office development.

That development has now come to a stop as a result of the ban. If it has come to a stop as a result of the ban, two things will follow—either no decking will take place because there could not now be offices there and to put up most other things would be uneconomic, or something else would go there which is not municipal housing. It is the second possibility that I should like to turn to for a moment. The L.C.C. has suggested that the central terminal sites could be developed for university or further education purposes, for hotels or hostels or car parks and that surplus land not allocated for housing could be used for schools, open space, shopping, social services, car parking, and, where no other use is possible, industry or commerce.

If that suggestion were adopted, it is quite possible that the difficulty of using the decks over the terminal stations for that sort of use might well release land in other parts of the metropolitan area which could then be used for municipal housing purposes. I agree that it is a difficult question and that there is a difficult balance to maintain, particularly having regard to the immensely high cost of decking. But land is so incredibly short in the London area that I hope that the Minister will do something to ensure that, although no offices in a commercial sense are allowed on the decking above terminal stations, at least some sort of development will take place there which might release land in other parts of London.

Those are the two points which I wished to make tonight: can more land be released by the Railways Board and is the best use being made of the land which has already been released? I am sure that I speak for everyone on this side of the House in saying that we are extremely glad that the sort of commercial development originally proposed for some of the railway land in London has been stopped firmly by the complete ban on office building announced on 5th November.

An argument which always struck me as rather absurd, in favour of putting offices at terminal stations, was that if we put an office above Paddington everyone would get off the train at Paddington and rush into that office. If we could ensure that everyone who got off the train at Paddington worked in the office there, and did not have to cross London to get to their offices, or, alternatively, if we could ensure that people who came by train to Euston did not have to go across London to work in offices above Paddington, there would be a point in the argument. But if decking is to take place, I hope that it will not be the sort of commercial development which, apparently, was in mind at some stage.

This is an urgent problem in London for we are desperately short of land. I am pleased to see the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing on the Front Bench, because he knows far better than I do how desperate is London's shortage of land and how urgent it is that the maximum possible amount of land should be released for municipal housing purposes. This is why I am so glad that there has been this opportunity of raising the subject tonight.

8.47 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Stephen Swingler)

First of all, I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Barons Court (Mr. Richard) for the very full notice which he gave me of the points he intended to raise tonight on this very important subject. Personally, I am extremely glad that he has had more time than is usual on the Adjournment Motion to develop his points in, if I may say so, the extremely competent and fluent way in which he has spoken.

It is somewhat unexpected that the Motion is moved at this time of the evening, because we understood that this week we were to be subjected to attack by a reinvigorated Opposition, who are so conspicuous by their 100 per cent. absence from this debate. Even after the many years of experience which you and I, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, have had in the House, surely we find it somewhat astonishing that no hon. Member of the Opposition is sufficiently interested in finding land in London and around it for urgent housing purposes to consider it even worthwhile to attend and listen to the case put forward by my hon. Friend.

I trust that the public of London and around will note that at 8.50 p.m. in the House of Commons, after long notice had been given of the intention to raise this extremely important matter—important to so many local authorities in London—there is not one hon. Member of the Opposition in the Chamber, not even to attend and listen to the cogent case which has been put forward by my hon. Friend, quite apart from taking part in the debate.

Let me start by saying that we fully share the urgent concern of my hon. Friend about finding land, any land at all, to grapple with the housing shortage in London. I am extremely glad and fortified to have with me the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing, who is especially concerned with the London housing problem and who has been putting a certain amount of dynamism into this matter recently. As a Government we are determined to grapple with this problem, which we have inherited owing to the inadequacy of the measures—that is an understatement—which have been taken over the years. The House will recall that yesterday my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government made an important statement announcing a series of measures which are being taken by his Department to deal with the London housing shortage.

Tonight we are concerned—at any rate, on this side of the House we are concerned; I cannot speak for hon. Members opposite because there are no hon. Members opposite present—with the small but important contribution which the British Railways Board can make or is making to release land surplus to its operational requirements to help deal with the problem raised by my hon. Friend.

I will briefly sketch the background to that problem and set out the position which was inherited by this Government. The British Railways Board's duties in this matter were laid down in the Transport Act, 1962, from which my hon. Friend quoted. Under that Act the Board had the job of doing everything possible to improve its financial position. To help it to do this, Section 14 of that Act gave it power to dispose of any property not required for the purposes of its railway business. Further, under Section 11 of that Act the Board was given power to develop surplus land by the building of offices or shops or the leasing of them. It is within the discretionary powers of the Board, under that Statute, to decide whether its surplus land should be sold or developed, subject always to the requirements of planning permission under the Town and Country Planning Acts.

During the passage of the 1962 Act fears were expressed that the Board might be encouraged to dispose of too much of its surplus land for the more profitable kind of development—office building—rather than for what might be termed development more beneficial socially—sites for housing. These fears were especially directed to the situation in London and, as a result, Section 87 was written into the Measure—a special provision whereby the Board, having consulted the London County Council, as the London authority at that time, was required to submit for the approval of the Minister of Housing and Local Government proposals for the future use of its surplus land in the County. It was further required that the proposals should strike a balance between what were considered to be employment-creating uses—office building, industrial development and so on—and uses for residential purposes; namely, housing sites.

In spite of the good intentions which lay behind Section 87 of the Act, this provision has proved quite unworkable. Its effect over many years has been to sterilise a lot of land in the London area. As many hon. Members know, there have been protracted consultations between the Board, the London County Council and the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, but they have totally failed to produce any agreed scheme maintaining this so-called balance between the provision of sites for housing and the provision of sites for office building or more profitable development.

The proposals originally submitted by the Railways Board were objected to by the London County Council, and the revised proposals which scaled down what might be called the employment side of the balance whilst leaving the housing side of the balance unchanged had only just been submitted to the London County Council when this present Government took office. That was the statutory position and the practical position that we inherited.

So we come, as my hon. Friend has said, to November, 1964, with the inception of the Labour Government. The Labour Government made the important and so long overdue decision in London to control office building. It is in view of this that there is now no question at all for the time being of the building of office blocks, luxury or otherwise, on surplus railway land. The search for a negotiated balance in the use of surplus railway land has been superseded by the policies of this Government.

As I said, until recently all the surplus railway land in London had been virtually sterilised as a result of the position created by the 1962 Transport Act, to the detriment of the finances of the Railways Board—because no effective proposals were emerging or action being taken—and, of course, to the detriment of the efforts of local authorities in London grappling with the urgent housing problem.

I am pleased to be able to tell the House that since this Government took office, in spite of the shortness of time, considerable progress in this matter has already been made. Consultations have been taking place between the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and the Railways Board in the last few weeks. At the invitation of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing, the Board has now given an assurance that it is willing to make available all the surplus land suitable for housing that it has in the metropolitan area.

I can give that as a definite assurance as a result of developments that have taken place in the last few weeks. In fact, I can say that the Board is now anxious to speed up the disposal of any of its surplus property that is suitable for housing or for other municipal purposes, and the Board's officers are already in close touch with the valuer of the Greater London Council for the purpose of agreeing an effective and phased programme for the acquisition of the land by the G.L.C.

Further, let me make it absolutely clear that there is now no question of holding back any surplus land in the possession of the Board that is shown to be suitable for housing or other municipal purposes. We all, including the Board, want to get on with the job of making this land available as soon as possible for the purposes for which it is so urgently needed.

Some anxiety has been expressed about the fact that the British Railways Board is negotiating with the Greater London Council and not, save in exceptional cases, with the London boroughs. I must make plain that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government has asked the Greater London Council to act as an agent for all the housing authorities in the Greater London area in these negotiations. We want to see the most flexible machinery develop to deal with this problem, but at the moment we had to take some immediate action, and that has been taken by the Minister. Negotiations are proceeding centrally between the British Railways Board and the Greater London Council to take over the sites. This, of course, is completely without prejudice to the question of the future ownership or development of the land, which must be a subject for discussion between the Greater London Council and all the London Boroughs concerned.

I assure my hon. Friend, and all those many hon. Members on this side of the House who are vitally interested in this matter, that the Board's officers are now in close co-operation with the Greater London Council on a definite programme for releasing this land, but, of course, the land to be released is land which the Railways Board judges not to be required by it for operational purposes. About that we must be absolutely plain. So far as we know at the moment the officials of the L.C.C., or what is to become the G.L.C. are satisfied—in contrast with the situation which existed in the past to which my hon. Friend referred and which we have overcome—that these negotiations are effective and will produce results.

I now come to the practical side of the matter. The Board had originally proposed to offer 144 sites, comprising about 700 acres of land, for development by the Greater London Council. The Greater London Council has already been advised that 20 sites are available for release now for housing or other municipal purposes. The Board has promised to make other sites available as soon as it is clear that they are not required for operational purposes. Ten sites have already been sold to local authorities. The Board is now in process of assembling details of a further 85 sites which, although they are outside the existing L.C.C. area are situated in places in which the officials of the Greater London Council have expressed an interest.

The ten sites already sold to local authorities, to which I have referred, are located in Woolwich, East Ham, East Barnet, West Ham, Merton and Morden, Shepherds Bush, Walthamstow, Southgate and Stevenage, where 28 acres of railway surplus land were recently made available. Those are the ten sites where negotiations have already been clinched and where railway surplus land has been made available for housing and other municipal purposes. As my hon. Friend indicated, there is a considerable reservoir. The British Railways Board has 700 acres to be made available and is in close contact with the G.L.C., working out how those sites can be made available quickly.

The British Railways Board informs me that it is offering to the officials of the Greater London Council every facility to survey railway land in advance of its release from railway use so that no time may be lost in planning the redevelopment of land which the Board knows will not be required in future for operational purposes. I hope the local authorities can be brought into the picture and decisions taken and plans matured as to how best these sites may be used.

This is the situation that exists. We inherited a state of deadlock as a result of the Act of 1962 and the fact that obligations were imposed upon the Railways Board which were impossible to carry out. A frustrating situation was created with the financial pressure on the Board as a result of its statutory duty under the 1962 Act to pay its way, and the incitement to the Board to seek the most profitable—irrespective of social needs—disposal of surplus land.

We have corrected that by the action of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government in putting a stop on luxury office building in London. This has enabled a realistic appraisal to be made of the subject and a new chapter of negotiations to be opened between the Railways Board, the Greater London Council and the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. That Ministry, represented here by my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish), the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, has a great responsibility and is getting on with the job of consulting local housing authorities about their needs.

Already we can show practical results in the disposal of sites since the General Election from the Railways Board to housing authorities in and around the London area. We hope now to get on with the job. The Railways Board is clear that it wants to get on with the job of disposing of the surplus land as rapidly as possible. We know the great need in the London area. We hope that all the authorities will democratically come together and ascertain how the hundreds of acres can be most fruitfully, effectively and purposefully used so as to cope realistically with the tremendous housing shortage in the London area.

Mr. Richard

Before my hon. Friend sits down, I should like to thank him on behalf of the London Members who are present. It is good news for London that we have had tonight.

9.3 p.m.

Mr. John Hynd (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

A most important pronouncement has been made. It is a statement which indicates the speed and effectiveness with which the Government are moving in one of the most vital sectors of our political and public life. I do not represent a London constituency. None the less, this is part of a great national problem.

In the 21 years that I have been in the House I cannot recall a single occasion on which any subject, however remote or minor, was discussed, even on the Adjournment at any hour of the night, without a single representative on the Opposition benches above the Gangway. There is not a single representative on the Opposition Front Bench, not even a Junior Whip. We have heard so much about the all-out attack on the Government that was to be made by the Opposition under the leadership of the Leader of the Opposition, and one wonders why, when we are dealing with a vital matter concerning the housing of the people of this great city, not a single member of the Opposition is present.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Robert Mellish)

By way of supplement to what my right hon. Friend is saying, the right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) gave certain pledges to his electors at the General Election and said that one of the things with which he would be concerned was the question of railway land in his constituency being made available for housing. One would have thought that, even if there was no other right hon. Gentleman on the Opposition Front Bench, the right hon. and learned Gentleman might have redeemed at least one pledge.

Mr. Hynd

I was just coming to that. In the course of the last two years we have heard repeatedly from members of the chief Opposition party about their concern over the housing problem within their constituencies in the London area and their demands for the release of certain land—Woolwich Arsenal, for instance—for the purpose of building houses. It passes my comprehension that, on an occasion like this, when we are dealing with a most important statement about the special release of land and immediate and effective Government action in order to meet the demands of their constituents, right hon. and hon. Members are absent from the benches opposite. I hope that the maximum publicity will be given to the fact that the representatives of those people are just not interested.

I want to draw public attention to the absence of hon. Members opposite as a non-London Member who, nevertheless, is sufficiently appreciative of the importance of this issue to be present. I add my appreciation to that expressed already to the Minister of Housing and Local Government and to the Government in general for their action on this matter and for so many of the other dynamic steps that they have taken to put in order the affairs of the country during the last few weeks.

9.11 p.m.

Mr. Ernest G. Perry Battersea, South)

I rise to thank sincerely my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport. I represent a London constituency and I am a member of the Battersea Borough Council and of the new London Borough of Wandsworth. The news my hon. Friend has given tonight is the climax of a campaign we have waged for two years to bring disused railway land into use for housing. His announcement will bring great relief to my constituency and to neighbouring constituencies. I acclaim his statement that land which has lain dormant for so long will now be used for the benefit of the people of London.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes past Nine o'clock.