§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Lawson.]
§ 5.12 a.m.
§ Mr. Arthur Jones (Northants, South)
I am glad to see the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army in the Chamber, because I share the concern which I am sure he has for the fact that the Adjournment debate has come on at such an early hour and that already dawn has crept across the windows above us. The hon. Gentleman does not have the pallid look that most of us have. He looks as though he has spent a good deal of time at the depots, one of which is the subject of this short debate.
The Weedon depot in my constituency was established in the early years of the Napoleonic Wars by an Act of Parliament dated 14th July, 1804, which provided compensation for landowners in the district. The depot comprises about 150 acres of high ground overlooking Weedon from the north, and in the early years it carried no less than 5,000 men and 200 horses on its establishment. It met demands for small arms, field ordnance and ammunition, and a distinctive feature of this establishment is the pavilion, a series of three large blocks built, history has it, as an inland residence for George III.
It served a very good purpose in a whole series of wars—the Napoleonic, the Crimean, the South African, and both the 1914 and 1939 world wars. It has a famous equitation school, which has been closed for some years, and it enjoys extremely good communications, lying as it does at the junction of the Grand Union Canal from which there are basins, the L.M.S. railway line, and the old Watling Street. I am sure that many people have happy and otherwise memories of this depot, particularly those who are older and made their service early in the Army.
There is a famous clock in the estabment which has been ticking away the hours since 1814. In a letter that I had from the hon. Gentleman on 21st May of this year, I was informed that it was proposed to put a preservation order on the clock and the building in which it stands as being of architectural and historic interest.
585 Lord Dilhorne was pressing the issue of the Weedon depot before I succeeded him in the byelection of 1962. I have had desultory correspondence with the Department since that date and meetings with the parish council. This is evidence of the continuing concern that there has been for many years, both in the depot and in Weedon itself, about the possible closure at one time and the closure which is now taking place. It is the delay which has occurred in this closure and in the reuse of this land and buildings to which I wish to refer.
Part was closed some years ago, and it was suggested in April last year that the remainder of the depot should close, but that some might need to be retained for storage, At that time other Government Departments were said not to be interested, although this was subject to confirmation at a later date nearer the final date of closure. The Department informed me that detailed work in connection with the title to the land, the plans and the planning consent for the subsequent use of the land, were in course of preparation and inquiry, but the result which has come from that has been negligible, as far as I can ascertain.
My concern was that as far as possible we should ensure that there was continuity of employment for about 1,000 people who lived in Weedon village. Not all of them by any means worked in the depot, but their families lived there, and I was anxious to ensure that the reuse of the depot for non-military purposes should be phased over a period of years coincident with the closure of the depot. In this way I hoped that one would see alternative employment offered to those whose employment would terminate as sections of the depot were closed.
Various statements have been made on the question of the phasing of the closure of the depot. In the correspondence that I have had, at one time phrasing was acknowledged to be a possible solution and at other times it was said that phasing was not possible. It is this uncertainty and changing opinion which has concerned me. The land must have been considered as being possible for sale on a phased basis, because it was offered to the county council at one stage, and to the rural district 586 council—in whose area the depot stands—for housing purposes. The county council said that it was interested in the old school of equitation, standing on the A.45 road, for civil defence purposes, and that part of the site might well be suitable for a highways sub-depot.
From June 1963 until March the following year, there were no developments at all, and my correspondence shows a complete blank, although I made inquiries from time to time. On 24th March I had a letter which seemed to confirm the indecision and the changing of plans which had occurred. It was a further nine months before I had a subsequent letter from the Department, on 2nd December of last year.
The formal closing ceremony was held on 16th February of this year. It is two-and-a-half years since I became involved in this question. Disposal plans have never been clarified; in fact, they are not clarified today, and we have this large area of land, suitable for a variety of purposes—with many good buildings, suited for many uses, standing empty in most cases. They are substantial buildings, some of ground and some of ground and first-floor construction, with concrete first floors, eminently suitable for storage and industrial purposes. Because of the disuse which has now developed, security measures have had to be taken, and these have recently had to be increased because of the pilfering of lead, copper and brass from the buildings. The site is suitable for redevelopment, warehouse storage and industrial purposes. There must be a substantial financial loss in the way in which this matter has been handled, certainly a loss of rateable value for the local authority, although it is clear that the War Department has, in recent years, made contributions to rate funds.
I emphasise that Weedon has been almost completely dependent on the depot. This is clearly indicated by the population figures. In 1801, before the depot was built, the population of the village was 75; in 1831, when it had been completely developed and was in regular use, it was about 1,500; ten years later it had gone up to about 2,200, of which over 800 were employed in the depot itself. The population today is about 2,000. I do not want to over-emphasise, but I do make the point of 587 the awful uncertainty in the village in recent years, the difficulty of knowing that one's job will be lost, but not knowing when, not knowing whether other employment will be offered or whether it will be suitable, and not knowing whether to take employment nearby or to move. If one moves, this may mean moving out of one's council house or rented property or selling one's own house.
In these circumstances, it has not been easy for people wishing to sell to find a ready sale for their property. About 33 of the old employees of the depot are now taken daily to the large ordnance establishment at Bicester, about 33 miles away. It is elderly people who are doing this, those who have a few years to go before they retire. This is not a very satisfactory arrangement, but it is certainly the least which could have been done for these people.
I think that there is strong evidence that the Department has been guilty of a disregard of personal problems of its employees and their families. There have been no efforts to provide alternative uses for the depot and subsequent re-employment for those discharged who have relied on the employment which the depot has engendered. There has been no phased release of the depot for uses or redevelopment and, apparently, no recognition of the financial implications. The screen of explanation which I note in the correspondence is quite transparent. It can be seen through when read together. One can see that the delays in the closure have been deliberate in order to accustom people to the idea of the closure and its ultimate reluctant acceptance.
I am glad to have had the opportunity of bringing this matter before the House, and I look forward to the Under-Secretary of State's reply. I question the wider application of this type of problem and question to what extent it is relevant to depots other than the one which is the subject of this debate.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army (Mr. G. W. Reynolds)
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Northants, South (Mr. Arthur Jones) for initiating this debate. I had to be here this evening anyway. Unless an Adjournment debate which concerns me 588 is raised a Minister in my office tends to find that he is called upon to address the House in February and must then wait until February of the following year before anything happens so that he can speak again.
The hon. Gentleman said that he had been in correspondence with my Department for the last two-and-a-half years. It must have been a matter of hours after his election to Parliament that he first wrote to us about the Ordnance Depot at Weedon. His predecessor had been in correspondence with us prior to then.
I will not attempt to deny that there has been a certain amount of uncertainty for the employees of the depot and that the town of Weedon depends on the depot—in all probability it would not have been established had the depot not been placed there over 100 years ago. Having looked back over the documents, I am afraid that I am tonight defending my predecessors of the former Administration rather than defending any actions of the last six or so months.
There has not been anything that the Department could have done in this respect to get rid of that uncertainty and to make a great speed up in the disposal of this depot. In this connection, I will, first, say a few general words about the position of Defence Department lands and the way in which Weedon fits into the situation. I am aware of the need to release surplus Defence Department lands so that more productive use may be made of them as quickly as possible. The hon. Gentleman said that at Weedon we were having to take security measures and that there was a financial loss involved. This is true and that amount must be carried on the Defence Vote. It is in our interest, therefore, to dispose of any land which we do not require as soon as possible.
Weedon is a good example—considering the way in which, this matter has dragged on for some time—of the problems involved for any Government Department in disposing of substantial pieces of land or accommodation. Buying a house seems to the layman a simple enough transaction. None of us quite understands why it takes solicitors so long to conduct what appears to be such a simple undertaking. The delay is, of course, due to the permanent nature of 589 land compared with other forms of property.
For the Ministry of Defence in particular, the procedure for the disposal is, first, that the Department must ensure that there is no other Government Department which wants to use any land which is surplus to requirements. A procedure covering the circulation of other Departments with the details is specifically laid down. This takes time. Specifications and details of the land are supplied and a preliminary bid is put forward. The other Department must look at the property and determine whether it is suitable for the purpose for which it is required. The Department may then have to look into the question of whether it will get planning permission. In some cases this can delay matters for a considerable time, particularly if the other Department is the Home Office, which wants the land for use as a prison. In such a case there may be long arguments and discussions in the area, public inquiries held and so on before the matter is finalised.
There is, therefore, often a great delay before property of this kind can be disposed of, although that delay is not the fault of the other Department. It is inevitable that when one must make absolutely certain that there is no other Governmental use for the land and go through the necessary procedures, a considerable time will elapse, particularly since, in addition, before we can go any further we must take into account the interests of former owners, especially when we are dealing with agricultural land.
It is also the task of the Department when disposing of surplus land to ensure that it is properly utilised. Whether or not it will be used by another Government Department, before we can take any further steps in its disposal we must get planning permission so that we know the purposes for which the land can be used. This is essential because till we get planning consent for the land it is impossible to fix any value for it. It is not till we get agreement of the planning authority that we can fix a value for it.
There are other difficulties as well, particularly over agricultural land or land with a large agricultural element in it. 590 Under the post-Crichel Down procedure we have to communicate with the previous owners of the land, and sometimes protracted negotiations take place with the previous owners, who sometimes decide not to acquire it, when we can carry on with the procedure of disposing of it. But this does often hold up disposal of land for quite considerable periods.
We have made a slight change in the disposal of land in the last six months or so, and we want to give greater opportunity to local authorities to say whether they are prepared to take over the land, and negotiate sales to them by private treaty. Some are disposed to do this. It may be preferred to sell the land by auction or by tender.
But here again, if we negotiate for sale to a local authority by private treaty there must be the consent of other Departments about the future use of the land—the Ministry of Education or the Ministry of Transport or whichever Department may be interested or concerned with the type of development the local authority may have in mind. These consultations do frequently tend to hold up disposal of land. So we can understand that quite a long time is spent in dealing with other Government Departments, dealing with the previous owners under the post-Crichel Down procedure in respect of agricultural land, and in endeavouring to get the planning permission from the planning authority involved. All these procedures are necessary in the disposal of land, and I make no criticism of other Departments or of local authorities or indeed of anyone, but the procedures all too often take a very long time to carry through, and it is not till all this is done that one can put the land up for auction or tender if it is to be disposed in that way.
It is against this background that I will now turn to the depot at Weedon with which the hon. Gentleman is concerned. The decision to close the depot was made in January 1961 and the hon. Gentleman's predecessor in the representation of his constituency was informed of that straightaway. We were able to announce that we hoped to vacate it by April 1964, but then in January 1963 it was decided to retain part of the depot for a further six years, and the hon. Member was, of course, informed of that at the time. The 591 reason for this was simply that we had a very large amount of stocks in the depot which it was impossible to get rid of all at once without completely knocking the bottom out of the market, and we proposed to keep the depot for a few more years, releasing the stocks gradually, otherwise we should have got virtually nothing for them. In 1964 we were able to dispose of them and at a reasonable price. This put us back in the position that we were able to dispose of the whole site. This was another factor which held matters up, but then, as the hon. Member said, we were able eventually to close the depot on 28th February, 1965, and the hon. Member was present at the closing ceremony.
In September, 1962, we circulated to other Departments the fact that it would be closed, but the difficulty was we had no response at that time, the main difficulty being that the closing date announced was too far ahead for them; they were not prepared to make proposals for using the land. Despite that, in July, 1963, which was the period when the hon. Member said it seemed no progress was being made at all, we started discussions with the local planning authority to get agreement for the future use of the site, and those discussions went on quite a long time. Again, I make no criticism of the planning authority about this. I simply state the fact. It was not until September, 1964, that we were able to decide, with planning permission, confirmed shortly afterwards, that we could put the depot on the redundant list.
The availability of the depot was again circulated to other Government Departments in September, 1964, six months before the closure. This was a more practical date as far as our Department was concerned. Now we and the other Departments were able to look at it in the knowledge that the areas would certainly be available at the end of the six months period.
I agree that it would have been desirable to provide for continuity of employment. We did look at various suggestions to see whether we could sell off parts of the depot gradually, so that a continuity of jobs could be provided in the depot. Meetings were held on 592 the subject but eventually it was found not to be possible for a variety of reasons. One was that had we sold off parts of the depot, it might have prejudiced the total income that the Department would have gained from the sale of the depot intact.
In addition, there were great difficulties because the services for the depot are one and it would have been costly to have split them to make it possible to sell parts of the buildings, or parts of the area, and still retain other parts for Government use. From the estate management point of view, it was impossible to split up the area into smallholdings with Government occupation still of part. We did look at all the possibilities with the desire of keeping a number of jobs going, but it was found to be impossible.
We are now in that position where the land will, in due course, be available for agricultural use and part for housing purposes. I understand that the local authority does not wish to acquire the land for housing development. But we cannot get on with disposal of these pieces of land until we have dealt with the main problem of the depot itself. In September last year the circular went out, as I said, to Government departments and, although no decision has yet been finally reached, I am authorised by the Minister of Public Building and Works to say that his department will probably wish to use the depot in the future. I cannot tell the hon. Member more at this moment but hope to be able to let him know more details soon when the decision has been made. When the future of the depot proper has been decided, we shall seek to dispose of the land which is purely agricultural as soon as possible. But, as I have said, we cannot decide that until the future of the depot has been decided and we know the precise boundaries of the other land that will be available for residential and agricultural purposes.
I am, in this case, really defending my predecessors more than myself. This has been a difficult and a long lasting problem but I doubt whether it could have been dealt with at a much greater speed.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes to Six o'clock a.m.