HC Deb 29 April 1970 vol 800 cc1395-404

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

10.41 p.m.

Mr. Hector Monro (Dumfries)

This debate really starts off with the Defence of the Realm Act, 1915, whose Second Reading I am sure the Minister has read, goes on through the Licensing Acts passed between 1921 and 1962, and includes the Royal Commission which sat in 1931 and 1932 and recommended that State management in Scotland should be discontinued.

We know that there was a special reason for the institution of State management in 1916. It was to restrict the consumption of alcohol by munitions workers. But the Gretna and Annan area has long since lost its enthusiasm, if it ever had any, for being a guinea pig for a social experiment in which the Government control hotels and public houses. All Governments—I emphasise " all "—have missed opportunities to right what we must now accept to be an anomaly.

We must accept, too, that attitudes have changed and that the area would be very much happier to leave the issue of licences to the local licensing court. In passing, I would remark that the grocers locally have always felt that they have a legitimate grouse that their off-licences were not returned to them after the First World War. This large area of about 15,000 people is served by 15 hotels and public houses. I want to raise two issues. The first is Government policy towards development of the area in regard to hotels and particularly tourism. The second is the construction of the new hotel by the Government in Annan. Gretna and the whole of Dumfries-shire is the gateway to Scotland and I would also put in a word for Galloway, which is becoming a greater tourist centre as the M6 reaches the Scottish border. I have said for years that, when this important new carriageway reaches the border, we can expect a tourist explosion into the south of Scotland. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that the R6-A74 carries by far the most traffic into Scotland of all roads, and the development potential here is enormous.

Rightly, the Scottish Tourist Board has been pressing local hoteliers to develop their tourist attractions in every possible way and to be geared up for the expected influx of tourists. The local hoteliers want to respond to this request. Yet the Secretary of State, because of his powers of veto, is able to prevent these hotels holding full hotel licences.

Gretna Green is an internationally known place, yet the State Management District is doing very little about it, except saying " No ". In this huge area of the eastern part of Dumfriesshire, we have two hotels in Annan, one in Pow-foot, one in Ecclefechan, and one in Canonbie. All have full hotel licences and are owned by the State management. There is no hotel with a full licence in Gretna or Gretna Green. In the area, there are excellent hotels owned by private enterprise, but their development is restricted because the Secretary of State will not confirm the full licences granted to them by the licensing courts.

The Government must accept that, in 1970, restricted table licences are no substitute for full hotel licences, because there can be no bar, no lounge service, and no opportunity for visitors to ask in friends for a drink unless they have meals. Anomalies are cropping up all over the place. Does the Secretary of State realise that members of the public, including tourists, are unable to get drinks anywhere on Sundays in Gretna Green because there is no hotel there with a full licence? As the hon. Gentleman knows, the public houses are not open on Sundays.

Mr. Ron Lewis (Carlisle)

Will not the hon. Gentleman agree that a lot of people come over the border into England on Sundays for their drinks?

Mr. Monro

That may be so, and I am sorry if it is, because I am trying to interest people to come into Scotland to enjoy their day out. I would like to see them going to a good hotel which has a full licence if they wish to have drinks.

It is no wonder that the residents of this area have been driven to despair because of this, and it probably explains the growth in the number of very fine social clubs. But they do not help the tourist, businessman or fisherman who comes to the area for a special purpose.

I want to turn to the position of such establishments as the Corner House Hotel in Annan and the Gretna Hall Hotel in Gretna. The latter has 50 bedrooms, which is more than can be mustered in all the State management district hotels. These two hotels have been awarded full hotel certificates by the local licensing courts, but they have been vetoed by the Secretary of State. Others, like Hunters Lodge at Gretna, would apply for full hotel certificates if there was any hope of obtaining them.

I do not criticise the service or staff of the State Management hotels. They do a good job. I criticise the lack of hotels with full hotel facilities, which is restricting development. It is clear that, as the State management district is unable to provide a sufficient number of new hotels, the Minister must relax his attitude to full hotel licences. The Secretary of State should avoid any possibility of giving the impression that State management is afraid of competition. He has power, under Section 82 of the 1959 Act, to do this. It is not only affecting the Gretna State management district, but it is holding back hotel development in Invergordon for the same reason.

How does the Secretary of State compare his decisions against the hotels that I have mentioned with the licence granted recently to a hotel south of Carlisle in a similar situation to Gretna on the M6? I am glad that that hotel has been awarded a licence, because the State management district offers no comparable facilities in the vicinity. A similar situation obtains in Gretna, because it is on the same road with roughly the same traffic, and the State management district does not provide full hotel facilities. In England, under the Home Secretary, a licence is awarded, but in Scotland it is not. The Secretary of State for Scotland should consider this matter very carefully indeed.

There has been a great deal of correspondence over the years, as the Minister knows, with the Corner House Hotel in Annan. I do not intend to go over the ground again, because both the Parliamentary Commissioner and the Secretary of State are aware of the history of the matter. It is sufficient to say that I believe that Mr. Irving, the proprietor, has had less than justice. Indeed, I think that he should have been awarded his full hotel certificate in 1967 when comparable facilities with those that he was prepared to offer were not available anywhere else in Annan. Indeed, those facilities may not be available until 1972. I believe that if it was not for Mr. Irving's constant pressure there might not have been the new hotel project, to which I will come later or the improvements to the Queensberry Hotel.

In passing, it is worth mentioning that all the plans that Mr. Irving has presently in mind are eligible for a grant under the Development of Tourism Act, 1969, in which the Government have expressed the intention to help the development of hotels; but it is no use going ahead because the Secretary of State will veto his full licence.

I mentioned the Parliamentary Commissioner. In his report on the Corner House Hotel he put certain stress on the importance of the viability of the new hotel project that has been announced for Annan. The hotel will provide new accommodation, not extra accommodation. This is an important distinction. Everybody wants the new facilities and modern accommodation, but it must be understood that there will be six bedrooms less in Annan as a result of the building of the new hotel at a time when the whole area is asking for more accommodation. The ten bedrooms in the new hotel have to be balanced against the 16 that we shall lose in the Central Hotel that the State management district intends to sell. As that is to be sold presumably without a licence, I wish the State management luck in its endeavour to find a purchaser.

The new hotel announced in the autumn was to cost £200,000. Indeed, I believe that it is the view of the Secretary of State that this will be a viable project, which presumably means that it is expected to return 10 per cent. on its capital. We shall have to see about that in future.

The figure of £200,000 for ten bedrooms should be set against a figure of £500,000 for an hotel with 100 bedrooms at Aviemore. What worries me is that since then the cost has been reduced to £164,000. Bearing in mind that the cost of building is rising almost weekly, I assume that we shall get very much less than we expected last autumn. I hope that at the end of the day we shall see a building that is really worthy of the town.

Why has there been so little consultation with Annan Town Council? I know that I am really exaggerating, because in fact there has been no consultation at all. I know that the Gretna State Advisory Committee, of which I was once a member, has representatives on the town council, but I understand that they have not been there in a consultative sense in that they were to ask the town council for its views and take them back to the advisory committee and so to the Government. It is sad that such an important new project has not had the fullest discussion in a town in which it will be such an important addition. When so much public money is being spent, we must be sure that the hotel is right for the town and for the visitor.

Gracie's Banking had to go some time. In its vintage surroundings, and with a friendly staff, it has provided many of the things that are enjoyed in Annan. It has provided inexpensive lunches for the townsfolk and school children, and it is much appreciated by farmers, truck drivers, and others who attend the market. It has a bowling green, a quoiting rink—which is fairly unique—billiards, and, most important of all, a cinema. All these important items are to go—the Minister has confirmed that to me—and will not be replaced.

The cinema is an important issue, because I am assured that upwards of 1,000 people, both young and old, attend each week. I assure the Minister that there is no alternative. The proprietor of the other building says that he does not intend it to be a cinema again, which means that there will be no cinema in the area in future. I have asked the Minister before, and I ask him again, to see whether it is possible to include a cinema in this new project, because it would be very much appreciated in the town.

I welcome the development which will enhance Annan, but the lack of extra facilities—and I underline extra facilities —disappoints me, as does the lack of the cinema. Overall there is a very strong case for relaxing the Minister's attitude to the granting of full licences for the hotels in the area. I want to see developments in keeping with the potential increase in the tourist trade in the 'seventies as expressed frequently to the Minister and to the Scottish Tourist Board by the local authorities. I want, too, to see developments which will provide jobs in an area of high unemployment, and all this can be done at no extra cost to the Government.

The fact is that the Gretna State management district has outlived its original concept, and that the present policy is restraining great possibilities. I hope that the Minister will think again, consult local opinion, and realise that we are being denied a vital opportunity. I have tried to put forward this case constructively. I feel that the tourist trade will be hindered because of the present situation, and I hope that the Minister will try to relax the rules under the 1959 Act.

11.0 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Norman Buchan)

I have listened carefully to the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Monro), who has put his case reasonably. I know of his work on the Local Advisory Committee for Gretna, and—perhaps he was rather modest about this—of his work on behalf of his constituent who is involved in the case. I admire his moderation tonight.

I do not want to become involved in a theoretical discussion of the situation as it has developed since 1916. We all know the origins of State management, and we know that the conditions are no longer the same. But it is useful to remind ourselves just what State management is. It is a system for the supply of liquor to the public. We have always accepted that the supply of alcohol is a matter for public concern and public involvement. This is the basis of our licensing laws.

One of the great advantages of the State management district, is that there we have a management not so directly and financially concerned with profits and who are therefore much less likely to encourage undue drinking. That is the whole principle of disinterested management, which seems simple and reasonable. Although the hon. Gentleman put his arguments about competition reasonably, there is still a case for this system.

I accept completely his arguments about the tourist potential of the South-West. This is why we have spent so much time in recent years—including the debates on the Development of Tourism Act last year—to encourage tourism in Scotland. What is called the " tourist explosion " has not gone unheeded by developers in the area. As part of a road development of the A74, a service station with hotel accommodation is being provided on the road near Gretna and the developers are doing so on the basis of the restricted hotel certificate which the hon. Gentleman did not like.

The system works something like this. With certain exceptions, no one except the State may sell or supply liquor in a State management district and the State management organisation makes the necessary arrangements for supply. The first exception concerns the hon. Gentleman. That is to say, where there is supply only to residents or to persons taking meals, the holder of a restricted hotel or restaurant certificate is entitled to supply liquor in a State management district. The other exception is that the Secretary of State can grant an authority to another person to supply liquor—a very wide discretion which is not frequently used in practice.

As we and successive Governments have seen, it would be contrary to the spirit of disinterested management for a private individual to sell for profit, and in such cases authority is granted only exceptionally. But there have been grants where the applicant can provide a type of facility which is desirable in the locality and which the State management cannot provide. This has been accepted and has not been changed by any Government since 1916.

Shortly before the 1964 election, the then Secretary of State, in a speech in Portobello Town Hall, of all places, announced the intention of the Unionist Party to abolish the system. I would not altogether blame the fate of the Unionist Party at that election solely on that announcement. At any rate, it was not implemented in 1964, for the reason we all know.

State management provides in the Gretna district five hotels, nine public houses and one off-sale shop. I was pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman say that they were doing a good job. I agree with him, having been there to see the position. I appreciate his remarks about the position, including the Gracie's Banking site—I share something of his affection for it—but it would not be appropriate or possible to continue it. I accept that difficulties have arisen.

Gracie's Banking has reached the end of its useful life and one of the hotels is such that it cannot maintain modern standards. It is for this reason that State management is undertaking a redevelopment programme in Annan, involving the building of a new hotel at Gracie's Banking at an estimated cost of £164,000, and the closing of the Central Hotel. This should be started in the late summer and it is expected to be completed before the end of 1971.

We have closely costed this programme. Sometimes hon. Gentlemen opposite accuse us of extravagance and sometimes, as tonight, of meanness. At one moment they are telling us to spend more and at the next to spend less. We cannot win. However, in this case we are sure that this programme will make a useful contribution to the social facilities of Annan.

I share the hon. Gentleman's concern at the disappearance of the cinema at Annan. It is Dart of the structure of which I have spoken and which must be demolished. I have considered this matter with great care and it is clear that economics make the possibility of replacing the cinema with another one on the site out of the question.

One of our problems is that while, on the one hand, hon. Gentlemen opposite are constantly telling us to save on expenditure, on the other they are always voicing the virtues of private enterprise and urging us to spend more by providing further social facilities. We are now being criticised because the cinema cannot continue and because of what is happening to Gracie's Banking. I wish that we could do, within our costing of the situation, what the hon. Gentleman wants us to do, but that is impossible, and I regret it.

I need not go into the history of the Corner House Hotel, the hon. Gentleman having been in the centre of that history, so to speak. An application was made by Mr. Irving to supply liquor at the hotel, and from 1962 he was able to supply liquor to residents and diners. In 1964 he made application for a wider authority, part of his case being that he wished to extend his hotel and provide a functions hall but that he could not do so if able to sell liquor only under the circumstances appropriate to a restricted hotel certificate.

I will not attempt to describe the intervening stages, which were fully set out in a report by the Parliamentary Commissioner. Suffice it to say that the Secretary of State refused an application in August, 1967; that the Parliamentary Commissioner made a finding of mal-administration against my Department on the grounds of its submission of the case to him, criticising the setting out of the arguments; that the Department supplied the agreed remedy by making a fresh submission in the light of those criticisms; and that the Secretary of State confirmed his refusal.

The main criticism related to the admitted need for larger functions accommodation of good standard in Annan and the capacity of State Management to provide it. If it could, then it was in accordance with State management policy that it should provide it—and the accommodation is being provided in the new hotel at Gracie's Banking. We are, therefore fulfilling our rôle in this matter.

While I admire the tenacity and enterprise of Mr. Irving in pursuing his objectives, and the hon. Gentleman for raising this matter, it remains the case that the supply of liquor by a private individual is in conflict with disinterested management.

Mr. John Brewis (Galloway)

I regret that I was not in my place at the beginning of the debate. Is it a fact that while a grocer in Annan cannot get an off-licence to sell liquor, a grocer from a neighbouring town can pinch his trade? Is that fair?

Mr. Buchan

I cannot give an off-the-cuff answer to that question without first looking into it. I will examine the matter. I know about half the case. Whether the two halves gel, I am not sure.

The hon. Member referred to development in Invergordon. We see a case for the State management district to continue for the original reasons for which it was created, that is, to give a sense of involvement by the State in the provision of alcohol, which we do in one form by licensing and in this form created in 1916 by controlling the supply through the application of disinterested management.

The question is whether this alone is sufficient. I have listened carefully to what the hon. Member has had to say. I cannot say that he has shaken my belief in the State management district. As we all must, I pay continual regard to seeing that the needs of the area and the other area in the north are being met and being met in the right way. We accept this kind of duty and the State management district will have a fairly big rôle to play.

The hon. Member mentioned consultation. He knows more about the functioning of the advisory committees than I do, because for a long time he was an honoured member of such a committee. I want the local bodies to consult widely and not always formally. There is always a tendency for one organisation or other to believe that it should have been consulted. I cannot comment about this particular case, because I do not know what kind of soundings were made by the committee before advising us about its attitude to the project.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at eleven minutes past Eleven o'clock.

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