HC Deb 26 November 1973 vol 865 cc176-86

11.1 p.m.

Mr. David Lambie (Central Ayrshire)

I should like tonight to discuss the question of the sale and development of Fullarton Courtyard in Troon, in my constituency.

About 40 years ago, Fullarton Estate, a very pleasant wooded area of Troon, was purchased by Troon Town Council as an amenity area. It contained a property known as Fullarton House, which has now been demolished, and Fullarton Courtyard, which is listed as a property of historical and architectural value and containing three habitable houses. A plan instituted about 10 years ago to build private luxury flats on what has now been developed as a pleasant picnic area collapsed when the firm involved went into liquidation. A petition was signed against that project by hundreds of townspeople at that time.

In March 1970, Troon Town Council entered into an agreement with Lyndene Development Company, Limited for the sale of Fullarton Courtyard. Unfortunately, that agreement was not fulfilled, and for the last two and a half years negotiations have been going on between the town council and various developers to try to get this area developed.

I am raising this question tonight because of representations that I have received from various constituents representing a number of interests involved in this matter.

First, I have received representations from the Labour members of the town council who have fought these proposed developments during the last two and a half years. The attitude of the Labour members of the council is summed up in a letter to the local newspaper, the Troon and Prestwick Times, by Councillor Frank Shirley, in which he said : I am opposed to any kind of development within Fullarton Courtyard that would reduce the public's freedom to enjoy Fullarton Estate and particularly this splendid picnic area which adjoins the courtyard. But, if the courtyard must be sold to a private developer, then the figure of £2,000 which the council have fixed as the purchase price is ridiculously low for this valuable site, especially since it contains three habitable houses, any one of which would almost certainly fetch double that figure in the open market. I have received various letters and telephone calls from constituents who have no connection at all with the Troon Labour Party. I have one letter from Mr. George McCulloch, which I should like to quote, as it sums up these representations. The letter reads : Dear Sir, I would like to know what action you propose to take in respect of the sale by Troon Town Council of the stable area of Fullarton House for the ridiculous amount of £2,000. The Watergate and Poulson exposures, bad as they be, are faits accomplis which are being post-mortemed ; but the Timra councillors —that is the name the Tories go under on the Troon Council— are currently and flagrantly pushing through this iniquitous deal. It has been suggested that the objections of the Labour Party in Troon to this transaction are for the purpose of gaining political capital. Believe me. Sir, I am not of that party nor are my fellow home-owners who have added their signatures to this letter. The whole of Troon is talking about the affair. May I request you, as my Member of Parliament, to have the question of either the sanity or honesty of the people involved challenged and to have made public the minute details of this scandalous affair. I also received, during the time when the rate was being fixed in Troon, representations from ratepayers complaining of an increase of 33⅓ per cent. in local rates—a percentage much higher than normal, even under the legislation of this Government. The ratepayers were complaining that at a time when the rates were being increased the town council was selling a development worth anything from £20,000 to £25,000 for the ridiculous sum of £2,000.

I took up these representation with the Under-Secretary, and in a letter from him of 5th October was told : I appreciate his concern —that is my constituent's concern— and the increase of 21 p in the domestic rates this year. He refused to carry out any investgiation into the financial affairs of the council. Throughout the whole of the two and a half years that this affair has been going on there has been correspondence in the local newspaper. It reached the stage when the editor said in a leading article on Friday 31st August 1973: In the light of the recent publicity, however, Troon Town Council ought to ask the district valuer to look again at Fullarton Courtyard or to seek the opinion of the Scottish Development Department's property expert as to the true value of the site. I have decided to ask for this debate because the Secretary of State for Scotland refused to hold a public inquiry into this affair. I take this opportunity to raise the points which I think should be answered by the responsible Minister. I have been involved in the schemes for the development of Fullarton Courtyard for nearly three years. As a Member of Parliament I was asked by the director of the company formerly interested in the development of the courtyard, Lyndene Development Co. Ltd., to deal with the matter.

Mr. Alexander Stuart, the director, asked me to take up with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration the attitude of the council and also the Scottish Development Department towards the agreement which he had made with the council for the sale and development of Fullarton Courtyard. I took up the case with the Parliamentary Commissioner and on 30th September 1971 received this reply from him : Dear Mr. Lambie, Thank you for your letter of 31st August enclosing a complaint from Mr. Alexander A. Stuart on behalf of Lyndene Development Co. Ltd. I have examined this case to confirm whether it complies with the provisions of the Parliamentary Commissioner Act. I am writing to say that, on present evidence, I consider that the complaint is within my jurisdiction, and I am starting an investigation. I shall let you know the outcome as soon as I can. For the present I am retaining the papers which you sent me. Yours sincerely, Alan Marre. That investigation was carried out by the Parliamentary Commissioner, who finally reported to me that there was no case against the officials of the Scottish Development Department but there might be a case against the actions of either the council or certain council officials.

I sent the report of the Parliamentary Commissioner to Mr. Stuart. At the last meeting I had with him he notified me that he was considering taking legal action against the council and certain of its officials.

Since then various statements have appeared in the minutes of the council about proposed developments by either the council or other developers. For example, this entry appeared on 19th October 1971: Troon Town Council, after consultation with representatives of the National Trust, decided in principle to redevelop Fullarton Courtyard as a small housing project and an architect was engaged to prepare plans. The architect brought into being a scheme for the development Fullarton Courtyard. On 9th November 1972, Robert B. Banks and Associates, the architects involved, submitted to the council an account for £1,600 for taking clients' instructions on improvement and conversion to housing at Fullarton Courtyard.

During the time when the council had engaged this group of architects at a final cost of £1,500, various other things started to take place. For example, on 15th November 1971 the town clerk, at a meeting with a Mr. Ronald Barnet, and despite the knowledge that the council had agreed to proceed with its own development of Fullarton Courtyard and had engaged its own architect, seems to have said nothing to discourage Mr. Barnet, since on the same day as that on which he met the town clerk, Mr. Barnet seems to have arranged to form a company, the Fullarton Development Company Limited, for the purpose of taking over the development of the courtyard.

On the same day—that is, 15th November 1971—Mr. Barnet wrote to the town clerk. That letter was circulated to a meeting of the council the following day. That day's work led to Mr. Barnet's being sold property containing three habitable houses and a site, said to be worth over £20,000, for the sum of £2,000, and eventually to discretionary grants of over £25,000.

In the letter of 15th November from Mr. Ronald T. Barnet to Mr. Hepburn, town clerk, under the heading "Fullarton Courtyard", he says : Further to our meeting today I would confirm that after a discussion I have had with Mr. Allan Stewart this morning, of Lyndene Developments, the position now is that Mr. Jim Martin, myself and perhaps one other, are prepared to form a company to take over the conversion of Fullarton Courtyard originally planned by Lyndene Developments. Mr. James Martin and myself were to provide one-third each of the total capital required by Lyndene. Mr. Stewart has now indicated to me that if Mr. Martin and myself are prepared to recompense him for his share of the expense to date, he is prepared to let us take over his interest. The position with the new company would be that they are prepared, subject to obtaining the maximum discretionary grants, to proceed with the conversion as originally proposed and to lease these out for several years either furnished or partially furnished and to forget altogether about the possible transfer of the grants within the three-year period. That letter was received by the town clerk at a time when the council was giving instructions to a firm of architects to draw up development plans for Fullarton Courtyard. At the council meeting of 16th November 1971 Mr. Barnet's request to take over the courtyard development was refused, and on 30th November 1971 came the first of a number of letters from the solicitors of Lyndene Development Company which had formerly been interested in the development of the courtyard and in which Ronald Barnet had a substantial interest—in fact, an interest of 33⅔ per cent. These letters from Lyndene contained a threat of legal action or a claim for reimbursement of expenses, and eventually the council scrapped the plans for its own development, after having paid the architect £1,600 for a discontinued project, and agreed to sell the Courtyard to the Barnet Development Company for £2,000.

To give some idea of the type of letter that was received by the council—in terms that swayed the majority opinion of the council not to proceed with its own development but to proceed with the proposals from this new company—I should like to quote from a letter received on 30th November 1971 from Mactaggart and Co., solicitors for Lyndene Development Company. The letter states to the town clerk : Dear Sir, We understand from our clients, Lyndene Development Co., that the town council are reconsidering the question of Fullarton Courtyard, and our clients further understand that the town council are considering commissioning an architect to prepare plans for a new conversion. … Our clients have asked us to make it clear to you that depending on the terms of the Parliamentary Commissioner's report, an action for damages may be taken against Troon Town Council for their actings in the matter as our clients went to considerable expense and trouble in connection with their proposals. Our clients had a contract with the town council in terms of the agreement reached between our clients and the previous town clerk which agreement was reduced to writing and accepted by both parties. Our clients have asked us to remind you that they were unable to proceed with their conversion for the reasons stated in their letter to you of 4th March 1971. Further on, the letter says : Naturally, our clients are unwilling to sue if the matter can be settled amicably, but our clients wish to preserve their rights having regard to the proposed reopening of the question by the town council. That letter is signed by Mactaggart and Company.

On an examination of the minutes of the council meetings during the period when this matter was being discussed, various other items arose which caused some concern. For example, the minute of the council meeting dated 9th April 1973 stated that the views of the planning authority on the conversion of a listed property—Fullarton Courtyard was a listed property—"have been requested", and that the formal contract would not be completed until this matter was cleared up.

Following the discussion in the council, I received a report from various councillors in Troon to clear up this question whether or not planning per mission had been given. I got into contact with the county planning officer and I received a letter from him dated 13th September which appeared to indicate that no request concerning the matter of the development of Fullarton Courtyard had been received from the council but that despite this information, a formal contract had been signed.

The letter that I received from Mr. Fyfe, the county planning officer, on 13th September 1973 stated : Dear Mr. Lambie, Further to your call I am attaching copies of the two permissions issued to the Lyndene Development Company Ltd., one being in principle and the other in detail for a few houses. This is the only scheme that has been approved although about 1964 the Town Council themselves prepared some scheme of reconstruction involving the formation of flats and this is superseded by Lyndene Development. The application by Lyndene was submitted for approval in principle on 4th February 1969 and for the detail approval of units (1), (2) and (3) on 16th June 1970. The two permissions applying to them are attached. Following receipt of the scheme on 16th June, I have had no communication with the Town Council as the detail was merely a follow on from the approval in principle. The foregoing is the position as I am aware and hope this helps you". It must be understood that Fullarton Courtyard is a listed building, subject to the terms of the Town and Country Planning Act. It appears that the provisions of the Act have not been met in respect of it.

A communication on 28th March 1969 from the planning authority to the Lyndene Development Company, whose plans the Barnet Development Company has taken over, calls for the erection of no fewer than 15 garages east of the courtyard. The agreement signed between Barnet Development Company and the town council calls for the erection of the garages, north of the courtyard. Condition No. 2 in the letter that I have just read requires the reaching of an agreement on the siting of the garages. Despite the apparent failure to comply with that and the terms of the relevant Act, work is proceeding.

In view of the unrest in various political circles, not only in the Troon area but in Ayr County Council, Councillor Robert Picken, county councillor for Dundonald, asked the following question at an Ayr County Council meeting : From information received it appears that an agreement between developers and Troon Town Council for the conversion of Fullarton Stables, Troon, into dwellinghouses is inconsistent with the terms of the planning permission granted by the County Council in as much as the agreement provides for the erection of garages to the north of the stables, whereas the planning permission provides that the necessary provision for garaging facilities will be made to the east of the stables. Will the Planning Committee please investigate this matter? The relevant part of the answer by the chairman of the planning committee was : It is understood that Troon Town Council now consider that the garages would be less conspicuously and more appropriately located if they were erected not within the shrubbed area to the east of the stables but on the cleared site of the Fullarton Kitchen to the north of the stables. The Town Council have been informed that any proposal to locate the garages to the north of the stables would require to be the subject of a new application for planning permission and they have been asked to convey this to any developers involved. My latest information from the county planning authority is that no application has since been received from Troon Town Council on the matter.

In the minutes of the town council dated 14th May 1973, we read that : Councillor Shirley expressed concern regarding what he considered to be a low figure to be received by the Town Council in respect of the proposed transfer of right in Fullarton Courtyard to a developer and it was agreed to make it clear that the District Valuer must carry out a proper assessment of value, not simply acquiesce to a figure which might be regarded as having been arbitrarily fixed. Despite that decision of the town council, on 15th May the town clerk wrote to both the chief valuer and the district valuer in terms which completely ignored the decision taken only the previous evening. In the letter to the district valuer in Ayr he wrote : The new arrangement with Barnet Development Company and certain associates is that in return for granting permission to form the Courtyard buildings into dwelling houses and sell these the Town Council will receive a capital payment of £2,000, no contribution towards the making up the roadway as this work will not now be required and the ground which would have been roadway will now be grass formed and maintained by the developer. The district valuer was asked to substantiate the figure of £2,000 for the roadway. He did so without taking into account the opinion of the town council that this figure should not be accepted in an arbitrary manner, but that the real value should be taken.

The last thing that I want to deal with is the fact that the circular published by the Scottish Development Department on the question of discretionary grants, entitled, "Policy on Housing Improvement and Slum Clearance", recommended local authorities to consider refusing discretionary grants where improvement or conversion is being carried out as a commercial venture. When one considers the possible selling price of the houses involved in the sale of Fullarton Courtyard one must come to the conclusion that it is a commercial venture, and a very profitable one. Nevertheless, in spite of the Government's recommendation in that circular the town council has agreed to grant the developer 14 discretionary grants, which will probably amount to about £25,000.

This company is part of a group of associated companies, all carrying out developments throughout the West of Scotland. Mr. Ronald Barnet seems to be in the furniture trade, and has a registered office in Glasgow, and is connected with the Lyndene Development Company, the Barnet Development Company, the Fullarton Courtyard (Development) Company, and Dervin Property Developments Ltd., and, all in all, he is using discretionary grants to build up enormous profits on the development. In fact, he is carrying out a development of the kind that the Prime Minister described as part of the "ugly and unacceptable face of capitalism".

There are some questions that I want the Under-Secretary to answer. First, why was a perfectly straightforward development by the local authority cancelled at a cost of £1,600 to the ratepayers? Secondly, why was property containing three habitable houses and situated in an area of extremely high amenity value and according to property experts worth £20,000, sold for £2,000 without being advertised? Thirdly, why, despite the Government's advice, have the maximum discretionary grants, totalling about £25,000, been awarded? Finally, why has the developer been allowed to proceed with this project before the necessary planning permissions have been obtained?

I ask the Under-Secretary to carry out a public inquiry into this affair.

11.28 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Development, Scottish Office (Mr. George Younger)

I would be a genius if I could answer all that in three minutes. It is an extremely unfair and and discourteous practice—and most uncharacteristic of the hon. Member—to take up nearly all the time of the Adjournment debate and then ask me so many questions. I should like to make it clear that I should be able to answer him, and the fact that he has left me no time to do so is a poor show.

It is perhaps appropriate to point out here that my right hon. Friend has nothing to do with this quarrel. The Secretary of State is not involved in any way, except to the extent that in 1962 the Secretary of State of the day was asked to give approval for the sale of this estate, held on the council's parks account. He gave that approval, but nothing was done then by the council. The approval was reaffirmed in 1969 and in 1970, at the council's request, and that was the be-all and end-all and the sum total of the Secretary of State's involvement in this matter.

The hon. Member also raised the question of the value which the district valuer placed on this ground. It is no function of the Government to alter the opinions of district valuers, or to set up as a private enterprise organisation against district valuers and produce arbitrary or different answers from those produced by district valuers. District valuers are quite independent. They have their own professional expertise. It is the district valuer's view that this is the value of the property concerned.

I should point out, in the interests of accuracy, in the small amount of time available to me, that the price that the district valuer laid down was not £2,000, but £2,000 subject to a feu duty of £25 per annum to the council on every flat that was sold on the site. That is a very different matter. It adds quite a bit to the value of the ground as valued by the district valuer.

I should make it clear that the town council has every right, if it does not like the value that the district valuer has put on it, to go to another valuer and to refuse to sell at that value. Therefore, again, this is a matter of judgment. It is a quarrel between the hon. Gentleman and his town council at Troon. He must pursue that quarrel in the normal way, through the democratic processes, locally. I have many jobs in the Scottish Office but they do not include acting as referee between the hon. Gentleman and Troon Town Council. I very much hope that that will never be one of my jobs.

The Secretary of State's position in the matter is that he is no longer concerned. I was very interested to hear what the hon. Gentleman said, but I hope that anyone listening to the debate or reading it later will realise that it is not a matter for the Secretary of State. The hon. Gentleman has every right to pursue this matter in any way he likes with the town council, the members of which are the people responsible for what is occurring.

I am sorry not to be able to give a respectable detailed reply, but the time that I have been given makes that quite impossible.

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 twenty-nine minutes to Twelve o'clock.