HC Deb 23 December 1976 vol 923 cc966-78

2.27 p.m.

Mr. David Lambie (Central Ayrshire)

I want to correct a mistake in the Order Paper. The debate today is about a proposed marina, not a marine development, at Troon Harbour.

I am initiating the debate in association with my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross), and also the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger), who have constituency interests in this proposal and who I hope will participate in the debate.

I am also glad to see on the Front Bench today my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Scottish Office, because his Department could have some responsibility in the future of this development, alongside the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, who has the initial responsibility in this matter.

Troon Harbour is owned and controlled by the small docks section of the British Transport Docks Board. For over 20 years Troon Cruising Club, with 300 members, owning 170 boats, has been the tenant of the inner harbour area under a short-term lease from the Docks Board. At the beginning of 1972 Troon Cruising Club tried to negotiate a long-term lease with Captain R. J. Nicholls, the Docks Manager and Harbour Master at Troon, acting on behalf of the Docks Board.

At a meeting held on 29th March 1972, to discuss the club's future, Captain Nicholls agreed to look into the matter further and, if possible, to offer a longterm lease. The result of these negotiations was a three-year agreement containing a six-months' terminal clause on either side. In all these negotiations on a longterm lease the representatives of the Docks Board had always given the impression that the area was for sale, and that is why a lease for more than three years could not be given to the club.

Just before the reorganisation of Scottish local government, Troon Town Council, in association with the then Ayr County Council, started negotiations with the Docks Board to buy the inner harbour at Troon and eventually to develop the area as a public marina. This project had the full support of the members of Troon Cruising Club and the whole community. Everyone believed that a development financed by public money would provide facilities within the means of the average person.

These negotiations for a public marina collapsed following the reorganisation of local government, as the new councils rightly needed time to establish themselves and to look at the projects being carried out by the former councils.

On 17th September 1975, following the collapse of the public marina project, the club again asked that the tenancy agreement that they had negotiated previously with the Docks Board be extended. These negotiations were proceeding, but suddenly, a year later, to everyone's surprise—in September 1976—the local newspaper the Troon and Prestwick Times carried an exclusive front-page article announcing a private marina development at Troon.

According to the report the Docks Board agreed to lease on a long-term basis the inner harbour to a developer, Mr. Robin Knox-Johnston, who was prepared to invest £500,000 in the project. The development would start immediately, the local newspaper informed us in order to be ready for the summer session in 1977. The cost of mooring a 30-ft boat in the proposed marina would be about £300 a year, compared with the present charge of £10 from Troon Cruising Club. The members of the club were told to remove their boats by the end of the year in spite of their lease not terminating until May 1977 at the earliest.

After a meeting with the officials and committee of Troon Cruising Club I contacted Mr. Peter Murdoch, manager of the small docks section of the Docks Board, and subsequently had a meeting in the House with Mr. J. K. Stuart, the managing director of the Docks Board. Neither could explain why no consultation whatever had taken place with the present leaseholders.

It was my impression that the Board thought that the lease could be terminated at one month's notice and that Troon Cruising Club, in spite of over 20 years' experience in this area, had no rights whatever. Since that time officials of the Docks Board have used every legal advice and threat to get the members of the cruising club out of the inner harbour by the end of the year. They have bullied and abused, and used jackboot methods. Even an Act of 1847 was invoked.

In fact, arising out of this Act, Troon Cruising Club went before the court last week and had an interim interdict continued until the beginning of January to prevent the Docks Board from removing the boats from the inner harbour. In granting the continuation the sheriff said that he hoped this would allow discussions to be held between both parties.

On 13th December I asked to meet Sir Humphrey Brown, the Chairman of the British Transport Docks Board. I asked him to receive a deputation consisting of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock, the hon. Member for Ayr and myself to discuss the position of the Docks Board and to try to get some settlement.

As you will understand, Mr. Speaker, from your own background in Wales, there was a lot of public unrest about what the Docks Board was trying to do. Two days later Mr. Stuart replied that further meetings were unlikely to be productive. This was the first time, in my experience as an MP, that officials of a public body—or even a private firm—had refused to meet a deputation of MPs consisting of such people as the former Secretary of State for Scotland and a member of the Shadow Cabinet.

We wanted to enter into a discussion with the board, but this discussion was refused, according to the information that we received from Mr. Stuart. That is why this Adjournment debate is taking place today.

I should like some answers from the Minister, because no matter what he says he is the person who was finally responsible for the actions of this public body. I want to know why the lease was given to Mr. Robin Knox-Johnston and his associates without informing the present leaseholders. Why is the docks board now giving a long-term lease to private developers when for years it has refused to consider a similar lease to Troon Cruising Club?

People in the area are beginning to wonder whether there is some collusion between the developers and officials of the Docks Board. I hope that we shall get answers to these questions today.

2.36 p.m.

Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)

My justification for speaking is that many of my constituents are members of the Troon Cruising Club, and have been for a long time. Troon is only 6½ miles from Kilmarnock and about 8 or 9 miles from Ayr, where I live. I know the place. I do not know when Mr. Robin Knox-Johnston discovered Troon, but I would think that it was more recently than my constituents and the people who are exercising their concern at present.

I have seen a delegation from them and I have been in touch with my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Lambie). I have never known a public body, or anyone representing a public body, to act in such an outrageous way. From start to finish it has shown little regard for the good will of the public. One would think it had gone out of its way to insult the people. It finished up by refusing a meeting with the public representatives of the people.

In a scandalous letter for anyone to write the Board stated: While in no way wishing to appear negative in this matter"— and then it proceeded to say "No". It added: It would be of considerable general benefit to Troon and we are, in any case, committed to it. The Board has blackmailed the club—and us—in this matter. It was for that reason that I had a meeting with my hon. Friend and I sent a letter to Mr. Stuart stating that we were considering what further action we could take on the Floor of the House. It is better to get these things settled outside. Only in the last resort does one come to the Floor of the House, but if that is the way the Board wants to play, I am prepared to play it that way.

Troon Cruising Club is an old club. It has been cruising for the past 25 years and has had a year-to-year lease. I would advise the Docks Board to read closely the 1847 Act. It might discover that it is not allowed to lease certain facilities in its harbour and the dock for more than three years. I think that this provision is contained in Claus 23.

I am sorry that we did not have more notice of this. We are short of time, and it may be just as well if I do not expand my argument. I have some experience in reading Acts of Parliament, and if people raise the question of Acts of Parliament of this kind I am prepared to take them on.

I hope that the British Transport Docks Board does not come here fairly soon with a Private Act. It needs the good will of Members of Parliament and it should appreciate exactly what saying "No" means in the way that it has done in this case.

The Troon Cruising Club has an existing lease that does not end until May of next year. Suddenly it has learned from the local Press that this private project is to go ahead. It is shattering for people who are the tenants, and have been the tenants, suddenly to discover that they are being pushed aside and that someone new is coming in.

I have heard the name of Mr. Robin Knox-Johnston before. We all respect the gentleman for his qualities. But who are his associates? I looked up Mr. Robin Knox-Johnston in "Who's Who", and discovered that he has considerable interests. Since 1975, he has been managing director of St. Katharine's Yacht Haven Limited. From 1970 to 1973, he was a director of Mercury Yacht Harbours Limited. Since 1973, he has been a director of Rank Marine International. Since 1974, he has been a director of Hoo Marina Limited. He has considerable business interests. But which of these companies—or is it another one—is involved in this matter? If it is Rank Marine International, which I believe is linked up with Rank Leisure Services, I hope that the local authority will take note of the experience which Ayr Burgh had with the Rank Organisation in respect of great developments which were to take place around the harbour area and on the foreshore at Ayr.

Is it not time that we came clean about this? I want to know who Robin Knox-Johnston represents, or the company that he represents. I think that we should know. After all, he will not be able to pluck £500,000 out of the air. I should like to know whether he has made any approach to the Scottish Office for money.

Mr. Lambie

The Scottish Tourist Board.

Mr. Ross

He probably does not know that the Scottish Tourist Board is independent. Has he approached the Scottish Office for money?

I should also like to know when he approached the British Transport Docks Board and when the Board informed its existing tenants—always assuming that it knew that it had tenants. It is my conviction that the Board did not know that it had tenants.

I am very disappointed to see the Scottish National Party Bench totally empty. I should have thought that this would be just the kind of case to interest SNP Members—a case of someone coming from the South and taking over something that has been used by ordinary local people for more than 20 years. They are not rich people. Many of them are engineers. They are people of fairly modest means. Their sport is cruising in small boats and making a family gathering of it. They have created their own facilities. I am surprised that SNP Members are not here today to help us.

Did the Board know that it had tenants? If it did, when did it inform its existing tenants? Did it give Troon Cruising Club an opportunity to make a competitive offer? We have heard nothing at all about that. Everything in the Board's letter says that it is a commercial development. I thought that the lifeblood of commerce was competition, but now the Board seems to have tied it all up with this one individual and his associates, whoever they are. The last thing that the Board ever thought of doing was to seek any form of tendering.

When did the Board commit itself to Mr. Knox-Johnston and his associates? What other dealing has the Board had with Mr. Knox-Johnston and his associates? I believe that there is another development at Irvine.

Mr. Lambie

That is an ICI development.

Mr. Ross

But are they tied in with it? Is Mr. Knox-Johnston the adviser there?

Mr. Lambie

To be fair to ICI, which controls Irvine, it must be said that the marina development at that harbour is one of the best examples of private development giving facilities to the ordinary man in the street. If my right hon. Friend and I had been dealing with ICI, we would have got a better deal than we have from this public enterprise, which we are always fighting to extend.

Mr. Ross

But the headquarters of ICI is in Ayrshire.

At one point, the Board suggested that it would give its tenants so many days' notice to quit. Apparently it did not even know that there were three months' rights under the existing lease.

Eventually, the Board sought to use the 1847 Act to get its tenants off the water. It is interesting to see what that Act says. I dare say that the Board had in mind Clause 54. Having given the powers, the clause says that if the harbour master or his assistants act without reasonable cause or in an unreasonable or unfair manner in exercising any of the powers vested in him, the person so offending—the harbour master—shall for every such offence be liable to a penalty not exceeding £5.

It is a wonderful Act, and it can be invoked. My hon. Friend and I ought to walk round Troon Harbour to see whether the Board is complying with it. Clause 23 provides that the Board cannot lease buildings for longer than three years. Clause 12, dealing with new works connected with the harbour, provides that in any part of the shore of the sea, creek, bay, arm of the sea or navigable river communicating therewith, it has to get written permission for all these developments from the Commissioner of Crown Lands. I hope that the Board has got it, if it is involved. Has all that been done, or has it all been taken for granted on the assumption that the Board could steamroller Troon Cruising Club and get its members out by hook or by crook?

At least the Board could have talked to the Members of Parliament concerned, acting for ordinary folk who have been carrying on their activities untroubled for 25 years and who are now faced with this new development, if it ever comes off.

It is deplorable that we should have actions of this kind from a public authority.

2.47 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. John Horam)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) and to my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Lambie) for raising this matter and giving it a very full airing, as I am sure are their constituents who are involved in this matter.

At the outset, perhaps I might refer briefly to a small part of the background to this affair. As my right hon. Friend and, my hon. Friend will know, the British Transport Docks Board, which owns and manages Troon Harbour, has been trying for several years to dispose of the inner harbour which it no longer requires for its normal commercial undertakings.

In 1974, negotiations with the then Town Council of Troon for the sale of the inner harbour were brought to an advanced stage, but I understand that they eventually fell through when, after local government reorganisation in 1975, the town council's successors, Kyle and Carrick District Council, decided not to proceed. It had been the town council's intention to convert the inner harbour into a yachting marina of the kind that Mr. Knox-Johnston and his associates now propose.

Since then, the British Transport Docks Board has been continuing its efforts to dispose of the inner harbour, and here I refer to one of the matters raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock. To be fair to the board, it has been making continuing efforts to do something about this problem. It is not so much a question of not inviting tenders——

Mr. Lambie

It could have gone to the people of Troon.

Mr. William Ross

What is the good of trying to do something about it when, as the board says in its letter, it is already committed?

Mr. Horam

When I say that it was trying to do something about it, I meant that it was hoping to have a scheme to put to it which would use these facilities in an expanding way rather than carrying on using them in the existing way, which was not really fully satisfactory from the board's point of view.

That brings me on to my main point. first, the British Transport Docks Board is a public body with statutory responsibilities. It has a duty to ensure that its assets are used to the best advantage. The board has clearly been looking for a scheme, which has now come forward. which would enable it to do that.

The scheme now envisaged would provide employment and expansion in the area and would add to its tourist amenities. Clearly, one would welcome in principle the development of the coast and the waters around that area for sailing.

Mr. William Ross

It has been done already. We have some knowledge of what is going on and has been going on in the area, in Troon, in Irvine and all the way up that coast.

Mr. Horam

The point is that the scheme proposed by Mr. Robin Knox-Johnston and his associates is different in kind in the sense that it is more expansive than the existing facilities. I acknowledge my ignorance of the area, as I have no Scottish responsibilities in the way that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Scotland has, but I must make that point.

Mr. Lambie

My hon. Friend must realise that people on the Clyde are becoming a wee bit perturbed about what is happening.

Mr. William Ross


Mr. Lambie

All the best harbours are being taken over by private developers or private marinas, which are charging up to £300 a year for a boat. Troon is one of the few harbours left where ordinary working men and women can sail at reasonable cost. Surely, it is my hon. Friend's responsibility as a Socialist Minister to see that the right type of expansion goes on, not the type of private expansion which he is trying to sell to us now. That is for Tory Ministers, not for him.

Mr. Horam

That is something that we shall certainly consider. None the less, we must also consider the sensible use of the British Transport Docks Board's facilities in the area, and whether the proposals being put forward will help generally in the expansion of the area. Perhaps there are conflicting considerations to be taken into account.

I come now to the complaints that my right hon. and hon. Friends have made about the discussions that have taken place between the present lessees, the Troon Cruising Club, and the British Transport Docks Board. I was extremely concerned—and so was my hon. Friend the Minister of State, who is here today—about the nature of the discussions which my right hon. and hon. Friends have disclosed. I should be very perturbed to hear that the British Transport Docks Board was not prepared to receive a delegation from Members of Parliament from that area, and so would the Minister of State, particularly as the delegation would obviously also include my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock, who was Secretary of State for Scotland until a short time ago.

I cannot now go into all the details of such discussions. I do not think that an Adjournment debate is the right forum to go into detail about the discussions which my right hon. and hon. Friends would like to have seen. The real forum should be a meeting between the interested parties. I am, however, glad to give an assurance that I and the Minister of State are very concerned about this and we shall look into it.

I think that that is the right way to deal with the contacts, which appear to have been very unsatisfactory, between the Troon Cruising Club and the British Transport Docks Board. Both the particular and the more general points that have been raised in the debate can best be dealt with in discussions between the parties.

Obviously, my right hon. Friend will be particularly concerned that, while it is perfectly possible that the existing users, Troon Cruising Club, can carry on using the facilities there, if and when they are developed by Mr. Knox-Johnston and his associates——

Mr. William Ross

Who are "his associates"?

Mr. Horam

I do not know the full business background of Mr. Knox-Johnston. He described himself in the proposals as "Mr. Knox-Johnston and Associates". I have not had the opportunity to find out exactly who Mr. Knox-Johnston and his associates are. We have the background in the original proposal put forward, in which he describes his history and his business interests. For example he set up the Mercury Yacht Club Limited, he is managing director of Mercury Yacht Harbours, he is managing director of Knox-Johnston Marine Limited, he is a director of Rank Marine International, a director of Port Hamble Limited and of various other companies concerned with sailing. That is what we know about Mr. Knox-Johnston.

Mr. William Ross

He is a money-maker.

Mr. Horam

Without probing further, I am unable to say more than that at present. Perhaps this is a matter which could be gone into when a meeting is held.

As for financial backing, I understand that Mr. Knox-Johnston has applied for a grant from the Scottish Tourist Board, an independent body which will presumably make up its own mind on the merits of the case. I understand that the grant is an important part of his proposals.

Mr. William Ross

I did not think that the Scottish Tourist Board gave grants to individuals.

Mr. Horam

The board gives grants to companies.

Mr. William Ross

We want to know about any company.

Mr. Horam

I understand that Robin Knox-Johnston and Associates is a company, and the company would be the recipient of the grant. The board does not give grants to individuals.

Mr. Lambie

This is an important point. If Troon Cruising Club were given a guarantee of a long-term lease, for example, over 21 years, the club would qualify for a similar grant from the Scottish Tourist Board. That is what we should like to see. If the club had a long lease of 21 years, it could have a grant and the facilities would be preserved for local people.

Mr. Horam

That is a matter for the Scottish Tourist Board, and my hon. Friend will not expect me to comment on that. It is, first, a matter for the Scottish Tourist Board, and ultimately, I suppose, for the Secretary of State for Scotland in so far as he has any locus in the matter.

On the question of cost, my hon. Friend mentioned a fee of £300 which has apparently been raised by Mr. Knox-Johnston in discussions. The existing equivalent fee is about £10, so there would certainly be a large jump, but I understand that the proposals put forward by Mr. Knox-Johnston and his associates would allow cheaper facilities to be provided at below £300.

Mr. William Ross

What about £40 as against the existing £170?

Mr. Horam

I do not know what price has been suggested. But I do not think that it is necessarily a question of going from £10 to £300. As I said earlier, the question of facilities for the cruising club would be a matter for negotiations between the new lessees and the cruising club, if or when the scheme were put forward. Apart from that, at a later stage, when an application is put forward, as must be done by a developer in the ordinary way, for planning permission and the other clearances necessary for the project to go ahead, that would be a matter in the first instance for the district council, which, I understand, looks reasonably favourably on the scheme. I do not know whether it is accurate, but that is the information which I have. Here again, the question would ultimately be for my hon. Friend the Minister of State, who is present and interested to hear what is said. He would take a view on it if and when it came up. That is not a matter for me.

Since we have almost used our allotted half-hour, I conclude on this note: I think that in principle this scheme, if it can be got right, seems likely to contribute to the area in creating employment in the way I have described. Nevertheless, both my hon. Friend the Minister of State and I are extremely concerned at what has been said by my right hon. and hon. Friends about the way discussions took place or, rather, the lack of discussion. I assure hon. Members that I and the Minister of State, Scottish Office, will look into the lack of discussion and courtesy extended by the British Transport Docks Board. I hope that hon. Members feel that the problem—which is obviously worse than I had anticipated before the debate—has been satisfactorily aired.