HC Deb 25 March 1986 vol 94 cc922-8

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

1.9 am

Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West)

I feel sure that the House will need little by way of a reminder that this debate takes place about events in a hard-pressed constituency, Monklands West, which had had more than its fair share of unemployment, deprivation and disappointment, most notably and recently with the closure of Gartcosh steelworks, which is due to be completed at the end of this week.

Many in Scotland had hoped that the new Secretary of State's "new broom" would have prevented the kind of insensitivity to which I want to refer, and I have certainly drawn these matters to the right hon. Gentleman's attention. I take this opportunity to thank the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart), for his interest in these matters.

I have to say that my constituents are not impressed with Government promises of jobs in high technology, which represent a small number of jobs in real terms, when here we have a specific Government commitment, given to me by the Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment seemingly being reneged upon in circumstances which, I have to tell the House, represent, unless the Minister is prepared to correct that tonight, not just a local disappointment but, frankly a national disgrace.

This debate is about a number of widely shared concerns. It is about the need for new office accommodation for the Department of Employment and the Department of Health and Social Security in Coatbridge, which the Minister long ago conceded are considerably overdue. It is about substantial public money which has already been spent in preparing the south circular road site—some estimate that that would be in the region of £600,000—and the profoundly serious questions which I put to the Minister.

How much will postponement—if that is what it is—cost the taxpayer? Even if the project does go ahead in May of this year is not it costing £450 a day, plus interest, between now and then—so why the delay? Worse still, can we be sure that the whole investment in this excercise has not been thrown away? Will the Minister assure us that it is a postponement and not a cancellation?

The most telling question of all, which my constituents are asking, is why, after the Minister gave a very firm assurance in writing to me, in December 1984 that despite the tightness of funds he had authorised PSA to enter into a commitment for construction of new offices for DE and DHSS at the South Circular Road site which he said his Department would purchase on completion in 1986–87 there is now considerable doubt about that very firm commitment?

Where has the money gone? What did the Minister do—the House will expect him to accept his responsibilities—to monitor expenditure by the Property Service Agency to ensure that his promises, his objectives, and his commitments to an hon. Member are carried out?

I place on record the Minister's letter to me, dated 14 December 1984, when he wrote:

The delay over several years in providing a new office at Coatbridge for DE and DHSS has been a result of other pressures on the Property Services Agency's Office and General Accommodation programme. These pressures will continue in the foreseeable future, but the deterioration in the condition of the existing accommodation is I know becoming very severe—and I recognise also that a decision now to relocate both Departments to the South Circular Road site could make a valuable contribution to the redevelopment of the area. As the Minister also responsible for the inner cities, I believe it vital that Departments including PSA should bear in mind the importance of urban regeneration when determining their own programmes. I am pleased therefore to confirm that, despite the tightness of funds, I have now authorised PSA to enter into a commitment for construction of new offices for DE and DHSS at the South Circular Road site which we will purchase on completion in 1986/87. I am copying this letter to Tom King, Norman Fowler and also George Younger". I re-visited the existing offices just last week. What I found was most disturbing, for despite the very able management of Derek Marshall in DHSS and Pauline McMullen in DE and the vigilance of CPSA members whom I also met, the circumstances were quite unacceptable. Both buildings were constructed in the 19th century and have seen very little repairs or maintenance since then. At the DHSS I saw dampness, cracks in the ceiling, woodworm and, most unacceptable of all, members of the public huddled together in a little room and able to hear private matters discussed about other peoples' problems. The DE offers no more improvement and indeed there was also evidence of vermin infestation. All this in 1986, and to ask civil servants to stop their work to slop out water which has seeped into the building is simply ridiculous.

But the Minister need not take my word only for it. As far back as 6 August 1984—repeat 1984—Mr. M. Rowe, the Benefit Manager of Scotland, wrote to Mr. M.J. Mannings of the Property Services Agency saying this:

More than a year ago you described the Coatbridge UBO as 'shockingly indequate' … At that time funds were available for a start in the 1984/85 financial year but a large part of this year's allocation was diverted to another project primarily, as I understand it, because there seemed to be little prospect of early progress in Coatbridge. Against that background I am shocked by the implication in your letter that the lack of those funds may now delay the Coatbridge development. The Coatbridge UBO has inevitably deteriorated since you expressed your concern early last year, and it can only deteriorate further. I am no expert but I would not expect the building to be capable of housing our operation through many more winters. The House will understand my feelings when on 5 March 1986 I received a letter from the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, who said:

As you know, I undertook in 1984 that PSA would purchase from the developer a new building on its completion. At that time the building was expected to cost £1.7 million and to be purchased, on its completion, in the financial year 1986–87. Since then several things have happened to put my promise in jeopardy. The cost has gone up to £2.275 million; the date when funds are needed has slipped back to 1987–88; and the PSA has insufficient money in that year to meet expenditure on Coatbridge. It was because I could not allow a contractual commitment to be entered into without funds being earmarked that I had to hold the project up at the last minute. I realise how disappointing this is for all concerned; and I can assure you that I am actively pursuing a solution with my ministerial colleagues in the hope that a new building can go ahead shortly. But at this point, I can do no more than promise to search for funds. This setback to all our hopes and the doubts which have arisen have come as a shock and disappointment to everyone who has been involved in preparations for this project, including Monklands district council, whose Director of Planning, Mr. Andrew Cowe, wrote to me a few days ago, and the Scottish Development Agency, whose input in preparing the site has been massive. And I have to say in all candour that the personnel of the PSA in Glasgow, who have been involved in these preparations, have every reason to feel greatly disheartened because of recent decisions.

Perhaps the strong feelings which have been expressed to me by my constituents and others is best summarised in a letter which I received on 14 February 1986 from the project consultants Males and McDonald of Edinburgh. They said:

In all good faith we have actively pursued this matter at the behest of the PSA's Glasgow office and we have now successfully obtained their agreement that the proposed building complies entirely with their strict guidelines for a development of this nature. Both the DHSS and DE Departments have formally approved the internal layout of the building and further, at the request of the PSA, full detailed planning permission and the necessary building warrant for phase 1 of the development have been obtained from Monklands District Council. A start on site by the nominated contractor was scheduled for 1 March with a completion date within a period of 12 months and this is following a considerable outlay by the SDA in the form of ground consolidation works. It was, therefore, altogether astonishing to both ourselves and the PSA's Glasgow Office to hear ten days ago that funds for the project were not now forthcoming from London, when we had already been given the go ahead. In fact, at a meeting in the PSA's office in Glasgow on Monday 3 February, details of the proposed press release and media coverage were discussed. In view of rumours which came to me in Whitehall, I must also place on record, extracts from a further letter from Mr. Ian McDonald of Males and McDonald to me dated 28 February 1986. He said:

You did mention that there had been some suggestion that, for our part, we may have been tardy in fitting in with the PSA's timetable for this requirement. I find this most surprising, bearing in mind the way we, and all of our Professional Team, have been closely liaising with the PSA throughout the pre-contract stages of this project. The first point to make, therefore, is that there was a considerable amount of time and effort involved in consultations with the PSA before finally agreeing the exact size and internal layout of the building. Once this had been established, a full detailed planning application had to be submitted and I feel sure that both Mr. Andy Cowe, Director of Planning, and Mr. Jack Lyall, Principal Planning Officer, will confirm that this was not a straightforward application. It should also be pointed out that at the outset, it was made clear to us that the PSA were working to a very tight budget and it was therefore of paramount importance to achieve savings wherever possible. This I am pleased to say we have been able to do, details of which have been fully reported in our last offer dated 9 December 1985. These costs would, of course, escalate owing to the present delay. For our part, therefore, it can be demonstrated that we have performed to the timescale and remit as laid down by the PSA. The Building Contract can be commenced immediately and the building ready for occupation within the time allowed". So we had the situation in which the need for these offices had been well established, previous disappointments had been set aside, and everyone concerned—the SDA, Monklands district council, PSA in Scotland, MSC, the Department of the Environment, the DHSS and the project consultants, Males and McDonald—were all confidently preparing themselves for the contractor to start on site on 1 March 1986, when the bombshell came. What an insensitive bombshell it turned out to be, in an area where male unemployment stands at over 22 per cent. These offices serve the village of Gartcosh where male unemployment is over 30 per cent.

The amount of co-operation PSA has received has been colossal, as one would have expected in a constituency like mine, which the Minister described as having problems similar to the inner cities. The local planning authority, Monklands district council, altered the lines of the new post office to fit in with DHSS plans, put in new roads, introduced compulsory purchase orders on old buildings near the site, and altered the main sewer. It was in no doubt—as was the SDA, which cleared the site and is preparing to purchase it from Monklands district council—that enormous public money was spent for the sole purpose of obtaining these new offices.

Even British Telecom fitted in with the PSA's proposals, and that was no easy task, given that the new building had to be constructed around 9,000 telephone lines serviced by BTs local exchange.

It is clear that everyone in my constituency, and indeed in Scotland, who knew anything about this project did his or her utmost to see it completed—and urgently. Nobody, but nobody stood in its way. Unless the Parliamentary Secretary sets things right tonight they have been rewarded by a kick in the teeth. "Caring capitalism" I am afraid, seems to have no place in Coatbridge. Until tonight, some anonymous official in Whitehall has dashed the hopes of my constituents with a stroke of the pen. We are expected to take all this on top of the industrial havoc which has been heaped upon us—once great industries have disappeared out of sight, we have seen coal and steel decimated culminating in the closures of Bedley and Cardowan, and Gartcosh itself encapsulated the blows that our people have had to endure. To abandon or even postpone the Minister's commitment to me is to add insult to injury. It is too much to ask, far too much to ask. I invite the hon. Gentleman to use the opportunity afforded by this debate to set this matter right—and soon.

1.25 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir George Young)

The hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) has explained to the House, with restraint, the disappointment he feels—which I know is shared by his constituents and the staff at the offices concerned—at the decision of my Department not to proceed, for the time being, with the new development he described. At the outset he asked whether we were talking of cancellation. That is not the case. We have not cancelled the project. As I explained in my letter of 5 March, we hope to proceed when we have found the necessary resources. I can confirm that within Whitehall we are actively pursuing the possibility of a solution. It is still our intention that the new building should go ahead as soon as possible.

It might be helpful if I remind the House of the background to the problem that the hon. Gentleman has brought to the attention of the House. He has explained why he feels that it is imperative that the present buildings should be replaced. The office of the Department of Employment, some 7,200 sq ft, is situated at Main street. The Department of Health and Social Security has two offices, each of approximately 6,000 sq ft, at Bank street and Muiryhall street. Those three properties are Crown owned.

I readily acknowledge that the DHSS occupied property at Bank street is far from ideal. Even if it were not overcrowded it would benefit from major maintenance. The property occupied by the Department of Employment was built in 1927 not quiet Victorian but very old. The galvanised roof is in need of replacement, and maintenance work has been concentrated on the interior of the building on the assumption that new accommodation was being planned. The DHSS office at Muiryhall will be used eventually to accommodate another Government Department and is in a tolerable condition.

The House will know that responsibility for provision of Government offices rests with my Department. For many years, it has been the intention of the Property Services Agency—and indeed of its predecessor body—to rehouse the DHSS and Department of Employment offices in Coatbridge. Unfortunately, there have never been sufficient funds to meet every priority demand, and the hon. Member might acknowledge that, even when his own party was in power, it did not find the means to build new offices for this purpose.

The Property Services Agency normally provides office accommodation for Government Departments either by Crown building or by leasing property on the open market. Unfortunately, no suitable leasehold property has been available at Coatbridge, or shows any prospect of coming on to the market. For that reason we had to consider a Crown building, but lack of funds to finance it and a number of other problems have meant that this job has had to be deferred much longer than anyone would have wished.

In 1984 Monklands district council, which owns the South Circular road site, agreed that it would sell the site to the Scottish Development Agency if its development plans went ahead. This site, although satisfactory in many respects, proved to be undermined and the Scottish Development Agency therefore spent substantial sums on site consolidation works in preparation for a new building.

I understand that the Monklands district council had engaged Males and McDonald as its developer for this part of the town, and local discussions involving the PSA, the Scottish Development Agency and Males and McDonald identified this site as a suitable location for a new building of some 33,000 sq ft to accommodate the Department of Employment and the DHSS, and bring them under one roof. The proposal was that the SDA would sell part of the site to the developer who would put up a building to the specification of the PSA, and would sell it on completion to form part of the Crown Estate.

The developer envisaged construction beginning in 1985, and being completed in 1986, thus bringing to an end a long period of unsatisfactory working conditions.

The hon. Gentleman has drawn attention to the letter I wrote to him in December 1984, and has understandably sought assurances that the plans for the new accommodation for the Department of Employment and the DHSS in Coatbridge will go ahead. When I wrote to him in December 1984, the total estimated cost of the scheme was £1.84 million. That amount would have been needed on completion of construction, in the financial year 1986–87. At that time, I had reason to believe that, despite the tightness of funds for the office accommodation programme, money would indeed by available for the Coatbridge project. In good faith, I said that the Property Services Agency would purchase the building on its completion in 1986–87.

Since I wrote in 1984, however, there have been changes in the circumstances surrounding the project. First, partly on account of planning difficulties, the project has slipped back, and payment consequently would not be required until 1987–88. Secondly, the estimated cost has gone up by £435,000. This is an increase of nearly 25 per cent. between December 1984 and March 1986. Thirdly, there has been very severe pressure on Government funds for 1987–88 onwards. I should like to explain these reasons in more detail. First, the delay.

Mr. Clarke


Sir George Young

I will gladly give way when I have dealt with those three points. The original design was for a two-storey building, but during consultation about the development of the plans it was found that a three-storey building would better suit the needs of the DHSS; and so a three-storey design was substituted. Secondly, Monklands district council required specific external treatment for the new building and the developer's plans were adapted to take account of that requirement. These and other factors combined to delay the potential construction start date to March 1986.

Changes in the size of the building from the original concept, the extra expense of external treatment to meet the council's requirements and inflation between December 1984 and the present time all have combined to push up the estimated cost.

Mr. Clarke

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for confirming that the cost rose because when a two-storey becomes a three-storey building the cost will inevitably be greater.

Will the hon. Gentleman explain, however, what later happened to the money if it had been found by the time of his letter of December 1984?

Sir George Young

The resources were available in that financial year, but we are talking about finding the resources in a different financial year. In the meantime, pressure on my Department's funds has increased and we simply cannot carry on from one year to another commitments that have not been discharged. Because of the pressure on funds for the forthcoming year we cannot put the project in the programme. Because the resources were not available, I was unable to commit my Department to proceed.

The House will know about the pressure on public expenditure in the years ahead. The public expenditure programme follows an annual cycle. The size and nature of commitments in the office and general accommodation programme for 1987–88 and the years beyond are currently being considered and decisions will be reached later this year.

Inevitably, there are more demands on the programme than can be met, and the Property Services Agency must be guided in part by the views of other departments as to their operational priorities throughout the United Kingdom in deciding where funds should be placed. It was because of the doubt about funding that I was forced to hold up any contractual commitment to Coatbridge when I learnt about the slippage in time. Until I have had an opportunity to look at the whole programme for 1987–88, I cannot make any firm commitments.

I am fully conscious, however, that the working conditions for the staff of the DHSS and DE, and more particularly the waiting accommodation for the public who use these offices, are far from satisfactory. I can assure the House that I am exploring with my ministerial colleagues in the Departments concerned how best to improve matters. Ideally, I am looking for a long-term solution which will provide adequate conditions in Coatbridge for many years ahead; but I do not ignore short-term improvements if these can alleviate the situation.

The exact nature of any long-term solution must depend on having funds available, but there are various ways of providing the money and I am now considering and exploring these in some detail.

I welcome this opportunity to explain the position regarding the new accommodation at Coatbridge for the two Government Departments. Unavoidable delays—which I have outlined—increases in cost and shortage of funds in the year concerned have all contributed to the change in circumstances since I wrote to the hon. Member in December 1984. However, I assure him that I am fully conscious of the need to improve working conditions in Coatbridge and that I am actively pursuing with my colleagues ways of achieving this as soon as is practicable.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to Two o' clock.