HC Deb 20 December 1989 vol 164 cc586-91 7.34 am
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

I am grateful for the opportunity of initiating what must of necessity be a curtailed debate and therefore my remarks will be brief. I know that in some respects the Minister may not be able to answer them as fully as he might wish, because negotiations are currently taking place.

City grant replaces urban development grant and urban regeneration grant. Paragraph 2.8 of the guidance notes published by the Department of the Environment states: Most schemes will use derelict land or empty buildings. Paragraph 2.12 states: By ensuring that derelict land is reused or buildings brought back into use schemes should improve the appearance of a rundown area and help to generate confidence. There is therefore a general concentration of city grant on derelict land improvements.

According to information supplied by the Library, up to 13 June 1989 the largest grant appeared to be in Southwark, at the Alaska works. The grant was for £4.million to Charterhouse Estates Ltd. Currently discussions are taking place about a grant request for about £40 million for what is termed Bradford's west end scheme. Department of the Environment officials, Bradford local authority officials and the developers have been engaged in talks. That was confirmed in a parliamentary answer on 27 June and again on 12 December. The reply stated: Advice given to the developers and local authorities regarding any application for city grant is the standard guidance contained in the city grant guidance notes. For reasons of commercial confidentiality it is not our practice to comment on individual city grant proposals."—[Official Report, 12 December 1989; Vol. 163, c. 543–44.] More information should be available about discussions behind closed doors. Three parties are involved—the Department of the Environment, the local authority and the developers. We should be given information about the essential tenor and nature of those discussions. Between those two parliamentary questions, I suspect that there was a change in the negotiations because originally the main developers were a firm called Arrowcroft, but the current developers are a firm called 3Ds Limited.

I should like £30 million or £40 million extra for Bradford. Indeed, Bradford has asked for almost £30 million for capital expenditure in schools. The announcement yesterday, or today—I am not sure, but I think that in parliamentary terms it is still today—is for only £9.7 million. The Conservative ruling party has said that there is a great need for capital expenditure.

I can tell the Minister what sort of capital expenditure I want. I should like some replacements for the 600 temporary classrooms in Bradford. I have said on many occasions that the Buttershaw first school has had to close temporary classrooms because they were so old and worn out that they were unfit for use. The local authority is providing three new temporary classrooms, but a permanent extension is clearly required—indeed, it has been required for the past 14 years. They are also needed at Wibsey and the Queensbury upper and middle schools.

We are discussing the background of city grant to finance a lavish development scheme, yet, in the 20th century, Bradford is actually building an outside toilet block to service outside classrooms because the permanent school does not have adequate provision.

On the Woodside estate in my constituency—not an inner but an outer-urban area—there is great need for window replacement. The local authority admits that there is no insulation value in the current windows. However, with the present rate of replacement, it will take 15 years to complete that project. Capital is required for private street works. Some of them are mediaeval in character. More than 2,000 private street works are required throughout the metropolitan district, yet no capital is available. There is confirmation of that from the local authority.

City grant is designed to make an area more attractive to residents and businesses. However, in a recent local authority discussion, when Labour councillors tried to ensure that there would be low admission charges so that a wide section of the population both inside and outside Bradford could take advantage of some of the facilities that will be in the development—an electronic zoo and planetarium—the majority party said that the matter had to be left to the developers, and the provision requested was denied.

Bradford college students are protesting that their students' union building, Queens hall, will be closed and turned into an arts centre that will no longer provide the cheap live music facilities currently available to students and well used by them. Of necessity, because it will be a commercial venture, it will become a high-priced, high-admission-charge facility, which will prevent students from making much use of it. Part of the college has been closed because of dry rot.

The local evening paper of Friday 8 December said: The union may be offered another venue"— that is, to replace the Queens hall— if the West End scheme goes ahead, but the students say they want to keep Queens hall as it is. Councillor Dale Smith, Chairman of Bradford council's education committee, has asked for a meeting with council bosses over the plan. Councillor Smith wants to talk to Councillor Ronnie Farley, Chairman of the council's enterprise and environment committee, and council leader councillor Eric Pickles about the plans. He also wants to know what will happen to the Alexandra building, another part of the college, which was closed this year because of dry rot. Councillor Smith, a governor of Bradford and Ilkley college, said: 'I feel I should have been brought into discussion at an earlier stage. I want to know whether the people discussing the West End development with the commercial planners have anything at the back of their minds to deal with the matters the college governors and the education directorate want resolved. My plea for more information about what is happening in the negotiations over city grant seems to be shared by Conservative councillors who are not being informed by other Conservative councillors about the negotiations.

It is a matter of deep regret that this year about £3 million has been diverted from housing and education capital expenditure to buy land to be leased to developers at some future date. I recognise that this a local authority matter, not a matter for the Minister. As I have already said, Bradford is urgently in need of capital expenditure in a number of important areas, including housing and education.

At least £18.5 million of local government money is involved in the west end proposal. The criteria for city grant centre on derelict land. Without question, there is such land in the west end area. I raise the issue of whether derelict land and city grant covers such institutions as the Odeon cinema. It is the last purpose-built cinema in the centre of Bradford. It is to be demolished and yet another shopping centre will be built in its place. It is not just any cinema. It opened in 1930 and had the biggest seating capacity in England, 3,318. It was closed for modernisation in 1968 and reopened in 1969 as the Odeon twin cinema, and it is now a triple cinema. It is a well used community building. There are 7,000 admissions a week to the bingo hall alone.

The much vaunted Alhambra theatre immediately adjacent has 10,000 admissions a week and the local authority recently spent £9 million on renovating it. The Odeon has double that number of admissions. The cinema is highly profitable and at least the number of patrons as go to the bingo hall attend every week.

It is ironic that the proposal for the west end involves demolition of the only purpose-built cinema in Bradford which is in sight of the national museum of photography. The museum is devoted, at least in part, to treasuring objects connected with cinematography as well as with photography.

The city grant discussions will involve the demolition of the successful departmental store which is the flagship headquarters of the Yorkshire co-operative society. The directors want to demolish the present building and relocate 30 yards downhill. That does not seem to be the purpose of city grant. The building has a long connection with the Co-operative movement, which started in Bradford as early as 1860. Two separate Co-ops merged in 1869.

In 1935, the building to which I referred was constructed. It was known as the new co-operative emporium. It has a distinctive design with circular horizontal ribs that have considerable depth on corner pavilions. It is based on designs of Lewis Sullivan of the United States and Eric Mendelsohn of the United Kingdom. The Minister will no doubt be keenly aware the Eric Mendelsohn was an architect who fled from the Nazi purges in pre-war Germany. He developed a style of simple, functional architecture. One of his pavilions can be seen at Bexhill-on-Sea, and it is cherished as a building of important architectural value. Surely city grant was not designed to facilitate the demolition of buildings with such an architectural heritage.

It is important to mention the curiosities attached to the development company that is now undertaking negotiations. The company that started the negotiations was Arrowcroft. It has a good track record, and it converted the Albert dock complex in Liverpool. From subsequent experience, however, I do not believe that the firm is a good landlord. I have no brief from Arrowcroft, but it has an issued capital of £12 million. That means that the company has demonstrated its capability. The local authority, however, has decided that Arrowcroft, which was formally in discussion about city grant, should not be chosen as the developer.

Another firm, 3Ds Limited, has been chosen as the developer. That company does not conjure up a convincing impression in the minds of most people. The company was formed as recently as 1986. On 13 February 1989 there were three directors and a relatively small number of issued shares—88. On 21 August those shares were increased to 97. I do not believe that 97 £1 shares represent the best basis for undertaking a £180 million development.

The allottees of the shares include Mr. B. R. Peace, Mr. P. Malkin and Old Court Limited, PO Box 58, St. Peter Port, Guernsey, Channel Islands. Other shareholders include Michael Thorniley-Walker, Peter Francis Smith and Marguerita Smith. That group do not disclose their address, but they are care of Sugden and Spencer, Arndale house, Charles street, Bradford BD1.

The company does not appear to be satisfactory, nor does it have a well established track record. On 10 July 1989 the company took out a mortgage of £16,006, but in June 1988 the company had lost £4,856. I should be interested to hear the Minister's views on the criteria that he adopts for dealing with companies that are embarking on such huge developments. At a rough guess, the development represents the biggest development of its type undertaken in Bradford. Companies with such relative incorporation, such as 3Ds, must have a large question mark over them.

I ask the Minister to provide more information about the negotiations. If the Minister does not have time to provide all the information now, I trust that he will provide it in answer to future parliamentary questions. There is an unhealthy relationship between the local authority, the Department of the Environment and the developers. They are getting together behind closed doors.

For city grant to be given, certain requirements and criteria must be met. Planning consent must either be given or clearly anticipated before that grant is made. Planning consent is an important process in local authorities' operations. Who will exercise scrutiny? The local authority is in agreement with the Department of the Environment and that Department will not give city grant unless planning approval is given. Giving city grant commits the Department of the Environment, which also has a planning function, to support that venture by virtue of giving a significant sum of money—I am sure that the Minister will accept that the sum is significant.

The planning process is important, as it dictates the shape of buildings, their access to roads and their general position. Within that process, however, the relationship between the local authority, the DOE and the developer is unhealthy. There is little opportunity for scrutiny and checking, as all the bodies involved are, perforce, in agreement and tied together as planning consent is given on the one hand and city grant on the other.

Of necessity, I have had to curtail my remarks. I wanted to point out that, although road works will be necessary for the new west end scheme, there are 200 outstanding road safety schemes urgently required in Bradford, but no capital expenture required. The priorities for Bradford are education, housing and road safety, and they should be considered before embarking on such a grandiose scheme.

The scheme has a number of question marks hanging over it, particularly connected with the Minister's responsibility for city grant. The taxpayer is also involved to a considerable degree. The developers and the Department of the Environment are talking of a figure of about £30 million to £40 million. I should be grateful for the Minister's comments on that.

7.51 am
The Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities (Mr. David Hunt)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) on finding an opportunity at this late hour in the parliamentary day to raise the important subject of city grant. I also thank him for saying that he does not expect a detailed response so that my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) may have a few minutes to speak on the next subject.

City grant is an important way in which central Government can assist private sector capital projects in the inner city. It replaced urban development grant, urban regeneration grant and private sector derelict land grant. Taken together over the years, those programmes have provided about 410 grants worth £253 million. In doing so, private investment of more than £1 billion—£1,060 million —has been committed, providing 45,000 jobs and 11,000 homes.

Following the introduction of city grant in May 1988, the number of applications has more than doubled, to about 120 a year. The level of grant approved has increased from £29 million in 1987-88 to £67 million in 1988–89, and is expected to remain at more than 60 million a year over the next few years. Since the hon. Gentleman got the information from the Library, there have been two further grants larger than the one he mentioned—£.6.2 million in Birmingham Heartlands and £6.3 million in St. Helens. He is right to point out the level of grant now being awarded.

Real progress in our inner cities be made only by means of a close working relationship between central and local government, the private sector, voluntary organisations and local people. In central Government, we are determined to quicken the pace of inner-city regeneration. In the five months since I took over responsibility for inner cities, I have visited many inner-city areas, including Bradford and have been enormously encouraged by what I have seen. There is a spirit of optimism there, accompanied by a real determination by all those involved to see real progress made in the regeneration of our inner-city areas. In Bradford, we are fortunate to have an innovative and forward-looking local authority coming forward with exciting new initiatives.

The Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Eggar), takes responsibility for working closely with, and advising, the city action team and task forces in Bradford and Leeds. We intend to give Mr. Eric Pickles and his council colleagues every possible encouragement in their imaginative plans.

The hon. Member for Bradford, South mentioned proposals to develop the west end area of Bradford city centre. Members of my Department's city grant appraisal team and other Department officials have had discussions with developers and Bradford city council about a possible city grant application to support a major redevelopment project in the city's west end area. The discussions have explored the possibility of a grant application, but as yet there is no application with my Department.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned emotive phrases such as "behind closed doors" and "unhealthy discussions," but it is necessary, for reasons of commercial confidentiality, not to reveal details of discussions with developers or their proposals. As the hon. Gentleman said, however, my Department will decide on an application for city grant only if the local authority has granted planning consent for the development. Listed building and compulsory purchase orders were required and also have to be granted before a decision can be made. Grant applications are not to be accepted for appraisal unless planning consent has already been granted or a date has been fixed for the appropriate council committee to decide, a planning application.

Any objections to proposed grant-aided developments —and any representations, for instance, about the future of Queens hall—have to be taken up with the local authority, because it is the democratically elected body responsible for planning and development control. I will write to the hon. Gentleman about the specific questions he asked about the project and attempt to deal with the points that he raised.

Looking at Bradford today, I am aware of all the different schemes coming forward. All the ingredients for success are present in Bradford—a dynamic and enterprising council determined to provide value for money and improved service, a healthy and strong private sector, good voluntary organisations and, especially, strong and vibrant local communities. It is to those local people that we look to ensure that there is adequate consultation before any of the schemes go ahead, and I shall watch progress with great interest.