HC Deb 26 June 1992 vol 210 cc555-62

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

2.30 pm
Mr. Henry Bellingham (Norfolk, North-West)

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I seek your advice and guidance. I thought that Fridays were days when Back-Bench Members were given a chance to speak. In my judgment, there has been a gross abuse of the House by the occupants of both Front Benches, whose speeches took up two-and-a-quarter hours of debating time. Several Back-Bench Members gave up their Friday and gave up engagements last night—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. When I stand the hon. Member must sit. I had already taken on board the hon. Member's point of order and I have some sympathy with it. He will know that it is not a matter for the Chair. If he is aggrieved, he or any other hon. Member must take up the matter privately with the Front-Bench Members who are concerned. We are taking time from the Adjournment debate, which I am not anxious to do. Ms. Kate Hoey.

2.31 pm
Ms. Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to talk about the future of county hall. I am pleased also that the Minister is replying, because he has taken a great deal of interest in the Waterloo area. He was supportive in his pre-ministerial days of groups such as the Coin Street Community Builders in their efforts to build low-cost housing for rent.

Over recent weeks there has been much rumour and speculation about county hall. There has been a full and informative debate in the other place and an early-day motion signed by more than 150 Members calling on the Government to use their powers to delay the sale of county hall while full and detailed consideration is given to the proposal by the London School of Economics for it to become its home. The 150 signatures include Members from all parties in the House. The future of county hall is no longer a party political issue but one about a future for a great and historic building in London.

I speak on the issue, first and foremost, as the Member whose constituency includes county hall. I see the LSE using the building to be in the best interests of the people in my area, and especially in Waterloo. There is a thriving community in Waterloo, as I and others continue to try to remind people. That community has suffered in many ways from more and more office development.

People living in the area have had their lives disrupted substantially by the channel tunnel works. Only this week the traders, shopkeepers and residents of Lower Marsh market, which lies behind Waterloo station, met representatives of British Rail and its contractors, Bovis, to draw attention to just how much damage is being done to market trade by the temporary closure of access roads and by the levels of dirt and dust. These factors have inevitably put off shoppers from using the market. Lower Marsh market needs county hall to be full of people. It also needs people who will be part of the community, not just people who come to stay for one, two or three days and who spend most of their time taking taxis from county hall to see sights in London.

Along the river by the south bank, we are trying to create an area that can inter-relate with the community rather than be apart from it. To have the London School of Economics, which is part of a university, in county hall would be of enormous value to the area. The LSE, which is internationally famous, would give a huge uplift in status to my borough. There would be many ways in which the expertise of the LSE could be used to help the borough. Already, the LSE has committed itself to appointing a community liaison officer, as a first gesture if the proposal goes through, who would work with the other interests on the south bank and especially with local people. There would be jobs for local people and for many of the borough residents who do not have English as a first language, there would be great opportunities to work with the language unit of the LSE. Those proposals are not just pipe dreams. They are ideas which have already been agreed in the heads of agreement drawn up when Lambeth granted planning permission to the LSE earlier this year. The other advantage is that the LSE has committed itself to allowing London Underground a site on the car park beside county hall to use as a spoil site for the Jubilee line, if it goes ahead, thus saving Jubilee gardens and allowing the marathon to continue to end there.

I was greatly disturbed to read that some people suggest that those of us who support the LSE are in some way anti-Japanese. Those are not my feelings and I do not believe that they are the feelings of anyone involved in support for the LSE. I feel rather sorry for the Japanese developer. He has been slightly misled and when he realises the strength of feeling on the issue, he will look again at his position. He may consider his agent's remarks in London this week to be unwise. The agent publicly accused the LSE of "criminally irresponsible behaviour".

Will the Minister confirm that the LSE is conducting perfectly properly negotiations with the Government under the terms of the contract? Will he confirm that the LSE and his Department's officials are acting properly? It is important for the Government's response to the Japanese developer's agent's remarks to be put clearly on record.

I remind the Minister that the reason why there is no bid from the LSE to consider is that last September, Sir Godfrey Taylor, the head of the London residuary body, categorically told the LSE at a meeting that there were two criteria for the sale of county hall. The first was that the site must be sold as a whole and the second was that it could be sold only with planning permission. Neither criterion is met by the Japanese developer. The site has not been sold as a whole; we are told that the Japanese have bought only the riverside site. The Japanese have not got planning permission for the development that they want. Will the Minister confirm that the Shirayama bid meets neither criterion, because the Japanese have bought only the riverside site and have not received planning permission for the development?

Clearly, the LSE wants to work out a bid. However, it is difficult to come up with a bid if one is not given access to the building. The London residuary body has, throughout this protracted saga, been reluctant to allow anyone access to county hall. I was given permission after much effort and many requests. In fact, there is not a great deal to see if one has been inside the building, as I have—but if the LSE is to devise a plan, its representatives need more than a five-minute walk round the building.

The LSE needs to know also the size of the Japanese bid. If Shirayama is to be given until October 1993 to complete its bid, surely the LSE can be given even a few weeks. It needs also to undertake a structural survey. The LRB is probably in possession of seven or eight structural surveys paid for with public money. I do not understand why a public institution such as the LSE should not be given access to any information that the board has about the state of county hall. Will the Minister undertake to allow the LRB to pass copies of its structural surveys to the LSE? If not, why not?

Will the Minister give an assurance that if Mr. Shirayama wants to get out of his contract, he will be allowed to do so? The contract's opt-out clause applies only to the Government. I understand that the Shirayama bid has created a lot of interest in Japan, where many are asking why a Japanese company wants to buy county hall and turn it into a hotel when the people of London would prefer it to be occupied by an institution such as the LSE.

I do not suggest that the Minister could be bullied by anyone, but will he ensure that the Secretary of State for the Environment will not be bullied by Sir Godfrey into concluding a deal very quickly? No deal should be struck until the LSE bid has been properly considered.

The Government must reach a decision soon. We cannot allow speculation and rumour-mongering to continue. Will the Minister give a categorical assurance that the issue will come back to the Floor of the House for discussion, and not just be dealt with in the form of a written answer? There has been a debate in the other place as well as this Adjournment debate and, in view of that huge amount of interest, I hope that the Minister will undertake to make a statement at the appropriate time, and to allow further debate.

Does the Minister acknowledge that the LSE wants to move to county hall without having recourse to public funds? It has made its own plans, and must be given the opportunity to come up with ideas. The Minister can help by acknowledging, if other members of the Government will not, that the LSE does not want to have recourse to public funds.

Although this is a constituency matter, it is also of Londonwide and national interest. To allow an institution such as the London School of Economics, which is known world wide, to occupy county hall would do a great deal of good to my area, London and the country. Given the number of other public assets that the Government have sold at less than their full commercial value, I cannot understand their objection in this instance. Of course, we cannot simply give the building away, but county hall was built with public money for public use, and there would be widespread support if the Minister said that the Government would fully consider the LSE bid.

I hope that by the time the LSE celebrates its 100th anniversary, in two or three years' time, it will do so in my constituency on the south bank opposite the House of Commons.

2.45 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Robin Squire)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Ms. Hoey) both on obtaining a debate on this subject at such an opportune time and on the way in which she made her speech, and I thank her for her kind personal comments—if this continues, one or both of us may be in trouble with our party authorities.

I fully appreciate that hon. Members on both sides of the House will share the concern that the hon. Lady has expressed about the future of this fine building. I can assure them that my colleagues in the Government and I are equally committed to ensuring that such a prominent landmark on the London scene—and one so readily visible from the House—receives the full measure of protection which it deserves and needs to preserve its historic qualities. I have been active long enough in the political life of London to know the respect and affection in which county hall is held by Londoners—in that respect, I distinguish the building from some of the people who have occupied it in recent years. It is essential, therefore, that the decision taken about its future should be the right one in the interests of Londoners and of the country as a whole.

I must first remind the House of the legal position. The responsibility for disposing of county hall was assigned by the Local Government Act 1985 to the London residuary body. That body has done yeoman service for the citizens of London in discharging its function of disposing of land and property formerly owned by the Greater London council. Since 1986 it has distributed about £520 million in capital receipts to the London boroughs, to the general benefit of ratepayers and charge payers.

In carrying out that task, the residuary body was subject to clear statutory obligations—the same as those that are binding on all local authorities under the terms of the Local Government Act 1972. They prohibit the residuary body from disposing of land for any consideration less than the best that can reasonably be obtained for it in the interests—

Ms. Hoey


Mr. Squire

I believe that I shall reach the point that the hon. Lady wishes to make. If I do not, I shall try to give way in time—but I believe that I can anticipate what she wants to say.

The residuary body cannot dispose of land for any consideration less than the best that can reasonably be obtained for it in the interests of local charge payers in London. If the body wished to dispose of it for any lesser consideration it would first have to obtain the specific consent of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State—although I understand that he has no power to direct the body in that way.

Reference has been made outside the House to two cases in which the residuary body has disposed of areas of the south bank to the south bank board for a nominal price, and it has been suggested that those cases should provide a precedent for the treatment of county hall. But those cases are quite different. In both of them the residuary body was careful to fulfil its statutory responsibilities. The first relates to an area of gardens which the South Bank Board has been managing for some time. The land is subject to agreements which prevent it from being used for any other purpose, and the residuary body took the view that disposal for a nominal sum was the most effective way of ensuring the continued maintenance of these gardens in the public interest.

In the second case there is development and the residuary body has therefore taken action to protect the interests of local charge payers in London by inserting a claw-back agreement which will ensure that they receive a proper return from the proceeds of such development.

Against that background, and with those clear statutory obligations in mind, the residuary body entered into agreement with the Shirayama company in March this year. Some recent press reports have been taken as suggesting that Shirayama has withdrawn or expressed a wish to withdraw from that agreement. I can assure the House that there is no truth in that, and that the reports were false.

The agreement relates to the riverside building—which is, as the hon. Lady said, the handsome building facing us immediately across the river, which everyone thinks of as county hall—but not to the other buildings which form part of the county hall site. It provides for the sale of the riverside building to be completed in October next year. It also provides a power for the residuary body—but not Shirayama—to withdraw from the agreement at any time up to the end of this year, in return for the payment of a modest sum by way of compensation.

There is no doubt that the agreement would provide a major and worthwhile focus for the development of the south bank. A new hotel of international reputation with associated conference centre would do much to bring new life and new jobs to an area of London which stands to benefit from them greatly. It would also be a significant attraction to visitors from overseas. It was a major concern of my right hon. Friend, the previous Secretary of State—now the President of the Board of Trade—when he considered the planning application, that the architectural features of the riverside building, including the former council chamber, should be fully respected.

The hon. Lady referred to planning permission. I am advised that Shirayama proposes to implement the planning permission granted by my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State. If the company wishes to develop the site in a different way, it might need further planning permission. Should that question arise, it would be a matter for Shirayama and the local planning authority to consider.

Ms. Hoey

I understand that the planning permission granted for the building to the previous developers who went bust was for the whole site.

Mr. Squire

Beyond repeating, which would be boring, precisely what I have just said, can I undertake to consider the hon. Lady's comment? If it raises a separate issue, I shall write to her after the debate.

Sir Rhodes Boyson (Brent, North)

This is an issue of great importance to the educational status of this country and to London. There will be a short-term gain, if I may put it that way, if there is a hotel development—though there are plenty of empty hotel rooms all over London—compared with the long-term gain that could be achieved. Sixty per cent. of LSE postgraduates come from overseas and that number is to be doubled. When those postgraduates return home they become leaders of business and Prime Ministers. I believe that at one time one third of the Prime Ministers in the Commonwealth had been to the LSE. Do we intend to forfeit a long-term gain for a short-term gain? I should like the Minister to take up that point, not necessarily now but before he reaches the right decision in the next week or two.

Mr. Squire

My right hon. Friend draws on his great experience in order to put a question in a seemingly unanswerable way. My response to him is that the international reputation of the LSE, which I readily confirm, may in the ultimate not necessarily depend on the precise location in London where it carries on its undoubtedly esteemed educational activities.

I feel sure that I shall be supported by all sections of the House when I make it clear, as did the hon. Member for Vauxhall, that there can be absolutely no question of any doubts arising because Shirayama is a Japanese company. This country welcomes, and will always welcome, support from Japanese investment. We do so because we know from experience that we can look to it for sound business sense, reliability and effective and creative management.

We have heard a great deal about the alternative proposals being developed by the London School of Economics. I know that the hon. Lady is by no means alone in finding them attractive. On the contrary, the ready availability of support in all parts of the House—echoed not a moment ago by my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson)—is displayed by the signatures on early-day motion 259, to which the hon. Lady referred.

These proposals raise a number of complex issues that will need careful consideration in the light of overall priorities. Not least of these is the statutory duty that the residuary body has to the London boroughs and their local taxpayers.

In that context, it seemed clear—at least until recently—that it was unlikely that the LSE, with the resources available to it, including those that might be raised by the sale of its existing premises in Houghton street, would be in a position to match the price that could be obtained for the county hall site as a whole by disposing of it through other channels. It must also be remembered that the agreement with Shirayama relates only to the riverside building. I confirm the hon. Lady's point in that respect.

There have been suggestions in the press recently that the LSE might be able to improve on its earlier proposals, in association with other interests. All that I shall say is that if there is indeed any possibility of such a development, clear proposals should be put to the residuary body as soon as possible. I can confirm that the LSE has discussed its proposals with officials in my Department, but it is also true that, as yet, the LSE has not put any firm proposals to the residuary body which, in law, is responsible for disposing of the site. It has been suggested, and it was repeated by the hon. Lady today, that the LSE cannot do that unless it is granted access to the building. My understanding is that it has had access to relevant documents and that, until Shirayama entered into its agreement in March, it would have had the same facilities for preparing a bid as any other potential developer. As Shirayama has entered into an agreement and is carrying out preliminary work in the riverside building, the question of access for the LSE or other bidders would raise much more difficult issues.

My Government colleagues and I sympathise readily with the understandable concern that has been expressed by the Shirayama company about the uncertainties arising as a consequence of the proposals being put forward by the LSE. We recognise the need for early resolution of the issue. I assure the House that it is our intention that it should be reached as soon as possible.

The hon. Lady asked me, understandably, to give an undertaking today about the form in which that decision will be announced. I cannot give that undertaking, because the decision does not lie with me. I assure her that I will take her strongly expressed views into account when that aspect of the decision is discussed.

We are determined, however, that the decision should be the right one in the interests of Londoners and of the country as a whole. I have not answered the individual questions that the hon. Lady put to me. She will understand that that would not have been possible in every case. I undertake to try to deal with them in a letter to her as soon as possible.

Ms. Hoey

I thank the Minister for his response and appreciate that he is in a slightly difficult position. I imagine that the decision will be made at the very top echelons of the Government, but will he confirm again that he will try to arrange a full debate and, more important, that although we want an early decision, it will not be taken until the London School of Economics has been given some time—even a month—to devise a proposal that can be put to the Minister and to the London residuary body? The Minister or his officials must tell Sir Godfrey Taylor that he must co-operate with the London School of Economics. There must be a way of getting around the legal aspects of gaining access; it just seems a nonsense.

Mr. Squire

I am grateful for the hon. Lady's further comments. On the first part of her intervention, I can only repeat what I said—that I recognise that it is an important issue and I shall ensure that the way in which the forthcoming decision is communicated is treated as a serious issue in its own right.

On the wider issues, I emphasise that we are discussing an underlying legally binding contract. She will understand that that imposes on those who sign it—the London residuary body and Shirayama—certain rights and responsibilities that it would be imprudent of me to seek to set aside today. Any discussions and decisions that the Government take must be in that light.

I think that I have dealt with the questions asked by the hon. Lady and I join her in looking forward to an early decision.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Three o'clock.