HC Deb 09 May 1996 vol 277 cc456-62
Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich)

I beg to move amendment No. 83, in page 22, line 43, at beginning insert `Where he is satisfied that the objectives set out in paragraphs (a) to (c) of subsection (2) of this section are met,'.

The Chairman

With this, it will be convenient to discuss Government new clause 4—Grants for preservation of Royal Naval College site.

Mr. Raynsford

Clause 27 governs the use of the site currently occupied by the royal naval college in Greenwich. As hon. Members know, the subject has been raised in the House on several occasions during the past year or so.

Last summer, the Government decided to put this magnificent complex of buildings on the market following their decision to close the college. The subsequent appearance of some of the country's finest architectural masterpieces in the pages of an estate agent's catalogue rightly provoked a national outcry. It says a great deal for the curious values of the present Government that they could ever have felt it appropriate to flog off such an important part of our national heritage in that way. Fortunately, common sense has finally prevailed: even the Secretary of State for Defence now seems to recognise that this was a privatisation too far. For that reason, we are now considering a clause that has undergone a substantial transformation since it was first debated on Second Reading in December.

That transformation owes a great deal to two main influences. First, there was the weight of public opinion in Greenwich and throughout the country—public opinion that was outraged at the Government's treatment of some of our country's finest buildings, and the risk of their falling into unsuitable hands. Secondly, there was the timely intervention of members of the Select Committee, who visited Greenwich not just once but twice to look around the college complex and take evidence on site. As the Committee's report makes clear, they were convinced that the Bill as originally drafted failed to provide adequate guarantees as to the future occupancy or uses of the site.

The Bill has now been amended. Clause 27(2) requires the Secretary of State to have regard to three main concerns. First, he must have regard to the importance of preserving for the benefit of the nation the historic buildings and monuments on the site, and of maintaining its "architectural integrity". Secondly, he must have regard to the desirability of securing reasonable public access". Thirdly, he must have regard to the desirability of preventing any use that is "out of keeping" with the "unique character and history" of the site.

So far so good. Those are important safeguards that were not previously in the Bill, and they represent a major step forward as well as a triumph for common sense. Clause 27(3), however, remains unaltered. It allows the Secretary of State to grant a lease on any or all the Greenwich buildings for a period of up to 150 years to any person whom he considers suitable. There is no link between the provisions in subsection (3)—which, in effect, prompted the public outcry—and the new subsection that introduces the safeguards to which I referred.

The purpose of my amendment is simple—to establish a clear link between the Secretary of State's obligation to have regard to those wider national and heritage issues and interests, and his power to grant a lease. The amendment makes it a precondition of the grant of any lease for the Secretary of State to be satisfied that the objectives set out in subsection (2) have been met. It means that, before granting a lease, he will have to be convinced that the outcome will be the preservation of the historic buildings and architectural integrity of the site, the maintenance of reasonable public access and the prevention of any inappropriate use.

I hope that the Government will accept the amendment. It is clearly in keeping with their own current intentions, now that they have backed away from their ill-conceived attempt to dispose of the buildings on the open market. Subsection (2) is a clear reflection of their admission that the previous approach was wrong, and that there must now be explicit safeguards in the Bill to protect this incomparable site.

While we hear the assurances that the Government have been giving, Ministers cannot be surprised if we remain a little sceptical, given their previous record. We welcome the inclusion of subsection (2), but many hon. Members will want to be absolutely sure that the criteria spelled out in that subsection are effective. That is the purpose of the amendment. Without it, there can be no absolute guarantee that, having had regard to those criteria, the current Secretary of State—or, indeed, any future Secretary of State—will not subsequently offer the buildings on a 150-year lease to an organisation that does not entirely satisfy the objectives set out in subsection (2).

I am not saying that that is what the Government currently intend to do. I understand that negotiations are proceeding with the university of Greenwich and the national maritime museum, both of which are widely recognised as appropriate and suitable users of the site. I hope that those negotiations bear fruit. Having said that, I must add that we are considering legislation that could remain on the statute book for 100 year or more. The legislation that the Bill replaces dates back to 1869, and what we are considering this afternoon could well remain in force for a similar or longer period.

We cannot anticipate the circumstances that may arise at a future date, when the national maritime museum or, indeed, the university of Greenwich may have moved to pastures new. In such circumstances, without the link that my amendment seeks to introduce, it would still be open to a future Secretary of State to grant a lease to another organisation that did not entirely satisfy the criteria in subsection (2).

In that event, the Secretary of State could plead that, having had regard to the criteria, he had nevertheless concluded that the lease that he proposed to grant was the best that he could envisage in the circumstances, even if it did not satisfy those criteria. Future generations will not thank us if we leave any opportunity open for such an outcome, which could involve these magnificent buildings passing into hands that are not appropriate or suitable.

The experience of the past few months should surely have taught the Government a salutary lesson—that we cannot and must not allow the possibility of some of our country's most magnificent buildings ever again to be offered for sale in an estate agent's catalogue.

Considerable progress has been made since the firm of Knight, Frank and Rutley advertised the Royal Naval college in its glossy brochure last autumn. Not only have the Government been chastened by the experience, but the estate agents have not emerged unscathed. Mr. Rutley appears to have been a casualty of the engagement. Our responsibility is to make sure that the legislation is watertight and that the safeguards will bite to prevent any possible repeat of that demeaning and deplorable episode. My amendment provides the necessary safeguard, and I trust that the Committee will accept it.

6 pm

Mr. Key

The Select Committee on Defence looked at this matter in great detail, and when we visited Greenwich we were convinced that we should press the Ministry of Defence. I understand the hon. Gentleman's cause and I appreciate the way that he has put it, but I am convinced that his amendment is unnecessary. The Government amendments went considerably further than I and other members of the Select Committee had hoped for in our wildest dreams. It was good to see the Government responding so swiftly.

The hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) went rather over the top, because the college was never offered for sale: it was a lease that was on offer. That matters, and I do not want the hon. Gentleman to get away with promoting the idea that the Government ever sought to sell the freehold of those buildings. I had some responsibility for our heritage while I was in the Department of National Heritage, and from my experience I can say that the solution is good. I am confident and the people of Greenwich can be confident about that.

I pay tribute to the Minister and to the Secretary of State for Defence who took a great personal interest in this matter. Of course lessons have been learnt: the Minister said that in Committee. I hope that we can put this episode behind us and move forward to ensure that a proper and fitting use is found for those wonderful world heritage site buildings.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

I support the amendment. The hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) has campaigned to preserve the royal naval college and related buildings for the nation, and deserves to be widely applauded in Parliament, in London and throughout the country. The royal naval college is an incomparable part of our nation's maritime history and naval traditions, and I am pleased at the drafting of clause 27. However, the strict stipulations that the amendment seeks to introduce are necessary and wise. Clause 27(3) states: It shall be lawful for the Secretary of State to grant a lease of any of the land to which this section applies, with its appurtenances, to any person appearing to him to be suitable for a term not exceeding 150 years. Potentially, that is a long term and "appearing … to be suitable" is not the kind of strictly defined criterion that should be demanded for the preservation of the nation's maritime history or of buildings of this kind.

I welcome the interesting new clause, in that it makes possible the granting of moneys from Parliament for the repair and maintenance of the land and buildings on the royal naval college site. I hope that that will make it possible for an appropriate educational function to be fulfilled. My desire has always been for a tri-service cadet college at Greenwich in that fine historic setting. There is an educational tradition at the college, first, as a staff college for the Royal Navy and then as a successor to the former joint services staff college at Latimer.

Many of us had hoped that it would be the new tri-service staff college but that opportunity was not taken. I earnestly request the Ministry of Defence to look at the possibility of establishing such an officer cadet college, perhaps in combination with the university of Greenwich, so that the Bill's ethos of ensuring that our armed forces maintain the best standards of discipline and respect for the traditions of the services can be maintained. We should also seek to provide education in the newest technologies, sciences and engineering that are required for a career in the profession of arms in all three services. That should be provided within a fine, historic, maritime setting as befits an island nation with so many naval traditions.

The late Sir Winston Churchill said that we make buildings but that they make us. To inculcate those qualities in officer cadets who will form the backbone of their respective services and who will go from Greenwich to professional training at Cranwell, Sandhurst or Dartmouth is laudable, and it is made possible by the new clause. Nevertheless, I urge the Minister, with his characteristic magnanimity and generosity, to accept the entirely sensible amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Greenwich who has campaigned so long and hard and so effectively for the preservation of the royal naval college, Greenwich.

Dr. Reid

I should like to raise two matters. First, the Government have nearly got it right, and they have done so by that most unusual of expedients in the Ministry of Defence—consulting and listening to people. That process has extended to the Armed Forces Bill and threatens to overcome the Ministry of Defence, a Department that I have never seen as being in the vanguard of open government. The Minister has taken to it with the zeal of a convert, and long may it continue.

Secondly, the achievement of the safeguards that are required to preserve the Royal Naval college for the nation is much to the credit of all parties, many hon. Members, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford). It would be the icing on the cake if, as hon. Members have said, the Minister accepted the amendment or gave assurances that substantially give effect to its spirit, because that would save a Division.

The criteria to which the Secretary of State must have regard under clause 27(2) are architectural integrity, public access and the history and heritage of the building. They must be the necessary prerequisites when he is considering the use of the powers that are vested in him under subsection (3), which contains the power to sell or lease the land for an extended period. If he agreed to do that expeditiously it would save much time, we would not need to divide on the amendment, and we would have one of those rare occasions on which hon. Members could go away happy and ready to praise not just a Minister, but a Minister in the Ministry of Defence.

Mr. Soames

The speech by the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) was almost seductive and I had to think hard to resist his blandishments.

I shall try to deal with the issues that have been raised. As the Committee knows, the clause will allow the Secretary of State to grant a lease to a non-Government body in respect of the royal naval college, Greenwich. Section 7 of the Greenwich Hospital Act 1869 restricts the use of college buildings to occupation by the Royal Navy, Government Departments, or organisations that are associated with seafaring.

The clause was extensively amended by the Select Committee, to whose members I pay tribute for their admirable work, and by Government amendments that were tabled there. The principal amendment was intended to ensure that there should be appropriate acknowledgement in the Bill of the interests and considerations to which the Secretary of State in his capacity as trustee of Greenwich hospital should have regard in reaching a decision on a lease in respect of the royal naval college. Those include maintaining the absolute architectural integrity of the site, preserving it for the nation's benefit, the desirability of public access and ensuring suitable use of the site. For those reasons, much of what the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) said was ungracious and unfair.

Other important amendments added more detailed provision in relation to sub-leases because of the proposal to grant the head lease of the royal naval college to a trust, which would, in its turn, grant sub-leases or licences to others. Thus, it is made clear that only the Secretary of State can authorise the granting of the sub-lease or assignment of the lease on terms that he has agreed.

It is important to remember that the Secretary of State is holding the land for the benefit of a charity: Greenwich hospital. It would be unfair to that charity if he could determine future occupation without having regard to the charity's interests. As amended by the Select Committee, the clause seeks to achieve a proper balance between the charity's private interests, which the Secretary of State, as trustee, must seek to safeguard, and the wider public interest.

I turn to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson). His idea of a tri-service college is interesting. As he knows, Greenwich simply does not have the capacity to accommodate the tri-service college as it forms up, but I was interested in his proposal and I would be grateful if he would send me more details of his scheme, although we would not be able to do it at Greenwich.

Sir Michael Grylls (North-West Surrey)

As my hon. Friend has raised the question of the tri-service college in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), will he think again about the proposal temporarily to coelocate the staff college to Bracknell? The information that I have is that the staff college in Camberley in my constituency is concerned about that and that Bracknell will be an unattractive temporary solution. I realise that something must be done while the main new tri-service college is built, but there is a feeling that Bracknell's hutted accommodation will not be attractive, especially as the college depends so much on foreign students, who, whatever one may think, depend on the kudos of coming to Camberley, which has a world reputation. It could practically be done at Camberley. Will he reconsider that?

Mr. Soames

No, I will not reconsider. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the matter with me—he has already done so by letter—but the tri-service staff college will form up initially at Bracknell. It may not be as smart as it has been and for a couple of years it may not be as comfortable, but the reason why so many of our foreign friends choose to come to the staff college of all three services and the tri-service staff college is not because of the beautiful surroundings, but because the training is undoubtedly the best in the world. The tri-service staff college will continue that formidable record of training. I am familiar with the views of the people at the staff college at Camberley. Those were not the views that were presented to me when I was there last week.

Mr. Wilkinson

May I make it absolutely clear to my hon. Friend that I am not harping back to the dispute, or the argument, about staff college training, but referring specifically to the possibility of a tri-service officer cadet college at Greenwich—perhaps operated in co-operation with the university of Greenwich—in relation to the use of those fine buildings for an educational purpose, especially as the professional training at the three individual service academies of Cranwell, Sandhurst and Dartmouth is so truncated that officer cadets do not receive enough grounding in the basic disciplines and military sciences that are required for a long-term career?

Mr. Soames

I was aware of what my hon. Friend was suggesting and that there is no suggestion that we can do that at Greenwich, but I was saying that it is an interesting proposition that has not been advanced before. I would be happy if he would let me have details of his idea and I will consider whether I can take it forward.

I am grateful for the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) whose knowledge of this matter cannot be gainsaid and who had considerable experience of and responsibility for part of the national heritage when he was Minister. It is right that there is a proper debate on Greenwich; such a debate was needed. After all, as the hon. Member for Greenwich rightly says and as we all agree—no one disagrees—the collection of buildings there is one of, if not the most, important in the United Kingdom.

I am surprised that the hon. Member for Greenwich is so sceptical, but I suppose that his commercial snobbery is getting the better of him. He is unkind to poor Mr. Rutley. I am also surprised that the hon. Gentleman is sceptical as he said, halfway through his speech, that he believes that the Government's approach is a triumph of common sense, with which I entirely agree.

I sympathise with the concerns that the hon. Gentleman is expressing in the amendment. We took considerable care to table in the Select Committee an amendment that is now included in clause 27, which ensures that, as far as possible, the wider interests of heritage and access are reflected in future decisions on the Royal Naval college.

It is important to remember that the Secretary of State is holding the land as trustee. The clause seeks to achieve a proper balance between the private interests of a charity, which the Secretary of State must seek to safeguard, and the wider public interest. It lists considerations to which he must have regard in exercising discretion, but they cannot be conditions to be satisfied as the amendment seeks.

On a more technical point, although the clause requires the Secretary of State to have regard to various matters, it does not contain any objectives. Thus, the amendment is technically incompatible with the clause and would not work. For those reasons, I must ask the Committee to reject the hon. Gentleman's amendment.

6.15 pm
Mr. Raynsford

I am disappointed with the Minister's response, which revealed a characteristic inability to grapple with the key issue: although the safeguards are spelled out in clause 27(2), there is no direct link between subsection(2) and the powers under subsection(3) to grant a lease. That is why we believe that the amendment is necessary.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) for his support for the amendment's principle. I regret that the Government do not recognise the need to do this. I trust that their assurances will be honoured. We will examine whether the particular commitments that have been given are met before any leases are granted. The other place may wish to reconsider the issue; it has certainly taken considerable interest in Greenwich's future. In order, however, to not detain the Committee further—hon. Members want to raise many other matters of concern—I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 27 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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