HL Deb 03 April 1963 vol 248 cc533-49

2.46 p.m.


My Lords, the purpose of this Order in Council is to set up the Location of Offices Bureau in accordance with the intentions expressed in paragraphs 28 to 31 of the White Paper on London, that is to say, Cmnd. 1952, entitled London: Employment: Housing: Land. The activities of the Bureau will take two main forms. It will use every possible means to bring to the notice of firms which are already established in Central London, or which are thinking of opening offices there, the advantages of decentralising office employment. Secondly, it will act as an information centre for firms thinking of moving out of London. It will collect information about possible destinations, and conditions there—the availability of office space and staff, communications, housing, costs, and so on. The aim will be to give employers easy access to all the information they need to reach a decision about a move and to enable them to plan it. In order to collect this information and keep it up to date, the Bureau will, of course, keep in the closest touch with Government Departments, local authorities, New Towns, and transport authorities.

The Bureau will have no success if advice it gives to firms is unrealistic and out of touch with the practical problems of business. That is why, subject to approval of the Order, my right honourable friend is inviting Mr. E. J. Sturgess, C.B.E., to be the first Chairman of the Bureau. Mr. Sturgess has recently retired after a long career in business; he was the Chief Engineer of Shell, and subsequently Resident Manager of their Training College. My right honourable friend also proposes shortly to appoint two other members of the Bureau, who also will bring commercial experience to the body. The Bureau will have a small administrative and publicity staff, mostly seconded from the Civil Service. It will also have an office in Central London. This is essential because one of its most important tasks will be to maintain close and continuing contacts with firms in the central area. That, briefly, outlines the purposes and shape of the Location and Offices Bureau. If noble Lords wish any further information, I shall be glad to give it in so far as possible. I beg to move.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Location of Offices Bureau Order 1963 be made in the form of the draft laid before this House on 21st March last.—(Lord Hastings.)


My Lords, this Order has been before the Special Orders Committee, who have warned us That in their opinion the provisions of the Order raise important questions of policy and principle: That the Order is not founded on precedent: That, in the opinion of the Committee, the Order cannot be passed by the House without special attention.… For this reason I do not think it necessary to apologise to the House for acceding to the advice given by the Special Orders Committee and giving this Order the attention and scrutiny which they recommend.

My first point is that this Order is made in pursuance of Section 8 (2) of the Minister of Town and Country Planning Act, 1943. This was a war-time Act, the main purpose of which was to set up the Ministry of Town and Country Planning and to appoint a Minister, and Section 8 gives one of the powers that were conferred upon this Minister. We have to bear in mind that to-day there is no Minister of Town and Country Planning, and the Act of 1943 has gone completely into disuse. It has not in terms been repealed, but in practice it has been superseded by various other Acts of Parliament relating to town and country planning, leading up to the Consolidation Act of 1962. In fact there is no Minister of Town and Country Planning; even the name has disappeared. The functions are being carried out by the Minister of Housing and Local Government.

Therefore, I think it is a little slick of the Government to use the powers conferred in this Act, which was passed for a totally different purpose—for the purpose of establishing the Minister—to set up this Committee. I do not want to make too much of it. The Government are entitled to be a little slick if they want to be, I suppose. And I am not challenging their legal right to make this Order. I do not know whether, as a result of the history of the 1943 Act which has gone completely out of use, they are still entitled to make use of this particular section. It is not on that ground that I am primarily raising the matter.

I have grave doubts as to the merits of this Order. In the first place, there is the proliferation of committees. All of us in this House and in another place have challenged from time to time the need for the creation of additional committees for functions which it is the duty of the various Government Departments and the local authorities to carry out. In this particular case it is clearly the duty of the local authorities, the local planning authorities, to advise applicants for permission to use offices, or people who want to build new offices where they can go if they are not permitted to go to the particular area to which they desire to go. That is clearly their function, and it has been emphasised over and over again by various Ministers. It is also the duty of the Ministry itself to advise people which are the areas to which they can go. There is really no doubt as to which are those areas. I should not have thought that it needed the advice of a specially created committee to advise people where they can go if they cannot go to London.

I doubt very much whether such a committee can serve any purpose at all. For one thing, it will have the effect of establishing one new office in Central London, which is the very thing it is the purpose of the Government to avoid. It is also going to employ, according to the Minister, between 10 and 20 people. It will be a fairly substantial office with four directors—the Chairman, the Deputy Chairman and two others. I imagine that that office itself will be of a substantial order. But if this committee is going to carry out the functions which the noble Lord said it would, it could not possibly do it with the staff that the Minister in another place mentioned; that is, between 10 and 20. It will need a far bigger staff. Apart from the clerical staff there will be a staff which will carry out research and investigations. They will have to go round the country looking at areas, I imagine, and seeing where offices would be available. In effect they would have the job of estate agents. I can visualise this office, if it is going to do anything, increasing and increasing according to Parkinson's Law, until it has not 10 or 20 staff but something three or four times that size.

The whole of it, in my view, is quite unnecessary. It is a job which the local authorities, local planning authorities, can do quite well, and are doing. Certainly, the London County Council are very willing to give advice, and we are dealing with London. The whole purpose of this is to decentralise office accommodation in London. The London County Council are fully equipped to give this advice and in fact do so. They are well informed as to what is going on in the New Towns and in other places, and it seems to me wholly unnecessary to create a special body to carry out research which is within the knowledge of the London County Council themselves.

Secondly, I very much fear that it might get in the way of the planning functions of the planning authority. It might feel that it has itself to advise on planning applications. That would be wholly wrong because each application must be considered on its merits. The Minister has ample power to call in important applications, which in fact he exercises from time to time, and there is a right of appeal to the Minister which is freely exercised, too. There is a danger that this committee may get in the way of this well-established machinery, and jeopardise the right of the individual to have his case considered on its merits and to have the right of appeal.

The noble Lord has said nothing about the remuneration of these people. Obviously an office in Central London is going to be a fairly costly thing, if he can find one. Also, the remuneration of four individuals of the kind he has described will be quite considerable. It does seem to me that it is a wholly unjustifiable expense and, as I said at the outset, a proliferation of machinery which is quite unnecessary. It is not the practice in this House to vote against Orders, and I realise that in another place this Order was given a rather cool acquiescence. But I do feel, with the knowledge I have of this subject and following the thought I have been able to give to it, that the Minister might be well advised to give this matter further thought before he asks the House to approve it.


My Lords, I am sure the Minister is well aware that this service is already being handled, and being handled very well, entirely voluntarily, by the Industry Location Service run by Humphreys and Glasgow. Further, I hope that before the Minister advises firms to move out of London he will come to some very definite arrangement with the telephone authorities, because strangely enough, the very evening after the Special Orders Committee reviewed this Order, there was a long article by an insurance company secretary who moved out to Croydon. He said that they had had the most tremendous difficulty and spent most of their time dialling 100 without getting any answer, and that STD was not expected in Croydon for another two or three years.

Furthermore, I have the privilege to be associated with a firm which has many factories outside London, and the costs of telephones are of a colossal order; the last rise was in the neighbourhood of £30,000. Finally, before the Minister considers putting this into practice, will he remember that our telephone costs are rising? In the United States the telephone costs, for some reason, are reducing all the time. I believe that in the United States a trans-continental call costs only one dollar for three minutes. Will the Minister also bear in mind the question of road communications?


My Lords, I am not surprised that the noble Lord opposite should have paid special attention to this Order in Council, which the Report of the Special Orders Committee in fact asked the House to do, but I hope I can explain satisfactorily most of the points he brought up. In the first place, on the question of powers, although not disputing the legality of the proposal, the noble Lord somewhat doubts how these powers devolve upon my right honourable friend and how he can reasonably use them since they were originally part of the Minister of Town and Country Planning Act, 1943. As he pointed out, this is in consequence of the Orders in Council made under the Ministers of the Crown (Transfer of Functions) Act, 1946, when the Minister of Town and Country Planning took the style and title of Minister of Housing and Local Government, and also the powers. That is the purely legal aspect of the matter.

As for being somewhat "slick", to use the noble Lord's word, in so far as we are using that old Act for purposes for which, according to the noble Lord, it was not intended, I do not think I can accept that statement as a matter of fact, because the purpose for which the original Act was intended was to help the Minister in the exercise of his functions in relation to the use and development of land in England and Wales. We claim that this is precisely what the setting up of a Location of Offices Bureau is doing. It is true that there is no precedent for such an Order; and that this is the first exercise of this power to set up a Commission, but I do not think that the only purpose of the original Act was, as the noble Lord suggested, to set up a new Ministry of Town and Country Planning. I believe that at that time there were other ideas in mind which have in fact been implemented since—for example, the setting up of the National Parks Commission and the Central Land Board. But instead of using that Act for bringing that Commission and Board into existence, special legislation was introduced; because, of course, the parks themselves were established at the same time, and there was a whole series of financial arrangements, including grants in aid, which made special legislation necessary.

The same position occurred with the Central Land Board, which was set up under the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947. To take a more recent example, I might refer to the New Towns Commission. There again, special legislation was desirable, in view of the transfer of assets from the New Town Corporation. So it is a purely fortuitous circumstance that this is the first occasion on which this particular power, contained in the 1943 Act, has been used.

Turning now to the merits of the Order, the noble Lord suggested that this was an unnecessary proliferation of committees. In respect of the cost, I can tell him at once that there is authorisation for £50,000 for this Bureau, a sum which, in the circumstances, is not excessive.


Is £50,000 the initial capital expenditure or the annual expenditure, or what is it?


It is £50,000 for the first year, for the administrative expenses and also for publicity, because one of its chief objects, of course, is to bring about as much publicity as possible. I think I must now draw the noble Lord's attention to the White Paper on London. Of course, we have not debated this White Paper since it was published in February, less than two months ago, but there is set out quite clearly the very difficult problem of offices in London. This is really only one part of a three-legged policy which the Government are pursing. One is to get Government offices themselves, and head- quarters staff of civil servants, moved out of London in so far as it is possible—and I might remind noble Lords that Sir Gilbert Flemming has been appointed to look into that matter and report as soon as possible.

The second, and most important, is the Bill which is now going through, and has nearly gone through, another place, the Town and Country Planning Bill, to modify the Third Schedule to the 1947 Act; and in respect of compensation to limit the allowance for development to 10 per cent. of floor space so as to make for more effective control. The third part of the policy is to do everything in our power to persuade people who already have offices in London to leave, in order to get a better distribution of offices on the periphery of London; and to prevent, if possible, people coming in to take up office space in central London when it is not absolutely necessary. Therefore, it should be seen, and must be seen, I think, in that light as part of the general policy, and as only one part which reinforces the other objectives.

I think it is made quite clear in the White Paper the extent to which office accommodation is increasing, and the congestion which this has already brought about, and is likely to bring about, if nothing is done to check it; and it is certainly the Government's contention that if this Order and the other parts of the Government's policy are not pushed forward vigorously, the cost will be far in excess of the £50,000 which we are proposing to spend in order to help to put things right: it will add up, probably, to several millions of pounds a year. When you think of traffic congestion, the road improvements that would have to be made and the expensive capital cost of transport and of all sorts of suburban railways, not to mention the man-hours lost in travelling, we feel that the expenditure of £50,000 a year far outweighs any slight disadvantage there may seem to be in setting up this Bureau in the centre of London itself. We feel that, if we do not do that, the effects will cost us millions, and not a few thousands.

As for the argument that there is no need to advise, because the local authorities are performing this job, I would suggest that their advice is given only on a very small scale, and that there is need for some sort of central information bureau, and that the staff proposed will be quite adequate to carry out the work. The Bureau will collect and collate information from local authorities, including the London County Council—although, of course, this policy is not related to London alone: we hope that offices will go well outside London and not merely on the periphery. In some exceptional cases, perhaps we may get them to go to the North-East, or to Scotland—certainly far out of London. In most cases, it will probably be within reach of London; but it could well be into expanding towns and New Towns, and beyond the periphery. We feel that there must be a liaison between all the local authorities and the people required to move. It is difficult for them to discover exactly where to go; and that is a task with which we feel this staff could perfectly well and very efficiently cope.

There is another point of importance here. The noble Lord spoke about the necessity for research. It is necessary to know why people will not move out of London and why, among firms of the same category and nature, some will move and some will not. There is a great need for further detailed information of this nature, especially as to the sort of requirements that they insist upon in return for moving. I can believe that one of the reasons would relate to the telephone service available in the area. That is a point I will bring to the attention of my right honourable friend and to the Department concerned; and information can be gathered at the Location of Offices Bureau about that. Such research would probably be done, not by increasing or overworking the staff of twenty or thirty, but by requesting some specialised research unit to do it on behalf of the Bureau.

There is no question of this Bureau's getting in the way (to use the noble Lord's own words) of the planning authorities. It will have nothing to do with planning, planning permission or planning appeals; and nothing to do, either, with estate agents. The Bureau will not act as estate agents. Once advice has been given, it is up to the firm in question to get in touch with the areas which seem to them most hopeful and which fulfil their demands most adequately and they will be given fullest details to plan the move. I do not think my noble friend Lord Willingdon's comparison with the private office called, I think, the Industrial Locations Office in Glasgow is at all comparable.


It is not in Glasgow: it is a very famous organisation with the name "Glasgow."


I am sorry. It operates—I do not know where.


My Lords, it has a head office in London and many offices all over the world.


It is a private information bureau but it is for industrial information and its job is quite different from that to be carried out by this Offices Bureau. I hope now, with that explanation, that noble Lords will feel that this is part of a coherent Government policy which is necessary. It is not a waste of money, and we shall, in fact, save a great deal of money and time by setting up this office.


My Lords, the policy of this body is highly laudable and commends itself to every quarter, but whether the right medium has been used and whether the name of the body, as a Bureau, is slightly ominous, I do not know. Can the noble Lord promise that it will at least lay before the House quarterly reports as to whether it has success in its task?


My Lords, there is a clause about annual accounts. It must produce annual accounts and my right honourable friend will call for an annual report. There are no arrangements for laying quarterly reports before the House, but I will bring the point to my right honourable friend's attention. I do not say it could be done.


My Lords, can it be arranged by Question and Answer once a quarter?


My Lords, would the noble Lord say whether an enquirer at the Bureau would be told that the principal cause of difficulty in London is the successive repeals by former Tory Governments of the provisions of the Act of 1947?


I think the firms would be more interested in finding suitable offices than in inquiring into past policy.


My Lords, my noble friend said the initial cost for the first year was £50,000. Later on he talked about an annual cost of £50,000.


It starts at that figure and will go up. My Lords, it gets worse and worse. The noble Lord has referred to the White Paper published by the Ministry, London: Employment: Housing: Land. This shows that the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, even that not very competent Department, can publish a White Paper about the South-Eastern Region, Greater London, on its own. Hitherto it had held it was incompetent to do so because there were so many local authorities; therefore, it wanted a Greater London local authority. Well, they have published it; and the noble Lord says we have not yet discussed it. I suggest to him that before we come to this Order we ought to have, in Government time, a debate about this White Paper. Let us have that debate and consider afterwards whether this Order is necessary. Let the Government fix a time. If they publish an important White Paper, then they must expect to give us a day for a debate upon it.

This is a wasteful, bureaucratic, idiotic proposal. This is an extraordinary Department, this Ministry of Housing and Local Government. The planning authority for this business in the first instance, not the second, is the London County Council. The London County Council understand about distribution in London and beyond. Indeed, in so far as they have gone in for an expanding towns policy—which not quite the same as, but something of a similar nature to, New Towns—the London County Council has to know what London industries can be encouraged to do in the expanding towns so as to provide employment for the Londoners who are going to these expanding towns. They call them "exports", which is not a good term for people who move. The London County Council know about it; they know about the problem of offices in central London, which, I agree, is a real problem. The offices in central London are being added to too much. As my noble friend the Deputy Leader of the Opposition here said, this will be another office, established in the name of checking offices in central London. This Government are capable of anything; even of that. That is the first thing.

The London County Council know pretty well all about this; and what they do not know the Ministry of Housing and Local Government do know, or ought to know. They have the staff, and they have produced this White Paper. I have only just started reading it. So far as I have gone it is not a bad White Paper, though when I have finished reading it I may have other views! They have the staff who are studying this problem. I have always said that the duty of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government is to have ideas of their own about a regional plan; to check on the planning submitted by the planning authorities the county councils and the county boroughs; to suggest and, if necessary impose, modifications to fit them in with ministerial ideas of what ought to be regional planning. That is their job.

But they have said, in relation to the London Government Bill, that the last thing in the world they want to do is to interfere with local authorities; that they would prefer them to act without ministerial interference. But in the first place, this order is ministerial interference. It is putting a Committee between the Minister and the local authorities, who could have done the co-ordination and ultimately imposed a plan on the South-Eastern region.

What ought the Ministry to be doing? They have their experts and specialists, backed by an extraordinarily powerful higher Civil Service, which is probably the author of this particular proposal. The Minister ought to be competent enough to do this himself, but the Minister—Sir Keith Joseph—by bringing forward this Order, confesses that he is incompetent to do the job himself. And I would not be disposed to argue with him about it, because I do not think that he is particularly competent. He proposes to pass the buck, not to a Committee, but to a Bureau—let us give these things their right names. This is a Continental term, imported into our Anglo-Saxon dictionary at the behest of a patriotic Tory Government—if they are patriotic. So they are going to have a Bureau. And who will advise the Bureau?




Very good. I must say that it is a startling thing that Shell has been brought into the chairmanship, and I suppose that all the others will be capitalist persons of some sort or another. This is an extraordinary committee, with a chairman and deputy and only two members of the rank and file. There is no mention of local government and no mention of labour, so far. Who will service the Bureau? Who will advise the Bureau?—the very same higher civil servants who advise the Minister. Oh!, it is a lovely thing.


Jobs for the boys!


I agree with my noble friend entirely, but these are Civil Service "boys", who have got jobs anyway. I will come to the other jobs later. I never like criticising civil servants, but I am getting increasingly fed up with the higher civil servants of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. They will advise this Bureau, and if the Bureau did not exist, they would advise the Minister. So, at the end of the day, things come to much the same conclusion—except that, if the Minister gives an unpopular decision he can say, "Well, I was advised by the Bureau to do it, and having appointed these very able people, men"—I nearly said "and women" but I doubt if there will be a woman—


There will not be one.


I agree with the noble Baroness—"I could not easily sot aside their advice." And if their decision is popular, the Minister will say, "What a fine chap am I! "The truth is that the decision will be much the same, whether it has been reached by the Minister, on the advice of these able, higher, bureaucratically-minded civil servants, or whether it was given, on the same advice, by the Bureau itself. A first application goes to the local authority—in this case almost certainly the London County Council. If the Council say that they do not want so many offices and turn it down, there is an appeal to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. Then, I suppose the Minister will obtain the advice of the Bureau. So there is this Bureau interposing itself between local self-government and a Minister of the Crown. And when it comes to Parliamentary accountability, and the Minister comes to answer, God knows who is going to be responsible!

This is an illogical, bureaucratic, pantomime proposition, and it ought to be stopped. But we have the tradition in this House that we do not interfere with delegated legislation, and as one who has been the author of delegated legislation I agree with your Lordships that we ought not to do so. But why the House of Commons, as the guardian of the public purse, did not interfere with this, I am at a complete loss to understand. Because these four persons on the Bureau can be paid. I thought that we had enough public spirit in our country for people to serve on a Government Committee for nothing. This week there was a discussion, on the merits of which I will not enter, about the Consumers' Council, the Chairman of which is to be paid. The members of the Council are not to be paid at all.


They have changed their minds.


I had better drop that. But in this case, the Goverment propose to pay the whole four remuneration, and if this is not a case of "jobs for the boys", I should like to know what is. There is no case for paying this Bureau anything at all. The Government are providing jobs probably for their friends or tools, whatever the case may be. This is a disgraceful business. It is a possible interference with local self-government, which the Government have sworn they do not want to do, and that is why they have brought in the London Government Bill. It is a possible obscuring of ministerial responsibility to Parliament. I sympathise with the noble Lord, Lord Hastings. He is a nice, inoffensive Minister. I am sorry to knock him about, but I am really knocking not him but this fellow above him. I sympathise with the noble Lord, and I suggest to him that he takes the Order away, holds it up until we have had a debate on the White Paper, and, having done that, resigns from office in the Ministry of Housing and Local Government.

3.27 p.m.


My Lords, before the noble Lord replies to that charming speech from the noble Lord opposite, may I point out that paragraph 3 of this Order says: …including without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing the provision of information and publicity and the promotion of research. So far as I can make out, this Order applies only to England and Wales—in fact, it says so at the top. Does this mean that the Bureau will be unable to give anyone any information or publicity of or promote research in Scotland? Because that would appear to militate against Scotland most unfairly, always presuming that this Bureau is going to do any good at all—which I strongly doubt.


My Lords, my noble friend has referred to this as a disgraceful business, and it really is extraordinary. There is an aspect of it which I do not think noble Lords have quite realised. This, in fact, is a piece of socialisation by Affirmative Order. I am not opposed to socialisation by Affirmative Order. This is the socialisation of the functions of estate agents—competitive socialisation.

Let me explain how it will work. A New Town which has built a block of offices at present goes to an estate agent and hires him to publicise its office block. This has happened in the case of numerous New Towns. I do not say that this is at all improper; it is just what happens. Under this Order, the New Town will simply have to inform the Bureau that it has built new office premises and will be delighted to have some tenants. Meanwhile, tenants will be applying to the Bureau and they will be allocated or offered the New Town premises which are available. The estate agents will have lost that business and lost the fees for their work. I do not object to this at all. I think it is an interesting and very useful precedent, which we shall certainly bear in mind in due course. I am not at all sure that noble Lords opposite ought not to be the ones who should be pressing the Government hardest to drop this ridiculous Order.


My Lords, I listened with the greatest interest to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Morrison of Lambeth, and was delighted to hear him in such good form. It reminded me of many speeches that I heard him make in another place in years gone by. I pondered for a little as to what the cause of his being in this good form to-day might be, and I came to the conclusion that he could only be exhilarated by the thought of a good Conservative Budget.


I never dreamt of it.


If I may come to the particular points about this Order, it is an occasion on which one could make comparatively heavy weather of a quite simple proposal. There are, I think, advantages, if an institution or bureau of this kind is going to be set up, in doing it under the exercise of statutory powers. The powers to constitute a body of this kind—and I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, will not deny this—are given by the Minister of Town and Country Planning Act, 1943.

Then the attack rather turned upon whether it was really any advantage to have a bureau of this kind. I would say to your Lordships, with great respect, that I should have thought it was a considerable advantage. It is really no argument to say that if someone goes to the London County Council he might get the same answer as, or possibly a different answer from, that which he would get if he went to this Bureau. It is really no answer to say that the individual company concerned might get the information desired by going to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. The result of the constitution of this Bureau will be that there will be one organisation which will help people who desire advice on the location of their industry. I feel that this body can, and will, serve a useful purpose, in a more limited field, it is true, as do the Citizens' Advice Bureaux, which, after all, provide information which people can obtain elsewhere, if they know where to get it, whether it be from the L.C.C. or any Government Department. I would respectfully suggest to your Lordships that this proposal is a sound one, which will provide considerable assistance to those who are concerned with this problem, and, in particular, in the decentralisation of office accommodation. I am sure your Lordships all agree that everything that can be done should be done to assist to that end, and I am sure that the creation of a Bureau of this kind will help in that direction.

The question was raised whether this Bureau would have any advantages so far as Scotland is concerned. Well, I am not at all sure that any industry which is thinking of making its headquarters in London will be diverted by this body, or indeed by any other body, into making its headquarters north of the Border; but I certainly would not say it was ultra vires of this particular body to recommend such a course, if it thought it was desirable. We have had an entertaining, interesting and, up to this moment, if I may say so, enjoyable debate, and I, for my part, greatly enjoyed listening to the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Morrison of Lambeth. But if one leaves joking on one side, I think it will be useful to have a body of this kind; and it is desirable, if you are going to have such a body, that it should be set up under some statutory powers. That is all that this Order does.

On Question, Motion agreed to: the said Address to be presented to Her Majesty by the Lords with White Staves.