HL Deb 18 November 1965 vol 270 cc708-11

4.7 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move the Motion that appears in my name on the Order Paper, to approve this Order. The Order, which came into operation on August 14, introduced the control of office development in the Birmingham conurbation with effect from that date. The Order is not retrospective. Office developments for which planning applications had been made, or for which planning permissions had been granted, before August 14 do not require an office development permit, though some of these may be caught by the new building control. The effect of the Order is that applications for planning permission made on or after August 14 for office developments in excess of the exemption limit of 3,000 feet have to be accompanied by an office development permit to be effective.

I need hardly remind the House that the introduction of the office control in the Birmingham conurbation was one of the measures announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in another place last July. These measures were designed to reduce the general pressure of demand on the economy and to restrain less essential work in both the public and private sectors. The aim of these measures was to ensure that we should get the balance of payments right next year. In the private sector the introduction of building control was announced, and as soon as the Control of Office and Industrial Development Bill became law the industrial development certificate control was tightened in the Midlands and other congested areas. These new controls will help to achieve in the long term a better distribution of employment between the areas which are underemployed and those which are over-congested.

At the time of the Chancellor's announcement of these new measures, the Bill had not received the Royal Assent. This was received on August 5, the last Sitting Day before the Summer Recess. The Order was accordingly made as soon as possible after that date, and it came into operation on August 14, the day after it was laid before Parliament. During the passage of the Bill we were glad to accept the Opposition's proposal that an order designating a new area for purposes of the office control should be subject to approval by Affirmative Resolution of both Houses, but we made it clear that an Order of this kind must come into immediate operation, in order to prevent any forestalling of the control in any interval between its announcement and its operation.

The House will recall that our first objective in introducing the new control of office development was to call a halt to the growth of office employment and to relieve congestion in and around London. But when the new control was first announced we made it clear that we should take powers to control office development in other areas if this became necessary. The situation in London had been allowed to get out of hand and we certainly did not want this to happen again in the case of other conurbations with similar problems of congestion which might have to be tackled in the interest of a better regional balance of employment and a better use of labour and other resources. This is the situation in the Birmingham conurbation. All the problems with which we are presented in and around London are now apparent, though perhaps in a less acute form.

The conurbation is the focus of the West Midlands region; its population of 2.4 million represents half the population of the whole region and its continued growth is a threat to the region's economic balance. For purposes of controlling office employment we cannot distinguish between the City of Birmingham area and the towns around it. Indeed, the whole conurbation must be regarded as a source of new jobs for places elsewhere which need new employment, including the overspill towns. The growth in service occupations in the West Midlands region as a whole has been faster than in any other region, and this has been particularly concentrated in the conurbation. Over the past ten years employment in the conurbation has increased at a rate equivalent to an additional 10,000 jobs every year. There is a serious shortage of all kinds of labour, including office workers, and there are not enough qualified and trainee office workers to fill the vacancies.

Against this background we must look with some concern at the growth in office space in recent years. Between 1951 and 1963 office space increased by nearly 3 million sq. ft., after allowing for demolitions of about 1 million sq. ft. The total amount of office space now in the pipeline is 3.1 million sq. ft. and represents a potential additional labour demand of more than 20,000 people, more than two and a half times the present number of unemployed and this new office space is concentrated in Birmingham and Solihull.

This situation has created serious transport and housing problems. Transport in the conurbation in general, and particularly in the City of Birmingham, is severely strained. At least another 340,000 houses will be needed by 1981 to catch up with the backlog. Despite redevelopment in the City and on its fringes, these new houses will overflow into the overspill towns. In this situation we cannot afford to allow the growth of office employment to go uncontrolled in Birmingham itself and in the rest of the conurbation. Industrial development is, of course, already controlled, and industry must make its contribution to the provision of jobs in the overspill towns and places needing employment elsewhere. The stage has been reached when office employment should also contribute its share. We had all these problems in mind in deciding to lose no time in introducing the office control throughout the conurbation.

In the initial stages the Board of Trade will subject all applications for permits to a tough scrutiny. We shall apply the same criteria as we are applying to applications for permits in the London metropolitan region. These are as follows. Applicants will have to satisfy the Board that the proposed activity cannot be carried on elsewhere, that there is no reasonable alternative accommodation, and also, unless the project is so small as not to add materially to congestion or to the demand for labour, that the activity is in the public interest. In applying these criteria we shall naturally have regard to the need to maintain the prosperity and export record of Birmingham and its surrounding area, the need to bring existing offices up to modern standards and the need to ensure that industry has the offices it requires to be efficient. But in assessing all these factors we shall be particularly concerned, in operating this control, with the distribution of employment and the need to bring about a better balance not only within the West Midlands region itself, but also between this and other regions. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Control of Office Development (Designation of Areas) Order 1965, be approved.—(Lord Rhodes.)