HL Deb 24 February 1975 vol 357 cc613-38

6.20 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move the Second Reading of this Bill and perhaps I should declare an interest in the affairs of the Surrey County Council, although a remote one, because I was a member of it some 24 years ago. It struck me as a coincidence that my noble friend Lord Onslow, who is taking a close interest in this Bill, was also a member of the Surrey County Council. We were both directed by Sir Winston Churchill, who was then Prime Minister, to leave the Surrey County Council when we took up our positions as Junior Ministers in his Government of 1951. So my connection is remote, but nevertheless is a real one.

The primary purpose of this Bill is to give the Guildford Borough Council power to lease some 35 acres of Stoke Park for the location of a new county hall for the Surrey County Council. The technical need for the Bill arises because the Private Act of 1926 under which the Guildford Borough Council acquired Stoke Park restricts the uses to which the area of the Park may be put. This Bill would give specific powers for this purpose. The first query which I think noble Lords would raise is this. Why does Surrey County Council need a new county hall? There are two main answers to that.

The first is shortage of space on their existing site at Kingston-on-Thames. That shortage has now become acute. Some departments have already been moved away from the headquarters building to Epsom, to Ewell, and to Esher, inevitably at the expense of efficiency, and, in addition, a temporary arrangement has been made with the London Borough of Kingston to accommodate a section of the staff in the town centre. This will run out in nine years' time. The fact is that the increasing responsibilities which Parliament has laid on local authorities generally have required, inevitably, increases in staff which go beyond the capacity of the existing county hall at Kingston, even with its various extensions.

Secondly, my Lords, it is clearly in the interests of both the economy and con venience of Surrey ratepayers that Surrey county hall should be located at some central position within the county of Surrey rather than, as now, outside Surrey in the Greater London area in the London borough of Kingston-upon-Thames. Perhaps I should add a footnote. This geographical anomaly was brought about by the creation of the Greater London Council some ten years ago when Kingston, Wimbledon and many other areas were cut off from Surrey and made part of Greater London. I would think that in the interests of economy the Surrey County Council have been slow to correct this anomaly; but now that lack of further accommodation in Kingston has become acute it would seem right that they should make a comprehensive survey of Surrey for suitable alternative sites within the county. This is what they have done.

It is not surprising that Guildford turned out to be the first choice. In addition to being the historic county town of Surrey, Guildford has developed in postwar years into an attractive cultural centre with the building of the cathedral, of a theatre and, now, with the building of the university. In the event, the Guildford Borough Council welcome the Surrey County Council's proposal to move to a site in Guildford. They consider that it is in the best interests of Guildford and of all Surrey people. The Guildford Borough Council wish to make available for the new county hall a site of some 35 acres of Stoke Park. It is North of the Guildford by-pass. This site is therefore detached from the most important area of Stoke Park which stretches out from the Eastern fringe of the old built-up area, South of the by-pass and North of the London Road.

The Guildford Borough Council would propose to compensate for the loss of the area of 35 acres of Stoke Park, by acquiring some 200 acres of riverside meadows alongside the River Wey which adjoin the North side of Stoke Park. The development of any part of Stoke Park is a matter of major importance; and that is why Guildford Borough Council is promoting this Private Bill to seek the approval of Parliament for its proposition. Perhaps it is relevant in this context to recall that two earlier developments have been allowed; the first was for the building of Guildford Technical College and its playing fields; and the second was for the Guildford by-pass, the A3, which runs from London to Portsmouth. Both were authorised in the 1930s by Ministerial decision—at that time the Minister of Health.

This completes my account of the purposes of the Bill and the reasoning behind it. I should now like to deal with two main sources of anxiety which I have heard in connection with the Bill. The first is the town planning aspect. The question is asked: If Parliament approves this Bill, will that influence the decision with regard to the planning application which must subsequently be made for the building of the new county hall on this site? The answer is that this Bill will do no more than remove the legal inhibition which now prevents this site being considered as one of the possible alternatives in Surrey. The Department of the Environment have already announced that the Secretary of State would appoint an inspector to hold a local public inquiry to hear the application and objections thereto if and when it was made.

Secondly, there is the financial anxiety. At this time of grave financial strain in our national life, the question is naturally asked: Should not this scheme which will cost several millions of pounds wait for several years? The answer is that the process of this Bill through Parliament, followed by the planning procedure, will take about two years; and therefore it would be the beginning of 1977 before the Surrey County Council, assuming these consents are given, could be in a position to consider going ahead. They have undertaken that when that time comes they will make a completely fresh financial appraisal of the possible cost of the scheme. I hope that by that time our national fortunes may have substantially improved; but I am sure that, in any event, the Government of the day will have something to say about the matter of timing. But even if they went straight ahead then, I expect that by the time they had completed their appraisal, had taken the necessary decsions, had got the necessary Ministerial decisions, set to work and built the hall, it would be the end of the decade before they could occupy the new building. So it will all take a good many years for these things to go along.

May I conclude by saying that this Bill is but the first step in a long process which could lead to the Surrey County Council building itself a new county Hall adequate for its important duties and within the boundaries of its own county, and which they believe to be in the interest of all ratepayers of Surrey. So it is in the interests of good local government that I ask your Lordships to give this Bill a Second Reading. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.— (Lord Nugent of Guildford.)

6.29 p.m.

The Earl of ONSLOW

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, has given long and distinguished service to Guildford and has rightly agreed to promote the Bill before us today. I think that he has got me muddled with my father. I certainly was not a Junior Minister in Churchill's Government in 1951, for I was then only eleven years old. I, too, have an interest in this Bill. My family have lived in Surrey since my forebear was the Solicitor General and Speaker in the early years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth. We have been hereditary High Stewards since 1671. I have a special regard for Guildford which since the war has been very well developed. It has a good shopping area and some very fine buildings carefully and well preserved. Its new buildings have been designed sensitively and well. Of course, there have been mistakes, but in my opinion far fewer than in most other comparable towns.

I am saying here that my concern for Guildford is a concern based on an inherited affection of 300 years. I feel very strongly that for the county council to consider, let alone even to want, to build over 500,000 square feet of office block/municipal palace on Guildford's amalgam of Hyde Park and Hampstead Heath is not up to their normally very high standards of service to the community.

I said that the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, rightly agreed to introduce this Bill because the matter is of urgent public importance to the burgesses of Guildford and to the citizens of the county of Surrey. I obviously do not use the word "rightly" because I agree with the Bill—I fundamentally disagree with it—but it is, as I have said, of great importance to the people of Surrey. As the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, has already said, the present county hall has been in use since 1893 and will have lasted 90 years if a new one is to be built. The 1893 one has been extended approximately five times, and the county council feel they need a new county hall. If they get their new county hall, how long will this possible new county hall last? Will it last for only 90 years? To have ruined public Often space for 90 years' worth of office block to me seems un-sound. They claim that the present site is too small; they paid rates of £89,240 in 1974–75 to another authority. Please note that that is the only figure which appears in the circular sent by Surrey County Council to Members of your Lordships' House, and it appears twice. They further go on to say: The County Council are unable to make any realistic appraisal of the cost of moving County Hall to Stoke Park ". There seems to be a fault in logic in this approach. On the one hand there is a cost disadvantage, and the only one mentioned in this circular, and on the other there is no point in doing a cost benefit analysis of their chosen alternative. I shall return later, if I may, to figures and costs.

Stoke Park was sold by my great grandfather in 1874 to raise money to finance the Guildford via Cobham railway line. It was then sold in 1925 to the Guildford Borough Council. They paid £42,500 for it. That, my Lords, is at a time when £42,500 bought considerably more than it does now. They are preparing to give away a quarter of it for nothing. The 1926 Act followed. This Act was designed to safeguard this 186 acres for the benefit of the burgesses of Guildford. Since then (when, incidentally, the population of Guildford was about 25,000) the acreage has shrunk to 166 acres because a by-pass has been built cutting off a quarter of the park, and a technical college was also built. I am advised that the Guildford Borough Council probably had no power to build the technical college, and the Minister of Health had no power to allow them so to do. I am also advised that the Surrey County Council had no power to build the by-pass, and the Minister concerned had no power to give them permission. However, I am not a lawyer and will not press that point too far.

The present by-pass is the hinge of this complete problem. This by-pass has left on the North side of Stoke Park some 35 acres which is the land which, as the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, told us, the two councils want as a site for the new county hall. This 35 acres is not in very good condition; it is rough grass and allotments. Here I must add again, there is doubt about the legality of these allotments. Admittedly, few people cross over the by-pass to this area, but by-passes, especially busy by-passes, are difficult to cross with children, prams and dogs. The county council promised in 1930 to build a bridge or an underpass at that by-pass, and did not. I venture to suggest to your Lordships that this is the oldest property developers' trick in the world. A site is neglected and cut off, and it then becomes ripe for development. Had the North side of Guildford been as well looked after as the South side of the Stoke Park site has been, the outcry in Guildford would have been even greater than it is at the moment. On this point, I must tell your Lordships that the Save Guildford Association, of which I have the great honour to be president, has collected nearly 11,000 signatures to a street petition begging Surrey County Council not to build their new municipal palace on Stoke Park. This was presented to the chairman of Surrey County Council last Monday.

I come now to the Bill itself. Clauses 4, 5, 10 and 13 would in combination allow the borough council to lease to Surrey County Council some 35 acres, of which I have already spoken, for 999 years at a peppercorn rent to build a new county hall. Despite what the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, has said, this Bill is not just a technicality which allows Surrey County Council to consider Stoke Park as an alternative site. They could consider Stoke Park—in fact, they have considered Stoke Park. They made up their mind; they then discovered they had to have a Bill. They have already definitely decided that Stoke Park is the site they want.

In the county council headquarters committee report of August 1973, they say: … that on the assumption that the District Council endorse the decision of the Guildford Borough Council to make available to the County Council the land forming the Northern part of Stoke Park, Guildford, under a lease to be granted for a term of 999 years at a peppercorn rent the County Council adopt that site as a site for a new County Hall". Later on it is said: … which will lead to the relocation of County Hall on Stoke Park ". This is not a question of considering Stoke Park among other sites; they have decided that that is the site they want. Detailed design work is in progress, and I should have thought that one cannot design a building without knowing where it is to be put—I will leave aside, however, the story of the old cavalry barracks at Windsor which were reputedly designed for a hot weather station in India, and some Indian regiment is still sweltering in barracks designed for Her Majesty's Lifeguards.

I quote now from a memorandum from the Clerk and Chief Executive, dated 10th September 1974: It will be obvious to the Committee that there could be a number of different design concepts which could be adopted for the new County Hall on the site of Stoke Park. In this memorandum there is no mention of any other site and it is just headed: "New County Hall". On 15th February 1975, the headquarters committee say: It would seem that the impression has been created that if the Bill is enacted, it will of itself in some way commit the Borough Council and the County Council to a course of action which will involve the ratepayers of Surrey to heavy capital expenditure". I wonder how anybody could possibly have got any other impression! The county council documents and articles in the local Press all irresistibly point that way. I suggest that the last paragraph I have quoted is an early lesson in the art of the Jesuitical thought process. Surrey County Council state that Stoke Park is not in Green Belt. In a letter dated 12th July 1972, from the Department of the Environment to the clerk of surrey County Council, the Department point out that the land which was planned to be deleted from the Green Belt—and this includes Stoke Park—is subject to Green Belt policy until the structure plan is approved. That structure plan will then show which parts have been allowed to be deleted from Green Belt.

We have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, of the benefits to the people of Guildford from the new riverside park—200 acres of it. The public now has access to the riverside, the river towpaths are the property of the National Trust, and anybody who cares to do so may walk that way. We saw the figure of £8 million, issued by the county council in 1972, and a little more for the construction of a new county hall at Stoke Park. That figure, building costs having escalated, must now be £15 million or over. No figure is included for the construction of a new riverside park. We must also remember the still non-existent tunnel or bridge across the present Guildford by-pass. That was not built when it was promised. Will the riverside park go that way, too, because of rising costs? What is included is an allowance for the capital value of sites in Kingston, and we all know what has happened to the value of property sites over the last year.

I come now to an even more important matter relating to the peppercorn rent. Section 123 of the Local Government Act 1972 says that local authorities must get maximum value for their sites when they dispose of them to other local authorities. We are arguing on the basis of what the law is. It is no good Surrey County Council quoting land legislation which is foreshadowed by the present Government White Paper. As the noble Lord, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, said in winding-up the debate on the EEC Regional Development Fund, Governments come and Governments go. It is always possible that this land legislation may not be enacted.

Just recently the Guildford Borough Council have bought 10 acres of sports ground for redevelopment, for which they paid £250,000. That, my Lords, is £25,000 an acre. Therefore, it would be reasonable to assume that the 35 acres of Stoke Park is worth £875,000. The population of the present Guildford Borough Council is nearly 120,000 souls. Each one of these 120,000 souls is therefore giving to the other ratepayers of Surrey a present of £7.20. This cannot be right.

In July 1973, the Surrey County Council produced some figures purporting to show that it was cheaper to move to Guildford than stay at Kingston. Obviously, these figures are now hopelessly out of date. Interest rates are at completely different levels; also, they assume a 40 per cent. increase in staff. Is this really necessary? Government Circular No. 171/74 on the rate support grant, from the Department of the Environment, is specific in its instruction not to take on extra staff. The Surrey County Council also say that to provide for 2,500 people as opposed to the present 1,800 people would cost £3,200 each at Guildford. To provide buildings for 700 people at Kingston, which I believe is possible, would cost £10,600, based on 1972 figures. I find this hard to believe. It seems to be one of those factors which is too convenient if one has already set one's mind on going to another place.

Mr. Gordon Oakes, the Minister of State in the Department of the Environment, has stated that every pound spent on a new park or a new council office is a pound diverted from where it is vitally needed—from the fight to reverse the balance of payments deficit and to inject new life into our industry. He also said on the wireless when the rate support grant was announced that this money was not to be used for prestige municipal building. With rates escalating as they are, with inflation the worst in Western Europe, with the housing problem such as it is and with the general financial disaster seeming to be staring us in the face, we cannot afford even to consider new municipal buildings. I have left out traffic considerations. I have left out the fact that in Guildford there are available another 1 million feet for office development. I have left out another site. I have left out the fact that another borough would welcome a new county hall, if it were ever built. I have not developed these themes, because I have not wished to bore your Lordships' House with too long a speech.

Finally, may I ask: what would be the reaction of the authorities to a proposal from, say, Mr. Hyams and his new-found allies, the Co-op, to build an office block of these dimensions on the site of public open space which is protected by Act of Parliament, even if, peradventure, the design had been identical with the design which is now being drawn up in the county architect's office? For all these reasons, for the good of the public in these hard times, I beg the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, to withdraw the Bill, especially when environmental and financial interests coincide, so that Surrey County Council will do what every other citizen of the land is doing—namely, making do with what they have.

6.46 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to oppose this Bill. I hope to be brief, objective and succinct, and I shall approach this matter on the basic general principles which clearly arise. However, may I say at once that I adopt all the detailed arguments and facts which have been put forward by the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, in the excellent speech which he has just delivered to your Lordships' House.

I listened very carefully to the shorter and cogent opening speech which was made by the mover of this Bill, and I fully sympathise with and appreciate the somewhat ambiguous, position in which he now finds himself. He referred to his very remote interest in this matter. Perhaps I should refer to an even remoter interest in it, since I still live in Esher and up to about ten years ago was a co-opted member of a divisional executive of the Surrey Education Committee dealing with the administration of schools in a limited part of the area. Therefore, I am able to claim an even remoter interest in this matter than the noble mover of this Bill.

As the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, said so clearly, the simple fact is that the Surrey County Council has at present as its headquarters a large building known as the county hail in Kingston-upon-Thames. I know the building very well. Its amenities are still very good. Basically, it is an old building, but in recent years thousands of pounds have been spent upon extending it. About half a mile away from the Surrey county hall in Kingston-upon-Thames there is another large building which is known as the Guildhall. This was built just before the war in Kingston-upon-Thames for local government purposes. Again, it offers good amenities, and I know that building extremely well Owing to the reorganisation of local government authorities and areas, neither of these local government "palaces"— if I may use that word in a modern context, in the same way as the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, used it—is in Surrey, They are now in London, not in Surrey. The present position, therefore, is that the Surrey County Council, through its officers, both elected and otherwise, wish to have a new building somewhere in Surrey, and Stoke Park seems to them to be a convenient spot for its erection.

I have read a large number of the papers concerned with this matter since the conception of the project in 1972. It is a prestigious project. There is no indication in the papers which I have read that the facilities to be afforded by the Surrey County Council would be vastly improved by the spending of millions of pounds on such a "palace". Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, in setting out the two basic reasons for this new building, referred to a shortage of space and the fact that it was clearly in the interests of economy that staff should be located in a more central position. In these days of economic crisis, these are not cogent reasons for producing a Bill of this kind before your Lordships, the whole object of which is to get this building built in Stoke Park as soon as possible.

In 1972, the proposed building costs were said to be of the order of £8 million. The noble Lord, Lord Nugent, was quite frank about it; there is no official estimate of the cost available in any of the papers I have seen. Indeed, the reasons published by the Surrey County Council for not giving such estimates in the reports seem to me to be quite tendentious. I think the Surrey County Council were somewhat surprised to find that in dealing with this proposed development they had first to come to Parliament to ask for a Bill. If, as the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, has said, the Surrey County Council or the Guildford Borough Council have not decided to proceed with the building, subject to plans, what is this Bill for? All it will do is merely initiate expensive activities of planning which should not now be initiated in the public interest.

This is the wrong time for local authorities to be contemplating extravagance of the kind contemplated by Guildford Borough Council and Surrey County Council, as stated quite clearly in Clause 4(1) of the Bill, which says that the Bill's primary object is to enable the Surrey county hall to be built, with all the purposes connected therewith, as soon as possible, preferably in Stoke Park. It is totally against the public interest that a local authority should take steps which will inevitably lead to costly planning inquiries and, eventually, to the spending of millions of pounds of public money without adequate reason. As your Lordships realise, there is a Committee now sitting under the chairmanship of Mr. Frank Layfield considering aspects of local authority matters, and surely this is a Bill which should at least await the outcome of the deliberations of that very important Committee.

In my view, all action of the kind contemplated in this Bill, whether for extensive planning activities or for building in the future, should be condemned. Therefore, I ask that the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, should carefully consider the request so fairly and persuasively put forward by the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, that at the present time he should withdraw this Bill. Indeed, my Lords, in view of the importance of this matter it may be that Members of this House will consider carefully whether the unusual step might be taken of opposing this Bill on Second Reading.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, as he is a very distinguished Welshman, may I ask him whether he can imagine any Welsh authority allowing itself to be governed from outside the Principality, and why that geographical consideration should not be extended to Surrey, which wants to govern itself within its own boundaries?


My Lords, I am much obliged to the noble Baroness for that interesting geographical observation. I would merely observe in passing that, of course, there is some difference between Surrey and Wales, in that Wales is a nation and I do not think Surrey has so far achieved that distinction.

6.55 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to support this Bill. Even in 1890, when Surrey County Council debated where its headquarters should be, there was a substantial minority who thought Guildford would be a better site than Kingston, and looking back historically I think even the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, would rind it difficult to withstand the proposition that perhaps Guildford is nearer to being the centre of Surrey. Whatever it is in administrative terms, culturally and economically I think it is probably nearer to being the centre of Surrey.

The Earl of ONSLOW

My Lords, may I just say that I did not adduce that argument. I would prefer a county hall, if one is to be built, to be in Guildford; I would much prefer that it went anywhere rather than on Stoke Park. It is Stoke Park that I want to protect, and not to stop the building going to Guildford, although I have grave doubts as to whether it is necessary. I thank the noble Lord for giving way.


My Lords, I will come on to Stoke Park: later, but I am glad that I have carried the noble Earl with me so far, that Guildford is a sensible site for the headquarters of the Surrey County Council. As the years have gone by this has become more and more clear. I do not think Surrey can be condemned for ever to having its headquarters outside its own administrative area, and on a cramped site which is incapable of expansion and which is already failing to contain important elements of the administrative machinery of the county council. As the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, has said, three or four important sections of the administrative machinery have been moved out to other parts of the county.

I can well understand why those who have looked around the county for a site were tempted to think that the site named in this Bill was the best available. One must have regard to the fact that it is an island site. We are dealing with 35 acres that have got cut off from the rest of Stoke Park. The noble Earl said —and I have sympathy with him—that it ought not to have been cut off; that the road ought not to have been built through, and even if it had been built through there ought to have been a bridge over it. But the hard fact is that such things did not happen. It is an island site and very few people cross over to that island, and I do not believe that part of the park is being used to any great extent for parklike purposes.

From the point of view of Surrey County Council the site has the great advantage that Guildford Borough Council are willing to let it at a low rent. They do not want to sell it. I do not think the question arises of defrauding the ratepayers of Guildford over a sale of which they do not get the benefit, since there will be no sale here. It is a question of rent and not sale. But from the point of view of Surrey County Council it is certainly important that they should be able to find a landlord who is willing to rent them a site at a very low rent. But as I understand, we in this House are not asked to settle these issues finally. What we are asked to do is to enable the ordinary processes of planning inquiry and cost inquiry to go forward in a way that at the moment is precluded because of the 1926 Act. That Act was a creature of its time. By our standards today it is largely an anachronism. We would not think of initiating such Private Bills nowadays because there is general planning machinery and legislation which looks after the issues which, in the old days, Private Bills were passed to look after.

The Bill before your Lordships' House is intended to free the relevant 35 acres so that it can be considered, under planning procedures, and considered only for the purposes of the county council and only subject to the river park project going forward and that area of 200 acres becoming vested in the borough council.


My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord, and 1 am obliged to him for giving way. I am sure he would not wish to misinterpret some clauses of the Bill. Clause 4 says quite clearly that: Notwithstanding anything contained in any other enactment or any rule of law— (1)… the Borough Council may lease to the county council the whole or any part of the specified land … for the purpose of erecting thereon a building for use as county hall and for purposes connected therewith ". In my submission, there is a very positive indication of the direct purpose of the Bill.


My Lords, I shall not attempt to follow the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, into those niceties. The broad proposal is as I have described it. The argument that planning permission should come first seems to me unsound. I think that the borough council and the county council have been right to seek that this Bill should clear the way before there is any matter of planning permission. The cost of, and the time required for, dealing with planning permission would inevitably greatly exceed what would arise in your Lordships' House. One would expect planning proceedings over a matter of this sort to last for several days, if not weeks.


My Lords, if the noble Lord, Lord Helsby, will allow me to interrupt him, I quite agree that town planning procedures are very cumbersome. But would he not accept also that proceedings in a Select Committee upstairs can be cumbersome?


My Lords, I am afraid I did not catch what was said by the noble Lord.


My Lords, as I expect to follow the noble Lord, perhaps I will deal with it in the course of my own speech.


My Lords, if planning permission were to be granted first, there is no doubt that the matter would still be argued here by the objectors to the scheme on planning grounds, which seems to me another reason for clearing the Bill out of the way first. The planning objections seem to be the main objection to the proposal. I concede at once that there are certain planning objections which would need to be surmounted. But I do not think we in this House should purport to be planning authorities. We are not. Nor, with great respect to the noble Earl, are we arbiters of expenditure. I worked in the Treasury for a good many years, as will be known to some noble Lords. I got quite used to saying, "They cannot afford it." I suppose it might come naturally to me to say that now, but I do not think it is our business to say that. If they cannot afford it, they will not be able to afford it. It will be a great many years before the final assessment of that point will come about—at least five or six years, when the climate might be very different.

I suggest to your Lordships that the right course is to give this Bill a Second Reading, and let the matter go forward on the basis that it should remove the present statutory bar to the proposals, and they could go forward, then, to planning permission.

7.0 p.m.


My Lords, the first three speakers in this debate spoke as residents and ratepayers of Surrey. I do not know the status of the noble Lord, Lord Helsby, but I am now neither a resident nor a ratepayer of Surrey, and after listening to the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, I think I am rather glad.


My Lords, if I may just interrupt, I am a resident and a ratepayer in Surrey.


In that case, my Lords, I am the first person whose only justification for speaking at all is the fact that I was a Member of Parliament for a Surrey constituency for 20 years. I have a warm affection for the county, and very great respect for the county council. I should like to pay a warm tribute to them for the co-operation they gave me as a Member of Parliament in constituency matters. The last time a Surrey issue came before the House; namely, the retention of Gatwick in the county of Surrey, I was glad that I was able to support the county council. It is, therefore, with some regret that today I find that I cannot.

My Lords, I have not sought to ascertain local opinion in the area I formerly represented, in what might roughly be described as Eastern Surrey. I have not been lobbied by the objectors to the Bill. In fact, my remarks are largely based on the very helpful memorandum which I received from the clerk to the Surrey County Council, sent to me on the instigation of my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford. On listening to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Helsby, I rather suspect that he received the same brief, because I recognised several arguments in his speech. We draw different conclusions.

My Lords, on the merits of the Bill, there are three aspects on which I should like to comment: is a new county hall needed; is Guildford the right site for it; and is the Bill itself necessary and right? Let me say this about the first two matters. In the long run, this must be settled by the ratepayers and electors of Surrey through their own local authorities. But since it has come before Parliament, I think it is quite right for us to be put in a position to comment on the financial aspects, or any other aspects. That is what we are here for, to discuss a Bill that is before us. I therefore feel perfectly entitled to disagree with the arguments put forward in support of this particular site.

My Lords, the first question is, should county hall be moved at all? In that helpful brief I, too, was told that county hall had been extended five times between 1930 and 1963, and that no further extension is possible. The year 1963 is a very significant date. As my noble friend Lord Nugent said, it coincided with the passing of the Greater London Act, which created the Greater London Council at the expense of the contiguous counties which, of course, included Surrey. I remember well the whole incident, as does my noble friend. It caused me a great deal of trouble with my constituents, most of whom were misinformed about the purpose of the Bill. I sat in Committee on the Bill—it was a very exhausting Committee. As a result of the passing of the Greater London Act, Surrey lost one-third of its area, two-thirds of its rateable value, and two-thirds of its population. In the last ten years, many local Government duties have been increased. A few have diminished. Nationally, I believe it is a fact that the staffs in the employment of local government have increased by 40 per cent.

Going back to 1963, would one not expect, after such a truncation, that a county which had lost two-thirds of its population would find a lot of empty space in its county hall? If I were a Surrey ratepayer, I should be very suspicious that Parkinson's Law originated at Kingston-upon-Thames. I cannot but be very sceptical at the idea that a building, adequate to administer a county with a population of 3 million, is too small for a county with under 1 million people. Apart from that, I have no comment at all on the needs of the county.

My Lords, the other question is whether Guildford is the right site. On the point of Kingston-upon-Thames being outside the county, that is, of course, quite true. Of course, it is desirable that one should have the county capital, or whatever it is called, inside the county, but it does happen that there are exceptions. Your Lordships will not forget that Middlesex County Council had its headquarters just across the road for the whole of the 75 years of its existence, for one reason and one reason only; that is, that it was far and away the most convenient meeting place for the county.

Whether Guildford is or is not the right place for the site I do not know. It is arguable. I note in this helpful brief that the old county council consulted the lower tier authorities, 14 of whom, out of 23, favoured Guildford, one only favoured Kingston; I am not told what the other nine thought should happen. That is only 14 out of 23. But since that date there has been a total reorganisation of local government, and I should like to ask whether the Surrey County Council has taken the trouble to consult the new authorities on what their different views are. Are they all now in favour of Guildford? I do not opine too much on this one way or the other, but I think we should bear in mind that from Eastern Surrey—and, after all, one quarter, at least, of the population lives East of Dorking—Kingston is far more convenient than Guildford.

Perhaps on a more flippant note, I could be a little critical of the comment that Guildford is the cultural capital of Surrey; West Surrey, if one wishes, but, as regards Eastern Surrey, I would paraphrase the immortal words of Sam Gold-wyn and say, "include East Surrey out". My noble friend pointed out the—dare I say—empire building going on in Guildford, and I know my noble friend Lord Onslow would be distressed if I made any disparaging remarks about his home town. But when I am told that Guildford is the cultural capital because it now has the university, the cathedral and a theatre, I would make this comment: the university of Surrey, I am afraid, does not impinge very much on the East of the county, which looks to other places; as for the cathedral, the whole of East Surrey is in a different diocese anyway; when it comes to the theatre, if you live anywhere near, shall we say, Redhill, which is the communications centre of Eastern Surrey, it is far quicker to go to the theatre in London or in Brighton or to a concert in Croydon than to go to the theatre at Guildford. So please leave us out of some of these calculations.

I come to my third point: is the Bill necessary and right? It is not, in my view. At this point, if I may, I should like to base my remarks entirely—as did the noble Lord, Lord Helsby, but on a different point—on the wording of the brief. May I perhaps quote: It could be argued that, before Parliament is asked to approve the Bill, Town Planning permission should be sought and obtained. I do so argue. I quote again: On balance … —only on balance, my Lords— … this is not thought to be the appropriate course to follow in the light of advice tendered by Leading Parliamentary Counsel. That advice may be summarised as follows: If Town Planning permission is sought first, the costs to the County Council, the borough council and objectors of presenting their cases at a Public Inquiry will be incurred before it is known whether Parliament is prepared to remove the restrictions". What is to happen to this Bill? The county council, the borough council and the objectors to the Bill will have to present their cases to the Select Committee without knowing whether or not town planning permission will be granted. The alternative is said to be: If Town Planning permission is sought and obtained following the Public Inquiry and the Bill is then to be promoted, petitioners against the Bill will no doubt seek to raise in Parliament Town Planning issues which have been settled under the general legislation. I would say that they have chosen exactly the wrong course, and this was the point I wanted to raise with the noble Lord, Lord Helsby. There is a very big difference between a town planning inquiry and a Bill that comes before Parliament. A town planning inquiry is local. It can be attended by all the local citizens. They can listen in; they can send in their objections, and they can listen better to arguments on the necessity, the siting, the environmental objections, before they embark on what are—let us be frank—ponderous Parliamentary proceedings.

The noble Lord mentioned—he derived it, no doubt, like me, from the brief— the terrible fact that after town planning consent was given the objectors could raise the same objections the second time around. I should have thought that when there had been a town planning inquiry which had gone against them the objectors would get very short shrift from the Select Committee of the House if they sought to rehash arguments that had been fought out appropriately at a local inquiry. I feel, contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Helsby, said, that a town planning inquiry first is far more suitable. The time of Parliament, the highest court in the land, is, or should be, valuable. It should not be wasted on a Bill which is, in effect, an enabling Bill for a project for which there is no definite commitment—or so we were assured, despite what my noble friend says in some of his speeches—for which no costs can possible be given, and which may in the long run never receive town planning permission.

I hope that the Promoters of the Bill will bear in mind that there will be a lengthy Committee stage upstairs; there will then be a Third Reading here. I think that by now the Promoters and the county council know that the Bill is unlikely to have a totally unimpeded passage through the other place. Therefore, quite frankly, like my noble friend Lord Onslow, my advice to Guildford would be to withdraw the Bill as soon as possible.

7.18 p.m.

The Earl of LYTTON

My Lords, it seems to be the mood of speakers to announce their status in relation to Surrey. My status is one of "has-been". The former holdings of my family, some 7.000 acres, have been reduced by death duties to one, and even that one acre is claimed by one of the nine or ten millionaires who proceeded one after the other and sometimes abreast through the remnants of my inheritance and got a good return for so doing. My connection with Surrey is then dead virtually, except that I have—and I should mention it—a residual interest in a piece of land in respect of which planning consent has been finally refused, and therefore I have no favours to curry with the county council.

I happened upon this Bill by accident, because it was put to me by somebody who suggested that I might take some part in an impartial manner, and when that suggestion was withdrawn I found myself with a little acquaintance with the subject. I compared it with my experiences of acquiring land, a great many sites of land on behalf of the Government at one time, and my experience is that there are serious objections to every single site that anybody can possibly choose anywhere. That is invariable, and it is my belief that the borough and the county are united after prolonged study in deciding that this site is the one they favour.

We can always say that the elected representatives do not really represent the people of Surrey—that is a case to argue. But it is absolutely certain that four Peers do not represent them; Guildford have been elected; it is their business. Therefore, I hold that the many admirable arguments such as I have heard at public inquiries over and over again, are most persuasive but they are in the wrong forum. This is not the forum. The public inquiry in the local town is the forum, where you can go to see the site. I have not been to Stoke Park; I do not know where it is, although I know Guildford a little. I have not read a single brief. I rang up the borough council and asked whether they would like to give me some information about their views, but they said that they would rather not. I have come here with only my own wits and the Bill. I have not been briefed; I have not consulted the lawyers.

Subsection (6) on page 2 reads— The purposes of this Act cannot be effected without the authority of Parliament". That I understand to be based—and it is my own judgment, as this is all I have read—on this Schedule. Section 66 of the Act of 1926 has been referred to several times, and it says over the page under a paragraph marked (h) that the borough, may from time to time with the consent of the Secretary of State appropriate all or any portion of Stoke Park for any purpose for which the borough council are now or may hereafter be authorised by statute to acquire and hold lands ". It is because this paragraph refers to a Statute that it has come to us. I suppose that is why it is before us; otherwise it should have been down below at a public inquiry. The following paragraph (i) states: They may with the consent of the Secretary of State appropriate, convey or transfer any part of Stoke Park to the highway authority (within the meaning of Part I of the Highways Act 1959) for the purpose of constructing, widening or improving any public highway. Therefore, with regard to the highway to which the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, referred, it would appear that the consent of the Secretary of State was sufficient for that. But I who am not a lawyer do not know whether or not the technical college which was built some time ago was put up ultra vires.

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, it says at the top of this Section 66, (Powers as to Stoke Park) of the Guildford Corporation Act 1926 as amended and continued. This is the amended Section 66, not the original Section 66 of the 1926 Act.

The Earl of LYTTON

My Lords, the noble Earl is presumably suggesting that the amendment is not viable and does not amend what it is supposed to amend. If it is an amendment, surely it is quite proper to refer to it. Perhaps I mis-described it and he is complaining only of a verbal inaccuracy—or is it one of substance? I should like to go on. I presume that this Bill has to come before us because of this subsection, otherwise I think it is highly inappropriate. Which of us on these Benches can say what is the best site for Guildford? I have no idea myself. What would other people do? I have been on these public inquiries. You view the site, you hear what people have to say on the site and an inspector reports to a Minister.

I have an appeal in the pipeline, but the delay in these things is 18 months from the time of lodging the appeal. If you succeed after 18 months and then some further point arises on which the planning authority refuses permission, a further 18 months expires before you get over that difficulty. It is a preposterous delay, and at the moment I would say that the borough and the county are aiming at something which cannot possibly take place until 1980 at the earliest. The economic climate may be quite different then. We hope to goodness it will be.

In supporting this Bill, which is merely to take away an impediment which prevents these people from considering their choice of sites—something they have chosen themselves—in any rational way, I concede that so far as I am aware anybody here or anywhere else can. for example, put in a planning application to establish a helicopter pad in the grounds of Buckingham Palace, provided they inform Her Majesty. Anybody has this right, whether he has any ownership of not. But until they have control over the land, people do not do this sort of thing unless it is probable that they can achieve it. Therefore I think that to consider it before the Act removes the impediment is to put the cart before the horse. For that reason I have great pleasure in supporting the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford.

7.27 p.m.


My Lords, I thank noble Lords for taking such a close interest in this Private Bill. In particular, I must thank the noble Earl, and the noble Lord, Lord Helsby, for their support. The fact that there is interest and that there are two points of view is not surprising. This is very normal in a major proposition of this kind. This is what the process of Parliament, and indeed the Select Committee, is for and the strength of the views expressed by my noble friends on my side and the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, is characteristic of many who are interested outside and who are opposed to it.

I think the point has been very fairly made by the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, in considering the very large number of signatures to which the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, referred in the organisation which he represents, that the elected bodies, the Surrey County Council elected by the county, and the Guildford Borough Council elected by the borough, have both with a full sense of responsibility decided that this appears to be the best site they can find. It is noteworthy, since we are mentioning figures, that in the Guildford Borough Council the vote was some 31 to 6 with support right across the board from all Parties. I think that the general feeling of responsible opinion in the county is not without support for the scheme, not in any way underestimating the weight of opinion which may be against it.

I turn to the point made by my noble friend Lord Reigate, that the planning appeal should be taken first. This is dealt with in the memorandum sent out by the Surrey County Council and we can all recognise that it is a matter of opinion. The Surrey County Council rightly took the best expert opinion they could get and they followed that advice. I would only make the point that if they had started the other way round and had gone to a planning appeal they would have been in the difficult position of asking the inspector at the public inquiry to consider a site for development against which they were legally debarred. This would have been bound to weaken their prospect of getting a favourable decision on this particular site. That seems to me to be a point which would certainly weigh heavily in my mind, apart from the fact that, as I say, they had taken the best legal advice they could get. I think that they are entitled to be given the benefit of the doubt as to whether they have proceeded in a proper and responsible way.

I turn to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran. It is a little tricky in reading Bills of this kind, but I think that I can help him. Clause 4 does not make the whole of Stoke Park available for development. If the noble Lord will read Clause 4(1) he will see that the second line refers to "any part of the specified land". He will see at the top of the page, in the definition clause, the specified land referred to, and that is defined by reference to the maps which will go with this Bill. In that way, the land is defined as the 35 acres that we have been talking about. I hope that this relieves his anxiety on this technical point.


My Lords, I am obliged for that explanation, but that was not my point. My point was that Clause 4 makes it clear that the purpose of the Bill is to enable the building to be proceeded with no matter where it is. My point is that this is not the time to spend vast sums of money on buildings of this kind.


My Lords, I am sorry if I wasted the time of the House in explaining the technical point which the noble Lord made. With regard to the general point, I think that it would be fair to say that a good deal of the argument was directed against local government generally. Here a responsible local government body are trying to carry out their functions and responsibilities to the best of their ability, and they have taken the view that their prospect of doing so efficiently and economically is prejudiced on their present site outside the county, and so they have put up as a proposition how they might remedy this situation. As to whether this is a responsible thing to do, I should have thought that they ought to be given the benefit of the doubt.

When, or whether, they will be allowed to spend the money to build a new county hall is something about which the Government of the day will have something to say; but that they should make some preparation for doing so some day, when they can, is a responsible action to take. It is in that spirit that I ask this House to give this Bill a Second Reading.

The Earl of ONSLOW

; My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I should just like to say that I had seriously considered dividing the House on Second Reading. I have strong reason to believe, as the noble Lord, Lord Reigate, has already said, that this Bill will get lost in another place, and therefore I thought that it was wrong to waste our time, and the ratepayers' and objectors' money on proceedings upstairs. However, as I had said to the chairman of Surrey County Council a long time ago that I would not divide—even though I wrote to him yesterday and said that I would again seriously consider it—I think that it would be wrong to divide the House at this stage.

However, as I think from this afternoon's debate that the arguments put forward by those of us who are against the Bill are marginally better—or considerably better, although perhaps I am biased—than those put forward by those in favour of the Bill, I feel it right to say that if the Bill gets through Committee, I shall very seriously consider dividing and getting it thrown out on Third Reading.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Select Committee.