HL Deb 19 July 1977 vol 386 cc186-97

3.15 p.m.

Report received.

Clause 1 [Continuance in force of provisions relating to control of office development]:

Baroness YOUNG moved Amendment No. 1: Page 1, line 12, leave out ("seventeen") and insert ("fifteen").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I must apologise to the House for returning to this very narrow point on a relatively narrow Bill. We had considerable discussion on this at Committee stage, but, having had a chance to read the Committee proceedings, I did not feel very happy about the arguments which were put up then, and I felt it only right that we should return with a slightly differently drafted Amendment on Report. The difference between our Amendment on this occasion and that on Committee is that this time we are suggesting that the office development permit system should last for another three years only, instead of, as we originally proposed, two years, as compared with the proposal of the Government that it should be kept for another five years, with presumably the alternative then of renewing yet again.

On this point, the reason that the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, gave for not accepting our original Amendment was that there was a very great need for office development in assisted areas, which are defined as either being areas that are known as special development areas or development areas, or intermediate areas, in each case where unemployment is high. However, when we looked at the figures it was perfectly clear that no office development had taken place in any of these areas up to 1972, and the reason why office developments had taken place since then was that the Department of Trade and Industry had in fact given grants to firms wishing to develop offices in those particular areas, and the effect of the grants, coupled with the work of the Location of Offices Bureau, had meant that firms had moved out.

The noble Baroness was not able to produce any evidence at all that the whole negative control of office development permits had helped, and it is because we have not had any evidence that it seemed to myself and my noble friends on this side of the House that it was not good enough to continue this piece of bureaucracy, which really was not doing any good at all, when it was not necessary. The real control on office development rests with the local planning authorities, which can decide whether or not they wish the development at all. They have very powerful planning laws at their disposal, and they can therefore determine whether or not an office shall go in any particular place; and it would certainly answer the problem that there could well be too many offices in London.

This, again, was one of the arguments put up, and I noticed, on reading the Official Report of our proceedings on the 12th July, at column 860, that the noble Baroness said: … the unemployment percentage for the whole of the GLC area is 4 per cent., in the special development areas it is 10.1 per cent., in the development areas 8.9 per cent., and in the intermediate areas 5.9 per cent."; and she used her argument to show that unemployment was nothing like as high in the Greater London area as it is in others. I thought at the time that this could possibly be thought to be somewhat misleading, because Greater London includes central and inner London as well as outer London, where, of course, the position is quite different.

I have now had the opportunity to check the unemployment figures for central and inner London, the two areas that were referred to by her noble friend Lady Stedman, when we were talking about the order for the Location of Offices Bureau, as being two areas in which the Government wished to encourage office development. The Greater London Council has not based its unemployment rates precisely upon the Department of Employment formula for calculating unemployment, which expresses the registered unemployed as a percentage of those working in each area. The GLC has taken a residence basis for each area. On this basis, inner and central London have very high unemployment rates, indeed. Looking at places like Canning Town, with 9.7, East Ham, with 5.1 Hackney, with 7.4, Holloway, with 10.2, Poplar, with 14.1 and Stepney, with 12.7, it is easy to see that unemployment in central and inner London is just as high as in the development areas. Therefore, it is not necessarily to the advantage of the unemployed that offices should be moved away from central London. I believe that the argument on unemployment is not one that can be substantiated and I think that we should look at this again.

I then asked the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, to tell me the circumstances in which she felt that the office development permit system could be dropped. She said at the beginning of her remarks in col. 859 that the office development permit system should be maintained if the economy picked up and that, as it was expected to pick up within the next two years, the system should be maintained in order that there should not be too many offices in Greater London or elsewhere. Later in her remarks, having been asked when she thought there would be a relaxation in the office development permit set-up she said: I should say that this would be when we get an upturn in the economy …"—[Official Report, 12/7/77; col. 868.]

It is difficult for those of us who are trying to consider the length of time that the office development permit procedures should hold to be told that they should be maintained if the economy picks up, because it will be a good thing to have them, and at the same time to be told, that they should be relaxed if the economy picks up because it will not be necessary to have them.

One cannot argue both ways in one speech. For that reason, I have put down my Amendment. I think that the House is entitled to know what the Government believe about this matter and whether they are hanging on to quite unnecessary controls that are not wanted by local government, will not assist the unemployed and certainly will not help the very serious situation existing in inner London. I beg to move.

The Earl of KINNOULL

My Lords, I rise to support my noble friend in her usual persuasive speech. I find myself more and more passionate about this small Bill as each stage goes by. I am passionate because, on each successive occasion, the Government case seems to become weaker and more threadbare, and the need for the continuation of office development permits appears more unproven. I think that it was on the last occasion that the noble Baroness's case became so threadbare and the paucity of her argument such that she was reduced to claiming that the Opposition were simply using dogma as a reason for their objection.

That is uncharacteristic of the noble Baroness who always delights us with her presentation, her preparation and her wit. I myself suspect that her advisers had unguardedly said that this was a small Bill which would go through the House of Lords "on the nod" and that they would not bore her with hard facts or figures, for that would only widen the argument. How far have they misjudged the vigilance of my noble friends Lady Young and Lord Sandys in scrutinising the stream of indifferent Bills which have come before this House during the present Session!

In 1972, Parliament approved the continuation for another five years of office development permits. It was then, I think, satisfactorily proved that there was a real need for this system. Today, we look again to see whether another five years should be granted. I am sure that the noble Baroness would agree that we are entitled to ask the question: "Why another five years?"—and to be convinced by the answer. What is the real evidence? Are the office development permits really proving a positive achievement in the general strategy of the Government? The noble Baroness' reply so far is that office development permits are a vital component in her three-pronged strategy to help assisted areas.

My Lords, that is all very well except that the noble Baroness produces no evidence to show why it is so vital. Why, for instance—and this is a point which always occurs to me—cannot the planners look after the planning? Why should the Government come in with office development permits in relation to which there is no right of appeal and no time sanction by which the permits must be granted?

I feel passionately that the office development permits introduced in 1965 are now a worn-out, negative and irrelevant part of our planning procedures. Conditions today no longer demand office development permits; the assisted areas could be assisted with far greater effect by other positive means and, indeed, the three-pronged strategy has now only two prongs left.

My noble friend's Amendment is a very reasonable Amendment. It seeks to allow Parliament a further three rather than five years to consider office development permits. The last time this was discussed, the noble Baroness assured the House that, of course, it might well be that the life of the office development permit would be ended will before five years. I do not know whether that was the undertaking; but we should have a great deal more confidence if we felt that the Government had another five years' life. I hope that my noble friend will stand firm on this Amendment. I think that it is a reasonable Amendment and that it would be of great benefit to planning as a whole.

3.28 p.m.


My Lords, may I first thank the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, for his very kind remarks? I find it difficult to be witty about this Bill. Somehow, it does not lend itself to wit. As the noble Baroness, Lady Young, has said, we have been over this ground before. I would not say that the arguments were threadbare; it is that the ground has become bare from so many years of treading over it in our discussions as to whether controls should or should not remain.

I think that we must be quite frank about this. There is a complete divergence of opinion over this whole subject. The Opposition would much prefer not to have any controls at all. At the Committee stage, the noble Baroness moved an Amendment to cut down the period from five years to two years; that Amendment was not pressed. Now, as she has said, she has looked again at the matter and has come back with a period or three years. It seems to me that whether you say three years or two years does not make much difference. She and her supporters make no secret of the fact that they dislike the system and they use every argument against it.

We believe that it is a necessary part of the strategy. On the argument on which the noble Baroness based most of her case for a three-year period, if we get an upturn in the economy in the next year or two, it will be or vital importance that office accommodation and building should be steered—and this would mean commerce and work and employment—to the assisted areas during and after that time. You do not, at the beginning of an upsurge, suddenly stop your controls which are beginning to work and say: "We will not do anything about this", and have a free-for-all.

Regarding unemployment, I am sorry that the noble Baroness thought that she was being misled. I do not think that she was misled at all. What I had said was that the unemployment percentage for the whole of the GLC is 4 per cent. I had also said that it is true that in some areas of London unemployment is extremely high. I also explained, in a different part of the Committee stage, that parts of the inner areas of London were treated as assisted areas, whereas what we were talking about were the attractive places where people want to build office blocks, which is in Central London and the City.

I said that in the special development areas the unemployment figures are 10.1 per cent.; in the development areas, 8.9 per cent.: and in the intermediate areas, 5.9 per cent. I am not undermining the argument that in some areas of London unemployment is extremely high, but if you take the area represented for so many years by my noble friend the Leader of the House, Workington, the unemployment figure is 14 per cent. The noble Baroness, Lady Ward of North Tyneside, will support what is happening in the North-East and over the rest of the country. This is not an argument for saying that it is better to be unemployed in London than to be unemployed in Newcastle or Workington. Nevertheless, it is a fact that it is easier to find office jobs in London than it is outside London.

Therefore I am afraid that the argument against three years is, so far as I am concerned, exactly the same as the argument against two years. As you know, in recent months the Government have been looking closely at the office employment location policy. It is perfectly true that the grants made by the Department of Industry—which have now been increased—are a great incentive for industry to locate itself in the assisted areas. Nevertheless, we believe that the three things together, the Location of Offices Bureau Advisory Service—which has been praised all round the House—the industrial grants, and the ODPs must work together.

What we do not know, and it is impossible to find out but it has very great importance, is how far the existence of ODP control acts, if you like, as a deterrent to attempt to build offices in the Central London area and the South-East. Take the case of somebody who wants to build an office block. He may decide that he is not even going to apply for an ODP because he knows exactly what the form is and that it is very unlikely that he will get one. It is not possible for that to be shown up in statistics. Nevertheless, it is something which the Government consider extremely relevant, and that is one of the reasons why we are anxious to keep these controls for another five years.

This does not mean that it is mandatory for the controls to exist for five years, because at any time by order the control can cease. The noble Baroness said this was a narrow point in a narrow Bill. We are now at the stage, with her increase from two years to three years, of asking: "What is all the fuss about? Why not then settle for five years, which is the Government's view and is in the Bill? "If at any time during that five years it is possible to lift the controls—and there is no point in having controls if you have a surging economy, and are trying to build up employment, industry and commerce everywhere—the Government will bring the controls to an end. For these reasons, I ask the House to resist the Amendment and leave the Bill as it is.

3.35 p.m.

Baroness YOUNG

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, for the trouble that she has taken over her reply. She began by saying that she felt there was a divergence of opinion between us on this matter; yet she knows as well as I do that this particular Amendment has all-Party support from the Great London Council. It is not one which has divided the Parties in local government, although it may in national Government.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, just to get this clear, I was referring to the political philosophy behind the divergence so far as national Government are concerned. In order not to take up more time, I did not go over what we discussed about the GLC. It would be extraordinary if the GLC, representing London, did not take this view.

Baroness YOUNG

My Lords, I am not sure that I would think that was very extraordinary. In my experience of local government, it is not always unanimous in its views on these matters. However, that is a fact on this case and we do not need to debate this. It is something which has the support of all Parties on the GLC. The argument on this Amendment is an attempt to find a compromise out of the two views that have been expressed. I and my colleagues believe that this is an unnecessary system of control which has outlived its usefulness.

The noble Baroness has not produced any facts to support her case that office development has taken place in the assisted areas because of the ODP system. She said that it was not possible to show this in statistics, but the Government thought that it was important. As my honourable friend Mr. Rossi said in another place, not one office of 10,000 square feet or more, for which an ODP had been refused, had ever found its way out of the South-East. He said that the way to get these developments in the assisted areas—and it is a point I support and should like to see implemented—is by giving Government grants and by the work of the Location of Offices Bureau. He said that we should not forget London because, terrible as unemployment is in the North-East—and we have all this as a background to our minds—it also rises to over 14 per cent. in parts of London. He also said that unemployment, wherever it is, is a terrible thing so we want to do all we can to help developments wherever they may help to end unemployment, which at the end of the day will only be helped if more jobs are created.

I was concerned because the noble Baroness repeated yet again the contention that, if there was an upturn in the economy, the ODP system would be necessary and, if there was an upturn in the economy, it could be relaxed. She used one argument at the beginning of her speech and one at the end. I have the feeling that it is not the Government's intention to relax this system.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Baroness again. What I said was that if there was an upsurge in the economy, it would be wrong to relax the ODP controls immediately. I said that there had to be an opportunity for the boom to continue. I said specifically that to stop it immediately could have counter-productive effects.

Baroness YOUNG

My Lords, we are agreed on this point, and that is why we put in the three-year principle for the ODP system to be introduced. We have considered this matter carefully. It is something about which our colleagues in local

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government feel strongly. We believe it is a negative control which has outlived its usefulness and on this Amendment we should like to test the feeling of the House.

3.39 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said Amendment shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 87; Not-Contents, 71.

Resolved in the affirmative, and Amendment agreed to accordingly.

3.47 p.m.


My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen and His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales that they, having been informed of the purport of the Control of Office Development Bill, have consented to place their prerogative and interests, so far as they are concerned on behalf of the Crown, of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Duchy of Cornwall, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.

Then, Standing Order No. 43 having been suspended (pursuant to Resolution), Bill read 3a with the Amendment, and passed and returned to the Commons.