HL Deb 29 March 1983 vol 440 cc1497-507

5.48 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale rose to move, That the order laid before the House on 17th January 1982 be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, with the complication of the title of this draft order, I hope that I may be allowed to move the Motion standing in my name upon the Order Paper. This order is made under Section 141 of the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980, and effects the transfer of approximately 132 acres of land, known as the Southwark Site, from its present owners—the Greater london Council and Southwark London Borough Council—to the London Docklands Development Corporation.

The Southwark Site was to have been released by the authorities for a major development proposal by Lysander Estates Ltd. Because the local authorities have withdrawn from negotiations with Lysander, that scheme cannot now proceed. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the environment therefore, on 23rd December last, made this order vesting ownership of the site in the London Docklands Development Corporation.

The order was laid before the House on 17th January and it was declared hybrid and was open to be petitioned against for a period of 14 days. Four petitions were received against the order: one from each of the joint owners; one from the Southwark Trades Council; one from the Southwark Docklands Campaign and a number of local tenants associations.

The Greater London Council opposed the order arguing that the site had been the subject of a major private sector development proposal, the details of which had been negotiated between Lysander and the owners. The owners had now withdrawn from those negotiations, and wished to pursue the contingency plan which had been prepared against this eventuality by the borough council. The GLC argued that they were accordingly better placed to secure early development of the site than were the LDDC.

In their petition the GLC also argued that if the order were approved, it would leave in the council's ownership small areas of land which would be severed from the Southwark Site, and that the order incorporated other areas of land which the council required for the construction of the A200 Lower Road improvement scheme. The borough council in their petition similarly argued that, following the withdrawal from negotiations with Lysander, they were best placed to secure early development by implementing their contingency plan which provided for public housing, open space and industrial development.

The Southwark Trades Council argued that the Lysander scheme had always been unsuitable for this site, and that what was needed was industry and public housing related to local needs, which the trades council believed could be provided by the local authorities. The trades council supported the contingency plan prepared by the borough council and further argued that to vest the site in the LDDC would pre-empt the borough's local plan for the North Southwark area. The council also contended that the corporation's performance in the Southwark area could not justify the Secretary of State's belief that the LDDC would secure early development of the site.

The collective petition of the Southwark Docklands Campaign and local tenants associations argued that the Southwark Site should be developed for the benefit of local people and not on the lines of the Lysander proposal. Concern was also expressed that, if vested, the opportunity would be lost for the provision of further public housing, community facilities and industrial development which was related to the needs of people in the borough.

The order and petitions were referred to the Hybrid Instruments Committee of your Lordships' House. They considered whether any substantial ground of complaint was made which merited an inquiry by Select Committee. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State, in his representations to the Hybrid Instruments Committee, pointed out that the development of this site had been one of the matters aired before the previous Select Committee which had considered the designation and constitution order establishing the corporation in the first place and defining the Urban Development Area.

He explained that at the time of those proceedings there was no proposal to vest the site as negotiations were continuing between the local authorities and Lysander, and it appeared that a satisfactory scheme would be agreed and would proceed without delay. However, counsel for the Secretary of State in summing up the Government's case stressed that if this development did not proceed, Southwark's chances of finding another developer must be doubtful. In that case the LDDC would be better placed to secure an alternative development for the site.

In their report the Select Committee agreed that that view was the right one. They also stressed that a change of approach was required in the docklands area, and that the need was to attract private investment. They concluded that the LDDC was more likely to attract that investment than were the local authorities. My right honourable friend explained to the Hybrid Instruments Committee that since the petitions were deposited, assurances had been given to the GLC that in those cases where severance of land may be caused by the vesting order, then the LDDC would purchase that land. The GLC have also been assured that land required for the construction of the A200 Lower Road improvement scheme will be dedicated for highway purposes.

He also explained to the committee that the contingency plan prepared by the local authorities would rely heavily on direct public investment in the provision of services and public housing. The authorities recognised this. My right honourable friend explained that there could be no reasonable expectation that such resources would be available, and in those circumstances it must be doubted that the plan could be implemented. He also referred to the concerns expressed by several of the petitioners regarding the provision of public sector housing in the North Southwark area. He told the committee about the agreement which the corporation had made with Southwark for the provision of improved accommodation, including 550 new dwellings, for many of the borough's tenants in the North Southwark area.

My right honourable friend concluded that the matters referred to in the petitions had been so fully canvassed in the proceedings on the designation order that, having regard to the circumstances in which vesting was now proposed, the petitions disclosed no substantial ground of complaint on any new matter.

As I have said, the petitions, together with my right honourable friend's representations, were considered by the Hybrid Instruments Committee of your Lordships' House. I am sure the House would wish to agree with me in recording our gratitude to those noble Lords who sat on that committee for the careful consideration that they gave to the many points raised by petitioners. In that consideration the committee took the view that none of the points raised was of such substance as to require investigation by a Select Committee. Therefore, I beg to move.

Moved, That the London Docklands Development Corporation (Vesting of Land) (Greater London Council and Southwark London Borough Council) Order 1982, laid before the House on 17th January 1982 be approved.—(Lord Skelmersdale.)

5.55 p.m.

Lord Bishopston

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord for having outlined the matter before the House. He may recall that on previous occasions when I have spoken to these orders of the London Docklands Development Corporation and, indeed, to the Merseyside orders, I have expressed some concern that the methods of ensuring progress should be such as to get the full support of the local community as well as adequate resources to carry out the job. This debate is really about the needs of the people of this area of dockland and how they can best be accommodated. Of course, their needs are a rejuvenated area, brought to life with essential amenities, and they include the development of industrial sites in order to bring work and jobs. The needs include housing development by the public authority for those in the greatest need, taken as a social service and not merely as a profitable venture. Of course, there is the need to develop leisure and other amenities.

On the question of how that task can best be carried out, I think that we should bear in mind the need for local people to feel that they have a part to play in order that the experience and the unique interests and skills of local people can be matched to the task. To get local involvement from the start is the best way to get people working together for the common good. We believe that the task cannot and ought not to be attempted by imposing a régime from the top. We know that in some parts of the country development corporations have been set up which, of course, include the LDDC and, as I said earlier, the Merseyside Corporation, and so on. They have a special task to perform and have needed the powers and sometimes the resources which the Government have given them. However, unlike local authorities, they are not run by elected people answerable to the community which they seek to serve. They cannot be as responsive; they cannot have the unique experience of locally-elected representatives who have to meet, to listen to and, indeed, to react to local opinion. They are answerable to no one except the Secretary of State, who of course has many other things to do, and who is remote from the situation.

The land in question is valuable, especially for developers. Of course, private developers are not only concerned about the purpose of development; they are concerned even more about making profits. One does not criticise that, but it is not the main point. They look for a good financial return on their investment. In some situations that is commendable, but in this case it is not a matter of having to accept such a proposition in order to get development going and the needs of the people met. There is another alternative, a better one, which has not had a full hearing in the debate taking place.

The development of an area is not only a matter of providing development in the sense of building industrial buildings and factories or of building houses. There is the need for utilities, roads, public services and amenity services as well, aspects which are not always profitable in the financial sense. In this area we are concerned with providing a social service for the people who live there and, indeed, for those who might be invited to come in and rejuvenate the run-down area.

On the matter of the resources being available, to which the noble Lord referred, the infrastructure is already in the state of provision. I understand that, contrary to the view that has been expressed to justify the development role of the LDDC, as a quicker way of getting things moving the London Borough of Southwark has moved with quite remarkable speed substantially to develop the infrastructure for the Southwark Site and for the surrounding area of the Surrey Docks. Further work is due to start this month on the final clearance of the site and the demolition of warehouses, and so there has been a considerable amount of work undertaken already.

The present owners of the 130-acre site, to which the noble Lord made reference, are the Southwark Borough Council and, of course, the Greater London Council. This land was acquired after the closing of the Surrey Docks in 1969 from the Port of London Authority, and is therefore already in public ownership. There have been several attempts at development, and Lysander Estates Limited, to which the noble Lord made reference, agreed in April 1981 to build major shopping, industrial and office development, but this has not been proceeded with after even protracted negotiations, so that really is not an alternative.

Failing progress for private development the two local authorities, Southwark and the GLC, have been going ahead with an alternative plan. Those authorities and others have petitioned against the vesting order, and the matter has been looked at by the Hybrid Instruments Select Committee, who say that the petitions do not warrant further investigation by a Select Committee. Therefore, the debates in the other place and in this House are the only means by which the two authorities, and indeed other petitioners, can have their views aired, and they are very concerned that they will not get a chance of putting their point of view as people concerned with that immediate area.

Trammell Crow, the original potential developers, dropped out in 1976 for financial reasons. As Lysander have not proceeded as private developers in view of the problems likely to be faced by any private developers, what makes the Government think that trying private development through the LDDC will be a better, more desirable alternative, and will make greater progress? The noble Lord should say how they anticipate getting public support for their plans through the LDDC, and how they will consult those in the area who they exist to serve.

There has been no immediate rush for alternative private development. The potential negotiations to which I have made reference have fallen down. The LDDC and, indeed, the Government should learn a lesson from local authority experience with Lysander, for Lysander wanted quite drastic changes in several important aspects, including a reduction in the premium and licence fee they should pay the councils for development, changes in rent reviews, changes in leases, changes in plans and changes in arbitration and other procedures and powers, which would not have been in the best interests of the local area. It was reasonable that in the circumstances the local councils should want to get ahead with the development themselves, and of course they already have the powers to do so. Why not allow them to get on with the job? They have the powers; they have the resources; and, most importantly, they have local authority representation and accountability to the public, which of course the LDDC does not have.

They do not want a repeat of the Lysander experience, where, after protracted negotiations, the potential developer wanted a review of the proposals which would have meant a much poorer financial settlement for the authorities as well as loss of control over development of the land and resources. If one looks at the list of complaints of the local authorities in relation to the Lysander situation, one can understand their concern. It is not a case that Lysander wanted revisions because of delays in the road programme for the adjoining area. The point I want to make there is that there has already been a fair amount of work by the Southwark Council in the area of the Surrey Docks. There have been site preparation works, new sewers, gas services, the removal of silt and dock repairs. Then there are the community facilities: landscaping, grants for local community organisations, improvements and so forth; housing, 281 new family homes with gardens; industry, 10 new factory units and the reconstruction of approach roads to the area, the construction of a new distributor road, the Salter Road; and, finally, open space and environmental improvements. Altogether the amount expended runs into about £34 million. This represents a realistic and viable plan, and the implementation has already begun with the considerable investment to which I have made reference.

There is the councils' plan, agreed in consultation with the local people through locally elected representatives, and plans for the creation of 2,000 jobs by industrial development, with the GLC Enterprise Board contributing to the major investment; and housing, with over 700 dwellings with local authority houses, gardens and amenities at rents people can afford. We shall be told that there are already many such houses publicly owned in the area. Surely what matters is not who owns the houses but whether those most in need of them in the area can afford to have them, or whether some will be able to jump the queue with money.

If the Government say that they are proud of the fact that they are giving local authorities with housing the chance to sell their houses, then surely the best way here is to have rented accommodation. If it is true, of course, that those who want to buy can purchase, then the Government have already provided the means for them to do so. If the houses built are only to be sold, then this means that local people who have not the means to buy a house but who would like to live and to work in the area are deprived of that essential right.

The council has made considerable progress with dock filling and with the consolidation of the dock basins, running to over £3½ million in the Surrey Docks site. A lot of work has been done by the local authority. The local authority is only asking to have the opportunity to carry that development on instead of having it taken away by the LDDC and developed with different prospectives in mind.

Finally, I want to put a few questions to the Minister. Will he accept that the main reasons for creating the LDDC is to enable it to use powers and resources not available to other authorities? Will he accept that where other authorities have such powers, and have such resources, it is much more preferable for them to use them because they have the major advantage which the development corporations do not have, and that is that they have local people to whom they are responsible working with them?

Would the noble Lord accept the view I have expressed on previous orders that it is far better to have local authorities running these projects when they have the power to do so, because they can consult with local people? They have not only the members but also the officers in their local departments who have experience of the local situation, and this is a great advantage. I wonder why, in this particular order, the matter was not pursued by a Select Committee hearing evidence from the local authorities and from the many other organisations who were concerned?

Will the Minister come back to Parliament, as being the only forum that the Government have used for this order, to report on the proposals which the LDDC may consider necessary later? Because if there are no other means of consulting local opinion via the locally elected representatives, the councillors, then the only way is to get the views of the elected Members of Parliament. Having been elected to power, as the Government have, with the slogan that the Government of the day do not always know best and that there should be decentralisation of power from Whitehall to local authorities, will the Government stop taking power to themselves continually and stop appointing people through the Secretary of State instead of using locally elected representatives?

The House has a right to know the answers to some of these questions. The Government must be brought to realise that power should be used as a means to an end and not as an end in itself; and it is best used when exercised by people for people. Surely that is the best way to progress with harmony, which is necessary for future progress. I believe that the Southwark Borough Council and the GLC plan is the best for progress in the situation we are discussing, and that there really is no case for this order to be pursued. I hope that the Minister will recognise the genuine concern of so many people of all sorts, and will provide some of the assurances we seek.

6.10 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Bishopston, spent almost the whole of his speech on the subject of the LDDC, whereas what the order is about—and what I understood the debate would be about—it is whether the LDDC is an appropriate organisation to develop this site.

Lord Bishopston

That is what I am asking, my Lords.

Lord Skelmersdale

I shall come to that shortly, my Lords. To be fair, I should add that later in his speech the noble Lord made that point.

The docklands corporation was established under the Local Government (Planning and Land) Act 1980 and was charged with the task of the regeneration of its area. That was two and a half years ago, and up to that time I remember well going to docklands and seeing the absolute devastation that had been built up over the years since the war. The corporation's task was to be achieved particularly by bringing land and buildings into use and by encouraging the development of existing and new industry and commerce, so creating an attractive environment and ensuring that housing and social facilities would be available to encourage people to live and work in the area.

Southwark is the local council, as the noble Lord rightly pointed out, but what I cannot see when I look at the District Auditor's report is why he should say that the council is willing and able to develop the site. The District Auditor recently reported that Southwark has about 120 acres of vacant land, excluding this site. Moreover, Southwark is top of the league of London boroughs for empty properties, having 4,500 in its area. It is also top of the league with hard to let properties, with about 14,000 of them. It is a long-standing concern of the Government, as the House knows, that housing authorities should concentrate on improving their present housing stock before increasing it.

The corporation is firmly committed to the regeneration of this part of docklands. For this to take place, the site must first be cleared of contaminated silt, levelled, consolidated and generally prepared for development. The LDDC is already funding the completion of a distributor road in the Surrey Docks area at a cost of approximately £1 ½ million, and these works will cost a further £1 million. The corporation would have commenced a full survey of the site to identify the extent of the site clearance necessary, but an application to the local authorities for permission to enter the site was refused.

The LDDC has commissioned two leading firms of planning consultants and chartered surveyors who are advising on development options for the site. This will ensure that the site's development potential is realised as quickly as possible, utilising the private investment which was clearly identified by the Select Committee as being necessary for the regeneration of the area.

The noble Lord, Lord Bishopston, almost went so far as to charge the Government with a little impropriety over seeking to make this vesting order. It is true that the Government are opposed to the contingency plan about which we have been talking; the plan relies heavily on public resources which simply are not available. There is a great shortage of private sector housing in docklands generally. In this immediate area, only 2 per cent. is owner-occupied. There was no derelict land grant which could be given to Southwark Council for this site because to qualify for the supplementary programme for 1982–83, schemes must have been completed or substantially completed by 1st March 1983. It was obvious from Southwark's application that only a small proportion of the expenditure would have been incurred in this financial year, so my department was unable to approve the grant. There is also very little prospect that sums of this magnitude will be available in 1983–84 for schemes of this type.

The noble Lord then said—I think I heard him correctly—that it was better for local authorities to run projects of this sort. I hope I have shown the House that that is not so, and that is exactly why the LDDC was set up two and a half years ago—because that simply did not happen. He then spoke about the need for local involvement. The LDDC consults widely on development proposals. Borough officers are seconded to the LDDC for their local knowledge. The 1980 Act requires members of the board to be appointed who have local knowledge. Therefore I most certainly rebut the charge that the development corporation is lacking in local knowledge and does not do its job of finding out what the local people really want.

Lord Bishopston

My Lords, will the Minister accept that having local knowledge is not good enough? After all, what we are talking about is accountability. If there are locally elected representatives who are in touch with and answerable to the people, that is more democratic than appointing members to the LDDC and trying to get them to work in an environment which is not always harmonious. Regarding the vacant properties of which the noble Lord spoke, it obviously follows that while local authorities are going ahead with improvements to houses and other buildings in their areas, those properties will be vacant. It is authorities which do not do much which can boast that they have few vacant properties, although they have people living in substandard conditions.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I shall obviously have to go to docklands—

Lord Bishopston

The Minister certainly shall.

Lord Skelmersdale

—and take the noble Lord with me.

Lord Bishopston

I have been there.

Lord George-Brown

May I come too?

Lord Skelmersdale

Of the housing to which I was referring, my Lords, I should be very surprised indeed to find that the reason why most were empty was that they were being redeveloped, improved or whatever; rather, I think we should find they were empty because people were not prepared to live in them, or they were unsafe to live in, and they were not being improved. However, as I said, I shall take the point the noble Lord made firmly on board and go and look for myself.

As for accountability, my feeling is that it cannot always be measured in terms of direct application to people. That may sound a rather strange thing to say; I am really saying that what should happen is what is best for the site, for the local population and for those people who are not yet in the local population but who will, we hope—and the LDDC is determined it should happen—go into the area to live. It is also important that there should be a mix of housing and industrial and commercial property, on both the public and private sides; and that is what the LDDC intends to develop in the areas vested in it.

As for resources, the powers and resources are provided by Parliament. The Select Committee considered this point and agreed that the docklands corporation should be set up. That committee recognised that these powers were necessary. I should add, on the subject of housing, that the development corporation is emphatically not a housing authority.

6.20 p.m.

Lord George-Brown

My Lords, may I throw myself on the mercy of the House. Other business—committee business—in the House kept me from coming into this debate as early as I should have liked. Perhaps the House will be courteous enough to listen to me for a minute or two. It just happens that I am a Southwark boy; it just happens that Bob Mellish, who is the deputy chairman of the LDDC, is a Surrey Docks, Bermondsey, boy. Between us we have knowledge of what has happened, of what is needed, which (with the greatest respect to the noble Lords, Lord Bishopston and Lord Skelmersdale) is not naturally available to them; although, obviously, it can be acquired.

There are two points that I want to make very briefly, since I do not want to trespass on the courtesy of the House. The Southwark Council has not shown any very great interest in the regeneration of the area and neither have the other local authorities in the area covered by the docklands corporation, an area which, of course, is wider than just the Surrey Docks and Southwark Council. There is, and has been for ages, tremendous conflict between Tower Hamlets, Southwark and the other local authorities who have got in each other's way; and, as the Minister has said, there has been for a very long time a total run down of our area which has much distressed us.

May I say to my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Bishopston, that it is not necessarily true that by giving the authority to a local authority—and they are interested in many other things; there are many political ideologies opeating within that authority; and I can tell him that there have been many political conflicts in that area—because they are a democratically "elected" authority; that you therefore get more dynamism or more action. In fact you get, and we have got, less.

Had I still been a Labour Minister, and especially had I still been the Minister for Economic Affairs, I think that I would have taken this as one of the classic cases for appointing an authority which includes local representatives, local people, but also with people with business and other experience to do a job which local bureaucracy simply cannot do. Whether houses are publicly-owned, privately-owned, rented or self-owned is, in a way, interesting; but it is also, in a way, incidental.

What is necessary in the Surrey Docks area, and necessary in the whole river basin area right down to Limehouse Reach, is some concentration on introducing industry and commerce so that people have a reason for going there. All that has happened up till now has been (to use a horrid word) the "gentrification" of certain parts of it where people—let us face it! Socialists as well as others—have bought houses in those limited gentrified areas. But the place has gone on decaying as an industrial and commercial area.

The docklands corporation is in consonance with Labour Party views. When I was in the party, we had invisaged such authorities. The chairman of this one is (if you like) a capitalist. I do not know whether or not he is a Tory. I have not asked him. I know him. But he is a dynamic personality who gets things done; and he has a social conscience. The deputy chairman is one of us, one who knows the area inside out and cares deeply for it. There are members on it who know the authority. They are getting on with the job. They are more likely to attract commerce and industry to it than are the Southwark Council or any other councils in the area. I think that it is an exciting idea. I think that it is much more likely to work if we encourage it to work and give it resources and backing. Knowing the area so well—I do not live there any more but a large part of my family does so—I have to tell the House that something is happening; something is stirring in dockland. And that has not happened under the Southwark Council, the Tower Hamlets Council or under any of the local authorities, for quite a long time.

I have no doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Bishopston, has a very well prepared brief from the Southwark Council; but I must tell him that the officers of the local authorities are delighted, quite thrilled, by the fact that somebody is getting on with the job. I do not want to put anybody's job at risk; the Southwark Council is a pretty vicious authority; the public members do not hesitate very much about disciplining people with whom they do not agree; but I can assure him from personal knowledge that the officers are thrilled that somebody is getting on with the job, is consulting them, listening to them and putting their ideas into practice. There is really no party point in this.

I simply suggest to my colleagues—at any rate, to those who were once my colleagues; and some of them still are—do not get in the way! This is a public corporation; it is a publicly responsible corporation. That was never out of favour with us. At the end it is accountable. It is more accountable than either the Southwark Council or the GLC in point of fact. I should like to suggest to my colleagues in my ex-party: do not get in the way here. Something is happening, something is moving, in a deprived area, a deprived area to which I belong, in which I was born; to which Bob Mellish belongs and in which he was born. Something is moving; let us help it move.

The fact that the councillors of Southwark feel slightly put out—or, to be more exact one or two rather (if I may say so) odd leaders of Southwark Council are put out—is neither here nor there. Let the work of regeneration go on. Let us get commercial interests into the area. Then people will want to live there, then the local authorities, if they want to do their housing job, can do their housing job. As the Minister has said, the docklands corporation is not a housing authority. The housing authorities can do their job. The important thing is to regenerate the area and I believe that the docklands corporation will do it. I know that none of the local authorities has done it. I thank the House for its courtesy.

On Question, Motion agreed to.