HL Deb 12 December 1994 vol 559 cc1080-4

2.36 p.m.

Lord Plummer of St. Marylebone asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will ensure that the work currently being done within the County Hall on London's south bank to turn the building into a high quality hotel is carried out in accordance with the planning consent which has been given.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, Parliament has determined that it is the responsibility of the appropriate local planning authority to ensure that the work is done in accordance with the relevant planning and listed building consents. English Heritage is satisfied that the work being carried out to the Riverside building is in accordance with listed building consent.

Lord Plummer of St. Marylebone

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. Does he appreciate that County Hall occupies a prime location in the heart of the capital and should not be allowed to lapse into an eastern bazaar? Is he further aware that the Secretary of State for the Environment has published a consultation paper, Quality in Town and Country, and intends to issue guidance to planners requiring them to consider the quality of architecture and buildings, especially in prime locations? In an interview, he added: What might be acceptable in a run of the mill area might not be acceptable in a fine location". Is he aware too that the London Borough of Lambeth is the planning authority and cannot even manage its own affairs? Does he agree that special attention ought to be given to that building of special importance?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, as my noble friend will be aware, the comments which he attributed to the Secretary of State referred to planning policy. It is indeed the case that the Riverside House part of the County Hall complex is an important building. It is in a conservation area and is grade 2 star listed. In order for any change to be carried out to that building which is not in accordance with existing planning permissions and listed building consents, further planning permission and listed building consent would be required. So far as I know, no such application has been made. Were that to happen on such an important site, as my noble friend pointed out, the Secretary of State would have to consider whether he would call it in.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the building was originally built for the purpose of housing London government? Is he further aware that it would be very good if that building could be recovered for the purpose for which it was originally designed? Is he still further aware that an administration which will follow the present one—perhaps a wider administration—will seek to recover the building for its original purpose?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I am indeed aware that County Hall was built as the seat of a pan-London authority. I myself do not claim to have any great connection with it, but my mother was a member of the old LCC for four years between 1949 and 1952. I was born in 1951. So I dare say that I could be said to have played a part in it myself. Parliament determined that the GLC should be abolished and therefore it was. Obviously, it is open to any future parliament to take whatever decision in the future that it thinks best. But the House can rest assured that so long as we on these Benches remain in power the eventuality of that happening is both far distant and unlikely.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that when he was only a twinkle in his father's eye I was actually a member of the London County Council?

Lord Beloff

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the story of the relationships between the London Residuary Body and the Japanese entrepreneurs has been a total disaster? Is it not possible to go back to the far more appropriate scheme of turning this building over to the London School of Economics to give us a major educational edifice on this prime site which would be a credit to the entire country and a magnet for London?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, as I am sure my noble friend is aware, the terms of reference under which the London Residuary Body operates are determined by statute. It was made quite clear that it was the function of the LRB to dispose of any land held by it which was not required by it for carrying out its functions at the best consideration that could be obtained unless the Secretary of State directed otherwise. The best consideration that could be obtained for the County Hall site included the sale of Riverside House to Shirayama. In those circumstances, bearing in mind the previous planning history which included an action in the High Court, I really do not think it would have been proper for the London Residuary Body to have done anything other than it did.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, is the Minister really saying that the best consideration always means the best financial consideration and that no other considerations have to be taken into account when making such a change? Will he pass on to his noble friend Lord Plummer, who made references to Lambeth, the fact that Lambeth is changing very fast, with a sixfold increase in Liberal Democrats on Lambeth Council?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her comments. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Plummer will have heard her observations on the borough. On the question of the best consideration, it would have been extremely difficult to find a convincing and watertight case which would have justified not selling the County Hall site as it was sold.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, following the shambles of the Shirayama deal, will the Minister now agree at least to set up a committee of inquiry to examine the future, as the noble Lord, Lord Plummer, so rightly said, of one of London's most important buildings? Can an acceptable scheme be commercially viable after two such schemes have now collapsed? Should, instead, the building be used for higher education, as the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, suggested, or should it instead become a home for the dozen or so London-wide quangos that replaced the GLC together with the many voluntary and charitable bodies which are looking for a home in London? There are very many options which would bring the building back into public use. Will the Minister now agree to a committee of inquiry to consider them?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, the important point which I think the noble Baroness has overlooked is that the building does not actually belong to the Government. The building is owned by Shirayama, which is entitled to own the building. It is entitled to occupy and carry on activities in that building in accordance with listed building consent and planning permission; there is no evidence to suppose that there have been any problems. In the circumstances, it is rather difficult to see how the kind of proposals being advocated by the noble Baroness could be properly implemented.

Lord Mellish

My Lords, is the Minister aware that this is a particular site? It is not just another site. This is County Hall, which is revered and loved by many Londoners. Is it not a fact that this building ought to be a symbol of local government and all that it represents? It does not matter which party is in power. Surely against that background for the Minister to get up and talk the way he has and waffle the way he has is of no consequence at all.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, the planning permission which I understand Shirayama is currently proposing to implement was granted by the London Borough of Lambeth. It was preceded by another planning permission which was granted by the Secretary of State after two inquiries. That was upheld following an action in the High Court. That is the legal position. Any British citizen who owns a building and has planning permission for it—and not only British citizens but anyone within the realm of Britain—is entitled to implement it.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that many people believe that the GLC was destroyed because of the audacity of the overwhelming majority of Londoners to remain constantly loyal to the Labour Party and always vote Labour, which I can well understand was not liked by the Conservative Party? The Conservatives could never defeat Labour so they thought that they would get rid of the Greater London Council hall. Is the Minister further aware that many London authorities of all political persuasions believe that there ought to be somewhere where they can meet, if only for a few times a year, to discuss problems which affect them all? Will the Government consider that plea and save perhaps a small part of this famous hall for that very worthwhile purpose?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, we on these Benches understand all the noble Lord's comments about people's feelings. Nonetheless, it was Parliament that ended the GLC—

Noble Lords

It was a government Bill!

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, it was a government Bill but it was Parliament that ended the GLC. Therefore, it is for Parliament to put it back if it wishes to do so.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I do not think the Minister should rely on Parliament in that way. After all, the same example applies to the poll tax and to the privatisation of the railways. However, is it not the case that the financial consideration to which the Minister referred as being the prime concern of the London Residuary Body has patently not worked and that after all these years we have a building which is still not occupied, and does not seem likely to be occupied, by its legal owners? Under those circumstances, is it not proper for the Minister to reconsider not only the rights but the obligations of those who have bought the building?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, the noble Lord seems to have a much clearer idea of the intentions and activities of the owners of the building than almost anyone else in the capital city. If he can advise us on that, no doubt we shall be interested to hear from him. However, at the same time—I go back to my earlier point—we are in the position that the building is occupied legally and the activity that is being carried on inside it is being carried on entirely within the law.

Lord Sefton of Garston

My Lords, does the Minister agree that in retrospect perhaps it would have been much better not to have sold the building but to have used it to house government offices rather than pay £100 million more for the monstrosity at Vauxhall Cross in order to house MI5?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, as far as I know, no suggestion was put to the London Residuary Body that County Hall should be used for office purposes and no offer was made.