HL Deb 01 March 1995 vol 561 cc1478-81

2.51 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have fixed a date for the demolition of the building in Marsham Street which is the headquarters of the Department of the Environment or are they satisfied that the process of decay is proceeding at such a pace as to render such action unnecessary.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Viscount Ullswater)

My Lords, the building at 2 Marsham Street will be demolished following the departure of the current occupants, the Departments of the Environment and Transport. The moves are likely to be completed by Easter 1997. The decision to demolish 2 Marsham Street was announced by the then Secretary of State in February 1992. The decision was taken following an appraisal of the options for the building which concluded that it would be neither cost-effective nor in the interests of the local environment to try to refurbish the existing building.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for that reply. Does he recall that my noble friend Lady Blatch, on that same day, in one of those bold judgments which she is accustomed to make from time to time, went so far as to say that the period in which that building was put up was not the best era of all time for architecture? Is he also aware that that tremendous judgment was capped by an equally bold one from no other than my noble friend the Chief Whip, who said on 3rd November 1992 that the building did not have a very long-term life? All that was absolutely true. I hope that the process of demolition will not be left entirely to nature and the rottenness of the building.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, my noble friend obviously has a great affinity for the building, because this is the fourth Question he has asked on the matter in the past three years. That may be because he was the first tenant of the building when he was Minister for Transport back in 1971. I am sure that, like me, he enjoyed working there because the view from the north tower is quite spectacular.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, the noble Viscount assumes a reasonably early dispersal of the personnel from that building. Can I have some assurance that he will consider the question of distributing more Civil Service jobs outside London to the regions?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, that is perhaps another question. However, I have to advise the noble Lord that the civil servants who currently work at 2 Marsham Street will not be dispersed far. Those at the Department of Transport will move this year to Great Minster, a new building on Horseferry Road. Those at the Department of the Environment will move to Ashdown House on Victoria Street and Eland House on Bressenden Place in 1997, I believe with very good value for money.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, in these days of telephones and faxes, is it necessary to have more than a few advisers in close proximity to a Minister? Are not these vast bureaucratic anthills which cluster around Westminster quite unnecessary in these days? In view of that factor, when the building is demolished, might the area not be dedicated to a much wanted open space?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, perhaps I may answer the last half of the noble and learned Lord's question first. The future of the site is as yet undecided. It will depend on what demand there is from government at the time. I shall take into account his views about retaining the area as an open site.

As to the first part of this question, of course a great many civil servants have been dispersed during the course of the past 15 years. I believe that we need to keep a balance.

Lord Brougham and Vaux

My Lords, regarding what I call the Three Graces of Marsham Street, will my noble friend tell me exactly when the Department of Transport will move to Great Minster House? What remedial work is taking place there? How much is it costing?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I do not have the information regarding what remedial work was done to Great Minster. However, I can confirm that the department is moving to that new building this year. I shall do my best to find out the cost of that and write to my noble friend.

Lord Sefton of Garston

My Lords, does the Minister agree with me that it is not a laughing matter when we decide at considerable cost to pull down a building that has been occupied for only 23 years? Someone should be made answerable for that.

Is the noble Viscount also aware that in September 1992 the Auditor General confirmed with the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee that he would look closely at the proposals to move staff from the building in Marsham Street, and demolish it? Was that done? When was the report published? When will it be published? Will the noble Viscount put a copy in the Library?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, Property Holdings commissioned a review of the options for the building's future. That was undertaken by Arup Associates. It reported in February 1991 that redevelopment was the only option that it could recommend without reservation. The decision to demolish was based on the Arup Report, as I indicated, and the decision was announced by the then Environment Secretary, Mr. Heseltine, on 6th February 1992.

I am afraid to say that it is because of the problem with the design and build methods used to construct 2 Marsham Street and other such buildings—they were common in the late 1960s—that their lifespan has since proved to be short.

Lord Sefton of Garston

My Lords, my question was regarding the Auditor General.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, my noble friend is slightly coy about the redevelopment of 2 Marsham Street. Was not one of the reasons that the building was built there in the first place the fact that it was contaminated land? Will the opportunity be taken to clean up the land in the redevelopment?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, my noble friend is right. It was a gasworks site from 1813. As my noble friend Lady Blatch said when answering a Question at an earlier stage, if the buildings remained, they would probably be listed because it was the first public gasworks. However, my noble friend asks a good question. The towers of 2 Marsham Street are built on the rotundas of two larger gasholders. It is understood that when demolition takes place the base of the rotundas will be removed and contamination will be dealt with at that stage.

Lord Sefton of Garston

My Lords, will the Minister reply to my question? It dealt with the intentions of the Auditor General. It had nothing to do with the history of the building.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, it is right to indicate that, whatever the future of the building, it should represent good value for money for the Government. The choices have to be made as to whether refurbishment is required or whether the site should be redeveloped. The decision was taken on the basis of the Arup Report.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, does the noble Viscount agree that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, makes a serious point: that it would be wise to consider dispersing civil servants, in particular those who are not immediate advisers to Ministers, out of central London? If that point were accepted, would it not be right that the demolition of the building in Marsham Street could take place before the departure of the current occupants?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, yes, I believe that it is important to consider the dispersal of civil servants. However, I believe that we should retain a balance. There is a good opportunity for employment in London on the basis of working in the Civil Service. I do not believe that that should be denied to people. The building is having a certain amount of trouble standing up. However, I am assured that it will do so until the dispersal takes place.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, the noble Viscount has now been asked twice by the noble Lord, Lord Sefton, about the position of the Comptroller and Auditor General. He has not answered. Secondly, he was asked whether a copy of the report will be placed in the Library. Again, he did not answer that question. Could we have an answer to those two questions?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I shall consider the question that the noble Lord asks. I shall check whether the report has been placed in the Library. If it has not, I shall do so.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, bearing in mind that the decision has been taken to demolish the building on 2 Marsham Street, and the obvious need for some form of redevelopment of the site, would it not be useful at this stage for the Government to list the various options for redevelopment and to consult with the people of Westminster, and of London generally, to ascertain their preference as regards what is a key site in the centre of London?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right. There are no detailed proposals for the site as yet. However, it is envisaged that a mixed-use development, perhaps more in keeping with the local area, should replace the current building. An outline planning application was submitted for the site in July 1994. However, I stress that that is purely an outline planning application.