HL Deb 19 November 1996 vol 575 cc1191-5

3.5 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to consult Parliament and the wider public about the future of the Crown estate in Whitehall.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Earl Howe)

My Lords, as my noble friend Lady Miller of Hendon explained to the House on 15th October, it is for individual departments to be responsible for the future of their Whitehall buildings. It is therefore for them to inform and consult, as appropriate, about any proposals they may put forward. Those would be subject to the normal planning procedures applying to Crown buildings, including requirements for local publicity.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, will the Minister accept that the future of the core Crown estate in Whitehall is rather different from the future of government buildings sold off in Newcastle, Southampton or Croydon and that they should not be treated in exactly the same way? Will the Minister give an undertaking that before further possible privatisation, either by freehold or leasehold, of Crown estate buildings in the Whitehall area proceeds further, this House and the other place should be consulted, preferably in written form?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that where listed buildings are involved there are sensitivities. As I am sure he is aware, all government buildings on Whitehall are listed either as Grade II, Grade II* or Grade I. There are, therefore, procedures to be adhered to which would not apply to unlisted buildings.

As to the second question, I believe that I can reassure the noble Lord that the public consultation that takes place on such proposals is exactly the same as it would be if the Crown were subject to statutory procedures. The procedures that the Crown has elected to go through do not differ in any respect from the statutory procedures. That entails consulting all formal consultees, including English Heritage. In the end, any proposals for government buildings are subject to endorsement by Ministers and Ministers are accountable to Parliament for their actions.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, may I ask the Minister what is to be the future of the Treasury building? Is it proposed to sell it off? Is he aware that the evasive answers given the last time the matter came up have given cause for great concern?

Earl Howe

My Lords, as the Treasury announced on 13th September, it has appointed Exchequer Partnership plc to redevelop its headquarters building in Whitehall. Following completion of the necessary clarification process, the Treasury aims to sign heads of terms with Exchequer Partnership shortly. A further announcement will be made then. Any public consultation will, after that point, be a matter for the local planning authority, as I explained.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford

My Lords, will the noble Earl say when the Government will stop touting around parts of our national heritage like some bucket shop estate agent, especially at a moment when our economy is booming with the unexpected extra tax revenue? Have the Government no shame at all in the matter?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, will accept that the Government have a duty to maintain their buildings and to occupy them in an efficient manner. Where it is necessary to spend substantial sums of money on a particular building, the Government have a duty to examine and assess those options which seem likely to provide good value for money for the taxpayer. That is all we are talking about here.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, can my noble friend tell us how the Treasury's independent action in appointing Exchequer Partnership, or whatever it is called, squares with the work of the new Property Advisers to the Civil Estate who, according to the OPS report, are responsible for promoting best practice in the management of government property and for disposing of inherited vacant property at best value? That in itself is disconcerting and gives rise to concern. Will he explain why, if one has gone to the trouble of disposing of the PSA and appointing these splendid new agencies, it is then found necessary for independent Ministers to make their own independent arrangements?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I believe I can put my noble friend's mind at rest. PACE, the Property Advisers to the Civil Estate, is an executive agency of the Office of Public Service. Its primary role is to co-ordinate activity on the government civil estate where Exchequer savings can be demonstrated. It also has other functions, to some of which my noble friend alluded. But that role is rather different from the role of a private finance initiative partner. The PFI aims to promote efficiency, improve services and stimulate flows of investment. The private sector will bring to the table its management skills, entrepreneurial flair and capital. By working in partnership with it, we have the opportunity to maximise value for money for the taxpayer.

Lord Richard

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that his last answer will give cause for even greater concern in this House? Is he further aware that there is deep suspicion about what the Government are up to in relation to Whitehall? I echo the for once very moderate words of the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt of Weeford. These are policies of the madhouse. This is the centre of British government; it has been the centre of British government for some considerable time. And, as I understand it, the Government are attempting to flog off part of it. That is not just pawning the silver; it is selling the dining room as well. Is it not absolutely crazy?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the noble Lord over-eggs his case. We are talking about the possibility of using private money in order to deliver better services at better value for money and making the best use of public assets. I should have thought that the noble Lord would have no quibble with that at all.

Lord Barnett

My Lords, if the Treasury building is sold off, will it be allowed an increased budget to pay for the rent?

Earl Howe

My Lords, clearly, any assessment of private finance must depend not only on the initial value for money assessment and the risk transfer assessment but also on whether the proposal is affordable in the long term. I do not know what arrangements will be reached in the end. That is subject to negotiation. But I can tell the noble Lord that there is no intention of selling the freehold of the Treasury building.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether Horse Guards Road is still closed to traffic, as it was yesterday? If so, how long is it likely to remain shut?

Earl Howe

My Lords, with the greatest respect to the noble Lord, I believe that that is rather wide of the Question on the Order Paper.

Lord Gilmour of Craigmillar

My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister saying that it is the primary duty of departments to make money out of their buildings?

Earl Howe

My Lords, that is not what I said. I said that the Government have a duty to maintain their buildings properly and to occupy them efficiently. That is rather different from the proposition advanced by my noble friend.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, let me press the noble Earl further on his reply as to the accountability to Parliament. Will he say explicitly whether that ministerial accountability for decisions is an accountability to answer questions after decisions have been taken or whether it is an accountability to listen to, and consult, Parliament before decisions are taken?

Earl Howe

My Lords, no government department can touch a brick of its buildings until planning permission has been secured. Once planning permission has been secured, it is for Ministers to answer to Parliament in the normal way.

Lord Richard

My Lords, I do not want to press the Minister too hard on this matter, but planning permission is granted by the local authority. In other words, whether or not some of Whitehall is sold will depend on the decision of the planning committee of Westminster City Council. Is that the situation that the Government want to get into?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I am not talking about a sale but about development of a building, which is very different. Proposals for development of a building in Whitehall would be subject, if the Secretary of State at the department so decided, to a planning proposal to Westminster City Council. Westminster City Council would then have to go through all the normal procedures, as though it were a normal planning application; and the rest is as I have explained.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the Government would be wise to reassure public opinion that while efficiency and value for money are very desirable, in the ultimate they have to be subordinate to environmental considerations when it comes to crucial elements of the national heritage, such as the buildings in Whitehall?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend, with his concern for the national heritage, will be reassured to know that English Heritage has a role to play wherever it is proposed that Whitehall buildings should be developed. Whenever Westminster City Council is consulted about a proposal under the non-statutory procedures, English Heritage is automatically notified and sent a copy of it, and its comments are sent to the local authority who will act upon those comments.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, will the Minister accept that those of us in the Palace of Westminster have an active interest in what happens in the Palace of Whitehall, Dining Room, Banqueting Hall and all? Given the large number of reports in the press about other projects in the pipeline, can he give the House an assurance that we will be consulted before any further projects are proceeded with?

Earl Howe

My Lords, if there are further proposals which emerge, the processes and procedures that I have described will be adhered to.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, the noble Earl says that Westminster City Council has a large role to play in this matter. Given our suspicions of Westminster City Council, will he give the House an undertaking that any application relating to the matters we are discussing will be called in by the Secretary of State for the Environment for public inquiry?

Earl Howe

No, my Lords. If Westminster City Council gives consent to a proposal, it is up to the Secretary of State at the department concerned to take a decision as to whether or not he wishes to proceed. The Secretary of State for the Environment can call in an application if there is disagreement. Then, of course, it could be subject to a local public inquiry, if need be.

The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne)

My Lords, I know that this is a matter of great interest to your Lordships and I am sure that we shall come back to it. With your Lordships' permission, I wonder whether we ought to give a fair crack of the whip to the other two Questions.