HL Deb 17 March 1998 vol 587 cc569-72

2.52 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have for the building in Marsham Street which presently houses the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Property Advisers to the Civil Estate, known as PACE, plan to let a contract for the demolition of No. 2 Marsham Street in the summer of this year unless its use as decant accommodation for other government departments would provide better value for money to the Exchequer.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, does the Minister realise that the first part of his Answer is wholly satisfactory but that the satisfaction has been quickly dispelled by the threat contained in the second part of his Answer? Why on earth do we have all this mystery? The silence has been going on for a very long time. Is it not time that the Government made up their mind what to do with it instead of using words such as "if', "but" and "whether", which are the kinds of messy answers that are provided?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am sorry that the second part of my Answer did not please the noble Lord. It depends upon aesthetic considerations, on which I entirely agree with the noble Lord, and the interests of the public purse. If it appears that its use for decant accommodation provides better value for money to the Exchequer, the Government are duty bound to observe that better value to the Exchequer.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, no announcement has been made about the particular site in recent weeks. My noble friend is quite right: there has been a web of silence. If the Government are to use Marsham Street as decant accommodation, when will that announcement be made? Perhaps the noble Lord can confirm two other matters. First, since the site was originally a gas works, is there a lot of contaminated land still to be dealt with before it can be redeveloped? Secondly, will the noble Lord demonstrate the commitment of the Government to improving the environment by ensuring that all the material from the demolition is recycled and not dumped in a landfill site?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I must resist the suggestion that there has been any web of silence. There has been no announcement because there has been nothing to announce. As soon as a decision has been made about demolition or decanting, that will be announced. There has been no secrecy. As to decontamination, I am advised that, although it was a former gas works site, there is no risk of contamination. As to the environment, the building is constructed of concrete blocks and beams joined together by bolts. Demolition will be carried out probably by cutting the bolts. I rather doubt whether the blocks and beams will have any significant environmental advantage.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, can my noble friend inform the House of the original cost of this building? To write off a building of this size after such a short lifespan indicates that whoever advised the then government on the construction gave bad advice. Is it not the case that this building was constructed at the same time that the huge local government housing programme was under way when the architects also failed us? Is this not another case? If this building must be written off can that be put down to the same failure of the architects at that time?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, if the original architect is still alive I would not wish to offend his sensibilities. The building was finally occupied in 1971 after a number of delays. I do not know the original cost of the building, but I can say that Arup Associates carried out an investigation for the government in 1990. They took the view that demolition was the best as well as the most aesthetically attractive option.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, the fact that this was an old gas works site prompts me to ask the noble Lord whether he can give an assurance that the heating of the new building will be as up to date as possible. If possible, will combined heat and power be used? I suggest that one feedstock may well be the waste paper from the Palace of Westminster.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am sure that PACE will be very interested in the noble Lord's question. The intention is that when the site is redeveloped it will be for offices, retail and residential accommodation with some provision for open space.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, do the Government really need to demolish the building? Is it not falling down anyway? I have read many reports about bits falling off it. That possibly poses greater danger to public health than to the public purse. Can the Minister give an assurance that the building is still safe?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, there are bits falling off the building. The building is encased in scaffolding at the moment for the protection of the public. As to the need to demolish it, I understand it is likely that the profits from disposal of the site will be greater than the costs of demolition, so it is to the Government's advantage to demolish the building. It is also an advantage to the neighbours that demolition should be carried out in a controlled way.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, will the noble Lord go a little further into the interesting notion that he introduced about decanted accommodation? What is to be decanted: the building or the contents?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, it is neither the building nor the contents but the people. I understand that there are two government departments both of which have accommodation that is badly in need of refurbishment. If this plan proceeded, the staff from those departments would be decanted into Marsham Street while their existing buildings were refurbished.

Baroness Seccombe

My Lords, I thank and congratulate my noble friend Lord Peyton upon tabling the Question. Can the Minister inform the House of the cost of security of the building? Does the noble Lord believe that it is suitable for development perhaps as a greyfield site if not a brownfield site?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the building is still occupied by staff from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, and therefore there are no exceptional security costs. If demolition were to take place this summer, security costs would be relatively limited.

Lord Drogheda

My Lords, does the Minister doubt that the demolition of the building would produce anything other than delight in the general public?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I think that I have made my position on that clear in agreeing with the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, that aesthetically the best option is for the building to be demolished as soon as possible. It is not an efficient building.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, if the building is "disevacuated" will it be occupied by government offices, and, if not, by whom?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am not sure that I understand what my noble friend means by "disevacuated". If he is asking whether the building will be replaced by a government building if it is demolished, the answer is, probably not. If he is asking whether it will be held on to for decanting purposes, the answer is that staff from other departments will work there.