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Ordnance Survey Department, Southampton

Volume 478: debated on Friday 15 September 1950

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—( Mr. Kenneth Robinson.)

4.27 p.m.

It is characteristic of the House that in this grave short Session, as in the most serious days of the war, the rights of individual Members to raise matters with Ministers on the Adjournment are being maintained. I wish to state the case and the anxieties of a group of citizens in my town on the proposed removal from Southampton of the Ordnance Survey Department, which has been located there for many years.

Just before the war there was to be a large expansion of the staff, and a site for the new premises was obtained on the edge of Southampton. During the war, the Ordnance Survey Department was transferred temporarily to Chessington in Surrey. Its staff served faithfully and cheerfully under the tremendous handicaps which this war-time change involved. Many could not find new homes, or afford two homes, and had to travel daily from Southampton to London, putting in a 13 to 14-hour day, which they did cheerfully because of their service to the Department.

After the war, the Department was roughly divided into two groups, the one remaining at Chessington and the other being in Southampton. Each of these groups, I am informed, is almost self-contained and autonomous and will remain so. In August, 1948, a policy memorandum named, "The Treasury Establishment Officers Circular" was issued by His Majesty's Government, and in brief this is the recommendation—the dispersal of Government Departments from London. It was an excellent memorandum. Its basic principles were that London was growing disproportionately, that this tendency should be checked, and that the movement of Government Departments from London would help to diversify employment in other parts of the country.

Under this wise policy, such a dispersal has taken place, and many Departments that were once in London and new Government Departments have been set up in the development areas. Unfortunately, in the Government plans there has been caught up the temporarily posted Ordnance Survey of Southampton and it is planned that that Ordnance Survey should move to the countryside of Northamptonshire. I want to ask the Minister to reconsider this decision and leave the Ordnance Survey in its native place. My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Morley), is supporting me in this request, and he will during this short Debate, deal, amongst others things, with the strategic aspect of the question. I merely point out at this stage that other Departments transferred from London are within 40 miles of London, and Southampton is much further away than that.

I want to state the case as it affects Southampton. Southampton, like any other town, needs a balanced community. During these last days unemployment in ship-repairing in Southampton has dramatically recalled the grim inter-war years, and it illustrates the serious danger of a town depending on a single industry—in our case the docks. Ordnance Survey, employing 3,000 men and women, provides us with one of the industries or professions vitally necessary for Southampton in creating a town of diversified employment. While it is good policy for the Government to diversify employment in other parts of the country, it cannot be sense to do that by disintegrating the economic life of Southampton.

Moreover, Northampton does not want Ordnance Survey. The "Northampton Evening Telegraph," at one stage of the discussion, stated, "No new industries are needed here. We have a shortage of manpower." On 8th June of this year, a Northamptonshire newspaper reported the county executive of the National Farmers' Union as having passed this resolution:
"Having regard to the high rate at which agriculturally productive land is being taken for non-agricultural purposes in the Wellingborough area of Northampton, the Ministry of Town and Country Planning must look elsewhere for a site for the transfer of Ordnance Survey."
In August, 1948, the chairman of the Kettering Rural District Council said:
"We are hostile to any suggestion that Ordnance Survey should move into our area."
The same chairman, with less grace and vigour, said:
"I am afraid if these people come here they will pinch more of our ground."
Nobody, surely, would pursue a course which would take good agricultural land in Northampton if it can be avoided, as in this case it can be. From the local Press, I gather that Kettering folk fear that this migration of Ordnance Survey into Northampton will seriously accentuate the housing difficulties there.

During the war the staff of Ordnance Survey made sacrifices. In the post-war years things have sorted themselves out. The group living at Chessington have found themselves homes, which they have bought, or they have been put on to the local housing list, although some of them travel up and down from Southampton. Similarly, those sent back to Southampton have bought houses or are on the local housing list. I think I can speak for both groups when I say they do not want further moving about. We remember the crazy moving about of Civil Service Departments during the war—such as to Bournemouth and back to London—and all the unnecessary hardship which was inflicted on the staffs. I understand that 1,298 members of the Southampton staff—that is, nearly all who under Civil Service procedure are allowed to express an opinion—recently signed a manifesto against moving, and I am informed that the Chessington staff take a similar view.

On the technical side I understand the two Ordnance Survey sections are organic units more or less self-contained and pursuing separate functions. Plans already exist for expansion and buildings on the Southampton site. The land is acquired—it is not agricultural land—and temporary hutted accommodation has been placed on the site in such a way that the new buildings can be erected quite easily and the move-over from the temporary huts to the new buildings can take place step by step. Already in existence are the structural foundations for each of the delicate photographic instruments which Ordnance Survey uses. I understand from those who have spoken to me that it would be quite easy in the years ahead to move from the temporary accommodation to the permanent accommodation as it is erected without in any way delaying or hindering the work of Ordnance Survey.

On the other hand, going to an entirely new place means other difficulties besides what the Kettering Rural District Council called "pinching our ground." There is site preparation especially for instruments, waste of time in change-over and a transition period with over 100 miles between the Department moving out of Southampton and the new Department being erected in Northamptonshire. This will mean serious delay, dislocation and unnecessary expenditure.

There is also the human aspect of the matter. Roughly 3,000 staff are affected. More than half of them are living with their families in Southampton. They have their roots in the town. They make an important contribution not only to the economic but also to the social and corporate life of the town. Some have their own houses and would suffer serious financial loss if all those houses had to be sold at the moment of migration and they competed to buy scarcer houses in Kettering. Others are renting council houses or are high on the priority list and would not be welcomed in Northamptonshire. Their housing needs could be met only by some sort of civil servants' colony, but they do not want to live segregated—I do not know what the collective noun is for civil servants. They are living scattered about the community in Southampton.

As parents they are worried about a break in the education of their children. New schools would have to be built in the rural area of Northamptonshire. The move would mean a critical break for the children of 15 and 16 in the grammar schools, those at the university college and those beginning professional careers or apprenticeships in the manifold type of work available in Southampton. If the expanded programme of Ordnance Survey is to be carried out, many of these men will be asked to continue beyond the retiring age. They are not likely to be willing to do that if it means that they will have to be uprooted or to keep two homes going or experience the other difficulties which I have mentioned.

Although it has nothing to do with my case, it is right that an hon. Member of this House should use the opportunity of this Debate to express the pride of the House and the nation in our Ordnance Survey work. In days when politicians—unfairly, I think—denigrate the Civil Service, it is good to remember the glorious work of the Post Office during the war and at the present moment in keeping links between anxious parents in this country and boys in danger in the far-flung quarters of the world. In the same way, as far as the Ordnance Survey is concerned, I would say that in detail, in accuracy, in skill, in science and artistry, our maps are second to none in the world, and our Ordnance Survey Department has a great and glorious tradition. It is right that that should be said in this House of Commons.

This tradition in a small way is connected with the town of Southampton. One of the disabilities of Civil Service work is mobility, in men being sent to some part of the country at a moment's notice. Often this is inevitable, but in the case of which I am speaking, I suggest that it is avoidable and should be avoided.

On the grounds, then, of expense, unnecessary dislocation, the agricultural needs of the country, the economic needs of Southampton, the human problems of the staff concerned, I would urge my right hon. Friend to remove the anxiety of the staff of Ordnance Survey by reconsidering this project. Southampton wants them and their work. Kettering does not want them. I ask that they be allowed to stay where they are.

4.42 p.m.

My colleague in the representation of Southampton, the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. King), has made an excellent speech and has covered the ground as fully as it could be covered within the limited space of time at his disposal. I merely wish to emphasise during the next three minutes one or two points he has made already. The Ordnance Survey Office has now been in Southampton for over 100 years and has become an integral part of the social and economic life of the town. We should be extremely sorry from a civic point of view to see it go elsewhere.

There are two main reasons which have been adduced for removing the Ordnance Survey Office from its present location to some site in the neighbourhood of Kettering. The first reason is that it is in conformity with the policy being pursued by His Majesty's Government of dispersing their Government offices outside London. Recently, a Treasury memorandum was issued which gave the names of 20 Government offices to be dispersed from London. Of those 20, eight were to be dispersed within a radius of 36 miles from Hyde Park Corner. The Ordnance Survey Office at Southampton is 78 miles from Hyde Park Corner, and I suggest that is a quite sufficient dispersal.

The second reason given for the transfer of the Ordnance Survey Office in Southampton is that there it would be vulnerable to enemy attack in the case of war, especially from the air. It seems to me that in view of modern weapons, in view of the speed of modern air power and the development of rocket projectiles, almost any part of this little island is equally vulnerable to enemy attack in case of war. We have announced a decision that the Ordnance Survey Office is to be transferred from Southampton to somewhere near Kettering. I presume that the enemy intelligence service, whoever the enemy may be, is aware of that decision. It would be quite as easy for the Ordnance Survey Office to be bombed if it were sited in the vicinity of Kettering as in the vicinity of Southampton. It seems to me that neither of the two reasons adduced is a particularly valid or compelling one.

At the present time on the Maybush site at Southampton there is sufficient land for additional buildings to be erected and for a self-contained Ordnance Survey Office to be maintained without the necessity to acquire any additional land. If it is transferred to near Kettering, however, additional land, and of an agricultural nature—this aspect will appeal to my right hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary—must be acquired for the extra buildings. In the event of this transfer, there is bound to be an interruption of production for a month or two while heavy machinery and very large cameras are moved.

In view of all this, and as a site is available in Southampton where a self-contained Ordnance Survey Office could be instituted without any acquisition of fresh land, particularly in view of the fact that we are anxious to retain the office at Southampton, that its employees are anxious to remain there, and that the transfer would confront them with a most serious housing problem, and one which the authorities of Kettering do not wish to face, I ask my hon. Friend to reconsider the matter. The education of the employees' children would also be interrupted. There is an excellent educational system at Southampton, from the primary school to the university college. All these interruptions, hardships and anxieties would be occasioned.

I appeal, therefore, to my hon. Friend to give a favourable answer. If, however, he cannot assure us that the Ordnance Survey Office will be maintained at Southampton, at least perhaps, if some higher authority is compelling the change—some higher authority over which his Department have no control—at least he can to some extent allay anxiety by giving a definite date upon which the transfer will take place.

4.47 p.m.

So that the Minister may have time to reply, I intervene for only a moment to support the case which has been so fully and, I think, convincingly put by the hon. Members for Test (Dr. King) and Itchen (Mr. Morley) on behalf of Southampton. The line which divides the Winchester constituency from Southampton is somewhat movable, and many of the constituents of the two hon. Members were until quite recently in the Winchester constituency. As a neighbouring Member of Parliament, I am well acquainted with conditions in the borough.

We all in Hampshire are proud of the City of Southampton, with its long traditions and fine facilities, particularly the university. In my view, it would be a great mistake to do anything which detracted from the amenities of the city and its development by taking away such a valuable, traditional institution as the Ordnance Survey Office.

The second point which I emphasise is the housing problem for the people concerned. Every Member of Parliament knows from his postbag of the real hardship which is caused if one is suddenly uprooted from a place where one has lived for many years, has acquired status and has installed himself in a home, and then has to go into the open market and compete in the difficult housing conditions. I beg the Minister, before he subjects all these people to that hardship, to consider very seriously indeed whether it is really absolutely necessary to move this Department at this time. I beg of him that he will decide not to do so.

4.49 p.m.

All of us sympathise very much with the concluding remarks of the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Peter Smithers) and with the general case which has been made by my two hon. Friends who represent the City of Southampton. A good deal of human inconvenience, to put it no higher, is bound to be caused in a move of this kind. Nobody would want to enforce it if it could be avoided, nor should one want to enforce it without doing the very utmost of which we are administratively capable to ease the hardship that unquestionably will be caused.

Before I deal with the arguments why we think that the Ordnance Survey Office must go, let me say how very much I welcome the tribute which my hon. Friend the Member for the Test Division of Southampton (Dr. King) paid to the Office. It has been my lot recently to have a fair amount to do with the Ordnance Survey in another connection. After a short association with them I was staggered to see the quality of their work and the grand way in which it is done. It is a good thing that those in the Office should know that, whatever views there may be on the present question, all of us appreciate very much the high standard of work, from the Director-General down through the whole chain, of people who work in the Ordnance Survey.

Let us be quite clear about it, no one is suggesting that the Ordnance Survey should leave Southampton where it has become, as one hon. Member said, a part of the civic life, without pretty good and cogent reasons. I think, by the way, that one could overstate the case, and I do not think that taking the Ordnance Survey from Southampton will disintegrate the life of Southampton, as was suggested, but it will have an effect.

The argument has been put forward that modern war-time developments would make vulnerable almost any place we chose. I suppose that is true, but there is an argument against having all your eggs in one basket, and the argument which is impressed on us is not that by moving the Ordnance Survey from Southampton to a site west of Wellingborough—not Kettering—we are putting it out of the reach of any possible enemy, but that at a site near Wellingborough there is not the same aggregation of highly important targets as there is around Southampton. The situation in the last war, as everyone knows, was that as a result of bombing, a very hurried movement had to be made to Chessington and other places. It is not at all certain that on any future occasion we would be able at short notice to make similar hurried arrangements to get the work carried on. There is no question that the kind of work the Survey does is extremely important and extremely valuable, as we know, during a war.

Therefore, when the war was over the Government had to consider its general policy about these things. In August, 1947, it was decided that, in accordance with the general policy on the dispersal of Government Departments, the permanent location of the Ordnance Survey ought not to be in such a highly vulnerable place as Southampton. It is not so much that it might be specifically attacked, but that Southampton is a place where the chances of it being caught because the area was being attacked for altogether different reasons, are very much increased. Nothing one can say about Southampton can refute the fact that to put it there is running a somewhat unnecessary risk, if there are other places to which it can be taken.

Therefore we have taken the view, I think rightly—and I am sorry I cannot hold out hope that this can be changed—that it would be very foolish indeed to leave the Ordnance Survey where it is. We have looked for another site with similar advantages, away from London, away from industrial dust and things of that kind, and we thought the best alternative site would be in Northamptonshire, somewhere near Wellingborough. It was argued that the people of Kettering did not want to have it, but the people of Kettering are not going to have it and a great many of the objections disappeared when it was found that someone else was to have it. It is going to Wellingborough and they welcome it very much indeed.

On the question of agricultural land, of course my right hon. Friend has great responsibility. We have been very careful about the kind of land which will be sterilised by putting up buildings but we are not worried about the matter from that point of view. It is very difficult, even now, to say exactly what the date of the move will be. From the beginning we have promised that we would give the staff the longest notice we could and they have known since 1947 that the move was to be made. It is still our desire to avoid as much hardship as we can and we will give the staff the longest possible notice of the actual date on which the move will take place.

The whole of the move will not be made at one time. It is a disadvantage of any move of this kind that there is a period in which there is some dislocation. That has to be weighed against the general advantages of making a move at some time or other. The move will be made over a period, and we will arrange it as best we can so as to avoid difficulties of this kind.

We are taking great care that there shall be no colonising of this area by civil servants. I am rather shaken to learn that they are afraid of mixing outside working hours. We are making arrangements with the local housing authority so that the houses allocated for this purpose are spread around this area and so that the staff of the Ordnance Survey will be able to live with and mix in with the rest of the population of the area like everyone else. I repeat that we have taken great care about that matter. So far as housing problems are concerned, we shall do the best we can to see they are eased as much as possible by making stages of the move coincide so far as we can with the physical provision which the local housing authority will have to make.

If we weigh up all the advantages which will unquestionably accrue to the country by making this change, against the disadvantages that will accrue to the country by making it, we are bound to conclude that the change should be made. New office accommodation is required. The existing buildings are not good enough, and it would be much cheaper to build new premises even if it was intended to keep the Ordnance Survey where it is, rather than try to adapt the existing buildings. But it is cheaper and better to provide that office accommodation somewhere much less vulnerable. If we measure the country's gain against the hardships of the staff, we must still conclude, as I am sure the officers and the staff will, that the interests of the country must come first.

Having said that, it is clearly our duty to make the change one of as little hardship to the staff as we can and that we shall try our utmost to do. Beyond that, I am very sorry that in a matter of this kind I cannot go any further. In the nation's interest the staff must accept such dislocation as there is. We shall do our very best to keep that dislocation to a minimum. So far as the children are concerned—and this is a point which worries me very much indeed—I do not think they will find the educational facilities so very much poorer than in Southampton. I have had a word with our colleague who sits for the area to which these people and their families will move, and he greatly reassured me on that point.

May I ask the hon. Gentleman a specific question? I have a case in my own constituency of a civil servant being transferred. His son had just won a scholarship. The place to which the parent was transferred—

The Question having been proposed after Four o'Clock, and the Debate having continued half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Two Minutes to Five o'Clock.