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Control Of Office And Industrial Development

Volume 718: debated on Wednesday 3 November 1965

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

9.59 p.m.

I beg to move,

That the Control of Office Development (Designation of Areas) Order 1965 (S.I., 1965, No. 1564), dated 9th August, 1965, a copy of which was laid before this House on 13th August, be approved.
The effect of the Order is to apply office control with effect from 14th August in the Birmingham conurbation. This means that applications for planning permission made on or after that date for office developments in excess of 3,000 sq. ft. must be accompanied by an office development permit.

The Order is not retrospective before 14th August in the case of planning applications made or planning permissions granted before that date for office projects in excess of the exemption limit. The Order, as is provided for in the Act, came into immediate effect on the day following the date on which it was laid before Parliament. This, as the hon. Member for Reading (Mr. Peter Emery) knows very well, was necessary in order to prevent forestalling. Hon. Members will remember that we discussed this point fully in Committee. For the same reason, in view of the Chancellor's announcement on 27th July of the decision to extend the control to Birmingham, it was necessary to make the Order as soon as possible after the Bill received the Royal Assent on 5th August, the last day before the Summer Recess.

The House will recollect that the Government's decision to control office development in the Birmingham conurbation was announced by the Chancellor in his July package of measures to improve the balance of payments. Those measures, which were widely approved, were designed to restrain less essential building and to reduce the general pressure of demand on the economy. In the private sector building control was announced, and the office control was extended to Birmingham. At the same time I.D.C. control was tightened in the Midlands and other congested areas. These new controls will undoubtedly help to achieve the Government's long-term objective of a better distribution of employment as between the over-congested areas and those which are under-employed.

Here we are dealing with what is clearly an over-congested area, and indeed the congestion is getting worse. There are very serious labour, housing and transport problems in the Birmingham area. In July unemployment was below 1 per cent., which puts the Midlands on a par with London and the South-East in terms of very high pressure of demand. The Government, therefore, thought it timely to take steps to control the growth of office accommodation in Birmingham and the rest of the Birmingham conurbation before it got out of hand, in the same way as they control the growth of industrial employment.

I should like to give figures to show the threatening situation which must be faced. In the conurbation the population has increased at a higher rate than the national average for several decades. Employment has grown even faster. Between 1953 and 1964 total employment increased by 170,000 and now stands at nearly 1¼ million. While manufacturing employment increased by 10 per cent. in this period, service employment increased by 27 per cent., a faster rate of growth than in any other region; and of course it was concentrated in the Birmingham conurbation.

A really serious situation has developed because there are not enough qualified and trainee office workers to meet the demand and there seems to be little prospect of improvement. The continued shortage of labour of all kinds, including office workers, has kept unemployment as low as 0·6 per cent. in the City of Birmingham and surrounding areas for each of the past five years. The situation there is very similar to that in Greater London.

At the end of 1964 the amount of commercial office space in the conurbation was estimated at 13½ million sq. ft. Office space increased between 1951 and 1963 in Birmingham alone by nearly 3 million sq. ft., after allowing for the demolition of about 1 million sq. ft. We now have to face a situation where there are some 3 million sq. ft. of new office space in the pipeline—a further potential increase of 23 per cent. This represents a potential additional labour demand for well over 20,000 office workers—two and a half times the present number of unemployed, and most of this is concentrated in Birmingham and Solihull.

The growth of employment generally and the prospect of further substantial increases in office employment threatens serious consequences, not least in transport congestion. Transport capacity is severely strained, particularly in Birmingham, as anyone who has tried to drive through the city at the peak hour knows very well. Housing is another desperate problem. Despite the immense efforts of the local authorities and private builders, housing has not kept pace with the rise in the population, and it is estimated that over the next 16 years, that is, to 1981, about 340,000 houses will be needed. Not all of these can be accommodated in the conurbation itself, although some relief will be secured by redevelopment within the city and on its fringes. Overspill arrangements will help. Arrangements already made include the new towns of Dawley and Redditch and smaller schemes elsewhere. But these will not be enough. Sites will still have to be found for at least another 50,000 houses in addition to the arrangements already made.

It will be no help to the overspill of population to allow uncontrolled growth of office employment in Birmingham itself and the rest of the conurbation, and it would be manifestly unfair to industry in the conurbation, which is already subject to I.D.C. control and which is expected to provide jobs for the overspill towns, if office employment also did not contribute its share to the redistribution of development. Moreover, the continued growth of the conurbation is a threat to the economic balance of the region. Already half the population of the West Midlands lives in the Birmingham conurbation.

The Government had all these problems in mind in deciding on the control of office development in this area. We believe—I do not imagine that hon. Members opposite will quarrel with this—that the conurbation is the right area to choose for this control. It is the focus of the West Midlands region, with a population of nearly 2½ million and a large and well diversified industrial base. It is impossible to distinguish between the Birmingham city area and the immediately adjacent towns. The whole conurbation must be regarded as a catchment area from which to obtain office projects for places which have a need for new employment, including, of course, the overspill towns.

In the initial stages, the Board of Trade will subject all applications, therefore, to tough scrutiny. To quote the criteria which we have laid down for office control in the Metropolitan region, applicants will have to satisfy the Board that the proposed activity cannot be carried on elsewhere; that there is no reasonable alternative accommodation; and, unless the project is so small as not materially to add to congestion or to the demand for labour, that the activity is in the public interest. These are the same criteria as we are applying to applications for office development permits in the Metropolitan region.

This control of office development will be applied to any Government offices in the Birmingham conurbation in just the same way as it will be applied to private development.

For these reasons, I am sure that the House will approve the Order, although I imagine that there will be some questions to be asked on the detail of it.

10.10 p.m.

No one, least of all the Minister, would want to minimise the effect that the Statutory Instrument will have on a major area of industrial Britain. Having done a rather complicated sum, I find that it covers over 166,000 acres, with a rateable value of something over £110 million in the area that is listed in the Schedule to the Order. To be fair, it is only because of the action of the Opposition when the Bill was going through the House and in Committee that the Government are forced to bring forward the Order today. An affirmative procedure has been established for this sort of Order which was not in the Bill when it was originally published, and it is one of the ways in which the Government met the point from the Opposition that it should be an affirmative Resolution rather than the more nondescript negative Resolution.

I know that my colleagues from the Birmingham constituencies who are represented here this evening share my wish to underline the statement made both by the Minister of State and by his right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade. The control of office building does not in itself mean that there will be any more houses or homes. I am certain that no one either on the Government side or our side would want it to be thought that, because of the Order, automatically more houses and homes will be created for the large number of people who are on the housing waiting lists in the areas of the Birmingham conurbation.

As the Minister rightly said, there are a number of questions which must be put to him. In the Schedule of areas designated by the Order, there are 24 local authorities covered, involving an area of 166,000 acres. Is it necessary to be as wide as that? I am not trying to make a political point, but we on our side often say that the Government are too inclined to have control for control's sake, and I wonder if it is necessary, for example, to take in Amblecote or Stourbridge. If one looks at the map, it makes a nice round circle, but it could not be called a designated area, because it is simply a number of local authority areas. In answering our point, I hope that the Minister will make two things plain. First of all, will he say that it is only local authority areas and, secondly, will he say why the area has to be so wide in the Birmingham conurbation?

Then I should like the Minister to tell the people of Birmingham what will be the position when the Boundary Commission makes recommendations which may, by Resolution of the House, become new boundaries, and how that will affect the areas mentioned in the Statutory Instrument. The re-organisation of boundaries must raise queries in the minds of residents about whether the new areas will be so designated. If they are not exact to the geographical area of the present Statutory Instrument, what is the position? We would all admit that that was not considered when the Measure was going through this House, and it is only now becoming apparent, and, therefore, I think it right and proper that we should have an answer.

Will the Minister make plain—I believe that it is definite—that there can be no retrospection in the Statutory Instrument as there was retrospection in the Act. In the original Bill there was this element of retrospection. I have had one inquiry about whether there is any possibility of retrospection before 14th August or 9th August, when the Order was made. I have told the inquirer that in my view there cannot be and that the Act makes that plain. However, it would be helpful if people in Birmingham could be told that this is indeed the case.

I turn to the three criteria mentioned by the Minister. If one analyses what he said, the three criteria are covered completely and utterly by the last of his three points—that is, what the Board of Trade or its officers consider to be in the public interest. I am always wary when executive authority is given to Governments so that they, rather than this House, can interpret what is in the public interest. We have not heard from the Minister any aspect about approvals for office development permits being given for modernisation. There must be many factories and plants within the designated area which have a considerable need for modernisation of their office buildings. I should like the Minister to make plain that where a business applies for an office development permit in order to modernise the office buildings, not necessarily to creat new buildings, and perhaps where it is merely complying with the generally approved requirements of the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act, 1963, approval will be given.

I would ask the Minister to bear in mind that the requirements of the Statutory Instrument may entail considerable elements of hardship for people who have purchased property for the purpose of proceeding in a normal, reasonable business manner. Frequently in Committee we said that people had a right to make business judgments seeing the course in front of them, but if the Government altered the rules in the middle of the race and perhaps put in another fence, considerable hardship might be caused. I ask the hon. Gentleman to say not necessarily that every one will be granted but that they will be seriously considered on the criterion of hardship.

How many applications have been made since 14th August, when this Order was laid? How have they been dealt with? Will the hon. Gentleman undertake that those who have been waiting on a decision since then will receive it perhaps within the next 14 days? This is not too much to ask. I cannot believe that many applications are involved and, after all, the Board of Trade has had since 14th August to consider them.

The Minister should make plain what consultation he had with the 24 local authorities affected before the Order was laid. It is nonsense for the Government to suggest that more responsibility should be placed in the hands of local authorities if, the moment the Government want to do anything, they do it off their own bat without consulting the local authorities. The information I have is that the local authorities were not consulted before the Order was laid.

I do not claim that automatically the Government must take the views of the local authorities in every case because, of course, they must consider the overall position. Indeed, I hope that the Government really are considering the overall position of the country. I did not like the phrase used by the hon. Member when he talked about the economic balance of a region. If there is to be economic balance it should be the economic balance of the country as a whole. If we are to have economic balance at every Board of Trade region we shall be in a madness of planning. That is not our concept of planning. We believe that we must obtain the proper economic balance of the whole country. This strengthens the argument that when these matters are being considered by the Board of Trade there is every need for consultation with the local authorities.

We believe that we must do all in our power to ensure that Birmingham remains the prosperous centre of industry and exports which it has built up. It could be argued that some parts of the Order will be restricted, but I do not believe that that will necessarily be the case if it is properly administered. However, it is essential that there should be no restrictions on Birmingham so that Birmingham can remain as efficient as is humanly possible. Office development may be required for modernisation, increasing exports, or for ensuring that the people already employed in the area—not new people coming into it—can do their jobs more efficiently and more effectively. We must make certain that management has the necessary facilities and the necessary buildings to do its job, but that the availability of housing in the Birmingham area is not decreased.

If we have the assurances and answers for which I have asked—I know that some Birmingham Members have some questions and I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) has some legal issues to put—we on this side of the House will be only too pleased to see this Statutory Instrument become law.

10.27 p.m.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reading (Mr. Peter Emery) is right and wise to point out that the Order will not help the housing situation in Birmingham—so it seems from the evidence which we have. In his letter to the Town Clerk of Birmingham as late as last July, the Minister of Housing himself pointed out that such an order would not help the housing situation.

What is to happen to the cleared sites in Birmingham for which office building was planned? Will houses and flats now be built on them? There are several such sites in Birmingham and they obviously cannot remain void and presumably something will be done about them by the local authority. The Minister spoke about the heavy demand for office accommodation in Birmingham which there would be. I did not know whether he was foreseeing an expansion of demand. The greatest demand for office accommodation in Birmingham at the moment comes from Government Departments which are taking up vacant offices in the city. If we are to restrict demand, we ought to consider the amount of accommodation which those Departments are taking.

The Minister spoke of the prosperity and growth of the Birmingham area. If our earlier debate today is to mean anything, we ought to be grateful for the prosperity of the Midlands, certainly in Birmingham and the surrounding areas, and make sure that we do not put industries into difficulty by over-restriction on essential office building. I hope that the Order will not be implemented too severely.

One thing about which I am not clear is whether there is disagreement between the Ministers on the restriction of office building, because in his letter, to which I have referred, to the Town Clerk in July, the Minister of Housing did not seem to agree that there should be any restriction on office building. The local authority wished at that time to have power to restrict office building. In his reply, the Minister said that he was not convinced that drastic action was necessary. He also pointed out that it would not help very much in the shortage of building materials, because he said that this was only a short-term problem. We should like to know how long the Government consider that this restriction should remain and whether there is any danger of its extension to industrial building. This could severely restrict the prosperity of the Midlands.

My final point is to stress what my hon. Friend has said about the authority of a regional council. We are all nervous at this heavy hand of planning over and above the elected local authority. This body is not elected but is appointed and, apparently, it could override, without consultation, certainly without adequate consultation, as is proved in this case, the elected local authority, whose purpose is specifically to look after the interests of the city.

There has recently, perhaps, been an excess of demand for office building in the City of Birmingham, but I am not convinced that the restriction imposed by the Order should extend to some of the outlying areas, where there is certainly a shortage of offices. The restriction could well drive some of those office seekers into the centre of Birmingham, where office accommodation exists, and so aggravate the density and traffic problems in the city. There is a great shortage of office accommodation around almost the whole of the periphery.

I hope that the Minister will be able to assure us that the regional council will not have such heavy-handed powers as to kill the initiative and the tremendous prosperity which we have had in the Midlands, and for which the nation is looking. If this afternoon's debate means anything, it should teach us to be careful how we use restriction and planning by these regional bodies.

10.33 p.m.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Gurden) has referred to what he calls inadequate consultation in this matter, and the hon. Member for Reading (Mr. Peter Emery) has also referred to this. I do not know what they mean. The local authority in Birmingham has been making this demand for a long time. It is true that the Minister resisted the demand in July, after both the Birmingham authority and the region pressed this matter upon the Government, but the pressure that has been brought to bear through the local authority has, I think, convinced the Minister of the necessity for the Order.

It is ridiculous to say that there has not been adequate consultation when there has been so much consultation to stress the demand made by Birmingham.

In the Schedule there are listed 23 local authorities outside Birmingham—Birmingham was one of 24—and I believe that the evidence is that some of them were not consulted, and, indeed, were not taking the same attitude as Birmingham was on this. It is that point which needs strongly to be made.

I cannot speak for authorities which have not been consulted, but I know the grave housing shortage in Birmingham. It has brought from Birmingham a demand in no uncertain manner, and I do not think one could say that every region has acted in an autocratic manner, after the demands which have been made.

The hon. Member for Reading said that this would not add to the number of houses being built. The hon. Member for Selly Oak said something similar. While one could not say that we should get more houses within 24 hours of the passing of this Order, the fact remains that if it goes through it must release certain building materials for houses, and building materials have been in such short supply in the past year.

Perhaps I may mention one or two examples. Delivery of plaster board, which is so vital, is between 12 and 18 months. It may be possible to obtain smaller quantities more quickly, but for the larger quantities the delay is such that one housing project was held up for weeks, without any work being done on it at all. That was a result of the shortage of plaster board. We all know about the shortage of cement, and also of other materials.

I believe the feeling is widespread, but certainly the people of Birmingham feel that it is absolutely wrong, in the present plight of our housing problem, to see going up buildings which the people think are unnecessary. Of course I want to see industrial building; of course I want to see factories continuing to be built; of course I want to see the export trade increasing; but we have been arguing for a long time that to build new towns on the periphery of Birmingham means building for the workers houses to live in as well as places to work in. Both sorts' of buildings are important.

The housing situation is of such a nature that the Birmingham authority is now making a tremendous effort and is stepping up the removal of slums and the provision of more houses. I think that this Order is absolutely vitally necessary to Birmingham because of the demand for housing. It may not in the immediate future build more houses, but I hope that the hon. Member for Selly Oak will not say the Order should not be kept on for a reasonable time, to release building materials, so that it can have the desired effect.

I represent one of the largest areas of Birmingham, where redevelopment has taken place, and it has been a source of great satisfaction to me to see the tremendous development which has taken place. In the past 10 years the numbers in my constituency have dropped from 47,000 to 29,000 at the last election. The smallest constituency in the country is evidence of the redevelopment which has been taking place.

Many people in my constituency and in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Aston (Mr. Julius Silverman) are living in intolerable conditions. Many of the houses are unfit for human habitation. In those circumstances the Birmingham authority is right to demand that luxury buildings and buildings which are not vitally necessary should not be erected.

I applaud and congratulate the Government on their decision. I, too, have received a copy of the letter to which the hon. Member for Selly Oak drew attention. The Minister's refusal caused considerable dismay in the Birmingham City Council, and amongst people generally, but the authority is now happy that the Government are contributing to a solution of this grave problem. I repeat my congratulations to the Government on having brought in this Order, and I hope that it will be kept in operation for long enough to produce some tangible results.

10.41 p.m.

This is the first Order under the Control of Office and Industrial Development Act, 1965, and this is the first opportunity that we have to see how the Government intend to bring these Orders into operation. The House will know that in Committee we discussed at considerable length the type of Parliamentary control that there should be over an Order of this kind, whether it should be the system of the Order lying on the Table for 40 days awaiting a negative Resolution if any Members saw fit, whether it should be brought before the House as a draft Order requiring an affirmative Resolution, or whether it should be an Order which comes into operation immediately it is made and then needs an affirmative Resolution to give it life for more than 28 days. It was the last form that was adopted in the Act.

These Orders require affirmative Resolution within 28 sitting days, and this is the point on which I want to dwell for a moment. It is unfortunate perhaps that an Order of this nature does not come on to the weekly Statutory Instruments list, and it is not evident to Members the period for which it lasts and the period within which the affirmative Resolution has to be proposed to the House.

Order. The hon. Member has got off the subject of the Order. All that is in order in this debate is the application of the Order to Birmingham, and also the date on which the restrictive provisions apply.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I think I am in order in referring to the dates at the head of this Statutory Instrument. I shall try to direct my remarks to the Statutory Instrument before us, but at the head of the Order it says that it was made on 9th August, that it was laid before Parliament on 13th August, and that it came into operation on 14th August.

Perhaps I might give an example of the effect of this. If someone in Birmingham had applied for planning permission before this Order was made and received planning permission in August, after the date on which the Order came into operation, and if he received the result of his planning application after the Order comes into effect, he may have his application refused, or granted subject to conditions. He may then wonder whether or not to appeal from the planning refusal or from the conditions attached to the planning permission.

It would be relevant, in considering that appeal, to know whether this Order will last beyond the 28 sitting days—in short, whether the Minister will get his affirmative Resolution. No one can assume that that will be passed by the House, not even the Minister. There are certain periods during which the person who has suffered a planning refusal or has received a planning permission subject to conditions can appeal. If he wishes to appeal against that to the High Court on a point of law, he would have to appeal within 28 days. If he wished to appeal to the Minister, he would have a period of not less than 28 days, normally set at about six weeks.

But both those periods have already expired. If he decided, as might be reasonable, to say, "I will wait to see whether this Order is effective before I proceed with the appeal", he would find that his time for appeal had passed before there was any certainty that the Order would be effective.

All this comes about because the Order was made at the beginning of the Recess and an affirmative Resolution is not required until the expiration of 28 sitting days. The Minister of State has brought it before the House at a fairly early stage, but great care should be taken in these matters when the Recess intervenes. The problem could have been solved by the Government's ensuring that the Act got its Royal Assent before the House rose—

No, the Government tried to rush through too much legislation at that time, and did not concede to the Opposition when they could have got the Bill through quite easily with a few concessions. As a result, the Order could not be made before the House rose.

This means that, for anyone who had a planning refusal or a planning permission with conditions in August, these periods of appeal have run out before the Order is known to be effective. It could have been foreseen that this would happen on a 28-day Order. The Bill should have had Royal Assent not at the last moment but much earlier than it did, and the Order should have been made before the House rose. There would then have been certainty as to whether or not it was law, which would have avoided this uncertainty which has lasted for three months and not just 28 days.

10.44 p.m.

The hon. Member for Reading (Mr. Peter Emery) described the area affected by the Order as being very widely drawn. The definition of development affected by the Order is also very widely drawn. It includes not only new office premises, but alteration of buildings and conversion of premises into offices and, perhaps even more surprising, a mere change of use, whereby an existing building, without having anything done to it, is used for office purposes. These two kinds of change of user would have very little recognisable effect upon the demands made on the building industry in this area and would not have a detrimental effect on the desperate housing problem.

Surely if there is a change of use in houses and they are converted into offices or industrial accommodation, that has an effect upon the housing situation.

The hon. Member assumes that the change of user would be from housing, but that is by no means necessarily so. It is within the discretion of the planning authority, but in many cases in Birmingham and elsewhere there is a change of user when we have unused warehouse premises or shop premises becoming recognisably more valuable if used as offices, and accordingly a change of user takes place. I know of an instance in which warehouse premises became unwanted and there was a change of user as a result of which they became usable for office purposes, with no demand at all on the building industry and no loss of housing, and no holding back of the efforts to meet the desperate need for housing which we know exists in part of the City of Birmingham.

In this respect the purpose of the Order is not to deal with the building problem. It must be to put teeth into the Regional Economic Planning Council. Having regard to the complicated and varied region which is affected by the Order, one must ask whether the Regional Economic Council knows precisely what it is doing throughout the area and in all the varied circumstances—because they vary widely over the area. Even in the outer suburbs of Birmingham, the need for office accommodation is quite different on occasion from that prevailing in the centre. The refusal of an application for development could on occasion cause transport problems and other difficulties which have been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Gurden).

I am concerned not only with the Birmingham problem. One should look at this great area of the older towns to the west and to the north of Birmingham where there is an urgent need for redevelopment and modernisation of large areas, including business premises. One must recognise that there may well be an indefinite postponement of many of these plans as a consequence of licensing restrictions. There we must bear in mind the effect of the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act and the intention to improve office conditions within this region where there are great decayed areas and sometimes very bad office conditions, amounting to slum office conditions.

One must also bear in mind the legitimate and desirable growth of the need for offices in this region. There are small manufacturers operating very successfully in exports, and there is a need for servicing facilities and office accommodation to grow to accommodate this expansion. In addition, there are professional offices in the area. There are accountants, solicitors, valuers and banking premises, and because of the increased prosperity in recent years there has been a growth of demand for their services. The complications of the Finance Act also create an increased demand for these services.

Moreover, there are overcrowded and dilapidated old premises, often occupied by these professional firms, and there is a need for replacement and improvement of conditions. I hope that this will be borne in mind, because it is important that there should be economic balance within the region as well as economic balance throughout the country. These services are essential to the continuance of a balanced life throughout this important and prosperous region. Where there is an insufficiency of offices, shops and warehouses are often converted into offices and these premises sometimes exceed the area within the limitation of the Order. Sometimes they are subdivided and used by small firms and organisations and it should be emphasised that almost always there is no other regional alternative and that these activities must go on within the area defined by the Order.

I hope that the Minister will give an assurance that there will be no new extra unnecessary degree of bureaucracy and lack of understanding in the indiscriminate application of the restriction contained in the Order which would hold back the necessary improvement of office conditions for professions and other services in the Birmingham area and throughout the region.

10.56 p.m.

As one would expect of him, the Minister put forward a studious justification of the Order. It is common ground in Birmingham that there is an excess of office accommodation at present. One might ask, therefore, is there anything further to say? The answer is that there is.

We have had, even in the House tonight, an extraordinary example of confusion. We have really been discussing two orders; one real and one imaginary in the mind of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Mr. Victor Yates). From Birmingham's point of view, the origin of the Order is extremely unsatisfactory. It first came up as a demand from the Labour-controlled council in May, just before the municipal elections, that office building should be stopped so that there could be more housing, a quite plain barefaced political stunt to hide their appalling housing record of the past few years.

Is it not a fact that in the City of Birmingham there are about 40,000 people on the housing list while in the city centre and elsewhere there has, for a number of years, been a large amount of vacant office accommodation?

I need not deal with that argument. The Minister of Housing himself—I must give him credit for this—effectively rebutted the argument coming from the Labour council and said that there was no substance in the idea that there was great competition for materials between office and house building.

I am clearing that point out of the way because we should get down to the real point made by the Minister tonight. He argued the matter on a completely different basis. If we get the other point cleared out of the way—the effort to put out a smokescreen against the fact that they built only half as many houses as the Conservatives built when they were in office—we can get to the argument the Minister adduced for the Order, which, apart from the spurious idea that it might be helpful to the people of Birmingham, shows that the people there have some cause to be anxious about the Order.

What is the reason? It is that the Minister has argued the matter on the long-term basis of the desire to help other regions of the country in employment and—he does not hesitate to say so—I think, potentially at the expense of Birmingham and the area of the West Midlands. [An hon. Member: "Why not?"] I hear an hon. Gentleman opposite asking "Why not?" That intervention must be heard in the City of Birmingham because, while I quite understand that there are people who would take that point of view, even the hon. Gentleman who made the intervention will, I hope, understand that the people of Birmingham, employers and employed, have built up between them this tremendous prosperity to which my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Gurden) referred and to which the Minister was continually referring as one of the reasons why he felt that the Order could be forced on the area. It was because it was doing extremely well.

This Order is a kind of penalty on the success of the West Midlands and Birmingham, imposed admittedly by the Government in order, as they believe, to help somewhere else. There is a growing anxiety in Birmingham that the Government may have carried too far this process of siphoning off the prosperity of the Midlands to other areas. I can give examples which are germane to this Order. In Birmingham on Monday I heard of firms, which provide employment similar to that affected by this Order, being forced to leave the city. These firms, to a considerable extent, are firms which are independent of cyclical fluctuations of trade.

The manufacturers of Bird's Custard, a food product, who have been in the city for a great many years, were quoted as an example. The motor industry, on the other hand, is a cyclical industry and whilst Birmingham is very prosperous, it and the Midlands, to the extent of dependence on the motor industry, are living dangerously in their prosperity. Therefore, it hurts these areas the more when industrial and commercial employment of a non-cyclical kind leave the area. Such a movement can prove a great future potential loss to the city and surrounding area.

I should like to reinforce what has been said by my hon. Friends about office accommodation. Circumstances governing office accommodation in the surrounding areas are not necessarily the same as those in the city centre. In Sutton Coldfield, for example, there is a shortage of offices. I have received a letter from an architect who says that there is a great deal of concern at the way in which building societies are competing for every shop in the Parade—one of the central areas—for office purposes, thus putting the retail trade under great pressure. He says that there is a considerable shortage of offices in the town. I have made inquiries and have found that the local authority is opposed to this Order in Sutton Coldfield and I cannot find any record of consultations with the authority.

I was struck by the way in which the Minister of State referred to the fact that in July when the Chancellor of the Exchequer came to the point where he had to amass a quiverful of new measures to present to the world of international finance from which he had to get the money, it was found timely to include the provisions made in this Order. Having had some experience of Whitehall and the Treasury I can understand how a request went round to the Board of Trade and it was said, "These measures are useful. We will shove them in." But in the Midlands we do not appreciate having provisions of this kind, which we do not like in their long-term aspects, brought forward just because the Chancellor of the Exchequer has to make some further gestures to international finance.

This is a serious matter from the point of view of the Midlands. Everybody knows that there is a surplus of good office accommodation in Birmingham. In fact, this Order comes after the time when it would have done any good. So, on the short-term basis, it will do no good at all, and on the long-term basis there is much anxiety in the Midlands about this whole subject.

11.5 p.m.

A good deal of what the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd) said is quite irrelevant to the point we are discussing. The prosperity of Birmingham, which is now at a higher point than ever before, will not be affected in the least by the Order. We are not here dealing with industry or with jobs; we are dealing with the building of white elephants, for that is what a lot of these offices are. To illustrate the point, I think I am right in saying that the number of void offices in Birmingham already is such that the City Council is losing no less than £800,000 a year. That is void office property already built, and more white elephants are being built today.

One may say, if that is so, why do not businessmen see that these office properties are likely to be white elephants and stop building them? The outlook of these people is such that, in the expectation of profit in the future, they will go on building these properties, which remain void and which, as has to a large extent been conceded, are unnecessary. If they are unnecessary, why object to the Order as it affects Birmingham?

This is a matter, first and foremost, of priorities. When we talk of the building industry, it is a question not only of building materials but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ladywood (Mr. Victor Yates) pointed out, of building labour, which is over-extended throughout the whole region. In blunt terms, if we have more offices, we shall have fewer houses. It is as simple as that. There was probably a time, 10 years ago, when this might not have been so. It was a different sort of labour used for the erection of ordinary cottage properties and houses. Now, however, the labour used for the construction of high blocks of flats is very much the same as that used for office building. It is, as I say, a simple question of priorities. If we do one, we do not do the other.

A good deal has been made by hon. Members opposite of the "phoney" point of Tory propaganda, which we have heard for a long time, about the number of houses built by the Tories in Birmingham in the early 1950s. True, they built more than have been built in the last few years. But why?—because that was when the licensing system, part of which is being revived now, was still in operation. The system of priorities still existed and had not yet been dismantled by the Tory Government. It had nothing to do with the efficiency of the Tory council. The reason was legislation introduced by the Labour Government which still remained at that time and made it possible for more houses to be built in the Birmingham area.

The Order before us now will, so far as it is effective, result in the building of more houses, which are badly needed by the people of Birmingham. Already, the Birmingham City Council, with consideable confidence, has been able to increase its house building programme for the future to a level higher than ever before. The prospect of this Measure has been one of the reasons. The council expects to be able to put out contracts which it has not been able to put out before and think in terms of, at least, coming to grips with the housing problem. This, together with the land which has been made available by a Labour Minister of Housing and Local Government, will enable Birmingham to get on with its housing programme. Therefore, I welcome this measure of priorities. I am only sorry that it was not introduced earlier, but I am quite sure that all Labour Members representing Birmingham constituencies congratulate the Minister on introducing it, and wish him well. We hope that it is going to be effective.

11.10 p.m.

In reply to what has been a most interesting and useful debate, may I say first of all that I have no objection whatever to giving credit to hon. Members opposite for persuading us in Committee that such Orders as the one under discussion tonight should be brought before the House under the affirmative Resolution procedure. Hon. Members will recollect that they were pushing at a rather open door, but I will not labour that point. We will give them all the credit they want for it.

The first point raised by the hon. Member for Reading (Mr. Peter Emery) was that this is a very large area. Obviously he has been doing some homework, during the short periods he spends in the country between the visits which he makes on his Council of Europe duties. He has discovered that the acreage concerned is about 166,000. I cannot imagine what 166,000 acres look like, but I agree that it is a pretty big area.

If the hon. Gentleman divides by 640, he will get it in square miles.

The area involved, as I am sure the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd) will know, is the Birmingham conurbation as described in the West Midlands Study. If the hon. Member for Reading cares to look at the West Midlands Study again, he will see that to get the local authority areas in line, as far as we can, with the Birmingham conurbation as described in the Study, we have to go beyond the conurbation itself. In other words, particularly to the north and west and, in the case of Sutton Coldfield, the southeast, the urban area tends to fade off to what might be called semi-rural areas inside the local government boundaries. It is quite obvious that, when laying down an Order like the present one, the local authority areas cannot be divided up. The job would be impossible.

If I am not out of order in mentioning it, I have some experience of this in the City of Sheffield at the moment, where we are considering redrawing ward boundaries. In the descriptive matter, one has to say that the line should go alongside the railway for a quarter of a mile, then turn off to the right alongside the canal, and so on. To lay down that sort of boundary description in an Order like the present one would be quite impossible. One must work to local authority areas. Therefore, some of the areas are not totally urban. They have some of what, even in the West Midlands, would be called the green belt area inside them. However, that makes very little difference, and no practical difficulty at all in the administration of the Order.

The hon. Member then went on to ask what will be the position if the Boundary Commission's proposals for redrawing the boundaries of, I suppose, most of the local authority areas in the conurbation are accepted and come into operation on 1st April. The answer is that a fresh Order will be required for the purposes of office control so that the designation of areas in the Order comes into line with the new local authority boundaries; and I gather that some of the local authorities will be renamed. But the total area that will be subject to the office control will remain roughly the same.

The hon. Member said that the control does not mean that more houses will be built. That point has been well answered by my hon. Friends for Birmingham, Ladywood (Mr. Victor Yates) and Birmingham, Aston (Mr. Julius Silverman). It will relieve some of the pressure for housing by stopping the increase of employment in the centre of Birmingham, and resources will become available for housing if office building does not continue. To what extent this will happen is a matter for conjecture at present. We expect that it will help. But that is not the only reason for the Order.

The hon. Member for Reading wanted me to make clear the position with regard to retrospection. Part I of the Act will apply to planning applications made in the Birmingham conurbation on or after 14th August. There will be no retrospection beyond 14th August. That is perfectly clear. The Order begins on 14th August, and there is no retrospection.

I was asked whether we would take into consideration the modernisation of offices because this is really necessary in many cases. I thoroughly agree. Modernisation, particularly in offices associated with industrial establishments, means a rearrangement of offices more or less within the same premises and does not necessarily lead to any extension of employment. In fact, if modernisation is done properly firms ought to be able to employ fewer workers at the end.

I do not think that is true for the export trade, particularly in the motor car industry, when one is working all the time for a more sophisticated form of salesmanship. Staff in offices attached to large factories in Birmingham are writing all the time in foreign languages to the countries which are receiving the goods. One needs a net increase in such office staff in order to achieve better salesmanship abroad.

That is only one side of modernisation. The point made by the right hon. Gentleman is a very good one, and we take it, but generally speaking modernisation means putting in more mechanical equipment to help office workers. Where no increase in office employment is called for, which is what we are concerned with here, I question very much whether the office development permit procedure will hold up any modernisation schemes.

I was also asked about cases of hardship. From our experience of the control in the Metropolitan region I do not think there will be many cases of hardship because there will be no retrospection. It is out of the retrospective character of the control as it applies to London that hardship cases arise. Certainly the promise and undertaking that we gave in regard to the Metropolitan region will apply here.

I was asked how many applications have so far been received. The number is 24. These are being examined on their merits in the light of the criteria which I mentioned, and replies will be given to the applicants as quickly as possible. From our experience of the London control, I do not think there will be complaints about the time that will be taken.

We were also asked why there was no consultation with local authorities. If hon. Members will look at the statement made by the Chancellor in July, I think they will agree that he proved that in this year's difficult economic circumstances speedy action of this kind was called for. I was surprised to hear from the right hon. Gentleman that his local authority had protested. The Board of Trade has so far had only one communication from a local authority questioning the need for the Order.

The right hon. Gentleman expressed the hope that Birmingham will remain a centre for industrial progress and prosperity and a great exporting centre. I thoroughly agree with him. We can assure him that Birmingham will do a great deal better in the future if we can take some of the heat out of the present demand for labour. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Gurden) that if they will consult some of the industrialists in the Birmingham conurbation, who are complaining all the time about firms which are going to poach their workers being allowed to continue expanding, they will appreciate that the Government are not alone in seeking some control over developments there.

The hon. Member for Selly Oak asked about sites already cleared where, if this control operates as quickly as we would like, there may be no new office development. My hon. Friends have answered that. I am sure that these are admirable sites for housing development, which Birmingham so greatly needs.

The hon. Gentleman went on to say that one of the biggest demands for offices—I do not know what arithmetical proportion—is made by Government Departments. That is fine—if the Government Departments are going into existing vacant offices and are not building new offices. We would like to see this happening all over the city until all the vacant offices are filled; and then we will see whether there is need for further building. But we shall not allow any further Government office building in the Birmingham area meanwhile.

I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman says, but my comment was in relation to the point he made about the extra number of office workers going into the centre of the city.

We will try to keep it to the minimum. I do not know of any Government proposals of this kind but we will look into it.

The hon. Gentleman also asked how long the restriction will remain. The Act is to last for seven years. We will see whether Birmingham needs this control throughout the whole period. We will certainly look into the point that there may be a genuine shortage of offices on the perimeter. If that could be satis- fied, it would avoid the need for people to travel into the centre.

Several hon. Members opposite referred to the position of the West Midlands Economic Planning Council as if it were responsible for this. The Council has no powers. It is only an advisory body. Last June the Council recommended that my right hon. Friend should consider making an order designating the Birmingham conurbation for purposes of office control as soon as the Bill became law.

The hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) wanted to know whether projects for which applications for planning permission had been made before 14th August would require an office development permit. As far as I can see, they would not if application had been made in the terms of this Order. I do not know how far the hypothetical case he mentioned would happen in view of the fact that planning permission would not require an o.d.p. if application were made before the 14th, and I do not know how many cases there have been where an application has been turned down and an appeal lodged. It is a hypothetical case, but we will look closely at the point where planning consent was refused.

I cannot take it further than that now. As I had to explain so frequently in Committee during consideration of the Measure, I am not a lawyer and I require legal advice on this point, as on so many others.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Eyre) said, rightly, that the Order goes wider than control over new buildings and deals with change of use. All this is in the Act and was fully discussed by competent hon. Gentlemen during the Committee stage, who gave me a slightly rough time on occasion. Change of use does not mean any release of labour or materials. A change of use to offices—for example, changing a warehouse to office use—increases office employment. That is the point we have to keep on making. In the operation of this control we are concerned with the distribution of employment, and therefore we must look closely at any change of use which will increase office employment.

The hon. Member for Hall Green also mentioned the need for the modernisation of offices to the north and west. We will bear in mind what he said when we are considering office development permits.

He also raised the issue of professional services which must remain local—and this answers the question of the hon. Member for Reading about the criteria. This is probably badly phrased, but the public interest means the public interest involved when the services have to be local, have to be public and associated with the locality. Obviously, the town hall cannot be moved out of the local authority area which it serves and the lawyers, the bankers, the doctors and so on have to be located in the areas in which they work.

The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield questioned the origin of the Order. It certainly did not start with the Labour-controlled City Council of Birmingham, as suggested in the party political point which the right hon. Gentleman tried to make. If I remember rightly—and my hon. Friend the Member for Aston referred to this—the Birmingham City Council asked for a stop to office building long before the May elections and did so on quite genuine grounds, although nothing to do with this Order. The Council said that until the empty offices, the speculative offices, the white elephants, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aston called them, were filled, there should be no more office building in the centre of Birmingham.

The very good reason was that those empty offices did not pay rates, and the Council reckoned that it was losing the equivalent of a 4d. rate because of that. That was a very good argument to put forward for office control, but it is not the argument with which we are dealing in this Order. I commend the Birmingham City Council. I think that it is doing a wonderful job of work, and I think that its arguments are sound. However, the origin of the Order is the statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in July to deal with the appalling economic problems which the previous Government left to us.

We will not go into that at this late hour. When the hon. Gentleman talks about vacant office premises, would he bear in mind that both in opposition and in Government he is pledged to carrying through the Offices and Shops Act to deal with overcrowding and so on and that unless we have the buildings it will be impossible to comply with the terms of that Act by 1967?

I do not accept the time limit which the hon. Gentleman has given. But, obviously, the best way in which to deal with inadequate and decaying offices which do not come up to the standards of the Act is to move people into the empty modern offices which are there for the purpose, and the quicker that is done the better.

The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield said that there was anxiety in the Midlands that our policy of stopping, or checking, or controlling industrial and office development in the Midlands would go too far. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that no one need have any fear that what we are doing will lead to under-employment in the Midlands. The true story about Alfred Bird is that because of congestion the firm moved out to Banbury of its own volition. We would much have preferred it to go to a development district. There is no need for anxiety. We shall not create under-employment in this thriving, throbbing area.

We intend to retain the great diversity of trades in the region so that prosperity and full employment will continue. What we must have, however, in the interest of the whole country, is a far better balanced economy than we have now. It is no use our talking about overexpansion in the Midlands, or allowing expansion to continue at the rate it has done, as long as we have unemployed workers in any part of the country.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Control of Office Development (Designation of Areas) Order, 1965 (S.I., 1965, No. 1564), dated 9th August, 1965, a copy of which was laid before this House on 13th August, be approved.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. McCann.]

11.31 p.m.