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Land Held By Public Bodies

Volume 116: debated on Tuesday 12 May 1987

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

With this it will be convenient to consider Government amendments Nos. 17 and 18.

These provisions are also the victims of the circumstancess to which I referred casually earlier. The House has a great deal of business to attend to this week and I shall not delay it with improvements to the land register system, important though such improvements undoubtedly are in the long run. However, I put it on record that we shall reintroduce provisions along these lines in the new Parliament.

I have been waiting for a chance to discuss this for a long time. I am certainly not going to delay the House, but I want to put something on record. This clause raised my hopes that at long last something was going to be done about a problem that my constituents have faced for a long time; the problem of gipsies. The gipsies that concern my constituents in the area south of the river in Leeds—I live there—are not real gipsies. They have a lot of money and one sees the television sets and cars without taxation that they have.

The Government responded quickly about a year ago when down in the south of England the television cameras discovered the problem in a different respect. I remember saying in the House then that we had had that problem for 25 years. However, people are not really concerned about the so-called inner-city areas south of the river in Leeds. People do not write to the papers in the same way. There is a problem as to who owns the land and I receive telephone calls when I am in London asking what is going to be done about it.

The officer at Leeds city council who attends to such matters is an overworked man. He does what he can. However, on the day before polling day last week, 30 caravans came into my area. An argument then raged over who owned the land. When the Government introduced this amendment as a response to the southern problem, at least there would be a speedy way of learning who owned the land. It is now very difficult for my constituents and me to learn to whom the land belongs. It might take us a week and a visit to the High Court to find out.

6.30 pm

I raise this matter for the record and I know that the problem affects Manchester. Some of my hon. Friends have spoken to me today and told me that the problem affects other parts of the country. Down in Hunslet—which has been part of my constituency for 24 years—and in Holbeck which is now in Leeds, Central, but was in my constituency and is where I live, the problem is obvious. We must do something about it. We must do something about the smell and the articles that are left when these people leave. I believe that the Minister is aware of the problem. He will be aware of what happened in Fryent way, which I believe is in his constituency. Indeed, I used to know that area very well. The problem there caused a rumpus. However, if the people in Fryent way could see what we have to put up with, the rumpus would have been 50 times louder.

South Leeds has put up with enough. When the Leeds corporation decided that the camping sites had to be spread around the city, there was a terrible outcry. It is all very well for the south of the river to have the lot. As I have said, the River Aire is about the size of the Rhine and the Vistula put together when it comes to getting something done. Very few middle-class people live south of the river. Therefore, it is all very well for the camps to be on the south of the river, as long as the camps are not on their doorsteps.

I have made this intervention to make a point. We can play games about which party will be in power after the election. However, whatever party is in power, I will chase this matter. We have had this problem to my knowledge for 25 years. We must do something about it. We must assist the real gipsies and the real Romanies. However, south of the river we have endured enough of the others, who frighten old ladies, knock on doors, rob and do not pay taxes. The whole of the city of Leeds must bear the burden. Indeed, the whole of the country must bear this burden.

I want an answer on this point. I have spoken to my hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench. We must do something about this problem. In a way, I am glad that the outcry in Leeds came from up north of the river. A consultation document proposed that new gipsy encampments should be sited in that area. My goodness, that proposal shifted them. If they had had half the trouble up north of the river that we have had south of the river over the years, something would have been done. We cannot take action on a narrow political basis. We must take action in recognition of the real problem.

I know Fryent way and the outcry that was created there. I can offer the Minister a solution to the problem. All the senior officers on local authorities, the permanent under-secretary at the Department of the Environment and the deputy secretaries should be made to live in the areas where these problems occur. At the same time, the architects who built some of the houses should be pulled out of goal—where I would have put them a long time ago—and made to live in those areas. My goodness, if that happened they would shift fast enough.

In my final five or six years-plus in this House of Commons, I will be talking about gipsies every day until something is done about the problem. I hope that the Minister will give me a sweet little response even in advance of the election.

As usual, I tried to discover whether I would be in order. I was given advice from my hon. Friends on the Opposition Benches, from hon. Members on Conservative Benches, from the Chair and from behind the Chair. In my last few days before my retirement from this House, I thought that I would go out with a clean bill of health. I decided to consult all my hon. Friends on how to approach this subject. The advice that I was given was to go for an Adjournment debate on my subject. However, when I went to Mr. Speaker's Office, I discovered that I had to go through a procedure that I had been through before. I was suddenly told that the Minister responsible would not play on the Adjournment. So I thought that the best thing to do was to find another approach. Sure enough, I found a solution. After all the advice, I discovered that I could get in in the debate on Government amendment No. 15, despite the advice of some of my hon. Friends.

The amendment applies to clause 7 entitled:
"Land held by public bodies."
The Local Government Act 1974 created many problems and made many mistakes. It produced local government reorganisation and we have had headaches ever since the 1974 Act was passed. When I had an opportunity to speak about the matter several years later, I stressed that the problem was compounded in 1983. I stressed that the Opposition did not compound the problem. Rather, the Government of the day, who began the mistakes, compounded them. We now end up with the child that the Government conceived, nurtured and developed through local government reorganisation and that child, I believe, is called the metropolitan county council. The Conservative Government conceived those councils, nurtured them and developed them until they were 10 years old and then they strangled them and got rid of them. The Conservatives created the problems in 1974 and 10 years later they strangled the product of those problems.

By strangling the metropolitan county councils, the Government removed a level of representation that the Government had constructed. In doing so, they imposed liabilities on several district councils that those councils had not expected to encounter. What happened? Responsibilities fell on those district councils that those councils had not envisaged when they were set up in 1974. The councils were confronted with those responsibilities. The metropolitan county councils were selected for abolition while other county councils remained. When it suited the Government they did not get rid of the councils, but when things were going against them they abolished them. So, after abolition, the Government decided to carry out a marvellous privatisation job. Everyone will know that I have tabled early-day motions on this point. I have had consultations with Ministers, I have met residuary body chairmen and I have been like a ping-pong ball going from one side to the other. I was told that it was not the responsibility of the residuary body and then that it was not the Minister's responsibility. I have 152 signatures to my motion—and that figure may have increased today—and only one opponent. I have been through that process and only five minutes ago I spoke to the Minister responsible for removing land, accommodation and a beautiful building in Wakefield about which I am very concerned,

I will fight for that site after I leave the House. Like an old Yorkshire terrier, I will not let go. I may not be a Member of Parliament, but I will be there. Even if I cannot send a direct letter in a pre-paid envelope, my message will come via another method. It will work on the triangle. I will not let go until county hall belongs to the people who owned it in 1898.

I believe that there is a ten-minute job on this debate and I have always been peculiar on time. However, I want to refer to comments made about county hall. I have this calendar.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
(Mr. Douglas Hogg)

Can we see the picture?

Yes, isn't it beautiful? However, the Under-Secretary of State should see the picture of the entrepreneurs. That is a much better picture. The notes attached to the picture state that the site could he sold as a hotel. That is a beautiful picture. I shall pass it round as the Minister is so interested. On the front page it says:

"The present County Hall was built as headquarters of the former West Riding County Council and was opened in 1898. It was used by that council until local government reorganisation in 1974."
It does not say that that was a mistake. It goes on:
"Since 1974 it has been used as the headquarters of the West Yorkshire Metropolitan County Council. County Hall was built to the winning design of James Gibson and Samuel Russell, architects, of Gray's Inn Square, London. In their own description the architects describe the style as free English style."
What a marvellous description. What is free about the Government selling it to private enterprise? It goes on to say that it has
"distinctly English detail. The interior building was finished to such high standard and some of the internal fittings such as the letters of the committee room doors, the elaborate light fittings and switches and some of the plaster work is in the style of art nouveau fashionable at that time."
That is a good description for someone like me from Yorkshire. It goes on:
"Some of the corridors have dados of green and yellow tiles featuring the West Riding County Council in motion. At the top of the main staircase there are murals in the classic European tradition. There is also much ornamental work symbolising the dates and functions of the former authority, and heraldic work embracing the towns and boroughs of the old West Riding."
The name West Riding has been taken from us and the Government are now taking this West Riding building. That is an imposition on the people of the West Riding.

I decided to look up details of what I could say about Wakefield. The date of this quotation is 1841, before the county hall was built. It says about the area in which county hall is built:
"On an eminence `tis built as each visitor knows, Where the mercantile Calder's expansive stream flows, Its streets are well cornered, lengthy spaces and wide, And its buildings are of true architectural pride."
That was written 60 years before the county hall was built.
"The birds sweetly chant their melodious strain, To traverse the beautiful walks we have found And enjoy the rich prospects that ere may be found."
That was written by a chap called Thomas Brown and I agree with it. The Minister's mate cannot turn up, because he is fighting for his seat. He told me that he could not be here until the Adjournment.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to take part in the debate. I hope that the Government will look again at county hall and at the land there and conduct a proper appraisal for the benefit of the ratepayers in west Yorkshire.

On clause 7 about land held by public bodies, we have heard two speeches about areas in Yorkshire. My right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) may recall that he was the first Member of Parliament with whom I had active contact when I was a student at Leeds university. I know his great city well and I know how, in a sense, it is socially divided between north and south. I share his great concern about the impact of so-called gipsies upon the communities south of the river. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to the points made by my right hon. Friend.

6.45 pm

My right hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Harrison) made what I suppose may be his valedictory speech in the House. I share his anger about one of the many consequences of the abolition of the metropolitan councils. That abolition desecrated the temples of democracy, the principal county halls of the great counties, including London and west Yorkshire.

I know the county hall in Wakefield. It was built for the operation of local democracy, not to serve Mammon but to serve a higher idea and ideal.The whole country is offended by the idea that that building, which reflected the self-confidence of the west riding at the time that it was built and demonstrated the area's ability to govern itself without too much reference to Whitehall, should now be sold for a mess of pottage to the highest bidder. If this Government are re-elected the hall will never again be used for its proper purpose.

Not even this Government would seek to sell off our cathedrals or abbeys, although I dare say that they will come close to it if they are re-elected. However, they are only too happy to strip away the powers of local people. There is no better or more tangible example of the way that they are doing that than the forced sales of county halls. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield is correct when he says that he will not let this one go—even if he is not in this House.

As my right hon. Friend has made his valedictory speech in the House, it is appropriate for me to record the debt of gratitude that all my right hon. and hon. Friends owe to our right hon. Friend for his unique contribution in helping to maintain the Labour Government between 1974 and 1979. That Government governed well without, for some time, any visible means of support. They managed to pull off that magical trick not least because of the activities of my right hon. Friend. It is fortunate that there is a 30-year rule, because I have heard about parts of the role played by my right hon. Friend. The stories defy the imagination and perhaps should best be left under wraps. Suffice it to say that he maintained a majority for the Government for over five years. That is to his lasting credit.

I hope that in the spirit of goodwill in which we have approached this Bill the Minister will take the chance now to announce that he will reprieve county hall.

The right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) rightly took the opportunity presented by these clauses and amendments to bring to the attention of the House the problems that obviously exist on the south side of Leeds and from which his constituents are suffering. I do not have knowledge of that area, but if the right hon. Gentleman would speak or write to me I shall be delighted to see what can be done to help.

For a while the right hon. Gentleman lived near to me. The Fryent way area is in my constituency. It has suffered terrible destruction and there has been uproar. The problems have occurred south of the river in Leeds and north of the river in Brent. I am aware of the problems that arise, and before or after the general election I should like to write or speak to the right hon. Gentleman to see what can be done.

I have considerable sympathy with one of his points, that the people who made the decisions should live in those areas. That applies to many of the tower blocks in London, including those in my constituency. One rarely sees the architects who get the prizes for that sort of thing living on the 17th floor and trying to get a lift that works, either to take them down or to enable their aged parents to get up. It would be a good thing if not only the people who built them but the people who gave permission for them to be built and the people in architectural magazines who give them the prizes, knew the old saying about the toad knowing where the harrow cuts. That would give them experience of what the people who live there have to suffer.

I know the strength of feeling of the right hon. Member for Wakefield and his loyalty to his county and to Wakefield, which he has served for so long at borough and county level, and now in Parliament. Indeed, I know the county hall there. In fact, I knew it when Sir Alec Clegg was the chief educational officer in Yorkshire. He will be known to all right hon. and hon. Members. Although he and I were on different wings of the educational spectrum at that time—[Interruption.] I must not divert or be misled by the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), otherwise we shall be discussing the future of Blackburn Rovers again. At least Burnley football club has now saved itself, and the prayers of all Lancastrians here were answered by the saving goal in the Birmingham match last Saturday—[Interruption.] Yes, if they had 14,000 every time they would be back in the first division and leading the League.

If the power of the Minister's prayer will save Burnley, will he save Sunderland on Thursday?

It is probably fitting to raise that matter, because I believe that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker are, like myself, a Methodist lay preacher, so this is the right time for the hon. Gentleman to bring this to the attention of the Chair, as well as myself as the Minister at the Dispatch Box.

Returning to Yorkshire, I was paying tribute to the late Sir Alec Clegg. On the educational spectrum, he was a discovery method man, when I wanted traditional education, and at his request I regularly put my case on Saturday mornings to the head teachers of Yorkshire's primary and secondary schools.

I also know Lancashire county hall well. I did years of research there during school holidays, when I was researching Lancashire's economic history.

The right hon. Member for Wakefield has seen myself and my colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Chope) and has written to us about the Wakefield county hall in the West Riding. The residuary body has put that splendid building up for sale. Incidentally I especially enjoyed the poem by Thomas Brown which the right hon. Gentleman read to the House.

Wakefield has put in a bid for that building but no decision has yet been made about it. When the right hon. Gentleman saw my hon. Friend and me about this matter he brought to our attention the fact that it is not only the sale that is important; the way in which the building is maintained is important also. We have passed that fact on to the residuary body. Obviously, the matter is not a temporary one because the building is the pride of the area and whoever takes on the building must be able to maintain it. It would be a disaster if such a unique building were destroyed.

I appreciate the strength of feeling shown by the right hon. Member for Wakefield on this matter. He has always been courteous to me, even to a Lancastrian from the other side of the Pennines. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, local government servants have served his father, myself, and indeed the right hon. Gentleman. I can say no more about that now, but I shall pass on everything that he has said this evening.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Harrison) is of Wakefield and I am of Leeds and, in a sense, ne'er the twain shall meet, but we are both part of Yorkshire.

I visited police headquarters the other day. I ask the Minister to consider that a great deal of money could be saved for the police department. I believe that this point has been made before. However, as someone with an interest in the police, I know that step would save money. Perhaps that means that the Treasury will consider it with greater interest and sympathy than it would otherwise do.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. We are aware of that matter and it has been passed on. There is a police need and one cannot say more than that there will be serious consideration which could be influential on that decision.

I end by saying to the right hon. Member for Wakefield that this is probably the last time that I shall reply to him in this House. I should like to pay tribute to him for his long service, and not necessarily only for keeping the Labour party in government between 1974 and 1979 which, towards the end, was a great achievement. Nobody can say that the right hon. Gentleman is not a character who knows and speaks his own mind. I say "character" in the best sense of that word. If the House became merely a collection of men who—I do not mention Whips here because there can be characters among Whips as well; in fact, at least one of my hon. Friends has been a Whip and is still a character, after leaving the Whips' Office, just as he was before—but if the House became a collection of individuals who simply said yes and no when told to do so, and who did not come here to represent the feelings of the people among whom they have been born, this place would be worse than it is. Therefore, on behalf of all my right hon. and hon. Friends, I should like to pay a genuine tribute to the right hon. Member for Wakefield, whom we shall miss.

Amendment agreed to.