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Location Of Offices Bureau (Amendment) Order 1977

Volume 385: debated on Thursday 14 July 1977

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4.50 p.m.

rose to move, That the draft Location of Offices Bureau (Amendment) Order 1977, laid before the House on 23rd June, be approved. The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this order makes three amendments to the order made in 1963 which constituted the Location of Offices Bureau. The main amendment changes the description of the functions of the Bureau; the second increases the membership of the Bureau from four to five; and the third extends the period for which members serve from two to three years.

I am sure your Lordships need little reminding of the function of the Bureau. There can be few of us who have not seen those striking advertisements, particularly on the London Underground, advising firms of the savings to be made by moving their offices away from central London. When the Bureau was established in 1963, congestion in central London, particularly congestion of offices, was seen as a great problem. Indeed, until one looks back at old papers one is inclined to forget just how much of a problem it was. As a result, the "general duty" which the Bureau was given and which is defined in the order under which it is constituted is:

"To encourage decentralisation and diversion of office employment from congested areas in central London to suitable centres elsewhere".

It is this part of the definition which the order before us today seeks to amend. The definition continues:

"…and to take such steps as may be necessary for this purpose including without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing the provision of information and publicity and the promotion of research".

The present order does not seek to amend this part of the definition.

I think it is beyond dispute that the Bureau has been very successful in carrying out its appointed task. When it was established in 1963, the general opinion among the majority of firms was that it was essential for the whole of their office operations to be concentrated in central London. Many firms could not conceive of any other form of organisation serving them successfully. In its early years, the Bureau undoubtedly played a big part in changing the climate of opinion to one which was favourable to office location outside London. Some firms were able to accept that their whole organisation could operate equally well from elsewhere; some moved practically all of their staff while retaining a small base in central London; some identified blocks of work which could be devolved from the main part of the organisation.

The Bureau's part in this, in numerical terms, is shown in its annual reports. The latest published report is that for the year ended 31st March 1976. This year's report is due to be published in a week's time, but I have been able to furnish a copy of it in advance to the noble Baroness opposite. I regret that there is the embargo upon it that it cannot be quoted or spoken about until after 20th July, but at least the noble Baroness has had an opportunity to check the figures in this year's report against those in the previous one. The earlier report shows that in the 13 years of the Bureau's existence clients had moved, or were moving, over 150,000 jobs. I should not want anybody to jump to the conclusion that all these jobs have been lost to London. Over 50,000 of them were moved within the GLC area—for example, from central to inner and outer London.

This has been achieved not only by successful advertising campaigns but also by the thoroughly comprehensive information service which the Bureau has built up over the years for the benefit of its clients—a service which has, moreover, been provided free. Anybody who is interested in building or setting up offices outside central London, whether or not they have decided where they wish to go, can make use of this service. The Bureau can provide details of vacant office accommodation in towns all over Great Britain and corresponding information about the rents which are being asked. Information about the planning policies of local authorities can be given to those wishing to build, and a fund of essential supplementary information is available about Government assistance towards moves, the availability of staff, housing, transport, post office communications and anything else that a person who is moving office needs to know. Indeed, I think it is true to say that in no other sphere of commercial activity—for example, in industry or shopping—is a corresponding service so readily available.

My purpose in giving this brief account of the capabilities of the Bureau has been to explain why the Government wish it to carry on, albeit, as I shall explain, with a rather different emphasis. However, I am mindful of the kind words which the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, had to say about the Bureau during the debate on the Second Reading of the Control of Office Development Bill and the welcome he gave to its continuance, and I will now turn to its future role.

The Government recognise that the terms of reference of the Bureau are no longer appropriate and that they clearly need to be revised. On the one hand, congestion is no longer a major problem in central London, as the decline in the number of people who commute daily within the area shows. On the other hand, a better distribution of office employment in Great Britain is a major objective of the Government. It is an objective with which we feel the Bureau is ideally fitted to assist.

Consequently, as my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment announced in another place on 17th May, the Government propose that the terms of reference of the Bureau should be amended to give it a less restrictive role, and that is the purpose of the draft order which is before your Lordships. The order replaces the passage I quoted earlier with the words:

"It shall be the general duty of the Bureau to promote the better distribution of office employment in England and Wales".

This is a very widely drawn remit and it is right that I should give some indication of how we expect it to be fulfilled. I will therefore return to my right honourable friend's announcement. He was, he said, giving the Bureau two new tasks: first, to attract international concerns to the location of offices in Great Britain, including London; and, secondly, to give particularly attention to the promotion of office employment in inner urban areas, again including London. He went on to explain that the Bureau would retain its general duty of assisting in the mobility and efficiency of office employment and that in carrying out its wider role it would be extending and giving a new emphasis to its past and present one.

In the light of my right honourable friend's remarks, I was somewhat surprised at the extent to which the Press received his announcement as indicating a reversal of the former role of the Bureau. This may have arisen partly from confusion over the use of the terms "central London" and "inner London". "Central London" is defined precisely for statistical purposes. Broadly, it is the area bounded by a line joining the main line railway termini. Inner London, for office control purposes, is the area immediately beyond that, which will be defined more precisely as the Government's work on ways of helping inner London progresses.

Consequently, if the Bureau seek in future to attract firms to inner London it is by no means seeking to draw them back to the same areas from which it once sought to decentralise firms. As your Lordships will appreciate, the two tasks could co-exist quite comfortably by the Bureau promoting the dispersal of firms from central to inner London where, as has been explained in the debates on the Control of Office Development Bill, additional employment would often be extremely welcome.

Moreover, your Lordships will also appreciate that the other new task which the Bureau has been given could further complement this situation. To the extent that firms coining from abroad wish to he located in central London, rather than in inner London, there will be opportunities for them to take over any office space vacated by firms being relocated in London but outside the central area. I should like to make one other point about the Bureau's new role. It would be a mistake to expect a sudden change in its work. I have explained how one task complements the other, and I think your Lordships will see that this implies the Bureau's new role will come about by evolution rather than by the sudden revolution which the Press appears to expect.

I will deal very briefly with the two other amendments which the order makes. One increases the number of members of the Bureau from four to five. The present membership of the Bureau represents a wide range of experience—local government, commerce, the academic world and the Civil Service. We would not wish to lose any of this expertise, but we feel that the Bureau would be strengthened by having a member with trade union experience who could help with the advice which firms might expect to get about the effects on their staff of a move. To get this additional advice we propose to increase the size of the Bureau, rather than to sacrifice any of the experience already available. The final amendment increases the period for which members serve from two to three years. This is being done to give members greater certainty in office and to avoid the need for frequent renewal of appointments.

My Lords, I hope you agree with me that the Location of Offices Bureau has a vital role to play in the Government's policy for office employment, that this role can only be properly fulfilled if it is given fresh terms of reference, and that to this end you will approve the draft order which now lies before the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft Location of Offices Bureau (Amendment) Order 1977, laid before the House on 23rd June, be approved.—( Baroness Stedman.)

5.2 p.m.

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, for explaining this draft order to us so clearly. As she has indicated, it makes three changes from the original order and I should like to comment on all of them, but first I should like to thank her for sending me a copy of the new report of the Location of Offices Bureau. She will understand as well as I do that it is very frustrating to have a report that one has read but cannot discuss; furthermore, it would be invaluable to have it for discussion when we come to the Report stage of the Office Development Bill because this Statutory Instrument and that Bill are intimately connected. So I feel it is unfortunate that, although printed, the report is not available for discussion; because on these serious matters it is useful to have the basic information. Not having it also makes it somewhat more difficult to frame one's remarks without revealing that one has in fact read the report and can say nothing about it.

I think everyone will welcome the fact that the terms of reference of the Location of Offices Bureau have been altered and, if I may put it this way, have been put in a more general fashion. No doubt there has been considerable concern in London that the policy of the decentralisation of offices has affected employment in Greater London and has come at a time when employment in industry is falling and when London is suffering from a great many of the problems so well defined in the Government's own White Paper on the Inner Cities. It is helpful for the noble Baroness to have explained the difference between central London and inner London. For the benefit of others who may be looking at this question I can only say that it would be helpful sometimes to have a map, and I wonder whether it has ever been considered that a map might be included.

London itself is very concerned that, despite the altered terms in the order before us, the Location of Offices Bureau will continue its work, quite particularly its advertising, in encouraging firms to move out. Only today, as I got out of the Underground at Westminster Station, I happened to notice a brand new advertisement suggesting that firms should move out of what I suppose must be inner London, and I really wondered whether this was in the best interests of the inhabitants. It is certainly a very splendid advertisement of a crossword puzzle and as I am rather keen on crossword puzzles it caught my eye at once. But is this really in the best interests of London?

As I understand it, the intention behind this policy of moving offices out is to help assisted areas, but I believe that until the end of 1973–74 only 6 per cent. of firms from central London actually moved out into the assisted areas, and although the proportion increased to 22 per cent. and 20 per cent. in the two subsequent years, my guess is that it was not so much the efforts of either ODPs or even the Location of Offices Bureau, but the very heavy grants given to firms to move out. These incentives may well be adequate to find firms for assisted areas throughout the country; so that, in considering this review, in my view the Greater London Council was quite right to believe that the decentralisation from London should cease and that the Location of Offices Bureau should concentrate largely on helping to carry out a proper distribution of offices within London itself.

As I understand it, this is one of the things which the present order will allow. I hope I am right in thinking that, because I looked again at paragraph 56 of the White Paper on Policy for the Inner Cities in which it says that the functions of the Location of Offices Bureau have been reviewed and part of its new role will be to give particular attention to the promotion of office employment in inner urban areas, including London. So I should like to believe that at least part of the concern of London is being met.

I think, too, it is important that the Secretary of State believes that London should be used to attract international firms from overseas; but again I hope very much that the Location of Offices Bureau will pay attention to its advertising. I think it must be discouraging to a firm to contemplate setting up in London and then, every time anyone moves anywhere by public transport, to see these large advertisements urging everybody to move out. I fear that a great many overseas places will not have appreciated the subtle distinction between central and inner London which I am sure has escaped most of the population, and they will find it somewhat disconcerting.

I should like to comment on the fact that there is to be an extra member to serve on the Bureau. I was pleased to see this and I had hoped very much that that extra member might be a representative of the Greater London Council. I heard the noble Baroness say that there was local authority representation on the Bureau. Perhaps she will tell us who is represented, how they are chosen, and why, as I understand it, the Greater-London Council has in fact been excluded from this, as it is so important a factor in the work of the Location of Offices Bureau; and why it has been decided to have a trade unionist. I should have thought it would be useful possibly to have some representatives of employees, if that is the purpose of it; but whether in encouraging firms to move to different places this is the most valuable membership, I am not quite so sure.

I entirely accept that it is a valuable amendment to suggest that members should serve for three years rather than two. Two years is a very short time to serve on any body, and I think it is valuable to have the service extended to three years. As I indicated, I think it represents some improvement on the position which existed before the order. I give it a partial welcome because I think it could be helpful in releasing some office accommodation in inner London where it is needed. I much regret that the Government have not felt able to go further than they have, and I wish they would reconsider the point about a GLC member for the Location of Offices Bureau itself.

5.8 p.m.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her perhaps slightly qualified welcome to the new role of the Location of Offices Bureau. I am only too ready to agree with her that if we could only have a map which would explain, even to those of us in this House, which areas were actually inner London, which were central London and which were outer London, it would be extremely helpful. I hope that when the various officials who are now looking at the inner cities and trying to decide on the appropriate areas, have taken their decisions, such a map will be available. If it is available I will certainly ensure that the noble Baroness has a copy, or that there is a copy from which we may refresh our memories somewhere within the confines of this House.

The noble Baroness referred to the new poster which one sees on coming out of Westminster station. I have also seen this. I take her point that when we are trying to encourage international and multinational companies to come into central London it may be a little disconcerting, not knowing the strange ways in which we define the various areas of London, to find themselves exhorted to leave London before they have even got here.

This is a point which I will bring to the notice of my right honourable friend. We can perhaps take it up with the Location of Offices Bureau, whose advertising has certainly been first-class up till now, but we would not want to do anything to detract from the purpose of this order. The noble Baroness is quite right in saying that the first duty of the LOB is still to help the assisted areas, but with a very strong priority for the inner urban areas, and particularly London. This ties up with the help that we are hoping we can now give to the inner cities, and again particularly to the inner areas of London.

With regard to her comments about the extra member, it is very useful in cases like this to have a trade unionist member.

Whether that can also be combined with a member of the GLC, I would not know. I can only speak from my own personal experience as a member, until recently, of a development corporation. When we had a large firm moving into the area the appropriate official of the union that was going to be responsible for the workforce there was usually called into consultation. I know this was very much appreciated by one of the larger firms that moved in. We were able to put them in touch with the district officer of one of the large unions, who was able to give them advice about conditions appertaining in other firms and other factories, to help to deal with problems of the people making the move, help to reassure them about the rates of pay and the cost of living in the area, the sort of housing that was available and at what cost to them. I am sure that this would be interesting.

I am afraid I cannot tell the noble Baroness the places from which the members come. They are all detailed in the front of the famous report, but, unfortunately, it does not say which one of them represents which point. I will find out and will let the noble Baroness know which of them represents which part of the local authorities, industry, commerce and so on. I will write to her about that. I will certainly take up her point about the GLC. I will confer with my right honourable friend to see whether the local authority representative can really answer for the GLC or for the other assisted areas in London which we are hoping to help. I welcome her support for the order.

On Question, Motion agreed to.