GREATER LONDON COUNCIL (GENERAL POWERS) BILL (By Order)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 6th March 1973.

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Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Acton 12:00 am, 6th March 1973

I believe the whole House will agree that the hon. Member for the Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Tugendhat) has contributed signally to the debates we have had in this House on London matters. I recall particularly his contribution on 15th December last.

I agree with him that there are devices which we have necessarily to use to ensure that London matters are discussed. I believe that in relation to its area, London is the most densely-membered area of the country, having, I believe, more Members than the whole of Scotland. Therefore it is right that we as a House should have time to debate London matters, and I am very glad that we have achieved that this evening, although perhaps, unfortunately, overshadowed by other events.

The powers of the Greater London Council which we are discussing this evening in the General Powers Bill are related directly to the powers contained in other statutes, and in terms of effect, at least, to what the Government decide to do and what the Government decide the GLC shall or shall not do. It is right, therefore, that the Government should have a listening ear. We are pleased to see the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, who will be able to hear the views of hon. Members on both sides of the House on many non-party matters which worry London people. I shall try to deal with matters as objectively as I can in the first instance and deal with party differences in a self-contained addendum.

One of the marked characteristics of our debates is that hon. Members representing London constituencies are able to look at the problems of London as a whole and to differ on the solutions. There will be a choice of solutions next month for the citizens of London when they go to the polls.

I wish to deal with three broad aspects. I first wish to comment on the Layfield Report. Secondly, I wish to refer to the docks study about which we have heard but which we have not seen and, thirdly, I wish to comment on matters concerning the River Thames which arise from the Bill.

No doubt there will be a debate on the Layfield Report in Government time, but some matters which bear on the powers and responsibilities of the GLC should be discussed tonight because they are relevant to the way in which the GLC and the Government make decisions for London in the near future.

Since our debate last December, it has become more widely known that London faces an employment crisis, not in the sense of the unemployment which is a feature of the development areas but in the imbalance of employment. The Layfield Report did not come to that conclusion. Nearly every public representative, whether parliamentary, GLC or borough, would disagree with the findings of Layfield. The Secretary of State for the Environment, in paragraph 17 of the Statement which he circulated but did not read, said this of the Layfield Report: On specific issues they regard the policy of seeking to reduce the rate at which jobs are leaving London as unjustified. The GLC feared that a continuous exodus of jobs would have an adverse effect on the income of Londoners, principally by removing the jobs which earned good incomes; but the Panel, after a lengthy review of the complex evidence on this difficult subject, have come to a quite contrary view: that on balance a continuing decline in population and employment at recent rates is likely to produce greater benefit in living and working conditions for everybody concerned—both those who stay and those who leave. I am worried about that finding, because everybody to whom I have spoken believes that the opposite is true. Many of the people who go to new or expanded towns under the ægis of the GLC are skilled or semi-skilled and are relatively young, perhaps with growing families. One reason why they may be given priority for movement is that they have housing problems. They leave behind a relatively ageing population, thus making the age and social balance in certain areas more critical than it would otherwise be. That argument can be justified by evidence from academic sources which I have read. But for some reason which I do not understand the Layfield Panel does not come to that conclusion.

Paragraph 5.71 of the report reads as follows: We were not presented with any evidence which shows this assumption to be true … That is the assumption that the number of jobs is rapidly running down. … and we, therefore, see no need for the policy in order to achieve the aim. The aim was to slow down the rate. In paragraph 25.16 the panel reports: Voluntary movement by firms out of Central London, in co-operation with their workers, is indeed to be encouraged, but a policy which deliberately restricts growth in the centre in order to put jobs closer to homes is not. The first part of that sentence refers to the official policy of the Government and the GLC to move out of London industry that can as well be carried on else- where. Employment in the manufacturing industries in London has been going down rapidly. Various estimates have been made of how many years it will take before there is no manufacturing industry in London. The Layfield Panel may not face that prospect with qualms, and the Government may not. In view of increased specialisation in towns throughout Europe, this may be a natural consequence of increased efficiency and industrial reorganisation. But I suggest that the social side effects of such a policy would be disastrous.

In 1966, 1,431,000 people were engaged in manufacturing industries in Greater London. By 1970 that number had been reduced by 177,000. The unofficial figures show that in one year, between 1970 and 1971, that number went down by more than 50,000. That rate of reduction may begin to smooth out in a few years' time, but anyone who lives in an industrial area of London knows that there is a critical balance in the so-called pool of labour and experience and the structure of sub-contracting industries and trades, and that after a certain point has been reached the run down is more rapid and harder to arrest. I hope that the Government will urgently pay attention to this phenomenon and question closely whether the Layfield conclusions on this matter are correct.

The conclusion of the Layfield Panel which I read in my last quotation concerns employment in central London. We touched on this in our debate on 15th December, when my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mrs. Lena Jeger) referred to answers she had received to Questions about office space. She said that she was told on 20th November 1972 by one of the Ministers in the Department of the Environment that 9 million sq. ft. of office premises were unoccupied, 11·1 million sq. ft. were under construction and another 8·6 million sq. ft. were the subject of planning permission but had not been built. Those figures add up to nearly 30 million sq. ft. over and above the office accommodation already occupied.

Much of this empty office accommodation is in central London, and we all know the office blocks in question. In that previous debate we anxiously waited to hear the Minister for Housing and Construction say what he intended to do about this. We also wondered whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer this afternoon might say something about it. He said something that may have a marginal effect, but the pledges that were given by a former Secretary of State for the Environment have not yet been fulfilled. These empty office blocks represent a waste of resources and create an artificial office market which has repercussive effects on property values throughout London. When the value of an office development is artificially high, site values are likewise over-valued. The inflation in site values and accommodation throughout London, which everyone agrees is a curse, is an effect of this office market syndrome. I hope that if he intervenes the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment will be able to tell us something about that, because many people in all parties in London are very much concerned about it.

The next subject dealt with in the Layfield Report on which I wish to speak is that of transport. No doubt at a later stage there will be a lengthier debate on it, and it would be wrong to go into detail now. Since this is the first time that we are able to give our reactions to the proposals concerning roads, about which everyone was surprised, it seems appropriate to do so now. The report talks about the great housing crisis in London and recommends drastic measures to deal with it—measures which have been foreseen by my colleagues at County Hall and to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Clinton Davis) may make reference. But the report recommends a road pattern which would mean that 10,000, more or less—in any case a substantial number—of houses would have to be pulled down to provide for Ringway 1.

It may be that many of those houses will need to come down in any case, but probably many of them would not need to be pulled down. It seems extraordinary that this plan would do the most social damage by having the road go through areas which are already under social stress. It may be that the environment of those areas is not so pleasant as that of others further out in the area of the proposed Ringway 2 and Ringway 3, but that does not mean that environmental stress should be piled on to the very great social stress which is already present.

My second question concerning transport is about public transport. The most significant paragraphs on this are contained in pages 361 and 362 of the report, dealing with fares. Whatever the convenience such as interchange or through-ticket arrangements, the total cost in the weekly or monthly budget of through movement by public transport is the important point. It is a reflection on the inadequacies of the Greater London Development Plan revealed by this report that almost at the same time as the report was made public the Secretary of State for the Environment saw fit to establish with the GLC a pane] to investigate a rail plan for London. These physical plans were left out of the Greater London Development Plan. I think that was an admission of failure.

Of course the road plans cause great controversy. I understand that the Secretary of State accepts certain things and leaves out others. That seems illogical. He has accepted the road plan apparently to deal with what he calls "congestion in London". I know that some people occasionally experience congestion in London. We have heard that on a famous occasion the Prime Minister experienced it. But what is not realised is that in general traffic in London is flowing relatively fast, indeed faster than it was 10 years ago. The Intelligence Unit Quarterly Bulletin of 16th September 1971 published figures to prove this. I will not quote the figures but I quote the conclusion: Off-peak speeds average 12 miles per hour in the centre, 17½ miles per hour in inner London, 24½ miles per hour in the outer areas, and 32 miles per hour on primary roads.Since 1962, the average speed on the primary network has increased by 3 miles per hour, largely due to the construction of new motorways, and has remained virtually unchanged on other roads. Meanwhile, traffic levels have risen by about 50 per cent. I stress that in general traffic is flowing fast. It is only when a lorry breaks down or some such event occurs that traffic builds up. This is increasingly true on main motorways between cities. Those of us who listen to the radio almost every morning hear of a motorway where some accident has occurred and motorists are advised to take an alternative route. But there are not objective surveys of the actual amount of congestion, nor is the congestion compared with what it might be or what it was before the war. There is a great question whether the apparent reason for constructing Ringway 1 is congestion in Greater London.