Portavadie (Public Inquiry)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:32 pm on 3rd February 1981.

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Photo of Dennis Canavan Dennis Canavan , Stirlingshire West 3:32 pm, 3rd February 1981

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the holding of a public inquiry into the sale of the village at the platform construction site in Portavadie. The village to which I refer was built in 1975 with £3·3 million of public money, but due to an omission, an error, a blunder—call it what you may—by either the Scottish Office or the Department of Energy, or both, the ownership of the village passed to a company called Sea Platform Constructors (Scotland) Ltd. because the Department or Departments failed to buy the land from it. Under the provisions of Scottish law, the ownership of the village passed to the private owners of the land on which the village was sited.

Sea Platform Constructors (Scotland) Ltd. is half-owned by Lord Matthews' Trafalgar House Group, which bought the land for £150,000 from a local farmer in 1974. No doubt the yard and the village adjacent to the yard were built with good intentions way back in 1974–75, the purpose of the village being to house workers for the nearby platform construction yard. In the event, the yard failed to get any orders, partly due to the drop in popularity of concrete platforms compared with steel-structured platforms. I am informed that since 1975 no concrete platforms have been ordered for the United Kingdom sector of the North Sea.

A few weeks ago, on Christmas Eve, a company called Bretshire Enterprises, registered in the Dutch Antilles, was reported to have bought the village for £175,000 from Sea Platform Constructors (Scotland) Ltd. A few days later it was sold to a third party, as yet unnamed, for £450,000. That is not a bad killing in a few days. It is a profit of over 150 per cent. The representative of Bretshire Enterprises, a Mr. Oliver Iny, seems to be very secretive about giving any information regarding the sale, and there is an air of mystery surrounding the whole transaction. This is a story of official blunders, allowing private speculators to make a quick killing out of a public asset that was built with a considerable amount of public money. There is also the possibility that tax dodging is taking place.

There is a great deal of public concern in Scotland and elsewhere. The public are entitled to know about this matter, because the project was built with their money. There is a great deal of public suspicion about a cover-up. The best way to allay that suspicion would be to hold a public inquiry. Yet last month, the Secretary of State for Scotland announced that he had no intention of holding a public inquiry. That indicates a considerable degree of complacency on his part, especially in view of the prima facie evidence that was dug out by the media and the Public Accounts Committee.

On July 1979 the Public Accounts Committee was told that the Government did not buy the site because Sea Platform Constructors (Scotland) Ltd. was reluctant to sell the site. However, even after the village was constructed the Government were refused access to maintain the buildings, which had been built with public money. According to the Government balance sheet of 31 March 1978 the village appears as an asset, and yet under Scottish law it did not even belong to them.

On 18 June 1980, a Mr. Gillett, secretary of the Scottish Development Department, told the Public Accounts Committee that the Government were no longer interested in buying the village, but he seemed unaware that the village was up for offer as a holiday or leisure centre at a reserve price of £500,000. I am sure that the House will be grateful to the Public Accounts Committee for the information that it has unearthed, but there are still many questions that have been left unanswered.

Did the Scottish Office advise the Department of Energy about the implications under Scottish law whereby, if it failed to take the land into public ownership, the ownership of the village would pass on to the private owners of the land? If it did not pass on that information, why not, and what happened to the responsible official? Is he still at St. Andrew's House, advising—or misadvising—Ministers? If the Scottish Office gave the appropriate advice, which seems likely on the evidence of Mr. Gillett, who told the Public Accounts Committee that at no stage did the two Departments act independently, why did the Department of Energy decide to spend £3·3 million of public money without taking the land into public ownership? Who in the Department of Energy was responsible for advising the go-ahead? What happened to him? Is he still at Millbank advising—or misadvising—Ministers?

There is also the question why the village appeared as an asset in the Government balance sheet when it did not even belong to the Government. There is also the deeper question of what efforts were made to get an order. I realise the difficulties, due to the decrease in popularity of concrete platforms, but there was at least one North Sea order after 1975, which went to Norway. There is also the question of the local planning authority's having laid down at the outset that the building should be easily convertible to leisure or recreational use. Why did not the Government take any initiative in conjunction with the Scottish Tourist Board or the Highlands and Islands Development Board in order to find such an alternative use for the village? Who is the present owner? This morning I telephoned the solicitor in charge of the latest transaction and the local authority, the Argyll and Bute district council. They were not able to tell me the present owner of the village, and the local authority told me that no planning permission had yet been submitted for change of use.

Is there any connection between Sea Platform Constructors (Scotland) Ltd., Bretshire Enterprises and the present owner? Is it merely the normal relationship between vendor and purchaser, or is there something deeper? There is the possibility of tax evasion or avoidance. Has development land tax been paid on the transaction, and any other taxes that are due?

Why is the Secretary of State for Scotland reluctant to hold a public inquiry? Has he something to hide, or is there someone in the Scottish Office with a lot to hide? Last year we had the Robroyston scandal, when a publicly owned asset, a former hospital site, was sold off and private speculators were able to make hundreds of thousands of pounds of profit. I maintain that the public are entitled to know why £3.3 million of their money apparently went down the drain at Portavadie while a speculator was able to make a profit over a few days of over 150 per cent. If we are to get to the root of the matter, the public are entitled to a public inquiry, and that is why I am asking for leave to introduce the Bill.