Roofing Contract (Plymouth Dockyard)

– in the House of Commons at 1:30 pm on 28th June 1995.

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Photo of Mr Sebastian Coe Mr Sebastian Coe , Falmouth and Camborne 1:30 pm, 28th June 1995

I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration will reply to my observations today. I recognise that the issues I wish to raise, particularly those which relate to English Heritage, fall at the door of our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage, but my hon. Friend's Department is a key funder of such projects. My hon. Friend will be relieved, as am I, that, unlike previous exchanges in the House, we are not discussing fishing today.

The title of this debate may appear a little dour and unexciting. It has not emptied the Dining Rooms, but, to my constituency, it is one of the more relevant debates of the year. This is only my second Adjournment debate, and it is my second on a key constituency matter. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise my concerns and to outline the case of Camborne Natural Slate, a company in my constituency, and the re-roofing contract for the Royal William dockyard in Plymouth.

The essence of my case is that Camborne Natural Slate had been asked to tender for a contract, was told that it had been awarded it, and entered into production. At the last minute, the company was informed that English Heritage had intervened and had given the contract, I believe without good justification, to a Welsh company.

Photo of Mr Anthony Grant Mr Anthony Grant , Cambridge South West

Is my hon. Friend aware that Eternit, which is a major supplier of building materials in my constituency, is involved in that project, and is supplying some of the material? It is concerned about the point made by my hon. Friend, and, like me, wishes to offer whole-hearted support for the campaign that he is undertaking. Does my hon. Friend agree that, in this week of all weeks, we have had rather too much interference from some people from Wales?

Photo of Mr Sebastian Coe Mr Sebastian Coe , Falmouth and Camborne

I am, as ever, deeply grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention. I am grateful for his support and for the support of Eternit in his constituency, which has written to me and to the owners of Camborne Natural Slate pledging its support. On my hon. Friend's second point, I have never really thought of myself as St. George in this place.

The supply of slate from Camborne to the Plymouth development corporation is not only vital for the company but has a significant consequence for the mining and process industries in Cornwall. Camborne Natural Slate has demonstrated that, despite the difficulties resulting from the near-disappearance of tin mining in Cornwall, it is possible to retain the Duchy's long history of mining by importing raw materials for value-added processing in the county. That is all the more important given the phoenix-like rise in the fortunes of South Crofty, Cornwall's last working mine, which is also in my constituency.

The case is straightforward. Camborne Natural Slate is a successful finished-slate producing company. In July 1994, its chairman, Dr. Chandra Durve, received a letter from the Philip Desmonde Partnership, writing on behalf of the Plymouth development corporation, asking whether Camborne Natural Slate would like to tender for the contract for the re-roofing of the Royal William dockyard.

The letter states that the natural slate roofing—Brazilian natural slate—which is light grey in colour and which is used by Camborne Natural Slate has been selected as suitable amongst a range of alternatives". Naturally, the company welcomed that approach, and put together its bid.

I have seen a further letter sent to Camborne Natural Slate in September 1994, by Roger Monson on behalf of the development director of the Plymouth development corporation. It said that the corporation had decided in consultation with English Heritage … to erect five in-situ slate samples for inspection and further inspection". The letter also specified the date by which the corporation should receive all the samples. All this suggests that, at that stage, English Heritage was satisfied with Camborne Natural Slate.

That is when we arrive at the first contradiction. English Heritage subsequently claimed that it had decided against using Camborne Natural Slate in June 1994. I have a copy of the aforementioned letter, which was dated 26 September 1994. That is odd.

Camborne Natural Slate legally tendered for the contract. It took eight months to draw up the tender list and, although in-depth discussions took place between the Plymouth development corporation and English Heritage about size, colour, texture, quality and all other aspects of the slates on offer, no doubt was ever expressed about the Camborne slate. Indeed, I understand that one source of Welsh slate was rejected by English Heritage at the outset, because of its colour.

Following the submission, in March 1995 Camborne Natural Slate was invited to meet the Plymouth development corporation consultants. It was at that meeting that it was advised that it would be awarded the contract subject to terms. Given the nature of the correspondence and subsequent communications, and due to the nature, scale and timing of the required supply, the company took the not unnatural step of commencing production. It had, after all, been assured that it would be awarded the contract and it wanted to provide a first-rate service. Its decision was based on firm assurances, and it was unaware that it was taking any risks.

English Heritage has recently stated that it does not feel that Camborne Natural Slate's product is suitable for the re-roofing contract. That pronouncement goes against the advice and knowledge of all local experts. English Heritage claims that the slate is the wrong colour and has too smooth a texture. Throughout the bidding process, Camborne Natural Slate made it clear that it was capable of making slates of whatever texture was required, and, indeed, has done so on many other notable historic restorations.

Historically, all slate quarried in the south-west was pale in colour, with green and grey as the predominant shades. Unlike Welsh slate, it would not have been black or shades of black.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd , Meirionnydd Nant Conwy

Welsh slate is not black. One type is blue, and the other is purple. While I am on my feet, I feel that I should interfere on behalf of Welsh slate producers. The hon. Gentleman is making a case for importing slate from Brazil, and is arguing against the best product in the world, which is mined in Wales. Is he, as a Conservative Member of Parliament, saying, "Don't buy anything from Wales, even if it is mined locally—import instead"? That is preposterous.

Photo of Mr Sebastian Coe Mr Sebastian Coe , Falmouth and Camborne

I am happy to respond to that, and I shall deal with the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman later in my observations. The hon. Gentleman represents an area that is not dissimilar in nature to my constituency. He will know that, for those areas to prosper and for their economic foundations to be vibrant, value-added is a key part of any inward investment.

It is absurd to suggest that a slate comes out of the ground and is suddenly nailed to a roof. The hon. Gentleman knows that an awful lot of work goes into it first. Camborne Natural Slate is producing a product 70 per cent. of whose input is of a domestic nature, and 70 per cent. of the income raised remains in the United Kingdom.

Photo of Mr David Harris Mr David Harris , St Ives

May I assure my hon. Friend that he has the total and absolute backing of the whole of west Cornwall for his case, especially in the light of the disgraceful way in which the Welsh Development Agency is doing its utmost to poach jobs and firms from Cornwall. If we lose the order, the economy of the south-west and west Cornwall will be hit again; and goodness knows, it needs all the help it can get.

Photo of Mr Sebastian Coe Mr Sebastian Coe , Falmouth and Camborne

I am grateful for the support of my hon. Friend, who has raised the issue of the processing of regional selective assistance and the various grants. We have both been to see Ministers to discuss the matter, and, as the Member of Parliament for a constituency adjoining that of my hon. Friend, I recognise the profound importance of the outcome to the economy of the south-west.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson , Plymouth, Devonport

Surely the issue is not whether Welsh or Cornish slate should be used. The fact is that English Heritage accepted that the six tenders were all appropriate for the job, and Camborne Natural Slate then put in the best tender—better than the Welsh tender. Surely the decision should now be based purely on price.

Photo of Mr Sebastian Coe Mr Sebastian Coe , Falmouth and Camborne

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. I shall deal with it in my final observations.

It is important to establish the fact that the darker unweathered slates appear at depth. As the Cornish miners of yesteryear had neither the technology nor the need to dig deep, all the slate used was light in colour, akin to the Camborne slates, which are light grey. Studies have found that those are ideally suited to match the traditional grey weathered slates still seen on historic buildings. For reasons of colour and historical authenticity, many local builders deliberately use Camborne slates to patch old roofs.

I have seen a letter from Richard Edwards, senior lecturer at the world-renowned Camborne school of mines in my constituency, which says that the Camborne slates fit in perfectly with the slates of the south-west peninsula. In other words, they are the nearest we can get to the original slates used on the dockyard roof.

I can now deal with the point made by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), because English Heritage's argument that Camborne slates are Brazilian is erroneous. Only the rock is imported. Not only is that raw rock closest in nature to the old Cornish rock, but the slates are hand-finished in Cornwall by Cornish hands—not in Brazil and not in Wales. It is the Cornish heritage, skill and culture that enable the slates to be produced to such a high standard in the county.

English Heritage's objections are even more absurd, because when there was a final test in which sample slates were put on the bakehouse roof of the Royal William dockyard, English Heritage approved the Camborne slate and deemed it more suitable than the Spanish or Welsh samples. From the outset, English Heritage favoured a large slate, because all the evidence in the historical records of the yard show that large slates were used. The Welsh cannot produce those, but Camborne can.

Perhaps the Minister will explain why English Heritage has acted in such a contradictory fashion. Camborne Natural Slate has been severely misled. Indeed, it seems from the evidence that English Heritage also misled Plymouth development corporation, probably causing it unwittingly to delude the company.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter , Plymouth, Sutton

My hon. Friend mentions Plymouth development corporation, and he will be aware that the project is hugely significant for Plymouth, especially the development of the Royal William dockyard. It is being funded to the tune of £45 million by a Government Department, so does my hon. Friend agree that it is absurd for English Heritage, another organisation funded by the Government, to intervene in such an incompetent manner and mess up the contract? For many of us, that underlines the fact that English Heritage has become too powerful and overbearing, and needs the Government to clip its wings.

Photo of Mr Sebastian Coe Mr Sebastian Coe , Falmouth and Camborne

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's remarks. Only five weeks ago, I enjoyed a morning going around the yard on foot and on the water. Like most people with any knowledge of Plymouth and the south-west, I recognise that the project must be handled at all times with great regard to historical authenticity, and that the public purse is to the fore. Like my hon. Friend, I do not think it unreasonable that, when a publicly funded body is primarily engaged in regenerating an area, contracts should be awarded to locally based companies where possible.

The irrefutable fact of the matter remains. English Heritage was consulted throughout the year-long selection process, and never at any stage expressed an objection to Camborne slates. As I have already explained, the publicly stated reasons for the rejection of the bid—colour, texture, and the need for the slates to be in keeping with the whole—have been shown to be hollow.

There is no evidence that slates from the favoured Welsh quarry are appropriate in colour. The size and colour of the Camborne slates is far closer to the original. In 1828, the specification by the architect Rennie demanded rag slates, which are typically 24 in long or longer, and of various widths. Moreover, the historical evidence suggests that local Cornish slate was used. The slates on which English Heritage insists are smaller and are blue-black rather than grey-green. For the record, they are also significantly more expensive.

I know that Camborne slate is still favoured by the Plymouth development corporation. I received a letter on 30 May from Sir Robert Gerken, its chairman, telling me that the board had decided to accede to English Heritage's insistence that Welsh slate be used, but he added: you will be aware that the corporation had been trying, over a considerable period, to get agreement to the Camborne Natural Slate Company's Brazilian import for the job but this was not acceptable to English Heritage where the decision was made at the highest level, namely the Commissioners". The Minister can draw his own conclusions on the background to that letter.

The quality of the Camborne slate has never been questioned. The objections now raised by English Heritage are purely aesthetic. Because the use of Welsh slate will be enforced, an additional £250,000 will be added to the costs of a project funded by the taxpayer.

I do not believe that English Heritage made a definitive judgment, let alone a rational judgment, last June or at any time since. Otherwise, logic tells me that the corporation would not have proceeded with the tender, and certainly would not, following the tender, have specified Camborne slate on the applications. I have no doubt that, had the Plymouth development corporation been aware of any reasons why Camborne slate should not have been used, it would have made them clear from the beginning, and would not have allowed tendering from the company to go through to the final contractual stages. Camborne slate has satisfied all the requirements of the tender. It is the preferred choice, and has the full support of the architects. The slates are competitively priced, and the company, just as importantly, is a south-western business.

It does not seem unreasonable that a publicly funded body should, where possible, allocate contracts to firms in the region of the venture. That is what the Plymouth development corporation has attempted to do. If we wish to preserve our traditional industries into the next century, support must be granted to companies such as Camborne Natural Slate. It has, by its own efforts and research, found a way in which to compete effectively with overseas slate producers while retaining 70 per cent. of the revenue in the United Kingdom. That should be applauded, not penalised.

The tender process now seems to have been less than transparent, and I would like my hon. Friend the Minister to look at it again. I know that the final decision rests with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage. I hope that my right hon. Friend will look carefully at the matter, especially the concerns that I have raised today.

Frankly, I do not believe that the process was carried out to the high standards that are expected of the public sector. This is one of the biggest heritage refurbishments ever embarked on in the south-west. I am sorry to say that it has left an extremely bad taste in the mouths of many of my constituents.

Photo of David Curry David Curry , Skipton and Ripon 1:50 pm, 28th June 1995

It may reassure the House if I say first that I am here not because there has been an unexpectedly early reshuffle, but because my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department of National Heritage are detained on urgent business. It would not be right, either, if I suggested that an admirable compromise might lie in using good Yorkshire stone mined in the Yorkshire dales in my constituency. I am here to explain, not to act as a mediator.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Coe) for raising the issue; he has expressed clearly the depths of his concern and the concerns of his constituents. I shall explain the background to the involvement of the Department of National Heritage in the case.

As my hon. Friend has said, the buildings at the Royal William yard were built between 1825 and 1833 to the design of John Rennie, the engineer to the Admiralty. I have visited them as part of my regular visits to look at our regeneration programmes in the south-west.

The yard includes an exceptional and extensive range of buildings which have survived the years very much in their original form. The yard is a rare example of its kind and it is of great national importance, which is why the buildings were scheduled as monuments in 1968. That means that their preservation must be fully considered when proposals are made for development or other work that might damage the buildings or their appearance.

Under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979, any such proposal must be the subject of an application for scheduled monument consent to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage. When he considers such an application, he has to seek the professional advice of English Heritage. The developers themselves may, of course, ask for informal advice from English Heritage on the acceptability of their proposals before they make an application to the Department of National Heritage, to smooth the passage of the application. That is what happened in this case.

The buildings are the subject of a refurbishment programme being carried out by the Plymouth development corporation. The proposals to replace the present roof coverings form part of that work. The roof is almost always a dominant feature of a building, and the retention or replication of its structure, shape, pitch and ornamentation is important.

Discussions between the development corporation and English Heritage about identifying the right roofing materials began in June last year, some months before the Department received the first of the corporation's applications for scheduled monument consent. Throughout the discussions, English Heritage was willing to consider a range of options for the material. As part of the process, it was willing to look at samples from potential suppliers, including Camborne Natural Slate Ltd. The process was not intended to give approval to that use. If it had been, English Heritage could have been deemed to have endorsed all the samples.

I understand that, between November 1994 and January 1995, the development corporation independently sought tenders for the supply of slates without asking English Heritage to endorse the slates proposed or to agree the specification on which tenders were invited. The corporation received three tenders for the work, one of which—the lowest—was from Camborne Natural Slate which, as my hon. Friend has stated, proposed to use rock mined in Brazil and finished in Cornwall. Following the evaluation of the tenders, the development corporation indicated in a number of its applications for scheduled monument consent that it wished to use Camborne slates.

It is at this point that some confusion appears to have arisen, and I am not absolutely certain that I shall be able to dispel it. My hon. Friend has cited statements made by the development corporation or its consultants that may have given Camborne Natural Slate the impression that English Heritage had in some way endorsed the use of its product. English Heritage, however, maintains categorically that at no time did it give any such endorsement.

It maintains that it consistently made it clear to the corporation that the Camborne slates were unacceptable for use on the buildings by virtue of their colour—which English Heritage considers is too green in tone—and their texture, which is too smooth. It was and is English Heritage's professional opinion that the use of Camborne slates would have a visual effect quite out of keeping with the character of this collection of buildings.

It seems that the lines of communication between the development corporation and English Heritage were not as effective as they might have been. As a result, the impressions gained by the company were not as precise as they should have been.

Photo of David Curry David Curry , Skipton and Ripon

I will not give way, because I have very little time left, and I want to reply to my hon. Friend.

Camborne Natural Slate gained the impression that its product was acceptable and that it would be awarded the contract, so it entered into production. But there was no contract, and, in the absence of English Heritage's endorsement of its product and the scheduled monument consent for the works granted by the Secretary of State, there could not be a guarantee that its product would be used.

Having subsequently examined the products available from other potential contractors who had submitted tenders, as well as sample panels and further information provided by Camborne Natural Slate, English Heritage concluded that it could only recommend the use of slates of Welsh origin. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] As a simple Yorkshireman, I do not wish to enter an argument about the colour of Welsh slates. It says here, however, that Welsh slates are greyer and rougher than the Camborne product, and are considered by English Heritage to be more in keeping with the slates that must have been used originally.

My hon. Friend has said that he believes that such slates were not used originally. I cannot arbitrate on this. English Heritage is supposed to be in a position to arbitrate, and it maintains that the possibilities are limited to slates that are Welsh and Cornish in origin. What my hon. Friend has said about the suitability of Camborne slates is based on the assumption that Cornish slates were used originally. It is just as likely that Welsh slates formed the original roof covering. In fact, only Welsh slates are now available in the quantity required.

I understand that Camborne Natural Slate maintains that local slates, not Welsh slates, were the most likely to have been used, and that its product most closely resembles the appearance of local slates. English Heritage rejects that view, as it considers the Camborne product to be greener in tone and smoother in texture than Delabole or other local slate.

Photo of Mr Sebastian Coe Mr Sebastian Coe , Falmouth and Camborne

My hon. Friend has done little to dispel any of the concerns that I and hon. Members on both sides have raised. Will he give me an assurance that either he or a Minister from the Department of National Heritage will look again at this process? Frankly, this company in my constituency has been led into a bizarre process.

Photo of David Curry David Curry , Skipton and Ripon

Leaving my brief entirely behind me, it seems that there has been confusion. I do not know enough about the case to say whether it arose entirely because people got their lines muddled, but my inclination would be to say that that is likely. I do not want to start making suggestions about improper activity or influence. I do not think that such suggestions are true.

There is clearly a case to answer about the way in which the three organisations concerned communicated with each other. As a result, impressions have been given which have led to work that may not have been justified. The company, through the mouth of my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne, has put its case that it was justified in taking the action it did.

I undertake to examine my hon. Friend's point, that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage will give it his particular attention, and that we will try to respond in detail to the points that have been made. I hope that that will give at least some reassurance to my hon. Friend.