Disposals of Public Land and Property (Design Competitions)

– in the House of Commons at 4:58 pm on 7th September 2004.

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Photo of Mr Roger Casale Mr Roger Casale PPS (Team PPS), Foreign & Commonwealth Office 4:58 pm, 7th September 2004

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to enable the Secretary of State to require public bodies to hold design competitions when drawing up planning briefs in respect of the disposal of publicly-owned land and property.

The purpose of this Bill is to introduce a systematic and informed approach to the disposal of publicly owned land and property. Most hon. Members will know of cases where public land has been disposed of by central or local government, or by a public body such as an NHS trust. In some cases, that property will have been developed sympathetically, but in too many others, subsequent development will have been poor. Until this Government introduced stricter criteria for their disposal, many school playing fields were lost, and buried under anonymous, badly designed housing. We have all passed examples, and I am sure we have all thought, "Surely that could have been better designed. What a wasted opportunity!"

Such regret is pointless. It is rarely possible to remedy development mistakes, as to do so is always time-consuming and often expensive. The Government now plan to secure £30 billion from the sale of public assets. My Bill is designed to avoid future mistakes, and to make sure that the assets are disposed of in a way that enhances the quality of urban design and of our environment.

The Atkinson Morley hospital site in my constituency is currently owned by the St. George's NHS trust. In 2002 the hospital vacated the site to move to the new Atkinson Morley wing at St. George's hospital. The site comprises a large range of Victorian and more recent health buildings, standing in 17 acres of open land. Initial proposals were put before the local planning authority to convert the existing buildings into residential units and to add a number of new homes. That not only sparked enormous concern among my constituents in relation to the loss of precious open space, but gave rise to the feeling that the current proposals did not do justice to the site and that something better could be done.

I declare an interest as the honorary president of the Wimbledon civic forum, which has established a taskforce bringing together the trust, potential developers, the local authority and other interested parties. I am grateful to the forum for all its hard work, and in particular to its chairman Marcus Beale, an architect who gives me valuable advice on such matters. Marcus and our forum colleagues, including Sir Jack Zunz, established a taskforce that has worked with the London borough of Merton on drawing up a planning brief. I commend the local authority for listening carefully to our views, as well as to other Wimbledon residents and to amenity associations such as Lung and the Wimbledon Society.

In the face of that positive process, the former trust management launched an unsuccessful and expensive challenge to the planning brief and metropolitan open land designation, at a public inquiry held at enormous public cost. It commissioned its own architects to develop proposals for the site, which were inappropriate. Eventually, those plans were thrown out and two years were wasted.

Like the civic forum and local residents, I want a solution that preserves the integrity of the land and achieves an appropriate development sensitive to local needs. The initial proposals from the trust met neither criterion. The overriding duty governing the disposal of public assets is surely the duty to secure best value. In the bad old days, that simply meant trying to get as much money as possible. Now, I am happy to say, a more enlightened spirit is abroad. Best value should be taken to encompass a range of other factors that are not always as readily measurable as pure cash, such as environmental quality, urban design, educational or cultural provision, and the enhancement of public space.

There are encouraging signs. In relation to general issues, the Government are pointing in the direction in which I would wish them to go. Their regeneration body, English Partnerships, has worked well with good developers to leave a mark of quality on former publicly owned land. The millennium village on the Greenwich peninsula, of which my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and his colleagues are justly proud, is a great example of how the system can work well. Sadly, however, such cases—particularly those concerning local government assets—are usually the result of happy accident and rely too much on a senior figure who can champion good design being in the right place at the right time. In my constituency example, it was only when new management—a new chief executive and chairman—took over at the trust that new proposals were made that took better account of residents' concerns.

Communities are rarely involved in decisions about the disposal of public assets until it is much too late. There is a fundamental issue of legitimacy, and it is little wonder that local people feel disfranchised when public property is gobbled up by development that they have no desire to see, and in a process in which they seem to have no say. Is it any wonder that local people so often treat development in their community with suspicion? Is it any wonder that local people so often say, "We don't want this—not in my backyard."?

I believe that there is a desire within communities—often latent, but it certainly exists in my community—for better-designed buildings and public space. People want an improved sense of place, and this Bill can give them that. We cannot leave it to chance to answer that demand. We need a systematic approach, and that is what my Bill would seek to achieve in relation to surplus public land and property.

The public sector is one of the biggest architecture clients in the country, and its record as a client has certainly improved. In 2001, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister launched the better public buildings initiative and committed Ministers to seeking higher standards in public building programmes and becoming champions of good design. Thanks to the assistance of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, a great deal of progress has been made, but the Government are also one of the UK's major landowners, and informed disposal is a critical issue, alongside informed commissioning. My Bill would enable government at all levels to lead by example. It would avoid the sense of disfranchisement and frustration felt by many communities when local public amenities are disposed of, and it would avoid wasted opportunities to involve them at an early stage. Design competitions offer a flexible, well-structured, transparent and auditable process. Community representatives can work alongside other interested parties and experts in drawing up a competition brief, sitting on selection panels and aiding selections. A well-publicised and well-organised competition can include opportunities for the wider community to have its say through consultations, exhibitions and workshops.

The Royal Institute of British Architects runs the most respected and experienced architectural competition system in the country. Iconic buildings such as the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead and the Evelina children's hospital across the Thames at St. Thomas's are the results of RIBA-organised competitions, alongside many projects of every size and type around the country. That is a record of success that ought to be spread as widely as possible. The competitive process can be used to throw up a range of innovative design concepts, master plans or detailed solutions for particular sites, involving the local community at every stage. Alternative visions can be set out, debated and discussed. By exploring possible options, we can avoid embarking on a course which all involved may later live to regret.

How would my Bill work in practice? There would have to be a trigger for a competition. First, the property would have to be on a public asset register of the kind that already exist. Thereafter I envisage a system analogous to the call-in powers enjoyed by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister in respect of individual planning decisions. Acting on advice from local planning authorities or other statutory advisers—either the CABE or English Heritage—the Deputy Prime Minister would then have the power to order a competition.The Secretary of State should have discretion, but for the most important or sensitive sites I suggest a presumption in favour of ordering a design competition. Elsewhere, his decision would be affected by the weight of advice coming from his statutory and other advisers.

Some developers may resent and resist such an initiative, but enlightened developers are already welcoming public involvement and community ownership as important factors for the success of their project. My Bill is all about flushing out bad development, which should not go ahead, before it is too late. Surely a well-thought-out development would stand up to the public and critical scrutiny afforded by the design competition process.

Had the proposed measure been applied to the Atkinson Morley hospital site, a great deal of time and money could have been spared, the local community could have been properly involved in the disposal of a public asset, and we could have ensured that the resulting development was the best possible solution in terms of its design—something that we still hope to achieve. A good design, which made the most of the site and enhanced its setting, would deliver value and be seen to have done so in a transparent and accountable way. Such competition would not only add value to the disposal of sites but save money because the disputes that often occur as a result of divisions and contention over the disposal of a site can weigh heavily on the public purse.

In short, my Bill offers a systematic approach to delivering an informed and enlightened disposal system for public land. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Roger Casale, Peter Bottomley, Mrs. Anne Campbell, Sir Sydney Chapman, Mr. Mike Hancock, Alan Howarth, Ms Christine Russell, Mr. Derek Wyatt and Richard Younger-Ross.