Teddington Police Station

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 23rd February 2022.

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Photo of Munira Wilson Munira Wilson Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education) 11:00 am, 23rd February 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the sale and future use of Teddington police station.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I am very grateful to have been granted this short debate to discuss the future of the Teddington police station site in my constituency. The site is owned by the taxpayer and, I fear, is in the process of being sold off to the highest bidder. It is an important site of great concern and interest, not only to me, as the MP representing the area, but to local councillors and many hundreds if not thousands of local residents.

I want to set out the case to the Minister for why such scarce sites, which are already in public ownership, can and should be sold for a good return to the public purse while also being repurposed for important community uses and much-needed affordable housing. National policy legislation and guidance are apparently forcing the hand of London’s Deputy Mayor for Policing to sell for best value, interpreted as the best offer available on the open market. I very much hope that the Minister will be able to provide some clarity on those points of national policy to the Mayor of London and his deputy so that Teddington police station can be sold for community benefit, not just to luxury housing developers.

I will start with a few words of background. Teddington police station was first earmarked for closure back in 2017, in response to falling police numbers. London’s Deputy Mayor for Policing, Sophie Linden, confirmed the closure to me in August 2021. I wrote back to her—and, back in 2020, to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner—setting out the need for a local police base to serve the Teddington and Hampton Wick area, not least because we all hoped and expected to see additional police officers on our streets, as promised by the 2019 Conservative party manifesto.

While I accept that far fewer people now report crimes at police stations, having a visible and easily accessible base for local community police teams is important, and means that they spend more time on the beat than travelling. It is therefore very disappointing that Teddington police station has closed.

However, that decision has sadly now been taken, so the main question at stake is, what should happen to a publicly owned site in such a prime location—in the heart of Teddington, close to the railway station, shops, parks and a range of services? How can we repurpose a public asset for public good, in the midst of crises in both health and housing?

Park Road surgery, a popular and thriving GP practice across the road from the police station, is bursting at the seams. Its premises are not fit for purpose to serve its 13,000-strong patient list, which spans Teddington, Hampton Wick, Fulwell, Hampton Hill, and west and south Twickenham. The converted Victorian house can only suitably cater to a quarter of that number of patients and, to use the GP partners’ own words, “Physical access is terrible”.

Dr Nick Grundy and partners have been seeking a new home for over 10 years. The Teddington police station site would be ideal for a new surgery delivering health and community services fit for the 21st century, enabling the practice to grow and meet the demand fuelled by recent developments in the area. This Government have committed to boosting GP numbers—something that we have yet to see materialise. However, in the hope that we will be seeing more GPs in Teddington for the rising demand, Park Road surgery desperately needs a new home.

The surgery’s partners have, with support from the council, been working with a local housing association on a bid for Teddington police station. It includes 100% affordable and social housing, together with the new surgery that is needed. Homes in Teddington—recently voted the best place to live in London—are simply out of reach in terms of cost for many of the nurses, police officers, firefighters and other key workers who serve our local community. They are also out of reach for many young adults who have had the benefit of growing up in the area but are simply priced out of it. Week in, week out, my surgery and inbox are filled with people in desperately overcrowded or unsuitable social housing, on a waiting list that they will never reach the top of. A local housing needs assessment undertaken for Richmond Council last year found that the borough has a need for 1,123 affordable rented homes per annum. It achieves nowhere close to that figure.

Although the local authority has met its house building targets in recent years, it has fallen some way short of being able to secure 50% of those new homes as affordable, and the culprit is viability. Typically, developers pay top dollar for sites in sought-after areas such as Teddington, and then struggle to develop them as their over-ambitious plans cannot meet the demands of local planning policy. Scarce sites are left derelict: Udney Park playing fields, also in Teddington, is a case in point. That site was sold by a charity—believing the Mayor that it had to secure the very best price—thus attracting bidders with unrealistic views of what could be achieved on the site. It now lies unused and derelict, with community groups desperate to repurpose it.

Coming back to the police station, the bid from the local housing association, in partnership with Park Road surgery, stands little chance of being the highest bid when competing against luxury housing developers. Met Police property services, the Deputy Mayor for Policing, and the Mayor of London have all claimed in writing and verbally in meetings that they have a statutory duty to achieve best value. The Mayor’s response to a written question from Liberal Democrat Assembly Member Caroline Pidgeon stated that

MOPAC has a statutory duty…to secure value for money in the use of assets…In disposals, best value is normally most effectively demonstrated by an open market transaction…MOPAC has no powers to dispose of land at an undervalue to provide affordable housing.”

Based on the legal advice secured by Richmond Council and expert advice from the House of Commons Library, I would like to challenge the legal and policy basis for that response by the Mayor. It is my belief that MOPAC does not have to sell to the highest bidder and can take community need into consideration, looking favourably on the local housing association and Park Road surgery bid.

MOPAC was established by the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011, and is a separate legal entity from the GLA. It does not appear to be defined as a local authority for the purposes of the Local Government Act 1999, which imposed a duty to secure best value on local authorities, nor are there limitations equivalent to section 123 of the Local Government Act 1972, requiring land to be disposed of at best consideration. There is nothing on the face of the 2011 Act to secure value for money in the use of assets, as stated by the Mayor. In fact, the powers delegated to the deputy Mayor under that Act in relation to disposals appear to allow some discretion to dispose at an undervalue. As such, my first question to the Minister is whether he agrees that there is no statutory duty on the face of the PRSR Act 2011 to secure value for money in the use of assets.

MOPAC is obliged by virtue of section 17(4) of the 2011 Act to have regard to the revised financial management code of practice issued in 2018. The guidance stresses the importance of securing value for money, but that does not amount to a specific, positive requirement to dispose at full market value, so my second question to the Minister is whether he agrees that the fiduciary guidance relevant to MOPAC does not impose a specific requirement to dispose at market value.

Furthermore, the Government gave a general consent in 2003 for local authorities to dispose of land at below market value. That consent stated explicitly that it applied to the Metropolitan Police Authority, which was MOPAC’s predecessor body. The conditions for a sale below market value include where the land is likely to contribute to the promotion or improvement of economic, social, or environmental wellbeing. I contend that the local housing association and Park Road surgery bid fulfil those criteria. My third question to the Minister is: does he consider this general consent to apply to MOPAC?

Time is fast running out on the decision about the future of Teddington police station. Bids have already closed and they are being reviewed as we speak, as it is MOPAC’s intention to secure the proceeds of the sale by the end of the financial year. The deputy Mayor claims that this money is desperately needed for frontline policing. I would suggest to the Minister that the money for that should be coming from the Home Office rather than from property developers.

The Mayor of London has responsibility for the Met, as police and crime commissioner for the capital. However, he also has a responsibility for housing, and a stated ambition to build 30,000 genuinely affordable homes over five years. He is rightly keen to see Richmond build more affordable and social housing, but land is very scarce in the borough.

The Mayor has previously called on the NHS to sell surplus land and buildings for housing and new GP surgeries. However, there is a complete disconnect in policy terms. A public asset, owned by the Met police, could be repurposed for a much-needed GP surgery and desperately needed affordable housing, for a good and fair price—albeit not the highest price available on the open market. Over 1,800 local residents have signed my petition in less than two weeks, calling on the Mayor to step in and prioritise the bid for affordable housing and the Park Road surgery over developers who can undoubtedly offer more money, but also offer an uncertain future for the site, likely to provide limited benefit to the local community. Together with the leader of Richmond Council, Councillor Gareth Roberts, I have written to the Mayor urging him to do the same.

Today I am asking the Minister to clarify the legislation and national guidance that MOPAC must adhere to, as set out in my three questions, when selling Teddington police station. I hope that he will acknowledge that there is no clear statutory basis for selling the site to the highest bidder, and clarify whether there is a dispensation in national policy to sell at below market value for the wellbeing of the local community. I urge the Minister to back my campaign for the future of Teddington police station.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) 11:12 am, 23rd February 2022

I congratulate Munira Wilson on securing this important and timely debate. I am in the unusual position of being able to say that I agreed with the broad thrust of the hon. Lady’s comments, and that she is also correct in the points she made about the choices that MOPAC has. She has been a tireless and determined campaigner on the issue. She was against the original closure of the police station in her constituency, and I respect the way that she has thrown her weight behind this inspiring scheme to try and make it into affordable housing and a GP practice. The issue that we are talking about this morning has some wider implications.

I will go straight to the hon. Lady’s questions. On the specific points about the disposal of land, section A4.15.14 of “Managing Public Money” provides advice to public sector organisations disbursing land and property assets. Crucially, any consideration of disposal of property should demonstrate that wider value for money considerations and transparency have been taken into account. The hon. Lady said that it was apparently the case that they had to sell only for best value, but we should be clear that there are choices.

Local authorities, including MOPAC and other police commissioners, have powers under section 123 of the Local Government Act 1972 to dispose of land in any manner that they wish. Councils and other public bodies should generally dispose of surplus land at the best possible price. However, there is no requirement that local authorities must dispose of land at the highest possible price in all circumstances. The Government recognise that disposing of land at less than best value can sometimes create wider public benefits, such as supporting the delivery of community initiatives or facilitating regeneration.

Where land is disposed of at an under-value, the approval of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is required, either through a specific application or under a general consent. At present, that general consent allows the disposal of general land held by local authorities at an under-value of up to £2 million. The police station may well be already covered by that general consent. To answer the hon. Lady’s question, she is correct. If the under-value is less than £2 million, MOPAC would not need deluxe consent and would need only to demonstrate, if it was legally challenged, that the disposal supports economic, social or environmental wellbeing in the area.

As I listened to the hon. Lady, I thought that she made a very compelling case. Indeed, it is a belt-and-braces case, because she referred to the 2003 Act as well. The Government absolutely recognise that disposing of land at less than best consideration can sometimes generate those wider benefits.

Photo of Munira Wilson Munira Wilson Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education)

I appreciate that the Minister may not know definitively at this point whether MOPAC is covered by that general consent. If he cannot put that on the record definitively now, will he write to me urgently to confirm whether that is the case, so that I can flag it up with the Mayor and the Deputy Mayor for Policing?

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I will write to the hon. Lady today on that exact point.

Let me turn to the wider issues that the hon. Lady raised. She powerfully advocated the views expressed by many of her constituents that the former police station should not be converted into luxury flats. We do not want to see London turning into a city full of luxury flats for millionaires; it needs to be a city that serves the whole community. That sentiment is widely felt across London and indeed beyond. The Government are clear that the answer to the problem is encouraging and increasing the supply of affordable homes across the board, and encouraging high-quality mixed developments. That is what we are delivering through the £11.5 billion affordable housing programme, which is part of the largest investment in affordable housing in over a decade.

The hon. Lady made the point that of course we all want to see additional resources going into our police as well and there are choices that MOPAC can make. However, it is worth putting that into some context. As part of our plan to recruit an extra 20,000 police officers, as of the end of last year the Metropolitan police had already recruited 2,121 additional uplift officers, and in 2022-23 the Metropolitan police will receive up to £3.24 billion, an increase of £164 million, or 5%, on the previous year’s settlement. Yes, of course we want more resources to flow into the police, but they are already flowing from central Government.

We should be clear that there are choices for MOPAC. In my letter to the hon. Lady I will absolutely clarify and underline what I have said in the debate, namely that there are choices that MOPAC can make.

Photo of Munira Wilson Munira Wilson Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education)

I decided not to pursue this point in my speech, but if the Minister is writing to me about the choices that MOPAC can make on funding, I must point out that it was very striking that, when the deputy Mayor wrote to me about the sale of the police station, she was very clear the money was needed for frontline policing—that the Mayor was funding an extra several thousand police officers—and to tackle violent crime. That suggested to me that there was a need to spend what is essentially a capital receipt on revenue activity. I hope the Minister can address that point, too, in his letter, regarding how that money should be spent if it is raised from the sale.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I am very happy to add some of those points to the letter.

In the time remaining, let me touch on a couple of the wider issues that the hon. Lady mentioned. We are keen to support councils such as the London Borough of Richmond to deliver on regeneration and more affordable housing. We are very keen to encourage more generally the reuse of suitable brownfield land and existing buildings for all kinds of environmental and social reasons. Across the country, we are increasing the assessment of housing need by 35% in our urban areas and supporting that with the £1.8 billion brownfield regeneration funding announced at the spending review. Also, we are trying to make it easier for things to change purpose.

The whole thrust of Government policy is in many ways towards more brownfield regeneration and more reuse, including for social reasons. We will match that with the actions we are taking through the £150 million community ownership fund to support the retention of local assets across the country. Therefore, as part of the wider thrust of Government policy, which is about regeneration and trying to encourage communities to hold on to and continue to use assets that are important to them, the vision the hon. Lady is sketching out is clearly in strategic alignment with what the Government are trying to do.

This case is clearly important to the hon. Lady’s constituents. She and her community will feel a legitimate frustration when people say, “We don’t have any choice, there are no options here. There is nothing we can do about it.” It is clear to me, however, that there are choices. Given the context and the recent financial settlement for police and for local government, we are in a period of increasing numbers of officers and increasing funding. The hon. Lady’s proposal for more affordable housing and for the regeneration of a building that is important to the wider community is absolutely in alignment with what the Government are trying to do.

I will endeavour to write to the hon. Lady as soon as possible to underline the points that I have made. I am conscious that, as she pointed out, the matter is subject to negotiations, even as we speak.

Photo of Munira Wilson Munira Wilson Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education)

I thank the Minister for being so generous in giving way again. I may be pushing my luck here, but as well as writing to me, might I persuade him to write to the Mayor of London, or indeed to the Deputy Mayor for Policing?

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

Let me mull on that exact point and come back to the hon. Lady. I am sure that she will certainly share more widely whatever I send her, and she is welcome to do so.

We have already established in the debate that there are some wider choices available to MOPAC. I am happy to put some of those in black and white for the hon. Lady if that is useful to her. I wish her the best in all her wider endeavours in supporting such community regeneration projects in her constituency.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.