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Bill to be further considered tomorrow.

Business without Debate

Delegated Legislation

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Dawn Primarolo): With the leave of the House, we shall take motions 4 to 7 together.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Insurance Premium Tax

That the Insurance Premium Tax (Non-taxable Insurance Contracts) Order 2014 (S.I., 2014, No. 2856), dated 27 October 2014, a copy of which was laid before this House on 27 October, be approved.

Representation of the People

That the draft Representation of the People (Scotland) (Amendment No. 2) Regulations 2014, which were laid before this House on 21 July, be approved.

That the draft Electoral Registration Pilot Scheme Order 2014, which was laid before this House on 22 July, be approved.

That the draft Representation of the People (England and Wales) (Amendment No. 2) Regulations 2014, which were laid before this House on 13 October, be approved.—(John Penrose.)

Question agreed to.

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Fenton Town Hall

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(John Penrose.)

6.45 pm

Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): Let me place on record my thanks to Mr Speaker for allowing this debate. While I am in the mood to give thanks, I also thank the Minister for today’s meeting with a group of residents—community activists—from Fenton, as well as people from Urban Vision and somebody from the Victorian Society.

Perhaps even more important, I put on record my thanks to the 498 men of Fenton and the surrounding area who gave their lives in the first world war, and to all those others who gave their lives and are commemorated in Fenton town hall. They gave their lives in conflicts so that we can have these sorts of debates about incredibly important issues—particularly important, in this case, to the people not just of Fenton but the wider Stoke-on-Trent area.

I am talking about a building that was given to the people of Stoke-on-Trent—specifically the people of Fenton —as a town hall by the Baker family, back in 1888. It is a beautiful building. I repeat my invitation to the Minister to come and see for himself just what a fantastic building it is. It has a beautiful façade on Albert square. As you stand there facing it, with the second world war memorial opposite in the middle of the square, to the right you see Christ church—a beautiful church—in its grounds and, to the left, some Victorian shops and buildings along the side of Christchurch street. It is the beautiful heart of Fenton. The town hall building fits in beautifully, and it is right at the heart of the community. Perhaps when the Minister visits, he may wish to bring his colleague the Secretary of State with him so that they can both see it for themselves.

As much as the building and its setting is beautiful, and as important as it is as the heart of the Fenton area, inside are four memorials, including the large first world war memorial that is built into the very fabric of the building using good old Minton tiles. Every Member of Parliament should know Minton tiles—good Stoke-on-Trent tiles—because they are underfoot whenever they come in and out of the Palace of Westminster. In this case, the tiles are part of a beautiful, unique memorial dedicated to the lives of the 498 men who gave their lives to the people not only of Fenton but of Britain, and beyond, in the first world war. I will mention one particular name—that of Sergeant Ernest Heapy, the great-grandfather of Mrs Jones, one of the community activists from the residents’ area who is understandably incredibly passionate, as we all are, about the memorial remaining there.

This debate is about the town hall building, which was given to the people of Fenton and Stoke-on-Trent in 1888. It remained a building for the community and the city until 1968, when it became the magistrates court. Then, in 2012, the Ministry of Justice decided, based partly on costs and partly on the rationalisation of the estate, to close the building.

To my knowledge and to that of everyone I have ever spoken to about the issue, the MOJ has never paid for the building. It has never bought the building from

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Stoke-on-Trent and the people of Fenton, and it has never paid any rent to occupy the building. I am sure the Minister will reiterate what he said this afternoon, namely that the building has been maintained by the MOJ, but what else would we expect? The premises we occupy—the Houses of Parliament—are part of what is still a royal palace, yet we rightly pay to maintain it. I do not think there is any doubt about who owns the Palace of Westminster. If we ever decided to sell it, I think there would be an interesting constitutional argument and the Crown would no doubt say that it was not ours to sell. I think that the same principle applies to Fenton town hall, because it is not the MOJ’s building to sell.

The Government say that it is the MOJ’s building to sell, but it is fair to say that the Minister and I had a meeting of minds this afternoon on the difficulty of proving who owns it. Understandably, the Minister asked how it was possible to look back to 1888 to see who owned the building and had the right to sell it at the time. However, we are talking not about 1888 but about 1968, so if the Minister thinks that the building is the MOJ’s to sell—he clearly does—may I ask him, with the greatest respect, whether we may see the deeds? May we see the proof of the MOJ’s ownership of the building? We could then see how it was purchased—we know it was not—or perhaps we could see when it was gifted from the people of Fenton and Stoke-on-Trent to the MOJ.

Whatever the legal argument that might rage—we have already had the opening shots of a discussion, rather than an argument—and whether or not the MOJ can prove its ownership of the building, which I suspect it cannot, I think that the moral claim over it has to go back to 1888, because it was given not to the MOJ or the wider nation, but specifically to the good people of Stoke-on-Trent and Fenton.

I find it very hard to accept the argument that the Government own the building, but if the MOJ is completely intransigent on the issue and thinks it is its building, we have to ask how we can move forward from that. First, we need to give the community, which is working with Urban Vision, a proper chance to propose plans to acquire the building. Whether it wants to acquire it as a financial consideration or through a community transfer on the basis that it is and needs to be a community building, the community needs an opportunity to make its case.

The Minister is aware that communication over the past few months has been a little difficult, to say the least—perhaps “almost non-existent” would be a better way of putting it. That is a tragedy, because an opportunity has been wasted. I do not want to go into the ins and outs of who was and who was not to blame and the repercussions of that, but an opportunity for communication has been lost over the past three or four months. What we really need now is a protected period during which the community can present its proposals and show that it can take on this fantastic building in Albert square, run it sustainably and get funding from organisations that are proud to see the continuation of its heritage. The community will be able to present a sustainable business plan and we will not have to revisit the issue in two or three years’ time. Instead, in 20, 30 and 40 years’ time, the building will be a vibrant part of the community and owned by the community.

The Minister is a man of the law—I am not a lawyer, but that has never stopped me—and if he is concerned that such an arrangement may not be sustainable, I am

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sure he knows far better than I do that there are ways to ensure that it is sustainable. The building could be on a peppercorn lease to the community for a couple of years, which would provide an opportunity for the community to show that it can be developed and continued sustainably. The Ministry of Justice might hold on to a string, so that if the community does not do what I have every confidence it will do, it can pull the building back in and continue with whatever plans it has for it. I will come on to what those plans may be in a moment.

Things could be structured in such a way that there is a protected period first, during which the building will not be sold from under the feet of the local community, but if the Minister still has concerns, arrangements can be made so that he keeps an interest in it. I repeat again that I do not think the Ministry of Justice has an interest in the building. That is a moot point, on which we will possibly never agree, unless the Minister wants to acquiesce and come over to my side of the argument. The community should get a fair crack first. If it does, it will be shown to be acting correctly, and the Minister’s confidence in it will be justified.

If this does not go the way we hope, we have several concerns about the building that I hope the Minister can respond to this evening. The first relates to the memorials themselves. The Minister, like the Secretary of State, has kindly provided written answers to parliamentary questions and discussed this with me outside the Chamber. He has time and again repeated his view that the covenants over the building ensure that the memorials will be protected and kept safe, and that whatever happens to the building, there will never be any question but that the memory of those 498 brave souls and others can for ever be remembered through the memorials.

Perhaps understandably, some members of the community have expressed concerns about the covenants not being worth the paper they are written on. An unscrupulous developer might only pay lip service to them, and the next thing we know—several months or years later—there might suddenly be a pile of rubble, which would be an abomination. The community is understandably concerned that that might well happen despite the covenants.

I hope that the Minister will put on the record an explanation of how, if the building is sold, the covenants will work. Indeed, even if it passes to the community, as I hope it will, the covenants still need to be in place to protect the memorials in 20, 30, 40, 50 or 100 years’ time. Will he explain how the covenants provide protection against an unscrupulous developer? If he cannot give such explanations or reassurance, that will strengthen our view that the building rightly belongs in the hands of the community that cares about it.

This is a good point to mention the concerns that those who are currently in residence, as it were, in the building have expressed to me on numerous occasions. They are not protesters, occupants or occupiers, but custodians. They are in the building, and they very much see themselves as its protectors. They want not just the buildings but the memorials to be protected for future generations in memory of those whose deaths are recorded there.

It would be very helpful to have an explanation from the Minister. I am sure that he will not fall into the shorthand—if he does, it would be inadvertent—of

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referring to those people as protesters or occupiers. I hope that he will recognise that, and that he will use more appropriate language. He is a very honourable man, and I am sure he will do so.

The second concern is what will happen to access to the memorials. I know that in the past most of those who have had access to them have been on the wrong side of the magistrate’s bench and have been going into the building for less than honourable reasons, but we need to ensure that we return to the position that existed before 1968, and has existed on occasions since then, whereby the community can go in.

7 pm

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(John Penrose.)

Robert Flello: In some cases, the community sees the memorials almost as a substitute for a grave, because some of the individuals recorded on them have no grave. Particularly as the memorials relate to the first world war, perhaps their remains were never able to be formally buried in a way that would allow loved ones through the generations to pay their respects at a graveside. For some people, the memorial is the place where they want to pay their respects. The community wants access, and the most appropriate time would seem to be every Remembrance Sunday, so that people could pay their respects and lay wreaths. That would be difficult if a developer were to take on the building and cover the memorial, or encase it in something that would protect it but mean that it could not be viewed and that respects could not be paid at it. Perhaps the Minister will explain whether any covenant on access could be considered.

If the building were to be sold on the open market, perhaps to a private purchaser—I know I do not need to repeat, but I will, that we hope it will never get to that point—could some of the space within the building be maintained for the community? After all, that was what the town hall was built for. The whole purpose of its being given to the people of Fenton was for it to be used as a community building. It was designed not as a court but as a public building, and there is a beautiful ballroom beneath all the layers of the court. Could any space be carved out of the building by way of a covenant or the terms of sale so that it could be used by the community, for the community?

I will conclude shortly, to give the Minister plenty of time to respond and, I hope, to answer some of my questions. I hope—perhaps unreasonably, I do not know—that he will be able not only to give some explanations and reassurances but to say that there will be a protected period such as I have described.

The community has a fantastic vision of what the building could be. The vision is that when visitors to Fenton go to Albert square, they will see the façade of the magnificent building that was once the town hall and could be again. They will be able to go into a building that has space available for the community, such as the community library, which is being stocked with books as we speak. There will be space available for local businesses and—who knows?—even multinational businesses to have their offices, so that they can meet

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people in fantastic and grand surroundings. The upstairs area will be restored to the ballroom it once was, so that it can host weddings and other events on a grand scale. Those are the key words—“grand scale”. The community’s vision is a building at the heart of the community and on a grand scale.

This year, with the centenary of the commencement of the first world war, we have seen memorials up and down the country to our glorious dead, our heroes who made this nation what it is. Money has been lavished on some of those memorials—rightly, in my view—yet this memorial has perhaps received less positive attention.

As important as it is that the people of Fenton rally to this cause, a much wider group of people have also done so to say that not only is this building significant and important to Fenton and the people of Stoke-on-Trent, but that it is an important and significant building on a national scale—indeed, the Victorian Society has listed it as among the top 10 most vulnerable and at-risk important buildings in our nation.

I have very high expectations of the Minister. He is an honourable man and I hope he will take the comments made this afternoon and this evening in the manner in which they were intended. The group wants to work with the Government, as do I. We want a building that in generations to come, long after I am six foot under and pushing up the daisies, is there for future generations to enjoy, make the most of, and visit to pay their respects, perhaps when commemorating the 200th anniversary of the first world war. I want future generations to know that the names on the memorial are accessible for people to see, and that the community can go in and use that building.

Mrs Jones had a letter from Buckingham palace, and to conclude I will read the last paragraph from the deputy correspondence co-ordinator:

“Nevertheless, Her Majesty thought it kind of you to let her know of this matter and understands your wish for the fallen Great War soldiers of Fenton not to be forgotten.”

If nothing else, for the people remembered in that building, perhaps those whose physical remains are long gone but who nevertheless gave their lives for today, may we please have our building back?

7.6 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Shailesh Vara): I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) on securing this debate, and I put on record his diligence and conscientiousness in championing this worthwhile cause on behalf of his constituents. We have corresponded with oral and written questions, by letter, and we had a meeting earlier today with some of his constituents. I also pay tribute to the 498 brave people who paid the ultimate price so that the hon. Gentleman and I, and the rest of us, could have the privilege and pleasure of being able to discuss matters in the democracy that we enjoy.

As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the closure of Stoke-on Trent magistrates court was announced in December 2010 as part of the court estate reform programme. Any

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decision to close a court is not taken lightly and is never easy, but the hon. Gentleman will recall the consultation that preceded the closure, which found that the court offered poor facilities and was non-compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act 2005. It had inadequate facilities for victims and witnesses, and there were also security issues. As he knows, the court subsequently closed in December 2012.

The court site incorporates the former town hall which, as the hon. Gentleman said, was built and funded in the late 1880s by William Meath Baker, a benefactor. According to English Heritage, Mr William Meath Baker sold the town hall to the local health board, which was superseded by Fenton urban district council in 1897. It has been in the hands of the public sector ever since. More recently, the freehold of the building was transferred under the Courts Act 2003 to the local magistrates court committee, and then to the Government in 2005. Those are legal provisions, and I like to think that all such transfers have been done according to the law—I say that with reference to the comments made by the hon. Gentleman about legality of ownership.

I note the hon. Gentleman’s view that the Government have never paid any sums of money to Stoke-on-Trent to buy or rent the building but, as he rightly said, we should remember that for more than 100 years maintenance, upkeep and so on has been paid for by the taxpayer. That is not an inconsiderable sum over the years.

The building is operationally surplus to requirements. We have to work within the rules concerning the disposal of surplus property assets. Guidance to Departments is clear: surplus property assets need to be disposed of as expeditiously as possible, within six months of being declared surplus for housing and within three years for all other properties, while achieving overall value for money for the taxpayer. It is certainly the case that overall value for money for the taxpayer does not necessarily equate to the highest offer. However, I trust that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I cannot simply gift a building that has considerable value.

It is not just the capital receipt that we need to consider. There are temporary costs associated with ensuring unused courts are kept secure and protecting the fabric of each building. By disposing of surplus property assets speedily, we remove the ongoing liability of holding costs. In the case of this particular building, bearing in mind that the level of security, utilities and maintenance has been reduced to a level that is appropriate for a site that has been closed, the holding costs do not come cheaply—more than £108,000 in the past financial year alone. Put simply: we cannot hold on to it indefinitely.

The hon. Gentleman is of course correct to raise the future of the four memorials inside the building. Memorials to those who made the ultimate sacrifice are hugely important and must be protected. We have received advice that a Minton great war memorial cannot be moved without risk of damage. Therefore, the Minton world war one memorial will remain in situ and be preserved in perpetuity with an appropriate legally binding restrictive covenant in the sale contract that states that the memorial is to be preserved.

The hon. Gentleman wanted a bit more clarification about a covenant. A covenant is a contractual promise incorporated in a property contract. It provides for an

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obligation—in this instance that the memorial will be preserved and looked after not only by whoever ends up owning the property, but by the successors in title as well. A covenant also has consequences for what happens when there is a breach. There can be damages paid or there can be specific performance that can be ordered by a court. It is also important how the property is held: whether it is held freehold or leasehold. In the case of leasehold, it may be possible that forfeiture will follow. That effectively means that the property reverts back to the freeholder. This is a legally binding set of words in a contract.

Robert Flello: That will not reassure the community. If a developer damages the building or gets sued and it reverts back to the Ministry of Justice, the memorial will still be gone.

Mr Vara: The hon. Gentleman makes a very valid point, but he will accept that this is property law. It is the way that thousands of property transactions are conducted on a daily basis for a whole variety of properties, whether they be commercial, residential, industrial or whatever. This is the process of the law of the land under which we operate. We would very much hope that, in parting company with the premises, we would have carried out our due diligence to make sure that any obligations in the contract will be honoured and that we will not get a rogue developer or rogue occupier who would do the damage that the hon. Gentleman fears may happen. I hope he will take on board the point that we will do our utmost to make sure the owner is credible, whether it is a person, corporation or charity.

The three other memorials, depending on who we sell the building to, be they in the public or private sector, will either be removed to the local church or remain in situ. That is something we can look into. If they are removed to a neighbouring church, the work will be carried out at the expense of the Ministry of Justice.

The sale of former court buildings is affected by several factors, including the state of the market, potential future use of the property, including its development potential, and the location. As of 29 October 2014, some 66 former court buildings had been closed under the court estate reform programme and sold, attracting disposable receipts of just under £43 million. Those funds have been used for further investment in the justice system. Stoke-on-Trent magistrates court has been on the market since 2013, and local campaigners have persuaded the council to list it as an asset community value, giving campaigners six months from August last year to raise funds and bid for the building at market value. Further time was set aside to allow the local community association to formulate its bid, culminating in the proposal being put forward for consideration, alongside several commercial bids.

The Department has received several commercial bids for the building, and the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I cannot say their size for reasons of commercial confidentiality. The bidders view the building as having development potential, but we have also received a bid from Urban Vision on behalf of Fenton community association for a community asset transfer. We are also mindful of the resolution passed by Stoke-on-Trent city council requesting the return of the building. We held

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discussions with the council, and in early October the council was invited to come up with a viable proposal for returning the building to community use, but none was received.

We cannot afford to continue to leave the building as it is, eating away more than £9,000 every month, including almost £4,500 in rates. As is usual when disposing of surplus property assets with historic significance, there is also a qualitative element in the consideration of bids. We consider not only the purchase offer, but its potential reuse, the financial status of bidders, their ability to maintain the building in the face of significant holding cost and the extent of the estimated continued liability to the taxpayer of the Department holding the property.

In recognition of the hon. Gentleman’s advocacy for the future of the former court building and the views made so eloquently clear to me in our earlier meeting and with an eye to ensuring that we do not close down options too early, I have asked my officials to continue engagement with his constituents. I hope that that engagement, having started at today’s meeting, will continue from tomorrow onwards, but he will be aware that any possible disposal that is novel and contentious will require Treasury approval. Whatever happens, however, let me assure him that the world war one memorial will be preserved, although the future use of the building will be a matter for the preferred purchaser and the council, as the local planning authority.

Robert Flello: On the dialogue with the MOJ, which the Minister says will continue tomorrow, I must stress the point about providing a little protected time—ideally, three or four months—to give the community the opportunity to work up a bid to the satisfaction of the Department.

Mr Vara: I understand where the hon. Gentleman is coming from, but I hope he will appreciate that, in the spirit of openness and transparency, we have to ensure that other bidders are not penalised by our being seen to give preferential treatment to one of them. Much time has been spent on this. There has been a dialogue. We have asked for bids. A business case was requested. It is also possible for community groups to seek assistance from local authorities and other voluntary bodies that help these groups when they approach the Government for such measures. There is a limit to how much assistance we can provide and we are constrained by the law in terms of time limits. We are also mindful of the time that has passed, which we must also take into account. There are also other bidders whom we must take into account so we are not accused of preferential treatment.

Robert Flello: Part of the problem is that letters between the community and the Ministry of Justice were not answered and there was a breakdown in communications. I take on board what the Minister says about getting on with things and about not giving an advantage to anyone, but the community group has been disadvantaged because of the lack of communication.

Mr Vara: The hon. Gentleman and his constituents raised that with me at the meeting. I have not been able to make intensive research into the issue but I have found out that there were telephone conversations in the period where it was said there was no communication.

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I hope he will appreciate that at the time of the bidding there was limited information that we could impart to the other parties because that would be seen as being unfair to everyone else. This has been going on for two years and we are not talking about a bidding process covering only the last few months. There is a limit to what the Government can do.

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I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and my officials will be in conversation with his constituents from tomorrow. I pay tribute to the 498 people who paid the ultimate price so that we could engage in this free debate.

Question put and agreed to.

7.21 pm

House adjourned.