County Hall saga is still running on and on

May 5, 1995

"A Whitehall farce", Labour's Alan Milburn called it. But the charge being pressed against Sir Godfrey Taylor, of the London Residuary Body, as he faced questioning on Tuesday over the sale of County Hall was not one of dropping his trousers but of allowing Japanese property developers Shirayama to run off with them.

The Public Accounts Committee confirmed its reputation as a crowd-puller, with the committee room so packed that latecomer Tony Banks MP - an interested party both as last chairman of the Greater London Council and as a supporter of the London School of Economics bid for the building - had to be seated in solitary splendour behind the committee.

Sir Godfrey, good-humouredly combative and sporting the most magnificent bristling eyebrows since Denis Healey, kept his cool under sustained fire, mostly from Labour members. The only evidence of tension was a tendency to preface replies by addressing the questioner by name. "Mr Milburn", came in for a lot of this.

His policy was a simple one - to prove his policy of selling to the highest bidder was dictated by HM Government, sitting alongside him in the person of Andrew Turnbull, permanent secretary at the Department of the Environment. "It was our duty to get the best price," he said.

He was aided in this policy by the questioning of Alan Williams, former Labour minister, who had concluded that HMG was a more productive target than LRB.

Sir Godfrey was forced to admit that he was disappointed when Shirayama sought a renegotiation of its Pounds 60 million agreed purchase: "I rather had the idea that you keep to contracts," but argued that the deal had been the most favourable possible and "all that has happened since has confirmed that view as correct".

He argued that it would be peculiar if Shirayama, having paid Pounds 50 million and spent a further Pounds 15 million or more on refurbishment, made no further attempt to capitalise on the investment.

He said the LSE had been "negotiating through the national press" before bidding formally, and its bid had been conditional on some over-optimistic views of the resale value of its Houghton Street site and of a possible expansion in student numbers - a view contested after the session by LSE spokesman Iain Crawford.

Mr Turnbull, partly handicapped by the fact he was elsewhere at the time, supported Sir Godfrey's analysis of the numbers and said accepting a non-commercial bid would have meant a strongly interventionist policy.

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