HC Deb 23 July 1875 vol 225 cc1927-40

, in rising to call the attention of the House to the intended encroachment on the Thames Embankment by the erection of the new Opera House; and to move— That, in allowing the building frontage on the Thames Embankment to be advanced to within thirty feet of the roadway, the Metropolitan Board of Works is acting in contravention of the policy intended to be affirmed by the Resolution of this House on the 8th day of July 1870, whereby the Embankment was secured as an open space for the use of the people, said, that in asking the attention of the House to the subject-matter of the Motion, he wished to clear away all doubts as to the specific object of it, by broadly stating that he objected to the advance by 75 feet towards the Embankment of the building frontage of the New National Opera House, and he fearlessly asserted that it was a most wanton and gratuitous act on the part of the Metropolitan Board of Works. It was desirable that he should refresh the memories of hon. Members who were in the House in 1870, and enlighten those Members who entered the House for the first time in 1874 as to proceedings in that House on the question of reclaimed land and open spaces. In 1862 a Bill, promoted by the Government of the day, was brought in by the then First Commissioner of Works, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hampshire (Mr. Cowper-Temple), which, amongst other things, provided— That, after payment had been made to the Crown for the foreshore, and to the Conservators of the Thames, all land which lay between the property of ordinary owners and the foreshores of the river was vested in the Metropolitan Board of Works, who were charged with the duty of maintaining it for ever as land for the purpose of public recreation and amusement;" and further, that "all open spaces possible were to be retained in the metropolis. Now, the land upon which a portion of the National Opera House was proposed to be built answered to the description given—that was, in respect to the advance of 75 feet, for the entire cost of the recovery of that land fell upon the ratepayers of the metropolis generally. He would mention that another and much more recent case, as confirmatory of the policy of 1862, occurred in 1870, when the late Government intimated their intention of erecting public offices on a portion of the Embankment at Charing Cross, eastward of the site intended for the National Opera House. To defeat that attempt by the Government to override the object set forth in 1862, the hon. Gentleman the senior Member for Westminster (Mr. W. H. Smith) brought the proposal before the House, having placed the following Notice of Motion on the Paper:— That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that She will be pleased to direct that no public offices be erected on that portion of the Thames Embankment which is reserved to the Crown, and which has been reclaimed from the River at the cost of the Ratepayers of the Metropolis.

That Motion was resisted in a long speech by the Prime Minister of the day, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Gladstone), and by his Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the London University (Mr. Lowe); but despite them, the supporters of the Motion were three to one in favour of it, and it was carried by a majority of 50 exactly, and amongst those who voted were 16 Members of the present Government, including three Cabinet Ministers. Looking at The Times of the Monday following the division, he found it referred to that event as "the glorious defeat of the Government." He felt confident that no hon. Member of the House would deny that the result of that division had been to confer a great boon upon the people of the metropolis. It was impossible for any right-minded man to walk down the Embankment and view the open space with its gardens and walks, upon which it was proposed to erect public buildings, without admitting that the hon. Gentleman the present Financial Secretary to the Treasury was richly entitled to the gratitude of every frequenter of that spot. Those Parliamentary proceedings went to prove the desire which existed amongst the people for open spaces and fresh air; and he invited the attention of the House to the case he was about to submit for its consideration in respect of the encroachment by the National Opera House—an encroachment which he did not hesitate to repeat was most gratuitous and wanton in its character. Some months back the Metropolitan Board of Works let the piece of vacant ground abutting on Cannon Row, and lying between Richmond Mews and the garden of No. 1, Richmond Terrace—which garden extended to the Embankment footpath—on the east side, and the ground occupied by the buildings and garden of the Civil Service Commissioners on the west side, to a Mr. Goldstein, Mr. Kent, and Mr. Buhner at an annual rental, he believed, of £3,000 per annum. At about the centre of the ground, and abutting on Cannon Bow, were two houses which extended about 56 feet in the direction of the Embankment, with a frontage of about 37 feet. The Board of Works made no condition with the lessee, Mr. Bulmer, as to the removal of the said two houses. The lessee having obtained possession of the ground, sold the lease of it to Mr. Mapleson, and obtained a premium for the lease of £10,000, in round figures. Finding himself in possession of the ground, Mr. Mapleson was immediately confronted by the serious obstacle in proceeding with the erection of the Opera House presented by the two houses in Cannon Bow. In this emergency, he applied to the Board of Works to sanction his advancing the site for the Opera House by 75 feet in the direction of the Embankment. The Board conceded the advance, and it was on learning that fact that he (Colonel Beresford) put a Question on the Paper for May 24 last, asking if Mr. Mapleson would not acquire thereby an additional available space—meaning by available additional ground to erect buildings on—of, in round figures, 9,000 feet. That Question was answered by the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Chairman of the Board of Works in a way which was calculated, he would not say intended, to mislead, and did mislead, the House, for he (Sir James Hogg) stated that Mr. Mapleson had been called upon to make a roadway on either side of the Opera House, after allowing for which he would be a loser of 360 square feet. This was an utter delusion, in point of fact, and Mr. Mapleson had, according to the plan which had been given on the subject, in round figures, gained 4,650 square feet by the exchange of available ground, for which he had not paid a farthing. In consequence of the tenour of that reply, he followed up his first Inquiry with another on the 7th of June, the answer to which still more mystified the House, and was, to use the mildest word, incorrect. He was, of course, confining his inquiry to available, that was, building ground. He allowed, for the moment, the space occupied by the two side roads, so far as the building extended, and the figures and loss of square feet alleged by the Chairman of the Board could only be made out by including the area of the side roads when continued beyond the front of the building up to the Embankment footpath. But what about the "inducement" which was paraded before the House as a very virtuous proceeding to warrant the Board in conceding the advance of 75 feet? He asserted emphatically that, without any inducement whatever, Mr. Mapleson, for his own purposes, must have made side roads, or one 40 foot side road; and he would go further, and tell the House that if Mr. Mapleson could have dispensed with side entrances altogether to the Opera House and side roads, the Lord Chamberlain would have insisted upon roads being made, or would have refused to licence the house. So much for the vaunted inducement. With regard to the two houses, the Chairman of the Metropolitan Board alleged the inability of Mr. Mapleson to arrange for their purchase. It was, in fact, simply a question of money, and he submitted that the Board of Works deserved the censure of that House for not having obtained possession of and for not having removed them before they dealt with the land. On that Friday he expected his Motion first to come on, but was debarred by the lateness of the hour, on that very day. Everything else having been previously settled, the two houses Mr. Mapleson could not arrange for changed hands, and again Mr. Bulmer became the owner for himself, or on behalf of Mr. Mapleson, and he believed that gentleman had let the ground at a considerable rental for the erection of a Royal Academy of Music. It was a most unbusiness-like proceeding on the part of the Metropolitan Board that they should have been deluded into this grant of 75 feet of additional frontage, on the plea that Mr. Mapleson could not get these houses. Money in this country could do anything, and the proof here was that Mr. Mapleson had now secured the houses. The proceeding on the part of the Board of Works was in direct opposition to Sections 10 and 1 of 19 & 20 Vict., c. 112, which gave power to the Metropolitan Board of Works to provide parks, pleasure-grounds, places of recreation, and open spaces for the improvement of the metropolis or the public benefit of the inhabitants.

Now, he asked, although the front of the proposed Opera House might be made as handsome as they pleased, was the bringing up to within 30 feet of the Embankment footpath a building 75 feet high or thereabouts—shutting out light and air, throwing darkness over the gardens adjoining on the east side, and, indeed, on all sides but the front—was this "an improvement to the metropolis or for the public benefit of the inhabitants?" Surely, such a proceeding could never have been intended. The space between the Embankment roadway and the building frontage had been pretty closely preserved, and was chiefly laid out in public gardens, and he confidently submitted that this infringement on the 105 feet reserved would be a serious damage to the occupiers of houses in the immediate vicinity, who would be shut out by the gigantic walls of the proposed house from any view of the Embankment, and would be deprived of light and air also. He had still something to add to complete his case against the Metropolitan Board of Works. Poor unfortunate Mr. Mapleson was not allowed to become lessee of the ground, and to erect the Opera House without being provided by the Board with an architect and a contractor. The former official, in the person of Mr. Fowler, a member of the Board and Chairman of the Board's Buildings Committee, was thrust upon Mr. Mapleson, and the Board further compelled the unhappy man to employ a contractor to get out the foundation nominated by the Board. These doings were in violation of the Metropolitan Local Management Act,'1863, Section 64, whereby it was provided that no officer or servant of the Board shall in anywise be concerned or interested in any contract or work made with or executed for such Board.

It appeared also that Mr. Fowler was to be the architect of the Royal Academy of Music. He submitted that the Board had been guilty of a gross violation of the duties intrusted to them, and he hoped the House would mark its sense of their conduct by endorsing the Resolution. It was not too late to repair the injury that was about to be done, and he trusted the Government would call on the Metropolitan Board of Works to limit the frontage of the building to what was originally intended, which would be the line of all the other buildings along the Embankment. The hon. and gallant Member concluded by moving the Resolution of which he had given Notice.


inquired if any hon. Member seconded the Motion?


said, he had not intended to interpose at that stage of the debate, but as the Representative of a large number of metropolitan ratepayers who were naturally interested in the administration of their affairs by the Metropolitan Board of Works, he would second the Motion of the hon. and gallant Member for Southwark, sooner than allow it to drop without receiving the answer which he thought the House was entitled to expect from the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Chairman of the Board. The principal charge contained in the speech of the hon. and gallant Member for Southwark resolved itself into a simple sum in arithmetic. The hon. and gallant Gentleman had said that the Metropolitan Board of Works had made Mr. Mapleson a present of some 5,000 square feet of land, without any consideration whatever, and consequently at the expense of the ratepayers, and in proof of this he referred to a plan published by the Board when they were about to invite tenders for the property. Now, he (Mr. Boord) had had an opportunity of inspecting a copy of that plan, and had made a rough computation of the extent of the areas in question, with the following result:—The piece of land let, in the first instance, to a Mr. Bulmer, contained 41,190 feet; the additional piece conceded to enable Mr. Mapleson to advance his frontage 75 feet, contained 15,750 feet; making in all 56,940 feet; from this must he deducted the space, within the letting, to he occupied by two roads each 20 feet wide, 10,400 feet, leaving 46,540 feet as the extent of the area now in Mr. Mapleson's possession, which, it would be observed, was 5,350 feet more than the original letting, and it had been admitted that no increased rent or other consideration was to be paid. The figures just quoted varied slightly from those given by his hon. and gallant Friend the Chairman of the Metropolitan Board (Sir James Hogg) in answer to a Question put in the House on the subject; but even taking the hon. and gallant Gentleman's own figures, there were 3,830 feet absolutely given away. Another point worthy of the attention of the House was this. The Metropolitan Board had let this property to a certain person for a fixed rental, and that person had immediately disposed of his interest in it for £10,000. Now, if it was worth £10,000 more than the Metropolitan Board obtained for it, the question might fairly be asked—why was more care not exercised in the letting of this land so as to save that sum to the metropolitan ratepayers? He had observed that in one of the Bills, introduced this Session by the Metropolitan Board of Works, power was given to the authorities of the Inner and Middle Temples to erect certain turrets and bay windows on land which adjoined their property, and had been reclaimed from the river, the said turrets and windows to project not more than 10 feet on to such land. Now he wanted to know, if it was necessary to obtain the authority of Parliament for the Benchers of the Temple to advance 10 feet on the ground of the Embankment, how it was, that within a very short distance of that spot, the Metropolitan Board of Works of their own motion could give Mr. Mapleson permission to advance 75 feet? He was glad to see that the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Chairman of the Metropolitan Board had apparently fortified himself with voluminous materials for his reply, and he trusted he would be able to give a satisfactory explanation of these matters, in the absence of which such costly negligence on the part of the Metropolitan Board would inevitably shake public confidence in a body on whose prudence and watchfulness the comfort and security of the inhabitants of London were so largely dependent.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That," to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "in allowing the building frontage on the Thames Embankment to be advanced to within thirty feet of the roadway, the Metropolitan Board of "Works is acting in contravention of the policy intended to be affirmed by the Resolution of this House on the 8th day of July 1870, whereby the Embankment was secured as an open space for the use of the people,"—(Colonel Beresford,)

—instead thereof.


said, he would do his best in a short time to answer the numerous indictments against himself and the Metropolitan Board of Works. [An hon. MEMBER: Not against you.] As there appeared to be two counts, he would divide his answer into two parts; first, with regard to what had been called the encroachment; and, secondly, with respect to the meaning of the Resolution proposed in 1870 by his hon. Friend (Mr. W. H. Smith). This was the first time he had heard of encroachment upon lands which belonged to one, or had been entrusted to one, by Parliament. He held in his hand an Act of Parliament, the 25th clause of which said that all land to be reclaimed from the river within certain specified boundaries, and not required for streets or roads, should be kept as an open space for the benefit of the inhabitants of the metropolis. That land was to the east, near Lord Salisbury's and the Metropolitan Railway, and the whole of it had been laid out in gardens in accordance with the Act. But there was a different portion of land which, by Clause 32, the Metropolitan Board were empowered to let or sell, and that was the part near Cannon Row. The Metropolitan Board, therefore, were only doing their duty to the ratepayers in selling it to the person who offered the best price. With regard to the Resolution of 1870, he contended that the test of its meaning was to be found in the Resolution drawn up by the late Prime Minister for the appointment of the Select Committee which sat the following year, and of which the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the University of London (Mr. Lowe), the noble Lord the Postmaster General (Lord John Manners), his hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge University (Mr. Beresford Hope), and his hon. Friend the Member for Westminster (Mr. W. H. Smith) were Members. The Resolution was that— a Select Committee be appointed to inquire and report whether, having regard to the various rights and interests involved, it is expedient that the land reclaimed from the Thames, and lying between Whitehall Gardens and Whitehall Place should, in whole or in part, he appropriated for the advantage of the inhabitants of the Metropolis, and, in such case, in what manner such appropriation should be effected. And the Committee decided— That the land belonging to the Crown, and defined on the plan accompanying the Report, should be so appropriated. The exact space was accordingly specified on a plan which was printed along with the Report of the Committee, and how the hon. and gallant Member, with that plan in his hand, could fancy the land now in question had anything to do with the other land he could not conceive. He appealed to his hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge University (Mr. Beresford Hope) to say whether the Report had anything to do with the land near Cannon Row. This land was originally divided into two parts, and in November, 1873, tenders were invited. Only one was received, which was declined, because it did not come up to the price their land was thought worth. The architect was next directed to negotiate with several gentlemen who had privately signified their desire to become purchasers. None of them came up to the price, Again, in October, 1874, other tenders were invited, and one, that of Mr. Bulmer, for £3,000 was accepted, the valuation of the architect having been considerably below that sum. The Metropolitan Board of Works, therefore, had made a good bargain for the ratepayers. After a while Mr. Bulmer came and asked to transfer his rights to Mr. Mapleson. They made Mr. Bulmer complete his contract, and allowed him to hand it over to Mr. Mapleson. As Chairman of the Board, he was not bound to know what transactions had been entered into; their business was to let the land in the best way possible, and at the highest value, and then their duty was completed. The hon. and gallant Member had just now said that "poor unfortunate Mr. Mapleson "was not allowed to have his own architect and his own contractor. He must give the most direct and unqualified denial to every word of that statement. There was not a shadow of foundation for either of those statements. The facts were these—When Mr. Mapleson got the land, a certain number of architects thought proper to tender. Mr. Fowler sent in a tender under an "initial;" two plans were selected, one happened to be Mr. Fowler's and another that of Mr. Phipps—one being a member of the Board and the other a friend of his (Sir James Hogg's) own. Mr. Fowler did not know that he had been selected as architect till he read the announcement in The Times next morning at breakfast, the letter intimating the fact to him having been sent to his office. He (Sir James Hogg) had that statement from Mr. Fowler himself, and it would have been a great deal better if the hon. and gallant Member had informed himself a little more of the true facts before he came there and attacked an honourable body of gentlemen like the Metropolitan Board of Works.


rose to Order. He must tell his hon. and gallant Friend that he did not make statements that were not true. His authority was that of Mr. Mapleson himself.


said, he did not care who stated it. Whether it was Mr. Mapleson or anybody else, he gave it the most direct contradiction. There was not a shadow of truth in the statement. Then, as to Mr. Webster, the Metropolitan Board had no contractors. Their usual course was to issue specifications; tenders were sent in, and the lowest tender was always accepted if it were that of a fit and proper person. Mr. Webster had done several works for the Metropolitan Board remarkably well, but there was not a shadow of truth in the statement that he had been thrust down the throat of Mr. Mapleson. With reference to the Lord Chamberlain not giving a licence if there was not a roadway on either side of the theatre, he believed licences had been given very often where there were not roadways on both sides. And with reference to the advance, the Board thought they had made a very good bargain. Mr. Mapleson first offered two roads of 15 feet, but the Board required that they should be 20 feet wide. Looking at it with an unprejudiced eye, he thought the building would be much more handsome by being projected a certain distance on the roadway than if it were erected with its side to the Embankment. With regard to the measurement he had already given it to the hon. and gallant Gentleman on two previous occasions. He had the whole area measured twice over. The entire area was 62,467 square feet. The area of garden ground was 22,892 square feet, leaving building ground 39,575 square feet. In consideration of his being allowed to come beyond the line Mr. Mapleson had given up for two roadways of 20 feet wide, an area of 11,960 feet, and for approaches 2,175 feet, which made 14,135 feet surrendered. He acquired 12,139 feet by advancing the line of building, but he had surrendered 14,135 feet, leaving an area of 1,996 feet less than he had originally bargained for. But what did the House think was the amount of the encroachment? There were seven acres of pleasure ground on the Embankment for the public, and what had been taken was 2,644 feet, or about the sixteenth of an acre. He had now endeavoured to answer the accusations of his hon. and gallant Friend against the Metropolitan Board. His hon. and gallant Friend had said something about the Temple, but the Benchers had behaved very handsomely; they did not ask anything for compensation, but simply that the land should be given up to them with the understanding that no building should be put upon it, which, in fact, could not be allowed without the sanction of Parliament. He trusted the House would reject the Motion by a large majority, and thus show its approval of what had been done by the Board of Works.


said, that as a Member of the Committee, he believed the line beyond which new buildings should not be erected along the Thames Embankment had been infringed, and the simple question was whether the Metropolitan Board of Works had sanctioned the building of this theatre upon land which had been redeemed from the river? If that were so, it was entirely illegal for the Metropolitan Board of Works to have taken that course. Having regard to the line of frontage laid down by the Committee, it was obvious to him that the Opera House could not be legally erected on the proposed site unless an Act of Parliament were obtained, as in the case of the Temple. The hon. and gallant Gentleman the Chairman of the Metropolitan Board of Works had been unfortunate in his allusion to what had taken place with respect to the Temple, for in that instance the Society, wishing to erect a line of houses at the bottom of Middle Temple Lane, found they could not do so without building on land reclaimed from the river. They did not act contrary to the law, but went to the Board of Works, and ascertained that they must obtain an Act of Parliament. That measure had now been passed, or was about to pass into law. He was sure the Government would do what was right in this matter, and would not support the Board of Works if that body had transgressed the law.


said, he had also been a Member of the Committee of 1871, and had taken part in the debate and the division which resulted in the Resolution of 1870, and all the reference to it in this debate was mere rubbish, as it had nothing to do with the site of the Opera House, but merely settled a controversy with reference to the plot of ground lying between the South Eastern Railway and the gardens of Whitehall Place. Everybody thought that the Metropolitan Board of Works had an equitable right to the use of the land which it had reclaimed, in order that it might dedicate it to the service of the public as a recreation ground; but the Government of the day being in a frugal mood, the Select Committee was appointed, the result being an equitable compromise, by which the land lately thrown open to the public as a garden was surrendered for a nominal rent to the Board. The question at present before the House was, originally, whether the use proposed to be made of this wholly different piece of ground was legal or illegal within the four corners of the Act of 1872. As the hon. and learned Member for Southwark (Mr. Locke) had not ventured to interpret the Act, it was fair to infer that it would not be of much use to him; but if anybody could prove that the Chairman of the Metropolitan Board of Works had contravened the statute, the Courts of Law were open. For his own part, he did not look upon the House of Commons as either a Court of Error to review the Metropolitan Board, or as a standing audit or statutory critic with regard to it. At this time, however, the matter had ceased to he a question of right or wrong, and was removed into the category of artistic questions; and from that point of view there was no case. No one had fought more than he had for open spaces; but the bit of ground which was given up by permitting the advance of the line of buildings was hardly big enough for the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Boord) and the hon. and gallant Member for Southwark to play leap frog. It was separate from the other gardens, and was not worth making a garden of. The time to have raised the question of the line of frontage was before St. Stephen's Club was built. Next to it were lofty buildings which presented hideous back fronts to the Embankment, and, as it was fair to assume that the Opera House, which was to be erected by an architect of eminence, would have pretensions to architectural decoration, he trusted it would hide the unadorned backs, and so redeem the frontage to the Embankment. If there were to be any buildings at all in Bridge Street, their rear must be marked towards the river. An Opera House was a place of recreation for people who liked music, and he implored the House not to make itself absurd by going into a petty question like this, of which the particulars were not before it, which it did not fairly understand, and with which it was in no way concerned. He hoped the hon. and gallant Member would withdraw his Motion.


said, if this had been a question whether a large area of land which had been reclaimed at the cost of the ratepayers should be retained as an open space, he should have gone cordially and heartily with the hon. and gallant Member for Southwark; but it appeared to him that this was simply a question whether a sufficient payment had been made, or whether the arrangement between Mr. Mapleson and the Board was altogether satisfactory; and, if that was the question, this House was not the proper place to discuss it. Those who supported his Motion in 1871 would remember that the principle involved in it was, that it was not right that land which had been reclaimed from the river at the cost of the ratepayers should be appropriated by the Government of the day for Imperial purposes. In 1871 he contended that an open space which had been open from time immemorial, and which had been turned into dry land, should be converted into a place of re-creation for the metropolis, at whose expense it had been reclaimed. He was supported by a great majority on that occasion. That was quite a different case from the present one. In 1871 the Government of the day proposed to take that land away from the metropolis; but his hon. and gallant Friend now sought to place a constraint on the metropolis in regard to the use of a few feet of that land. He was heartily in favour of preserving open spaces, if possible, for the recreation of the population of London, which was rapidly increasing; but in that particular instance, if the Metropolitan Board of Works had exceeded their powers, the proper place for deciding the question was a Court of Law—a tribunal to which all the parties concerned could go. He regretted that his hon. and gallant Friend had thought it right to bring that subject before the House; because if such comparatively minute matters were raised there from time to time, they rather lessened the opportunity afforded to hon. Members who wished to bring forward more important questions.


said, his complaint was not about the Opera House about to be built, but that the Board of Works permitted an advance of 75 feet into the roadway. However, after the statement of the hon. Gentleman he would, with the leave of the House, withdraw the Motion. ["No, no!"]

Question, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question," put, and agreed to.

Main Question proposed, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."

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