HC Deb 03 March 1892 vol 1 cc1761-71

Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."

*(3.9.) MR. DIXON-HARTLAND, (Middlesex, Uxbridge)

I rise to oppose the Second Reading of this Bill. It is no new proposal; it is the prolongation for some three years more of exceptional powers granted to private individuals, with a proposal to withdraw the safeguards which the Act of 1887 possessed. By that Act it was arranged that a certain company should be formed with £500,000 capital, of which £100,000 was to be paid up as a safeguard for the carrying out of the work. Well, five years have elapsed and no company has been formed, and not a penny of the capital has been subscribed. I may say from my own knowledge that the promoters have been to almost every financial authority in the City of London to try and get their case taken up; and the financial authorities, having examined the question, have decided there is no chance of any profit being made; and one and all have utterly declined to have anything to do with the scheme. Why is this the case? Because when the Bill was before Parliament, to buy off opposition, an enormous number of agreements were recklessly made, regardless of results should the company ever be formed—the object simply was to buy off opposition. But now they find that, so long as these agreements exist, it is impossible for the company to be successful fn any possible way. We are told that the First Commissioner of Works is in favour of this scheme, and I do not wonder at it if that is so. If I were First Commissioner I should help on the Bill, because the Board of Works is one of the parties bought off with an agreement. No doubt if the scheme could be carried out it would be a good thing for the Board of Works; but at the present moment it is really a short-sighted policy on the part of the Board of Works, because to continue the existing agreement would simply hamper the Department, and render it impossible to make terms with a bonâ fide company. Certainly this company will never be able to carry the scheme through. If any profit is to be made it certainly will not be made by the present promoters, and the scheme is not one that should be left to be carried out by private individuals. This is the finest site in the whole of the Metropolis. If the front part of a piece of Parliament Street were removed, and the Public Offices extended from the Local Government Board through the land which belongs to the Government up to George Street, I say it is one of the finest sites you can possibly have in this Metropolis, and if the work were taken up by a responsible body a very great improvement would be carried out. But I contend there is now no prospect of it being carried out, and to pass this Bill is simply to lock up the site for a still further period of time. I notice that the name of the Cadogan Estate Company has been imported into the case; but I do not see what that company has to do with it. That company is in no way bound by the Bill, and is merely introduced as a kind of stalking-horse to make the House of Commons believe that if the Bill passes this company will see their way to have something to do with it. But the mention of the company is deceptive, for the company are under no obligation. It is a company with no capital whatever. I believe the whole of that company's work was carried on by means of debentures, and the company have no capital to carry out the undertaking even if they wished to do so. The Cadogan Company have carried out improvements on the land they acquired from Lord Cadogan; but then that estate was vacant; but this ground is covered with buildings of a valuable description. We are told that the company may raise money on debentures; but that will mean ground rents 50 per cent. above any other rents in the immediate neighbourhood. It is perfectly impossible that they can get any financial authority to take up the debentures saddled with the conditions they will be obliged to make—conditions which were entered into when the Bill was last before the House of Commons, and for the purpose of buying off opposition. If this Bill is passed in its present form it will do away with all the protection to public and private interests which Parliament has thought necessary. This is an attempt to do away with Clause 4, which is the only protection the public have that the scheme will ever be carried out. I believe all the owners of the property in the neighbourhood are opposed to the hanging up of this site for another three and a half years, for they are convinced that the body of gentlemen who are promoting this Bill, however well-intentioned, are unable to carry out the scheme. A Petition has been presented to this House by the Institute of Civil Engineers, in which they say they are owners of three of the largest houses in Great George Street, and that they are in treaty for the acquisition of another adjoining (No. 27), and they propose to pull the whole down and to erect a large building for their institute on the site. All this will be stopped for three years if this Bill is granted, and though they might not object to that if they had an assurance that the scheme would really be carried out, they protest that there is no chance of this being done. I hope the House will not read this Bill a second time, not because the House is opposed to the scheme proposed, but because the position of the promoters is such that the scheme can never be carried out.

Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day six months."—(Mr. Dixon-Hartland.)

Question proposed, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."

(3.20.) MR. GILES (Southampton)

This is called a Westminster Improvement Bill, and it would be a great improvement to remove the block of houses between Parliament Street and King Street, but there is not the least necessity for the creation of a new street from the middle of the Foreign Office quadrangle to Westminster Abbey. In the carrying out of this design valuable properties would be destroyed, amongst others the building forming the Institute of Civil Engineers, which has existed for 75 years, and which has a frontage of over 120 feet. This Bill has been before the House in 1887 and in 1890, and the powers have lapsed. The promoters, who are simply in impecunious speculators, are now trying to renew these powers, to the prejudice of all the inhabitants dwelling in the neighbourhood. It has been decided by the Institute of Civil Engineers to rebuild their property, but are they to wait in a state of uncertainty for another three years, and with, as they think, no chance of the scheme being carried out?

(3.21.) COLONEL MAKINS (Essex, S W.)

So far as I gather, nothing has been said against the principle of the Bill, and that, I understand, is the subject of debate on a Second Reading. A great deal of what has been said by hon. Members may be perfectly true; but the question as to whether or not further safeguards are necessary for the protection of private interests is a question for the consideration of the Committee to whom the details of the Bill will be referred. Now the history of the Bill is not quite that given by the hon. Member for the Uxbridge Division (Mr. Dixon-Hartland). The object of the Bill now before the House is to bring back the position to what it was when the Bill left this House in 1887. The 4th clause, on which so much stress has been laid by the hon. Member, was inserted at the last moment in the House of Lords at the instance of Sir Richard Nicholson, clerk to the Middlesex County Council and an occupier in the district, who is also the leader of the present opposition. Sir Richard Nicholson's position is this: he made an agreement with the promoters of the Bill for the protection of his own interests, and at the last moment he got this clause put in. The promoters took it and have since honestly endeavoured to carry it out, but now the object of the Bill is to get rid of the 4th clause, because the promoters find it is impossible to raise the money in the way provided—that is, by subscription of £500,000 in open Stock. Investors will not subscribe to an undertaking of this kind in open Stock, but they will take Debentures with a contingent claim on profits if hereafter made. The hon. Member has alluded to the Cadogan Land Company, and the connection of this company with the matter is simply this: they have succeeded in carrying out, I will not say a precisely similar, but in most respects a similar undertaking; they have made great improvements on the Cadogan Estate in Cadogan Square and Lennox Gardens, which they have converted into one of the handsomest quarters of London, and what has been done once can, in all probability, be done a second time, and if it should not be done, those whose interests are concerned are protected over and over again in most cases by agreements, and they have also the ample protection of the Lands Clauses Act incorporated into this Bill, which safeguards can, if the Committee think necessary, be increased and extended; and, lastly, they have this protection, that no property can be taken until the money is provided. The alarm expressed by my hon. Friend is, therefore, exaggerated. He says he does not want to have this matter hung up for the next three years. Nor do the company wish to have the scheme hung up for the next three years; but, unfortunately, through the action of the opposition, the scheme has been hanging since 1887, owing to the very clause it is now sought to remove. I do not wish to trifle with the House, and I therefore say that if the clause be re-enacted neither the promoters nor the Cadogan Company could possibly undertake the scheme. If, therefore, the House should be of opinion that the safeguards provided by the 4th clause are necessary and ought to be inserted, then the House had better throw out the Bill at once, for it will be absolutely impossible to carry out the improvements. It is not necessary to say a word in favour of the improvements. They are most desirable. That is admitted. The only question is, who are to do them? In the Petition presented by the hon. Gentleman on behalf of those whom he represents, it is asserted that the improvements ought to be carried out by public authority. Well, the London County Council have been approached, and their opinion is that the work ought to be done by the Government. They decline to undertake the widening of Parliament Street; they say it is more an embellishment than a public improvement, and they say it should be undertaken by the Government; and I daresay the right hon. Gentleman will tell us that the Treasury are not prepared to find the money. So it follows that the only other resource is a private company which will act under the powers of the Bill if the House will grant them. The Government look with benevolence on the undertaking, because they have acquired considerable property, which now lies idle, which they cannot deal with, but which under this scheme they can make useful to the public service; but, in any case, before they allow a single step to be taken, they would have to be satisfied, and would be satisfied, that the promoters were able to carry out their intentions. The last day for petitioning has gone by, and two Petitions only have been presented. One of these is from the gentlemen who are represented by the hon. Member who has spoken, and the other is from the Middlesex County Council. The Chairman of the County Council informs me that they look with favour on the project, and that theirs is merely a watching Petition, so as to get a further safeguard, should it be found necessary, in Committee. This is really a matter of procedure. The nature of the improvements intended is well-known, and it is for the House to decide whether the Bill should pass this stage, whether the Bill of 1887 should be re-passed without the fatal clause introduced in the House of Lords, so as to enable the company to carry out this much-needed improvement. I do not know what the Chairman of Ways and Means may have to say on the subject, but it appears to me the question raised by my hon. Friends are wholly questions for Committee, and that they have not at all attacked the principle of the measure, which is the question to be decided by the House now.

(3.29.) MR. WOOTTON ISAACSON (Tower Hamlets, Stepney)

A short time since papers and plans in relation to this scheme were brought to me. I examined them, and I found that the ideas of various leaseholders were so capacious that I could see no chance of carrying out the scheme so beneficial to the neighbourhood. Any hon. Member who has examined the matter must come to the conclusion I have arrived at, that this locality is one of the grandest quarters in the whole of London. It might be made an embellishment to the Houses of Parliament, to Westminster Abbey, to the whole Metropolis. But I do object to the House of Commons being made the means of foisting a company on the public. Not a penny of capital has been subscribed, and when the project was put before me, and I found that the House was to be asked to assist in floating the company, I would have nothing to do with it. I hope the House will not pass the measure until perfectly convinced that the capital has been found. If there are gentlemen interested in these improvements, let them find the money and make their profit in the best way they can, and not come to the public to subscribe for a purpose out of which they will never get a penny.


As the Department I have the honour to represent has been referred to, perhaps the House will allow me to say a few words. As to the prospects of the scheme as a commercial undertaking I express no opinion whatever, and as to whether the Bill is a proper one in its details, that is a question, I think, for the decision of a Committee upstairs. So far as the Department of Works is concerned we are, speaking generally, satisfied with the proposals contained in the Bill. My hon. Friend who moved the rejection of the Bill spoke of our having been offered extravagant terms, but I think there was exaggeration in his remark. We have been offered what I consider are fair terms, but no more than fair terms. Then as regards the proposition that a project of this kind should be taken up by the Government, I myself should be very glad could I foresee any chance of it, but I am afraid I cannot hold out any immediate hope of that. I will give the House the reasons that induce me to give my support to the Second Reading, but I do not wish to put any pressure upon any hon. Member who sits on this side of the House to vote with me. It seems to me that the proposals in this Bill having passed through Committees of both Houses within the last few years is a circumstance that should induce us to regard this Bill with favourable consideration, and if an alteration introduced, as we have been told, at the last moment in another place has made the success of the undertaking impossible, inasmuch as it was attaching to it an unworkable condition, then I do not think it is improbable that some other plan may be devised which would provide the security which I fully admit the persons interested are justified in asking for; therefore it seems to me the Bill should be allowed to go before a Committee. If the scheme can be carried out successfully, I certainly agree it will confer an enormous advantage on this part of the Metropolis, not only because the traffic at the point is fearfully congested to an extent that is a danger to the public, but looking at it from another point of view, I think the condition of Parliament Street is a scandal to the Metropolis. I never walk down that street without wondering how it is that it has been so long left in its present condition. Parliament Street does not unite, so much as it separates, two of the finest sites existing in any capital in Europe. At the one end you have Whitehall Place and Charing Cross, and at the other end the venerable Abbey of Westminster and the buildings of the Houses of Parliament, two magnificent public places separated, I say, at the present time by a narrow insignificant street. The Bill under other circumstances was considered a good one, and I see no reason why a Committee upstairs might not be able to put in such terms as, while allow- ing this important public improvement to be carried out, would provide all security for the private interests concerned.

(3.35.) MR. SHAW LEFEVRE (Bradford, Central)

I have no intention of opposing the Bill, and if, as the result of passing the Bill, Parliament Street is widened, and handsome buildings erected, no doubt a great public improvement will be carried out. But I may remind the right hon. Gentleman and the House that it was originally intended, many years ago, that the widening of the street should be effected by the Government, and that the War Office should be built in the front street. That intention was abandoned when, later on, it was agreed that the War Office and the Admiralty should adjoin each other on the Admiralty site. Then, as the Government no longer wanted the site in Parliament Street, the plan of leaving the carrying out of the improvements to a company seemed to be a wise one. But since then, again, the scheme for uniting the Admiralty and the War Office has been abandoned, the Admiralty being in course of building on the site by itself. But it will be necessary hereafter to build a new War Office, and it seems to me there are only two possible sites—the one in question and the one opposite the Admiralty in Whitehall—and so it becomes matter for serious consideration whether it is wise for the Government to part with the property the site of which is, I believe, on the whole, about the best remaining site for a new War Office. It is a matter for the Board of Works to consider whether it is altogether wise to entrust the carrying out of this scheme to a private company. I merely throw out the suggestion to the right hon. Gentleman.


With the permission of the House, I may be allowed to say that this very point has been carefully considered by the Office of Works; and if the scheme were successfully carried out, it would greatly facilitate the application of the site the right hon. Gentleman has referred to, to the erection of a new War Office or any other public building considered necessary.


Then I understand it is not intended abso- lutely to part with the site—that the Government will retain some kind of lien upon it?


The right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Shaw Lefevre) has intervened with a special question, not, indeed, without warrant, and I thoroughly sympathise with him in regretting that the War Office and the Admiralty are not united upon one site in Spring Gardens. I still think that it would be well to have the new War Office near the Admiralty, so that the two arms of the Military Service of the Crown may be close together. But I do not think, in view of what has just been said, that any adequate reason has been advanced for not referring this Bill, in the ordinary course, to a Committee, arising from the course that may be adopted in regard to the new War Office. The question is now, Shall we send this Bill to a Committee or not? Those who have opposed the Bill have some ground for their opposition. The projectors of the scheme got their Bill in 1887, and their powers were renewed in 1890, but practically nothing has been done from that time to this. Those who are interested and concerned in this matter are the Institute of Civil Engineers and house owners in the neighbourhood, who not unreasonably may complain of being left for many years in an uncertain position. They do not know whether it is best to make alterations and improvements in their buildings, or whether or not they may be liable to be turned out at short notice. Of course, the whole question turns upon facts, and the promoters now propose to give a guarantee that they will within a short time carry out their plans. They say they are able to lay before the Committee an absolute guarantee that they will be able to proceed with the work subject to the preliminary Certificate of the Commissioners of Works; that in twelve months they will proceed with the work or abandon it altogether. On the other hand, the hon. Member for Stepney (Mr. Wootton Isaacson) assures us that he has private information, and his view is shared by the hon. Member for the Uxbridge Division (Mr. Dixon-Hartland) that the promoters are not in a position to carry out their plans. But are we competent here, on the floor of this House, to determine the question? I have the greatest regard for the accuracy of the judgment of the hon. Member for Uxbridge, and I pay due deference to the opinion of the hon. Member for Stepney; but I do not think that what those hon. Members have said can be accepted as conclusive upon points of detail which can only be decided upon examination of financial facts and the evidence of financial experts. They will bring their data before the Select Committee, and the Committee will decide in the usual course. But the facts cannot be ascertained here; and if we are to proceed with reasonable caution, we must refer these matters of detail to a Committee upstairs. If the Committee are not satisfied from what is laid before them, that the future fortunes of the scheme will be different from what they have been in the last five years, the Committee will report against the Bill, but we cannot decide here and now whether the plan is hopeless or not. The merits of the plan as a public improvement are admitted, and the Board of Works, after full examination, are favourable to it. I hope the House will allow the Bill to follow the ordinary course, and that the Committee will be left to decide questions a Committee alone can decide.


Would the right hon. Gentleman favour a proposal that the scheme should be held up for less than three years?

(3.46.) Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 228; Noes 14.—(Div. List, No. 16.)

Bill read a second time, and committed.