HC Deb 10 April 1912 vol 36 cc1349-60

Order for Second Beading read.

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

Mr. WEDGWOOD BENN (Lord of the Treasury)

It is due to the House that I should explain, in a few words, the object of this Bill. It has one main purpose, which is to acquire a site for the purpose of erecting new buildings for the Board of Trade and other offices. The site referred to is bounded on the one side by the Embankment, on the other side by Horse Guards Avenue, on the other side by Whitehall Gardens, and on the other side by the grounds of Montague House. The Bill proposes to acquire the site in two portions, the northern and the southern portion. On the northern portion the main offices of the Board of Trade are already situated, at Nos. 7 and 8, Whitehall Gardens. It is proposed to acquire the southern portion first, to demolish the house on the southern site, to erect new buildings for the Board of Trade, and for other offices, and then, subsequently, to move them from their existing buildings into the new buildings, when the question will come up for consideration as to whether it is desirable at that moment to acquire the northern site, and, if so, what buildings are to be put upon it. The second purpose of the Bill is to provide for an extension of the Patent Office in Southampton Buildings, Holborn. That is a small matter relating to the acquisition of a court known as Took's Court. The third purpose of the Bill is to acquire land which borders on the Record Office, between Fetter Lane and Chancery Lane. The object of the acquisition of this land is to provide against the catching fire of any buildings which may, if they catch fire, endanger the safety of the Record Office. It is not intended that the Record Office extension, which has been contemplated for some time, should come on to this new land. It is being acquired as a safety girdle. These are the purposes of the Bill. Perhaps the House will ask what necessity there is for new offices, and how it is proposed to pay for the site. As to the first, I may say that at the present time the Board of Trade is housed in no less than twenty different places, which results in extreme difficulty in carrying on the work of the Board of Trade with efficiency. As to the cost, it is provided in the Bill that sixty half-yearly instalments will be paid for the site to the Commissioners of Woods, who are in possession of the land at the present moment. The instalments will appear from year to year on the Votes for the Office of Works. All private interests will be entitled to be represented before the Select Committee to which I am going to move that this Bill should be sent. In conclusion, I would urge the House to permit it to go upstairs for scrutiny on the ground that by gathering together scattered branches of a public office the Bill will do something to increase the efficiency of the public service.


It will be within the recollection of some Members of the House that when this Bill was before the House, some Members, of whom I was one, took considerable exception to the very large amount of money that it appeared to us was being unnecessarily spent. Amongst other things we pointed out that there was on the other side of these buildings a considerable area of land that could be got at a very cheap price. I suppose it would be about one sixth of the price It was land in the immediate vicinity of the Houses of Parliament, upon which it would be possible to erect buildings for the accommodation of the Board of Trade. We were promised on that occasion that when one of the main offices, such as the Board of Trade, came to be dealt with by the House, that that point should be taken into consideration. I have listened very carefully to the observations of the hon. Gentleman in moving the Second Reading, but I did not hear any reference whatever to the most important question, namely, the cost of the site. It is quite true that there are a great many scattered parts of the Board of Trade at present. It is quite true that that is a very great nuisance, not only for the officials, but also for the public, because there are many people who have great difficulty in finding the particular branch of the Board of Trade they wish to get at. It would obviously be a great advantage for the Board of Trade to be housed altogether in a suitable building. One of the objections to the Bill that we have now is that it does not provide for that. Even when this new site is acquired, there will still be two or three pieces of the Board of Trade left in separate places. What some of us would like to see is a suitable building put up to house the Board of Trade on land which can be got quite as near to where we are sitting at present, at one-fifth of the cost. A large quantity of very small property has been pulled down, and there is now a series of extensive valuable sites, which will face the river, and have, between them and the river, the, continuation of the House of Lords Gardens. These will be suitable for public offices. One of the most important points is that the offices should be within a reasonable distance from this House. Why not go and look at such a site, and take it into consideration, and see whether an enormous outlay cannot be saved? If these buildings which are at present occupied by detached parts of the Board of Trade could be sold I have very little doubt that the cost of acquiring a new site in the position I have mentioned could be more than covered by selling some of these detached pieces. But what is proposed? In order to secure some sort of unity, and to cover all the district between here and Trafalgar Square on one side or the other with imposing public offices, a large sum of public money is going to be thrown away, in my opinion. We protested against the previous Act of 1908, and we were told on that occasion that we were really out of court because the plans had already been got out and arrangements had been made for pulling down the buildings in Delahay Street, and it seemed to us that it was a perfectly unnecessary piece of expenditure to pull down and remove the Engineers' Institute, a splendid building, which had cost some £90,000 to build, and which had not been in existence a dozen years. Here is another example. We hear answers given by the Treasury every day that they must save money here and save money there, and that they cannot afford a few pounds for various things which are suggested. Over and over again we have made representations with regard to our accommodation in this building, but we are told there is no money available for the purpose, and that economy must be the order of the day, and yet, when the public departments themselves are concerned, they think nothing of rushing in and spending hundreds of thousands of pounds in a perfectly unnecessary manner.

There is a most astonishing provision in paragraph (e) of Clause 2. As I understand the procedure of taking people's land off them for public purposes, when an Act of Parliament has been passed enabling the public authority to take the land it is competent to give the landlord notice that his land is required. Very few landowners can give full particulars as to their title and what they want for their property within the three weeks stipulated in the Lands Clauses Act. A man may be abroad, or there may be any number of circumstances which prevent him from sending in exactly what his claim is, but the Clause seeks to confer a novel power upon either the arbitrator or the jury before whom any matter of this kind should go to give costs against the landlord if he has not sent in his claim within the specified period. I have very little sympathy with property owners who seek to make outrageous fortunes out of public authorities taking their property, and if there was any suggestion that this was going to simplify procedure or to help to do justice as between the landlord and a public authority I would not raise any objection, but that is not the point. Under ordinary circumstances the landlord is only cast in the costs of the reference if the public authority makes him an offer of a specific sum, and the jury or the arbitrator find a smaller amount, but here the power is to be given to make the landowner pay the costs when he has not had any offer made to him of any sum whatever. I think the House ought to be very jealous of introducing novel Clauses into the general procedure with regard to such a matter as the Lands Clauses Act. If the Lands Clauses Act wants amending let it be amended, but to give a special power in an Act of this kind with the view of penalising people who happen to own some small interest of some kind or other in property which is going to be taken is a very reprehensible proceeding. My object in rising was mainly to call attention to the fact that we have had no figures from the Government; we have not been told what the original Estimates were; we have not been told how much is now proposed to be spent extra upon all these objects, and we have had no idea given us as to what amount will probably be involved. And I rose also to protest against proceeding with the erection of another big public office on the wrong side of this building, occupying land which might be sold for a very considerable sum of money, when a valuable and important site could be got for so much less on the other side of the House.


I think the House is entitled to more information in regard to one point in connection with this Bill. Until now most of us have found it quite impossible to gather from the Bill any accurate idea as to the sites which are dealt with. This Bill states that plans have been lodged with the clerk of the City of London and the County of London, but before the Second Reading of the Bill the House should at least have had the opportunity of inspecting the plans. I respectfully protest against the House being invited to read the Bill a second time in the absence of such material information. I desire to put to the Secretary to the Board of Trade this specific question. So far as I understood the explanation given on the Second Reading the site which was taken on the Embankment at present includes an amount of garden space. I ask for an assurance that it is not proposed to build on any open space until the House has had another opportunity of considering this very important principle. I do not dispute the need of the Board of Trade for adequate office accommodation, but we should give that office accommodation at a very dear price indeed if we gave it at the expense of one of the open spaces in this vicinity and, indeed, I cannot hope that, in view of past experience, the architectural beauties of the new building will atone to us for the loss of something much more precious.


I do not want to challenge the necessity for further office accommodation for the Board of Trade or the other Departments, though I cannot help noting in passing that this is another step in the enormous growth in the bureaucracy which has taken place in recent years. No one really needs more cogent evidence of this than can be obtained by casually walking down Whitehall and Great George Street, and noticing the enormous palaces which it has been necessary to erect during the last few years—palaces which previous generations were able to conduct the administration of the country without needing. I agree that the Government are proposing to acquire, for the purpose of Government offices, one of the most valuable sites in London. I cannot help feeling that it would be perfectly possible for the Govern- ment, with equal convenience, to acquire far cheaper sites for the purpose they have in view. In another connection I have had to face very similar arguments about the impossibility of moving more than three-quarters of a mile away from Westminster for a public building. I refer to the choice of the site for the County Hall for the administration of London. I am glad to say that wiser counsels ultimately prevailed and we found it possible to move to the south side of the river without any inconvenience at all to the administration, and with great benefit to London as a whole. I think everyone who is interested in London will agree that it would be a great advantage indeed if some of these great Government buildings could be placed south of the river, where they would be in easy touch of this House, and not concentrated, as they are at present, in one small area round Whitehall.

My real object in rising is to ask the hon. Member in charge of the Bill if he could see his way to give an assurance on one very important point. Within the limits of deviation shown on the plan is included a very considerable area at present used as a garden and forming an important open space. If that space is built over, as it can be under the Bill, not only will London lose what is a very valuable and a very ornamental open space, but you will spoil the architectural effect of the Embankment. Everyone appreciates the magnificence of the Embankment, taken as a whole, and we must all regret that a little more foresight did not save us from having the view of the Houses of Parliament spoilt by allowing the site of St. Stephen's House and Scotland Yard to project beyond the rest of the Em[...]ankment. If those responsible had had a little more foresight, St. Stephen's House and Scotland Yard might have been set back to a proper alignment, and we should have had a magnificent vista right up the Embankment, ending in the great architectural feature of these Houses of Parliament. We cannot rectify the mistakes of the past, but we can prevent similar mistakes being made in the present; and I think the hon. Member ought, in all justice, to give an assurance that the Government will not propose to build on what is now an open garden. I might also ask whether the Government could not see their way to throwing that particular piece of garden open to the public. I believe the matter has already been discussed by certain committees of the London County Council, which have expressed their willingness to pay for the maintenance and upkeep of these gardens if they were thrown open to the public. I hope, therefore, the hon. Member will be able to give an assurance on that point.

I wish to call the attention of the House to another point, namely, the collection of antiquities which may be found on the site. During certain negotiations which took place between the First Commissioner of Works and some local people interested in this question I understand the First Commissioner suggested that any antiquities or articles of archæological interest found on this site should be handed over to the London Museum. I do not think that is an altogether satisfactory solution of this question, because the London Museum, as hon. Members will recollect, is a purely private undertaking. It is in no sense an official museum, although it receives certain official sanction by being accommodated in one of the Royal palaces. It is a purely private concern which is under the management of privately appointed trustees. It is true that the London County Council themselves have put on loan a very large and valuable collection in that museum, but since it has been opened those interested in archæological matters have had very grave reason to criticise the manner in which the museum has been classified and is being managed. What we should like to see is that anything found on this site of an archæological or architectural interest should be, as has been the practice in the past, handed over to the London County Council, and that they then should give on loan to the London Museum such articles as are suitable, while other objects of interest would be put into their own local museum.

I would point out that this is not merely an academical question. It is of some practical interest, because at the present moment the London County Council have got a museum of prehistoric articles found in the course of rebuilding on sites in London. Some of these have been found on the sites of Government offices. It is not at all unlikely that a very large number of flint arrowheads and similar prehistoric articles would be found on this site. I may remind the House that this site is at what was one of the principal ferries across the river in ancient Roman days. The London County Council would like that class of treasure trove to be put into their own museum, to complete the lapses in their collection. There will be articles of architectural and more recent interest which they would also like to see in their museum, and which in all probability they would add to their loan collection at Kensington Palace. I hope the hon. Member will be able to give an assurance that he will adopt the same procedure as has been adopted in the past, and that articles of interest found on the site will, as heretofore, be handed over to the London County Council. I hope the hon. Gentleman will give an undertaking that the London County Council and other municipal bodies, like the City of Westminster, will be given the right to appear before the Select Committee in order that those who are principally interested in the maintenance of the open space to which I have referred may have full opportunity of being heard.

Captain MURRAY

No one will deny the necessity for collecting in one place the various offices which now constitute the Board of Trade. I once had the privilege of working at the Board of Trade, and it was with very great difficulty I was able to find out the various points at which many of the offices of the Department are now situated. Therefore, I think it is necessary that these various offices should be collected on one spot. I venture to say with all respect that I do not think the hon. Gentleman in the explanation he gave of this Bill advanced any satisfactory reason for placing the Board of Trade Offices on the particular spot it is proposed to place them. As has been pointed out by the hon. Gentleman opposite, it is going to cost a large sum of money, the amount of which we do not know, but which must necessarily, I think, be greater than would have been expended had some cheaper site been adopted. In addition to that, there is the very much more important consideration advanced by my hon. Friend (Mr. Whitehouse) and by the Noble Lord (Lord Alexander Thynne), and that is this: If, as I understand—and nothing was said to the contrary by the hon. Gentleman—the Board of Trade Offices proposed to be built are placed on this site, they will cover up a very valuable open space. I do think this House should be very jealous in regard to the open spaces which now exist in the Royal parks and on Crown lands. I think every opportunity should be given to this House to inquire into and discuss the policy of the Office of Works when it proposes to build upon open spaces or to take land for such purposes.

Personally I think we should have from the hon. Gentleman who represents the Office of Works or from the hon. Gentleman who represents the Board of Trade, who may be going to reply, although it is not in his province to do so, an assurance that the open space which at present exists between the offices of the Board of Trade and the Embankment is not going to be covered up by these buildings. I do not think we have had sufficient opportunity in this House to discuss the policy of the Office of Works. Very much more opportunity should be given for discussion, and very much greater consideration should be given to this important proposal than is possible at this hour. Open spaces in the great city of London are, to my mind, of the most valuable nature. I would be prepared to do whatever lay in my power to prevent the Office of Works, even in a case like this, building over any open space that now exists, cutting down trees, removing turf, or doing anything of a similar nature. I do hope the hon. Gentleman, in response to the appeals made to him, will give us an assurance to-night that if this Bill be passed into law, and new offices for the Board of Trade be erected, one of the results will not be to build over the open space that at present exists.


By leave of the House, I should like to reply to the important points that have been raised. First as to what was said by the Noble Lord (Lord Alexander Thynne). I can assure him that this is not a party Debate in any way, and that the proposal in the Bill has nothing whatever to do with any legislation passed by this Government. The necessity for new offices for the Board of Trade results from the natural growth of the administration which goes on side by side with the growth of business in connection with the trade and commerce of the country. As to the antiquities which may be found on the site, I find myself in rather a difficult position, because the late First Commissioner (Mr. Lewis Harcourt) is a trustee of one Museum, and the President of the Board of Education (Mr. Joseph Pease) is a trustee of another Museum. It is very difficult for me, therefore, to make promises as to antiquities going to third parties. I am not so hopeful as the Noble Lord as to flint arrow-heads used by the Romans being found on the site.


I did not say that.


Well, the Noble Lord said they might be found at what was once a Roman ferry. Whatever the Noble Lord suggests will be very carefully considered. As to any antiquities that may be discovered, the First Commissioner has been in communication with the Clerk of the London County Council and others with reference to this matter. The hon. Member for the West Derby Division of Liverpool (Mr. Watson Rutherford) expressed the idea which he put forward on the last occasion when a Bill of this kind was before the House, namely, that the site chosen would affect the price. I do not know that he has ever produced any evidence on the subject. The question of the site has been considered by no less than three committees, and they have come to the conclusion that this is the best site for the purpose. I do not say that it is absolutely the cheapest, but taking into consideration the public convenience as well as the price, the committee consider it the best.


Have they considered the possibility of a site on the south side of the river?


I do not know whether they considered that question, but I know that the matter of site has been very carefully gone into. It is estimated that the southern site for the new Whitehall buildings is worth£250,000, and that of course is a matter to be considered.


That is the southern portion of the site.


Yes, that is the southern portion. Of course, the precise figure will be determined in the way provided for in the Clauses of the Bill. It is estimated, roughly, on a rental of about 3s. 6d. a foot, at twenty-eight years' purchase. The hon. Member referred to Clause 2, Sub-section (1), paragraph (e). He thought quite rightly that this was a matter which should be left to the Committee. It is obviously unfair that the landowner should be able to avoid such portion of the costs as will otherwise fall upon him if the arbitration goes against him. The hon. Member for Mid-Lanark (Mr. Whitehouse) raised the question of the plans. The plans referred to in the Bill are deposited in the Private Bill Office, and are open to the inspection of any hon. Member. They have been open for some weeks for inspection by any hon. Member "who desires to see them. If the hon. Member thinks they should be put in the Tea Room, personally I have no reason to suppose that the First Commissioner would object to that. The only other point raised was the very important matter of the gardens, which at present are private gardens, but are included in the site to which this Bill applies. I may say it is the intention of the First Commissioner, if this Bill passes, to invite the cooperation of a large Committee, representing all parties in the House, with the view of considering what is the best way of disposing of the site and what kind of building will be best suited for the purpose intended. I do not know of any plan considered or thought of which contemplated advancing the frontage to the Embankment so as to take up the gardens which at present exist, so that I think the Noble Lord's fears on that point are not well founded. What its exact purpose will be will be a matter for the Committee to decide, and they will also consider whether it will be open to the public or not. All those matters must be discussed by the Committee, which will have the advantage of the considered views of Members of all sides of this House.


Do I understand correctly that it is not proposed to extend the building line on to any portion of the existing gardens?


I do not think I ought to give a definite pledge in terms. It is not generally contemplated to utilise those gardens for buildings, but the First Commissioner intends to invite the help of the Committee, who will decide this matter. After all, the Votes for this purpose will have to come before the House on the Votes of the Commissioners, and the matter will be open, but I do not think that hon. Members need have any fear.


Can the hon. Member give us an assurance on the third point, that the City of Westminster and the London County Council will be heard before both the Select Committee and the large Committee?


I have no doubt that the Standing Orders as to private Bills, which apply to this Bill, do provide for such representation, but I cannot speak as to the actual case, as I do not know.


Can the hon. Member say anything as to the cost of the northern half of this site?


The Bill provides for the acquisition, in the first place, of the southern half. It is not proposed at present to take the northern half, but the northern half, if it is acquired, will probably be worth £200,000.


I fail absolutely to see why any exception to the ordinary Lands Clauses Act should be introduced into a Bill of this nature. The Sub-clause clearly will work great injustice to landowners, and personally I object strongly to any alteration of the general law in a Bill of this kind. If it does not find its way out of the Bill in its various processes in Committee, I hope to be able to oppose it. Meantime I would ask the Government not to press a Clause of this kind.


It was in the Bill of 1908.


I objected to it then and I object to it now.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed to a Select Committee of Five Members, Three to be nominated by the House and Two by the Committee of Selection.

Ordered, That all Petitions against the Bill presented Five clear days before the meeting of the Committee be referred to the Committee; that the Petitioners praying to be heard by themselves, their Counsel, or Agents be heard against the Bill, and Counsel or Agents heard in support of the Bill:

Ordered, That the Committee have power to send for persons, papers, and records:

Ordered, That Three be the quorum —[Mr. Wedgwood Benn.]