HC Deb 03 April 1913 vol 51 cc693-700

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That a sum, not exceeding £94,300, be granted to His Majesty, to complete the sum necessary to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1914, for the Salaries and Expenses of the. Office of the Commissioners of His Majesty's Works and Public Buildings." [Note.—£55,000 has been voted on account.]


It might seem very ungrateful at this time of night to move the reduction of the First Commissioner's salary by £100, but the hon. Gentleman has proved to-night on that bench that he would not suffer by a reduction, and if he defends this Vote as ably as he has defended his position this afternoon, he will have very little difficulty in disposing of those of us who will occupy the remaining twenty minutes, because I do wish to congratulate him on the very able and efficient way in which he has conducted the business of the Office of Works; and in view of the physical discomforts he has experienced from four o'clock to this time, I think the least the hon. Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury) ought to do is to arrange for sufficient refreshment after eleven o'clock for the representative of the First Commissioner of Works. The point I wish to raise is one which concerns the capital of Scotland, and, as a matter of fact, the whole of Scotland. It is proposed to build new Government offices in Edinburgh, and to do so on the site of the existing Calton Gaol. That site belongs to the Prison Commissioners, with this reservation, that the city of Edinburgh claim a title in the same site. The First Commissioner was to erect the offices on a design which was placed on exhibition in his office a month or six weeks ago. We protested against that method of erecting the offices, and since then, and I am very much obliged to the First Commissioner for taking up the position, the designs of the building have been thrown open to open competition to all architects in the United Kingdom. Incidentally I may say, speaking for the Scottish architects, we never desired that the building should be confined to their competition. We are perfectly content that the competition should be open to the United Kingdom, and we are quite confident about the result. A point which I think does require and is worthy of consideration, in view of the fact that before the present building will require to be begun the site will have to be cleared, is whether or not an alternative site is not available which would be of greater utility for the purpose. The site of the Calton Gaol is limited, and very much restricted by the natural conditions on the east side, and by the existence of a historic cemetery on the west. There are other sites in Edinburgh where those buildings could be erected. I should like to suggest to the First Commissioner through his representative here that it would be a good thing and a wise thing, in view of the approaching existence of a national Parliament in Edinburgh to contrive that on the site there should also be accommodation for a Parliament House adjacent to the offices that will be erected. Therefore, I trust that the question of site will be taken into consideration, and that the question of confining it to the Calton Gaol will remain open. I should like to know what the conditions of the competition are and when those conditions will be announced, and as to whom the First Commissioner has agreed to adjudicate in that competition. In the hope of getting a reply to these questions I will say no more, although there is a great deal more that might be said.


My object in rising is to elicit an assurance, if possible, with regard to the completion of the Admiralty Arch improvement. I am particularly anxious not to say anything to prejudice the very delicate negotiations now pending. I would remind the hon. Gentleman that this is not merely a question of acquiring one or more houses and pulling them down, but the fact that the original line of access has been deflected has created a very difficult architectural problem. I do not say that the problem is impossible, but it will be very difficult of solution, and it is not likely to be solved by lay opinion. I suggest with all respect that the hon. Gentleman should follow the precedent created by the Office of Works in the case of the Quadrant, and appoint an independent expert Committee to advise them as to the best means of solving the problem. In the case of the Quadrant the Office of Works appointed a small Committee composed of Lord Plymouth, Sir Reginald Blomefield—a name very high in the architectural world—Sir John Murray, Sir Henry Tanner, and Sir John Poynter, the President of the Royal Academy. I think that if such a Committee were appointed we should have far more chance of arriving at a satisfactory solution. The appointment of such a Committee would not involve any obligation to accept its report and recommendations. If the Committee made recommendations which were too extravagant or too expensive it would always be open to the authorities concerned to modify the report or to carry it out in part. The precedent I have quoted is an exceptionally happy one, in as much as the Committee not only made a recommendation which has commanded the support of the whole of the architectural opinion of this country, but it also paid due regard to the business interests involved. They made a recommendation which it was possible for the Office of Works to accept from a business standpoint, and one which commended itself to the æsthetic opinion of London. I hope the hon. Gentleman will be able to give us an assurance in this direction.


I wish to support the view put forward by the hon. Member for Edinburgh (Mr. Hogge) and to associate myself with his complimentary remarks in regard to the hon. Member for St. George's-in-the-East. It used to be the practice of the Office of Works to put out to open competition all the designs for large and important buildings, that is to say, architects in private practice were employed. The hon. Member will probably inform the Committee that this rule is still observed; yet in answer to a question I put last year, he had to admit that no new buildings designed by outside architects had been commenced since January, 1907. The whole of the work is now being done, without any competition whatever, in the Office of Works, by official architects. The expenditure for new works executed to designs prepared in the Office of Works in the five years ending 31st March, 1912, amounted to over £4,000,000, and the payments for salaries in the same period to £464,000. I quote those figures to show that this is not a small or unimportant matter. We ought to consider whether, under the present system, we get the best buildings from an architectural point of view, and whether it is more economical to have all the work done by official architects than to resort to open competition. The Royal Institute of British Architects has recently been considering the whole question, and the president, in his opening address, speaking of the work of the Office of Works, said:— The architectural work done by the Office of Works is of a very varied nature, but unfortunately very uniform in its architectural character. I want to be strictly fair in what I say, but I think the whole of the work done by the Office of Works is poor from an architectural standpoint. I maintain, therefore, that if the work produced by the Office of Works is not very good or very cheap, the bulk of it might with advantage be put out to independent architects. Everyone will agree that you are very likely to get first-class buildings by asking eminent architects all over the country to compete. However good and however efficient your official architect may be, he cannot possibly on all occasions produce the best and the most suitable buildings. You only get that by open competition. I see no reason whatever why the official architect should not send in his design with those of the other competitors, and if an impartial tribunal should decide that the official design was the best, then by all means let it be adopted. Quite apart front that, we ought to do our very best to improve architecture in this country. The State ought to do what it can to encourage the architectural profession. Surely that can only be done by giving private architects a chance and by having open competition for all important Government buildings. Neither the First Commissioner nor the hon. Gentleman who represents him so ably in this House are experts so far as architecture is concerned, and unfortunately they are entirely in the hands of their official advisers. A Government official, like every other official, is strongly opposed to private enterprise; he scorns the idea that any private architect's office can produce anything better than the designs produced in the sacred precincts of the Office of Works. This question has recently on two occasions come before the House. The First Commissioner promised to consider the advisability of open competition in the case of Government buildings erected under the Public Offices Sites Act of last year; but nothing was done. I suppose at the present moment these designs are being done in the usual way in the Office of Works. Then, again, in the case of the new Government building to which the hon. Member for Edinburgh referred, and which is to be erected on the Calton Hill site, in Edinburgh, the hon. Member for St. George's-in-the-East, in answer to a question in the House, said that open competition was unnecessary, as they had accepted the design which they considered the best possible for the site. In this case pressure was brought to bear on the hon. Gentleman.


Will the hon. Gentleman leave me two minutes in which to reply?


I have been endeavouring to raise various points on the Estimates, and I have been assured all these points could be raised on this Vote. In view of the ruling of the Chairman and the eloquence of the hon. Baronet for the City of London, I have not been able to get in earlier.


Might I point out to the hon. Gentleman that I shortened my remarks in order to allow the hon. Member for St. George's-in-the-East to reply?


I was saying that with regard to the Calton Hill site pressure was brought to bear upon the hon. Gentleman, and that the design which the First Commissioner considered was the best possible building was abandoned owing to the pressure which was brought to bear upon him by hon. Members from Scotland. I very much regret the same pressure was not brought to bear upon the hon. Gentleman in regard to buildings recently erected in London. I am sorry to say that I am not able to discuss the question of economy to-night, for in my opinion it does not lead to economy to employ official architects. If the hon. Member wishes any information upon that, I ask him to read the Report of the Select Committee upon Estimates which was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for the City, and he will come to the conclusion that the Office of Works is not managed in an economical way. Therefore, from every point of view I consider that the hon. Member should give some assurance that the Office of Works is going to mend its ways, is going to give outside architects a chance, and is going to throw Government buildings open to competition.


I think I can reply in two or three words. First, in reply to the Noble Lord, I may say that the Office of Works welcome the suggestion which he makes, and I am authorised by my right hon. Friend to say that the Government will welcome the appointment of such a Committee by the Office of Works to decide what should be done, irrespective of who should do the work.


Will they decide that without reference to the House of Commons?


They will not decide it, but they will make suggestions. I am obliged to the hon. Member for Edinburgh for what he has said. We are preparing terms of competition, but we do not propose to vary the site. We consider the site of Calton Hill is in every way the most suitable for the most important building to be erected in the Scottish capital, and we are in negotiation with Sir Robert Lorimer. In reply to the speech of the hon. Member who has just sat down, I may say we have appointed a Departmental Committee to inquire into the question he raised, and I might remind him that two most important public buildings—the new Board of Trade and the new Scottish Office—have been put out to competition. I hope the hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London will now allow us to get our Vote.


No; the understanding was that we should have an opportunity of discussing the various questions I raised.

It being Eleven of the clock, the Chairman left the Chair to make his report to the House.

Resolutions to be reported upon Monday next; Committee also report Progress; to sit again upon Monday next, 7th April.

The Orders for the remaining business were read, and postponed.

Adjourned at Two minutes after Eleven o'clock.