HC Deb 24 December 1929 vol 233 cc2236-46

4.0 p.m.

The capital of the Northern Kingdom, the capital of Scotland, has at present an opportunity before it for one of the great architectural decisions which from time to time has to be taken in relation to the public buildings and monuments of our country. The site at the head of Princes Street, known as the Calton Gaol site, is now under review, the purpose being the pulling down of the gaol buildings which are at present standing thereon and erecting new public buildings for the Sheriffs' Court House and for other purposes. These matters come under the review of the First Commissioner of Works but they are also closely connected with the Department of the Secretary of State for Scotland. We, in Scotland, as a nation are jealous of our national dignities and prerogatives, and we are inclined, perhaps, to be a little touchy and suspicious when we hear of decisions being taken in London which we think impinge upon those prerogatives. I must thank the First Commissioner of Works for his courtesy in attending here this afternoon, and I hope I have not too long delayed his departure on holiday. If I have, some of the blame must be attributed to the eloquence of hon. Members on his own side of the House on the Douglas Pennant case. As I say this matter is the responsibility of the First Commissioner but the Scottish Office cannot divest itself of responsibility. I understand that the decision is taken in the first place at the instance of the First Commissioner of Works.

The plans and designs for the buildings to be erected upon this great rocky promontory at the end of Princes Street—one of the great sites of Europe—are, in the first place, to be by one architect only and that is the architect of the Office of Works Sir Robert Allison. Those interested in the amenities of Edinburgh and the historical tradition which has to be expressed in any building erected on this historic site, consider that the matter should be open to public competition and that, if possible, the award should be given to a Scottish architect. That is not only an instance of a desire for which our people are perhaps notorious but is for the reason that Edinburgh is singularly fortunate in the fact that the rebuilding which has been done from time to time has not in spirit or design derogated from the original city. When the Nor' Loch was drained and Princes Street built, the new town which sprang up, although on entirely new lines, was no less gracious and dignified than the Royal Mile.

Now comes the time when a new decision has to be taken and the present Lord Provost of Edinburgh is among the foremost of those who are greatly concerned about this decision. He has ideas for the new buildings in the City of Edinburgh according to which Edinburgh shall have a Government Mile and a University Mile as well as a Royal Mile and it is desired that all these new buildings shall be in character. It would be a great feat if an architect from any part of the country other than Scotland could express the soul of the Scottish nation in the buildings which are to grow up on the skyline at the end of Princes Street. That might be possible I admit, but what I desire to emphasise is that we wish for buildings which will express, not merely accommodation for so many typists, or rooms for so many Ministers and Under-Secretaries, lavatories, dining rooms and the rest of it, but buildings which shall express in an outline of stone against the sky of Scotland, the soul of Scotland in 1930.

These buildings will require not merely architectural skill, but a man who is soaked in the tradition of a public, who is soaked in the architec- tural features of a city. That may be found in the Chief Architect of the Office of Works, but my point is that it is not alone to be found in the Chief Architect of the Office of Works—I put the claim no higher than that—and that the Fine Arts Commission and the Town Council of Edinburgh should have before them alternative plans upon which to make their decision. The right hon. Gentleman the First Commissioner of Works visited Edinburgh and had a meeting arranged, I understand, by the hon. Member for West Edinburgh (Mr. Mathers), and a very useful conference was held there, but from the reports which I have seen of that meeting it appears that the First Commissioner still stuck to the fact that these designs were being supplied by his Office and that they would go to the Fine Arts Commission for Scotland for consideration and thereafter be submitted to the Corporation of Edinburgh. In the event of the disagreement of the Corporation the plans would have to be submitted to an arbitrator, he said, but he hoped there would be no question of going to arbitration. Still there is one set of plans. The right hon. Gentleman went on to say further: Speaking for himself, he would not dream of proceeding in the face of really serious opposition if the objections raised to the scheme appeared to him to be of sufficient weight as to justify him reconsidering the position. It seems to me clear that it will be more than desirable that alternative plans, however good the plans presented by his architect are, should be submitted to the Corporation of Edinburgh for their decision, and I would put it to him if he is not inviting a rebuff to his own architect and his own Office by merely submitting a single plan, which it seems to me is almost bound to be disagreed with by the Fine Arts Commission and the Corporation of Edinburgh, were it only for the purpose of bringing the question further and ensuring that further plans should be submitted to them for their consideration.

It may be said that decisions have been taken by previous Governments. As far as I know, in the Scottish Office we never proceeded to the position that the Office of Works should be the office which should in fact carry through this undertaking. I admit that claims were staked out by that proud body the Office of Works, but inter-departmental quarrels have not been unknown before, and I think the late Secretary of State for Scotland, who is well known as a persistent and by some rulings an obstinate man, would have done his utmost to see that the national claims of Scotland were considered, as well as the claims of efficiency which might be advanced by the Office of Works, and in that attitude he would have had no more vigorous supporters than the Clyde brigade, the Opposition as they were then, the Government Members as they are now, from the banks of the Clyde.

I ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider that we are bringing this forward not in any way as a party question. It is a question affecting Scotland, and it will no doubt be weighed up on those grounds, but Scottish Members in all parts of the House feel convinced that here is a very great opportunity, that if it is met by the submission of one set of plans alone, it will be scarcely less than a miracle on the part of the architect who prepares and brings forward those plans; and we suggest that the pivotal quality that this site and elevation will have in the architecture of Edinburgh make it worth while that, even at the cost of some delay and expense, several alternatives should be presented to the Corporation of Edinburgh upon which to take a decision which so vitally affects the amenities of the capital city of our country and to some extent the estimate which future generations will have of the generation which erected these buildings.


May I ask the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Kelvin-grove (Major Elliot) whether in making these proposals, he has any idea in mind of absorbing the permanent features of the existing gaol buildings?


I would not absorb any part of the existing gaol buildings in Edinburgh. It might lead to awkward reminiscences by certain people. This is merely a question of a new site.


I would like to reinforce what has fallen from my hon. and gallant Friend with regard to the Government buildings on the Calton Hill site. I agree with him entirely, with- out casting any criticism on the architect of the Office of Works in any way. It is desirable that this most attractive site should have a building worthy of it, and imbued with the historic spirit of Scotland. Architecturally an opportunity is offered such as occurs only at rare intervals, and it is desirable that the plans for this great building should be open to competition by the profession of architects. As a native of Edinburgh, I am very jealous of its beauty. Within the last 20 years the city has been greatly enriched by two very notable buildings—the Thistle Chapel at St. Giles and the National War Memorial which is really a glory to Scotland. It is most desirable that the best advice that could be got through the Office of Works should be obtained. That is all that we ask. It is a reasonable request, and does not cast any slur on the professional advisers of the Office of Works. We feel that an eminent Scottish architect ought to be able to produce something better than an architect who is not Scottish. This is not a party question, and we ask that the right hon. Gentleman should not close his mind to the matter, but should see that this matter is thrown open to public competition, so that the very best architect may get an opportunity of submitting his plan.


The subject of the new building on the Calton Hill site has been up for discussion and consideration much more than any other question since I have held this office. The House will understand that this question, although it has been before me many times during the past six months, was also before my predecessor for something like 15 or 18 months. When it was first put up to me for consideration, I discovered that the plans and the drawings were already in process of being placed before the Scottish Fine Arts Commission. The drawings and elevations were returned with some suggestion for improvement, which are now being completed. I think the House ought to know that the decision to entrust the work to the chief architect of the Office of Works was arrived at long before I took office, and that I found the whole process of producing the elevations and drawings almost complete. The position at this moment is that within the next month or five weeks, at the outset, the completed drawings will be placed before the Fine Arts Commission. Thence they will go, under agreement, to the Edinburgh Corporation, as the hon. Member has told the House.

The decision that the Department has to come to is, "Shall we scrap the work of the chief architect and his assistants during the past 12 months without giving it fair examination, according to the terms of the agreement with the Edinburgh Corporation; or shall we give him a chance of showing his work for approval and advice from the Fine Arts Commission, and then submit it to the judgment of the Edinburgh Corporation?" Speaking for myself, I think I have no alternative but to allow him to complete his work, seeing that it is only a question of two or three weeks to the final conclusion. Supposing I had no sort of feeling of my own about it, supposing we leave out altogether the question of whether it is right that one man shall do it, or whether it shall be put out to open competition, what are the facts in connection with this business? For 18 months or two years the matter has been under consideration.

What is involved in this consideration? First of all, there is the terrible congestion of the Post Office, which has been going on for years. I believe the Postmaster-General, if he were here, would say that the congestion is really intolerable. There is no chance at all of any addition to the premises of the Post Office until this business of providing accommodation for the Inland Revenue officers is taken in hand, because the only buildings next to the Post Office are those which house the Inland Revenue officials, who are to be accommodated on the Calton Hill site. The next thing is that the Sheriff Officers' Court is to be accommodated on the Calton Hill site, and the present site of that Court is allocated to the National Library. Everyone admires the generosity of Sir Alexander Grant in putting up a huge sum of money in order to establish a National Library for Scotland. That project has been held up for a considerable time, because there is no site for it, and the site that has been chosen, and which I believe all Scotsmen agree about, is the Sheriffs' Court. That work cannot be got on with until we complete the accommodation at the new site.

I think that on the question of time alone I should be open to condemnation if within four or five weeks, or six weeks at the outside, of the completion of the plans which two of my predecessors agreed the chief architect of the Department should prepare I scrapped the whole thing and threw it open to public competition. I think I should warrant a vote of censure from this House if I did that. That is my view, and it is the view of the Government. When this matter came up I put the position as we see it to the Prime Minister. He is a Scotsman like other Members in this House, and he agreed that, in the circumstances, we were obliged to go on. The hon. and gallant Member said that I had had an interview with the Lord Provost. I travelled to Edinburgh in order to have that interview and to put the facts before him, and I met that deputation, that conference, with the feeling at least that those who represented the Sheriffs' Court Commissioners and those who represented the Edinburgh Corporation, although they still feel that the whole thing should have been thrown open to competition, did agree that it was rather unreasonable at the last moment to say to the chief architect of the Office of Works, who had acted on the instructions of his chief, "Your drawings are unworthy of consideration," without looking at his drawings.


Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us how it was that it was not thrown open in the first place? I know it was before his time.


As a matter of fact, it has not been the custom of any Government to throw these things open for competition regularly. Some buildings have gone to open competition and some have not. The Admiralty new block was the last Government building to be erected in open competition, and that was in 1890. In 1891 the Victoria and Albert Museum went to limited competition, the War Office, the British Museum extension, the new Government offices in Whitehall—but that is not settled, I do not want anyone to think that is settled. This is all pre-War with regard to the Government offices in Whitehall. But those three went to selected competitors. The big new Embassy at Washington went to Sir Edwin Lutyens without competition. The Tokio Embassy also went to an architect without competition. The decision as to whether a proposal shall be sent to selected architects for them to send in plans, or whether it shall be put in open competition, or whether it shall be sent to one architect who has been selected, appears to me, on looking over the history of the Department, to be a matter that is decided on each occasion. My two predecessors, Lord Peel and Lord Londonderry, decided that this should be done by the chief architect, but they also left open the question of the National Library—


Was any objection taken at the time?


So far as I can see, there was correspondence about it, but the hon. and gallant Gentleman will know better what the Scottish Office did. I cannot find any very strong opposition. There was correspondence about it—


May I say that the matter came before me when I was Financial Secretary to the Treasury, and I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman what was the point that was put to Lord Peel and Lord Londonderry? Was it that this was a peculiarly national matter, which ought to be dealt with on national grounds?


I would recommend the hon. Gentleman to read the speech of Lord Londonderry on the subject. If he has not it, I will send it to him. He will see that Lord Londonderry took up a very much stronger case on this subject than I am taking up this afternoon. I must press the point that when I entered office the plans were on the point of being submitted to the Fine Arts Commission of Scotland, and, therefore, on that question they are at least as guilty as I am, though I do not know that there is any guilt about it at all. They used their discretion, and I am using my discretion, having come into a set of conditions which I do not feel that I should be justified in upsetting.


The right hon. Gentleman will agree that there is no letter on his files in any way admitting concurrence on behalf of the Scottish Office in the suggestion that this course should be followed?


I will not bind my self to that, because you can have a sort of balancing position. I think the Scottish Office took no very strong opposition, but, on the basis—


Perhaps my right hon. Friend would answer this question for me. Is there anything on his files to suggest that the Scottish Office took any exception to the Office of Works carrying this out? I put it in the opposite sense to that put by the hon. and gallant Gentleman.


The whole question has been discussed, but not from the point of view of opposition in the sense that any strong protest was made against Lord Londonderry or the Department entrusting this business to its chief architect. There is a long letter from the Society of Scottish Architects, which went to the late Prime Minister just before the General Election, and which came to the present Prime Minister immediately after the General Election. Speaking for my self as an innocent victim of circumstances, I would be the last man to do anything to offend the susceptibilities of my Scottish colleagues in this House, but I want to enter a caveat against the idea that work paid for generally out of the funds of the British people should be allocated to one section or another. When we build, as I hope we shall, a fine suite of buildings in Whitehall, I hope that, if it goes to competition, as I hope it will, Scotsmen, Welshmen and Englishmen will have an equal chance—


And Irishmen!


Certainly, Irishmen would have an equal chance with everybody else. I am a good patriot, but there are limits to patriotism, and I think that, when you are all living together, as we are, we all ought to share in whatever plunder there is going, without one side benefiting too much. As to the beauties of Edinburgh, I went there somewhere about 40 years ago. It is a lovely city, and to think that I should want to sanction anything to spoil the beauties of Calton Hill is really stretching matters a little. I admire the Castle and the Castle Hill. I am sorry that Princes Street is not always worthy of itself in its architecture. I hope and believe that, if the Scottish Members and people in Edinburgh will only have a little patience, they will find that the Office of Works—which is the British Office of Works, and not merely an English Office of Works—will produce a scheme that will redound to the glory of Scotland and to the honour of the Department.


I beg to call your attention, Mr. Speaker, to the fact that there are not 40 Members; present.


Is there not a tradition that an hon. Member should not exercise his right to draw attention to the fact that there are not 40 Members present on the day of the Adjournment? I know that previously Mr. Speaker has asked hon. Members not to press their right.


If the hon. Member draws my attention to the fact, I shall have to take notice of it, but I think that the proceedings will probably come to an end in the ordinary course of events in a very few minutes.


I think that one should persist when there are not 40 Members present out of a House of over 600.

Notice taken that 40 Members were not present; House counted; and 40 Members not being present

The House was Adjourned at Twenty-eight Minutes before Five o'clock until Tuesday, 21st January, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of this day.