HC Deb 08 July 1930 vol 241 cc259-63

A local authority in preparing any proposals for the provision of houses or in taking any action under this or the principal Act shall have regard to the natural amenities of the locality and the desirability of preserving existing works of architectural, historic, or artistic interest, and shall comply with such directions, if any, in that behalf as may be given to them by the Minister.—[Mr. Greenwood.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

The MINISTER of HEALTH (Mr. Arthur Greenwood)

I beg to move, "That the Clause he read a Second time."

This Clause is designed to meet, as far as possible, a point which was raised during the Committee stage by two hon. Members opposite with regard to the preservation of buildings of historic or architectural importance. As I explained then, it is the desire of the Government to avoid placing unduly centralised responsibility in the department and the Clause has been framed with a view to bringing in the central department only in cases which are brought to the notice of the Minister by persons interested in the preservation of these buildings. The Amendment as originally proposed, would have given rise, I fear, to a good deal of litigation and to a good deal of centralised administration. The Clause as I present it now, means that local authorities will be free to act as they think best, but that people who are interested in the preservation of these buildings will be able to take action by asking the Minister, to make such regulations as will meet the case. The effect of the Clause is really to widen the original provision, and the provision which it was sought to make during the Committee stage. I pointed out then that the Amendments as drafted referred really to Part III of the Bill. The proposed new Clause, as drafted, will refer to Parts I and II of the Bill, under which parts this problem is more likely to arise than under Part III. I hope that the House will accept the proposed new Clause as a contribution to what hon. Members opposite have in mind.


The House will agree that the proposed new Clause is a considerable advance. One of my hon. Friends raised the question in Committee, because there have been a number of cases in recent months where a good deal of public anxiety has been caused in relation to certain houses of historic interest. What we desire to secure—whether it is secured by this Clause is doubtful, but perhaps this is the biggest advance which it is possible to make under the provisions of this Bill—is that there shall be some measure of protection against the inaction of a particular local authority, and some means by which, apart altogether from the decision of the authority itself, a particular historic house can be preserved. The right hon. Gentleman says in this proposed new Clause that the local authorities, in preparing proposals, shall have regard to matters of this kind. I take it that that implies that when they formulate any scheme to the Minister of Health he will see that notice is given to him of any existing works of architectural, historic or artistic interest that may be involved in the particular scheme in question. I take it that in the event of notice of that matter being given to him, and, he being of the opinion that efforts should be made to preserve such works, the new Clause will give him power to prevent any interference. If that is so, it is the most that we can expect, and I am sure that the House will be obliged to the hon. Gentleman who raised this matter in Committee, for it is a step forward in the direction which we all desire.


I am anxious to preserve buildings of historic interest. It is important that buildings of antiquity should not be destroyed, but I am nervous about the wording of this proposed Clause. I have had considerable experience in endeavouring to get estates far housing purposes, and whenever suitable land is discovered, 101 reasons are found why it should not be bought; either because the amenities of the district will be injured, or because a house on the estate is of historic and artistic value. If we are to give the Minister this big power, he should make it clear that he will use it only in very exceptional circumstances. The other day a suitable estate was found in Battersea. Nowhere is overcrowding worse. Exactly what was expected happened—dozens of people who were all in favour of housing, and admitted the necessity of housing, said that this particular estate had historic interest and a building that ought to be preserved. The consequence was that there has been delay.

I remember when Roehampton was bought. The opposition was marshalled on artistic and aesthetic grounds; the estate had a noble mansion, and it was drought to be a wrong thing to desecrate it by ugly working-class houses. In those days, there was a militant feeling in regard to housing, and the opposition was swept away. Some of that enthusiasm in recent years has passed away. If the Minister is vested with these powers, he ought to make it clear that it will be on only very exceptional grounds that he will veto a housing proposal, and that he will not allow these very good purposes to be used to hinder the purchase of estates which are required for housing, anti the clearing of slums, just because they happen to contain one or two historic buildings. In Edinburgh a most historic street covers one of the worst slums in the world, and there are other streets in other towns of the same character. I have seen many difficulties against progress in housing and it is unfortunate that the first proposed Clause on the Report stage should seem to suggest a way out of doing necessary work on housing.


I am not quite sure whether the hon. Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Mr. Harris) objects to the whole of the Clause, or only to the small point made by the Minister. In any case, I cannot think that he is very happy in the illustration of Battersea which he has given. There has been an important scheme at Battersea, and I believe that one house was found to be of archæological interest, but the scheme has not been held up because of that. As a matter of fact, it has been held that the particular house is not such as need hold up the scheme, and the scheme is going on. If the proposed new Clause is carried out in the manner sug- gested by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Woolwich (Sir K. Wood), it will meet the situation. It is not all that we should have liked, for we should have preferred that the local authorities should be required to go to the Minister to get his consent, but the proposed new Clause is not very far from that, and we accept the Minister's form of words.

4.0 p.m.


I should like to ask the Minister one question: When a matter like this is referred to him, I presume he will consult the First Commissioner of Works and will ascertain the opinion of artistic authorities before he gives directions in these matters?


I wish to congratulate the Minister upon this Clause. With all my enthusiasm for housing, I do not want this particular period of English history to stamp itself and its building record with some of the ugliest productions in the history of the country. There is grave danger, in providing housing, of destroying ancient monuments and houses of historical interest which it would be quite easy to preserve; and there is also a danger of selecting for housing, sites which ought not to be built upon but which ought to be preserved as open spaces, when there are alternative sites equally suitable, even though they would possibly be a little more troublesome to procure. I do not think it is at all likely that the Minister of Health will abuse this power. Do not let us combine vandalism with our enthusiasm for housing; let us consider artistic taste and have regard to amenities, as well as the need for building houses for the working-classes. I think this is an important Clause, and I congratulate the Minister on proposing it.


May I ask the Minister whether he can give us any indication of what kind of direction he has in mind as being a direction he mght give in dealing with this matter? Furthermore, will he tell us whether, in drawing up his directions and in getting them carried out, he is likely to make use of the new advisory panels which are being established in various parts of the country, with the voluntary aid of some of the leaders of culture in the various areas, who has full local knowledge of the character of the district and would be well able to advise him? I am wondering also whether the Minister can tell us whether he has anything in mind as to the nature of the proceedings which he will take?


It will depend upon the circumstances of each individual case what kind of directions will be given. It may be that the direction will be that a particular site shall not be used for housing purposes. With regard to the question as to the central authority consulting with the First Commissioner of Works, where that course will be of assistance it will no doubt Le taken, in an appropriate case.


I was very delighted to hear the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Woolwich (Sir K. Wood) who explained to the hon. Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Mr. Harris) how foolish it is to object to a reasonable Clause like this brought in by the Government; but with the best possible intention of protecting our ancient buildings, the English of this Clause does seem to me rather odd. I am not an expert in English, but it seems extraordinarily clumsy. The last two lines of the Clause provide that the local authority shall comply with such directions, if any, in that behalf, as may be given to them by the Minister. I do not think that in my experience I have ever met such an expression before as "comply with such directions in that behalf." Surely we can find more suitable and better English to express what is meant, and I do hope that the Minister will have that expression put right in another place. I really do not see that the phrase "in that behalf" is necessary at all. Why not leave out those words, and let the Clause read "and shall comply with such directions, if any, as may be given to them by the Minister"? The Minister is not likely to give instructions unconnected with "that behalf," if that is what those words mean. I do think this wording is extraordinarily clumsy, and I hope the Minister will reconsider it and possibly have it put right in another place.

Question, "That the Clause be read a Second time," put, and agreed to.

Clause added to the Bill.