HC Deb 09 February 1938 vol 331 cc1213-20

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Captain Margesson.]

11.7 p.m.

Sir William Davison

I am rising to draw the attention of the House to a proposal of the Postmaster-General to erect a Telephone Exchange in my constituency on a site which has been specially town-planned since 1932 for use for private residences only, notwithstanding a petition from the local residents which I have presented to the Postmaster-General and the fact that the Kensington Borough Council, which is the local advisory town-planning authority, have unanimously disapproved the proposal.

The site is known as Sidmouth Lodge, in The Boltons, which, as hon. Members who are familiar with South Kensington will know, is one of the most charming, rural, residential spots still left in London. Since 1932 it has been reserved under the Town Planning Acts for use for private residences only. The Post Office urge in excuse that this is the only available site for a Telephone Exchange in South Kensington; they also urge, notwithstanding the opposition of the residents and of the Kensington Borough Council, that the London County Council, as the town-planning authority for the whole of greater London, has said that they would not raise any objection to the proposal providing that the height of the Exchange is kept below 40 feet.

On the question that the county council were informed that there was no other site available in the immediate vicinity, I would remind the House that this site, Sidmouth Lodge, was purchased by the Post Office as long ago as 1930, and as far as I am aware, the site has lain derelict ever since that date. Prior to its purchase, the Post Office were negotiating for the purchase of another site, in a position which was subsequently town-planned for business purposes, a few hundred yards distant, and they then found that they could obtain Sidmouth Lodge, with its grassy lawns and beautiful gardens at a less price than the price of the closely built-over mews property known as Roland Mews. Therefore their negotiations for the purchase of that site for a telephone exchange broke down, on grounds of expense. They found that the unbuilt-over property, which it is the object of the Town Planning Acts to preserve, was cheaper in price. I have been over the district with the borough engineer of Kensington, and we find that, quite close to the site to which I have referred in Roland Mews, there is another site where there is a large building which is at present empty, and adjoining it is a large builder's yard on short lease, with, I think, only some five years to run, which of course could easily be acquired. Further, there is no restriction as to keeping the premises down to 40 feet, as there will be if the exchange is to go up in the Boltons.

I submit, therefore, that it is impossible to say that there is no alternative site available in the district. In built-up areas such as Kensington and other London boroughs, there are not many sites which are open spaces and have not been built over, and, therefore, the expense is naturally considerable. It may be said that the Post Office purchased this site in 1930, and it was not until 1932 that this town planning Order was made. That is true, but the other residents in the Boltons also suffer under the same disability. Several of them have applied, both to the local authority in Kensington and to the London County Council, for leave to turn their private houses into, in one or two cases, nursing homes, and in another case into flats; and only last week an inquiry was held in Kensington by a representative of the Ministry of Health with regard to the refusal of the London County Council to set aside the provisions of the Town Planning Act in connection with an application, from the resident in a house very similar to Sid-mouth Lodge in the Boltons, for permission to convert his house into three flats. There was no proposal to pull the house down or to build over the lawns and garden, but simply to re-plan the house into three flats instead of one private residence.

Counsel were heard on behalf of the London County Council and on behalf of the Kensington Borough Council, as well as on behalf of the residents in the Boltons, urging that the London County Council's decision should be supported and that no variation in the town planning provisions should be made. It is a very much less variation in the proposals of the Town Planning Act that one house situated in these gardens, with flower beds all round it, should be converted internally into three flats, than that one of these old stucco, late Georgian or early Victorian houses should be pulled down and a new red-brick factory building should be built, not only in its place, but over a large part of the garden as well, as is proposed by the Post Office.

I am advised to-day from the town hall that practically the only argument used against the London County Council and the Kensington Borough Council at the recent inquiry was that the Post Office had purchased a similar house, Sidmouth Lodge in the Boltons, and proposed to use it for business purposes, namely, the erection of a telephone exchange. It shows how prejudicial a bad example may be, even though it be pleaded that the matter is but a small one.

Twice during the past year the House of Commons has unanimously passed resolutions demanding the preservation of amenities and the protection of rural surroundings in cities and towns, and in February last the representative of the Minister of Health said that, if representations were made to that Ministry, the Member in question could always rely on the support of the Ministry to preserve those amenities, whether in town or in the country. Here we have again a Government Department, this time the Post Office, asking that its specially favoured position of not being subject to the Town Planning Acts should be recognised, and that it should be allowed to do something that the ordinary individual would not be allowed to do. I had intended to suggest to the House that it was impossible to believe that Harrods or Barkers would be allowed to take Sidmouth Lodge and have a furniture store there, but a much stronger argument has turned up in the last few days as I have already stated in that the London County Council and the Kensington Borough Council and the residents are united in opposing the conversion of a house into three flats. Surely the erection of a telephone exchange of red brick-is much worse.

To sum up, the Kensington Borough Council, who are the advisory local town planning authority, and are familiar with the district and the wishes of the inhabitants, have unanimously objected to the proposal. I have presented a petition from, I think, all the inhabitants of The Boltons, except two, who are abroad. The London County Council, the town planning authority for Greater London, who naturally do not know so much about the particular district as the Kensington Borough Council, were only induced to agree to the proposals of the Post Office on the assurance that a telephone exchange was a necessity in the district, and that no other site could be obtained. I think I have shown that there is another site, and that it is not unsuitable, because it adjoins the site which the Post Office proposed to acquire in 1930, before they found that they could obtain a practically open space at a cheaper price.

The London Society, whose function is to preserve London amenities, had passed a resolution, which was conveyed to the Postmaster-General, protesting against a Government Department taking advantage of its position to contravene the zoning Section of the Town Planning Act, by erecting a telephone exchange, which cannot be described as other than a commercial building—in gardens which are town-planned for private residences only. I have only to add that the arguments of cheapness and convenience are the arguments that are used all through the country by the vandals who put up villas and factories along our new arterial highways, with the result that many of those roads are now little better than streets. Sometimes with the leave of the local authority, and sometimes without, they have erected buildings up to the grass verge of these roadways. We have few enough open spaces in London. Why should the Post Office, in order to save a few pounds, put down a telephone exchange in these gardens, when a commercial site which, a few years ago they thought was suitable, is available and the feelings of the inhabitants will not be outraged?

11.19 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Sir Walter Womersley)

First, I should like to point out that a telephone exchange in Kensington is an absolute necessity. The inhabitants of the hon. Member's constituency are constantly clamouring to go on to the telephone system, and it is the duty of my Department to supply the need. We have worked that district from a telephone exchange in a very artistic part of London, Chelsea, where we erected a building which has met with the approval of the artists who reside in that neighbourhood. But the exchange is now far too small, and, to provide the necessary service for the people of Kensington, it is necessary that we should have the exchange in the centre of that district. We requested the Office of Works to look out for a site, and they examined, not only the Sidmouth Lodge site, but many others to which reference has been made by my hon. Friend tonight. When it was decided that the Sidmouth Lodge site was the best for the purpose because of the fact that it was central and we could purchase it without this great Department of ours being plundered, we did not take advantage of the position of a Department of State and not seek proper permission, but we approached the town planning authority, which is the London County Council. This is our normal practice. We never hide behind the fact that we have certain privileges, but we proceed in the ordinary way in which business concerns would proceed in order to get permission from the people responsible.

Mr. Kelly

I hope that you are going to continue that practice.

Sir W. Womersley

We are, and that is the policy of His Majesty's Government, of the Postmaster-General, and of myself. In accordance with our normal practice, we consulted the London County Council, and we were informed that they consulted in turn the Kensington Borough Council. Whether the Kensington Council gave permission or not, I do not know.

Sir W. Davison

They did not.

Sir W. Womersley

All that I know is that the London County Council assured us that we should have permission to erect a building such as we proposed on this site, provided we did not make it more than 40 feet high. The reason for that I will explain in a moment. I went down myself to view this site. I had heard a good deal about it from my hon. Friend, and I considered that the right and most practical thing to do was to see it for myself. I arrived at the Boltons. I looked round, and I was not at all struck by this Georgian-stucco type of building. The plans had been prepared by the Office of Works for a magnificent, attractive and certainly, in my opinion, a far better type of building than I could find at the Boltons. When I examined the place, I discovered that the old Boltons building had fallen into disrepair. As to the lawns, I found that their beauty had departed. There are trees surrounding the whole of the site, and we are not going to remove them. They are to remain.

Mr. Kelly

And screen the building.

Sir W. Womersley

They will help to screen the building all right. The building will not occupy the whole of the site by any means. There will be a good deal of ground which will be properly laid out, and we are going to give Kensington a very nice addition to their public parks, if they have any at all. [Interruption.] That is an Americanism, but it is all right.

This is to be an automatic exchange. There will be no noise, I can assure my hon. Friend, and we are not using it as an engineering depot at all. Our staff who have to deal with repairs and so on will not be centred in this building, and the only workmen who will pass along and perhaps cause a little disturbance to the peace of mind of residents in The Boltons will be a few engineers, quite gentlemanly fellows, who will only come to attend to the automatic apparatus. I think it is just as well to inform my hon. Friend of what my investigations have been concerning the various sites. He said we ought to have bought Roland's Mews. This site was put forward for the consideration of my Department in 1930. The matter was not proceeded with further because of certain disadvantages. First, we were asked £60,000 for possession. The site is not one easy of access, and it is very near the boundary of the Kensington telephone area. We should have to spend an additional £3,500 annually, because of the out of centre position in which the exchange would have to be built on the site of Roland's Mews.

We are a Government Department, it is true, and it is also true that Government Departments are supposed to be expensive and extravagant. It has been suggested, too, that the Post Office occasionally makes a little profit. We had to consider this matter from three points of view: first, the capital cost, then the cost of maintenance, and thirdly, convenience, in order that we could give a proper service to the people we are serving. The hon. Member mentioned Leslie's builder's yard, which is property at the other end of Roland's Mews. That site is unsuitable in shape and insufficient in size, unless we incorporate several houses fronting on to Priory Road. I hope the hon. Member does not suggest that we should take away from Kensington several houses fronting on to that road and dispossess tenants who, I am sure, are good supporters of my hon. Friend.

Sir W. Davison

There is a large derelict building immediately adjoining the builder's yard; something like a chapel.

Sir W. Womersley

My information is that the people do not want to sell that. Moreover, this site, like the other site mentioned by the hon. Member is on the edge of the telephone area, and the excess cost would be £5,600; not merely the first cost but an annual cost, which the Postmaster-General and myself feel is not justified. The site is not at all suitable.

Mention was made by my hon. Friend of the London Society, which had sent a letter to the Postmaster-General stating that to erect a building on this particular site would be a contravention of the town planning proposals of the Ministry of Health. We have been in communication with the Ministry of Health, their Town and Country Planning Division, and they say that there is no contravention of the zoning clause involved in this proposal. That is a clear and definite reply to the London Society.

Sir W. Davison

These places are zoned for private residences only, and to put up a telephone exchange there must be a contravention of the zoning plan.

Sir W. Womersley

I suggest that my hon. Friend should argue this out with the Minister of Health and then with the London County Council, who have authority to decide whether it is a contravention of the Town Planning Acts. We say that it is not. I examined the site carefully myself, spent a great deal of time on it, and I found that there was a business premises in the Boltons; and I have no doubt that other business premises will come along in due time. While I have every sympathy with the hon. Member's idea of keeping part of Kensington truly rural we cannot keep back the march of progress. The people of Kensington want telephones. My Department has to supply them, and in spite of the hon. Member who so worthily represents that constituency, they are going to have them.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes after Eleven o'Clock.