HC Deb 02 May 1947 vol 436 cc2384-97

Order read for resuming Adjourned Debate on Question [28th March], "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

Question again proposed.

3.16 p.m.

Mr. Keeling (Twickenham)

The purpose of this Bill is the admirable one of building a new Colonial Office on the site occupied by the hideous old Westminster Hospital and by the Stationery Office which is tucked away behind it. I am very glad to see this afternoon that both the Minister of Works and the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies are on the Treasury Bench. When the Debate was adjourned five weeks ago I was about to point out to the House that the site, or rather that part of it which is occupied by the old Westminster Hospital, is historic ground. Here stood for several centuries the Westminster Sanctuary Church, where refugees from the civil power were immune from arrest.

In the 15th century, Edward the Fourth's Queen Elizabeth twice claimed sanctuary here. The first time was in 1470, when she took refuge from Warwick the King-maker and her son, afterwards Edward V, was born in the church. Thirteen years later she took refuge here again with her younger son, the Duke of York, but was persuaded by Richard of Gloucester, afterwards Richard III, to hand him over, whereupon both princes were smothered in the Tower. The Sanctuary Church was pulled down in 1750, and in 1834 the Westminster Hospital, now to be pulled down, was completed. It was finished just in time to be used for another kind of sanctuary, because in that year the Palace of Westminster was burned down and the records of the old House of Commons and House of Lords were carried across the street from the burning building and for many years were kept here.

Let me now say a word about the value of the site. In 1831 the Westminster Hospital bought it from the Treasury for £6,000 and in 1913 they offered it to the Canadian Government for £225,000. In the Financial Memorandum attached to this Bill, the present cost based on 1939 values is given as £300,000, exactly 50 times the price at which the Westminster Hospital bought it in 1831. A comparison of building costs is also rather interesting. The Westminster Hospital spent altogether £40,000 on their building, including the furniture, while the Financial Memorandum to this Bill says that the new building on the entire site is likewise to cost about 50 times that sum.

The height and design of the new building, as hon. Members have already pointed out in this Debate, are of the greatest importance because of the juxtaposition of the new building to the Abbey, the central shrine of the British race. I trust the Minister of Works is worthy of the role assigned to him by the hon. Member for Hanley (Dr. Stross) —that of patron of the arts. I hope very much that it was only by an oversight that the right hon. Gentleman in his speech in introducing this Bill never once mentioned the possible effect of the new building on the Abbey. It is quite obvious that if the new building is too high it may dwarf the nave of the Abbey. It is true that on the site nearest to the Abbey an existing statute, which is quoted in Clause 5 of the Bill, limits the height of the outside wall to 75 feet, but there is no limit to the overall height of the new building. It is on record that before the war a commercial building was to have been put up on this site, and was to tower to the height of 128 feet. I ask the right hon. Gentleman for an assurance that this new building will not be as high as that.

Now I come to the design. As Members have already said, no pains should be spared to avoid the architectural crimes committed on other famous sites in London. Look at Parliament Square and Bridge Street, adjoining the Palace of Westminster. Look at Berkeley Square, and St. James' Square, and the vicinity of St. Paul's. I am not referring to the new threat to St. Paul's, but to the buildings around it, especially to that horrible railway bridge at the foot of Ludgate Hill which, I am glad to say, is to disappear under the new City of London Plan. In all London, there is hardly an ancient building which has not been outraged by the 19th- or 20th-century vulgarities surrounding it. Possibly the only exception to that is Hampton Court Palace which, I am glad to say, is in my own constituency.

Here, on this site, we have a chance to redeem our reputation. Now several Members have suggested that there should be a competition for the design of the new Colonial Office. The Minister has refused to commit himself, and I support him in that attitude. At first sight, the idea of a competition is very attractive, but it has two serious disadvantages. The first is that the best architects, very often—and especially these days—do not go in for competitions. They are assured of work, and they are too busy to bother about a competition in which they may, or may not, be successful. The second disadvantage is even more serious. If you have a competition you cannot bring to bear the influence and advice of the Royal Fine Art Commission at an early stage. You can only do that after the assessor, or the jury of assessors, usually appointed by the Royal Institute of British Architects, have passed judgment on the rival designs. It is probably then too late for the Royal Fine Art Commission to make big changes. These two objections seem to me to be weighty, and my view is that the Minister of Works should choose an architect. In doing so, he should take the best possible advice from the R. I. B. A., or any other competent authority, and should require the chosen architect to submit sketch designs, plans, and elevations to the Royal Fine Art Commission as early as possible. He should then discuss them with that Commission, or with a committee of that Commission, round the table, and the Commission will exert much more influence in that way than they could after a competition.

Mr. Braddock (Mitcham)

If all the best architects are too busy, how does the hon. Gentleman expect his idea to work? If they are too busy they will not take on the job at all.

Mr. Keeling

I did not say that they were all too busy; I said that some were too busy. Anyhow, I imagine that the Minister of Works ought to be able to find a good architect. I should be sorry if he could not. Such a procedure would be far better, and more likely to get the results we want, than a competition.

Now let me say a word about the model. Obviously, the Royal Fine Art Commission at some stage, ought to have before them a model, not only of the new building, but also of the Abbey in relation to the new building, to see the effect on the Abbey. The Minister has already said that he is going to consult the Royal Fine Art Commission. I would like him to go a step further and to say that the Royal Fine Art Commission should be consulted at all stages.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman said he had consulted the highway authority about the effect of the new building on the surrounding streets. The Westminster City Council is the highway authority, and has not been consulted, but I understand it is going to be consulted. In the interests of traffic the present building line ought to be set back at one corner.

3.26 p.m.

Mrs. Ayrton Gould (Hendon, North)

I support the Bill, but there are various things for which I want to press. I am sorry not to be able to agree with the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling) as to the best way in which this can be done, because he and I have talked about this, and I know we desire the same thing, that there should be the best possible building on this site.

I cannot see how we can get the best possible building except through competition, particularly just at this time when young architects have lost fix or seven years of their careers because in some form or another they have been fighting for their country, years in which —had there been peace—they would have been able to get their feet on the rung of the ladder of fame. They have been deprived of that possibility, and therefore I cannot see how it is possible to know who is the best architect to do this very vital job. It seems to me as important a piece of work in the planning of London as there could possibly be. The spot is unique. It is certainly one of the most famous spots in the world, and the most famous in the British Commonwealth. Westminster Abbey, the Palace of Westminster, and its precincts are, everyone will agree, the most famous spot in the whole of the British Commonwealth. We have an enormous prestige to keep up, and rightly so, in the Mother of Parliaments, and this prestige can only be kept up by acquiring the very finest building to put on this site.

I do not see how that can be achieved unless a number of different architects are allowed to show what they could do. A great opportunity will be missed if the contract is handed over to an architect, however distinguished, of the old generation, without any attempt to find out what could be planned. For all we know, there may be a budding Sir Christopher Wren amongst us. We do not want to lose the opportunity of what he could give to the heart of London, if he exists. I know the Minister has considerable difficulties. One is that he inherited this contract. But, he said in his reply on 28th March, that, without committing himself, he would consider the question of competition. Another difficulty is that the site is on an awkward spot because of the underground railway. I ask him to consider the fact that the younger generation of architects are trained in the most modern way to overcome various difficulties that would arise through the site being a difficult one, perhaps at an awkward angle, with an underground railway, and things of that sort. There is no reason to believe that a younger man would not be able to overcome these difficulties. In the same way as an architect who, already, after long experience, has arrived at a considerable reputation through that long experience, so modern training gives the same necessary knowledge that the older men have acquired through long experience

Mr. Beverley Baxter (Wood Green)

May I interrupt the hon. Lady? I think all of us like the idea of encouraging young talent and giving it its chance. The hon. Lady said that we might have a young Christopher Wren among us now, or we might not. Supposing that there is an existing Wren, would it not be wiser, in a matter of such importance, to submit this problem to the modern Sir Christopher Wren? It is not likely that he would enter into a competition, and, once we enter into a competition, we must take the best, or be unfair to all the rest. I think there is great danger in a competition.

Mrs. Ayrton Gould

In answer to the hon. Member, I suggest that, if we have a Christopher Wren among us, we should know it. I do not think anyone would object if I say that we have not, unfortunately, living today, any architect on that sort of level. If we had an outstanding genius, a Christopher Wren, here, we should all, of course, want to hand over the task to him, and say, "Here is a vital problem of erecting a building on a site on which a great deal of the prestige of the Government and of the future depends." We are starting a new era, and I want to suggest that we must plan our new Britain with vision, and we must start with vision here. Since we have not got a Christopher Wren, we should do our utmost to find the next best possible thing.

The Minister gave a kindly word to the suggestion put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Hanley (Dr. Stross) that it was important to have good decoration. I hope that, in considering this problem, he will also consider the possibility of contributions to the interior decoration by the Colonies themselves. I think they would be glad to put forward various schemes of decoration for different rooms, and I ask the Minister most sincerely to consider these suggestions.

3.33 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Cooper (Middlesbrough, West)

There are two points which I should like the Minister to consider. The first one is in connection with the site area. It is rather an awkward site. On its South-Eastern corner, it juts out into the thoroughfare close to the Abbey, and it makes the thoroughfare at that point unnecessarily narrow. I think a point of even more importance is that the building line of the present Middlesex Hospital shuts off from Parliament Square the approach which, as I see it, should be there to the Central Hall, Westminster. I know that comments are made from time to time on the design of the Central Hall. Some people approve it and others do not, but, insofar as the building is there, surely it is right and proper that there should be a reasonable approach to it, particularly as concerns the main entrance to the building? This faces East, towards Parliament Square, and I suggest that the Minister should take into account that fact, and that, in providing for the new building, should see if it could not be set back sufficiently far to enable the Central Hall to be seen by people approaching its main entrance.

Mr. Keeling

Do I understand the hon. Member to suggest that anybody wants to see the— Central Hall?

Mr. Cooper

I appreciate that interjection, but insofar as the building is there, more or less whatever is put up on the present site, which is under Debate, we will not be able to screen that building entirely from the Parliament Square approach. What I suggest, is that the building which is there, reflects the architecture of a period of some 20 or 30 years ago and we cannot encroach upon it and still get a unified appearance for the area in which the new building is going to be put. It would be a great pity when meetings are held in the Central Hall, such as that of U.N.O. which was held there last year, that its approaches should be cramped, and people should have to go down sidestreets to get at it.

The second matter is one which has been mentioned by a number of hon Members on both sides of the House and it is in regard to the design. I am sure that the Government will view this question of design from the traditional attitude of a Socialist Government—that of a Government which endeavours to look forward progressively and which thinks in terms of long-range planning. For example, we do not want a building which slavishly follows some architectural precedent of the past; on the other hand we do not wish to commemorate some feature of architecture which is of a modern nature and which may not be appreciated by people in this country. It has to be a building which while having a traditional influence, does not follow slavishly a tradition of the past, yet harmonises with the surroundings and building with which it has to be associated. That depends, as was said by the hon. Lady the Member for North Hendon (Mrs. Ayrton Gould), on the choice of architect. If an architect is chosen who has already established himself—a man of the age of 50, 60 or even more—he will be content as we have known in the past, to follow the tradition which he has followed for so long. It is not likely that he would endeavour to interpret the contemporary art and design of the rising generation. I therefore, ask the Minister in selecting an architect to endeavour to throw the design open to competition and, if he can, to choose an architect who will commemorate the feeling of adventure, the feeling of inspiration and the spirit of the new age which we hope is about to be born.

Reference has been made to the design of the exterior, and we must leave that until such time as plans are available for hon. Members of this House to see. Reference has also been made to the in- terior design and to the provision of certain sums of money to allow for interior decoration. We sincerely hope that that will be done. There are many fine buildings in the City, such as Lloyds, which has some very fine murals, and we hope that that type of decoration will be provided in this building. But in considering the building itself, and the use to which it is going to be put, can we not also ensure that, having put up a fine building, it is worthily maintained. Practically every hon. Member visits Government offices from time to time. A visit to such a building as I.C.I. or Shell-Mex House will show up one thing very clearly and that is that such a building needs to be kept in good condition. The Corps of Commissionaires are smart. When we go to Shell-Mex House we see the Corps of Commissionaires working alongside the Government messengers. The distinction between the attitude and appearance of those two sets of men is most remarkable.

Mr. Speaker

This Bill concerns the acquisition of a site. Now we have the building erected and are starting to maintain it. We are going too fast altogether in that respect.

Mr. Cooper

I appreciate the point. The opportunity for mentioning such a matter does not arise very often and I felt it would be appropriate to raise the question here as the provision of fresh Government accommodation has come before the House. My final point is that when this building is provided, it will form a centre for the Colonial peoples who will visit it when they come to the capital of the British Empire, somewhat in the same way as foreigners coming to this country on occasions go to the Foreign Office. It has become proverbial that the appearance of the Foreign Office, as such, is not always as worthy of this country as it should be. The Foreign Office news room, for example, was a disgrace when compared with the news rooms of other foreign offices throughout Europe. I hope, therefore, that when this new building is provided there will be a centre there to which the peoples of the world can come, a Colonial Information Room—a Hall of the Peoples of the British Commonwealth, which will display to these visitors something of the glories and wonders of the British Empire.

3.42 p.m.

Sir Harold Webbe (Westminster, Abbey)

I rise to express my personal support for this Bill and my pleasure that this most important site has now been disposed of finally to such excellent purpose. It is peculiarly appropriate that this site should be used to house the Government Department concerned with our great Colonial Empire. On the question of competition for the selection of an architect, I hope very much that the Minister will keep an open mind. There is grave danger in a competition, as my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling) has said. The leading architects today have not the time to devote to the great amount of preliminary work essential for them to enter a competition in which they may or may not be successful. The hon. Lady the Member for North Hendon (Mrs. Ayrton Gould) has said that if we had a Christopher Wren in our midst, it would be easy to entrust this task to him. We may have a Christopher Wren but, from the little I know of it, I am not at all sure that the contemporaries of Sir Christopher Wren realised that they had a Christopher Wren in their midst. Indeed, the treatment accorded to some of his buildings, seems to show that his genius, like the genius of many people, was only appreciated several generations after his death.

On the whole, it is likely to be safer to entrust this most important job to someone of known reputation. It is not a case of getting a new man with new ideas. This is not an isolated site in the middle of a desert on which we can erect anything we like. To a very great extent, whoever designs this building must be guided and, even, bound by the character of the buildings which already exist in the neighbourhood. Therefore, I ask the Minister to keep his mind open on the question of the appointment of an architect.

3.45 p.m.

The Minister of Works (Mr. Key)

With the leave of the House I should like to deal with some of the points which have been raised. I can assure the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling) that the height of the building will certainly not be that of the commercial buildings that it was proposed to put on that site. We shall keep within the limits warranted by the setting of the building and its surroundings. So far as consultation with the Fine Art Commission is concerned, I think I said in my opening remarks, in presenting this Bill, that it would be my determination in the development of the site, to proceed in consultation not only with the planning authority but with the Royal Fine Art Commission. It is my hope that in the various stages of the development of the design, advantage will be taken of consultation with the Fine Art Commission. Certainly the drawings, when completed, will be submitted to them for their definite approval before any decision is taken. I had made up my mind that the necessary drawings, and so on, should be placed in the Library so that Members might see what is proposed. I will certainly give careful consideration to the question of providing a model. Against that I can see no objection, and I hope it will be possible to put one in the Library as well.

Mr. Keeling

It is important that not only the final drawings, but the preliminary sketches, should be submitted to the Fine Art Commission, especially if the work is entrusted to one man, so that the Fine Art Commission can give their ideas at an early stage.

Mr. Key

I thought I said I would give consideration to that and I will ask the Fine Art Commission about it. The question really is whether the members of the Fine Art Commission will be able to give the necessary time to consider all the stages, but it will be my desire that they should be consulted as the steps go forward. I apologise to the hon. Gentle. man for the rather misleading statement I made in the first part of this Debate in regard to consultation with the highway authority. I said that I had consulted the planning authority, and then went on to say that I had consulted the highway authority I should have changed the tense and said that I would consult the high way authority Arrangements have been made for that, and I think the consultations will take place next week. As far as the decoration of the building is concerned, it is a good suggestion that we should give an opportunity for the different Colonies to make their contributions to the internal decorations and I can assure the hon. Lady the Member for North Hendon (Mrs. Ayrton Gould) that, on external work as well as on internal, provision will be made for the adequate and proper decoration of this building. The building line is one which has to be discussed with the planning authority. Some discussions have already taken place; others will take place, and I can assure the hon. Member for West Middles-borough (Mr. Cooper) that there will be a definite setting back so far as the new building is concerned, compared with the existing building.

Mr. Cooper

Could my right hon. Friend say whether it will be possible to follow the building line of the Middlesex Guildhall?

Mr. Key

It is impossible for me to say here and now, but I will consider that. I come now to what has been the main part of the discussion, and that is the question of competition for the design. I said last time, that I would consider that carefully, and I have spent a great deal of time during the last few weeks in examining afresh the question of the choice of architects. I have tried to keep an open mind about the scheme. The chief advantage claimed for competition is that one is bound by it to get the best design, but I am far from satisfied that that is the case. One of the chief difficulties about competitions is that eminent architects do not compete in such competitions as this. The second difficulty is that there is no guarantee whatever—

Mr. Braddock

Has the Minister consulted the record of one of the most eminent architects, Mr. Vincent Harris? Time after time he has been placed first in important competitions and he has thought it worth while to compete.

Mr. Key

Yes, that may be so about a particular individual; I am here generalising.

Mr. Braddock

Would the Minister like me to give him a list of a number of architects who are in exactly the same position and who have won one competition after another?

Mr. Key

I should be interested to see that. The other point I wanted to make about this is that there is no guarantee that the winning architect will be as good, in the practical business of the job, as he is in the making of the design, and one of the important things is that we should get this building not only on the drawing board but actually in real existence in the best form. Another, and to my mind very important, point is that competitions take a very long time, and it is rather important that we should get on with this business. Moreover, I want to tell hon. Members that I have gone into the history of competitions so far as Government buildings have been concerned within the last 130 years, and I have found out that there have been nine such competitions for large Government buildings. This House was one, by the way. In only two of those cases have the designs which won the competitions been proceeded with and carried out. In the other cases they were abandoned and other architects were brought in to prepare new designs.

I have stated these objections against competition at some length, but there is another and I think a fatal objection to a competition in this particular case. This site is a most difficult one. There are great questions of road widths, the building heights of various frontages, the rights of light, and complications due to the fact that the underground railway tunnels are adjacent. All these questions have to be taken into consideration as the designs are being worked out if we are to have the best job done. There will be negotiations with the Middlesex County Council, the Westminster City Council, the London County Council, the Ministry of Town and Country Planning, as well as with the Ministry of Transport and the London Passenger Transport Board, and if we were to have a competition for this purpose we should have to employ some architect to go into the whole of these questions in order to draw up the necessary conditions under which the competition would take place. That seems to be quite an impossible thing for us to do, and therefore after very careful consideration I have determined that an eminent architect shall be asked to do this job and that it shall not be done by way of competition.

I thought it would only be right if I gave to the House the results of the long consideration I have given the subject and of the determination to which I have come. I have decided to ask Mr. Tait, of Sir John Burnet, Tait and Lorne, to prepare a scheme for the offices to be erected on this site. Hon. Members will no doubt be familiar with Mr. Tait's work, and I do not think I need enlarge upon it. One of his buildings is St. Andrew's House in Edinburgh, which will be generally recognised as supremely successful. Then there is Adelaide House at London Bridge, and in addition there is the head office of Lloyds' Bank in Cornhill, for which Mr. Tait received the Royal Institute of British Architects' bronze medal, as well as other buildings in London for which he has been responsible. He did a great deal of work on this site also, in connection with the preparation of the suggested commercial premises that were to be built there, and he is therefore very familiar with the site and knows a good deal about it. I believe for that reason it will be beneficial to us to ask him to carry on and prepare this new design. It is our desire to get it started as quickly as possible and I hope therefore that the House will now be ready to give us a Second Reading, in order that the Committee may get on with its business and we may acquire the site for the purpose of getting the job started as soon as possible.

3.57 p.m.

Mr. Beverley Baxter (Wood Green)

This is a remarkable day in the House of Commons. At one moment we are legislating for Burma to leave the Empire and the next we are passing a vote of confidence in the future by the building of a new Colonial Office. If this marks a change of heart on the part of the Government, if it means the end of the retreat, it is all very excellent. I would personally like to congratulate the Minister on his choice of Mr. Tait. I think he is right, and should not fling it open to competition. Perhaps however in view of the changeability of the Government's temperament it might be useful to ask him to design it in sections, so that as the Government give up colonies here and there it might be narrowed or used for other purposes. Otherwise, I think this is a grand day for the country. It is a vote of confidence in our Colonial Empire by the Socialist Government.

3.58 p.m.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

May I say how much we all appreciate the sympathetic response which the Minister has indicated to the pleas by all hon. Members of this House for the preservation of this site? I am sure we all welcome his undertaking to place if not the plans at any rate the preliminary sketches of the design in the Library so that all hon. Members can see them. Could he go further and also place in the Library the lay-out of the site, because hon. Members are not only concerned with the buildings but with alterations that may be made in the lay-out and would like to see that it is intended to preserve and improve the historic amenities of the site?

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Select Committee of Six Members, Four to be nominated by the House and Two by the Committee of Selection;

All Petitions against the Bill, presented at any time not later than the fifth day after the day upon which this Order is made, to be referred to the Committee;

Petitioners praying to be heard by themselves, their Counsel or Agents, to be heard against the Bill, and Counsel or Agents heard in support of the Bill;

Committee to have power to report from day to day the Minutes of the Evidence taken before them;

Three to be the Quorum

Ordered: That Petitions against the Bill may be deposited in the Committee and Private Bill Office, provided that such Petitions have been prepared and signed in conformity with the Rules and Orders of this House relating to Petitions against Private Bills."—[Mr. Key.]