HC Deb 28 January 1949 vol 460 cc1341-52

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Joseph Henderson.]

4.0 p.m.

Mr. Keeling (Twickenham)

Before the House rises I want to draw its attention to the Government's neglect of their responsibilities for the preservation of historic and beautiful houses. One of the express purposes of the Town and Country Planning Acts, beginning with the Act of 1932, is to preserve such houses. Despite destruction by the enemy without, and the far greater destruction by the vandals within, this country is still enormously rich in fine architecture, ranging from such splendid mansions as Wentworth Woodhouse, now isolated in a desert of opencast coal workings—had I been the Minister of Town and Country Planning, I would have resigned my office before I agreed to that desecration—to the lovely rows of cottages in such places as West Wycombe, Lacock and Bibury, all still, fortunately, intact.

These Acts place the primary responsibility for preservation on the local planning authorities, but the Minister also has a heavy responsibility in three ways; first, in considering planning schemes; secondly, in hearing appeals from local planning authorities, and thirdly, in carrying out a specific duty which was imposed upon him, through the initiative of this House, in compiling all over the country lists of buildings of special architectural or historic interest. As the House knows, a building so listed cannot be destroyed or altered without, first of all, notice being given to the Minister, to the owner, and to the local planning authority, and secondly, without an interval of two months after that, during which there is time for discussion, and, if necessary, a building preservation order or acquisition by either the local authority or the Minister of Works. These lists have the double effect of guiding the local authority in its planning schemes, and of imposing restrictions on the owner. It is a remarkable fact that these lists will be the first catalogue of fine English architecture ever compiled, and they ought to be of immence value, both in preserving and in educating.

I charge the Minister with neglecting his duty in the three ways I have mentioned. He has neglected his duty in connection with planning schemes, he has neglected his duty in hearing planning appeals, and he has neglected his duty by not publishing these lists. With the completion of new houses, the demolition of old ones obviously becomes an instant threat, and it is vital that at such a time the Minister should discharge his responsibilities.

Three and a half years ago the Minister appointed an Advisory Committee on buildings of historic and architectural interest, presided over by Sir Eric Maclagan, formerly Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. This committee includes distinguished architects and other experts. Its prime duty is to advise on the compilation of the lists under the 1944 Act but at the inaugural meeting of the committee in 1945 the Minister addressed them, and in the most cordial language invited them to give him any advice they wished in respect of his general planning responsibilities. I regret to say, however, that only once, in the case of the Yarmouth planning scheme, has he ever asked for advice. Except in connection with Yarmouth he has made no use of this distinguished committee lying ready to his hand.

He never consulted them before authorising the destruction of the Liverpool Custom House, one of the few distinguished buildings in Liverpool, which was pulled down for the ridiculous reason that it would give work to the unemployed. He never consulted them before sanctioning the destruction of Cranmer Hall, Fakenham, against the advice of the Norfolk County Council. In this case the motive of the owner was to sell the lead on the roof. He never consulted them about Kensington Square, about which I shall have something to say in a minute. He never consulted them about the Bankside Power Station. In spite of the Lord Chancellor's explicit assurance, the Minister of Fuel and Power is going ahead with that before the promised experiment to establish whether fumes from oil fuel can be made harmless to St. Paul's.

What the reason is for the Minister's failure to consult his Advisory Committee I cannot say, but I suspect that it is due partly to his own indifference to beautiful buildings, or his own unwillingness to quarrel with his more forceful colleagues, and partly to departmental jealousy of experts. Anyhow, the result is the Advisory Committee feels neglected, frustrated, out in the cold. The Minister's failure to make use of his Advisory Committee—or, if he prefers it, to take expert advice elsewhere—is all the more astonishing as he has before his eyes the example of the Minister of Works—I am glad to see the Minister of Works here —who exercises a parallel though limited responsibility, namely, for ancient monuments. In that field the Minister of Works, I understand, invariably consults the Ancient Monuments Boards, and I understand that in no case has he ignored their advice. Why does not the Minister of Town and Country Planning follow that good example?

One of the charges that I have made against the Minister is his negligence in the conduct of planning appeals. I submit that the Minister ought to be very careful, in deciding appeals, not to discourage local planning authorities who show a proper pride in their architectural treasures. I would remind the House that an appeal lies only where the local planning authority refuses to allow a building to be destroyed; there is no appeal where it sanctions destruction. I, therefore, submit that the Minister should reverse a decision on appeal only where national interests are involved. But, in fact, I am sorry to say, he has shown himself quite irresponsible in exercising his jurisdiction. I have already mentioned the case of Cranmer Hall where, without consulting the Advisory Committee, the Minister reversed the decision of the Norfolk County Council to preserve it. In defending himself in this House the Minister made a totally incorrect statement, that that house was uninhabitable and partly derelict. It was nothing of the sort.

An even worse case is that of Kensington Square. Messrs. Barkers wished to drive a road through this historic and still beautiful square, but the London County Council, very much to its credit, refused permission. Barkers appealed to the Minister who, at their request, delayed his decision for over a year which, in itself, seems to be a most improper thing to do. Barkers made a second application, and that was also refused by the L.C.C. Barkers again appealed and for the public inquiry the Ministry appointed an inspector who stated in open court that he was an engineer not an architect, and it was quite evident he had never heard of the Minister's responsibility to list buildings of historical or architectural interest. Yet in this Square there are 13 houses so listed, and a further 14 have been recommended to the local authority for preservation. I say that in failing to consult the Advisory Committee about Kensington Square, and in referring the appeal to a totally unqualified inspector, the Minister showed a deplorable neglect of his responsibilities.

I want to say one word about these lists. There has been delay in issuing them. Only a few have been issued, and those for unimportant places. I realise that there are difficult problems for the committee to face, and I am very glad to hear that there is a prospect of more rapid progress. I think that it is urgent for the lists to be completed, especially in places where the existing buildings are the principal asset—the most important single factor which the planner has to take into account. I refer to places like old university towns, Bath, Ludlow, Bewdley, the Suffolk clothing towns, and the Cotswold villages. It is not too much to say that the maintenance there of fine old buildings should be the first and over-riding purpose of a planning scheme. In creating a new Jerusalem there, it would be criminal to destroy the old one. I hope that listing in such places will have priority.

I should like to pay a tribute to the Advisory Committee's laborious work, but I criticise the Minister for not yet printing or even giving to the Press any of the lists issued, not even those issued a year ago. I asked the Minister what was the reason for this on Tuesday. He gave as one reason that lists giving only the addresses of buildings would be of little value to the public. That does not seem to be a reason for failing to carry out a promise given to Parliament, who certainly never dreamed that a year would lapse between issue and publication.

By all means issue descriptive booklets later, but it is urgent in these days of great planning activity that the public should be informed which buildings should be preserved. Aristotle said that the diner is a better judge of the dinner than the cook; and if we want good architecture in future we must create a public sensitive to its architectural surroundings. There is growing appreciation of good architecture, but the public want leadership. I think that there is a further reason for informing the public about these lists. As Coleridge remarked: A civilised people is one that possesses the feeling of being an historical people—generation linked to generation by ancestral reputation and tradition. We preserve ancient buildings not only for their beauty but to show ourselves and our children how English people in the past lived and worked. I think that it is deplorable that we have not a Minister of Town and Country Planning alive to his responsibilities and opportunities in this matter.

4.14 p.m.

Mr. Francis Noel-Baker (Brentford and Chiswick)

I have a good deal of sympathy with the point of view of the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling). I think, however, that he overstressed a great deal of what he would describe as the Government's bad record in this matter. I think that it can be fairly said that few Governments have ever paid such great attention to the general amenities of the country as the Government in power at the present time. The specific points he made will no doubt be answered by my hon. Friend. A number of us have been very disturbed indeed about the question of Kensington Square and its handling by my right hon. Friend.

I want to say just a few words about one specific subject. The hon. Member for Twickenham said he was going to talk about historical and beautiful buildings, and the one I want to speak about is a most historical, a most beautiful and a very remarkable building. It is perhaps the finest and most complete example of what is called Palladian architecture to be found anywhere in this country. The building to which I refer is Chiswick House, which is in the heart of my own constituency, I very much wish my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Town and Country Planning and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Works whom I am glad to see in his place, could spare the time to come down with me and look at that building. They would be very much impressed by the wonderfully kept grounds which surround it. It is a park which can be compared with any of the great parks in the Greater London area.

However, they would be much disturbed to see the actual state of the building itself. In the last few months the building, after a period of negotiation, was made a gift to the nation by the two local authorities concerned, the Borough Council of Brentford and Chiswick and the Middlesex County Council, and the responsibility for its future preservation rests with the Ministry of Works. An appeal has already been made to my right hon. Friend to see if he will consider carrying out the restoration work, which he has undertaken to do in the future, in time for the 1951 Festival of Britain. Would my hon. Friend in consultation with the Ministry of Works see if that can be done?

I hold in my hand a letter which informs me that the local borough council and a great number of residents in that area urgently hope it is going to be possible to do that work in time for the Exhibition. The right hon. Gentleman and the Government have agreed to do the restoration work on Chiswick House and if it were done, by 1951, it and the park could become a very useful and attractive part of the Festival of Britain—a semi-country kind of centre, which would be a very useful and very impressive part of the Festival. If this work is going to be undertaken and done in 1952 or 1953 could not my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend look again at this question and see if it is not possible to have the work speeded up in time for the Festival of 1951?

4.17 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Town and Country Planning (Mr. King)

After a few days' Debate on our bread and butter and on the material things, it is pleasant to end the week with aesthetic things, and I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling) for giving me the opportunity to do so. For 30 years or more it has been apparent that the maintenance of historical houses which form such a part of our architectural tradition, could not be continued on the basis on which it has been in the 19th century. In addition while the economic circumstances and changing social customs have made that obvious, it is regrettable, indeed it is astonishing, that scarcely any of the Governments of that period, in which the Conservatives were so largely represented, have taken any special interest in the subject or taken any effective action whatsoever. It is that woeful neglect of 30 years which we in times more ardous and austere have tried to remedy.

Mr. Keeling

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman did not hear me when I said that it was Conservative back benchers who introduced a number of Amendments to the 1944 Bill, whereby these lists are now being compiled.

Mr. King

It was 30 years too late when we introduced the Bill.

Mr. Keeling

In 1944?

Mr. King

If the hon. Member will allow me to develop my arguments I shall be obliged, as I have been left little time to reply. The former Chancellor to the Exchequer made a substantial if limited contribution to this problem by the £50 million National Land Fund, by means of which it may be possible for much property to come into impartial ownership. Then there are the functions of the Ministry of Works. There have been notable recent acquisitions by the Nation. I will run through them very quickly. There is the purchase of Audley End from Lord Braybrooke who is leaving on long loan a very valuable collection of pictures, books and furniture in the house, which will ultimately become a conference centre for the Ministry of Education; Chiswick House, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Chiswick (Mr. F. Noel-Baker) referred, and which the Ministry of Works have accepted—we shall consult with the Minister of Works to see whether we can in any degree speed up the repairs; Apsley House, fresh in the memory of hon. Members; Sir Lyonel Tollemache's Ham House with its furniture, and Osterley Park, the former property of Lord Jersey. All of those properties have come recently into the possession or under the control of the Ministry of Works, and in some cases have been leased to them by the National Trust. Those are admirable examples of the way in which private generosity and Government initiative can come together for the benefit of the State.

I am conscious that these individual efforts are by themselves insufficient. We are anxious to proceed further and to establish an accepted policy which we may progressively carry out. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has recently appointed a committee under the distinguished chairmanship of Sir Ernest Gowers, with these terms of reference: To consider and report what general arrangements might be made by the Government for the preservation, maintenance and use of houses of outstanding historical or architectural interest which might not otherwise be preserved. I thought I would say these few words to put the matter into perspective before I turned to the details of the case put by the hon. Member for Twickenham. I think they show that in this matter this Government have done more than any other Government in the history of this land.

Coming to the specific cases complained of by the hon. Member, he attacked my right hon. Friend in his appellate capacity. In the case of appeals, the hon. Gentleman said that my right hon. Friend had not done what he could. I must say that he presented a singularly thin case. In point of fact, the number of relevant appeals coming before my right hon. Friend was exactly two. Of those two, one has not been decided and is sub judice. Therefore, I cannot comment on it. We are down to precisely one. That is the extent of the case about which the hon. Member used terms which were exaggerated and irresponsible.

In regard to Cranmer Hall, the owner claimed that the roof was rotten, the lead porous and the timber decayed. The owner wanted to put in a new roof and to knock this one house into three houses and thereby provide accommodation for three families. The only opposition was from the Georgian Group and there was only one person at the inquiry who opposed the application in any sense. Here I would quote from a letter dated 6th August, 1947, which we received from the Georgian Group. The secretary of the Group referring to this house says: It can in no way be considered as an outstanding piece of 18th century architecture. Very illogically he goes on to argue that we should preserve it. Groups of this kind should exercise more responsibility. If they make use of words of that kind their prestige will be damaged. I hope that the hon. Member will use what influence he has to see that when they put a case it is a sound and good case. If that is done, we shall listen to the case with the respect to which it is entitled.

Mr. Keeling

Would the Minister comment upon the appointment of an engineer as inspector at the local inquiry to which I referred?

Mr. King

I rather regretted the attack upon a civil servant. The matter was raised without notice. If the hon. Member had given me any notice that he was going to attack the inspector I should have been able to answer him.

Mr. Keeling

I was not attacking the inspector but attacking the Minister for appointing him.

Mr. King

The hon. Gentleman attacked the inspector and if he had given me proper notice I should have been only too glad to answer the attack.

The second point concerned the lists. Section 30 of the Act of 1947 lays it down that we should compile lists of properties. We have appointed a Committee to assist us. We are very grateful to the Committee of which Sir Eric Maclagan is Chairman. The truth is that the hon. Gentleman had remarkably little idea of the purposes for which that Committee was set up. He confused it with the slightly similar but yet quite different committee set up by the Minister of Works, a statutory committee, to advise the Minister. The terms of the Maclagan Committee are: To advise the Minister on all matters connected with the administration of Sections 42 and 43 of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1944. According to the letter of appointment the purpose of the Committee was: To advise the Minister on the general principles upon which the lists ought to be drawn up. It is not their primary function to go into individual cases as the hon. Gentleman seemed to think, and in case he still thinks that, I will give him the actual words of the Chairman. I do not know whether he will accept them; perhaps he will. The Chairman wrote to my right hon. Friend: We regard our main work as done. We shall meet in future only when some special difficulty arises. Who is the authority upon this Committee? Is it the hon. Member for Twickenham or the Chairman of the Committee? I am inclined to think that it is the Chairman of the Committee? I think that will be the view which the House will accept.

Another charge was of delay. In all Ministries—and rightly so—there are ceilings on staff, and there is a ceiling on our staff. None the less, out of 1,500 administrative areas in this country, 575 have now been completely surveyed and 184 provisional lists are now ready to go out. When one considers the vast problem of administration which is arising out of the Act of 1947, and the number of parallel lines our staff have to pursue, I consider that it is a matter for pride rather than for regret that we have got as far as this.

On the question of publicity, let us bear in mind that the compilation of these lists is a running process and that we have not achieved finality. It is not easy to publish lists until we have them complete I use the word "publish" there in the narrow sense. However, it is desirable—we shall certainly do so—to give all the publicity we can to those lists. Any statutory lists sent to local authorities—many have already gone out—must be made available in the offices of those local authorities. Further, we shall make a practice of sending every such list to the local Press, and we earnestly hope that the local Press will publish it. If a group such as the Georgian Group or the C.P.R.E. wants to see the lists, we shall be only too glad to show the lists to them. If there is any other method of publicity such as placing the lists in the Library of the House of Commons, which the hon. Gentleman would like to suggest, we shall be only too glad to do it.

I certainly hope that in the years ahead when this task is done we shall be able to put forward something more permanent as a record which the public may enjoy. I value these lists immensely, and so does my right hon. Friend. Apart, from legal status, they have an educational status, and they should have an immense influence on the owners of the buildings and, indeed, upon the whole locality in showing where there exists a building of which our people are proud.

I want to make it clear to the House that this aspect of our work is one which we value very highly. We shall do the best we can so far as the law allows us. I cannot today enter into what the law might say, but Sir Ernest Gowers will, no doubt, in the plain words for which he is famous, shortly be advising us on the subject. In the meantime we shall do our utmost to promote that cause which my right hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Twickenham, and I have at heart.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Half-past Four o'clock.