HC Deb 07 December 1950 vol 482 cc669-80

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

9.59 p.m.

Mr. Dodds (Dartford)

I believe there is a very great demand for the continuation of the South Bank Exhibition in 1951, and, because of several limiting features, I suggest that, if this is not done, it is inevitable that there will be no end to the number of would-be visitors who will be deprived of seeing the Exhibition, and, what should be of importance to all hon. Members, the bill for the taxpayer will be unnecessarily high. Providing the international conditions permit—and we can only go ahead believing that they will—I am of the opinion that the success of the Exhibition will exceed even the most optimistic predictions. In fact, I think it will be so attractive that on the popular days there will be chaotic conditions in which—

It being Ten o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed. without Question put.

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

Mr. Dodds

I believe that the Exhibition will be so attractive that on the popular days chaotic conditions will be seen outside what I believe to be, despite its importance, a relatively pocket handkerchief exhibition. I speak with some knowledge of the subject, because for nine years I acted as an exhibitions' manager. During that period I was responsible for planning, erecting, controlling when open to the public, and dismantling over 100 trade exhibitions, some of which were the largest ever seen in this country during that period.

This Exhibition has had, and will continue to have valuable publicity largely through discussions in this House. I know of no advertising genius, even with an unlimited purse, who could be more effective in advertising this Exhibition than hon. Members of this House. In fact, I think that the Lord President and those associated with him should be extremely grateful to the critics—not all of whom wish the Exhibition well—who have done so much to ensure that the Exhibition will be an outstanding success. I believe, too, from my experience, that there is evidence to indicate that under the present management it could be continued successfully not for one year, but for five years. But I am a reasonable person, and all I am suggesting is that it should be continued for one more year during 1952.

The sponsors of this Exhibition have taken a tremendous risk. They have selected a relatively small site right in the heart of the largest city in the world. In planning exhibitions, there are two important factors to be borne in mind with regard to space; one is to see that the amount of space given over to the exhibits is married with the space allotted for use by the visitors.

In handling visitors there is one important aspect born of years of experience, that if too many people are allowed in a trade exhibition, then the sales decline very sharply. In other words, it is essential for the success of such exhibitions that sufficient elbow room should be allowed to the people visiting them. Although in this South Bank Exhibition it is not a question of sales, except in the restaurants and cafés, there is also the point that there can be no appreciation of the exhibits unless there is plenty of room for the visitors.

I would warn the sponsors that they are on very dangerous ground here because if there is a tendency to allow too many people to enter because of the enormous queues outside or in order to raise the revenue, then there will be shoals of complaints, largely because it is a Government-sponsored Exhibition. In that respect, I believe the complaints would be so effective that the policy would have to be changed very quickly. The authorities estimate that the space allotted will allow 60,000 persons in it at any one time. The estimate also indicates that from 120,000 to 150,000 persons a day are expected. That would allow about 10 million to 121 million persons to visit the Exhibition during the period budgeted for in 1951. I am absolutely certain that those estimates are too optimistic.

Even if these figures are reached, I believe there are quite as many potential visitors to this Exhibition providing certain things are done. The main thing is that it should be extended until 1952. There are two ways in which people will get into the Exhibition. The first is by the purchase of an advance ticket and the second, later in the day, by admission through the turnstiles. The proposal is that approximately 40,000 advance tickets will be allocated for Tuesdays and approximately 50,000 for other days. This is a manageable proposition. It is when we come to the business of the turnstiles that I believe conditions will be difficult.

On Tuesdays the turnstiles begin to dick after 4 p.m. and on other days after 3 p.m. I believe this is going to cause many headaches. As to the prices of admission, I agree with the Lord President that the Exhibition will be excellent entertainment and full of interest. In other words, it is going to be excellent value even for the prices that are being charged. Yesterday morning I had the opportunity of looking over the site. As one who has seen many exhibitions I was thrilled through and through by what I could see of the possibilities of this Exhibition. Because of its nature I believe it is going to be the finest exhibition the world has ever seen.

When the first few thousands get into the Exhibition they will provide all the publicity needed to bring out every man, woman and child they can possibly get in. But I do not think anyone would deny that there are millions of people, particularly those with families, who, even if they know it is excellent value, will be forced to stay away because of the heavy expense. That can be overcome, but not during the first months of the Exhibition. There could be reduced charges, of course, if the Exhibition is continued for a longer time in 1951, say to October, but, above all, there could be reduced prices to bring in many more millions in 1952.

Admission on opening day is by ticket only, price 10s. On looking through the details about the Exhibition I was surprised to find that every Tuesday the tickets are priced 10s. and the charge of admission through the turnstile is 4s. after 4 p.m. On the remaining days the advance ticket is priced 5s. Admission through the turnstiles is 4s. after 3 p.m. and, of course, it is half-price for children.

In answer to a Question I put to him on, I think, 20th November or possibly earlier, the Lord President said that we were rather lucky to have these prices because at the 1851 Exhibition the charge for the first two days was one guinea. What he did not say was that within one month of the opening of the 1851 Exhibition the charge from Monday to Thursday was only 1s. It was 2s. 6d. on Fridays and 5s. on Saturdays. The charge on Saturdays was reduced to 2s. 6d. at the beginning of August. I submit, therefore, that this Exhibition can continue to the end of 1952 and that that will allow for millions of people with families and those who cannot afford these high prices, although the Exhibition is excellent value, to go to the Exhibition at reduced prices in 1952.

Anyone who has had any experience of exhibitions must know that the major cost arises from the erection of the exhibition. That will apply to a greater degree with the 1951 Exhibition than with any other exhibition of which I know. The cost of dismantling is the same whether the Exhibition lasts a week or five years, and the cost of keeping it open is relatively small. Therefore, the cost involved in continuing the Exhibition in 1952 is chickenfeed compared with the revenue which would be raised. I think that the revenue factor is important because I cannot see that it will be possible in 1951 to do other than have a very big deficit.

I have previously said that the authorities were estimating much too high when they said they expected to get 120,000 to 150,000 people a day at the Exhibition. I made that point because the limiting factor is not one of getting the people through the turnstiles or the gates into the enclosure but the interesting nature of the exhibits. I went into the Dome of Discovery, and although there are not yet any exhibits there I could have stayed there half an hour or more just looking at the building itself. It is a wonderful building and is well worth seeing for itself.

I am convinced that when the exhibits, of which I have had details, are installed, anyone could stay in that building for hours and enjoy it. The maximum number of people who can get in at any one time is 3,000. Hon. Members will appreciate the difficulty of getting between 120,000 and 150,000 in there each day.

I can detect many similar weaknesses in the Exhibition. The enclosure itself does not give rise to the difficulty. But take the coalmine, for instance; only a handful can get in at any one time. If it is proposed to let all those people through the gates, there will be disputes and complaints if people, many of whom come a long way, are not able to see the very interesting exhibits in the buildings. I say with every confidence that many people who have the opportunity will go not once but many times, and that will swell the numbers to be catered for on the South Bank.

On 20th November I asked the Lord President of the Council if he would consider continuing the Exhibition in 1952, and he said that he would give the suggestion careful consideration, but he added that he had to keep faith with those who had loaned the sites for the South Bank and other exhibitions including Battersea Park. I am concerned only with the South Bank site, and I would point out that that site not very long ago was just a heap of rubble and some very old property. Who can deny that, but for this Exhibition, probably 10 years would have elapsed before the site was levelled, extended and built on? No one, having seen the original site, could reasonably have expected the Exhibition to be opened in only 12 months. The ground has been extended by over four acres: there is a valuable addition to London of over four acres, particularly in view of the present land values.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

I take it that my hon. Friend is advocating the continuation into 1952 not only of the South Bank Exhibition but also the Battersea Park Exhibition?

Mr. Dodds

I have to stick to the things I understand, and I understand exhibitions. There may be others who know all about Battersea Park, but I want to make it clear that I am only putting forward the case for the South Bank Exhibition because I believe there is an overwhelming case for its continuation. I can think of only one worse suggestion, and that was the Parliamentary Committee's suggestion that they should use the Grand Committee room for a History of Parliament during 1951. The estimated attendance was a maximum of 1,500 per day. Never have I heard a more fantastic suggestion. Unless Westminster Hall is used for this Exhibition it would be far better to leave it alone.

A few hours ago a green card was sent to me and I went into the Central Lobby to find what was claimed to be the works committee of the Festival of Britain Exhibition site. They stated that for four days a reporter of the "Sunday Dispatch" has, without authority, been going all over the site endeavouring to unearth discontent among the workers so that in this Sunday's "Sunday Dispatch" they will be able to print an attack on the Festival of Britain. Many of those things must be expected, but the works committee through its chairman, have assured me that, although, as I well understand in exhibition work, there are always disputes—there must be by the nature of the work—the workers on the site, despite little disputes, are 100 per cent. behind the Exhibition. They resent the methods of the reporter in trying to make up a story which cannot be helpful.

But even a reporter like that, even the "Sunday Dispatch"—if it prints the story—is helping to make the people of this country, whether they live in town or hamlet, Festival-minded. I ask the Lord President and those associated with him to have courage and to go ahead and plan for 1952. To the Minister who is to reply I say this: I do not expect any other assurance than that any suggestion will be carefully examined. I ask him that any decision should be made as soon as possible.

10.17 p.m.

Mr. John Hay (Henley)

The hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dodds) has spoken of the necessity of continuing the South Bank Exhibition for a further year. He said that he had a certain amount of professional experience in the matter of exhibitions and I am sure we all listened to him with very great interest. Later, he said he never spoke about things unless he knew something about them. I must at once admit that I know very little about the South Bank Exhibition, but this point occurred to me—that it would be wiser for the Government to wait a little while before taking their final decision.

If I may express one criticism of the hon. Gentleman's speech, it is that he was rather inclined to over-estimate the number of people who might attend the Exhibition. I should have preferred him to say that, in the light of the experience we gain during next year, we should then reach a decision about the future. After all, it is quite possible—and we must face this—that, in the present international situation it might not be feasible for the Exhibition to be continued for another year. I am sure that the hon. Member will agree with that. The international situation and all the domestic problems which are bound to arise may easily prevent the vast number of people which the hon. Member mentioned from attending the Exhibition.

I anticipate that this will be the Government's view—that we should wait before we take a decision on the matter. The nation and the London County Council, for whom others in the House are far better fitted to speak than I am, have committed a substantial sum of money to this project. As the hon. Member said, there has been criticism from various quarters of the propriety of holding the Exhibition and the Festival at all. I will not go into that now, for these questions have been discussed and decided already, but I would point out that we as a nation and London as a city have a very large stake in the success or failure of the Exhibition, and if it were to turn out that, during the course of the year, it seemed likely that a loss of a substantial nature would be incurred, then obviously it might be desirable for the Government to say, "We think the Exhibition ought to close, for there is a risk that this deficit, this loss may be increased over the course of the following year."

I appreciate the point that the hon. Member for Dartford made. It was a very good one, namely, that we have to take one year with the next, and that, whereas there may be a loss in the first year, it may be possible in the second year to recoup the loss. Anyway, I suggest that it would be far preferable if this sort of plea that he has made tonight were made a little closer to the time when the country will have had a little more experience of the running of the Exhibition, because if indeed it is going to be, as some have thought likely, a sort of hole through which public money drops at a very fast rate, I am sure that the hon. Member himself and the nation as a whole would wish to stop that leak as quickly as possible.

The position now is, as I see it, that the nation is committed to this South Bank Exhibition and Festival. Those of us who, from time to time, have had reason to criticise the holding of the Exhibition and Festival at all, now come to the position that a decision has been taken, and that we cannot do anything to reverse the decision. The nation is committed and the money is provided. Therefore, I think it rests with all of us to make the Exhibition the best we can, and I am certain that I speak for the great majority of hon. and right hon. Members on these benches when I say that. I, for one, for example, would certainly deprecate anything in the nature of inquiries being made, as the hon. Member suggested, by newspapers to try to find out if there are sources of discontent.

On the whole, my own personal view is that this Exhibition may turn out to be a great success, in which case everyone who has had anything to do with it will be able to take the credit; or it may turn out to be a failure. We do not know. Time will tell us. I think that in any event the decision whether or not the Exhibition should continue for a second year ought to be taken by the Government a little later on and not just now. I quite appreciate the point of the hon. Member for Dartford in raising this matter now, and that he wanted, to use an old adage, to get his blow in first. If in due course the decision is taken to extend the Exhibition for a further year, a certain amount of credit will redound to the hon. Member for Dartford, and whereas the Lord President of the Council may be called "Lord Festival," some more regal title may have to be found for the hon. Member for Dartford.

That is, I think, the view of hon. Members on this side of the House, and I think that when the Under-Secretary of State for Air, who I believe is to reply to the debate, makes his reply, he will agree with the expression of view which I have been permitted to put before the House.

10.23 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Air (Mr. Crawley)

My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dodds), who opened the debate, said that he had managed nine exhibitions.

Mr. Dodds

A hundred.

Mr. Crawley

That is even better—or worse, whichever way one looks at it. I am afraid I must say I have had no such experience. The only reason why I have been asked to reply to this debate tonight is that those who are concerned with the air know no limits to their interest. I hope, therefore, that my hon. Friend will take that as my reason for speaking in this debate tonight.

I am sure the House and the country are grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the matter. I think it is a little ironic that our differences of view in this House in the last week or two—which, of course, have not been differences on party lines at all—about how the Exhibition should be run have brought home to us and the country—I think, perhaps, for the first time—the real responsibility of every one of us in this great national Exhibition; and I think that we are more united than we have ever been as the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Hay), said, in our determination to make it a success. It is quite obvious that it is in that spirit that my hon. Friend said all the very useful and helpful things he did say.

I must say that I do share his faith in the success of the Exhibition. I did not know very much about it until I knew that I was to reply to this debate tonight; but I have since visited the site, and not only that, but I have read a good deal about the Exhibition; and the more I read of it, and the more I see of it, the more I agree with him that it is going to be a most fascinating Exhibition, though I must say that the fascination, particularly on the South Bank, is not of the modern, sensational kind, but rather of the deeper kind.

My hon. Friend asked that the Exhibition should be continued into 1952, and he based his request really on three points. The first was that the space on which the Exhibition stands, particularly on the South Bank, is small and that a lot of people who would like to see the Exhibition will not be able to do so. I quite agree that the space is small, though I do not think it is quite as small as he makes out. I fancy that he may be exaggerating the difficulties that people will have. For instance, I was interested to notice that the area for the 1851 Exhibition was only 20 acres, yet every day some 42,000 people were able to get there and to get into the Exihibition, with apparently enough comfort to make it a great success.

Mr. Dodds

Has my hon. Friend considered the increase in population since that time, which was 100 years ago?

Mr. Crawley

I was not referring to the total figures. I was referring to the number within that acreage. A rather larger proportion of people were able to get in than my hon. Friend implied would be possible at this Exhibition. I would remind my hon. Friend that in those days ladies wore crinolines and the gentlemen carried things like umbrellas, and occupied very much more space than people do now. No doubt they were assisted in not becoming crowded by the fact that they were neither allowed to take in dogs, nor to drink alcohol, nor to smoke. The figures my hon. Friend gave—which I am sure are official figures in so far as it is possible to make estimates—may be on the conservative side. If, in fact, 12½ million or more people see the Exhibition—and all those in charge seem confident that they could cater for that number—it will be a very considerable success.

My hon. Friend then went on to say that he was worried about the finances, and he thought that a second year would make a great difference to the financial position. It is obviously true that the capital outlay for an Exhibition of this kind is a very great deal to expect to recoup entirely in one year. It is equally obvious that if it is a great success and we could run it for a second year, that would probably have a very beneficial effect on the finances.

Mr. Dodds

And would reduce prices at the same time.

Mr. Crawley

That, again, would depend partially on the sort of demand which existed. I would only add that, in judging the financial success of an Exhibition of this kind an enormous number of things have to be taken into consideration. It is not merely the amount taken at the turnstiles. There is all the indirect benefit to be got out of the millions of visitors who bring money into the country and spend it elsewhere, and the direct benefit that we hope to get in trade and business in a great number of fields. Therefore, to take the very narrow view that only the sum obtained at the turnstiles, or in advance bookings, indicates the success of the Exhibition, would be quite wrong.

I end on the main point, whether it would be possible to say anything in the near future—because my hon. Friend asked that my right hon. Friend should try to take his decision as early as possible—about carrying on for another year. I do not think it is possible, or likely to be possible, to give any indication now, or until the Exhibition itself has been going for some time. It is obvious to everybody that the world situation, as the hon. Member for Henley said, is incalculable, to put it no stronger, and it would be unwise to start making plans of that kind at this moment. This all depends, surely, on the extent of the demand when the Festival itself is running. If that demand is so strong that everybody feels and I do not think it would be very difficult to take account of it—that the Exhibition should go on, I have no doubt that the matter will be considered with an open mind at that time.

10.29 p.m.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

It is quite clear that my hon. Friend has gone as far as he possibly could, but I hope that he and the Lord President will take note of the fact that there is a widespread desire that this Festival should be a success, and a very widespread hope, certainly in London and possibly throughout the country, that it should be continued for another year.

The Question having been proposed at Ten o'Clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Half-past Ten o'Clock.