HC Deb 22 July 1953 vol 518 cc537-46

Amendments made: In page 12, line 14, leave out "the said Part II," and insert: Parts II and III of this Act.

In line 18, at end, insert: (4) For the purposes of this Act the administrative county of Monmouth shall be taken to be part of Wales and not part of England.—[Sir D. Eccles.]

11.5 p.m.

Sir D. Eccles

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."

I do not expect that the House wishes to have a long speech from me at this hour of the night, but I should like to say how much better the Government think the Bill is as a result of our discussions. There is nothing like a non-controversial Bill for getting a large number of Amendments accepted. We are starting a new service, and one that is of deep interest to many hon. Members and to many members of the public outside, and we shall have to see how it develops and grows.

I know that the amount of money which we have available at present appears small, but I believe that it is enough to start with. Organisations are generally the better for starting small and growing naturally. Although I ought to be in a good position to tell the House how many demands we are likely to get for grants, and how many offers for the sale of houses we are likely to receive, I must confess that I am completely in the dark. But I think that the number will be very considerable, and that makes it all the more important to set up businesslike machinery in these Historic Buildings Councils, since they will have to do a good deal of careful selection.

On their advice we shall be able to save many fine buildings and give great pleasure to the sight-seeing public. Subject to the agreement of my right hon. Friends the Ministers concerned, it is my intention that the Historic Buildings Councils for Scotland and for Wales shall be domiciled in Scotland and Wales respectively.

If I may touch on the point of transfer of powers, I have seen my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government, and I am glad to tell the House that he is making a recovery which is so rapid that it is astonishing all those who are looking after him. I think it hardly fair, however, so soon after a severe operation to ask him to decide all of those difficult points which, as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government explained, are involved in this question of consolidating the powers in relation to historic buildings. Nevertheless, our intentions are good, and although it will take a little time before we can lay the proposals before the House, we will try to do it as soon as we can.

I should like to assure those hon. Members who have interested themselves so much in the ancient monuments section of the Bill that we have taken to heart what happened at Manton Down Long Barrow, and we mean to put this matter right if we can. I shall also see whether we can improve the inspection of these monuments. The difficulty is that the numbers mentioned are very great and it takes a lot of time for an inspector to go round. If he inspects three or four in a day, he is doing well, and there are thousands of these monuments which are listed and not under guardianship. Nevertheless, if we can get voluntary help and some supervision, say by counties, then I think we can make a definite improvement.

I was asked by the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher) whether we would photograph any buildings that are to be demolished. We have a photographic section in the Ministry of Works which produces some very excellent pictures, and we are actually considering the consolidation of the various bodies who are making photographic records of buildings. Certainly, I think it would be a good thing on every occasion where it is possible to have a record of the house before it is pulled down, and I will undertake to do that in the best way we can.

I commend the Bill to the House. As I said on Second Reading, it is only a small Bill, but I think there is a chance of it doing a lot of good, even with the amount of money at our disposal, and I am very grateful for the wide interest which hon. Gentlemen have shown in making this as good a Bill as we can.

11.11 p.m.

Mr. Dalton

I should like to say on behalf of my hon. Friends on this side of the House we are very glad that this Bill has now reached this stage. As the Minister said, it has been improved somewhat in the Standing Committee. On one occasion the Government were defeated, but we still see them sitting there. It was not taken to be a vital matter, but none the less, on that particular issue, in which a number of the right hon. Gentleman's own Friends either joined with my hon. Friends on this side, or abstained from voting—a very interesting precedent for the House as a whole—the Bill was improved, and the external credit of the Government seemed to be, comparatively speaking, unfavourable.

This illustrates how we are able to get on with the give-and-take of Standing Committee work upstairs, and we attach great importance to this Bill. There is no monetary provision in the Bill. We have expressed the view that the monetary provision about to be made is too small, and I hope very much that it will be expanded as time goes on. When he has made this Bill an Act, the right hon. Gentleman will be able to go with even greater assurance beating on the gateways of the Treasury, and, I hope, will get a friendly response.

With regard to the transfer of powers that he mentioned, we are very pleased to hear that the Minister of Housing and Local Government is making good progress towards recovery, and we hope he will soon be back in full command of his Department. I do not myself think he should be required, or that the right hon. Gentleman himself should be required, to undertake detailed work over this question of the transfer of powers. What we should like, and I think the right hon. Gentleman said in Standing Committee he would be prepared to do this, is that the officials who have been so diligent in pointing out the difficulties should now be set the second task of making and preparing a plan to get over them.

In accordance with what the Solicitor-General said upstairs, it was perfectly possible for the transfer to be made by an Order in Council under the Act of 1946, and I hope that that will happen. When we reassemble in the autumn I hope such an Order in Council will have been prepared, and that it will be submitted. The right hon. Gentleman himself will be only the gainer if that can be done, and it will be helpful in carrying on the work put upon him under this Bill.

With these few observations, I hope this Bill will have a speedy passage to the Statute Book, and that the right hon. Gentleman will make full use of the new opportunities given to him to preserve the ancient and beautiful things which we are all most anxious should not be destroyed or neglected through any fault of ours.

Mr. Nicholson

I thank my right hon. Friend for this Bill, and for all the work that he has put into it. I hope that the great importance and the great urgency of the work done in connection with historical buildings will not lead to the historical, archaeological and ancient monuments side being overlooked.

Owing to agricultural conditions and requirements, ancient monuments are being destroyed every day, and the greatest urgency is needed in any approach to this problem. I quite agree that it is very difficult to have inspectors visit more than three or four ancient monuments every day. There are the services of the local archaeological societies, and there is a great interest taken in local and ancient monuments all over the country.

I therefore hope that this Bill will have a successful passage into law, and I beg my right hon. Friend as earnestly as I can not to let the ancient monuments side of the Bill suffer in favour of the historical buildings.

Mr. Sorensen

I, too, join with others in congratulating the Minister on the passage of this Bill. It has come at a very opportune moment, when the country begins to be alarmed, in a way it has not been before, by the destruction, or possible destruction, of some of our British treasures. I earnestly hope that the Bill will speedily get on to the Statute Book and that it will encourage the various historical and archaeological societies in the counties to do what they can voluntarily. I am sure that they will respond, because they recognise that we have many treasures in this country which, by neglect as well as by positive injury, could be lost to us—treasures which belong to us all.

This Bill is an interesting synthesis of the principles of both sides of the House. One can well understand hon. Members opposite supporting the Bill because it is a Conservative Bill: it is designed to conserve some of the best memorials of our British history. It is also a Socialist Bill because we are emphasising the responsibility of the nation as a whole, and daring to interfere with some of the predilections—I would say, the weaknesses—of private ownership. That must be disagreeable in the view of a few hon. Members on the other side, but I am convinced that the great majority recognise in this respect the responsibility of the nation as a whole, of society as a whole, as more important than the prejudices of individuals. In that respect, Conservatives and Socialists have converged.

I think it is an excellent occasion when both sides of the House have worked together without prejudice to their principles, and I hope we shall unite in future to see that the treasures that belong to us all, and not only to individuals, who, in many cases, have honourably preserved what they have inherited, are well cherished.

Sir E. Keeling

It is an interesting fact that this Bill commands a larger attendance for the Third Reading than for the Second. No doubt that is because the Bill has been considerably improved, as my right hon. Friend said, since the Second Reading, but I think it must be an almost unprecedented event. I want very briefly to welcome the Bill, particularly on behalf of the National Trust. Part I of the Bill for the first time gives the Government power to help privately-occupied houses, and that is an important new principle. In the Second Reading debate my right hon. Friend expressed the hope that the National Trust would be willing to undertake on the Government's behalf negotiations with the owners of inhabited houses, and supervise the work of maintenance. I can give the assurance on behalf of the National Trust that it is willing to do that.

It has a good deal of experience in this matter. Of the houses in the country which are shown to the public at least one in three belong to and is maintained by the National Trust. [Interruption.] I am speaking only for the National Trust. I have nothing whatever to do with the National Trust for Scotland. Experience shows that we can preserve and maintain houses at much less cost than a Government Department can, and it follows that with the limited amount of money which, we are told, is to be available the National Trust can preserve more houses at less cost, and the taxpayers' money will go farther. The National Trust is proud of the part it is given to do by this Bill to help in preserving some of our finest houses at present beyond the resources of the owners and the Trust.

My right hon. Friend was right when he said that the machinery set up by this Bill is a pilot plant for much larger operations when more money becomes available. The National Trust welcomes the Bill, and wishes to assure the Government of its wholehearted co-operation in carrying it out.

11.20 p.m.

Mr. K. Robinson

I should like to join very briefly in the general good wishes which are accompanying this Bill to another place. It is designed to achieve an objective which is clearly thought desirable on all sides of the House, and it is significant that no single voice has at any stage been raised against the principle of the Bill. We should at this stage of our discussions, I think, just pay a tribute to the Gowers Committee for the way in which they have moulded public opinion in this respect.

At the outset the Bill had certain blemishes and a number of serious omissions. Many of those omissions have been rectified in Committee and on Report, and I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend that it is a very much better Bill now than when we first saw it. It is now a useful instrument for doing this job of preserving historic houses. The question is how much use will be made of that instrument, and it seems that at first it will be a rather limited and tentative use. However, we have the Minister's assurance that there will be a review by the Chancellor after the first year's working and we all hope there will be more money and an expansion of its work.

I hope that when this Bill becomes an, Act the Minister will lose no time in setting up the Historic Buildings Councils. We shall await the selection of members with acute interest, and, for my part, with some anxiety. I rather envisage the Minister scouring the country for these men of the world with aesthetic sensibilities and other similar paragons. However, quite seriously, we wish him well in his selection.

Finally, I echo the assurances given by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir E. Keeling), who is my colleague on the Executive of the National Trust. The Trust look forward to co-operating with the Minister of Works in the administration of this Bill and will do all they can to make it a success.

Mr. Arthur Colegate (Burton)

As the first hon. Member to raise this matter in the House of Commons and to press it on the late Sir Stafford Cripps, I am, of course, extremely pleased to be here to see this Bill receive its Third Reading. I think the Minister has done very well in meeting, as far as was possible in the circumstances, the points raised in Committee.

On the other hand, do not let us go away with the impression that we are implementing the Gowers Report by passing this Bill. We are implementing the first part of the Gowers Report, which is the establishment of Historic Buildings Councils, from which I hope for great things. With active councils working on this matter we shall get to know a great deal that we do not know at present.

The Minister himself said he could not give any real estimate of the dimensions of the problem, but I think we should get a great deal of information even in the first year. I was very glad to hear my right hon. Friend mention the question of photographic records, raised by the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher), because that will be a very valuable piece of work if it is co-ordinated in the manner suggested by the Minister.

No amount of money is mentioned in the Bill, but we know, of course, that at the moment not a great deal can be spared. It does not arise now, but sooner or later the question of taxation will have to be tackled, because that is the subject of the main series of recommendations of the Gowers Report. However, I must not pursue that subject tonight, and I mentioned it only in passing. I will only say I believe that this Bill is a good start, and that it will have a very con- siderable effect on educating public opinion.

I wish the Bill well, and I particularly wish the Ministry of Works well in the difficult task that it will have but which it appears to be approaching with the kind of enthusiasm which will make a success of the object for which we wanted this Bill.

Mr. Blenkinsop

Many of us were glad to hear from the Minister that he hoped that he would be able to do more in the actual inspection of ancient monuments in future. As a corollary to that, I hope also that he will be able to make rather more progress with the preparation and affixing of suitable signs. I am sure that a great number of ancient monuments are simply not known because suitable signs are not prepared and made available.

I give credit to the Ministry for some of the work they have done recently, which is excellent. I hope that they will feel emboldened to carry on and do a great deal more. It is of the greatest importance that it should be possible for people as they go about our highways and byways to know what there is to be seen just over the hedge.

Colonel Alan Gomme-Duncan (Perth and East Perthshire)

I should like, on behalf of Scotland, to say a few words of appreciation to the Minister and the Government for this Bill. Scotland has suffered a great deal more than England in the matter of the desecration and depredation of her ancient monuments. The three main causes were different branches of the Church, I am sorry to say; the English; and the city fathers of a bygone generation. Today, the city fathers are anxious to preserve in our cities, towns and countryside everything that can be preserved. But it was very largely due to them that so much wonderful building was destroyed in Victorian and earlier days.

This Bill goes a considerable way—I will not say more than that—towards righting what should be put right from the Scottish point of view. With the Secretary of State for Scotland working in conjunction with the Minister of Works, I feel sure that we have a combination from which nothing but good can result. My right hon. Friend has taken the greatest trouble over a small case I brought to his notice in connection with the ancient Abbey of Coupar Angus of which one small pile of stone alone remains. I congratulate him and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland on their efforts on behalf of our country.

Mr. W. M. F. Vane (Westmorland)

It is pleasant to hear that the Scots have changed their attitude towards historic buildings. The nave of Carlisle Cathedral was razed to the ground.

Sir William Darling (Edinburgh, South)

Kelsoe Abbey was razed to the ground.

Mr. Vane

I was citing that example to complete the speech of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Colonel Gomme-Duncan).

After having discussed the question of historic buildings a number of times over the last few years it is very satisfactory to think that we have made such amicable progress with this Measure. Many people outside this House are interested in our architectural treasures and they are rather sad to see the decay which is steadily going on. I only hope that their hopes will not be raised merely to be disappointed.

The merit of the Bill is that it makes a beginning. I do not think that my right hon. Friend can be expected to work wonders. It would be easy to dissipate the limited resources which will be at his disposal by trying to do too much. I do not think that he intends to do that. He has set himself to do a few things and to do them well, but I ask him to have a look at Osterley, about which he answered a Question of mine yesterday. There are 27 employees of his Department, under the Victoria and Albert Museum, there. The Department spent £29,000 there over the last 12 months——

Sir D. Eccles

I am sorry the hon. Gentleman did not have a chance to ask a supplementary to his Question yesterday, because I had intended to explain to him that a large part of the £29,000 was initial expenditure in getting Osterley ready. Maintenance costs will be nothing like as large as that.

Mr. Vane

I am glad to hear that. The money was very nearly enough to rebuild the nave of Carlisle Cathedral——

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Hopkin Morris)

How does this arise out of the Bill?

Mr. Vane

The important consideration is that we should tackle this problem. If we are to have too many examples of expenditure on houses of that sort—the atmosphere of Osterley is that of a magnificent tomb and not of a private house—then I fear that not a great deal will result from this Bill. All the same, its beginning is a creditable one.

11.30 p.m.

Mr. I. J. Pitman (Bath)

I welcome the Bill, and thank the Minister for the great cities and towns, especially Bath. Under the listing of the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947, Bath has 1,900 houses on the list, and 1,000 houses on the supplementary list. Those houses range from the great Royal Crescent and Circus to small individual houses, such as that gem, Wolfe's house, which is important not only as a period house of perfection but because of its immense interest to Canadians, who regard it as something which we ought to preserve. Groups of houses in terraces, and individual houses, in towns present difficulties different from those of a country house.

Bath is known as the Queen of the West, and those who know anything about the dental service know that in repairing a deficient tooth it is necessary to try to match those around it. Repair of such a place as the Circus is a colossal job, because the Circus has to be treated as a whole. I hope that this measure may be a beginning, and that the money will be forthcoming to enable such great achitectural gems to be preserved. Individual houses in towns are often rent-controlled. In these cases it is difficult for the city to enforce their repair, for to do so would dreadfully penalise people economically. On that account, it is important that money should be forthcoming.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.