HC Deb 09 November 1953 vol 520 cc735-46

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

10.15 p.m.

Mr. Kenneth Robinson (St. Pancras, North)

I wish to divert the attention of the House away from the broad acres of the British countryside to a comparatively few acres of open space in the north of London. I think that the whole House knows how precious are regarded those all too few open spaces which are enjoyed by the people of London.

Primrose Hill, for those who do not know it, lies just north of Regent's Park, across the road from the Zoo. It is an area of which rather more than half falls within the constituency of St. Pancras, North, which I have the honour to represent. The remainder belongs, in the Parliamentary sense of the word, to the hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. H. Brooke).

The ground of Primrose Hill—the centre of it—rises to a height of 219 feet. Although this may not sound very much, it happens to be the first eminence of any size north of Central London. In consequence, it commands a view over London which is unparalleled. From the top of Primrose Hill one can easily distinguish all the well-known buildings and landmarks of the greatest capital city in the world. For this reason, many people—not only local residents but people from all over London—come to Primrose Hill and climb to the top of it, to enjoy not only a breath of fresh air, but also the view. I need hardly add that this view is no less attractive when night has fallen, particularly on a fine evening.

Primrose Hill is one of the Royal Parks, and so comes under the direct responsibility of the Minister of Works. It used to be surrounded by a wooden fence, but it has never been—certainly not in this century—closed at night. Some years before the war, even the wooden fence was removed, so that at least for 15 years Primrose Hill has been in the most literal sense of the word an open space. It is criss-crossed with footpaths, and until recently the grass of the hill came right down to the pavements of the roads surrounding it.

In common with all London parks, Primrose Hill suffers a certain amount of malicious damage, and it is a fact that within the last six months that damage has increased. The Minister of Works says that it is the work of gangs of hooligans. Some of my constituents say it is the work of school children. I do not know whose work it is, but it is perfectly true that the glass in most of the lamposts is regularly broken and that the seats are damaged. A view indicator was placed at the summit of the hill only six months ago, and that, I believe, has been wrenched from its base. All this damage is very reprehensible, and I do not want anything that I say to be regarded as condoning it in any way. I should like to see it stopped just as much as would the Minister of Works, though we disagree about the method of stopping it.

At the beginning of September I was inundated with protests from constituents and from people outside by constituency who had seen iron railings in the course of construction round Primrose Hill and who had heard rumours that the Minister intended to close the hill after dark. Those rumours were confirmed, and shortly afterwards I received a petition signed by many hundreds of constituents and others protesting against this decision. The St. Pancras Borough Council passed a unanimous resolution of protest, and the Conservative opposition on the council particularly associated themselves with it. I have had a good deal of correspondence with the Minister about this. On two occasions I have raised the matter at Question time.

As far as I can see, the Minister's arguments are twofold. The first is that Royal Parks are for the enjoyment of Londoners as a whole and do not exist merely for the convenience of those people who are fortunate enough to live in their vicinity. I do not disagree with that at all, but the protest has not come solely from those living in this vicinity. Secondly, the Minister says the only way they can catch the hooligans, or whoever it may be, is by closing the park at night.

When I charged the Minister with not having given any notice at all of his decision to close Primrose Hill, he wrote and told me a letter had been written about it, in June, in the local Press and no reaction had been provoked. I have not seen the letter, but took the trouble to get in touch with the local Press. It is a fact that a letter was written suggesting such action. I was rather surprised to see it signed by the hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. H. Brooke), but I am very glad to say he appears to have been converted in recent weeks and has supported me at Question time in protesting to the Minister. I hope, if he is able to catch your eye this evening, Sir, that he will underline my protest again tonight.

I believe these miscreants who are damaging Primrose Hill could be caught if only the hill were effectively controlled, but I have tried in vain to discover what methods of patrolling are used. As far as I can gather it is left to the police, and no details can be given. I put it to the right hon. Gentleman as a supplementary question that he might try increasing the patrols, and he said the patrols had been increased, although the reply to the subsequent question appeared to contradict that. Surely, before taking this drastic step of enclosing Primrose Hill and shutting it at night, which has never been done for centuries, some attempt should be made to increase the patrols, even if it means including some members of the right hon. Member's own staff.

What the Minister's proposal amounts to is this. He says, in effect, that Crown property is being damaged by hooligans, so he intends to curtail the public's enjoyment of an open space by fencing it in, and closing it down to the public after 7.30 p.m. Therefore, the public, and not least my own constituents, who use the hill as a short cut to and from their homes, are to be penalised solely because the police have not been so far successful in catching the gangs of young thugs. I suggest that is manifestly unfair. The Minister has said that he wants to improve the amenities of the hill, and that it is not worth while doing it until it is enclosed. My constituents like. Primrose Hill as it is, and they certainly do not want improved amenities if the price to be paid is to have it enclosed and shut at night.

I do not want to represent the right hon. Gentleman, or his Parliamentary Secretary, as people who derive satisfaction from keeping London people from their open spaces; I am sure that is not the case and that the Minister came to that decision with reluctance. Nevertheless, I am certain it is the wrong decision and I hope, even at this late stage, he will reverse it, or at any rate postpone its implementation. I have some hopes in this respect, because I notice the railings, which had begun to be erected around the perimeter, suddenly stopped halfway down Regent's Park Road about the time I put down the first Question. I am happy to say they have not started again, so it may be there is some chance that the Minister will change his mind. But, if he remains adamant, I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to give me certain assurances if he can.

First of all, if the hill is, in fact, closed at night and the situation improves—perhaps some hooligans are caught—will he in, say, three months' time re-open it again experimentally for 24 hours a day, as it is at the moment?

Secondly, if when it has been re-opened there is still no recurrence of any abnormal damage, will he, after a suitable interval remove the offending railings and let Primrose Hill once more become an open space? I think that is the least he can do if his reluctance to take this step is a genuine one. But I hope that he will say, in view of the unanimous opposition to these proposals—I wish to make it quite clear that no voice whatever has been raised in support of it in my hearing and I have had no letter in my postbag supporting it—that he will not proceed with this plan at present. Finally, I think it is a very curious action for a Government to take who were elected on the slogan of "Set the people free."

10.26 p.m.

Mr. Henry Brooke (Hampstead)

The hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. K. Robinson) and I share a common interest in Primrose Hill, and my constituents have shown that interest as keenly as his have. I wish to correct him on, I think, only three points. The first is that it was I and not he who first raised this matter by Question in the House. The second is that when I ventilated it by a letter in the local papers in June, I invited readers to suggest whether they could see any other method of solving the hooligan problem except by closing the hill at night. Frankly, I was disappointed that that letter of mine brought forth only one response.

Thirdly, I am bound to say that there can be no question that this is the work of hooligans. Undoubtedly, some children have done some damage at various times on the hill but the uprooting of the beautiful plaque, for instance, that took place some weeks ago, could only have been done as a result of a determined effort by strong men or youths.

So that, much as I dislike the idea of losing Primrose Hill even for a short time during the hours of darkness, nevertheless neither the hon. Gentleman nor I nor any of our constituents can turn our faces away from the fact that hooliganism and vandalism have been rampant there, and that somehow or other it has to be dealt with. Even if at this late hour someone can suggest an effective means of doing that other than by closing the hill at night, I think we should all insist on the Minister accepting that and trying the experiment.

I too wish to add my voice in pleading that any action taken should be regarded as experimental. It really would be disastrous if something was tried out to see if it worked and was then made permanent just because it had been tried. When I heard that closing was in the wind, I suggested to the Minister that the hill should be kept open up to 7.30 p.m. all through the year, and I am glad to say that he has agreed to that, whatever may happen. I should like to add the plea that should it still remain necessary to keep Primrose Hill closed in the summer months, then it should be kept open as late as possible during the long light summer evenings, to midnight if that can be done, because if there are vandals at work there, they are working in dead darkness and not in twilight.

Finally, I too am aware that there is fear among people locally that my right hon. Friend is motivated by plans for a good deal of what I might call architectural construction on Primrose Hill. Everybody wants to see Primrose Hill made as pleasant as possible: I ventured to voice this appeal when the Minister came to unveil that view indicator generously given to Primrose Hill some months ago. I do not think any of us want the hill made into something ornate. We want it primarily as an ordinary, pleasant open space, for the benefit of the people living around and the people who like to take walks over there. It is to that that we ask the Minister and his Parliamentary Secretary to address themselves.

10.31 p.m.

Sir Wavell Wakefield (St. Marylebone)

My constituency borders on Primrose Hill and, like the two hon. Members who have spoken in the debate, I have had a number of representations on this matter. It has been suggested that extra patrols might be used to stop the vandalism and the ill-behaviour which takes place on that beauty spot, instead of enclosing it with railings. Patrols are perhaps needed more urgently in other parts of London than at Primrose Hill, but would it not be possible, from amongst those in the vicinity who desire to see the place remain open, to arrange for some kind of voluntary patrol corps? They could patrol the beaty spot by arrangement among themselves, and it might not then be necessary for the Minister to enclose the hill with railings.

I make that suggestion for what it is worth. I do not believe it has been made in the Press or in any other way, and perhaps it might now receive consideration.

10.32 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works (Mr. Hugh Molson)

The hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. K. Robinson) has protested against the decision of my right hon. Friend to close Primrose Hill from 7.30 p.m. in the winter and at dusk in the summer, and, very naturally, he has had a measure of support from my two hon. Friends who represent constituencies in the neighbourhood. My right hon. Friend is personally extremely anxious that all open spaces shall be used as freely as possible and for the greatest possible benefit to the public, and therefore we all start with a common desire. It is natural that we should all wish that these open spaces, with which London is so well endowed—but not sufficiently well endowed—should be used in that way and, as for myself, if I may venture to say so, I have long been a subscribing member of the Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society.

It is extremely painful to me, therefore, to be obliged to defend any proposal for the enclosing of an open space. We all approach it with the utmost reluctance, but during the hours of darkness hooligans have made a practice of damaging and destroying just those things which have been put on to Primrose Hill in order to increase the enjoyment of the public during the hours of daylight and my Department have been obliged to do something about it. We are obliged to take action.

The hon. Member has not indicated any satisfactory alternative policy. He did not, and cannot, deny that hooliganism is taking place. He knows perfectly well that lamps have been smashed, that lamp-posts have been knocked sideways, that seats have been broken and torn from their foundations. More than that, a viewfinder of fine design and workmanship, given by, and erected at the cost of, that distinguished architect Mr. Arthur Kenyon, in order to show visitors the points of interest in London's famous skyline, has recently been prized from its base. I do not understand why hooligans behave in this manner, but I am bound to say that this kind of conduct—

Sir Leslie Plummer (Deptford)

Does the hon. Gentleman remember that about 300 years ago Sir Edmund Godfrey, who, I think, was Lord Mayor of London, was murdered on Primrose Hill Fields, but in those days nobody enclosed the fields because somebody was murdered there. Surely the hon. Gentleman is not enclosing them because a viewfinder has been destroyed.

Mr. Molson

I cannot think that that intervention has been extremely useful. We are trying to preserve Primrose Hill for the benefit of people who resort there, and a public-spirited gentleman has given a viewfinder, which was generally admired. It is an example of the hooliganism that takes place that this, which had been given for the enjoyment of the public, has been prized out of its foundation during the hours of darkness.

My right hon. Friend is under an obligation to make certain that Primrose Hill and its amenities are available for the maximum enjoyment of the public. If the hon. Member condemns our action, it is up to him to say what alternative course he would wish us to take; and listening to the hon. Member's speech, it is not clear to me that he has discharged that obligation. I can think of only one alternative to closing the park during the hours of darkness. That is, to remove all the seats and lamps and everything else that can be destroyed and to leave Primrose Hill as a completely open space, very much like Hampstead Heath. It therefore is a question as to which is really to the benefit of the public.

We are anxious to consider the convenience of the great majority of the decent people who visit Primrose Hill to enjoy the air, to take exercise, to enjoy the view and to relax. I do not think that most of those people are likely to go to Primrose Hill during the hours of darkness, but I am sure they would all suffer if the seats were removed. This would especially apply in the case of the mothers who resort there with their children.

The hon. Member must admit that in this vale of woe where there are wrongdoers the innocent almost invariably have to suffer, and so it would be in the case of Primrose Hill. We therefore had to decide whether we were to remove everything which could be destroyed by hooligans during the hours of darkness and leave it as a completely open space, unadorned and without those amenities like seats and lights, which are of very great importance, or whether we should seek to enclose it at night.

The hon. Member says there have been many protests. My right hon. Friend has received a number, and it is true that the local authorities have also protested, but when my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Brooke) raised this matter in the local Press during the summer, there was no response. That does not mean that everybody agreed with the course that was to be taken, but it does suggest that there was no very strong feeling against it. We are keeping the hill open until 7.30 p.m., even in winter, to let those returning from work use it as a short cut.

Mr. Robinson


Mr. Molson

I am sorry, but I have little time to finish the argument. We are also providing no fewer than seven gates, in order that as many people as possible may be able to get in and out without having a long way to go to find an entrance or an exit.

Mr. Robinson

Had the public known that the hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. H. Brooke) was suggesting that the Minister was going to take this action, then of course the response would obviously have been very different. However, as far as they knew, this was merely an expression of opinion by the hon. Member and, quite naturally, it did not provoke a large response.

Mr. Brooke

The real answer is that more people ought to read their local papers.

Mr. Robinson


Mr. Molson

I only emphasised the point that my right hon. Friend did pay attention to that because he was anxious to elicit public opinion. The hon. Gentleman has suggested that we should increase the patrolling. At the present time patrolling is done by the police. There is a limit to the number of police who can be used for the purpose of guarding public property from hooliganism on open spaces and, as my hon. Friend indicated, there are perhaps at the present time more important purposes for which the police can be used.

The great importance of enclosing Primrose Hill is that at the present time, so long as it is open, no one is committing an offence in being there at night. Therefore it is extremely difficult to connect damage and hooliganism which takes place on the hill on a certain evening with those who are found upon it. If, however, we enclose it, it means that anyone who is found within the enclosure is a trespasser and, as such, ipso facto, is guilty of an offence. We believe, therefore, that it will be much easier to bring home responsibility for this hooliganism to those who are guilty of it.

It is quite true that it is a comparatively small fence which we are putting round the park and that it would be possible for people to get over it, but it would obviously be more difficult for a trespasser to get away if chased by the keeper or keepers whom we intend to employ, and the dog with which we intend to provide them.

I have been asked to give an assurance for the future. We shall certainly review the situation next spring. We shall consider whether the measures that we have taken have proved effective for the purpose for which they are intended. We shall also consider whether there has been an unmistakable indication of a general improvement in public behaviour and, if so, we will most gladly consider the possibility of removing the fence. I must make it clear, however, that we should not be disposed to do so unless we had some kind of assurance that there would not be a resumption of the hooliganism which has caused this action.

If enclosure proves ineffective for our purpose, then I am afraid that we should have to consider resorting to the alternative course which I have indicated. As I have said, it is the view of my right hon. Friend that to remove the seats and the lamps and so on would be more harmful to the amenities of the park than the measure that he is taking at the present time. If the lampstands were removed, I do not think that many innocent people would any longer feel disposed to resort to Primrose Hill at night, and if the seats were removed, it would greatly reduce their enjoyment of Primrose Hill by day.

So, in acting as he has, my right hon. Friend has been trying to consult the interests of those who genuinely enjoy the amenities of Primrose Hill, and we will gladly reconsider in the spring the possibility of altering the policy which has now been forced upon us.

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

Adjourned at a Quarter to Eleven o'Clock.