HC Deb 10 April 1956 vol 551 cc166-76

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

10.40 p.m.

Mrs. Lena Jeger (Holborn and St. Pancras, South)

I wish to raise tonight the question of the British Museum's new Library, which is usually referred to as the National Library, and to ask the Minister for certain information and guidance which will assist those who are directly concerned in these proposals.

I want to disclaim any intention of being parochial in the matter, because any project of national or, in this case, international significance must inevitably create disturbance to the people in whose neighbourhood it takes place. I am proud that the British Museum, Reading Room and Library are in my constituency; I think they are unrivalled institutions in their field in the world. But I should be failing in my duty to many of my constituents if I did not bring some of the resultant difficulties of the new scheme before the House.

I hope that the Minister can give some information tonight about the proposals which he has for meeting some of the problems of displacement. His right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government has refused to meet a deputation from Holborn Borough Council, led by myself, which wanted to discuss the implications of the scheme. In an effort to get a little more information I put a Question to the Minister of Works on 20th March, as reported in HANSARD, column 974, and I was told that the present occupants of this site are not likely to be disturbed for a few years to come. A little later the right hon. Gentleman said it was unlikely that any of the occupants will be displaced for some years". so that we progressed from "a few years" to "some years". Then he went on to say: It is proposed in due course to let on short tenancies those parts of the site which are not required immediately for building; and when I say 'immediately' that does not mean immediately either."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th March, 1956; Vol. 550, c. 974.] This statement was of such startling clarity that it made the grade for the Observer's saying of the week at that time. I think my constituents deserve a little more clarification of the situation than that.

The plan, as approved by the Minister of Housing and Local Government, was incorporated at the request of the. Minister of Works into the County of London Plan. It proposes to take 7½ acres in Bloomsbury, bounded by Bloomsbury Street and Bloomsbury Square, on the West, Bloomsbury Way, the North side of New Oxford Street and Great Russell Street. At present, only about 63 of an acre is cleared or derelict, so the House can see that a great deal of clearance will have to be carried out.

At present, on the site there are 126 commercial buildings in full use, 99 of which include some residential accommodation. There are 13 buildings which are scheduled as buildings of historic and architectural interest; 184 flats; eight apartment houses; two hotels and a Y.W.C.A. hostel which provides accommodation for 350 girls. It was stated at the public inquiry—and the figures have not been disputed—that over 1,000 people will lose their homes as a result of this plan.

We must press the Parliamentary Secretary to give an answer to the question of the future of these people. I quote from a statement in the transcript of evidence at the public inquiry, when learned counsel said: There is, of course, no statutory obligation either upon the L.C.C. or upon the Departments which constrains them to provide alternative accommodation for businesses. In so far as the Council"— the L.C.C.— displaces persons for the performance of its functions, there is a statutory obligation to rehouse displaced persons. The Crown, of course, is not bound by these provisions, and there is therefore no statutory obligation which would constrain the Crown to rehouse displaced persons. I am authorised to say on behalf of the Departments that they fully recognise the existence of the problem and that they will do everything they can to prevent hardship. The Crown has no legal responsibilities in this matter, neither has the London County Council. The official witness for the Holborn Borough Council said: I am asked to place on record that the borough council can accept no responsibilities for rehousing anyone from this area. I must ask the Parliamentary Secretary what is being done, using the words of his official witness, to prevent hardship. Sites in this part of London are being rapidly used up for all kinds of office and institutional building, and the borough council has not yet been able to overtake even 50 per cent. of the residential loss resulting from bombing.

One can well understand the council, with its long, distressing housing list, feeling unable to face up to any further obligations. I want to know whether the Minister is earmarking any sites in the neighbourhood for the provision of alternative accommodation under a special scheme for displaced people. It is no use saying, as the Minister suggested the other day, that it will be a long time before all this happens, because when that long time has passed all the sites will certainly have been used and it will be too late then to think about the alternative provision which we can make.

I am also especially concerned, among the business firms who are displaced, about the publishing firms and the bookshops in the neighbourhood which we all know very well and greatly appreciate. At least 35 publishing firms and distinguished specialised bookshops are involved in the clearance area. They form an integral part of the area. They are a natural environment for the Museum and they contribute, no doubt, to the delight and the enlightenment of many of the scholars and visitors from all over the world who use the Museum.

It is difficult to understand how the Minister, in the name and, we must assume, for the sake of the needs of the great Library, can scatter the very men who make, produce and sell the books which the Library is devoted to preserving. This is especially serious because Hitler's bombing of Paternoster Row destroyed an important publishing centre, and it would be even more serious if this second centre were to be lost.

The Minister might also look at the question from the point of view of exports. One famous, well-established firm in the area exports 45 per cent. of its books. To develop this trade more fully, it recently asked for planning permission to extend its premises into adjoining premises which it already owned, but this was refused by the Minister on the ground that it conflicted with the National Library proposals. Such a firm has a right to ask how long it will be before the proposals become reality, and I hope that the Minister tonight will be able to give the House a definite date.

Another reason why I must press the matter is that the last time Parliament was asked to pass an Act enabling the British Museum Trustees to acquire land for urgent extensions was in 1894, although as yet, 60 years later, only about one-third of the land has been used and the Museum merely draws rents from the remainder. Is another 60 years likely to elapse before the present scheme is one-third of the way towards fruition? If so, surely people could be assured about their future.

The representative of the Minister of Works at the public inquiry said that it was the intention of the Ministry to acquire the whole of these properties within ten years from the date of confirmation of the designation. Is this still the Government's policy? As yet, I understand, no plans have been received by the planning authority. Are these plans in fact ready for presentation? Has some programming and phasing yet been worked out? I want to know what the Ministry of Works witness at the public inquiry meant when he said: We are quite determined to do our utmost to see that these people get a fair deal. What does that mean in practical terms? Will somewhere on the seven and a half acres be found for the publishers and for the bookshops and for some of the other dislocated businesses and residences? If not, where else are they to go?

The scheme was not included in the County of London Plan in 1943, but appeared in it later. The London County Council was asked by the Ministry of Works to include this plan in the County of London Plan. The Ministry of Works representative at the public inquiry said that the Trustees of the British Museum asked the Minister to put it in. I should like to know to what extent the Trustees of the British Museum are agreed that the plan in its present form should go through. During the public inquiry the paternity was squarely placed with the Minister of Works, for the learned counsel interrupted during the cross-examination of the Ministry of Works witness in the following words: All the responsibility for this rests upon the Minister. We have got to be very careful that we do not have cross-examination of one of his officers upon matters of policy which are for him to justify to Parliament. At what stage does the Minister justify his policy to Parliament? Is it to be when he wants the money? Meanwhile, the fact that planning permission has been granted has led people to understand that the final decisions have been taken. I understand from the answer I received on 20th March that the Minister of Works has promised to keep in touch with me about developments, and I hope that this will be for our mutual benefit.

I want to make it absolutely clear that I share the pride we all take in the British Museum, its Reading Room and great Library, and I do not contest for one moment that improvements are needed very urgently. I regret that the lands bought in 1894 have not been used as intended, and I regret particularly the deplorable working conditions of many of the staff, but I think that if the Minister shared my concern he could increase the current maintenance grants to the Museum. While Parliament seems unable to spend sufficient money for the proper upkeep of the present Museum Library, we must ask ourselves how provision for capital and current expenditure on this vastly bigger scheme can be made. There are many people who are very cynical about the scheme's ever coming to fruition. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to tell us tonight whether this is just a pipe dream or whether he means business.

I ask him again if he will consult the Trustees of the British Museum about their problems, to see whether there is some modified way in which their difficulties could be met. I am not at all sure there has been enough imaginative and constructive thought given to the problems. We have priceless collections which should be worthily housed and which are not at the moment being treated as they should be—books, music, manuscripts, State papers. On the other hand, there is the obligation under the Copyright Act, 1911, upon the British Museum to receive a copy of every book published, whatever its merits and quality or lack of them. There are 75 miles of bookselves at the Museum, and they extend one and a half miles every year to keep pace with this obligation. Does the Minister think it essential that all these books should be housed in the centre of London?

I believe these copies should be kept, no matter how bad the books, if only that posterity and future literary critics may be able to judge how rich and rare by contrast are the good books we manage to produce in our time. But must they be kept in Central London, on the skirt, if not in the very heart of the British Museum? The Bodleian Library, on which a similar obligation rests, stores many books at Woodstock, seven miles away, keeping in the main Library copies of books of more academic value to be more easily accessible.

I should like to ask the Minister to ascertain in his consultations whether enough thought has been given to the possibilities of micro-filming, so that we could have all this material available in London in very much less space. The books should, of course, be still kept, because one might want to have the actual volume available to study the binding, presentation and so on. I have seen claims that micro-filming can reduce storage volume to 2 per cent. For instance, every copy of The Times from 1785 to 1942 has been micro-filmed on to reels which take up only 15 cubic feet. Surely this is Marlowe's Infinite riches in a little room and much to be commended.

I am sure that further study of this scheme could produce a plan which would be more economical, more imaginative and more helpful in every possible way. If I may say so with some diffidence, the present plan is completely Victorian in conception. It belongs to an age of sprawl and spread when labour and space were cheap and expendable. Let us have a plan nearer to the modern age, using all the scientific devices to hand to produce something more stimulating to the minds and eyes of ourselves and our descendants. I put these matters forward in all helpfulness. I hope that it will be possible for the Parliamentary Secretary to give me the assurances and information for which I have asked in the same spirit.

10.56 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works (Mr. J. R. Bevins)

I am sure that the House is grateful to the hon. Lady the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mrs. L. Jeger) for her thoughtful and imaginative contribution to this subject this evening. I hope that the discussion may serve to allay certain of the anxieties which she expressed and also, although I am less hopeful of this, to vindicate the conception of the proposals to which the hon. Lady has referred.

I should first remind the House briefly of the history of the scheme. Towards the end of the last war, the Standing Committee on Museums and Galleries recommended the purchase of a site to the east of the existing British Museum for the erection of a new Library building. The London County Council objected to that proposal and suggested the acquisition of an alternative site, lying south of the Museum. This site covers an area of a little over seven acres, and about one-quarter of it is ripe for development as a result of bombing during the war and because of the age of many of the buildings.

As far back as December, 1946, the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Dalton), when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, approved in principle the acquisition of the site we are considering tonight. The site was then designated in the London County Council Development Plan and a public inquiry took place into the proposal. All objections were fully considered, but the Minister of Housing and Local Government decided a year ago to approve the designation.

The hon. Lady's criticism of the proposal falls into two parts. First, she has made certain criticisms of detail and, secondly, she is rather hostile to the whole conception of the scheme. I should like to say a few words which may allay some of the anxieties of the hon. Lady's constituents.

The first thing I wish to make clear is that it is the intention of my right hon. Friend and the Museum authorities, with whom we are in close contact, that the scheme should be carried out very gradually over a considerable period with the minimum of hardship to interested parties in the locality. In accordance with the Town and Country Planning Act we must acquire the designated site by 1965 and that we shall do. That does not mean that we shall develop the whole of the site within that period, or even indeed within a period of twenty years. Where land is not needed in the near future, perhaps within ten years—and that will apply to the bulk of it—we shall hand it back to the present occupiers on tenancies of appropriate duration according to the period we envisage before we shall develop it.

That I think is clear enough. The first stage of redevelopment under our present plans will not take place before about ten years from now, when we propose to develop the area west of Coptic Street, which is a relatively small part of the site. We hope not to interfere with the block of flats known as Stedham Chambers at this stage of the project.

We do not expect the second stage of development to start for at least twenty years; that is, before 1975, and it is likely to be later than that. I am sorry that I cannot now tell the hon. Lady which part of the site will be needed for the second stage. This is a complicated problem which involves a great deal of work. We are working hard on a timetable for the entire site, and I assure the hon. Lady that we shall give the occupants and owners a clear idea of how the time-table will proceed as soon as humanly possible.

The hon. Lady referred to the rehousing of people displaced by the project. We all realise the difficulties of the London County Council and the various local authorities in the Greater London Area over the housing situation. However, in view of the phasing of the development, the rehousing of the dispossessed people is not a current difficulty; nor do I think it is a difficulty which is likely to arise in an acute form within the next ten or fifteen years. The first part of the site which we shall clear and build upon is an area which includes few of the people who live in the area.

One has also to remember that by the time we reach the stage when we shall have to demolish numbers of flats and houses, the housing situation may have changed radically. When that time comes, and if we run into any difficulties about the rehousing of displaced people, there will be no hesitation about making representations to the then Minister of Housing—although heaven knows who will be the Minister at that time—with a view to his bringing some benign influence to bear on the London County Council to help the people who have lost their homes.

The hon. Lady has referred to the position of the publishers and booksellers, whose businesses, as she so rightly said, form an integral part of the character of Bloomsbury. In order to preserve the character of this area we, think it desirable to try to make some provision in the frontages of the area as redeveloped for bookshops and, perhaps, other shops. We have this question very much in mind, although it is too early to say at the moment how much we can do in this way.

On the broader question, whether the present conception of the scheme is the right one, I would like to say that my right hon. Friend has for a long time been in the closest touch with the Trustees of the British Museum, and we are acting in complete harmony in this matter. I am sure that the House will agree that it is essential that the British Museum Library should be housed either inside the Museum or in an area close to it. That is desirable, as the hon. Lady knows, for various technical reasons, into which I cannot enter at this late stage, but I would mention the question of its accessibility to the students of London University.

When I first came across this subject. I, too, had certain doubts whether it was a wise thing to attempt to house all the books, newspapers and sheets of music either in the museum or an adjacent building. I have listened to what the hon. Lady said about the possibility of sifting the wheat from the chaff and putting some of the less important documents outside London. That has been considered, but it is not a feasible proposition. It is not easy to differentiate between what is valuable and what is not. As the hon. Lady said, the museum has an obligation laid upon it by Statute to keep copies of all books, sheet music and newspapers. It would be an impossible task to try to distinguish between a book which was likely to have some value to research workers, and a book which had no such value.

Literary reputations, like political reputations, are subject to the ravages of time. I do not know who could have judged at the time whether the first published work of George Bernard Shaw was worth keeping in London. I remember reading "The Unsociable Socialist" when I was 15 years of age, and I certainly would then have come to the conclusion that it should be consigned to a place far from London. Even with regard to "Das Kapital," by Karl Marx—the gentleman who spent so much of his time in the British Museum—I am not sure that the hon. Lady's view and mine would coincide. In any case, the space taken up in the library by light fiction and sheet music is a very small fraction of the total.

The hon. Lady has made some most interesting suggestions, and I can assure her that they will be seriously considered. For the rest, I repeat that there is no intention on the part of my right hon. Friend to do other than his best to prevent hardship to any of the hon. Lady's constituents, and directly we are in a position to give them more definite information we shall certainly do so.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes past Eleven o'clock.