HC Deb 21 June 1956 vol 554 cc1767-73

10.10 p.m.

The Minister of Works (Mr. P. G. T. Buchan-Hepburn)

I beg to move, in page 8, line 24, to leave out "this Part of".

This is a drafting Amendment, for which I must apologise, as there is an error in drafting. The Bill is not divided into Parts and so these words do not make sense.

Amendment agreed to.

Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 9 and 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

First and Second Schedules agreed to.

Preamble agreed to.

Bill reported, with an Amendment; as amended (in the Select Committee and on re-committal), considered.

10.11 p.m.

Mr. Buchan-Hepburn

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

I do not think the House would wish me again to go over at length the reasons for the Bill which were fully discussed when it was given a Second Reading without a Division. However, on that occasion some queries and suggestions were put forward by hon. and right hon. Members, but most of these, if not all of them, have since had a good airing as a result of the London County Council's Petition to the Select Committee which examined this hybrid Bill.

First, I should mention that certain Amendments have been written into the Bill, as is its right to do, by the Select Committee. These Amendments, which speak for themselves, are mainly for the protection of various statutory undertakers, with whom they were agreed in advance. Apart from these Amendments, the Select Committee had to consider three points in the London County Council's Petition, and these the Select Committee did not agree to incorporate in the Bill. They are, however, the subject of recommendations embodied in the Select Committee's Special Report.

The first recommendation is that the Minister of Works should frequently review the need for retaining the shelters and works mentioned in the Bill having regard both to the requirements of the Civil Defence and to the wishes of the local authorities concerned. I can certainly promise that frequent review will be made, but while I shall, of course, be very sympathetic to the wishes of local authorities who wish to get rid of these objects, I have to bear in mind three things.

The first is the needs of Civil Defence, on which I shall be in close touch with my right hon. and gallant Friend the Home Secretary. Secondly, there is the continuing option of the British Transport Commission to acquire the four southern shelters. Thirdly, in the event of the shelters not being required at any future date for Civil Defence, freedom of access for maintenance must be preserved if, as is probable, it would be too expensive to fill in these shelters.

The second recommendation of the Select Committee is that in the event of the shelters and works being retained for many years, the Minister should examine the possibility of providing other land to make up for loss of open space. I will certainly examine this possibility. The proceedings of the Select Committee, however, illustrated the difficulty of providing land at a reasonable price, if at all. Although only an infinitesimal amount of land is involved, there would be difficulty owing to the highly developed character of the areas involved. I will certainly examine this but I can make no promise.

The third recommendation of the Select Committee is the suggestion that the Minister should take steps to improve the outward appearance of the shelters and also, if possible, reduce the surface area occupied by works connected with them. As regards appearance, I can promise the House that I will do everything in my power to make the shelters look better, within reason. It is a rather formidable assignment. However, in anticipation of ownership, a survey has already been carried out by my Department and a detailed scheme drawn up which provides for such things as the reduction in height of the vent shafts, colour washing of the walls, repair of general dilapidation, fencing, and so on. I have also asked my chief architect, in conjunction with the London County Council, to see whether there is anything further that can be done. It may well be best not to try to make of these shelters something which they are not and never can be. I do not think they could be disguised and made into artificial ruins, such as they were fond of in the eighteenth century, or even into Chinese pagodas, quite apart from the expense. However, I shall at least be guided by the general principle which is common to human beings, and which I shall make common to the deep shelters, that if one cannot be beautiful one should at least make the best of oneself.

As to the second part of the recommendation, of course, the surface structures cannot be reduced in size at present, but if they are no longer wanted from any point of view, of course the recommendation will become easier to fulfil.

Lastly there is the question of the everyday use of these shelters. I said on Second Reading that I would do what I could to think of an appropriate use for them in normal times. I did not think that that would be easy, and the recent fire in the only shelter which was in human occupation, Goodge Street, which was an Army transit centre, has brought this issue into high relief. Directly after the fire my fire inspectors made a report, and, as a result, certain steps have been taken to make assurance doubly sure, and the London Fire Brigade is checking to see whether there are any additional precautions that can be taken. Their report on the fire came to me only today, and it is rather complicated, and I am afraid I am not in a position to say anything about it.

I wish to say at once, however, that whatever use can be found for the shelters —for storage, for instance, though that is difficult, because of the entrance and exit trouble, and so on—I do not intend in normal circumstances to allow the use of these shelters for human occupation. I cannot say that that possibility is absolutely ruled out, or that they never will be used for human occupation. There could be such considerations as Civil Defence, or an emergency might occur, but I do not intend to allow their use for what I may call normal accommodation, as, for instance they were used for cheap accommodation for students at the time of the Festival of Britain. The Secretary of State for War, of course, has given already an assurance about Goodge Street.

I hope that I have said enough now to satisfy the House of the sincerity of my intentions regarding the Bill and the recommendations of the Select Committee. I think it is generally appreciated that this Bill, though I cannot call it an attractive one, is necessary from what I may call a national, practical point of view. Therefore, I ask the House now to give it its Third Reading.

10.19 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Greenwood (Rossendale)

When the Bill was before the House on Second Reading, we of the Opposition welcomed it officially, and I want tonight to welcome the Third Reading of a Bill which, I think, has been improved since it was last before the House. On Second Reading, my hon. Friends and I drew attention to various criticisms that we had of these deep shelters and the structures above them. We said that the deep shelters would interfere with road widening schemes; We said they sterilised open spaces dedicated to the enjoyment of the public; and we said their entrances were very unsightly. It is gratifying to know that before the Select Committee the representatives of the Minister gave an undertaking that, if and when any improvement scheme took place that would be affected disadvantageously by the surface shelters, the Minister would either remove the structure concerned, if practicable, or pay the extra expenditure reasonably incurred in any subsequent variation of the scheme.

We were gratified also to find that the Select Committee on the Bill emphasised in its Report some of the points which we made on Second Reading. I am glad tonight to have the Minister's assurance that, as far as is humanly possible, he will comply with the Select Committee's suggestions. It is particularly important that he should do what he can to provide land in lieu of the land that has been sterilised by these deep shelters. I hope that he will not lose sight of that point.

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has taken steps to improve the appearance of deep shelters without making them into 20th century follies. We believe that, generally speaking, in his assurances tonight the right hon. Gentleman has gone as far as we could reasonably expect in the circumstances. We welcome what he has said about the use to which these deep shelters will be put, and the fact that they will be used for human habitation only in exceptional circumstances. It makes one wonder what use the shelters will be in case of war if they cannot be safely used in time of peace. But having said that, I can say that I am sure that all of us will join in hoping that the ultimate emergency against which these shelters were provided will never again come upon us. We welcome the opportunity to give the Bill a Third Reading.

10.23 p.m.

Mr. C. W.Gibson (Clapham)

I appreciate very much the Minister's readiness, if not to accept completely the recommendations of the Select Committee on the Bill, at any rate to give sympathetic consideration to them, and also his apparent willingness to discuss these shelters from time to time with the London County Council. I would suggest to him that the boroughs in which they are situated also have a point of view. They have lived with these shelters even longer than have the London County Council and it might be a good thing to consult them too when the time comes.

I hope that the point about providing alternative land will be seriously followed up, particularly because if any local authority takes land and uses it for a public purpose it is compelled by law to provide land which, if possible, adjoins the land that it has taken for other purposes. I have some vivid memories of situations like that arising in connection with London County Council housing work.

It is rather important, particularly at Whitfield Gardens and Stockwell, for additional land to be provided, if at all possible, to bring the open spaces there up to their previous size. I have, perhaps, as close an interest in this matter as anybody, because three of these shelters are in my constituency. Indeed, they are called by the people there, "The three ugly sisters of Clapham", which indicates the kind of impact they make on the minds of those who live in that area.

I hope that all idea of getting rid of at least the tops of these shelters has not been dropped. It would be quite useful to get rid of some of the protuberances above the brickwork. I suggest again, as I did on Second Reading, that some of these shelters should be pulled down to ground level. If that cannot be done, they should be covered in some way. I do not know that lime-washing them will necessarily do that. I suggested to the Select Committee that roses might be grown on them to help to hide them. At any rate something ought to be done to improve their appearance if the top part of the structures must remain. I am glad to hear from the Minister that he is prepared to look at the matter sympathetically, and to discuss with the local authorities the possibility of improving the appearance of these structures to some extent.

The only possible use they could have is for storage purposes, and I believe that one is used as a store. If they must remain in readiness for use in a war which nobody expects, we cannot get rid of them. Indeed I do not want to get rid of them. I want the British Transport Commission to complete the first idea of linking them at some time with an additional railway line through South London, which is so badly needed. If that idea is kept alive, as I hope it will be, I hope the British Transport Commission will one day wish to take them over and complete the project for an express underground railway line out to Morden. That would considerably relieve pressure on traffic in the rush hours, both from the City and in that part of London.

Otherwise I am delighted to hear the Minister so sympathetically accepting the recommendations in the special Report of the Select Committee, and I wish him well in the work.

10.26 p.m.

Mr. F. H. Hayman (Falmouth and Camborne)

I also want to thank the Minister for the nice way in which he has accepted the recommendations of the Select Committee of which, like my hon. Friend the Member for Clapham (Mr. Gibson), I was a member. As I recollect, one point which arose in our discussions was whether the superstructures were now adequately safe against nuclear fall-out for those who might at any time have to use them as shelters. As far as I recollect, they are not, but we were told that this could be achieved fairly quickly. In view of the fact that the shelters, if they ever are wanted, will be wanted quickly, I hope that this point can be considered.

I support what my hon. Friend has said about the desirability of providing alternative open space if these places are required in perpetuity. It is an obligation on local authorities to provide alternative space in cases of this kind, and it would set a bad example if the Government were to avoid their responsibilities in such a matter.

I want also to refer to the fact that on the morning of the second day when the Select Committee met I visited the Goodge Street shelter to see for myself what it looked like. I was astonished to find that the open space had been neglected by, I think, the St. Pancras Borough Council. I found that about a dozen waste bins, which were used in connection with the military occupation, were in a dilapidated state. However, that is all past now and we are glad to know that the Minister is sympathetically accepting the points made by the Select Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.