HC Deb 13 March 1956 vol 550 cc223-5
Mr. Buchan-Hepburn

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I will now reply to Question No. 40.

Yes, Sir. The iron bridge across the lake in St. James's Park, which was built in 1857, needs major repairs at a cost which may well be in the region of £10,000. For many years it has been necessary to support the bridge from below on occasions when large crowds are expected; this will still be the case even if this money is spent on the bridge.

Some years ago an anonymous testator left £20,000 for a new bridge; with accumulated interest the sum available now amounts to £23,000. The terms of the bequest do not permit this money to be used for the repair of the present bridge. The offer has to be accepted by 10th April of this year or the money goes to another purpose.

A design has been prepared for a light and simple bridge which can be built for the sum of money available.

The Royal Fine Art Commission have said that while they appreciate the economic advantages of a new bridge and the merits of this particular design, in their opinion, however, the present bridge is not without merit and has become so widely accepted as a historic feature of St. James's Park that it would be better to retain it in spite of the practical difficulties and the cost of periodic maintenance.

Judging from informal soundings I have taken, there appears to be a body of opinion in favour of proceeding with the scheme for a new bridge. A model of the proposed new bridge—it is not a final design—with photographs and drawings illustrating both it and the present bridge, has been placed in the Tea Room.

Whatever the ultimate decision, I felt it was only right to inform the House of this generous offer. While I obviously have to reach a decision fairly soon, if any hon. Members care to let me have their views personally or in writing, I should be very glad indeed.

Mr. Vane

May I ask my right hon. Friend to put the building of the new bridge in front of any office buildings which he may have in view? Secondly, before making his final decision, will he consider a bridge of timber construction, as there are many excellent modern examples of such bridges to be found in public parks in Scandinavia?

Mr. Buchan-Hepburn

I did not quite catch the first part of my hon. Friend's supplementary, but I think it was something about office buildings. This is in a different category from office buildings; if the money is accepted, it will be a present. I realise how attractive are bridges of timber construction, and I will bear the suggestion in mind, but the difficulty is that a timber bridge might need constant repair and maintenance. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] That might be so in comparison with a bridge similar to the model which is in the Tea Room and which would be of cement and covered with Portland stone.

Mr. Anthony Greenwood

Is the Minister aware that, in the opinion of many of us, the value of the existing bridge is largely sentimental and that many of us would welcome any suitable light and unobtrusive alternative of the kind suggested?

Mr. Buchan-Hepburn

I think everybody has a sentimental feeling for the present bridge, but I hope I am not going too far in saying that if it were put up as the design of a new bridge there would be a considerable outcry.

Mr. Gaitskell

While not wishing to advise the Minister at the moment on the difficult problem which he faces, may I ask him to satisfy the curiosity of the House by telling us what will happen to the money if the bridge is not built?

Mr. Buchan-Hepburn

I am afraid that that is not known, but I do not think it is of the same character. As I have already said, the testator is anonymous and the other possible employment for the money is anonymous too.

Mr. Nicholson

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there will be tremendous con, troversy about this and that he may earn great popularity or great unpopularity? Will he tell the House what steps he has taken and what bodies or individuals he is consulting before deciding on the design of a new bridge? Is it to be left to his own sense of good taste, in which we all have great confidence?

Mr. Buchan-Hepburn

I have said that I have consulted the Royal Fine Art Commission. I have also taken the liberty of consulting hon. Members on both sides of the House who interest themselves in these matters. If I have left out my hon. Friend the Member for Farnham (Mr. Nicholson), I am very sorry, but the model is in the Tea Room now.

Mr. Hastings

Will the right hon. Gentleman give very careful consideration to the desirability of putting up a bridge which would be safe on all ordinary occasions, even if there were a few extra people on it?

Mr. Buchan-Hepburn

That is an advantage of the new scheme.

Mr. K. Robinson

Would the Minister give an assurance that he is prepared to supplement this amount out of Exchequer funds, if that is necessary, in order to provide a better bridge?

Mr. Buchan-Hepburn

I think that a very suitable light bridge can be provided for the sum of money offered. There have been previous occasions on which schemes for new bridges—for instance, one designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens—were abandoned largely because the proposed bridges were heavy and obstructed the view down the lake. This is a very light bridge which will not obstruct the view.