HC Deb 27 March 1956 vol 550 cc1979-2002

Order for Second Reading read.

3.45 p.m.

The Minister of Works (Mr. Patrick Buchan-Hepburn)

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

The last time I moved the Second Reading of a Bill was when I was lucky in the Ballot, in 1932. It was called the Wheat Act (1932) Amendment Bill which, in spite of its high-sounding title, referred simply to ships' biscuits. I sincerely believed that it would be helpful to my constituents, but the Whips ordered it to be strangled at birth, which it was, very efficiently. On this occasion, therefore, I am glad I can count on the friendly support of my right hon. Friend the Government Chief Whip.

The Underground Works (London) Bill, to which I am asking the House to give a Second Reading today, seeks to provide for the acquisition of surface land and subsoil occupied by certain deep tube shelters and their ancillary works in London, all of which are still held on requisition by my Ministry. By a decision of the wartime Government eight deep tube shelters were built in London by the London Passenger Transport Board under emergency powers, at a cost of £2½million. They certainly could not be constructed for that price today. We are concerned here with the seven shelters listed in the Bill the eighth shelter is now used for special purposes by the Post Office and is not included.

I confess I had never seen any of these shelters until recently, when, for obvious reasons, I made it my business to go and look at them. I do not suppose that many other hon. Members have seen them either, so I should perhaps give as short a description of them as I can. The surface works of each shelter at each of its two entrances, there being two entrances to each, consist of a circular concrete cap about 40 feet in diameter and 20 to 30 feet in height, each cap containing a circular staircase and lift shaft; there is also a ventilation shaft.

It is when one goes underground that one realises the full extent of the con- struction. Each shelter has twin horizontal tunnels between 65 to 120 feet below the surface of the ground. Each tunnel is 18 feet in diameter, and about a quarter of a mile in length. Each tunnel, again, is divided in half horizontally to make two floors, so that there is in each of these shelters floor space of about a mile in length.

All are equipped with electric light, ventilation, washing and sanitary accommodation. In each shelter there is room for 8,000 people, so that in all the shelters constructed 64,000 people could have slept, if not in their own beds, at least in bunks of their own, with essential amenities and in complete safety from enemy attack. I am sure the House will agree, without any undue pessimism about the future, that it would be imprudent at least to abandon these shelters at present.

There is a second reason for their preservation, or, at any rate, the preservation of some of them. All the shelters were purposely built near the underground railway so as to form part of a new fast track if it should be decided to build one. The London Passenger Transport Board was given an option in its construction agreement to purchase them. The British Transport Commission, as the legal successors of the Board, has now given up its option to three of the shelters, retaining it in the case of the other four.

Of course, it may be decided in the future that these shelters serve no purpose whatsoever and must be filled in. The cost of that work would obviously be astronomical, even if filling material were available. However, be that as it may, I hope I have made it clear that for the present these shelters should be preserved. The Government also consider that eleven years after the war these shelters should not be held on requisition any longer.

Mr. R. J. Mellish (Bermondsey)

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether these shelters are deteriorating in any way, and whether any cost is involved? The reason I ask is that under the previous policy of maintaining shelters—and I understand why they were maintained—it was found by many local authorities that they could not be maintained. They deteriorated badly and then, after some time, they all had to be closed. Are these shelters all right in that sense?

Mr. Buchan-Hepburn

A considerable sum of money is spent on maintenance, which comes under the Vote of my Ministry.

I should now explain why it is proposed to proceed by way of a Bill rather than use existing powers under the Requisitioned Land and War Works Act, 1945. Some surface land has, in fact, been acquired already by direct negotiation, but we came up against difficulties. After all, most of what has to be acquired consists of tunnels at a considerable depth underground. They are under a very large number of properties, and sometimes under highways.

It would be a tremendous task to trace all the owners, lessees, sub-lessees, and so on, of the land immediately above the tunnels, and it would be very difficult to establish who was the owner of the soil under the highways. To try to do all this when, as we believe to be the case, there are about 1,000 owners of one kind or another involved—and these tunnels are not likely to cause them the slightest embarrassment, being so far underground—would entail, in our opinion, an unnecessary waste of time and money.

I must, however, make it quite clear that if any property owner suffers loss because his surface land is taken he is, by this Bill, entitled to compensation of exactly the same kind as if we had proceeded under the compulsory powers which we already have. Compensation is also provided under the Bill if the Minister neglects to maintain these works so that they fall in and damage the property above. I believe that that is a purely hypothetical contingency, as it is surely inconceivable that any Minister would be so neglectful and careless as to take risks with life and property in this way or, to put it on a lower level, to expose himself to the danger of paying huge sums in compensation.

I should now like to refer to another reason for proceeding by Bill. Part of the superstructures of three of the works—those at Goodge Street, Clapham South, and Stockwell—are situated on common land, and it is right that common land should be acquired only after the most careful consideration. But this common land has already been taken and used as a result of the rough-and-ready action which we expect in wartime, and the superstructures, being there, could not possibly be removed except at very great expense. Consequently, it is not considered that any useful purpose would be served by going through the normal complicated procedure in relation to common land.

Then, apart from the question of common land, some shelter caps encroach on pavements and highways, and it is very doubtful whether I can acquire parts of the highway under any existing legislation. In view of these difficulties and of the unique circumstances it seemed clear to the Government that the best thing to do was to make one operation of the proceedings in one Bill.

I ought to say that as and when the Bill becomes an Act every effort will be made to find a continuing use for these shelters, although it would be idle to pretend that that will be very easy. If at any time it is decided that the shelters are no longer required, the most sympathetic consideration will be given to erasing the surface caps and returning the common land and the highways.

I will now run shortly through the principal provisions of the Bill. The Preamble describes the works and gives some details of the plans and a book of reference deposited with the London County Council and other local authorities. Clause 1 vests the subsoil occupied by the shelters and in the case of surface works both surface and subsoil. As a verbal description of the land comprising the surface works would be complicated and lengthy it is proposed to show the land by large-scale signed plans, which are those defined in subsection (2).

Clause 2 deals with compensation. As it is intended to vest instead of conferring the power to acquire land it is necessary to adapt the machinery of the Lands Clauses Acts to this situation. Clause 3 (1) refers to one case—Belsize Park—where the only access to one of the surface works is by means of a private road. Subsection (2) regularises the existing encroachments—which are of a minor character—of some of the surface works on roads, and these encroachments, and so on, are listed in the First Schedule.

Clause 4 vests in the Minister certain drains and waterpipes connecting the shelters to the public drains and water services, and these are described in the Second Schedule. Arrangements are made in subsections (3) and (4) for compensation to owners of the land through which the pipes pass. Clause 5 gives protection to owners in relation to any damage caused by the Minister's negligence to maintain the works. Clause 6 refers to a special case—Lendal Terrace—where a vertical access shaft under the roadway is reached by a subway, of shallow depth, which may affect the development of the land.

Clause 7 mainly safeguards the interests and rights of the London Transport Executive provided for under the existing agreements listed in subsection (3). Subsection (1) of Clause 7 is intended to safeguard the London Transport Executive's ownership of any underground works which happen to be partly under surface works which are being acquired. Clauses 8 and 9 I think, speak for themselves.

This is a hybrid Bill, as it affects private interests, and Standing Orders require that all private interests which may be affected and can be identified must be notified. Advertisements must be inserted in newspapers, and information lodged at town halls for all to see. This has been done, and after the debate we shall ask the House to commit the Bill to a Select Committee to hear any petitions lodged against it. This procedure gives those affected every chance to know what is happening and to express their objections. It is only after the Select Committee has reported that this Bill will return to the House for the normal Committee stage of a public Bill.

It only remains for me, in apologising for the length and other shortcomings of this speech, to ask the House to give this Bill its Second Reading in due course. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Gentlemen will believe me when I say that as Minister of Works, concerned generally in trying to preserve what is both historic and beautiful, it is not from personal choice that I ask the House to allow me to embrace these objects.

This is a short Bill but not an easy one, and I know that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will be ready to deal with any special points raised. I hope, however, that I have said enough at this stage to show that these works must be preserved, at least for the present, that the time to put their ownership on a permanent basis has come, and that vest- ing by the method laid down is the simplest, the most expeditious and, I believe, the only practicable method, in unique circumstances, of carrying out the purposes which we have before us.

4.0 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Greenwood (Rossendale)

The whole House would wish to express its condolences to the right hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Buchan-Hepburn) on having had to resume his long-suspended legislative activities by moving the Second Reading of a Bill, which has been made necessary by what appears to have been slipshod administration either in his Department or in the Home Office. We are glad to see the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department present this afternoon.

The right hon. Member was understandably reticent about some of the complications in the background to the Bill. They are to be found in the memoranda and oral evidence submitted by the Home Office and the Ministry of Works to the Select Committee on Estimates in the Session 1953–54, when it was considering Civil Defence. When the Committee reported it referred to an extraordinary legal delay in rectifying the position of the deep shelters.

In paragraph 25 it went so far as to say that the Committee were disturbed to discover that legal technicalities under the Requisitioned Land and War Works Act, 1945, were delaying the acquisition of the deep shelters which already exist in London, although the power of requisition will come to an end in 1955. In spite of the urgency of this matter the chief Home Office witness was quite unaware of the problem. The problem had gone on for five years when the Select Committee was considering it in 1953.

The Ministry of Works memorandum to the Committee said that it had been decided as long ago as 1948 that the deep shelters were to be acquired under the Requisitioned Land and War Works Act, or else leased, for use by the Home Office. The memorandum added that acquisition was being undertaken by the Ministry of Works. It transpired in oral evidence that unless the position was resolved by the end of 1955 the owners of the land could remove or destroy the shelters. When the Ministry of Works, through the person of an Under-Secretary, Mr. G. H. Bosworth, gave evidence before the Select Committee, a rather striking statement was made by Mr. Bosworth. He said: Right at the beginning, when we first considered this problem, everybody said, 'It is going to be much too complicated to do this under the powers given by the Act. The thing to do is to have special legislation to acquire these deep Tube shelters.' It was decided not to do that, and a great deal of hard work has been done by the Lands people, drawing up schedules, listing owners and all sorts of things in connection with these purchases. Now it appears that it may, after all, be necessary to have special legislation. The Ministry had already threshed about with the problem for five years, and it decided three years ago that special legislation was necessary. What was even more surprising was what the Home Office said in evidence about a week later. Sir Arthur Hutchinson, Deputy Under-Secretary of State, Home Office, was accompanied by Major General S. F. Irwin, Chairman of the Civil Defence Joint Planning Staff. When faced by the Chairman of the Committee, who was my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Albu) with the problem that had developed, Sir Arthur said: I am afraid that is completely new to me. I will look into that. Is it permissible to ask who has been telling you that? The Chairman replied: The Ministry of Works told us. We do not understand why it has taken eight years to acquire these deep shelters for the use of the Department. This is a story of lack of interest on the part of the Home Office and, if the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me for saying so, of lack of persistence on the part of the Ministry of Works. Now we have before us the Bill. If the right hon. Gentleman was in one of his previous incarnations he would feel much more strongly about the Bill, which is brought before us in a crowded Session when the Government's time-table is already in ruins, and which deals with a matter which is the result of lack of care on the part of two Government Departments.

We are not opposing the Bill. Our main objection is to the delay in clearing up the administrative muddle which has taken place. There are three other objections which I want to bring to the attention of the Minister and I hope that they will be cleared up at a later stage. Before I come to those, however, I want to ask the Minister a question.

We are told in the Explanatory Memorandum to the Bill that the maintenance cost will be £30,000 a year, but in the memorandum which the right hon. Gentleman's Department submitted to the Select Committee less than three years ago we were told that the annual cost would be £15,000. We all appreciate that purchasing power has dropped catastrophically under the present Administration, but it has not dropped by 50 per cent. in three years. Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether the estimate of three years ago was right or whether we are to accept the estimate in the Explanatory Memorandum?

The first of our three objections is that the entrances to these deep shelters will, sooner or later, interfere with road-widening schemes. The second is that the shelters in some cases sterilise open spaces dedicated to the enjoyment of the public. The third objection is that the entrances are very unsightly. I shall leave the first objection to hon. Gentlemen representing the constituencies affected. The second objection is of more substance; the right hon. Gentleman referred to it when he mentioned the taking of open spaces. While proposing to take public open spaces for purposes for which they were not originally intended the Bill makes no arrangement for the provision of alternative land. That is bad in principle and is even worse in practice.

One or two matters arise out of the deep shelter at Goodge Street, which has two entrances. The first is in Whitfield Gardens, a small open space.

Mr. Buchan-Hepburn

They all have two entrances.

Mr. Greenwood

Yes, but neither of these is in Goodge Street. The first entrance is in Whitfield Gardens, a small open space in Tottenham Court Road, which, I understand, is owned by the London County Council and is managed by the St. Pancras Metropolitan Borough Council. A large part of the gardens is taken up by the entrance to the shelter, although the district is already very deficient in open space. One hundred yards away in North Crescent, Chenies Street, is the other entrance, where it ruins a small private open space.

Another case is the Clapham deep shelter, near Clapham South Tube Station, on land owned by the London County Council. Land of equal area and of equal benefit to the public should be provided by the Minister in the manner laid down by the Acquisition of Land (Authorisation Procedure) Act, 1946. It is wholly unjustified that the Government should take over land dedicated to the enjoyment of the public without providing equivalent open space as near as possible to the land that has been taken over.

The next point is the unsightliness of these structures, built when material was scarce and harshness and austerity were the order of the day. They are ugly in themselves and, especially, in the superstructures which accompany them. In some cases they appear to be ventilating towers. They ruin the site upon which they are placed. There are two, for example, that detract from the sites of war memorials. One is at Stockwell, and the other is at Chenies Street where the memorial of the Rangers (12th County of London Regiment) of the King's Royal Rifle Corps is placed in undignified surroundings because of the enormous structure erected on the site. That is quite apart from the inconvenience which must be caused to the owners or occupiers of neighbouring property.

In the case of Whitfield Gardens, the entrance to the deep shelter there abuts on the site of Whitfield's Tabernacle and ruins the setting of the new church, to the design of which considerable care has been given. I submit to the Minister that so far as possible he should remove these unsightly superstructures and, where that cannot be done, make them as little obtrustive and repulsive as possible. Other criticisms I propose to leave to hon. Members more intimately concerned than myself.

I conclude by saying that we regard this as a not very impressive attempt to repair some of the damage which has been caused by negligence and muddle in high places and as further evidence of the lack of the Government's preparedness for Civil Defence.

4.11 p.m.

Mr. C. W. Gibson (Clapham)

I join in support of this Bill, because I think that the difficulties and complications which some of us had to put up with during the war and for some time afterwards could be cured by bringing the whole of these tunnels and the structures on top of them under one ownership and control, which would make it much easier to deal with them in the future.

I cannot go all the way with my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) in condemnation of what happened when they were built. They were built at a time of very great stress, and there is not the slightest doubt that they were a godsend to thousands of people during the air raids. This is particularly true of my own constituency, in which there are three of these deep tunnels. I saw people dashing into them as soon as the warning went, and I am quite sure that a good many people were saved from becoming nervous wrecks by being able to go into them before the actual noise and shooting started. I think that circumstances now justify action being taken in regard to work done at that time which some of us knew to be not strictly legally correct. There is no reason, however, why, with the passage of time, we should have to put up quite so complacently with the ugliness and town planning difficulties which we created ourselves during the war.

The entrances to all these tunnels, which may have been strong enough to withstand the heaviest bomb, certainly could not have been uglier. When we find enormously thick and ugly structures of this kind, not only on corners of streets but actually on public open spaces, it is something of a scandal that we should have allowed this to go on for so long without having done something to level off and seal the top of the tunnels, which, I admit, would have been an expensive proposition, or at any rate to cover up the ugliness.

I remember that during the war, when the Admiralty structure on the Horse Guards Parade was built, it was covered with a creeper, which, during the summer, looks very nice, green and pleasant and hides some of the ugly building that lies behind it. I make a strong plea that the Ministry should do all that it possibly can, once it gets full legal control over them, to improve these ugly structures, if they cannot pull them down.

The structure at the Stockwell War Memorial bites an enormous slice out of the War Memorial green and dwarfs the memorial clock, which is one of the best pieces of clock architecture in South London. It also adds considerably to the traffic difficulties there. I do not see why that structure cannot be removed or, at any rate, made less objectionable by removing parts of it, so that people may get, the full advantage of what used to be a well-used little open space in a rather busy part of Lambeth.

To some extent the same applies to Clapham South and the structure on Clapham Common. I do not say that that is in quite the same category of urgency as Stockwell Green, but it is a most ugly structure and I should have thought that at least something could have been done to cover it up so that the people using the common are not offended every time they look at it.

I want also to refer to the structure on the corner of Clapham Park Road and the High Street, which is partly built over a road improvement. Until it is removed, the London County Council cannot improve the Clapham Park Road, which is greatly in need of improvement. The corner there is most dangerous. It is rather narrow and a great deal of traffic comes round it from three or four directions. I am afraid that one day we may have really serious accidents there, although the police and the traffic lights do a great deal in helping to avoid accidents.

That structure is built on land which I understand the L.C.C. already owns, and until it is removed it may not be possible to affect the very necessary road improvements. There is a complication because I believe that the Ministry of Works is already using that structure for storage purposes, but I am not sure about that. I sincerely hope that when the Minister gets this Bill he will take urgent steps to tackle that particular eyesore and danger to road improvement.

I congratulate the Minister on what I believe is his maiden effort as a Minister in presenting a Bill, and I hope that by means of this Bill, which I am quite sure will be passed, he will do what he can to speed up action at difficult corners like Whitfield Gardens. It is a scandal that eleven years after the war what used to be a lovely little garden should be completely spoiled by a structure which had to be put there during the war. I hope that he will also deal with the structures at Stockwell and Clapham Park Road, where urgent road improvement is needed. I cannot see why, if we have to keep them—and at the moment it looks as though we may have to keep them for a few more years—something cannot be done to cover them up and make them a little less repulsive. I wish the Bill every success.

4.19 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

I should like to join with my hon. Friend the Member for Clapham (Mr. Gibson) in congratulating the Minister on his first appearance in charge of a Bill in this House. He has already been assured that there is unlikely to be a Division on Second Reading, so that to all intents and purposes he is getting the Bill on the nod. When I think of some of the divergencies in which he indulged when he was Chief Whip on the Government side of the House, I begin to wonder whether he really deserves his good fortune.

I want to refer to the superstructure on the Stockwell War Memorial Gardens. It is referred to as Item 4 in the First Schedule of the Bill. The superstructure is just within the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. G. R. Strauss); it is almost on the boundary between his constituency and mine, both being in the Borough of Lambeth. This part of the War Memorial Gardens was requisitioned by the London Passenger Transport Board in 1941 under the Defence Regulations then in force and, although it had no objection to the use of the War Memorial Gardens for this purpose, with a view to helping the war effort, the Lambeth Borough Council made it clear that the London Passenger Transport Board should enter into an agreement to safeguard the Metropolitan Borough Council's interest in this open space.

Shortly after the war ended, in November, 1947, the Borough Council of Lambeth made an approach to the Ministry of Works on the subject. It was told that it was essential to retain this superstructure, but that the Ministry would examine the question of the removal of the structure or some modification to improve its appearance. Nothing happened. In October, 1948, the Ministry of Works came on the scene, because the Ministry wanted to acquire the site permanently. Even then the council made it clear that it was not prepared to enter into negotiations, particularly for the reasons mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Clapham (Mr. Gibson): the site encroached upon was the site of the Stockwell War Memorial.

The council again suggested that the superstructure of the deep shelter should be removed to the other side of the road, thus freeing the open space entirely for the purpose for which it was originally intended. It may be that the regard with which this little open space is held is purely sentimental, but it is the official war memorial for the Borough of Lambeth. Whenever an Armistice Day service takes place there is always a march from the parish church to this war memorial, but the war memorial has been quite overshadowed by this monstrosity, which almost touches it.

Ever since the war the council has used every possible endeavour to persuade the Government Departments concerned to remove the shelter. When the news was received that a Bill would be introduced to clarify the position and to make it easy for the Government to do what they liked about it, the council once again asked hon. Members representing the three constituencies in Lambeth to do what they could to put forward the point of view which is held very strongly by both the borough council and the population in the neighbourhood.

It might be expensive to move this monstrosity to the other side of the road, but, if it cannot be moved, the Government ought to consider whether it could be modified, made smaller or covered in some way for as long as it needs to remain.

Although the Bill is not being officially opposed, we hope that the Ministry of Works will at the earliest possible moment remove what they themselves admit to be an offending surface superstructure. It is offensive to the eye and to the sentiment. I join in the plea already made that an effort should be made to try to give priority to the removal of this monstrosity, which so adversely affects the local war memorial, if the question of giving priorities is to be considered.

4.25 p.m.

Mr. Harry Randall (Gateshead, West)

I do not propose to detain the House for more than a few moments, but I have walked by the entrances of these deep tube shelters so many times that I feel I have a right to try to convince the Minister that, now we are determining the ownership of these deep shelters, we ought to do something to see that there is a better outlook for those people who have continually to live beside them.

I believe a criticism could be made because of the delay in bringing the Bill forward. It ought to have been submitted a long time ago—and I do not exonerate even previous Governments when I say that. I am only sorry that those who reside in the areas where there are deep tube shelters have not been a little more energetic themselves in bringing pressure to bear in the House for something to be done about them. Nevertheless, we have the Bill here for Second Reading and there is no purpose in pursuing the criticism of delay.

Another question which I might raise is that of the use to which they should be put. I do not go all the way with my hon. Friend the Member for Clapham (Mr. Gibson), because I have some knowledge of the use to which these deep shelters have been put since the end of the war. On several occasions they have been extremely useful. I remember a difficulty on one occasion when many young people visited us from Europe. The organisations here let them down. There had been an undertaking that lodgings would be provided, but when this host of young people arrived from Europe in Britain for the first time, no accommodation was available for them. The Ministry quickly made available these shelters, and the Government of the day were to be congratulated for using them on that occasion.

I make a plea that we should be imaginative about the future use of these shelters. Do not let us be parochial about it; let us take every opportunity we can to utilise them. That is important, because where there is use there is less deterioration. That is a point quite apart from the social use to which they are put. On Second Reading it might be suggested, therefore, that there should be an imaginative approach to the way in which we use these shelters in the future.

May I say a word about the entrances? These are the ugly ducklings. I often walk from Clapham Common to Stockwell, but although I have been on the road so often I have forgotten its name. Almost in the centre is one of these monstrosities, immediately in front of a new block of flats.

Mr. Gibson

Clapham North.

Mr. Randall

Between Clapham Common and Clapham North.

I am sorry for the people living in those flats, for the drive to the flats goes right round this structure. It is an extraordinary situation, and it seems to me that it ought not to be beyond the wit of the Minister to find some means of camouflaging it. That is the least that could be done. It is a grim cement structure, a monstrosity, as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton) said. The least that can be done is to camouflage it. I hope that more can be done by completely removing it. I am not an architect, but may I ask whether it is not possible for the whole structure to be lowered to surface level?

I welcome the Bill, and I do not criticise the Government about it, but I hope that the points which I have made, especially about the future use of the shelters and about the entrances, will be dealt with now that we are to determine the ownership.

4.30 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Skeffington (Hayes and Harlington)

I, too, do not propose to speak for very long, but I feel that I ought to make a short contribution to the debate because I think I am the only hon. Member present who is a member of that great authority, London County Council. This is a hybrid Bill and the House will know that there will be an opportunity for those who have objections to it to be heard by way of petition. I gather that London County Council will be making certain objections by way of petition to some features of the Bill.

I want to comment on only three matters which I think are appropriate to the Second Reading debate and which, perhaps, may be helpful when the Minister has to consider the objections of London County Council at a later stage. Before touching on those points, may I join with other hon. Members in congratulating the Minister on his very agreeable maiden speech? I hope that all the passages he has may be as smooth, but I am not at all certain that that will be the case when we deal with other subjects later.

The first question is that the structures as buildings are quite appalling in appearance, and I do not think anyone would attempt to defend them. It is clear that not only are they obnoxious in appearance, but all of them are in extremely prominent positions. So long as they remain not only are they most unpleasant to those who work or live in the neighbourhood, or take their recreation near them—being in open spaces, some are just where people do take recreation—but they are likely to have a detrimental effect on the amenities of the district and on the value of property. Therefore, I hope that we may get some indication from the Parliamentary Secretary that it is possible either that in due course these structures may be removed, or that they may be modified or concealed.

I should have thought that on an occasion of this kind the Minister might have agreed to put a provision in the Bill that surface structures would be dealt with within a period of five years, or, if that is not possible, a provision that an extension of time for them to remain would be required from the House. As there is no kind of guarantee of that in the Bill, these structures may drag on in existence, with all their unpleasing qualities, for a very considerable time. We unfortunately know what happens when no special responsibility is put on a Minister to get something done. In view of our past experience about these surface structures, I hope the Minister will agree that there should be some time limit to their remaining, or, if not, that there should be provision for an extension of time to be granted by the House.

The second point I wish to raise has been referred to already by my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood). That is the structure at Whitfield Gardens. The open space of Whitfield Gardens is in two portions and the surface structure occupies almost the entire portion of one of the two pieces. It is an area in the Tottenham Court Road which is notably deficient in open spaces. Now that the Ministry is acquiring the ground, I should have thought it would be the usual practice, and highly proper in this case, for the offer of an equal amount of ground somewhere else to be made to London County Council.

In the emergency of the war, no one contemplated that this open space, or its equivalent, should be permanently lost to the area. Those hon. Members who know the district will realise that as it is short of any kind of recreational space it is of first-class importance that some compensatory gesture should be made. I hope we shall hear something from the Parliamentary Secretary on that suggestion.

The last point is in connection with structures at Clapham High Street and Clapham Park Road, which have been already mentioned. I want to refer to them in connection with road widening. The Minister will know that road widenings are contemplated in both those places. There should be provision in the Bill to require the Minister to remove the whole or part of the shelter entrances when the widening takes place. The expense of that work should not fall on London County Council or any other highway authority. I hope we shall have some information—better still, agreement—about payment for the removal of the structures for road widening, which is quite customary in acquisitions of this type by a Government Department.

4.35 p.m.

Mr. G. R. Strauss (Vauxhall)

My hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) has expressed the views of my colleagues on these benches about the Bill. I rise to express a point of view concerning my constituency. As my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton) pointed out, one of these structures is in my constituency and it is in a particularly prominent place, where it is seen daily by tens of thousands of people. For that reason it is a greater public nuisance than many of the others. I refer to the structure on the Stockwell War Memorial Garden. That is a very small garden at the intersection of two important roads, the South Lambeth Road and Clapham Road. Apart from the structure it contains a war memorial.

Everyone agrees, and the Minister admitted, that these structures are extraordinarily ugly. They are 40 ft. in diameter and about 20 ft. high. They are dirty, grey and grim. They have sprouting out of them dingy little brick sheds and they make the whole of the surroundings extraordinarily dreary and unattractive. This little garden ought to be—I am sure would be if Lambeth Borough Council had its way—a most attractive spot. It is in a position of considerable importance and seen by many people daily. It could be turned into a delightful open space, giving a pleasant view to all who passed by and with a seat or two placed there, it could be a restful, if rather noisy, place, where people might like to sit on a summer's day—old-age pensioners and others.

It is a really ghastly sight, but the borough council cannot do anything about it at all. There is the war memorial, this hideous structure and a few square yards of grass around them where, according to my observation, the mangiest cats in the neighbourhood foregather. Not even a decent cat will go there, so depressing is the area.

I do not suggest that it is practicable for the Government, when they acquire this structure, among others, to do anything about it immediately. I realise that the expense of pulling it down and making some alternative arrangements would be substantial. The resources and manpower involved would be considerable. Indeed, I would oppose spending those resources and manpower immediately for this purpose when there are so many other urgent purposes, such as housing, which should come first, but I beg the Government to give an assurance to us today that as soon as opportunity permits they will take such action as is possible to remove these structures and restore the area where they stand—I am speaking primarily about the one in my constituency—to a condition in which they can again be an attraction and an amenity to the neighbourhood.

Just opposite this particular garden, on the other side of South Lambeth Road, there is a bit of vacant ground which is considerably bigger than the structure now sited on the garden. It is being used for the sale of old cars. I ask the Minister, or the Parliamentary Secretary, whether he cannot immediately make a survey of the area, buy this bit of ground, whether it is in the market or not, with a view to making the entrance to the tunnel at some later date in this vacant space and effecting a connection with the tunnel under the road.

I have no idea whether that is structurally possible, or what the engineering problems may be. They may be considerable, and the scheme might be expensive. But here is a bit of ground at the moment available, and I ask the Minister to have a look at it, to acquire it if possible with a view to taking action at the earliest opportunity to remove the ugly structure now standing on the gardens, and to make the entrance upon it. As far as I am concerned, if he could give such an assurance I would be satisfied.

I do not ask for a guarantee that all the structures would be dealt with within two or three years; though if he could do so, it would be so much the better. I am not unreasonable, and I only ask for an undertaking that it will be the objective of the Ministry to tackle this problem as soon as it is practicable and deal with the most serious and worst eyesores first. I do not believe there is one much worse than the one in my constituency. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Well, I am putting in my claim, and my hon. Friends can argue that out afterwards.

At any rate, I would be satisfied with such an assurance. After all, the object of the Ministry of Works is to preserve beauty and look after amenities as far as lies within its powers, and it really is the duty of the Government, in taking responsibility for these structures, to assure us that they will deal with them in the way suggested by my hon. Friends and myself at the earliest possible opportunity. I hope that we can get such an assurance this afternoon.

4.42 p.m.

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

I think this occasion is almost unique. It is the first time my right hon. Friend has moved the Second Reading of a Government Bill, and it is the first occasion on which I have had the privilege of winding up a debate, although I have been at the Ministry of Works for more than two years.

In that time, as the House knows, the Ministry has not produced a solitary Bill. That may well please some of my hon. Friends on this side of the House who abhor the modern craze for legislation, though I am not so sure about the hon. Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood), who shadows my right hon. Friend. To any politician who has blood coursing through his veins—especially when it is red blood—it must be an occasion of bleak despair. And when we eventually are faced with this hybrid, cross-bred mixture of a Public Bill and a Private Bill which has little of controversy and even less of politics in it.

I shall be very brief, without, I hope, being discourteous to those hon. and right hon. Gentlemen who have contributed so pleasantly to this discussion. Perhaps I may, first, bring the Measure back into perspective. There are seven of these tunnels held on requisition by the Ministry of Works. Sooner or later, powers of requisitioning will expire, and, accordingly, the Government must either acquire the tunnels or abandon them. If they were to abandon them altogether, there would be risk of damage to property and especially of damage to the tube railways, which run close to them. Therefore, we have either to maintain the tunnels or alternatively to fill them in. In the long run, we cannot do either unless the tunnels are under Crown ownership. The reason for the Bill can be stated as simply as that.

It is true that some of the tunnels may eventually be taken over by the British Transport Commission, and it is conceivable that all seven may have other uses, some of which were referred to by my right hon. Friend and some of which were suggested by the hon. Member for Gateshead, West (Mr. Randall). Even if, however, they eventually become white elephants, the Crown must sooner or later acquire them, and the only question before the House is whether or not the Bill does the job in the right way.

I should like to turn to some of the points which have been raised in the debate. The hon. Member for Rossendale, who initiated the debate for the Opposition, complained about slipshod administration in the Ministry of Works and in the Home Office. I am bound to say that I thought this criticism a little simulated, and I did not see a great deal in it. The position is simple. The Government are anxious to do away with emergency powers, and, with their imminent disappearance it is natural that the Government should want to acquire legal title to these shelters. The hon. Gentleman suggested that it would have been better if the Government had acquired these properties individually. There are. in fact, very considerable difficulties in the way of doing that, to some of which my right hon. Friend has referred.

The hon. Gentleman also questioned the differences in the estimates of the cost of maintenance. He said that the annual cost given in the Select Committee's evidence was £15,000, whereas according to the Bill the figure is £30,000. The figure of £15,000 was, of course, suggested some years ago, and I assure the hon. Member that the figure of £30,000 has been very carefully calculated and is as accurate as we can possibly get it.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the encroachment of the surface buildings on common land in various parts of London. It is true, as he implied, that as a general rule any Government Department which takes common land attempts to replace it by adding other land to the common. That has been the case for common land taken over during the war with use as airfields and so forth.

In the case of the Clapham South tunnel entrance, which encroaches on Clapham Common, I think the hon. Member for Clapham (Mr. Gibson) would be the first to admit that it is not a serious encroachment. It is on the edge of the Common, and, moreover, it is not the only encroachment. Public conveniences have been constructed there by the local authority alongside the surface works themselves. It might be possible for my right hon. Friend to acquire certain of the properties that stand on the Common, and throw the vacant land into the Common. There is, for example, a public-house on the Common. That, however, would be a very expensive venture, and I do not think we can commit ourselves to it.

Many hon. Members have rightly referred to the unsightliness of these structures. They are indeed very unsightly, and if I were a constituent of the hon. Member for Clapham or of the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. G. R. Strauss), I too would feel rather sore about the seemingly perpetual existence of these ugly buildings in the heart of a peat city. However, we must see these things in perspective. If we were concerned only with the options held by the British Transport Commission on these shelters, it might have been possible to do something at once about the surface buildings. I understand that the British 'Transport Commission does not intend to construct new stations at the present entrances if they take up the options on the four shelters south of the river.

The point I should like to emphasise is that so long as there is any possible use for the shelters in an emergency, we must have both entrances to each shelter. If the time should come, as we all hope it will, when there is no possibility that these shelters will be required in an emergency, we could probably make do with only one entrance at each shelter for the purpose of maintenance.

That is not to say that my right hon. Friend is not entirely sympathetic to what has been said about the appearance of these structures, and I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we shall certainly look at the surface building which adjoins the Stockwell War Memorial, and also that at Whitfield Gardens, to see if we can do anything to improve their appearance. In saying that, I should like the House to understand that I am not giving any assurance that it will be possible to remove these surface works in the immediate future. All I am saying is that my right hon. Friend has sympathy with the views that have been expressed and will do all he can.

Mr. Gibson

Coupled with that assurance, will the hon. Gentleman agree that the two examples which I mentioned are urgent?

Mr. Bevins

I was coming to that. As the hon. Member mentioned, there have been difficulties between the highway authority and the Ministry of Works about the Clapham Common tube, which is interfering with a road development plan at Clapham Park Road. A suggestion has been made, I think by the London County Council, that my right hon. Friend ought to acquire the church and the public house on the other side of the road, with a view to conveying them to the highway authority. I am afraid that that would be a very expensive proposition indeed.

There may be an alternative, perhaps by making a diagonal cut through and leaving the surface works as a roundabout in the middle of the road. I should not like to commit myself, but my right hon. Friend and I have been to see this tube and it may be possible by the exercise of a little ingenuity, to reach an accommodation with the highway authority. I hope that I have dealt with most of the points raised in the course of the discussion. I do not want to raise any hopes which my right hon. Friend cannot fulfil. The Bill is necessary in the circumstances of today, but I assure the House that we are mindful of the interests of the people of London and we will have regard to the views expressed.

Mr. E. Partridge (Battersea, South)

Although there is concern, we are not so much concerned while properties still remain in the possession and under the control of Her Majesty's Government. Our concern is that if the British Transport Commission takes back the tube, in particular at Clapham South, one of the conditions of its taking it back will be to remove the entrance from Clapham Common. If it is to use the tube as a store, it will have its own entrance at Clapham South Station. It is the reinstatement of the Common when it goes out of the possession and control of the Government that is our concern.

Mr. Bevins

If the Commission should exercise its option on that tunnel, it would not build a new tube station on the Common. It would be satisfied with its present station. As my right hon. Friend already owns the freehold of the other entrance to the tunnel, the buildings on the Common could be removed.

Mr. Skeffington

Have the Government given any consideration to inserting a five-year time limit in the Bill? It is very important that the shelters should be dealt with by a certain time, failing which we should be asked to extend the period.

Mr. Bevins

I am very sorry, but I cannot give an undertaking of that sort, because, as I have made clear, there is a possibility that the tubes might be of value in certain circumstances and that possibility might still exist after more than five years.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Select Committee of seven Members, four to be nominated by the House and three by the Committee of Selection:

Any Petitions against the Bill presented by being deposited in the Private Bill Office at any time not later than the fifth sitting day after this day in which the Petitioners pray to be heard by themselves, their Counsel or Agents, to stand referred to the Committee, but if no such Petition is presented, or if all such Petitions are withdrawn before the meeting of the Committee, the Order for the committal of the Bill to a Select Committee to be discharged and the Bill to be committed to a Committee of the whole House:

Any Petitioner whose Petition stands referred to the Committee, subject to the Rules and Orders of the House and to the prayer of his Petition, to be entitled to be heard by himself, his Counsel or Agents, upon his Petition provided that such Petition is prepared and signed in conformity with the Rules and Orders of the House, and the Member in Charge of the Bill to be entitled to be heard by his Counsel or Agents in favour of the Bill against such Petition;

Power to report from day to day Minutes of Evidence:

Three to be the Quorum.—[Mr. Buchan-Hepburn.]