HC Deb 29 July 1957 vol 574 cc1028-36

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

11.10 p.m.

Mr. Nigel Nicolson (Bournemouth, East and Christchurch)

All those who have been disturbed at the increasing defacement of our town and countryside by ill-planned development will have heard with relief of the recent formation of the Civic Trust. This body is wholly unofficial and does not depend to any extent upon Government funds, but as it is likely to be one of the most influential and, I hope, one of the most affluent of all the bodies concerned with good design and town planning, I am sure that the Ministry of Housing and Local Government will be keenly interested in its activities.

My main reason for raising the subject on the Adjournment is to ask the Minister how he thinks his Ministry can best help the Trust and how the Trust can best help him. I think it would be fitting to begin with a tribute to the founder and first President of the Civic Trust, the present Minister of Defence. I am very glad and honoured to see that my right hon. Friend has found time to be present to listen to this short debate. It must so often happen to Ministers that they lay an egg only to see others hatch it, but in this case my right hon. Friend has prolonged his interest in good design and good planning beyond the period of his office at the Ministry of Housing and Local Government.

Two years ago, in a speech to the R.I.B.A., he said that he thought it would be a good thing if public opinion were mobilised to uphold and create beauty and declare war on ugliness. Instead of leaving it to others to take the first step, he himself took the initiative in suggesting to representatives of all existing bodies which deal with amenities and building that they should come together under a common umbrella in order to pool their experience and their ideas. Simultaneously, my right hon. Friend approached leaders of industry and asked them whether they would be willing to contribute to this cause. In neither venture was he disappointed.

That was the origin of the Civic Trust, which held its first meeting at Lambeth Palace last Saturday week. My right hon. Friend, as was only fitting, became the first President of the Trust, in his personal capacity.

The Trust had its origin in the existing and mounting resentment among the public against all forms of shoddy and inappropriate design in town and country, which the group of writers and architects around the Architectural Review have indelibly labelled as "Subtopia". The Trust came into existence as a result of the very sentiments it is designed to foster. Its main task, as I see it, is to reinforce and educate the public's dislike of what is bad in design and to translate into reality the widespread but often inarticulate yearning for what is good.

It seems to me that those who have had the main responsibility for the visual appearance of our town and country have not always been the same people who knew how best to achieve a pleasant result. The Trust might help those people if they will allow it to do so. I suggest that it can be the link, in other words, "between those who care, and those who can". There are other bodies which have made attempts, often very successfully, to resist the onrush of Subtopia.

For example, there is the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, the Royal Fine Art Commission, and the Ministry of Housing and Local Government itself; but nobody who travels widely over our country could always be conscious that good design will invariably triumph over bad. Will another voluntary body succeed in making a deeper impression? I suggest that it will do so only if two requirements are fulfilled. First, if the Trust is not too modest, and, secondly, if it has the ungrudging and active support of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. I would like to say a few words about these two.

The danger of its being over-modest is a very real one. Understandably, with the Trust as a new-corner in a field where there are already long-established bodies, it may feel that it is trespassing on their territories. It may well be very anxious not to offend, but it would be a great pity if it strangled itself at birth by its own tact, and I suggest that it should be given some status, as the National Trust or the Council for Industrial Design have achieved by their own exertions.

At the Lambeth Palace meeting there seemed to be some anxiety among all the other bodies working in this same field to have a parent body which could guide and help and, above all, co-ordinate their activities. At that meeting, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison), as a trustee of the Civic Trust, saw it in the rôle of a co-ordinating Minister rather than in that of an overlord. I believe that it would be wasteful if it sank its identit)in the identity of other bodies, and if the Civic Trust is to be the household word which I, for one, wish it to be, it can only achieve the necessary status if it constantly exerts its influence in its own name and if the inhabitants of our towns and villages see the practical results of its work in those places which they know best.

Secondly, the Trust should not be too shy in laying down standards of its own design; standards of good design. At that same meeting, there was a tendency——

Mr. Speaker

I am listening with great interest to what the hon. Member is saying, but I wonder whether he could help the House? I am wondering how this can be the concern of the Government. He must be aware, of course, of the fact that on the Adjournment Motion we can discuss only matters which involve a Ministerial responsibility. It is that about which I should like his assistance.

Mr. Nicolson

The work of the Civic Trust is, I respectfully suggest, Sir, very relevant to my hon. Friend's Ministry. I began by saying that, and I was going on to suggest the practical ways in which I think the Minister can help the Trust, and the means by which the Trust can help the Minister. Here we have two bodies; one official and one non-official, working in the same field, and I am trying, in this short debate, to point out how we can link the two.

I was saying that I hope that the Trust will not be too shy in laying down standards because it seems to me that there are some things which are wrong everywhere and always. In its programmes, and in its films, and so on, I hope that the Trust will be ruthless in its condemnation of what one might call the third-rate.

I now come to two practical suggestions upon which I should very much like my hon. Friend's comments, since they so closely affect the work of his own Department. Would he welcome, as Parliamentary Secretary, the institution of some centre in London, under the auspices of the Trust, corresponding to the Design Centre of the Council of Industrial Design, at which it could be possible for representatives of public and local authorities, as well as private individuals, to see examples of the best—and, perhaps, of the worst—that our architects and designers can supply?

If there were to be such a centre, it would be an advertisement for the Trust which it will badly need in its formative years, and there could be no suggestion of compulsion either by the Ministry or by a private body in the institution of an exhibition which would simply display to the public what can be done in typical circumstances such as are to be found up and down our land.

Secondly, would it not be to the advantage of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, in its attempts to spread widely appreciation of good and bad building and town planning, if the Trust, as an unofficial body, were to select, at the invitation of the local inhabitants, one or two villages or small market towns up and down the country where the very best that our designers and architects could suggest might be on view? I am thinking of places like Christchurch, in Hampshire, and of Blandford, in Dorset, both of which I know well, which are not static towns but which are rapidly expanding and adapting themselves to a new age.

I am suggesting that it would be of advantage to everybody if, in only one place in the country, we had such a demonstration of, for example, the proper use of outdoor advertisements, of street signs, of roundabouts, of the proper concealment of wires by the telephone and electricity authorities, and of a housing estate laid out as part of a town instead of merely as an excrescence from it.

I come to the Minister's more particular responsibilities. The Civic Trust will become important only if the Minister says constantly that it is important. There are many examples—and this is mainly the reason why I asked for this debate—of Ministries co-operating very closely, to their mutual advantage, with private bodies. I need only mention the R.S.P.C.A. and the N.S.P.C.C. The Civic Trust, in my view, is a society, though not yet Royal, for the prevention of ugliness, and if it is to aid the Government it must be aided by the Government.

There are three positive ways in which the aid could be given. The first is if the Ministry were to urge consultation between the Civic Trust and other Ministries, and particularly the boards of the nationalised industries. These Ministries and boards, in combination, are virtually the patrons of our civic design. They have it in their powers to make or mar the appearance of the countryside, and all too often they have marred it. If there could be consultation between the Trust and those responsible on those official bodies, some improvement could be expected.

Secondly, could the Minister urge local authorities to consult the experts whom the Trust would make available to them on the appearance of their localities? Could he not suggest, by any means that he could devise, that there is nothing derogatory to civic pride in calling in the advice of the person who has spent his whole life in making judgments on design, whether it is a question of a new plan for a whole town, or the pattern of a street which might, by slight modifications, be made a pleasure instead of an eyesore? Surely there is room for the outside adviser whom the Trust would be most well suited to supply.

Finally, there is the question of the area planning boards who operate directly under the Ministry. It is not always that the officials and the members of those bodies are those who can lay claim to any special training in the development of their localities, yet these questions are a matter for a certain amount of expertise. The design of a lamp-post or of the town hall demands that trained visual sense which the local councillors cannot always provide.

I suggest to my hon. Friend that he should urge the local planning committees to co-opt some outside members to serve upon them. They may be people who live in the district and who are known to have a special interest in the visual appearance of the country or they may be experts who come from outside, experts provided by the Civic Trust itself who would be acceptable to the local people as expert advisers.

When I look around at my familiar neighbourhood I am sometimes filled with despair at the accretions of the last ten or twenty years. I sometimes wonder whether the mistakes which have been made last year will lead us not to repeat the same mistakes this year or next. A new stimulus is required if the public taste is not to be atrophied by familiarity with the second-rate. The Civic Trust can provide that stimulus and I ask my hon. Friend not only to praise it but to use it.

11.27 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. J. R. Bevins)

I am sure that the House is grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for East Bournemouth and Christchurch (Mr. N. Nicolson)for drawing our attention to the formation and the prospective activities of the Civic Trust. Naturally, my right hon. Friend welcomes any help at all in the fight against ugliness in our country whose beauty, of course, we all love. We welcome, of course, the formation of the Trust itself. We recognise what is being done already by voluntary bodies and it is a good thing that we should now be discussing the newest of all these voluntary organisations.

My hon. Friend, as I understood him, has rather suggested that in this context the principal function of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government is the rather negative one of forestalling bad design. He will, I am sure, realise that our work also has its positive side—for example, through the development corporations in the duty of building new towns—and, of course, it is equally true to say that the local authorities have very considerable scope for constructive work in the redevelopment of blitzed or blighted central areas and in the building of new schools and new housing estates.

A great deal of this work is of a very high standard indeed and has been universally praised. Nevertheless, it is true that the work of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and of the local authorities is very largely preventive and negative in character, and while we should not under-rate what we are doing to thwart ugly or unsuitable development, my right hon. Friend would certainly not claim for a moment that we are in a position to cover the whole field. We certainly agree that there is plenty of room for the contribution of voluntary bodies which can be vigilant on these questions of public amenity.

think, however, that I ought to single out one body in this sphere, that is neither a voluntary nor a self-constituted organisation, and that was set up years ago under Royal Warrant, the Royal Fine Art Commission. My hon. Friend has made one or two rather fleeting allusions to the activities of the Commission. It is important that we should be clear that the Royal Fine Art Commission is charged by Royal warrant with a duty of inquiring into such questions of public amenity or artistic importance as may be put to it by any of the Departments of State, and giving advice on similar questions when asked to do so by public or quasi-public bodies.

The Commission is charged, also, with the duty of calling the attention of Departments to any project or development which, in its view, may seem to affect amenities of a national or public character. The House will be familiar, from the Reports of the Commission, with the wide range of activities in which these terms of reference involve the distinguished gentlemen who are members of the Commission. My right hon. Friend regards it as important that, in any discussion of this general topic of public amenity, we should bear in mind the duties which are entrusted to the Commission.

There are, however, as my hon. Friend said, other organisations which take a very keen interest in questions of amenity. The Civic Trust is the latest such organisation to be formed, and, as I understand what my hon. Friend has said, the Trust has, I think very wisely, decided that, so far as possible, it should avoid duplicating work which is already being effectively done by professional or other amenity societies, and will, where it is appropriate, co-operate with those other bodies.

This leads to the other question posed by my hon. Friend, namely what is the particular contribution which the Civic Trust, as the newcomer, can make? Obviously, it is not for me to suggest how a voluntary body of this kind should do its work, but I may, perhaps, suggest that the most valuable function it can perform lies in the education of public opinion, in stimulating interest in the appearance of our towns and villages, and encouraging a better appreciation of high standards of architecture in civic planning.

As my hon. Friend knows, a great deal of the development in progress in the country is the concern of private people as distinct from public bodies, local authorities, Government Departments, and the like, and, in the long run, the standard of that development, that is, the work done by private individuals and interests, will depend on the extent of public interest and on the standard of public taste. Clearly, the greater the interest taken in these questions and the more enlightened that interest is, the greater will be the chance of getting well-designed and well-sited buildings, and preserving all that is best in our national heritage.

I was, therefore, very interested, as indeed, would my right hon. Friend have been, I know, to hear the suggestions which my hon. Friend made as to how the Trust might embark upon the further education of public opinion. It is not, I think, for me or, indeed, for the House, to tell the Trust how it should proceed, but I have no doubt that the Trust will consider with the utmost care the suggestions put forward by my hon. Friend. These are early days in the life of the Trust. It would be quite wrong for me at this stage to attempt a forecast as to how the Trust will work or how we might be able to co-operate with it in achieving our common ends.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this topic tonight. My right hon. Friend asks me to say that he will certainly watch the progress of the Trust with the closest interest and attention.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes to Twelve o'clock.