HC Deb 30 April 1958 vol 587 cc531-8
Mr. Ernest Davies

I beg to move, in page 14, line 2, to leave out "by the Council and not".

r. Speaker

This and the hon. Member's next Amendment go together, do they not?

Mr. Davies

Yes, Mr. Speaker. The second, in page 14, to leave out lines 4 to 10, is really consequential upon the first.

I do not think that I need detain the House long on this point. The purpose of these two Amendments is to ensure that the highway authority for the roads in the neighbourhood of this improvement is the same highway authority as the one which will be responsible for the underpass. As the Bill stands, London County Council will be responsible for the underpasses, and the Westminster City Council is the highway authority for the highways. I raised this matter in Standing Committee, and the Parliamentary Secretary gave me an undertaking that he would discuss it with the responsible authorities. I move the Amendment in the hope that he will be able to give me the results of his consultations with the L.C.C. and Westminster City Council.

The question has arisen because for some unknown reason London County Council is responsible for all London's tunnels. It is the authority responsible, presumably, for Rotherhithe Tunnel and Blackwall Tunnel, and so on. Once the underpasses are constructed they will be considered to be tunnels and London County Council will be responsible for them, but the responsible highway authority for the roads which are affected by these improvements under the Bill, at Piccadilly, Knightsbridge, Grosvenor Place, and so on, is Westminster City Council.

We feel that it is undesirable that the highway authority should be the Westminster City Council, and that the responsible authority for the tunnel itself should be the London County Council. This will cause some unnecessary confusion and complication, which the Parliamentary Secretary surely cannot justify. The Bill as it stands makes provision for the London County Council to hand over to the Westminster City Council, by agreement, the responsibility for the underpass, and the purpose of the Amendment is to ensure that the London County Council will do so.

By deleting these words and the paragraph referred to, the Westminster City Council would become the authority responsible for the underpass once it had been constructed. That is logical and reasonable. It would be ridiculous if we had one authority responsible for the road at the side of the underpass and another authority responsible for the roads in the underpass. In those circumstances I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will either be able to accept the Amendment or to give an assurance that the London County Council has reached agreement with the Westminster City Council to hand over the responsibility for the underpass once it has been constructed.

11.30 p.m.

Mr. Nugent

As I undertook in Committee, we have had consultations with the London County Council on this matter, and the Council has decided that it should be responsible for the underpass. As the hon. Member has said, the London County Council is responsible for all London tunnels, under the river and elsewhere, and, in fact, there are certain aspects of maintenance, such as ventilation and lighting, which require expert knowledge. It therefore seems sensible to leave responsibility for this one with the experts—the London County Council—which already has engineers who are skilled in this matter.

The hon. Member need not feel anxious about the matter; this arrangement, that the London County Council shall be responsible for tunnel maintenance in the immediate proximity, with the Metropolitan boroughs concerned being responsible for the road maintenance, gives rise to no difficulty in practice in the other tunnels for which the London County Council is responsible, and I am quite sure that it will not cause any difficulty here; nor need the House feel anxious that this is necessarily a precedent.

If underpasses are built elsewhere within the L.C.C. area they will be considered on their merits; it will be a question whether they are sufficiently large tunnels that the L.C.C. feels that it is desirable to take them over, or whether they can be left in the hands of the Metropolitan boroughs concerned. It is entirely a practical question, as to who is best equipped to look after the tunnel concerned. In those circumstances, I hope that the hon. Member will be prepared to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment negatived.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

11.35 p.m.

Mr. Nigel Birch (Flint, West)

Before the Bill leaves the House, I should like to put a curse upon it. I think that it is a bad Bill. The fact that both sides of the House are agreed upon it does not alter my opinion. Many of the worst things that this House has done have been unanimously agreed—and the fact that the L.C.C. also agrees confirms me in my opinion.

I believe that, on principle, it is wrong to sanction encroachments on the Royal Parks. The Royal Parks have been defended in their present form for some hundreds of years. Of course, one can solve or help to solve many problems if one allows encroachments on the Royal Parks. Traffic in Westminster would be much assisted if the whole of St. James's Park were turned into a car park. Housing would be much assisted if we had prefabricated bungalows in Hyde Park. Many useful interests would be served if technical colleges, public wash-houses and lunatic asylums were built in Regent's Park; many interests would be served.

But the Royal Parks are among the principal glories of our country and they are loved by many people not only in London, but all over the country and all over the world. They have been jealously defended by generations of Ministers of Works, who have refused to allow encroachments upon them. It is a great grief to me that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Works has not only not defended the Parks in this case, but appears positively to welcome what I believe is a desecration. I say "desecration" advisedly.

I was, I confess, startled by the speech of the Minister of Transport on Second Reading because he referred to amenities, and so on, and to trees. The only thing he said about trees was that he hoped to plant a few, or that the Minister of Works would do so. But what happens under this Bill is that at least fifty of the finest and largest plane trees in London will be felled at the outset. They are along the East Carriage Drive in Hyde Park, in Hamilton Gardens, on the south side of Piccadilly, where the underpass is to come out, and also the particularly fine ones at the point near Buckingham Palace Gardens.

The effect of cutting down the trees will be to alter the vistas in Hyde Park, Green Park and the gardens of Buckingham Palace. Then the lodges, or most of them, in the East Carriageway, some of them of very considerable architectural interest, will be removed. Hamilton Gardens, so magnificently redesigned and replanned, will be murdered, and Apsley House will be left shaking on an island in the middle of a sea of traffic. This is a great price to pay for what will be achieved.

The hon. Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Ernest Davies) hit on one of the important points. It will transfer the traffic block at Hyde Park Corner to Knightsbridge and also to Piccadilly Circus and Victoria. I have always had considerable doubts whether the three new roundabouts will make the traffic flow as it is hoped that it will. I notice that the Observer mentioned one of the main points in an article last Sunday, in which it was pointed out that what the traffic experts call the "volume of weave" is much greater in these roundabouts than United States or Continental engineers believe is feasible. It was pointed out, too, that none of the reports of the Road Research Laboratory on its experiments—that is, with mock-ups—have been published or put before the public or this House.

When the scheme was first mooted there was a great deal of opposition. The Royal Fine Art Commission came out against it. The Times came out against it; but they have not followed it through; now they only make a few genteel simperings. But this battle is not altogether lost. The Bill must go to another place, and I hope that their Lordships, at any rate, will insist that the public is informed of what are the aesthetic consequences of the Bill, as they certainly have not been informed in this House, and that they will also make the most rigorous examination—also not made in this House—of the traffic consequences. If they do, they will be doing their duty. The passage of the Bill has been too easy, and none of the main objections to it has been raised.

11.41 p.m.

Mr. Nugent

I sympathise with the concern of my right hon. Friend the Member for Flint, West (Mr. Birch) that we should not lose any of the wonderful features that we have inherited in our Royal Parks, but I did not feel that his comments were entirely fair. A very great deal of thought has been given to the scheme which is now before the House. It has been discussed in detail on Second Reading for a whole day, and in Committee.

It is recognised that the scheme has great benefits indeed, and although there is a price to be paid in terms of the Royal Parks the benefits from the improved traffic flow are such that it is worth paying. Hyde Park Corner is well known as the worst traffic intersection in the country, where there is the heaviest flow of traffic—91,000 vehicles per 12-hour day—and where there is more delay and congestion than at any other intersection in the country. For years, people have been considering how it could be improved.

Similarly with the rest of the scheme. The Marble Arch intersection has 65,000 vehicles per day. It is a very difficult intersection indeed. A very great deal of delay and congestion take place there, and frequent delay and congestion in getting entrance from Park Lane into the Park. This scheme will give relief at both those main intersections and will give one-way working north to south, which will greatly improve traffic movement.

The scheme is almost at the heart of Central London. Continually, all of us complain and have heard complaints about the movement of traffic in London. We know that it is far too slow. Here is a scheme which will make a substantial improvement in traffic flow in London. Emanating from this point, we can go on to other traffic improvement schemes which will give further benefit. This is at the very heart of Central London traffic; I hope that my right hon. Friend will not just write it off as something of no consequence. It will make a substantial basic contribution to the movement of traffic in London.

Certainly, the total cost is high, but I can reassure my right hon. Friend that this is the best scheme that the experts can work out. We had a group working on the scheme, including members of the Road Research Laboratory, and after long studies it came to the conclusion that this was the best scheme. I regret as much as my right hon. Friend does that Hamilton Gardens should have to go, and that we shall lose a net area of about five to six acres of Park land. I agree that it is a heavy loss, but it is fair to remind the House that there are about 373 acres of Hyde Park and 55 acres of Green Park.

Certainly, trees will be lost, and that is a heavy price to pay; but other amenity benefits will come. The heavy flow of traffic at present using the East Carriage Drive in Hyde Park will, in future, be outside the Park. Fences will be moved back, and the Park will have the benefit of having this heavy flow of traffic moving outside. The subways which will be built under Park Lane and out into the Park will in future make it safe and comfortable for pedestrians to reach the Park in reasonable conditions as opposed to the present situation.

The central reservations and islands are being most carefully laid down by London County Council, which has devoted £450,000 to this purpose and is taking the advice of the Royal Fine Art Commission as of the best way of doing the work. I think that the House will find that when these reservations and islands are finally laid down they will add amenity to London and something which will tone in well with the rest of the Park. Finally, the Decimus Burton Screen will be preserved in its present condition and be undisturbed by traffic flowing through it.

I will not pretend that the price we are to pay for this is negligible and I certainly sympathise with the strong fight that my right hon. Friend has made to protect the Park. I agree with him that our Parks are one of the most valuable and desirable of beautiful features we have in the whole of London. I suppose I know them as well as most hon. Members in this House. I walk through Green Park and St. James's Park. I have walked through every day for the last six and a half years and probably know the trees and flowerbeds as well as anyone. I give way to no one in affection for the Parks and wish to see them preserved, but in the Ministry I also have some responsibility for traffic matters. Much as I sympathise—I understand the relaxation and recreation which Londoners enjoy in the Parks—I am also very much aware of the danger and strain they endure when they are using the roads.

It is impossible to separate one factor from the other. They are both experiences which the Londoners feel. I believe that in this scheme, which certainly has to make some contribution from these great features of recreation and relaxation, we are making a contribution to London traffic which will relieve Londoners of some of the strain and some of the danger they now endure when moving about in vehicles in Central London.

I ask my right hon. Friend to see this proposition in that context. I believe that we are doing something here which will be of great value to Londoners, which will benefit them in the movement of traffic and benefit them in their homes. I ask hon. Members to give the Bill a Third Reading and send it on its way with their blessing.

11.48 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Greenwood (Rossendale)

I intervene only very briefly because of the lateness of the hour. The House was greatly impressed by the speech we heard from the right hon. Member for Flint, West (Mr. Birch). It was right we should be impressed, because the right hon. Member was a most notable Minister of Works and I think that any doubts he expresses about the amenity aspects of this Bill should be treated by hon. Members with the most serious consideration.

When we debated the Bill on Second Reading a number of hon. Members expressed doubts about the aesthetic effects of the proposals contained in it, but I think that most of us came to the conclusion that our doubts were, on the whole, really met and we felt that any disadvantages in the scheme were outweighed by the advantages which should accrue by the movement of traffic.

Tonight, the right hon. Member has to some extent revived the doubts we felt on that occasion because, speaking with all the authority of a former Minister of Works, he has made a number of criticisms of the right hon. Gentleman who now occupies that position. He has accused the Minister of failing to carry on the traditions of previous Ministers of Works in defending the Parks from encroachments and concurring in a proposal which will have the effect of destroying a number of very beautiful plane trees in the heart of this city.

As the Minister has been silent throughout our deliberations on this Bill, it is only fair to the House that he should deal with the criticisms that his right hon. Friend has made.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.