HC Deb 03 March 1958 vol 583 cc917-22

Order for Second Reading read.

7.22 p.m.

Wing Commander Eric Bullus (Wembley, North)

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

All hon. and right hon. Members will, I think, have received a statement which sets out the provisions of this Bill. Briefly, and for the record, I should like to say that the prime object of the Bill is to enable part of the site of the present Church of Holy Trinity, Hounslow, to be sold, and to provide for a new church on the remaining part of the site.

The church, which stands in the High Street of Hounslow, was severely damaged by fire in 1943, and very largely destroyed, but not by enemy action. The church was a Victorian building erected about 1864, and, from an architectural point of view, it was not an important building. At the time of the fire, the parish received a cash settlement from the insurance company at the rate of prices prevailing at that time, which was 14 years ago, and at a time when it was not possible to carry out works of repair on that scale. In 1954, it was found that the cost of restoration would be about £30,000, and this exceeded the available assets by about £10,000.

The burial ground surrounding the church has a frontage to High Street, Hounslow, and on investigation it has been found to have an unexpectedly high value. No burials can take place in the churchyard, nor have they, in fact, taken place there for over 40 years, except in the double graves or vaults. For over 40 years, there have been very few burials in this ground. Powers are therefore sought in the Bill to sell part of the valuable frontage and to build a new and worthy church on a portion rather less than half of the present site.

There is need to emphasise that it is necessary to sell rather more than half the site for economic development in order to attract a good price. It should also be pointed out that Parliament has, in recent years, authorised the use of churchyards, in whole or in part, and the sites of churches in a manner comparable with the proposals of the Bill. I have, in fact, six instances in the last two years in which such proposals were approved.

The manner in which the proceeds of sale are to be applied is laid down in the Bill. After paying all the necessary costs, and dealing with the removal and re-interment of any human remains disturbed, there will be more than enough left to provide the parish of Hounslow and the borough of Heston and Isle-worth with a dignified and worthy church, and to assist the parish in certain smaller matters as set out in the Bill. I should also point out that the scheme allows for a dignified entrance from the High Street, in keeping with the dignity of the church.

It is proposed that the balance of funds remaining should go to the diocese to assist in the building of a new church in some area of new housing where there is at present a shortage of church accommodation. For this purpose, there has been adopted in the Bill the wording of the Clause in the Reorganisation Areas Measure, 1944, which deals with redundant sites. It will be seen, therefore, that the Bill is of great importance to the parish of Hounslow in that it gives it the opportunity of having a fine church, whereas at present the parish does not possess the funds to proceed even with the restoration of the former building, which was badly damaged, and which, incidentally, has suffered by deterioration in the years since 1943.

At the same time, the diocese will benefit, for some balance of funds will assist materially with the urgent problem of providing church facilities in new centres of population. From the point of view of both the parish of Hounslow and the diocese in general, it would be a great tragedy if this Bill were to flounder.

A Petition against the Bill has been presented by three persons. Some of the statements in the Petition are inaccurate or mistaken, but they are not points of a kind that should be debated in this House at the present moment but rather points that suitably could be debated in Committee. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Heston and Isle-worth (Mr. R. Harris), who originally objected to the Bill, now supports the principle but desires to debate or to have debated in Committee one or two small points.

It should also be pointed out that the Hounslow Parochial Church Council has discussed this subject on a dozen occasions in the last two years, and at its annual meeting, and has agreed the Bill, with two or three dissentients. The passing of this Measure would greatly help diocesan church work, and especially the church life of Hounslow; whereas, if the Measure is not accepted, there is no really useful alternative. The Bill offers the best available scheme and I commend it to the House.

Mr. R. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham)

I beg to second the Motion.

7.30 p.m.

Mr. Reader Harris (Heston and Isleworth)

I felt it right that this Bill should be discussed on the Floor of the House because of the strong feelings that it has aroused in Heston and Isleworth, and particularly in Hounslow. There have been churches of one sort or another on this site for about 700 years and the site is, of course, an extremely valuable one, as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wembley, North (Wing Commander Bullus) has said. It has a frontage of about 80 yards along the middle of Hounslow High Street, and a depth of 50 yards, and the position now is that it does not present a very attractive sight. The churchyard is in a shocking state of disrepair and untidiness. As my hon. and gallant Friend has said, the church itself was destroyed by arson.

Worship now takes place in a shell inside the old building. It is a state of affairs which obviously cannot continue indefinitely because the present building in which worship takes place could not possibly be a permanent structure. But there have been very strong differences of opinion as to the method of restoration. Opinions have differed so much that certain members of the parochial church council found it necessary two or three years ago to resign, and I am now in the difficult position, as Member of Parliament for the area, of having one lot of people coming to me with six or seven hundred signatures opposing the Bill, and another lot coming with six or seven hundred signatures asking me to support the Bill.

The position is that the insurance money produced about £13,000 which, as a result of wise investment, has now risen to £20,000, and three years ago there was an appeal—a somewhat half-hearted one—which brought in about £1,500. If I say that it was half-hearted, it was not because the people were not serious about it, but at about that time it became possible to sell off some of the land and the appeal rather fell by the wayside. There is now about £22,000 in the kitty, but that is not enough even to restore the church merely by repairing the existing walls. About £30,000 was required some years ago, and now the sum will probably be about £40,000.

The reason the people who opposed the Bill have objected to it so much is, first of all, that they thought it was wrong in principle to sell off church land and so to relieve the parishioners of having to do any work for their church. They thought that if the parishioners had to work to raise the money, even if it took some years, they would appreciate it all the more. They objected to what they called a sell-out to commercial interests, and they do not like seeing their church subordinated to a shopping centre. They do not like having a shopping centre on what they regard as consecrated ground, as undoubtedly it is, and they have taken the view that, having been consecrated, it is consecrated for all time.

Furthermore, one must have regard to the fact that there are many elderly residents in the borough who have had their forebears buried in the churchyard and they are not anxious to see the graves desecrated. In addition, they have always thought that the churchyard, if it is to be altered, should be laid out as a garden of rest.

The supporters of the Bill have taken the opposite view. They have said, "Let us sell off as much of the churchyard as we possibly can and get what we can for it." The amount of money which they have found could be obtained by selling it off is in the region of £250,000. The site which is to be sold would probably be used as a large store, and as to the remaining ground—about one-third of the present site—it is proposed that £100,000 should be spent on a new church, which would make it about the most expensive church built in the London diocese since the war. They propose that £6,000 should be spent on a hall in which worship should take place for two years, while the church was being rebuilt. The hall would then be handed over to the local scouts.

About £4,000 would go on a number of minor things like repairing the vicarage, and £40,000 would be spent on exhuming the bodies and reburying them at Woking. There would then be a sum left over of about £100,000 which could be handed to the London Diocesan Fund for use on churches in the London diocese.

The view has been taken that a new church is absolutely necessary and that one cannot repair the old one—a view with which I agree. The view has also been expressed that to raise £100,000 in a parish like Hounslow is virtually impossible. Again, that is something with which I agree. I certainly would not want to obstruct the passage of the Bill, because I have no doubt that the parishioners would say to me, "Well, you raise the money then." I do not propose that that state of affairs should arise.

It has been said that although the land is consecrated, it obviously cannot remain consecrated for ever. Indeed, if one searches into the records of Hounslow before the time when Dick Turpin used to ride across the Heath it will be found that the church land around Holy Trinity extended far beyond the present limits and went down the road, along Hounslow High Street and down various other roads. It is said that the town hall is now built on what was once part of the graveyard.

The view is also taken by the supporters of the Bill that there need be no disrespect to the remains of deceased persons or their living relatives because the exhumation would be carried out properly and decently and, therefore, there need be no worry in that respect. The opposers of the Bill say that to spend £40,000 on that sort of thing is a scandalous waste of money. The London Diocesan Fund is only too anxious to obtain £100,000 to help towards building or rebuilding other churches in the London diocese.

My own view is that the Bill ought to have a Second Reading. I believe we ought to build for the living and the future generations, and that we ought not to have an exaggerated respect or regard for those who have gone before. Their work is now done. We must keep a proper perspective in these matters.

Certainly something must be done about the churchyard, even if it is laid out as a garden of rest. The tombstones must be removed, for the churchyard could not be left with the tombstones all topsy-turvy. The money is exceedingly difficult to raise, although it might be a good thing if the parishioners made some effort towards raising the money for the church. I certainly think it is reasonable that they should do so. But I do not want to see the vicar of Holy Trinity, Hounslow going cap in hand to America trying to raise the money on the other side of the Atlantic, for that would be bad in principle; and I certainly think that something should be done to give the impression that the Christian religion is not being subordinated merely to commercial interests.

The main objection from my point of view is that about two-thirds of the new church will have to be tucked away behind what will probably be a new store. I should have liked to have seen rather less of the frontage sold off so that there could be an uninterrupted view of the church from the High Street. This is an important church. It is the church where all the important civic services have taken place and where I have walked in procession with the Mayor and Corporation on innumerable Sundays in the last eight years. We should have a dignified church and not one which would be pushed up in a corner with every possible square yard sold off to commercial interests. That is a point which, I agree with my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wembley, North, can be discussed in Committee.

I hope the Committee will consider selling off less of the land so that there is an uninterrupted view of the church from the High Street and so that there is no suggestion that religion is being subordinated to commerce in an unreasonable way. With that reservation, I support the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time and committed.