HC Deb 26 November 1959 vol 614 cc727-38

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

11.17 p.m.

Mr. Kenneth Robinson (St. Pancras, N.)

I am glad to have the opportunity tonight of raising the question of the redevelopment of Piccadilly Circus. I would like, at the outset, to say how grateful I am that the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Housing and Local Government has come here himself to reply to the debate, and, secondly, to congratulate him on his initiative and his courage in intervening and calling in the application for the development of the Monico site, and his promptitude in arranging for a public inquiry to start before Christmas.

I will deal with the wider issues of redevelopment, but I want, first, to say a word about this particular development and to state what my objections are to the building which it is proposed to put up on the Monico site. I do not expect the Minister to comment on my objections, since he is in a quasi-judicial capacity as being the person who has to make the final decision following the public inquiry.

My objections to this building apply with almost equal force to the modified version of the building which has not yet been seen by the public in general. No illustrations or plans have been released. It is true that the public outcry that greeted the proposal was sparked off by an illustration of the proposed building put out by the developers' public relations consultants, and it has certain features which have not even received consideration by the L.C.C.

My objections are under three heads: first, the architectural objections. I would like to say, in parenthesis, that I find it rather extraordinary that a building as important and as large as this, on such an important site, should be designed by a firm of architects who are just able to scrape through the regulations which permit the practice of architecture. This firm is Cotton, Ballard and Blow. Of the three partners named in the title, Mr. Cotton is, I understand, the developer of the site and is not an architect, Mr. Ballard, I am told, is dead, and Mr. Blow is not even an associate of the R.I.B.A. but is a registered architect, which is a somewhat lesser qualification than A.R.I.B.A.

Opinions about a building, like most artistic opinions, vary considerably, but I would say that this building is bad in shape and I dislike its proportions. I dislike the relationship between the tower and the podium and I find the whole architectural treatment of the building generally uninspiring. I appreciate that this is only a layman's opinion but I have never subscribed to the view that one has to be a hen to pass judgment on an egg. Should the House not accept my opinion on this, I can only say that I am supported not only by the great majority of the Press but also by a formidable body of architectural opinion, including such people as Mr. Furneaux Jordan, Professor Basil Spence, who, I think, is the current President of the A.R.I.B.A., and Mr. J. M. Richards. That is all I have to say about the building itself.

Then there is this very vexed question of advertisements. The main tower of the building, as it would be seen from Piccadilly Circus, is to be nothing less than an advertisement hoarding 170 ft. in height covered with illuminated moving advertisements. It has been said that we all want to keep Piccadilly Circus a gay place with bright lights, and I accept that entirely. What I do not necessarily accept is that bright lights need be equated with advertisement signs.

But even if one does accept that view—and I agree there may be difficulties in paying for the bright lights unless there is an advertising revenue—I do not think that one can justify a tower of advertisements which will, in effect, be a lighthouse visible half way across London. I prefer to see advertisements, if there are to be advertisements, not very much above the pedestrian's eye level; I do not, of course, mean on a direct level with his eye, but, certainly, there can be no case for having them 170 ft. in the air.

This whole question of advertisements on buildings bristles with difficulties. It needs a lot of thought and ingenuity on the part of architects, but the one thing of which I am absolutely certain is that the solution has not been found in this proposed development as we see it now.

My third objection to the building is that it is inconsistent with the planned development of the whole Circus area and it would put paid, if it were implemented, to any comprehensive integrated scheme of development. This brings me to the London County Council's published comprehensive scheme for the Piccadilly Circus area. I know this scheme has been referred to recently by spokesmen for the County Council as "notional" or "tentative"; indeed, the chief architect said in a television interview that it was by no means the final answer. That may be, and indeed there may be differing opinions about the architectural designs incorporated in this scheme, though personally, I like them very much. But the planning and the layout of this proposal are both excellent.

In my opinion, at any rate, there is one quite brilliant feature and that is the idea of differentiated levels for pedestrians and traffic, the pedestrians being lifted up, so to speak, to the first floor level, and the buildings joined by walkways to give a sort of shopping centre clear of traffic. I believe that some kind of development like that will be necessary over the greater part of Central London within the next fifty years or so. This whole idea goes by the board finally if what I call the Cotton scheme is proceeded with.

That brings me to my most important point. I believe that there is only one satisfactory solution to the problem of Piccadilly Circus and that is for the whole area to be declared an area of comprehensive development under, I think, Section 5 (3) of the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. Whether such an area would include or exclude the Cotton site must depend on the outcome of the public inquiry.

I appreciate that to declare an area a comprehensive development is not a matter for the Minister in the first instance, but I imagine that some such scheme would commend itself to the London County Council. I am sure that the County Council would like to do something like this if it could, but it is very frightened of the financial implications. It wants to do a good planning job, but it is strictly limited as to the amount of capital it can raise in the market. It is, naturally, frightened by the difficulty of raising money—and, indeed, considerable sums would be involved.

I hope that if such a proposal were made—and, incidentally, there is a review of the London development plan going on at present, which will come to the right hon. Gentleman, in the ordinary course of events, for his approval early next year—the Minister will say that not only will he give it his sympathetic consideration, but do his best to ease the financial problem for the L.C.C., either by direct capital grant or, at any rate, by facilitating its access to the Public Works Loan Board. The Minister probably does not know—it only happened an hour or two ago—that the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, in winding up the economic debate, said that the Government would assist any local authority that had difficulty in raising money by allowing it to go to the Public Works Loan Board.

This might be regarded as an unusual procedure, but we are in an unusual situation, and I submit that because Piccadilly Circus is not only unusual, but unique, it is wholly appropriate that the London County Council should acquire and develop what is, after all, the focal point of the capital city of the Commonwealth. I suggest that if they were to declare this an area of comprehensive development it might perhaps provide an opportunity for an open competition.

I regard this public inquiry into the Monico site as absolutely a test case. What happens as a result may well decide the architectural shape and planning of the West End for the next 100 years at least. The Government's financial policy over the last year or so has undoubtedly released floods of money for speculative development. Applications for developing sites all over the place are begining to pour in to the L.C.C., and many more are pending, at sites in Seven Dials, Cambridge Circus, Shaftesbury Avenue, Charing Cross Road and a host of other places. If those developments are left to the unfettered and uncontrolled whims of private enterprise, the West End will become the sort of architectural jungle that the City of London has become since the war.

Finally—and I want to leave the Minister plenty of time to reply—I would put this question to him. Does he think that the existing planning controls that he possesses are effective to do this job? We know that he has considerable reserve powers under existing legislation, and that he is naturally reluctant to use them unless, as in this case, there is a public outcry. He said in reply to a Parliamentary Question of mine the other day that he thought planning was best done by local authorities. I agree with that as a general principle, but there are exceptional cases, and we find all too often that an important development which really ought to have been considered far more widely is an accomplished fact before anybody knows about it. Time and again we find ourselves protesting against something, backed up by Press and public opinion, but, unfortunately, the decision has been taken and nothing short of a revocation order, which I think is very seldom exercised, can affect the position.

What I would like to know, and what I hope the Minister will turn his mind to, is how we are to get some sort of system whereby important developments such as that of Piccadilly Circus are given a public airing before final deci- sions are taken, and perhaps even at an earlier stage still. It is a difficult problem, and it is not easy to define what is an important development. It is not only a question of location or of the size of the development. It is probably nearly always a combination of the two. Piccadilly Circus is, of course, one of the obvious cases.

I hope that some kind of criterion can be worked out. I believe the planning authorities would be glad to co-operate, and I am quite sure that in this instance the London County Council would be very glad indeed to co-operate. I hope that the Minister will give his attention to the matter and will let the House know what his views are.

I wish to say again how pleased I am that this matter is to be aired at a public inquiry. I think that it is one of the most important planning developments which we have discussed in the House for a very long time, and I have made it quite clear what I hope the outcome of the inquiry will be.

11.32 p.m.

Sir Hamilton Kerr (Cambridge)

I wish to support the arguments so eloquently outlined by the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. K. Robinson). Like him, I am intensely grateful to my right hon. Friend for having thrown a lifebelt even at the last minute to the half-drowned and bedraggled figure of London amenities. We are most grateful to him.

I find these recurring crises exhausting. Too often many of us are engaged in a last minute do-or-die charge to save a particular spot of beauty, and unless the defenders of beauty advance like howling dervishes, firing off every rifle in their slender armoury, they appear to make very little impact on the massed square of their opponents.

The hon. Gentleman made the important point that we should try to evolve some system whereby public opinion can form and express itself with some time between the launching of a controversial project and its acceptance—to borrow a military phrase, between air-raid purple and air-raid red. Too often we find the enemy bombers overhead before the defenders have had time to fire a few shots.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend, with that calm, comfortable confidence which we associate with the finest Balliol education, will find a satisfactory solution.

11.34 p.m.

The Minister of Housing and Local Government and Minister for Welsh Affairs (Mr. Henry Brooke)

I am grateful to both hon. Members for what they have been good enough to say about my intervention in this difficult matter. If I speak very briefly about the controversial building itself, I know that the House will appreciate that because the matter is now sub judice I must be very careful what I say. Therefore, if I do not comment on what the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. K. Robinson) said in his detailed criticisms it does not mean that I necessarily accept his judgment.

I would put it on record that an architectual firm of high repute, consultant architects, not the firm which the hon. Gentleman mentioned by name, has, I understand, been entirely responsible for the exterior of this building. I have succeeded in arranging an inquiry to start on 16th December. I hope to make it possible for the plans of the revised building which will actually go to the inquiry to be on public show before then, because I think it important that everyone in this Chamber and outside should realise that virtually nobody has as yet seen the actual plans as revised in the light of certain criticisms which will be submitted to the inquiry. I can assure the House that I desire to reach an early decision, because I think it is only fair to the developers and to everyone concerned that there should be no undue delay.

I agree that we need to have a general idea of the way in which the whole Piccadilly Circus area might be successfully developed. The crucial fact is that it is not all in one ownership, and I submit to the House that it would be quite impracticable to hold up all redevelopment until the time comes when the reconstruction of the whole could take place simultaneously. In fact, the traffic line along the north side of the square for the future traffic layout is now firmly settled, and it should be possible to redevelop the Monico site without prejudicing final decisions on the eventual traffic layout which will be needed on the east and south sides. Of course, I agree that we must take the longest possible view here about future traffic.

I am not at all sure that a rigid architectual scheme to be adhered to over a period of twenty or thirty years would stand the test of time. Some people, some of the critics, have been suggesting that we must ensure architectural unity from the outset. Frankly, looking back, I think it is fortunate that we are not too clearly bound in 1959 by architectural decisions taken twenty-five years ago. We have to bear in mind that this redevelopment will take place over a period of that order.

The requirements of the future developers are important also because these are commercial buildings which must be economically as well as architecturally acceptable, if I may put it in that way. Hon. Members have spoken about the two-level scheme proposed in the tentative model which, I understand, was approved by the planning committee of the London County Council but which never went before the full council and has not the authoritative seal of council approval.

I am informed that none of the potential developers of the sites around Piccadilly Circus has indicated that he would be prepared to work to the two-tier system at all. It is not just a single developer who has said that he could not incorporate it; I am informed that that has been the general reaction of others who have studied it. Of course, I must admit that I can see some practical advantage on Boat Race night, for instance, in being stationed at the upper rather than the lower level.

Those are some of the difficulties, but difficulties exist to be overcome. What we must do is ensure that the first building which goes up is satisfying in itself. In addition, we must ensure that it is not such as to compromise the success of the new appearance of Piccadilly Circus when redevelopment is complete, for which one would like an atmosphere of unity without seeking a strict uniformity. I can assure the House that I have all these points in mind. I am convinced that the London County Council also, as planning authority, carries them in mind.

The hon. Member for St. Pancras, North urged that this should be made an area of comprehensive development. If the London County Council should come to me with that proposal, I should certainly sympathetically consider it. Up to the present, my information is that the London County Council has not been prepared to seek that this should be made an area of comprehensive development. As I think the hon. Gentleman knows, I could hardly compel the Council to do so and, certainly, I have no power to oblige it to buy up the whole area and itself redevelop it.

Therefore, it is a much more complex task here than the one which faces a local authority where perhaps the whole centre of a town has been blitzed and virtually simultaneous redevelopment can take place over an area that has all passed into a single ownership. But I will certainly assure the hon. Member that throughout—and by that I mean in the light of whatever may come out of a public inquiry—I intend to give attention to these questions and not to lose sight of them; and I have every reason to believe that the London County Council would wish to be co-operative.

Mr. K. Robinson

Will the right hon. Gentleman also look at the question of giving capital financial assistance should a proposal come from London County Council?

Mr. Brooke

On that, I can say no more, as the hon. Member will appreciate, than that I heard what he said.

The hon. Member also asked whether it would be possible to get some public discussion beforehand of important projects of this kind. I have been examining that. It is being brought to my mind not only by this case, but by others of different character elsewhere. It is not an easy problem to solve. To London County Council alone many thousands of planning applications come in every year. The number, taking England and Wales as a whole, runs into hundreds of thousands. All these are recorded on the register by the planning authority and the register is open to public inspection.

The disadvantage of that, of course, is that the particulars are so brief that it would be very hard for anybody, just by inspecting the register, to know what was really proposed. Judgement on any important project is impossible without seeing the plans. The problem, then, is by what criteria we ought to select those planning applications which should be put on view and exposed to public appreciation or criticism. This is rendered harder because it is seldom that a planing application, once put in, remains unmodified.

In the ordinary case, where the project is of any substance and importance, it is normally likely to get modified as a result of discussion with the planning authority, and so forth, before final approval is given. Yet it would be misleading to put on public view the original plans which might have been considerably reshaped before they were coming up for decision by the planning authority. I think that London County Council has given an earnest of its desire not to hide matters from the public by the High Buildings Exhibition which it has arranged at County Hall, which I hope hon. Members will find time to attend. I certainly intend to visit it myself in the next week or two.

It has been said that nobody knew that a high building was likely to go up on this site. In fairness, I must tell the House that the proposal to put up a high building on the Monico site was made known in the Press as long ago as 4th October, 1958. I have here a picture which was published, with half a column of explanation in the Daily Telegraph of 13th March, which shows the actual building that went to the L.C.C. I must say that it is a much better picture than the rather curious one which was given to the Press more recently. In that report there is no secret of the character of the building and it was specifically stated that it would be 172 feet high. It aroused no comment whatever in the Press, in the House, or elsewhere.

I am aware, and the House is well aware, that there are many issues here with which I cannot deal adequately in an Adjournment debate and a few weeks before a public inquiry at which all the pros and cons will be ventilated. I hope that I have shown the House that I am concerned to try to reach the right decisions both about this building and general redevelopment. There is no unity, I fancy, among the critics of the proposed building. Some say that it is not sufficiently distinguished architecturally; some say that it is too distinguished—distinguished by its enormous blank panels. Frankly, if there are to be advertisements on a new building, the building must be designed to carry the advertisements. It is not commonly realised, I think, that many of the rooms behind the existing illuminated advertisements in Piccadilly Circus are out of use because the advertisements block out the light.

I do not believe anyone wants a Piccadilly Circus of either stony austerity or unrelieved vulgarity, and, without prejudging any particular design, I suspect that the House does not wish to do away with the lights of Piccadilly altogether. If that is so, I shall try to carry out the desires of the House in all that falls to me to decide. Without expressing any view whatever on any particular building, I do not intend to be the Minister who blacks out the streaming coloured sparkles which mean Piccadilly Circus to Her Majesty's subjects all round the globe.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes to Twelve o'clock.