HC Deb 09 February 1961 vol 634 cc783-94

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

11.25 p.m.

Mr. Tom Driberg (Barking)

I shall not detain the House long, but I must start by thanking the Parliamentary Secretary for the delaying action which he took after our exchanges on 31st January, the Common Council of the City for courteously deferring to his request, and, of course, Mr. Speaker for allowing me this opportunity of speaking on behalf of one of the most unusual and interesting buildings in his own constituency, the Coal Exchange.

It might not have been necessary to have this debate at all had the threat to the Coal Exchange arisen, say, ten years hence, for it is, of course, a Victorian building—very early Victorian, 1847 to 1849—and we are only just beginning to realise that Victorian architecture at its best can be very fine indeed. There are always these cycles of taste. Not only the architects, but the poets, painters, novelists of the period immediately preceding our own are out of fashion; then we begin to be interested in them again, and can see them in perspective, without the excessive adulation to which they are, perhaps, subjected in their lifetime, or the excessive disparagement which follows their death.

It is only quite recently that the Victorian Society has been formed and has begun to educate public opinion on this matter, and indeed has warned us, perhaps only just in time, that we must act quickly if we are to preserve at least specimens of the best building of that once much ridiculed age.

My contention is that the Parliamentary Secretary was ill-advised, or, if he was expressing his own view, that his judgment was at fault, when he said, on 31st January, that the road development, the "vital" road development which is projected in Lower Thames Street, must interfere either with an absolutely outstanding building—Custom House—on one side, or with a less outstanding building—a considerably less outstanding building—on the other side."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 31st January, 1961; Vol. 633, c. 754.] I agree that it is difficult to argue about matters of taste, yet to some extent one can say that if a wide consensus of obviously civilised and expert opinion is in a certain direction it is at least prima facie evidence.

I wonder whether the Minister has been looking up or has noticed what various distinguished people have said about the Coal Exchange. I have here a statement by Sir Mortimer Wheeler which he prepared yesterday; quotations from it appeared in The Times this morning. I may perhaps just read this; it is quite short. Those who have seen Sir Mortimer on television will be able to imagine the rolling eye, the superb moustachios, and the orotund enunciation. Sir Mortimer writes: Professor Pevsner has placed the threatened London Coal Exchange among the twelve irreplaceable buildings of 19th century England. It has indeed many of the essential qualities of a masterpiece. It stands at the beginning of a new era in metal construction. I may perhaps break off here to say that it is, of course, the first building in cast-iron on this scale anywhere in the world. It antedates the Crystal Palace by several years.

"It is"— Sir Mortimer says— intelligently and graciously designed; its function is emphasised by an astonishing wealth of apt and skilful decoration by Sang—coal-plants and coal-worthies, pit-shafts and colliery tackle; and it was opened by Prince Albert in person in 1849. It expresses an era of urbane revolution as no other surviving building is capable of doing. Even the careful preservation of a tattered Roman hypocaust in its basement is a happy symbol of that decade which, more than any other, saw a new flowering of scientific and humanistic understanding throughout the country. The Coal Exchange is a national monument in the fullest sense of the phrase, and its destruction would be unforgivable. Those are very strong words, as the Minister will agree.

I could quote many other similar expressions of opinion, by Professor Pevsner himself, by Mr. John Betjeman and by Mr. Ian Nairn, who wrote in the Daily Telegraph that this building was how Adam might have built if he had lived in the mid-19th century". He said that it was technically a very elegant job and that there was nothing quite like this anywhere else in England. A point that I want to emphasise is that the Parliamentary Secretary seemed in his supplementary answer to have been seduced by the fallacy of earliness. Just because the building opposite, the Custom House, is earlier than the Coal Exchange, it is automatically assumed that it must be better. The best answer to that—

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Sir Keith Joseph)

So as not to waste time, and that the hon. Member shall not waste ammunition on what is not my argument, those opinions are not my own. My right hon. Friend is advised by the Advisory Committee which graded the Custom House above its grading of the Coal Exchange.

Mr. Driberg

I suggest, then, that the Advisory Committee is seduced by the fallacy of earliness. It has not got round to the Coal Exchange yet. The answer to the Minister and his advisory experts is that the Georgian Group, which is primarily interested in preserving buildings of the period of the Custom House, agreed with the Victorian Society that the Coal Exchange ought to be preserved, even at the cost of removing some small part of the Custom House, because the back of the Custom House, in Lower Thames Street facing the Coal Exchange, is very dull, plain and ordinary. It is the river front which is interesting.

This is indeed a most fascinating building. Some idea of it can be obtained from a print which hon. Members can see in the Library reproduced as Plate 63 in Hitchcock's volume in the Pelican "History of Art." There are murals of trees from which coal has been made and murals of North Shields, Sunderland, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Durham, immortalising, I hope, the historic seaborne trade between the Northern coalfields and the South of England.

The Parliamentary Secretary explained that the building had to be demolished because of a vital road development. We all appreciate the importance of that, but surely we must have some sense of proportion and comparative values. If there were a proposal to pull down St. Paul's or St. Stephen's, Walbrook, for road development, obviously the Minister would never allow it—but just because, and only because, the Coal Exchange was built in the nineteenth century, instead of the eighteenth or the seventeenth century, the threat is real. Yet, of its kind and period, it is a building of quite exceptional character and merit.

I hope very much that the Parliamentary Secretary is going to tell us tonight either that a decision has been taken to reprieve the building, or at least that there is to be a public inquiry. I feel that he can hardly refuse a public inquiry. I am assured that it would be technically possible to divert the projected road by the few yards needed, and the public inquiry could also examine various possible future uses for this building, some of which have been suggested by Mr. John Betjeman, who told us on the B.B.C. this morning that when the last tenants were given notice—they had been working in offices there—they had found it so agreeable and convenient a place to work in that they sent an appeal or protest against having to leave.

If it is absolutely impossible to preserve it on its present site—and I naturally hope that it is possible—then, as the Parliamentary Secretary will be aware, a plan is in existence for incorporating at least its interior, that noble galleried rotunda, in the rebuilt Royal School of Music on the redeveloped Barbican site.

But I hope personally that it can be preserved where it is, and as it is. If the Minister can bring that about, I am sure that Londoners of the future will bless his name.

11.35 p.m.

Colonel C. G. Lancaster (South Fylde)

I warmly support the convincing appeal made by the hon. Member for Barking (Mr. Driberg) on behalf of the London Coal Exchange. I do so on the ground that I expect that I am the only person in the House who made use of that building for the purpose for which it was built.

Like everybody else who did so use it, I know that one could not but be impressed by the noble features of a very distinguished building which has played a very significant part in the City of London and in the commerce of this country.

I hope that both on those grounds, and on the aesthetic grounds so ably put forward by the hon. Gentleman that my hon. Friend will recognise that the claim for the retention of this building is a real one and that, even if he is unable this evening to say that it will be saved, he will agree to a public inquiry on behalf of the London Coal Exchange.

11.36 p.m.

Mr. W. F. Deedes (Ashford)

I support what the hon. Member for Barking (Mr. Driberg) said. In doing so, may I anticipate what I expect my hon. Friend will say in reply. He will say that this is an all-important road and that it must have precedence over the Coal Exchange. In other words, the movable object cannot resist the irresistible force.

Before he says that, may I remind him of the incalculable good which the Government can do once in a while, perhaps once in a thousand times, and the enormous boost they can give to the morale of those who strive to preserve objects of this kind, by saying that in the exceptional instance the movable object will resist the irresistible force. If an exception is to be made to the case which is always made for the great road or route, I think that the Coal Exchange is probably as good an example of when to make the exception as will be found. I hope that my hon. Friend will agree to this claim.

11.38 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Housing and Local Government (Sir Keith Joseph)

It would be a pleasure to reply to such a constructively and moderately put debate if only one could be as forthcoming as hon. Members wish. I hope to be constructive and have some helpful ideas, but I must say that I cannot go as far as hon. Members were hoping. No hon. Member who has spoken addressed himself seriously to the implications of preserving this building, and I must do that.

May I explain that we have a system of discriminating preservation which is based upon a drill of listing and grading buildings. This does not depend on either my right hon. Friend's or my personal views or opinions. It depends on the advice given to us by the admirably public spirited people who serve on my right hon. Friend's Advisory Committee on buildings of special architectural and historic importance. It is that Committee which has supervised and agreed the listing of buildings all over the country, and I would remind the House that these lists are divided into two categories.

There is the statutory list and the supplementary list. Without going into details, the broad purpose of both lists is to make sure that no building that appears on one or the other of those lists can be altered, let alone demolished, without the most serious consideration of the merits of that project being given by, if necessary my right hon. Friend, and certainly by the local authority involved.

The fact is that the country as a whole can by this process be put on notice before any building on these lists is touched, and the fact that we are here discussing this matter on the initiative of the hon. Member for Barking (Mr. Driberg) pays a tribute to the drill.

I must remind the House that there are on these lists over 140,000 buildings, and the job has not yet been completed. The hon. Gentleman used the key word when he said that we must have proportion. We cannot preserve all these buildings. Developments of all kinds—roads, hospitals and every other sort of development—have to be considered in relation to the value of each building on these lists. My right hon. Friend and I have to take account of the relative superiority of one building over another as advised to us by the Advisory Committee. All cannot be preserved.

I would stress to the hon. Member for Barking that we certainly do not go in for what one might call vulgar discrimination by virtue of date or who designed the building. We go on what the Advisory Committee tells us are the merits, but we also have to take other facts into consideration. We have to take into account the function of the building, the condition of the building, the purpose to which the building may be put or whether any use can be found for it, and, above all, the implication on other buildings of preserving one particular building.

No one denies the great interest and historical significance of the Coal Exchange. We all have beside us quotations about its excellence. It was originally graded on the supplementary list, but a couple of years ago my right hon. Friend's Advisory Committee, on its own volition and without any crisis as far as I am aware, promoted the building to Grade 2. In other words, it would now feature as if it had been listed—it has not been listed in the legal sense—in the statutory list. It is being treated as if it were in that list, and that is why my right hon. Friend is seized of the matter.

The building has been neglected. It has suffered war damage and the use to which my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South Fylde (Colonel Lancaster) referred was brought to an end by nationalisation. The building was then used as offices. The City of London proposed to reinstate it in 1953 at large cost, but was stopped by the then Government, partly because of the capital restrictions and partly because the looming road widening scheme did not make it sensible. Because of war damage, dangerous structure notices began to be served and there first appeared the proposal to demolish the building.

In 1958, when this was made publicly known, the Royal Fine Art Commission and my right hon. Friend's Advisory Committee urged that every effort should be made to find ways of keeping the building, but neither of them said, as they have both said about some buildings, that the building must be kept at all costs—the sort of instance which the hon. Member for Barking fairly gave of something which would take absolute priority.

The Royal Fine Art Commission suggested that the iron structure should be removed and re-erected. The City of London held its hand and examined carefully with the London County Council ways of so treating the proposals that the building could be maintained despite the road widening scheme. But the fact is that all suggestions for leaving the building where it is and putting the road round it or under it, or in some way enabling the road widening scheme to go through without damaging the building, fell down on one ground or another.

I have before me all the alternatives discussed. The proposal was made to arcade the buildings to a depth of 10 ft. on both sides of the road and to dispense with the central reservation. The proposal was made to widen wholly on the south side at the expense of Custom House and Billingsgate Market. The proposal was made to arcade to a depth of 10 ft. on the Coal Exchange side and to widen to a lesser extent on the other side.

But in all these proposals, which the hon. Member for Barking passed over very casually, saying that the northern side is better than the southern side, my right hon. Friend comes up against this difficulty.

Custom House is a building which has a function, in that a Custom House has been on that site for 500 years. The existing building was erected in 1828, to the design of Robert Smirke. The east wing was almost destroyed by enemy action in 1940, but the Ministry proposes to reconstruct the east wing to match the west wing, so that all three facades will reproduce the original design. An exact reproduction would not be possible if land were surrendered for the road widening scheme. The interior of the reconstructed wing will be on modern lines as far as is practicable and the availability of the extra space will enable the Board of Customs and Excise to bring under one roof all the staff of its London Port Collection and Water Guard Branch.

There would be the maximum resistance from the users—the Customs authorities—the owners—the Ministry of Works—and a public outcry, which would be equally justified, if that building, let alone Billingsgate Market were touched. My right hon. Friend's advisory committee grade that building, with all the damage it has suffered, Grade 1, and my right hon Friend would be very much to blame if he ignored the relative grading that puts Custom House in Grade 1 and the Coal Exchange, for all its interest, in Grade 2.

I must go back to the proposed alternatives. It was proposed that one carriageway should be constructed under the other—a subterranean development of the road, but the cost would be prodigiously disproportionate. Again, it was suggested that the whole building should be moved back 30 ft., but the nature of the structure and the levels behind the site make this impossible. Finally, it was suggested that the outer 20 ft. of the Exchange should be demolished, and the road arcaded 10 ft. under the dome, but it was commonly agreed that this would lead to nothing but a useless eyesore.

The fact is that we cannot possibly ignore the implications of preserving the building at all costs. The construction of the road is now imminent, and work is shortly to be put in hand over lengths of it. Again, the City authorities have proposed to demolish—and I join with the hon. Member in paying my tribute to the City for desisting on the request of my right hon. Friend. But it is right to remind the House that for two and a half years, since the first proposal to demolish, the City has held its hand and has been open to suggestions that part of the building should be moved and incorporated in some other structure. The building is in a bad state of repair and it would cos; a substantial sum of money to put it into decent condition.

Secondly, if it were to be put into decent condition and were let it would not be an economic proposition for the landlord. He would almost certainly make a substantial loss on it. This would be a sheer burden on the community, in this case the City of London. It would bring not so much beauty to the environment as be a great source of historic and architectural interest. I do not deny that, but the fact is that that sort of historic interest can to some extent be preserved by way of detailed records, photographs, samples, and salving and preservation of, for instance, the murals.

If hon. Members protest about that they must address themselves to the alternatives. We cannot always keep everything. It is much more difficult to keep a building which is not in Grade 1 when it conflicts with a Grade 1 building; it is much more difficult to keep a building which has no function when it conflicts with a building which has a function; it is much more difficult to keep a building which is not in itself beautiful and a joy to the public although it is technically interesting or even technically very interesting and has historical features, the details of which can be preserved by other methods and alternatives.

Another alternative that has not been mentioned is that the road could be kinked. I hope that no hon. Member imagines that this would be a gentle kink. It would be a most substantial one, far more substantial in degree than the very small kink or narrowing that is being tolerated in the road at the Seamen's Memorial. It would mean demolishing part of Custom House—a Grade 1 building—and stopping the use of Custom House, to which the Customs authorities are hoping to return. It would involve interfering with Billingsgate, and all this against the wish of the custodians, the owners and the users of Custom House.

Let us suppose that we were debating not the preservation of the Coal Exchange but of Custom House, because the City of London had proposed to demolish Custom House in order to preserve the Coal Exchange. Would not some hon. Members say that at all costs Custom House must be preserved? Would not a number of authorities claim that that building should take priority over the Coal Exchange? I suggest that my right hon. Friend has no alternative but to take the advice of his Advisory Committee, which puts the Custom House in Grade 1, whereas it puts the Coal Exchange in Grade 2, although I agree that that is a high grade.

If we reject the suggestion to make a kink in the road, another alternative is to see whether anyone will move and re-erect the building. There has been ample opportunity for somebody to offer this, and I still hope that somebody will offer to do it. I am sure that the City of London would be sympathetic to the idea. We could see whether it is possible to keep this building up until the very last moment, at least to maximise the opportunity for sympathisers to preserve it. Meanwhile, we could take records and make models. The City of London Architect has a model of the building. We could lake samples and prepare a scheme for taking the maximum salvage, if I may use such a term, before it is demolished.

My right hon. Friend is asked to hold an inquiry. It would be technically possible for him to inquire into a suggestion for making a building preservation order against the desires of the London County Council and the City to demolish this building; he would be making a building preservation order at their cost, if he made one. But it would be honourable for my right hon. Friend to have an inquiry only if he had it in mind to follow through that inquiry, if it became necessary, with a building preservation order. My right hon. Friend feels that the cost in terms of money, which would fall not on him but on the local authority, and in terms of disturbance to other valuable buildings and to the highway proposal, would be disproportionate and, if that is his view, it would not be honourable for him, merely for the sake of appearing to be co-operative, to have a public inquiry into a building preservation order when he thought that in the end he would not make that order. In my view, no useful purpose would be served by an inquiry.

One thing which would be intolerable would be if the building were demolished and, in the interval between its demolition and the start of the construction of the road on the site, a proposal came to light which might have saved the building by having it re-erected elsewhere. I therefore suggest—and it is not in my power to do more than suggest—that my right hon. Friend should approach the City to ask the City to leave the demolition until the last practicable moment in order to see whether any alternative which may have been overlooked can be found. It is not in my right hon. Friend's mind to order this; far from it. It is in his mind to ask the City whether it will do this. I cannot tell the House whether the City will be willing.

I must warn the House that the building could be threatened from the back as well as from the front. A planning application involving the destruction of the rear might be put to the City, and the City might legitimately wish to give permission. The life of the building might, therefore, be threatened from that point of view, too. My right hon. Friend is willing to ask the City for this stay of execution to see whether anything can be done in the meantime.

I finish as I began by invoking the hon. Member's own words: this is a question of proportion, of the cost in terms of a Grade 1 building, of a kink in a major highway proposal and of preserving a building for which no function exists at the moment. In my right hon. Friend's view, that makes the cost of preservation of this building disproportionate.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at six minutes to Twelve o'clock.