HC Deb 21 December 1962 vol 669 cc1690-700

3.11 p.m.

Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Isle of Thanet)

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of catching your eye, Mr. Speaker, when we discussed the question of the improvement of the constitution and the amenities of the British Museum, and I much welcome the opportunity today to raise the question of the amenities in our parks and public buildings controlled by the Minister of Public Building and Works.

In doing so, I think it right to say that with the Christmas spirit in the air-and Christmas approaching, it is delightful to have the opportunity to consider the pleasures of leisure. Indeed, the subject that I raise today is entirely the subject of our pleasures.

One thing that is quite clear is that in recent years there have been rapid changes in our holiday behaviour. The pattern of holidays has changed. Methods of transport, types of accommodation and entertainment, expenditure and personal tastes have changed. Action is now called for to satisfy the demands created by these changing habits. There are far wider recreational pastimes and opportunities today. They involve camping, caravanning, riding, sailing, tennis, cricket, walking tours and various changes in the recreational pattern of our habits throughout the United Kingdom.

I hope that we shall have a lead in certain of these directions from the Ministry of Public Building and Works in presenting a plan, which may require greater co-ordination with the local authorities, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and the Board of Trade, which will assist holiday makers not only in this country, but from overseas, to enjoy pleasures which hitherto have not been readily available to them. The difficulty is that these areas present a real problem.

Whether it is the Royal Parks, in London, or the National Parks, one has the problem that in each case they are areas of great natural scenic beauty, yet it is necessary, if that beauty is to be enjoyed, that there should be facilities both for entertainment and enjoyment of those pleasures. To be able to achieve the task of providing such entertainment and pastimes we must have a true plan which will ensure that it does not destroy the beauty of those areas.

I turn, first, to the Royal Parks. I understand that in the forthcoming year the contracts for catering and similar matters come up for review. I therefore wish to make a number of suggestions which I hope will appeal to the Government and, indeed, to the public in our own great City of London. I refer, in particular, to Hyde Park, St. James's Park, Regent's Park and also Hampton Court and Greenwich. Battersea, of course, is under the control of the L.C.C., but I hope that it will follow suit if a lead is given by a good policy in respect of the parks controlled by the Ministry.

If one is fortunate enough to go to the Bois de Boulogne, in France, one will find first-class restaurants and catering arrangements in the parks. The first necessity is that there should be a high standard of catering so that people are encouraged to go into the Royal Parks for the pleasure of being able to eat extremely well in first-class restaurants and pleasant surroundings. That means that there will have to be the cheaper type of restaurant for those who cannot afford the more expensive type and the very best type of restaurant where the finest food and wine may be enjoyed.

That involves building. I hope that certain sites will be developed and built on so as to provide first-class entertainment. That entertainment may not necessarily be only good food and wine, but should be in surroundings where people can engage in pleasures such as dancing. I should like consideration to be given to the possibility of open-air film theatres such as those that we have heard about in America. It seems to me that there is plenty of room in the different parks for suitable sites on which may be built attractive buildings in the best surroundings in order to enable people to make full use of the parks for their pleasure.

I do not: think that we make sufficient use in London, or, indeed, elsewhere, of effective floodlighting at might. I think that certain aspects of beauty in the parks should be more widely floodlit than they have been hitherto.

This raises the question of games. In some parks there are clearly opportunities for the provision of tennis courts and in certain of them even for the provision of cricket pitches. This would enable full and effective use to be made of the parks for their real purpose, namely, to provide recreation for the public.

If these ideas appeal to the Minister, as I hope they do, I hope that in the year ahead, when consideration is being given to the question of who may be willing to provide such facilities, care will be taken to ensure that the tenders go to the widest range of people who can provide them. I should not wish only one or two of the well-known contractors to be concerned with the provision of such arrangements. There should be wide competition in the provision of novelty and entertainment of the widest kind to enable everyone to enjoy the Royal Parks to the full.

I think that a keen look should be taken at the existing regulations. If a fair is held in a Royal Park, it is extremely difficult to get a programme, because the organisers of it are not allowed to sell programmes under the existing regulations. It is not always easy to understand these regulations. Regulations should not be of a restrictive nature so that anyone holding a fair or other entertainment is unduly restricted. I am sure that the Ministry will hold to the view that there should certainly not be any undue advertising. I do not think that that would appeal to the people who live in this great City.

I turn now to the National Parks. I appreciate that this does not come under the Ministry of Public Building and Works, but, none the less, I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to ensure in future that his Ministry forms a co-ordinating committee with the other Ministries and interests involved. In this respect, I am happy to note that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary is chairman of a committee concerned with the presentation of historic buildings and ancient monuments, about which I will say a few words in a moment.

I hope that if an example is set in the Royal Parks and in the parks under the control of the Ministry at Hampton Court and elsewhere, the National Parks will try to get a plan. That plan must provide, first, for camping in suitable sites within the parks and caravanning. It must certainly ensure that there is far better signposting than there is now to enable people to find where they are going. Likewise it must provide catering facilities and I hope that there would be motels.

I also hope that active encouragement will be given to those who want to engage in sports, not only walking tours, but riding in the National Parks. It is pointless for us to have these large National Parks unless recreational arrangements are made so that people may enjoy and be entertained when they visit these parks. Thus, families would start to become keenly interested in the scenic beauty of the country.

I turn now to the position of the historic buildings. I want mainly in this context to ask my hon. Friend the Minister for a detailed report on the work which has obtained during the past year. It was twelve months ago when I last raised this question. That period having elapsed, I hope that my hon. Friend may be able to tell us something of the work that has been done and of the plans for the future.

For example, there was raised on the last occasion the question of son et lumière for the ancient monuments and leading historic buildings. The Minister will know that there was a successful son et lumière this year at Canterbury Cathedral and, prior to that, at Norwich. Son et lumière and adequate and proper floodlighting of historic buildings gives real pleasure and assists the tourist industry in its widest context.

Then there is the question of publicity. I should like to know what has been done to encourage group tours and to encourage the fact that foreign travel agents are able to make adequate arrangements and know where they can send their tours, and that these arrangements have been improved. Likewise, with regard to historic buildings, sign-posting is essential so that people can find the place they seek.

Last year, the question of Stonehenge was raised. This is, perhaps, the most difficult of all the examples of where the very nature of what is presented is loneliness and yet, if people go to Stonehenge, they must have somewhere to be able to eat and to be entertained. It is most difficult, on the one hand, to preserve scenic beauty and, on the other, to provide the requisite facilities. I hope that in arriving at proper facilities at Stonehenge, the Minister may have something to tell us of what his Committee has been doing to try to ensure that there is the best presentation not only on the site but to the public of the buildings, which are in the care of the Ministry.

It has been a pleasure to have this opportunity today to raise this subject. It is always worth reminding the House that we now have nearly 2 million visitors from overseas during the year. I hope that next year the figure will be more than 2 million. The tourist industry is our fourth largest exporting industry. In addition, amongst the youth of the country a real opportunity is arising for greater recreation and pleasure than hitherto. In those circumstances, it is only right that we should look closely at these problems and be able to say that it is a pleasure to have had this chance to do so this afternoon.

3.24 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Public Building and Works (Mr. Richard Sharpies)

I should like first to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies) upon having raised this subject, which is not very often discussed in this House, and, secondly, for having compressed an enormous amount into a very short time. I am sure he will understand that in the short time available to me I shall not be able to answer all the points which he has raised. I will do my best to write to him to answer those which I am not able to cover in my remarks. I hope, however, that I shall be able in my speech to cover a great many of the points which he has raised.

I should like first of all to say just a word or two about the role of the Ministry of Public Building and Works, as it is now known, in this field which we are discussing this afternoon. What I have to say applies equally to the parks for which we have responsibility and to the ancient monuments and historic buildings. It really falls into two parts which are not always compatible. First, it is our task, I believe—I put this first—to preserve and to retain the parks and monuments for which we are responsible in, as far as possible, the condition in which they are at the moment, and secondly, it is to enable as many people as possible to see and enjoy these treasures which we have in conditions of reasonable comfort. That part of the matter, which my hon. Friend raised particularly, I shall refer to later.

I think it is fair to say, too, that a very large proportion of the population of this island and visitors from abroad do in one way or another enjoy the parks and buildings for which we have responsibility, and we do find that the interest, particularly in the treasures which we have, is growing, and growing quite considerably. Last year, in 1961, some 7¼ million people paid to visit the ancient monuments for which we charge admission, as compared to only 6 million in 1957. We have introduced a season ticket, which is going extremely well. In 1962 we have sold 20,000, enabling people to visit ancient monuments which we have in our care, compared with only 63 in 1959, the first year we introduced it. Of course, the many millions of people I have mentioned who enjoy these things do not include the many other millions who enjoy the Royal Parks which we have under our care.

Before I turn to the enjoyment side I should like to say one or two words to the House about this question of preservation, and particularly in view of the remarks which my hon. Friend made about same of the alterations which he would like to see in the Royal Parks. I am not at all sure myself that improvement is always the right thing, whore improvement clashes with preservation. I think it is sometimes very important that the setting in which a particular thing is, a Royal Park or even a monument—my hon. Friend referred to Stonehenge—should be preserved, and sometimes it is not passible to give the facilities which one would like for visitors if one is going to preserve the setting in which the object is. This consideration particularly applies to Stonehenge whose setting is one of an isolated character. What one does not want to do there, I myself think, is to have a great restaurant or something of that sort on the site. It would spoil it enormously, although a lot of people complain that when they go there in the middle of the heath they are not able to get anything to eat.

As for the London Parks, my own feeling is that they are something absolutely unique. We do not have parks like these in the centre of any other city in the world. We spend upwards of £1 million a year in trying to keep the Parks as they are. We spend that on normal maintenance, and the planting of trees so as to maintain the woodland character of the Parks, and on the flowers for which the London Parks have become famous throughout the world.

Also, of course, one of our main tasks is the preservation—and very often the rescue from decay—of ancient monuments and historic buildings for which we have responsibility. This year we are spending some £900,000 on the preservation of these buildings and monuments, as compared with £350,000 which we spent in 1953–54.

In addition, we pay out £500,000 in the form of grants to owners of historic houses and buildings to help them to preserve buildings which are historically important. One does not often have the opportunity of acknowledging the help and advice which we get from the Historic Buildings Councils of England, Scotland and Wales. I feel that sometimes the preservation part of our work, particularly that of the Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments and the devoted team of experts who assist him, is not sufficiently recognised.

I turn to some of the points raised by my hon. Friend, in particular the facilities we provide for visitors. I wish to say something first about the catering facilities in the Royal Parks. I know that there have been criticisms in various quarters about facilities for refreshment in the parks themselves. When we examine the problem we find it is very much more difficult to know exactly what is wanted by way of improvement of the cafés and restaurants in the parks. Everyone to whom we talk seems to have completely different ideas about what he himself would like.

Some people think it would be a good idea to convert the existing pavilions in the parks into something like the high class restaurants in the Bois de Boulogne. Then we meet the exactly opposite view of people who are much more concerned about the price and the quality of a cup of tea and who want something to supplement the sandwiches which a great many London people take with them for lunch in the park. What we want to do now that we have the opportunity as the contracts are running out, is to encourage caterers to provide what the public wants, but at the same time it is most important to preserve the character of the parks as they are.

Some of the difficulties which have hindered caterers in the past have been the following. First, there is the short run of contracts. The contracts let by the Ministry in the past have been for comparatively short terms. Secondly, one of the difficulties has been the out-of-date buildings in which caterers have to try to operate. During the past months we have been trying to get the help and advice of the catering trade to see what improvements we can make in conditions and standards of service.

We have told the trade that we are prepared to consider longer contracts. We have suggested contracts of up to ten years, compared with the normal three years. We advertised our proposals in the trade journals and we have written to those firms which are interested asking them to let us have their ideas about how the buildings might be improved. We have suggested that they might like to carry out improvements in accordance with their own plans under licence. We have asked them to put forward to us their ideas both as to contracts and to financial arrangements which might be made.

To summarise what we have done; we have asked the trade and those who know the business to try to help us to find the right answer. We have had some replies, but I realise the difficulties there are in putting forward on paper complicated ideas covering design, standards and finance. I should like it to be known that we are very ready indeed to consider any ideas coming forward from the trade, or anyone else, which they would like to put to us. I emphasise that the time is very short. If we are to get anything done, even in time for the 1964 season, we shall have to have ideas pretty clear by the first few months of next year. I hope that those firms which are interested will not hesitate to come forward and discuss their ideas with officials of my Ministry.

Mr. Rees-Davies

Would that also cover those who might want to have music, in addition to food, in their restaurants? Would there by any objection to those who are interested in that coming forward?

Mr. Sharpies

We are certainly prepared to discuss any ideas of that kind provided that they would not be contrary to the general character of the parks as they are at present. We certainly would not contemplate changing the character of the parks.

My hon. Friend also referred to the facilities which we provide for visitors to the monuments and buildings that we have under our care. He referred to the Presentation Committee, of which I am Chairman, and which has responsibility for this aspect. There are in many cases very real difficulties about providing facilities for visitors to these monuments. Very often the monuments are in isolated positions, and it is not possible to provide the kind of facilities one might need without spoiling the character of the monument itself.

My hon. Friend asked what we had done. We have made some progress in the last year. We have provided new cafes at Scarborough Castle, Whitby Abbey and Osborne House. Facilities are now available at the Tudor Barn, Kenilworth Castle, and there are improved arrangements at Dover Castle and Audley End. I would also mention the Roman villa at Lullingstone, Kent, where we have done a big operation. We have put a cover over it which is a work of architecture in itself. We have provided a car park there, and also new sales and display arrangements. It will be open to the public in the spring. We shall be announcing the date of it as soon as we are able.

We have also increased the number of popular guides to all the monuments that we have under our care, and also the card guides. I would particularly draw the attention of my hon. Friend to Professor Atkinson's popular guide on Stonehenge, which is in a class by itself and may well form a model for other guides of that kind which we are producing. We have increased the sales of our guides and publications from £65,000 in 1959 to £105,000 in 1961.

Another matter we are considering which I might mention is the possibility of having commentaries on some of the bigger monuments on tape so that visitors can carry portable tape recorders round with them. This has been very successful where tried out in some places in the United States. We are looking into this idea at the present time.

There were a great many other points in my hon. Friend's speech which I should have liked to cover, but I see that I have already, I am afraid, exceeded the time allotted for this debate. I hope that my hon. Friend will excuse me if I cover the other points by writing to him.