HC Deb 22 November 1962 vol 667 cc1565-72

10.58 p.m.

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

Mr. Nigel Birch (Flint, West)

I am moved to speak tonight by some remarks passed by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport at the opening of the Hyde Park Corner underpass on 17th October last. He then made it clear that he was planning further encroachments on the Royal Parks.

Perhaps for a moment I might set forth the history of the Park Lane improvement scheme, part of which was this underpass. The scheme includes the work done at Marble Arch, the removal from the Park of the East Carriage Road, the murder of Hamilton Gardens and the work at Hyde Park Corner, including the underpass, and the cutting off at the ends both of Green Park and Buckingham Palace Gardens and also the removal of 50 great trees and 100 smaller ones.

This work has been in contemplation for a long time, and the plan came up when I was Minister of Works in 1955. I was opposed to the scheme for the following reasons. The Royal Parks are the principal glory of London. There is nothing to compare with them in any capital city in the world which I have visited. Ever since the original Royal gifts, the Royal Parks have been jealously guarded and preserved. It is not true to say that there have been no encroachments whatever, but such encroachments as there have been before this scheme have been very small.

Under the so-called Park Lane improvement scheme, 21½ acres of land was removed from Hyde Park and Green Park. This was three times as great as all the previous encroachments put together I felt that this was a change, not in degree, but in kind. It meant the breach of a principle, and if this House was willing to give up such a large slice of the Royal Parks, it would be very difficult in future to object in principle to further encroachments and, also, claims for further encroachments would certainly he made for that very reason.

Those were the principal arguments which I put, but I also put to my colleagues this point. The traffic problem in London is highly intractable. The real difficulty is that we are trying to get a quart and a half into a pint pot, and taking a slice off the Royal Parks is not likely to make any drastic difference to that problem. Furthermore, why start on the Royal Parks anyway? Those were the arguments which I put to my colleagues. While I was Minister of Works, I remained master of the field, and so did my immediate successor, now Lord Hailes.

Afterwards, Lord Hailes' successor gave way and the Park Lane Improvement Bill was brought in early in 1958. By that time, I had resigned from the Treasury and I spoke during the passage of the Bill in Parliament. I rehearsed in my speech the arguments which I have already given, but I made one further point about the traffic. I said that the scheme would result in transferring the bottleneck at Hyde Park Corner to Piccadilly and Knightsbridge.

That brings me to the speech of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport on 17th October. In that speech, he said "I have been considering the future." Then, he echoed exactly the words I had said. He said, "We have transferred the bottleneck from Hyde Park Corner to Piccadilly and Knightsbridge", which shows, I suppose, as some backhanded consolation, that it is sometimes possible by the help of unaided reason to reach a conclusion reached only a few years later by the experts.

My right hon. Friend the Minister continued his speech. He said that he had a plan. Nobody wins any marks for guessing what it was: the dimmest child at a special school would have guessed it years ago. The plan was to take another slice off the Royal Parks. What the child might not have anticipated, as, indeed, many other people might not have done, was that my right hon. Friend referred to his plan as "very juicy".

What does the Minister's plan mean? His main plan was to use South Carriage Road, in Hyde Park. That would mean that the buses would roar past the best flower beds and shrub borders in the Park, deposit their bouquet of scent upon the horses and riders in the Row and then go on. It hon. Members will think of the topography of the Park, they will see that obviously the scheme could not stop at Hyde Park, because the South Carriage Road ends at a T-junction with the West Carriage Road, which carries on over the Serpentine bridge. This scheme would make no sense whatever unless a substantial slice was taken off the south end of Kensington Gardens. That, I strongly suspect, is what the plan actually is, to drive a road past the long Flower Walk in Kensington Gardens which has given such deep pleasure to many and gives pleasure to me to this day.

Burt why stop there? If the East Carriage Drive is taken out, there is no reason why the South Carriage Drive should not be taken out. And what about the North Carriage Drive? There is a lot of traffic north of the Park and the aesthetic reasons for preserving the South Carriage Drive are far greater than for preserving the North Carriage Drive. I have little doubt that if the Minister of Transport gets his way, and manages to get hold of the South Carriage Drive, it will be logically put to him, and he will accept it, that the North Carriage Drive should also be taken away.

What will happen then? There will be another ceremony, I do not know whether by this Government or a Labour Government. A Labour Government welcomed the butchery of the Park before. They were delighted about it and so were the London County Council. One Government or another will do it and I think that a Labour Government would be more likely to do it than a Conservative Government.

What speech will the Minister of Transport, whoever he may be, make at the opening of the new scheme when both the North and South Carriage Drives are taken out of the Park? I do not think that anyone deserves any prize for guessing what the speech will be. It is simple. He will say, "I am concerned about the future … I am advised that this great scheme will result in a total blockage by day and by night of both ends of Church Street"—as indeed it would. He will say, "My plan is juicier yet. What we need are up-and-down roads within the Park, and there they are, the East Carriage Drive going over the Serpentine and the Broad Walk to Kensington Gardens. I have a nasty feeling that some such horrid proposal may be forthcoming.

Is there any way of stopping this at all? I am not very optimistic. The manner may be improved a little. When Victor Emanuel despoiled the Pope of his temporal estates in Italy he told the Pope that he did it …with the affection of a son, the faith of a Catholic and the honour of a king. If he had said that it was a juicy plan anyway, the unification of Italy might have been attended by graver difficulties than it was. If the people are once again to be despoiled, I hope it will be done with a little more grace.

But whether people will rise in their wrath or not, I do not know. I was disappointed that the proposals of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport aroused so little opposition or interest. There was a ladylike article opposing him in The Times and there was an equally ladylike article opposing the Park Lane scheme, and then The Times backed down. Maudie Little-hampton made an acid comment, as she so often does, but nothing very much else happened.

I hope that the people who do care about the Parks will rally round. I, if I am spared, and such a scheme comes before Parliament, shall certainly oppose it with such strength as God may give me. I may be spitting in the wind, but at least I shall spit.

11.14 p.m.

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

I am sure that the whole House will be grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Flint, West (Mr. Birch) for raising this subject on the Adjournment tonight. As one who has lived almost the whole of his life within walking distance of one or other of the Royal Parks, I entirely agree with him that these parks are something that we as Londoners anyway, and those who have responsibility for them, should cherish and defend against all corners. I agree with him, too, that it is very easy to think of using the Royal Parks to get us out of our difficulties when London is so very heavily built up and it is difficult to take room in any other direction.

We are very fortunate that every proposal to try to pinch a piece of the Royal Parks produces its own reaction and that there are plenty of those, both inside and outside the House, who love the parks and are ready, like my right hon. Friend, to defend them against any encroachment whenever that is threatened. It is true also that successive Commissioners and Ministers of Works, including my right hon. Friend when he held that position, have themselves defended the Royal Parks against encroachment.

It is not only from Government Departments that the parks have had to be defended in the past. I think I am right in saying that Queen Caroline at one time wanted to enclose Kensington Gardens and she asked her Prime Minister what would be the cost of the operation. His reply to her was that it would cost a Crown. We can see opposite Knightsbridge Barracks in Hyde Park the barren waste that there is where a part of the park was taken for the 1851 Exhibition.

There are two safeguards. First, any alienation of the parks would and does require legislation, so it cannot be done by the back door, as it were. Secondly—I give this assurance to my right hon. Friend—my right hon. Friend the Minister of Public Building and Works accepts without question the policy of his predecessors, including that of my right hon. Friend himself, that there should he no violation of the Royal Parks, unless it is shown to be essential in the public interest and that the lost amenity in comparison with the benefit gained is small.

My right hon. Friend referred to the traffic problems. I am sure he will not expect me this evening to go into the details or discuss the traffic arrangements outside the Royal Parks. It is not surprising that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport has cast his eye on the Royal Parks as a part of the solution to London's traffic problems. I do not believe that my right hon. Friend the present Minister of Transport is by any means the first Minister of Transport who has looked in this direction for a solution. It is a fact that we must face that the boundaries of the Royal Parks are close to highways which have very heavy traffic. The North Carriage Drive is close to Bayswater Road. The South Carriage Drive is alongside Knightsbridge, where the traffic is very heavy indeed. The Green Park is alongside Piccadilly. If it is necessary to increase the traffic flow on these roads by widening or introducing one-way systems, it is perfectly natural for the traffic experts, who look at the problem from the point of view of traffic, to look at the park roads and the park boundaries as a part of their examination of the problem.

I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport referred in his speech at the opening of the underpass to the possibility of using the South Carriage Drive. It is a fact, too, that the South Carriage Drive has in the past been used for commercial traffic during emergencies in order to make Knightsbridge into a one-way route. None the less, the Minister of Transport has made it clear that in any proposal of this kind he has a duty to consult my right hon. Friend the Minister of Public Building and Works before putting forward any firm proposal of this kind, and I can tell the House that the first reaction of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Public Building and Works to this suggestion is that the use of the South Carriage Drive could be seriously detrimental to the amenities of the park. I hope that my right hon. Friend wild accept that assurance.

One of the difficulties that face the Minister of Transport in London is to find space for off-street parking, and it is natural that my right hon. Friend should look at the open spaces of the Royal Parks. On the other hand, what we in the Ministry of Public Building and Works want to do is to get rid of the cars that are now parked on the roads of the park, and which undoubtedly spoil both the look and the general amenity of the parks themselves.

The Hyde Park underground garage will provide some solution to this problem. It provides space for the parking of 1,000 cars, and I think that my right hon. Friend wild agree that when the ground on tap of the car park has been restored, and the grass has grown again, the park itself will be seen to have been very little affected. As the underground parks come into use, it is our policy to do away with the surface parking. With the opening of the Hyde Park underground park, we have done away with the parking of some 200 cars on the North Carriage Drive, and if and when other underground car parks are opened we hope eventually to eliminate all the surface parking of cars in the Royal Parks except for the spaces one can keep for people who come into the parks in their cars to enjoy the amenities. What we have to do is to do away with the commuter parkers, except in the under- ground car parks as they come into being.

I think that my right hon. Friend has done a service to the House and to London in general by raising this question, and I hope that he will accept my assurance that my right hon. Friend the present Minister will be no less zealous to defend the Royal Parks than his predecessors.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes past Eleven o'clock.