HC Deb 24 July 1963 vol 681 cc1737-46

5.50 a.m.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

I was very flattered, when the subject of the debate which I wished to initiate appeared on the notice board, to find out how many of my hon. Friends knew who was the Member for Bristol, West and who took a deep personal interest in the subject which I shall raise. I can only imagine that the absence of many of them means that they feel that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary and I can resolve the problems which I wish to discuss.

The three matters which I wish to raise are not entirely unconnected, and they are all concerned with planning. I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary in his place, and I hope that I shall feel as well disposed towards him when I have heard his reply as I do now. He has many West Country connections and an intimate knowledge of my native city. No one can doubt his industry; indeed, I believe that later today he will have to deal with the London Government Bill. As an example of his industry, I have brought the result of one very modest Written Question put down to him. The file weighs about 20 lb. and is about 4 in. thick. I hope that he will be able to deal equally effectively with the modest queries which I wish to put to him.

These are local points, but they have a much wider significance, because they deal largely with an old and historic residential area where all the ingenuity of planners is required. Anyone can plan a new housing estate, and frequently does, but it requires something of a genius to solve the intricate problems of an old and heavily built-up area. Such a genius has not yet appeared on the scene in Kingsdown and St. Michaels, an important part of my constituency.

One hopes there to reconcile the needs of the local residents, many of whom are long established—I put their needs first—with the need for the extension of the Bristol Royal Hospital, which is the principal teaching hospital in the west of England, and also the expansion of the University of Bristol. In passing, may I say how delighted I am to see my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Bourne-Arton) in his place, because his connection with the Wills family, who very largely created the University of Bristol, is well known. I am pleased to have his interest and support in what I am about to say.

Bristol University has an important medical school, an engineering school and other scientific departments which are largely being reconstructed and are spreading into this part of the constituency. The frontiers of these great institutions, at least until recently, were somewhat ill-defined, and there has been much uncertainty among my constituents as to what exactly will happen to some of them. Notices to quit and other unpleasant documents have appeared through their letter boxes. It is fair to say that the officials of a number of these public bodies have not always been as sympathetic as they might have been in handling people who do not understand legal documents. There was a case the other day in which they told one of my constituents that she had about five days in which to disappear from her house. It was all a mistake, and everybody was sorry about it, and she does not have to go until next March, but that sort of thing has happened and I hope that it will not happen in future—and I hope that my hon. Friend will do something about it in the Department.

It might be said that the city council must co-ordinate all these activities and that local government is a local responsibility, but I feel that much more could and should be done by my hon. Friend and his right hon. Friend to encourage and advise the local authority in dealing with these complex problems. Someone, I think, has to give a new impetus.

There are some plans for residential development, especially on the slopes of Kingsdown down towards where the hospital is being rebuilt. These plans and drawings have gone backwards and forwards between London and Bristol for years. For several years these plans have been in a state of flux. There have been suggestions that they are unsuitable for architectural reasons, that they are not to the right density, and so on. I should like to know where the plans are now, what my hon. Friend thinks about them, and when we shall see something built. There is bound to be a wrangle about what can be done to preserve Kingsdown Parade, Somerset Street, and St. Michael's Hill, all of them containing groups of historic buildings which should be preserved in their entirety. There are many other streets which would obviously have to be rebuilt completely. I should like my hon. Friend to deal with that point.

More important still, perhaps, to the people of the district is the other part of the city, much further up above the streets I have mentioned. There there are vacant sites and derelict and empty properties. Surely some rebuilding could take place there to rehouse the people that might have to be moved out of some of the adjacent properties. It is quite wrong that one should drag people away from their homes and from their districts altogether and put them into a new housing estate when they can be rehoused in a balanced residential development within sight of where they live.

My hon. Friend may say that things are too dense now. This is not a good argument. If he examines the case closely, he will find that there are an enormous number of derelict and vacant sites. He may say that difficulties occur because of the disturbance of the skyline. I understand that the present plan includes an extraordinarily large and unattractive chimney which has something to do with the boiler house operations of the university and of the hospital. Surely the medical school buildings already cut the skyline in such a way as completely to obscure the Royal Fort building and some sort of tower structures on Kingsdown would not damage the skyline very much more?

I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to give a new impetus to the solution of this very complex problem. I have deliberately not gone into too much detail because I do not want to prejudice any negotiations and talks which may now be going on. My observations are fair in the light of my experience of this district over more than ten years.

I would ask my hon. Friend to travel with me to another part of West Bristol, away from the largely eighteenth century structures of which I have been speaking to the Victorian part of Clifton and to Christchurch Primary School, a building more than a century old which for the past fifty years has been the subject of agitation. It is quite unsuited to the present needs of education. It is situated in Princess Victoria Street and is to be adjoined by a supermarket and is in a busy one-way shopping street. Only this morning I had a plaintive letter from one of my constituents imploring me to do something about this school, and asking me whether I could provide some sort of decent place for her child to be educated. If action was taken swiftly, it could just affect this child, but I have my doubts. The school has none of the facilities which one would wish to see in a modern primary school and it is only due to the devoted staff that the children there get any education at all. The staff are more important than the building, but it is very difficult for them to carry on at all in the present conditions.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Education is well aware of all this and is as anxious as I am to see a new school built. He has done very well in Bristol as a whole. He would like to turn his attention to this school at an early date. If a new site was available, I believe that he would do his best to include the school in the next programme, if he can allot Bristol a primary school replacement. This surely must be on top of the list of priorities produced by the Bristol Education Committee.

The obstacle to all this is the question of the site, which has been a matter for discussion for ten years and more. I can remember as a city councillor having much to do with this. I can remember going to meetings of managers' of this school. One of the sites we were told we could not have because it was too expensive was a large vacant site in Queen's Road, It had been vacant since 1939. It was too expensive, we were told. Yet the university has a fine new union building springing up on it now, all paid for out of public money and not out of its private endowment, so I am told. Yet the school cannot be built there.

A site was decided upon in Royal Park, near Victoria Square, where there is a row of Victorian houses with large gardens. All except one of these houses has been either acquired or will be available to Bristol Corporation by the end of this year. One house remains an obstacle and it appears that nothing can be done until it is acquired, for it is in a strategic position. It was not compulsorily acquired—although it could have been a short time ago—for political considerations. The party in power in the City Council, the Citizen Party, was not anxious to have a compulsory purchase order. The Labour Party used them freely. Now that the Labour Party has taken office again one wonders whether its members will be prepared to act in order to make the building of this school possible.

My hon. Friend may say that this is all nothing to do with him, but he must be able to make some encouraging noises. I am sure that he deplores the fact that this school has been held up from being built for so long because of this one small obstacle. Certainly, the Minister of Education is as keen as anyone to get it built. It is largely a planning and not an education matter because the funds would be available if we had the site.

To return to the eighteenth century part of my constituency, Hotwells and its waterfront, from which John and Sebastian Cabot left to discover the New World and from which an ancestor of mine, Sir Ferdinando de Gorges, sailed to found the State of Maine. He is called the "Father of American Colonisation," I believe. There, one is almost in the shade of Brunel's suspension Bridge, one of the wonders of the modern world when it was first built. Another wonder of the modern world, the activities of the Ministry of Transport, has overwhelmed all of this and the result has been that many of my constituents have been dumped in homes across the water. Another of my little communities, in which everyone knew everyone else, has been disturbed and the city council gave an undertaking at the time that these people would be housed within a reasonable distance of their original homes. They have not and many of them are a mile and a half from their friends. They are no longer in my constituency, though I believe that they remain my constituents until a new register has been produced. The corporation has let these people down.

I tried to raise another matter at Question Time some time ago, in connection with the design of several new blocks of flats. I appreciate that my right hon. Friend has an extensive and, no doubt, experienced advisory service, but it appears that the advice is not properly taken. These flats are so designed that, although they are well heated—indeed, one finds the interiors festooned with pipes and radiators, one must go through three doors to get into the living room; not an easy matter for someone loaded with shopping. To enjoy another amenity one must place a chair on a table and sit on that in order to see out of the window.

A safety factor enters the story here, for these blocks are eight or more storeys high. Surely these constituents of mine are entitled to see out of their windows. I suppose that the advisory service has done its best, but I hope that as a result of my having raised this aspect tonight the matter will receive sufficiently wide publicity for something to be done about it in the future.

To return to the problem of the rebuilding of the Hotwells area, my constituents have been let down and a great opportunity so far lost, because there are many vacant sites and derelict properties in the Clifton Wood area stretching from Hotwells to Clifton, and nothing has been done to reconstruct anything in that area. I have been there for ten years and more, looking at that, and I hope that my hon. Friend will have something to say about it.

These matters are not entirely unrelated, and the planning authority has a difficult problem to solve, but I believe that it could be solved with a little more determination. I have given only a very brief account, at this very late hour—early in the day for some—but I could have given much more detail and could have spoken for very much longer. I am determined that these problems should be solved, and I feel that with a little determination from my hon. Friend we might see some result.

I am determined that the problem shall be solved without undue delay. Money is not the obstacle, nor is the machinery lacking. My hon. Friend could, perhaps, set the machinery working again, and we should then see some results. The dawn is not just breaking at Westminster, it broke a long time ago, and I hope that it will not be too long before it breaks for these of my constituents who have suffered depression for too long.

6.7 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. F. V. Corfield)

I have to ask leave of the House to speak again—with little hope, I think, that anyone will object.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke) has made several points that he claims are related. They may be related to each other, but few of them are related to my Department. My hon. Friend knows quite well—he has been in local government—that the school factor is not a matter for me, nor is its planning aspect for me in the first place. If it is a question of the site being too expensive, the decision would have to be made by the local education authority, or, if there were a question of loan sanction, the decision would have to be taken by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Education. If there is one house in the way on the alternative site, that is a matter for the local authority, in the first place, or for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Education, in the second place. Just because some compulsory purchase orders are made under the planning Acts, it does not follow that all such orders are the responsibility of the Minister of Housing and Local Government.

As to the question of service of notices, I must say that my hon. Friend gave me only an outline of what he wished to raise and admitted that these were very local matters. Fairly late this afternoon, he put a note on my table—I do not know exactly when; I did not get it until nearly five o'clock—and I could not, at such short notice, get any information from Bristol about these local points. They are points which, with due respect, I cannot be expected to carry in my head, nor would they have been before my Ministry unless we made special inquiries.

However, I read the same local papers as he does, and I understand from Press reports that the complaints made about this notice to quit have been about this hospital building or the university, and the authorities responsible for those places are the people against whom these allegations are being made. In the time available I had no means of checking whether any of the property is owned by the corporation—for whom I might, perhaps, be thought to be remotely responsible—but these buildings are undoubtedly the responsibility of the hospital and university authorities. Here, again, my hon. Friend must realise that this is something for which I can have no responsibility. Even if it were my responsibility, I could not possibly make any useful comment without making further investigations.

The question of giving a new impetus to this area is something that, if, indeed, it is necessary, must start locally. We do not run an advisory service as such in the Department, although, of course, we are always willing to help, through the very highly respected architectural and other advisers who advise my right hon. Friend, when we have planning matters, development plans, and so forth, before us which are matters within our direct responsibility. But where it is a matter for a local planning authority which has in its own power the right to make a planning decision or a decision on design, we do not force ourselves upon the authority, and, indeed, we could not do so. It would be quite impossible for us to run an architectural advisory service, sifting and considering the features of every building in every city of importance or every town or village of importance. We can only do this sort of thing if the matter comes to us, in which case we, naturally, rely on the advice of these very highly qualified advisers. And, of course, when we are asked for our advice, we do everything we can to help.

I cannot help feeling that my hon. Friend must know—he has been a member of the corporation and must, I am sure, be very closely in touch with his local authority—that I did invite the local authority to come to see me a few weeks ago. Representatives of the authority very kindly came and gave a great deal of their time. We had a useful and productive discussion on the merits of the Kingsdown scheme, and it was very happily agreed that the scheme should be taken back and looked at again in the light of the criticisms which had been made by the Royal Fine Art Commission.

I can only express the view that the officers and the members of the Bristol Corporation of both parties showed themselves in every way anxious to co-operate and to make use of these services and the criticisms of that very eminent body in the duties which they have in this ancient and historic city. For me to join with my hon. Friend in the criticisms which he has been making would be quite wrong, in view of this very co-operative approach which I had from the corporation only a short time ago.

It is not my business, or my Department's business, to decree the size or the height of the windows of individual buildings. Of course—I say this again—if we are asked, we will advise, and, of course, we look at the architectural design. But we cannot go round all the great towns of England and all the great historic villages—there are many in my own constituency, not as big as Bristol, but with a history, nevertheless—and decide the height of the windows, or, as the architects say, the fenestration of the buildings.

I am sure that, if we are to have that determination to improve things for which my hon. Friend asks, it would have been very much easier for me to help if he had written to me beforehand so that I could have been fully briefed and better able to sort out any difficulties there may be. I certainly cannot do so on a purely local matter without having time to get the full facts from the local bodies concerned. I fear that I cannot add anything more helpful than that.

Mr. Robert Cooke

Will my hon. Friend bear in mind that my criticisms were of a fairly mild nature, and that I shall look forward to his generous help in these problems in the future?

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

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