HC Deb 11 February 1964 vol 689 cc300-14

Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Robert Grimston)

The first Amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Paddington, South (Mr. A. Allan) is not selected.

7.52 p.m.

Wing Commander Eric Bullus (Wembley, North)

This is a useful Bill, and I hope that it will commend itself to the House. The Promoters of the Bill are the Rector and Churchwardens of Saint George, Hanover Square, London.

Briefly, the Bill seeks to remove restrictions on building contained in the Disused Burial Ground Act, 1884, in respect of the disused burial ground belonging to this parish. If development is permitted it can be sold for a suitable amount. The ground is situated off the Bayswater Road in the Metropolitan Borough of Paddington on land opposite Hyde Park and was bought in 1762. It consists of slightly more than 5 acres. The southern frontage of the land is let on long building leases and is not affected by the Bill, which is concerned only with the land at the back which was laid out by the parish as a burial ground and consecrated in 1765. It was closed for burials by an Order in Council in 1854, 110 years ago.

About 60 years after the closure, the ground was laid out by the parish as a private garden and most of the gravestones were removed and stacked round the wall. Later the northern part of the area was turned into an archery ground. During the war the gardens were used for allotment purposes, and it was during the war that several bombs fell on the area and some buildings were destroyed. The allotments were given up after the war, but the ground has never been reinstated. Apart from the archery ground and some short lease lets for tennis and netball, the land has remained largely derelict, and the Parish Church has no funds available for improvement. It is important to know that the land is not open to the public, and also that few graves can now be identified and that rarely is inquiry received about any of them.

Since the war the parish church has been faced with the problem of continually rising costs of maintenance and a decreasing income, and yet it possesses this potentially valuable site which in its present condition produces no income and has long outlived its purpose. If the land can be used for residential development, it will help to relieve the acute shortage of building land in central London and will at the same time release a considerable sum of money for the use of the church.

The Bill provides that the proceeds of sale shall be divided between the London Diocesan. Fund, which will probably use it for the building of new churches in outer London, the parish church, where it will he used mainly to form a permanent endowment fund—at the moment the parish church has no endowment—and the ecclesiastical trustees of the Hyde Park Place Estate Charity, where it will be available for grants to the nine daughter churches which formed part of the original parish when the ground was bought in 1762. It is perhaps needless to say that: all these objects are in urgent need of funds today.

The application of the rector and churchwardens to the London County Council for planning permission for residential development was called in by the Minister of Housing and Local Government and the Minister for Welsh Affairs, and a public inquiry was held on 22nd and 23rd October last. The application was supported by the London County Council, by the Paddington Borough Council, and by the Church Commissioners who own almost the whole of the surrounding land. The inspector has made his report in the last few days, and I should like to quote one or two of his relevant recommendations and conclusions. He says In relation to its importance and potential the application site is grossly underdeveloped and largely wasted in its present condition and limited use. Its 'cemetery' notation is obviously redundant. The site is adjacent to Hyde Park and in a locality which contains several private squares and open places. The area is not one which is deficient in open space. I am of the opinion that the development of the site would be reasonable and in the public interest. He continues: The appropriate density of the proposed development must depend upon the detailed layout. Prior to the possession of that information and in view of the urgent need for housing land a reduction of density to below that of the adjoining locality (200 persons to the acre) does not seem justifiable. I understand that the Minister accepts the report, and at this time we cannot afford the luxury of five acres of derelict land in the centre of London. This is a useful and essential Bill, and I commend it to the House.

7.58 p.m.

Mr. Robert Allan (Paddington, South)

Those of my constituents who live around this burial ground were naturally surprised and rather shocked when they learned that it was to be developed and built upon. They had bought their houses and their flats or taken lease:, of their property in that area on the assumption that this burial ground would remain an open space. They had good reason to assume that, for this site has been an open space since the Domesday Book was compiled.

After the Order in Council of 1854, to which my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wembley, North (Wing Commander Bullus) referred, ended its use as a burial ground, the site has been virtually unused except since 1925 by the Royal Toxophilite Society and occasionally by the owners of three tennis courts in the area. The site has been unused except for these rather rural and quiet pursuits. Further, this site of over five acres is part of the 12 acres designated as open space in the Hyde Park Estate Development Plan, which is incorporated in the London Plan and has the approval of a planning authority.

Those who live in that area were therefore justified by ancient history and by modern planning in believing that this site would remain an open space. When they heard that it was to be developed and built upon they felt some concern, this concern turned to active hostility when they discovered that they were to have no say in the development of an area in which they were so acutely interested. They therefore decided to oppose this blanket and unspecified development. They formed a protection association under very distinguished leadership. They petitioned this House against the Bill and demanded an inquiry. As my hon. and gallant Friend has said, that inquiry was held, and the protection association gave evidence.

In his report the inspector says that the strength of the objections of the protection association was impressive. He goes on to say: Their aim, in acceptance of the fact that the site could not indefinitely continue in its present state, was its preservation and development for recreational purposes: they were not hidebound reactionaries trying to hang on to the site for their private benefit. Their offer to the owners in respect of the lease of the site had been met with a blank refusal but they were still prepared to negotiate. Their letter of approach had stated that the intention was to use the site' as an amenity for the residents' but its use as a public open space would be an acceptable alternative: in such an event it should take the form of a controlled recreational use". The protection association further suggested that as there was already a huge development going on in this area the development of this ground could wait awhile. It suggested this particularly because there is some doubt whether there is as much demand for the type of accommodation which will probably be built there as is often supposed. The association also pointed to the considerable amount of additional traffic which would flow, from the development of this site, into the already chronic congestion of that area. On reading the evidence there is little wonder that the inspector was impressed by it.

The inspector also heard evidence from the Rural Decanal Education Committee indicating that there was no need for a school in that area. Against this, he had to weigh the evidence in favour of development, given by the Promoters of the Bill, and in fairness it should be pointed out that they were seeking to develop this valuable asset not so much for the benefit of their own parish as for the benefit of the Church, as a whole, in London.

As my hon. and gallant Friend has said, both the Paddington Borough Council and the London County Council supported the development. The L.C.C. placed many restrictions—with which I agree—on its approval, and in the end the inspector concluded that the development was reasonable and in the public interest, although he suggested that certain definite limitations and restric tions should be placed on that development. In view of the desperate shortage of housing land in the centre of London my right hon. Friend concluded that he must support the inspector in the decision that he had arrived at. In doing so my right hon. Friend, too, reiterates the stipulations made by the L.C.C., and also notes the interest of the Fine Art Commission in any future development.

My right hon. Friend made his decision only last Wednesday. I heard about it on Thursday, as, I believe, did the Promoters and those who were opposing the Bill. Until my right hon. Friend's decision was known there was little object in trying to come to a compromise on the Bill, although I was in more or less continuous touch both with those who supported the Bill and those who tended to oppose it.

Time has been very short since my right hon. Friend's decision, and I have talked only to the leaders of the protection association, but, as one would expect from men of such eminence, they recognise that they cannot stand in the way of reasonable development of an area such as this. The stipulations made by the L.C.C. and imposed by the Minister, coupled with a requirement of consultation—this is the point of the Instruction which I shall subsequently seek to move—lead those who have hitherto opposed the Bill to believe that the development would be reasonable. Therefore, although I do not actively welcome the Bill, I do not intend to oppose its Second Reading.

8.7 p.m.

Mr. Eric Lubbock (Orpington)

It is with some diffidence that I intervene in a debate in which I have no constituency interest; indeed, I know nothing of the St. George Hanover Square Burial Ground, or the rector, or the protection association which has been formed to combat some of the provisions of the Bill. But I am interested in the more general question of the provision of housing land in Greater London. A year ago the White Paper on London Employment: Housing: Land, was published, and in paragraph 53 we were told by the Minister that As many additional houses as possible must be built inside London. Therefore, we should welcome the Bill.

But when I examined it more closely I was somewhat surprised to find that in the case of burial grounds a Private Bill of this nature is needed before any development can take place, no matter how long ago the relevant Order in Council was made giving effect to its cessation of use as a burial ground. I am wondering whether the Bill does not raise a question of wider importance. Should we have to go through this procedure every time a disused burial ground is brought into use for some better purpose, such as residential or educational building, as is proposed in the Bill? It would be much better if we had a procedure which covered any disused burial ground, so that we did not have to treat one individually in this way.

I note that the land will be available only for residential or educational purposes. That is very sensible. But how shall we ensure that it is a residential and educational purpose of the right type? By which I mean that it is quite possible for this land to be disposed of by the present owners and for a property developer to erect luxury flats on it. I do not think that would be desirable, because there is plenty of luxury accommodation available in central London. There is a gross shortage of land for local authorities to use for housing purposes. This is a difficulty which all the London boroughs and the L.C.C. have had to face for many years and here there exists a possibility to alleviate that difficulty. I should like some assurance that this land may be offered first to the L.C.C. and not to some property developer.

Miss Joan Vickers (Plymouth, Devon-port)

I wish to support what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington, South (Mr. R. Allan). I have a slight interest in this matter because, although my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wembley, North (Wing-Commander Bullus) said that there were no allotments on the burial ground, my grandmother had one and I had one during the war and there are some under cultivation.

I am disturbed at the thought of this land being developed for luxury flats. They would be bound to be luxury flats because the rents would be far to expensive for ordinary tenants. I would prefer to see the ground left as an open space for use by people in the Paddington area, or for use for some educational purpose. The ground has been neglected by the Vicar and the Warden; of St. George.

My hon. Friend the Member for Paddington, South mentioned tennis courts, and I used to play tennis on the courts. It has beer stated that the ground is near Hyde Park. But there are no facilities for tennis, netball or even toxophily in Hyde Park. I realise that toxophily is not practised by many people, but more tennis courts and netball courts might be provided.

A playing space is badly needed in that part of Paddington, and I hope that the need to keep this as an open space will be considered so that it may be somewhere for people from the neighbourhood to come to play games. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wembley, North said that there are plenty of private squares in that area. The word "private" should be emphasised as no one may enter these squares unless he resides locally and possesses a key. I consider that this valuable piece of land should be left as it has been since the time of the Doomsday Book, as an open space.

I understand that 96 acres of ground are being developed in the neighbourhood, and I would have thought that to add this piece of ground would be overdoing that type of building in this part of London. I believe that it has not been possible to sell some of the existing property and the owners have had to furnish their accommodation and let it to members of the Diplomatic Corps because they have been unable to obtain other tenants. In the Bill it is stated that the ground could be used for some useful purpose. Its use for building would not result in providing accommodation for people on the long waiting lists for houses in the area. Its use as an open space would provide an opportunity for young people to play games, and I am not aware of any other place where there is an open space in the neighbourhood.

I am not particularly interested in the fact that money is required by the Church of St. George. I consider that the church has had its day and, in saying so, I am not saying anything which I have not already said to the vicar. There are no people living in the neighbourhood of the church. I understand that there is a very small congregation which attends Sunday services, and there are services for workers from the surrounding shops. I do not think it is a good suggestion that the land is needed to keep St. George, Hanover Square going. Other charities may be more deserving, but I do not consider it a good argument that permission should be given to sell this land.

There is a reference in the Bill to the use of the site for residential and educational purposes. If it cannot be kept as an open space for all time, I should like serious consideration to be given for its possible use for educational purposes, and then part of the ground might be used as a playground. If the Bill is considered by a Committee, I hope that regard will be paid to the congestion which exists in this part of London. If flats are built there I presume that the residents would possess cars, which would mean that there would be more cars in an area which is now over-congested. I refer to the area including Connaught Street, Albion Street and the Bayswater Road. This matter should be taken into consideration by those advising the Minister. There is considerable over-building in this area, and I think that the figure of 200 persons to the acre is high. It would not be possible to accommodate them on the site unless there was provided a building of at least eleven storeys.

The new Greater London Council is to be formed, and I think it would be a good idea to delay any decision about this ground until that authority comes into being; because, obviously, it would be able to take a wider view of the matter and consider far more points than we have been able to raise tonight. I hope that if the Bill goes to Committee cognisance will be taken of the matters which I have raised. I should be very sorry if this site is built on. I should prefer it to be kept as a permanent open space or, if that is not possible, that it should be used for educational purposes.

I think it unfair to say that almost all the graves are completely unidentifiable and that since 1935 the land has remained largely derelict. It is derelict because the vicar and the wardens have not co-operated with local residents who offered to take it over on a lease of seven or of thirty-one years and pay rent. Had that offer been accepted, it would not have got into its present derelict state. There are two graves there, those of Laurence Sterne and Paul Sendly, the father of English painting. Whatever may be done to the ground in future, I hope that some attempt will be made to preserve the graves or that some plaque will be put up to commemorate the fact that these people were buried there. This may be the last chance to save what is a real oasis in the centre of London.

8.20 p.m.

Mr. Tom Driberg (Barking)

In view of what the hon. Lady the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Miss Vickers) said about the Rector and Churchwardens of St. George's, Hanover Square, I think I should say a word or two in their defence, although I do not happen to have any personal knowledge of them. It seems that their position is rather like the position of those responsible for some of the churches in the City of London from which the residential population has ebbed away, but who are faced with the responsibility of maintaining buildings of considerable architectural and historical merit. No doubt, therefore, it is very difficult for them, particularly since we have been told that hitherto there has been no endowment fund for St. George's.

Apart from that single point, I agree very strongly with what the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) said about this matter. I am not in the least impressed by the fact that an inspector conducting a public inquiry found that the proposal was reasonable and in the public interest. Such phrases as those have been used repeatedly to cloak some of the worst acts of vandalism of the last few years—of which, goodness knows, there have been far too many. We were told that the destruction of that irreplaceable and beautiful Coal Exchange was reasonable and in the public interest. This is just jargon. In this context the words "in the public interest" merely mean what is convenient to the bureaucrats.

We all probably sympathise with the objects of the promoters of the Bill, the objects for which they desire to raise these funds, but I must say that I share the views and the doubts expressed in the last two speeches; so it may be said that there are all-party reservations and doubts about the desirability of this Bill. I think there is much to be said for keeping this site as an open space, as the hon. Lady suggested, possibly for the use of children only, rather as the Foundling Hospital site in Bloomsbury is an invaluable open space for the use of children only.

As hon. Members may know, there is a notice at the gate which says that adults will be admitted only if accompanied by children. This does a tremendous amount of good and it is enormously valuable right in the centre of London. I do not think the fact of the proximity of Hyde Park is relevant to this point, since I imagine that most of the parents in that neighbourhood would rather that their young children had a small and enclosed open space to play in safety than to run about in that vast, rather dangerous park.

Similarly, I agree strongly with the point which was first made by the hon. Member for Orpington that we do not want any more luxury flats in the West End of London. Every day in The Times we see hundreds of luxury flats offered at 15, 20 or 30 guineas a week, or whatever it may be. It is ridiculous, almost hypocritical, to use what is rightly described as the desperate need for building land in central London for housing purposes as an excuse to give some avaricious developer the green light to go ahead and build more blocks of, probably hideous and at best undistinguished, luxury flats.

Before we allow this Bill to pass—and it is by no means certain yet that we shall—I hope we shall have some assurance that it will be possible either for the L.C.C., Paddington Borough Council or, maybe, the new Greater London Council—I do not quite know what the timing is, but one or other of those local authorities—to have the chance of acquiring this land for the only kind of housing that is socially useful at this time, and desperately needed: that is, council housing.

8.25 p.m.

Mr. James MacColl (Widnes)

I have to declare in interest in this matter in two respects. I am a member of Paddington Borough Council which has been quoted as a body which has expressed views on this matter and which as the minor planning authority has been a party to the planning discussions which have gone on about the use of this land. Secondly, I am a member of the Diocesan Fund, which is a residual beneficiary under the Bill and will get a share of the proceeds of this transaction if it goes through. I am not in any sense personally or individually taking any part in the consideration of the development.

I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Mr. Driberg) that it is perfectly true that in 1947 or 1948, I do not mind admitting, I coveted this site for housing. I do not want to introduce an odium politicum into a debate which has an odium theologicum already, but it so happens that when we were in power in Paddington we built council fiats south of the Bishop's Road, the Hallfield Flats, and wanted to build more flats in that part of the borough, but we did not get beyond the Hallfield development. The position now is that under present legislation it is quite impossible for any local authority to consider building cheap flats in that part of London, because the land is extremely expensive. There is no doubt about that. Therefore, I quite agree with my hon. Friend.

I am not romantic about the development and I am quite certain that the development will be extremely costly. The point is, which is the best decision? Is it best to keep this area sterilised and have such benefit as it will bring to the people, or is it best to develop it, I think rather cynically, in order to use the money for other purposes? I see one of the Church Commissioners present. I do not want for a moment to say that I agree with the justification of the Church Corn missioners. Much of their development in that area has gone too far on the side of cynicism and too little on the side of benevolence, but in general that is a dilemma which any trustee has to resolve.

We have this choice. We have a site adjacent to the Bayswater Road and the junction of Edgware Road, which is not an area teeming with children. It is an area which is over-churched in the sense that no one would want to build more churches in that area but would probably want to get rid of some of the redundant churches which are not needed there. We have the chance of using the site for development. The value of this proposal, which I think is not an ungenerous arrangement, is that what is proposed is that the proceeds from the sale of the site should be used as to a quarter for St. George's Hanover Square, which is not now parochially concerned with the site. The churches around the site would get a benefit of one-quarter. The important thing is that the other half would be available at large for the use of the London Diocesan Fund, of which I am a member. It is for that reason that I think that this is of very great value indeed.

What happens to the Church is that people often point an accusing finger at it and say that the Church is never alive, that it has all over the place old, wasted, unused and undeveloped land and sites in the wrong places, and that the whole dispersal of the resources of the Church is wrong. However, as soon as it is argued that, balancing the pros and cons, this is a case in which one should sell a site in an over-churched and overcrowded area in the middle of London and apply the proceeds for the benefit of other parts of the diocese where people are crying out for churches, then immediately everyone, including people who have done nothing for years, begins to find that the tombstones are attractive and contends that the site ought to be used for all sorts of purposes.

The London County Council could have used the site for other purposes. We could have used it for other purposes, but we did not. Therefore, when the Church proposes to do something about it, I do not believe that this is the time to say that it must be held up because it has all sorts of implications and that there are all sorts of dangers in it. If that argument held good, the whole fire would he drawn out of the Church's attempt to reorientate and redirect its activities in a socially necessary direction and reassess all its resources, which is what it is being urged to do. I therefore hope that the House will let the Bill go to Committee.

The hon. Member for Paddington, South (Mr. R. Allan), in the way which one would expect from him in performance of his duty to look after the interests of his constituents, advanced their point of view with his usual dedication and enthusiasm. The hon. Lady the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Miss Vickers) used the most impressive argument of all. If she had said that she wanted to be buried there, my heart would have failed me: we could not have gone on. However, the hon. Lady graciously waived her claim. We all hope and think that it will be many years before she will require to use it. Therefore, it would hold up things for a very long time if we waited for the hon. Lady to grace it.

I believe that the main obstacle has gone. The Bill should go to Committee. There some of our colleagues who are wise and careful people will examine the interests of the different people involved. I am sure that they will consider the points raised tonight. I hope that as a result something will be done. I found my support mainly on the principle that on balance it is a good thing to take money out of the centre of London and use it on the outskirts of the diocese. For this reason, I hope that the Bill goes through.

8.33 p.m.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl) for making it so clear that he is in favour of the Bill receiving a Second Reading. I was not sure whether some other hon. Members were in favour. I remind the House that the Bill is purely to decide whether the restrictions which are inherent in a burial ground should he removed. As I understand it, that is the extent of our concern on Second Reading.

My hon. Friend the Member for Paddington, South (Mr. R. Allan) rightly put forward the objections, fears and anxieties of his constituents. In that he was supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Miss Vickers), who has a personal knowledge of the area. One appreciates that any land use problem is very likely to interfere with private interests from time to time. Despite the "sarcasm"—perhaps that is the right word—of the hon. Member for Barking (Mr. Driberg) about the words "wider public interest", that is, after all, what planning is about—whether it is right in the public interest to override private rights. I do not think that it was very wicked of a qualified man, who held an inquiry, who happened to be employed by the State, to use that term, nor do I think that he earned the rather scathing tone of voice with which the hon. Gentleman used the word "bureaucratic". The hon. Gentleman does not happen to agree, but the inspector's choice of words seems to me to be very much to his credit.

In reply to the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock), whether the land is used for municipal housing or for private housing will depend entirely upon whether any of the local authorities concerned wish to acquire it. I agree with the hon. Member for Widnes that it is likely to be expensive land, and this may well be the limiting factor. I should like to make it clear that by giving his decision my right hon. Friend has not in any way tied the hands of the Committee which, if the Bill is given a Second Reading, will consider the Measure upstairs.

The inspector's report has already been quoted and I do not think that I need quote from it further, except to say that my right hon. Friend felt that in view of the acute shortage of housing land in London it would not be right to refuse outline planning permission on the lines suggested by the applicants.

I hope, therefore, that hon. Members will give the Bill a Second Reading because it seems that the Committee is the right place to sort out and thrash out the various pros and cons which have been expressed tonight and the many others which, no doubt, will come to the minds of the objectors.

Question put and agreed to

Bill accordingly read a Second time and committed.

8.37 p.m.

Mr. R. Allan

I beg to move, That it be an Instruction to the Committee on the Bill to insert in the Bill provisions for consultation by the owner with the Saint George's Burial Ground (Tyburn) Protection Association before application for detailed planning permission in respect of the burial ground is made. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Miss Vickers) has made a powerful plea for the development of this site for recreational purposes. As she knows, this is the main contention and view of the tenants protection association mentioned in the Instruction. I believe that the Promoters of the Bill are prepared to accept this and, if they are, the voice of the residents in this cause will be heard when the detailed ph ns are drawn up. The Promoters, it they accept this Instruction—as I understand they will—are showing that they have neither the wish nor the intention to ride roughshod over local interests.

I should like to add how much appreciate the courtesy and consideration they have shown to me during our negotiations. I believe that as a result of this compromise, aid if we get consultation, there is reason to hope that the burial ground and the surrounding area may even be improved by the type of development envisaged in the Bill to which we have given a Second Reading.

Wing Commander Eric Bullus (Wembley, North)

On behalf of the Promoters, I can give the assurance that the Instruct on will be followed. I think that I may also reasonably say on behalf of the Promoters that there is no desire to ride roughshod over the local residents but that every consideration will be given to their views.

Question put and agreed to.