HC Deb 31 January 1964 vol 688 cc779-90

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

4.2 p.m.

Sir William Teeling (Brighton, Pavilion)

In raising on the Adjournment the question of the demolition of the Bedford Hotel in Brighton, I should like, first, to thank my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government for giving up his time to come here. I know that there are many other things that he would have liked to do this afternoon in his constituency. Perhaps he does not realise, however, that he probably knows more about Brighton than any other Minister. Therefore, I am delighted to have him here to listen to the few words which I have to say about it.

The Bedford Hotel is on the front in Brighton and must be well-known to all those from the Labour Party, the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party who come down to party conferences. They will remember it well. I notice that the only representative who is present from the Liberal Party—the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock)—is leaving the Chamber. There is, however, no question that there are all sorts of schools, of Conservatives and others, who come down to Brighton and use the hotel and know it very well.

The problem in Brighton, which is a fair one in any seaside resort town, is that the City Fathers cannot quite make up their minds whether they want their town to be wholly a holiday resort or a residential centre. If it is to be entirely a residential centre, the ratepayers of the more outlying parts, such as, for example, Patcham and the inland areas of the town, are, not unnaturally, not too keen on having to pay extra rates for developments on the seafront.

Furthermore, everybody knows that not only is a General Election about to take place, but that municipal elections also are coming along. Therefore, the City Fathers are not too keen on people saying to them, "You have been responsible for what may well have been an increase in the rates." The reason for that is that if a preservation order were to be made on the Bedford Hotel, its owners would claim compensation. I do not say that they would get it, but they would claim it. It might well be that if they succeeded in getting it, this would mean a considerable increase in the local rates.

I shall return to that a little later, but I would ask the Minister at the moment if he could enlighten me when he replies as to whether it can happen that one can put on a temporary preservation order. By that I mean that there is always the possibility that in 10, 20 or 30 years' time, this place might become, as, indeed, many others have, rather difficult to run and to preserve; but for the time being most people who are studying this matter say that it can be run. Is my hon. Friend, therefore, in a position to put on a preservation order which would not be for ever but would be renewable, or reviewable, in, say, 10 or 20 years' time? I hope that he may be able to give us some guidance on that a little later on. It would help considerably, because, as no doubt he knows, the local planning committee the day before yesterday decided not to put a preservation order on it, but to recommend that this should be studied by the council, and then, of course, afterwards, it would eventually go to the Minister.

What exactly is this Bedford Hotel we are talking about? Its history is very roughly comparable with that of the Brighton Pavilion. Those who know Brighton well know that it is particularly distinguished by its terraces and its squares, and up to date the council has felt that those are the things which should be preserved first. Unlike Cheltenham and unlike Bath, it has very few buildings which are individual on their own merits. The only two really outstanding ones in our town are Brighton Pavilion and the Bedford Hotel.

The Bedford Hotel was built in the early 1820s, and has remained the great centre of social activity plus architectural merit over a century. When Queen Victoria eventually left the Royal Pavilion and instead bought a place in the Isle of Wight called Osborne, she did so because there were too many people coming down to Brighton and overlooking her habitation and because she still wanted a marine residence. Those other members of the Royal Family who had been using it during the days of William IV and later gradually moved to the Bedford Hotel, and that became the social centre of the town.

It has a very lovely frontage, and, indeed, a superb entrance hall, with a dome attached to it. Admittedly, the buildings behind are not what one would call absolutely modern, but no one would know better, I think, than my hon. Friend the whole of this problem which is going on there about the buildings in Brighton. There is the West Street site which is very near to the Bedford, and it has been decided that this should be pulled down and it has already been pulled down with the exception of the Grand Hotel, and all sorts of buildings are about to be built. Only a little farther on, only a few hundred yards away, is the Metropole Hotel. The Metropole Hotel is a Victorian building without any doubt. It appears that the new owners have decided to put a considerably larger building behind this for halls for general entertainment. Then we have the Union Club which has also been pulled down. There, too, a large building is going up. So, along that little bit of front, we shall have a large number of very large buildings which may, in the eyes of many people, damage the attractions of Brighton front.

In the middle of it we have the Bedford Hotel which is outstanding in its own way, and, specially by contrast with these nondescript buildings, will always strike anyone who sees it.

Behind all these are many streets and roads which are quite well known, especially Clifton Terrace, which have views out over the sea but as the new buildings are going up in front of them, so, bit by bit, those streets and roads are being cut off from the sea views, and if we are to judge by what is proposed by the people who have bought the Bedford Hotel, they would be just cut off a bit more from the view of the sea. I know that the Corporation has wanted to put up just blocks here and there, leaving patches in the middle so that those behind could see the sea. But that is not good enough for the average owner of these houses, and slowly bit by bit the people in those further-back streets like Clifton Terrace are beginning to sell up and leave, and slowly but surely the value of this property is going down.

In the old days not only did members of the Royal Family and others live at the Bedford but we had such notable people staying there as Metternich, Louis Philippe, Palmerston, and Napoleon III, and later, for instance Dickens who was a regular visitor to the Bedford and just before he died paid his last visit there and wrote much of his work in that hotel. I have the authority of the Dickens Fellowship to say how anxious it is that this should be preserved.

May I also quote a few letters which have been received by the Brighton Council on this subject, the most important, I think, coming from the Regency Society which says: This society has learned with grave concern of the receipt of a planning application for a tall building which would involve the demolition of the Bedford Hotel. This hotel is not only included in the Minister's list of buildings of special architectural or historical interest—and the Bedford has both—but is graded in this as II. There are only two buildings in the whole of Brighton that have that grading. This grading is only exceeded in Brighton by such buildings as the Royal Pavilion and the original Kemp Town"— which is the whole area further to the East. The hotel is one of the finest individual buildings in Brighton and was designed by the well-known architect, Thomas Cooper, who was also responsible for the Brighton Town Hall."— which is also to be pulled down. It has a good interior as well as its southern and western façades. Historically, it is of considerable interest since from its erection in 1829 until about 1865 it was the principal hotel of the town, and almost all the principal figures in England and many from Europe stayed there during that period. Letters from Dickens are also preserved there. On account of this double interest, both architecturally and historically, the Society feels strongly that the existing building ought to be preserved and urges the Corporation to make a preservation order on it in order to secure this. Quite apart from the above considerations, however, the Society is of the opinion that the sections of the Brighton front"— it is important for the Minister to remember— between Preston Street and Hove boundary and between the Rock Gardens and Arundel Terrace are most unsuitable positions for the erection of tall buildings. If placed on these sites they would have the most destructive effect upon the Regency character of the town and wherever in Brighton they may be sited we suggest it not be put in either of these places. That comes from the chairman of the Regency Society, on behalf of the Society.

The Georgian Society also states: The Georgian Group is concerned to learn of a proposal to demolish this building which has … been statutorily listed by the Minister. In view of the architectural quality of the building, which was built to the designs of Thomas Cooper and opened in 1829, as well as the important contribution which it makes to Brighton's unique front, the Group hopes that your Council will resist any proposal to demolish—if necessary by making a building preservation order. Then we have an equally important body, the Brighton Chapter of the South-Eastern Society of Architects, which, besides repeating all this adds: Although Brighton promises large and representative examples of Regency architecture in terrace form,"— This is another important aspect of it— there are few independent buildings of any size remaining, and quite apart from the strong historical associations with the town, the quality of its architecture is of very high order and certainly worthy of preservation. It has been observed that over the years"— My hon. Friend will, I hope, remember these points— the owners have been at great pains to keep the building in good decorative order in colours that are sympathetic to its architectural detailing and the appearance of the sea front at that point has been considerably enhanced by its existence among many other undistinguished buildings. In addition to this, I understand that various other appeals have been made, and that the Royal Fine Art Commission has been asked to give its opinion. Perhaps my hon. Friend could tell us whether he has received a reply, and, if so, what it has been and exactly how the Commission feels about it.

I have quoted those letters and have referred to the position of the people who live in the areas behind the Bedford Hotel. What exactly is happening at the moment? People, even those who know their Brighton well, do not entirely realise that before the war Brighton Pavilion was on the point of being pulled down. People were saying how ridiculous it was to have that asburd monstrosity there. The subject was brought up again after the war. Luckily, Lady Birley, Doreen Lady Brabourne, Mr. James Smith and various other people formed a group and organised the Regency Festival in 1946, which one of your predecessors, Mr. Speaker, honoured us by visiting. Those festivals went on for three years.

Suddenly, the people of Brighton began to realise the importance of the Pavilion. Yet, in 1949, when it was realised that the cost of keeping it in good order—it is very difficult to keep stucco going; it is easier with stonework—would be £60,000, many suggested that the minarets should be pulled down. But if that had been done the building would have fallen down.

However, there were those on the Brighton Council who would not agree to that, and it was finally decided to preserve what is today, I think, one of our greatest assets, not only to Brighton but to those connected with the British Travel and Holidays Association in that it brings people here from abroad. The same might well apply to the Bedford Hotel. It is not in the appalling condition that the owner thinks it is.

Here, I want to say something which I hope will not be considered too unfair as it is being said in the House of Commons. The firm, A.V.P. Developments Limited, an ordinary business concern, bought the Metropole Hotel in Brighton. It has spent a vast sum on it—it has put in a casino and many other things—and it is continuing to do so. That shows that it has very definite faith in the future of Brighton, and I believe in that also. But I am sure that Mr. Poster, the head of it, would agree with me that he is more interested in the business side of this than in the aesthetic and historical background of the buildings. There is nothing much exciting about the Metropole.

Mr. Poster bought the Bedford Hotel about the end of 1961. From that moment he decided—I believe I am fair in stating this—that it was a very valuable site and that the thing to do was to get rid of the hotel at all costs and put up instead something very modern. I put it as mildly as that. The projected building was turned down by the planning committee because it was just that much too modern and too tall. Indeed, I understand that there are other people who have been even stronger in their statements than that.

However, what is interesting is that I have talked to the previous owner, who had been there since 1947. When Mr. Poster says that the place is riddled with dry rot and quite incapable of being developed and should, therefore, be pulled down, he must remember that it was previously always making a profit. In the old days it was not a hotel of the type of the Metropole, which some people used to say was slightly doubtful in its background. The Bedford Hotel was highly respectable, with suites of rooms where people stayed the whole winter. When the war was over, money, including war damage compensation money, was spent on putting it right.

The people who took it over in 1947 spent quite a lot of money in trying to put it in order and keep it going. The interesting factor is that, every year while they had it up to 1961, it made a definite profit and in that last year the recognised figure was £31,000. That being so, why is it that in the last two years the owners could not make a profit?

The then manager came to me once and asked if I would try to find friends to buy the hotel. Poster denuded it of good furniture and put up prices making it unattractive for its old type of client. In other words, he wanted to force it to be pulled down. If the Council could be assured that the hotel could be made to pay if run by someone who wanted to make a profit out of it, and that there would be no risk of having to find money out of the rates to keep it going, then it would probably be willing to take action.

But the present owners do not want this to happen. They are doing everything they can to make the hotel more or less fall to pieces. Nothing is ever done to preserve it. I beg my hon. Friend not to let this sort of thing happen until we are absolutely certain that all these new buildings going up in Brighton will bring in more people. We hope that the Bedford will not be allowed to be pulled down until we know whether the people who go to places like the Bedford will go to the new types of building being erected and that these buildings will attract a useful type of person to the town. This will take years to prove.

4.21 p.m.

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

I want to cover the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Sir W. Teeling) as widely as I can, but I am short of time, so I hope that he will forgive me if I go fast.

My hon. Friend made the point that, if this building was to be preserved a heavy sum would fall perhaps on the rates for compensation. I hope that he appreciates that this could only happen if the council or some other public body decided that it must acquire in order to preserve, and to do so under compulsory powers or, alternatively, the owner decided, after a building preservation order or his planning applications continued to be refused, that the building had been made incapable of beneficial use. Then, of course, the owner would have the right to serve a purchase notice, and if it was decided by the Minister that the building had no beneficial use the local planning authority would be obliged to purchase.

Certainly, from such information as I have, there does not seem to be at any rate a clear-cut prima facie case that the building has got to the stage of having no beneficial use. I would not have thought that the question of compensation was likely to arise, at any rate in the immediate future, on the question of a building preservation order.

Among the factors one has to consider on these occasions is that of economics. For instance, one clearly cannot force a private owner to keep a building in being if to do so would give rise to a definite loss or unless there was a reasonable degree of profit in relation to the cost of maintenance, the working capital involved and, indeed, in the personal effort involved. Nevertheless, one certainly could not judge whether or not this is economic in this context by simply comparing the economics of what might be achieved if one redeveloped the site for something quite different, and there is always difficulty on these occasions.

My hon. Friend hinted that perhaps the present owners are not making the greatest efforts to show that the hotel can be economic and it is not always easy to prove one way or the other. But these are factors which certainly I have no evidence on at the moment, and even if I had it would be premature to try to judge it. These are factors which can be taken into account if and when an inquiry is held to decide whether or not a building preservation should be issued.

My hon. Friend asked what was the result of the representations made by the Brighton Council to the Royal Fine Art Commission. It also took the advice, or at any rate received it—I do not know whether it was solicited—from the Advisory Committee on Buildings of Special Architectural and Historical Interest—known as the Holford Committee—which said that the building was one of the most striking and well situated buildings of Regency character in Brighton and has notable historic interest in the development of the town as a fashionable resort.

The Council referred the matter to the Royal Fine Art Commission, which endorsed the views of the Holford Committee which I have just read and declined even to consider the planning application before the Council. In addition, as my hon. Friend knows, the consulting architect of the Brighton Corporation is Sir Hugh Casson, himself a member of the Royal Fine Art Commission. He again has been consulted and, again, there have been representations from the Georgian Group, the Regency Society, and a number of other bodies. There is no doubt that the borough council is fully aware of the value and architectural merit of this building which, I am bound to say, accords wholly with my very amateur views. None the less, I think that it is a most beautiful building.

I am sure that the council will not take any action or decision without fully consulting this side of the matter. The fact that it has decided—and this was news to me—not itself to make a building preservation order at this date does not terminate the matter. It still has to consider the planning application and I cannot believe that the owner is likely to demolish if the incentive to do so, that is the chance of redeveloping, is not in the offing. In any case, I understand that the building is still being run as an hotel. I promise my hon. Friend that this is a matter in which my right hon. Friend is keenly interested. The borough council has been asked to give us notice of any decision which it may make in a planning matter and we would certainly not let this building be demolished without seriously considering whether my right hon. Friend himself should not intervene.

We are fully aware of the feelings aroused. They are feelings which both my right hon. Friend and I share. That is the third reason why I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this matter, because in the last resort, if we are to preserve the things of value from the past, we shall do so only if people as a whole appreciate that value and want those things preserved. This is a matter in part of taste and in part of education and to some extent publicity. This little debate this afternoon will add to the publicity, I hope, and make people aware of this heritage and to consider it very carefully before there is any question of losing it.

My hon. Friend also asked me whether it was possible to have a temporary building preservation order, but that is not quite how it works, although the effect is the same. What happens is that a building preservation order is made by the local authority and has to be confirmed by my right hon. Friend; or my right hon. Friend can initiate the necessary public inquiry himself. If it is confirmed, then it remains on the building unless an application to do something to the building is made.

It is always open to the planning authority, despite the building preservation order, to consider subsequent applications to alter the building or even demolish it; so there is no question of saying that we put on this building preservation order for all time and that if the economic situation changes very drastically and makes this sort of building even less likely to be economic in the future nothing can be done about it.

I hope that I shall have reassured my hon. Friend on these questions, particularly on that of compensation, which cannot arise at the moment, and also on the major question with which he was concerned, namely, that we should watch this very carefully. I can assure him that this is not a building which we would lightly let go, although one has to take into account the possibility of using it for something else and the reasonable economic costs of running it in the meantime. I hope that my hon. Friend will feel that he has my sympathy and that of my right hon. Friend and that the machinery is there should the worst appear likely to happen and my right hon. Friend not be satisfied and we have good reasons for using it.

Sir W. Teeling

The planning committee has also turned down this present programme.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Four o'clock.