HC Deb 25 May 1966 vol 729 cc665-79

12.36 a.m.

Mrs. Joyce Butler (Wood Green)

I beg to move,

That this House regrets the transfer by the Minister of Housing and Local Government of control of the Alexandra Park and Palace from the Trust which has successfully administered it for 66 years to the Greater London Council when agreement had been reached among the local authorities concerned, including the Greater London Council, for a continuation of the Trust on a new basis of representation.

I am very grateful for the opportunity of raising the subject of Alexandra Park and Palace. I understand that the circumstances in which I do so are quite unprecedented. It is a matter of particular interest to me, because the whole of the park and palace, with the exception of a very small part, is within my constituency. When people in Wood Green talk about "going to the palace", they mean Alexandra Palace and never think of the expression as having any other meaning.

The background of the Motion has legal implications upon which I do not propose to touch. At the moment, the matter is before the courts, to decide whether or not the Minister was right in using Section 84 of the London Government Act instead of Section 81, and whether he had the power to take the action which he has taken under Section 84 in regard to Alexandra Park and Alexandra Palace. But it is important from other points of view.

The history of the palace is that, about six years ago, the local authorities in the area subscribed to purchase the land and the buildings to prevent the land being built upon and to preserve it as an open space. A trust was formed and the local authorities which had subscribed appointed representatives to the trust. These local authorities were the Boroughs of Hornsey, Tottenham and Wood Green, which now comprise the new London Borough of Haringey, the Borough of Islington, which is part of the new London Borough of Islington, the Urban District Council of Friern Barnet, which is part of the new London Borough of Barnet, and the Middlesex County Council, which has, of course, been succeeded by the Greater London Council. Over this period, the trustees have administered the park and palace in the interests of the general public, in an efficient way, and, perhaps even more important, on a self-sufficient basis.

The participating local authorities have made a very small contribution towards the upkeep of the grounds and altogether from the authorities concerned, this did not amount to more than about £6,000 during the year. The trustees, with their administration of the building, have in the last year made a profit of £30,000, which they would have ploughed back into redevelopment. This has been their policy throughout their history; to make the building self-supporting, to make a profit and to put that profit back into redevelopment. They have done this successfully. The building was severely damaged during the last war but the great hall has been completely renovated and is now in considerable demand for exhibitions. It ranks with Earl's Court and Olympia for a great many exhibitions and shows and is constantly in use for this purpose.

There is in the palace the finest banqueting suite in North London, with its own catering department. A number of members of the Government have sampled the catering when they have been guests at the Palace and will, I am sure, agree that it is first-class. It has a skating rink which is a great attraction for young people in the district and it has provided facilities for the Hornsey College of Art. There are many recreational facilities in the grounds and it is, of course, used as a park by people in the neighbourhood.

All that was needed when the London Government Act came into operation was for new trustees to be appointed by the successor authorities. My hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will know that I have had considerable correspondence with him about this matter, as have many other people. We were anxious that a decision should be made so that the trustees could look and plan ahead, review the whole situation, and know exactly where they stood.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government asked the local authorities concerned and the successor authorities for their views and then he asked them to get together and reach agreement about the new form of the trust, and this they did. There was a certain amount of discussion, and, finally, agreement was reached on the basis that the Greater London Council should appoint 11 trustees and the successor boroughs should appoint 10, which gave the Greater London Council effective control of the trust.

Agreement having been reached, and the Minister having been notified, everybody concerned was completely staggered when my right hon. Friend made a public announcement that he had decided to hand the park and palace over to the Greater London Council. It was a great blow to all concerned and I think I am right in saying that we still do not know the reason why this was done.

Some of the reasons given by the Minister do not appear on examination to be valid. He said that he wanted the park and the palace to be enjoyed by large numbers of people in the whole of the London area, and it is recognised that for a great many people this will be an attraction. But there is no reason why a continuation of the trust on a new basis could not have done this in the same way as the Greater London Council could. The Minister said that it needed vast sums of money spent on it. But these vast sums can now come from only one source. They could come, as the trustees have raised them, from making the enterprise self-supporting, or they could come from the rates.

Presumably, the object of handing the park and palace over to the Greater London Council is that the Greater London Council will be able to raise the rates in order to produce the money. But this could have been done equally well if the trustees had remained in control. This was why the agreement reached about the new trustees gave the Greater London Council a majority share of trustees, it being recognised that there would be additional finance and additional power needed. The Greater London Council was, therefore, given majority control.

It is difficult, therefore, to understand why this action was taken. I have not yet heard any satisfactory explanation. The fact remains that it has gravely disturbed the good relations which had been reached between the local authorities concerned, and this is a matter of some importance. Hon. Members may be wondering why there is this controversy as to whether there should be a continuation of the trust, with the Greater London Council having a majority, or whether Alexandra Park and Alexandra Palace should go over to the Greater London Council completely.

Agreement having been reached, it should have been honoured by the Minister. Not to have done so makes the Greater London Council appear somewhat in the guise of "big brother", which is quite unwarranted because the Greater London Council has always maintained that the trust should be continued, and wished to do so, and it also makes the Minister appear somewhat dictatorial.

The second matter which, to my mind, is very important is the question of the money which is to be found for the rehabilitation of the palace. No decision has yet been taken as to what the future of Alexandra Palace is to be. The trustees had intended, when reconstituted, to carry out a review of the position of the park and palace in relation to the needs of London as a whole and, in particular, in relation to the Lea Valley scheme, which is very close and, obviously, must have some bearing on what one does with the palace in the future.

It is necessary to decide how much should be spent on a building of this kind. Should it be completely pulled down and rebuilt? That would be an enormous expense, but it is one possibility. Should it be used extensively for education purposes or for youth purposes? Whatever the decision, a great deal of time and thought has to be given to it, and who better to do this than trustees reconstituted on the basis suggested by the agreement?

If large sums of money are to be spent, and if these are to come from the rates, this, also, is a most important question. We are all very concerned today about the burden of rates on the community. The fact that, hitherto, the trust has stood on its own feet, independent of the rates to a very large extent, is a most important consideration. If, as we are now told, the money is to come flowing in from the pockets of the ratepayers, we should be told why it has been arranged in this way. What is the purpose to be, what is to happen to the palace, and how much is likely to be involved?

The third point I stress is that in Alexandra Park and Alexandra Palace, as administered by the trust, we had something quite unique. We had a unique combination of municipal and business enterprise, with appointees of a local authority working quite independently of the authority on a business basis and making a success of it. When we are considering, as we are today, all kinds of recreational schemes, we ought not to have to choose between recreational schemes provided by private enterprise on a profit-making basis and those provided by local authorities on a non-profit making basis. We ought to be able to have experiments with other ways of doing things. I submit that the park and palace trustees were such an alternative, and, if only for this reason, they should have been kept in being. They provided a very interesting pattern which, with modifications to suit local circumstances, might well have been copied in other places for similar purposes.

I therefore very much regret, as my Motion indicates, that the Minister has seen fit, for reasons which are not clear to me or to many other people, to end the life of the trust in this abrupt way with no prior warning to the local authorities concerned and to hand the property over to the Greater London Council to administer. I trust that the House will support my Motion.

12.52 a.m.

Mr. Hugh Rossi (Hornsey)

I find myself in a very strange situation in that, a new Member on this side of the House, I am about to support a Minister on the other side of the House from an attack from his rear.

I have listened with great attention to all that the hon. Lady the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Joyce Butler) has said, and I must take issue with her on a number of points. I have the deepest interest in Alexandra Palace and the trust because my constituency neighbours on the area of the park, which is also the playground for my constituency. Indeed, it was at the instigation of a former member of the then Urban District Council of Hornsey that the trust came into being. In 1900, a very public-spirited gentleman named Henry Burt discovered that the area of the palace was about to be acquired by developers.

He stepped in very energetically and prevented that from happening, getting the whole of his council behind him and persuading the neighbouring councils to take part in a joint effort to preserve the palace and its grounds as an area of recreation for the citizens of the district. So the trust was formed.

I cannot agree that the trust has been an unqualified success since its inception. In fact, it consistently lost money and was a "white elephant" up to about 1961. Then, with a new policy on the part of the trustees, who began to let out the palace for exhibition purposes, it began to show a modest profit in relation to the terms of the capital investment that one must regard the land and buildings as representing. Last year, £55,000 had to be spent on ordinary maintenance, running repairs, renewing lighting and electric wiring, and tarmacing roadways and terraces. Still there is a bill of some £40,000 to be met in the very near future to preserve the external walls of this ancient building, which is in great danger of decay.

The question has been raised of the possible future of the palace. One suggestion is that it should be pulled down and replaced by something else. That is a widely held view among people who know the building well and know what is represented in the future cost of maintenance of a very large, uneconomic and decaying building. One has heard sums of about £400,000 to £500,000 quoted for the purpose of doing something really worth while with this wonderful site in North London. We then, of course, turn to the question of payment.

The ratepayers of the area would not welcome having to foot any part of the enormous bill with which they are bound to be faced if the immediate local authorities are to take on the responsibility of managing and developing this site as it should be developed. There is great merit to be seen in the transfer of the palace to the G.L.C., because thereby the burden on the ratepayers would be much more widely spread.

In any event, by its situation and its character, the palace, with its park, is obviously something that does not belong to the immediate local authorities. It belongs to Greater London as a whole. It is to the north of the river what the Crystal Palace is to the south of the river, and we have seen what the old L.C.C. and now the G.L.C. have been able to do through their resources and "know-how" with the Crystal Palace.

This is what we in North London would wish to see being done with Alexandra Palace. Frankly, as good and devoted as the trustees of the past may have been—and all credit to them for their work and the way they have managed this place despite the tremendous difficulties and the odds against them—their resources are nowhere near those needed to develop this place as it should be developed.

One has every confidence in the G.L.C., through its Parks Committee. One sees also the way it looks after nearby Ken Wood as a cultural and recreational centre. One has confidence that the G.L.C. will be able to deal with Alexandra Palace in a way that it should be dealt with to the betterment and for the benefit of the people of North London.

I take issue with the hon. Lady on the suggestion that one is regarding and trying to create the G.L.C. as a "big brother" merely by promoting its cause as far as Alexandra Palace is concerned. I was amongst those who resented and opposed the attempt by some sections of the G.L.C. to take back certain powers over the children's service a little while ago—powers given by the London Government Act to the boroughs. I would deplore it if the G.L.C., in due course, did not give its housing estates to the boroughs, as it is obliged to do under the Act. I would deplore it if the organisation of education in the Inner London area did not in due course go to the boroughs. But even though I think in that way on those matters, I still see considerable merit in the park and Alexandra Palace going to the Greater London Council and being dealt with in a way similar to that for Ken Wood and Crystal Palace.

Much criticism has been made of the way in which the Minister has dealt with this matter. I know that he does not need me to defend his action. It would be wrong of me to comment on the way in which he has operated Section 84 and he knows that in the past I have regretted some of the ways in which he has operated or failed to operate Section 84 in connection with a differential rate. I have put questions on the subject and, to say the least—and I put it no higher than this—the Minister's attitude to this Section has been a little curious. But in this case whether he has gone about it in the right way is not my concern, for the result is right and it is to be welcomed.

1.2 a.m.

Mr. Norman Atkinson (Tottenham)

The hon. Member for Homsey (Mr. Rossi) has somewhat missed the point. It is not a question whether the local authorities or the G.L.C. will participate in or put money into this venture. It is a matter of trying to preserve local representation on the expected set-up for Alexandra Palace in future. The argument is whether Haringey should have much more responsibility and representation on the new authority for the future administration of Alexandra Park. The issue is whether there can be adequate representation of local authorities surrounding the palace.

I support the compliment of my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Joyce Butler) on the work done, especially since 1961, by the trustees and the old management. Tribute must be paid to the people who put in a tremendous amount of voluntary work into making this a self-supporting venture, which is greatly appreciated by my constituents who often use the facilities provided in the park.

The most outstanding feature of the palace and the park is the park facilities offered to my constituents. There are magnificent panoramic views if one is able to get to the top of the park and no doubt people enjoy a little racing in the sunshine from time to time, but the important thing is that there is this oasis in North London and it has been appreciated in that way, in later times especially for the amenities in the palace itself, the hall, and so on. It has often been regarded as a co-operative venture, even though it has continued to be organised by a group of trustees.

I ask the Minister to recognise the relationship between the planning of the Lea Valley and any possible duplication in ideas which may be considered for the future of Alexandra Palace. I support what my hon. Friend said about duality, an important consideration when thinking about the whole parkland and the pleasure amenities for North London, something which we have to consider as a whole. Most of my constituents would like to feel that there is a great future for the development of the palace and its surrounding parkland. I hope that we can look forward, not to great expansion in terms of what is already there, but on the basis of the open space offering more opportunities to the people in the area.

I welcome the fact that local authorities in the area will be able to give their resources, such as their park departments, to the venture, adding to the delightful work already being done there. We recognise that this is a milestone in the history of the palace. It is not something which will change the direction of the amenities, but something equally revolutionary. We can look forward to an adventurous, exciting, future, and one that is going to give tremendous benefit to the people of North London.

1.6 a.m.

Mr. Patrick Jenkin (Wanstead and Woodford)

I rise to say a few words on the Motion moved by the hon. Lady the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Joyce Butler) and in support of the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi), in whose constituency I live. It is on that ground that I feel justified in saying a word or two. I might also plead in aid the fact that on a clear day one can stand on the terrace of Alexandra Palace and look across the whole of my constituency, from north to south.

It is quite right that the palace should be recognised for what it is—an asset serving the whole of the north and west of Greater London—and right that it should be placed under the control of the Greater London Council. Only a few weeks ago I stood in this House and made some critical remarks about the policy of the G.L.C. on a number of matters. This is essentially a selective intervention, and one must make qualitative judgments as to what an authority like the Greater London Council should look after and what it ought not. I talked about some of the things which it ought not to do, but on this occasion I believe that this is one of those functions which the Greater London Council should take over.

I agree that the trustees have struggled long and manfully against considerable odds. No one who has spent, as I have, a good many hours wandering round the building of the palace, could regard the existing building on the top of the hill as of any great value. I agree with the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) that it is the grounds and the view which ought to be dealt with, because that is the asset of the area. As one goes further round the building one realises what a real monstrosity it is. By contemporary standards it is hideously ugly.

Whenever I have attended functions at the palace—and I agree that the catering is very good—I have the impression that it is like a dowager duchess, rather down-at-heel, struggling to keep up appearances, as her house falls down around her head for want of maintenance. It is a little oasis in what is otherwise a poor and rather dingy affair.

This is a building which must be replaced with something more attuned to the requirements of the last third of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century. With my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey I believe that it is right that the Greater London Council should do this. I would have rather greater faith in a body such as Haringey Council having a greater say in this if that council, and I am a ratepayer in the authority's area, had shown itself more ready to recognise the rights of minorities.

I was horrified to read the other day—this is relevant to this debate—that the Labour majority on Haringey Council had put its nominees in every one of the places it nominates for the old people's welfare council of the borough. An authority which behaves like that is not fit to be trusted with an asset like Alexandra Park and Alexandra Palace which is to serve people of all parties, creeds, colours and beliefs in this part of London. I hope that the Minister will not yield to the blandishments of his hon. Friend, but will stick to the Order and that the park and the palace will come into the control of the Greater London Council.

1.11 a.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Robert Mellish)

In debating this Order tonight four hon. Members have spoken, three in favour of the Order from either side of the House and only one against, my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Joyce Butler).

In reply to her statements I ought to begin by giving the House a description of Alexandra Park and Alexandra Palace and some account of its history. It covers about 200 acres and it is now in the London Borough of Haringey. Most of it is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green. The building itself is enormous and covers 7½ acres. The eastern part is occupied by the B.B.C. The western part has a roller skating rink and a banqueting suite let out for functions. In the middle is the great hall used for the summer show of the National Rose Society and other exhibitions. There is a racecourse in the park which is let to Pratts on a lease expiring this year.

Between 1875 and 1900 the park had a chequered history. It was derelict and up for sale as building land when a group of local authorities in the area decided to buy it and run it for public use through a body of trustees appointed by them. They obtained Private Act powers in 1900 and this Act was later added to by others. The original idea was that the local authorities which had found money for the purchase were entitled to appoint one trustee for every £7,000 they had contributed, but two authorities which did not qualify by this test were allowed to appoint one trustee each. The latest position was that the 21 trustees were appointed by Middlesex County Council, the Borough Councils of Hornsey, Wood Green, Islington, and Tottenham, and Friern Barnet Urban District Council.

Following London government reorganisation under the Act of 1963, Middlesex County Council was wound up and nearly all the county came into Greater London. Hornsey, Wood Green and Tottenham went into Haringey, the old Borough of Islington into the new London Borough of Islington, and Friern Barnet into the London Borough of Barnet. Clearly, something had to be done about the administration in view of these changes. The trustees could not carry on in a vacuum, their appointing councils having disappeared. Moreover, there was no doubt that the whole undertaking was in a desperately rundown condition. For years its maintenance and development had been crippled by lack of resources. The income of the trustees was only enough to meet current expenses, leaving practically nothing over for essential improvements.

I am the first to join with those who have paid tribute to the work the trustees have done. They were a fine body of public-spirited men and women who did an excellent job. Nevertheless, the income from tenants and from functions was inadequate and the councils concerned had to come to the rescue from time to time. Most of this help came from Middlesex County Council, but it was not sufficient to do more than to meet current liabilities. The hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi) referred to the deficit up to 1961. I want to put it on record, as it was not by my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green, that the deficits had to be met by someone, and that was the Middlesex County Council. The council could, however, do no more than meet current liabilities,

Describing how the place was slowly dying, the planning correspondent of The Guardian recently wrote that the park was shabby, with yards of rusty fencing that children had climbed over or cut through, and that in the spinneys there were lumps of concrete, and lengths of old piping. The entrance to the children's playground was a quagmire, and the banks of the lake were rotting away. The trustees themselves estimated at the beginning of this year that £440,000 was required to be spent on capital works.

I shall not weary the House with the full account of the consultations which my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government has had with local authorities. They started in January, 1965, and after a whole year they were still unresolved. My right hon. Friend made clear from the beginning what the alternatives were. The first was to abolish the trustees and vest the park in a single authority, either the Greater London Council or the Haringey Borough Council. The second was to do no more than to amend the trust, by altering the names of the authorities appointing the trustees and adjusting the number of trustees appointed by each of them.

In June, 1965, the Minister impressed on the authorities the need for the future organisation to have adequate resources and sufficient experience to carry on the undertaking efficiently, and to provide imaginatively for future needs. He mentioned that the G.L.C. was prepared to take over responsibility, and that he would be content with this arrangement. If the authorities still preferred a scheme of joint administration, they were asked to tell tie Department as soon as possible what sort of contribution they would make towards the operation of the park.

By January this year, all the authorities concerned had expressed themselves content with an amended Trust, but there was not full agreement about its constitution, and the only specific figure put forward as a financial contribution was Barnet's suggestion of a maximum of £100 per annum. As I said earlier, the trustees said that £440,000 was needed, arid we were offered £100 per annum by Barnet.

In February, my right hon. Friend decided that matters must be brought to a head, and announced his decision to vest the undertaking in the Greater London Council. There are several reasons for this decision. First, the London Government Act, 1963, gave the Greater London Council responsibility for major entertainment, parks and open spaces, and it gave the borough councils responsibility for providing local parks and open spaces. It is clear to anyone who knows this area that Alexandra Palace should be an asset for the whole of Greater London.

There should be nothing parochial about this part of London. It is for all London, and the very best that can be provided must be provided for all London, not just for a few people. This new arrangement will allow capital resources to be provided on the right scale, for the Greater London Council has great financial strength and will spread the cost over the whole of Greater London. If the trust went on, only the G.L.C. would be able to spread its contribution in this way, and the rest of the load would have to be borne by the local ratepayers. I repeat, so that there shall be no misunderstanding, that the rest of the load would have to be borne by the local ratepayers, and I repeat the figure of £440,000 mentioned by the trustees as a minimum. I wish to make that clear, so that if the local Press print anything of this speech they will print that part.

The third point about the Minister's decision was that it makes for simple and effective administration and, at the same time, allows local interests to be represented. The Greater London Council has already stated that it will co-opt representatives from Haringey, Barnet and Islington—in which you may be interested, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It will co-opt those representatives on to a special committee, a separate committee of the Greater London Council which will be run for this park. I gather that it may even call it the Alexandra Park and Palace Committee. The representatives of the local authorities concerned will be on the committee.

Under the existing Private Acts the powers of the trustees are limited. Under the London Government Act, 1963, the Minister could not overcome the restrictions while leaving the trust in being, and the trustees would need to secure additional powers by Private Acts. The Greater London Council, on the other hand, has general management powers which it can apply to the park. I will not refer to anything that has been happening recently in the courts except to say that I understand that the Greater London Council and the trustees have reached agreement about the running of the park until the action is heard. We shall hear more of this, no doubt, in due course.

The House is concerned only with the merits of the Order, and on this there can hardly be any doubts. So far as I know, there has been no public criticism of my right hon Friend's decision, except from interested parties. I hope sincerely that it will be borne in mind that what we are talking about is not the interests of the few, but the interests of the majority and the interests of those who have to run this great asset for the benefit of the majority.

If I understood his speech aright, my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) supports what we are doing. He asked, properly, what is to be the future. There can be no future without finance. Let us get that clear from the beginning. How the park and palace will be run, how the money will be spent, on what purpose and in what way, are, I think, matters for the new committee which will be established under the auspices of the Greater London Council, upon which the local authorities will be fully and adequately represented. I am confident that that committee will take into account what sort of asset this is, because I have spoken to the people in the Greater London Council who are concerned in this matter.

I am confident that as the years go by we shall see that the decision was a very wise one, and I ask the House to show its approval of what we are doing by rejecting my hon. Friend's Motion.

Question put and negatived.