HC Deb 20 February 1969 vol 778 cc758-62
Q4. Mr. Driberg

asked the Prime Minister if, in view of the public interest in the future of the Tate Gallery, he will seek to co-ordinate the departmental interests of the Minister of Housing and Local Government and of Public Building and Works, the Secretary of State for Defence, and the Secretary of State for Education and Science so that, in consultation with the other interested parties, they may explore the possibility of obtaining for the extension of the Gallery the adjacent land now occupied by the Army.

The Prime Minister

I would refer to the reply given on my behalf by my right hon. Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary to a Question by the hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Chichester-Clark) on 13th February.—[Vol. 777, c. 372.]

Mr. Driberg

Can the Prime Minister say whether the inter-departmental meeting, which is reported to be taking place tomorrow, will be able to consider thoroughly all aspects of this problem, including the possible removal of the R.A.M.C., whose admirable work could be done elsewhere in central London?

The Prime Minister

It is not for me to talk about the dating, timing or otherwise of inter-departmental meetings, but I can tell my hon. Friend that all these aspects will be considered, including the question of getting more space by removing the military medical facilities. Certainly no immediate decision will be taken. We all recognise the importance of this matter. It is more important to get the right answer than an excessively quick answer.

Dame Irene Ward

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman, after that really barely favourable reply, whether he will see to it that the trustees get what they think is best for the Tate Gallery and all that it involves? Will he, because he will have to fight very hard, see that he controls the Ministry of Defence, which always says "No" to anything that anybody asks?

The Prime Minister

That is not my experience.

Dame Irene Ward

It is mine.

The Prime Minister

The hon. Lady clearly does not ask the right questions. But she is, at any rate, quite right in referring to the position of the trustees. They would feel that all the problems here could be solved more satisfactorily, with more general support, if they had more land. The problem is not merely the use by the Ministry of Defence, but the considerable cost to the public purse in making the changes and removing the medical facilities, to which reference has been made. All these things are being fully considered. No options have been closed, so far as that is concerned.

Mr. Cronin

With respect to my right hon. Friend, would it not be a monstrous reversal of proper priorities if the Queen Alexandra's Military Hospital, an institution of worldwide repute, were torn down to preserve a facade which has no historical value and easily replaceable aesthetic properties?

The Prime Minister

The fact that one of my hon. Friends can disagree with another of my hon. Friends shows that this is a very controversial matter. I think that 20,000 people have visited the exhibition showing the plans for the Tate and they have been polled for their views. The poll shows about as much disagreement as the questions of my two hon. Friends.

Mr. Heath

Some indication seems to have been given that the Ministry of Defence would require this property for only a certain number of years ahead. Can the Prime Minister say whether that period is yet settled and, if so, what it is?

Secondly, as I agree that it is more important to get the right answer than to rush into a decision, if the Government come to the conclusion that they cannot adhere to the present proposals, can the Prime Minister give an undertaking that there will be a further inquiry at which public representations can be made before any decision is implemented?

The Prime Minister

On the first part of the question, I do not think that there is any fixed time limit for the use of this space for medical purposes. Certainly it would take several years if it was to be replaced not only to do the rebuilding of the Tate, but to provide alternative facilities at pretty considerable cost to the public purse. As I say, there will be no hurry about the decision. I should like to consider the right hon. Gentleman's proposal about a public inquiry at which representations could be made.

Mr. Strauss

My right hon. Friend talks about cost. May I ask him whether he is aware that the building of a new gallery on the hospital site with the same floor space as that proposed in the reconstruction of the Tate Gallery is not likely to cost any more than the reconstruction of the Tate Gallery? Is not that an important factor to bear in mind?

The Prime Minister

I do not think that I have any figures to controvert what my right hon. Friend has said. But he will realise that there will also have to be added the substantial cost of building new hospital facilities which, in present circumstances, is a very expensive operation.

Mr. MacDermot

Does my right hon. Friend accept that there is a great deal more at stake here than preserving the facade of the Tate Gallery? The present accommodation is proving inadequate to house both the British collection and to serve as a museum of modern art.

On the question of timing, will my right hon. Friend also bear in mind that there is very great public interest in the matter at this time and, therefore, there would be advantages in a decision being reached soon, because it would help to stimulate the possibility of raising funds from private sources towards the building of a new gallery.

The Prime Minister

That is a very welcome suggestion. My hon. Friend is right in saying that there is more involved than the question of the façade. There is an urgent need for more space not only for the display of the Gallery's growing collections of British paintings and modern works of art, but also for housing the important sculptures which, most generously, Mr. Henry Moore has offered to present to the nation. Certainly more space is required. Indeed, the present extension plan would just about double the exhibition space, but it raises other problems at the same time.

Mr. Tilney

Can the Prime Minister say whether the inter-departmental committee will consider closing and building over one of the roads which runs at the side of the Tate Gallery?

The Prime Minister

That is another suggestion which opens up still wider problems. I will certainly see that that is considered by the Ministers concerned.

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