HC Deb 09 August 1972 vol 842 cc1830-40

4.38 p.m.

Mr. Sydney Chapman (Birmingham, Handsworth)

I regard it as a great privilege to have the opportunity to raise in the last debate before the Summer Recess a matter which is of more than domestic importance to this House. I refer to the new parliamentary building. I do so because, if it is built, it will be sited on what must be considered an important and most historic site.

The House of Commons Services Committee in the Session 1967–68 recommended that a new parliamentary building should be built on the north side of Bridge Street. It was decided in 1970 that an architectural competition should be held to promote a design, the competition to be open to any architect or architectural firm in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. It was proposed that the competition should be in two stages. Nearly 1,000 architects or firms expressed an interest in the first stage of the competition, and 246 of them put in schemes.

The second stage came when some were selected, and those contenders were asked to develop their schemes which had been submitted in sketch form. Last December it was announced that the assessors had nominated a winner. However, before any announcement was made, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction very properly thought that models should be built of the seven leading schemes and an exhibition staged in Westminster Hall. In March of this year it was announced that in the opinion of the assessors the winners were two young architects named Robin Spence and Robin Webster.

The Services Committee of this Session met to discuss and to meet and question the people concerned with the winning design and others. It reported at the beginning of last month, on 4th July. It said that the House should adopt the winning design with relatively minor modifications and, perhaps even more important, that the construction should be started as soon as possible.

Under questioning, the Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons said that there must be a debate before a decision could be taken whether to proceed with the construction of this new parliamentary building. I am disappointed that time has not been found for a full debate before the Summer Recess. I appreciate the difficulties of the legislative programme that the Government have faced and I concede that there was no definite commitment that there would be such a debate before the Summer Recess. I realise that my hon. Friend who is to reply to this short debate is not in a position to give any assurance, but I hope he will communicate with the Leader of the House and try to seek from him an assurance that there will be a debate on this important topic before the end of this Session, which I understand means before the end of October, and that, whatever the Government's attitude may be towards this winning design, the Motion for the debate should be on the proposition that the winning design should be accepted with the modifications and that we should give the go-ahead for the work to proceed.

In the very few minutes available to me I do not intend that this should be a debate on the merits or demerits of the winning design, though, for reasons which I am prepared to explain, I am a strong supporter of it. I should like to concentrate on the administrative problems and other matters arising from a decision on this new parliamentary building. After all, if the winning design is accepted, as I hope it will be, the detailed designs have to be drawn up, planning permissions have to be sought and given, the existing buildings have to be demolished, and I should think there would have to be further foundation testing, particularly in relation to the four towers of the proposed winning design. The project will then have to go out to tender and building contractors will have to be appointed. All this has to be done before the work can commence.

I should like clarification basically on three points regarding this project. First, I should be grateful if my hon. Friend would confirm that all the land, the subject of the site of this new parliamentary building, is in the ownership of the Government. I have heard rumours, which I hope are not true, that there is a parcel of land that is not yet in the ownership of the Government. I understand that that parcel of land might have a site value of approaching £2 million. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend would clarify that point. If not, I hope that very quickly that land will be within the ownership of the Government.

Secondly, it is important that we demolish the existing buildings and that the necessary excavation work preparatory to the sub-structure, let alone the superstructure, of the new building should be undertaken as soon as possible.

I say that for three particular reasons. First, it is of tremendous importance that if the building proceeds it should not be delayed by archaeological finds that may be discovered under the land. One only has to recall the archaeological remains that were, and are being, found when excavation work started on the underground car park in New Palace Yard to realise that it is more likely than not that important discoveries will be made. Therefore, if the excavation work could be done as soon as possible this would be less likely to cause delay in the construction work.

Secondly, although test borings must have been taken on the site, I think there will be a need for more comprehensive test borings, if only in the vicinity of the foundations of the four towers which are proposed to form the construction basis of the new building.

Thirdly—I am rather surprised about this—I understand that it is not known exactly where the Underground goes under the site of the proposed new building. We know it is there, and we know roughly where it is, and it is critical to the design. Speaking to the architects the other day, I discovered that every six inches counts, and it would therefore be a good thing to find out exactly where this public conveyance of the metropolis runs.

The third point on which I would like clarification is that if there are—I hope there are not—what I can euphemistically describe as conflicts between the Department of the Environment on the one hand and the Greater London Council on the other, I hope these will be resolved speedily. I am thinking particularly about if there is disagreement about the proposed line of the building with Bridge Street, or whether Bridge Street should become a pedestrian way or continue to be for motor vehicles.

I have one final and, I believe, critical point to make about the new building. When the House takes a decision about the building and about the important site on which it is proposed to build it, there should be a simple choice. That choice should be either to have the winning design, with modifications, and to build it as soon as possible, or not to have that design because we do not think there should be a new parliamentary building. I do not suggest there has ever been a commitment upon the Government that they should necessarily accept the winning design. But it would be going against the grain morally if we were to say that another new parlaimentary building should be designed for that site.

After all, there is at least an implicit commitment because the competition was open to any architect in the United Kingdom or the Commonwealth to put forward plans if he thought he could do so, and, therefore, we must accept, as did the assessors, that we have the best design of those submitted. I feel very strongly about this point but I believe we would be reneging on a moral commitment and we would be throwing into the whole cauldron of political discontent and bring into disrepute the whole principle of international competitions. Two young architects have won this design competition, and I believe they won it convincingly. Surely it is a controversial solution but it has been accepted by the assessors, who said it Quite clearly came out on top". It has also now been accepted by the large majority of the members of the Services Committee. I believe it to be a distinguished and distinctive contribution to 20th-century architecture on the Embankment.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Cannock)


Mr. Chapman

I believe that, rather like Coventry Cathedral, there will be initial public hostility which will turn to acceptance, and when the building is finished it will be the subject of open admiration.

Mr. Cormack


Mr. Chapman

I say to my hon. Friend, whose views I sometimes agree with, that if one looks back at the great architectural competitions one sees that they have produced the greatest architecture in this country and invariably the architects at that time were unknown people. Take, for example, Harvey Lonsdale Elmes, who was in his 20s when he won the design for the St. George's Hall in Liverpool accepted as one of the greatest neo-classical buildings. Barry was only in his early 40s when with Pugin, then in his 20s or 30s, they designed this august building. Christopher Wren was in his 30s when he designed St. Pauls and Inigo Jones was in his early 40s when he conceived the Banqueting Hall, Whitehall. I say this in support of this House coming out to give a clear lead and inspiration to architects in this country by accepting the winning design.

I speak finally on a personal note. I gather that it is customary that as I have the last Adjournment debate before the Summer Recess—and, by coincidence, I also had the last Oral Question reached this morning,—I should, as I should certainly like to do, associate myself on behalf of back bench Members with the remarks made by the Leader of the House last Thursday. I take this opportunity of thanking Mr. Speaker, his Deputies—including yourself, Mr. Deputy Speaker—the Clerks, officials, staff and police of the House for suffering us for so long through so many sleepless nights this Session. As we ourselves go back now, not on holiday but to deal with the problems of our constituents it would be very remiss of me if I did not take the opportunity of thanking them all for the very excellent service they have given us.

4.50 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Reginald Eyre)

I must congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Mr. Sydney Chapman), whose interest in architectural matters is well known, on raising this important matter today. I shall speak as briefly as possible because I know that my hon. Friends the Members for Cannock (Mr. Cormack) and for Ipswich (Mr. Money) and the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker) hope to contribute to the debate.

The provision of a new parliamentary building is of the greatest importance to us all if we are to carry out our duties efficiently. We do our best now; and I do not think the public, our constituents, can seriously complain about the service we give them from what is, particularly for Private Members, often cramped and unsatisfactory accommodation which would not be tolerated in commerce, industry or the professions. It has, however, for long been recognised that something better is wanted, not only for ourselves but also for our very hard-working staff, if that service is to be maintained in conditions appropriate to both the efficiency and the dignity of this House.

I am, of course, aware that some hon. Members are not entirely enthusiastic about the winning design which has now been endorsed in a modified form by the Services Committee. The issue is debateable and it will no doubt be debated at length in the autumn when we consider the Committee's report and recommendation. The actual timing of the debate must rest with my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council, though I will certainly ask him to consider my hon. Friend's request. We do not, however, have to reach a decision today, and I propose, as my contribution to this preliminary canter, merely to run over some of the considerations which the House will wish to bear in mind when it comes to a decision, and to mention what we shall be doing to help this to be done against a sufficiently informed background.

What worries most hon. Members who have criticised the winning design is its external appearance. This comes out clearly in the record of evidence presented to the Committee, and in the observations of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke), ably supported by my hon. Friends the Members for Maidstone (Mr. John Wells) and Cannock (Mr. Cormack) when we last debated the matter, though in a wider context, on 24th July.

I do not think that there will be any disagreement if I say that whatever the House decides to commission for the Bridge Street site must be worthy of its setting, which is one of the most important not only to this country but in the world. Whatever is built there must not be mean or gimmicky, nor, conversely, need it be grandiose, but it must be able to take its place appropriately, though not perhaps without the modesty befitting a newcomer, alongside its magnificent neighbours. Fortunately, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction said in evidence to the Services Committee, it is the rôle of the Royal Fine Art Commission rather than of my Department to form a view on the aesthetics of the matter. Its views are expressed in the memorandum which it submitted to the Committee and in its evidence as recorded in the report.

Hon. Members will be able to form their own views whether the Committee's summary in paragraph 4 of its Report—that the winning design would be a good neighbour to the existing buildings in Parliament Square—is sufficient answer to the critics' doubts, or whether greater weight should be given to the other considerations which some of my hon. Friends proposed unsuccessfully to incorporate in an amendment.

The Services Committee itself has gone some way towards meeting the criticism of the height of the proposed building in relation to the Palace of Westminster and the buildings on the other side of Parliament Street. Its proposal that the height of the proposed building should be reduced by about 1½ metres to bring it level with the top of the balustrade above the main cornice of the Treasury building should improve matters considerably from this point of view. There will probably also be general agreement with its other proposed modifications if it is eventually decided to accept its report that the winning design be adopted.

The proposed alignment with the Treasury building in Great George Street seems to have merit whatever the shape of the eventual buildings in Bridge Street. I realise that this is not quite enough for our friends across the water at County Hall, who would like us to set our building line even further back in order to incorporate another traffic lane in Bridge Street. Their views as highway authority for the area, must clearly be treated with respect, though I doubt whether they will find much support for another traffic lane in Bridge Street from any quarter of this House.

I expect that if it is decided to go ahead with this building we would welcome the provision of shops—subject, of course, to the committee's concern for retaining as much natural light as possible for the offices. Similarly I think that we would all agree that the vertical lines of the building need emphasis as a contrast to its rather massive, horizontal lines, that experiments should be tried with lighter colours and that more consideration should be given to security.

I emphasise that the decision is of course for the House. Just as my right hon. Friends do not presume to be arbiters of taste, so their general rôle is to give effect to the will of the House by providing the accommodation it requires. We shall, however, do our best to enable the House to reach the most satisfactory solution by providing hon. Members with whatever information and material is available. My right hon. Friend the Lord President has already said that the architects of the winning design, Mr. Robin Spence and Mr. Robin Webster, have agreed to participate in an illustrated lecture on their proposals. We for our part are incorporating the Services Committee's modifications of height and alignment into a model of the area so that hon. Members may see for themselves what this will mean in visual terms.

Hon. Members will no doubt wish to know what would happen by way of delay in providing this much-needed accommodation if the House were to reject the winning design and call for a new one for this important site. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West made such a suggestion on 24th July and proposed that we should commission further sketch plans for the House to look at alongside the winning design. He rightly said that if the House adopted the latter there would be no delay; if, on the other hand, the House preferred an alternative, the delay would not be very long.

This course has it attractions. However, there are also difficulties, as my hon. Friend the Member for Handsworth made clear. The most important is that the Services Committee has now recommended that the design as modified he adopted and it would not seem right for my right hon. Friend to commission yet more drawings until we, the House, have decided whether or not to accept that recommendation. There is also the point that we have the other six second-stage designs as well as the 239 which did not go beyond the first stage. Some hon. Members may feel that we should consider these before going any further.

It is, of course, true that, so far as we know, a number of the most eminent of our present day British architects did not enter for the competition. But we have no guarantee that their designs would be any more acceptable than those that we have; and to start afresh would naturally take longer than to go ahead with what we have. There is, of course, also the question how we would judge the respective merits of a number of fresh alternative designs. My hon. Friend the Member for Handsworth is expert in these matters. However, most of us are not and I imagine that we should need some formal method of adjudication. The assessors in the last competition have already delivered their verdict.

However, these are issues for the House to consider at a later stage. In the meantime we are doing what we can within the Department to ensure that if the House were to decide that the winning design should be adopted so that the extra accommodation may be ready by 1978, its wishes should not be frustrated by any lack of urgency on our part. With this in view we have issued notices to treat in respect of all the existing buildings on the site which are not yet in Government ownership. We are also on the point of issuing notices under Section 57(2) of the Landlord and Tenant Act, 1954, informing those concerned of the proposed change in use of the premises. This is to enable all statutory processes to be completed and demolition to begin during the first half of next year.

I take note of the point my hon. Friend raises with regard to possible archaeological finds, and a constant watch will be kept in this respect by my Department's Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments. We are also conducting useful preliminary negotiations with London Transport about the reprovision of the Underground railway station, but I understand that the line will continue as before.

It being Five o'clock, Mr SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put till Tuesday, 17th October, pursuant to the Resolution of the House yesterday.