HC Deb 24 January 1972 vol 829 cc1158-70

12.34 a.m.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

I make no apology, even at this late hour, for raising the subject of the future of Whitehall and the precincts of Parliament. There is immense public interest in the matter and great concern and interest in the House. I have today been asked to make three broadcasts on the subject, all of which I declined because I wanted to hear the outcome of this debate.

I could have initiated a long and far-reaching debate on the Consolidated Fund before Christmas, when I won second place, with the support of many hon. and right hon. Members on both sides of the House.

After studying the replies of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment I decided to defer until now what will regrettably be a brief, exploratory exchange with the Government, leading I hope to some wise, firm and far-reaching decisions in the not-too-distant future. I shall seek to return to these matters in a month or two by which time the Government will probably have made up their mind.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I have long interested ourselves in the future of this part of our capital; indeed we were jointly concerned in opposition with some of our hon. and right hon. Friends in raising this subject. I know that I have his interest and cooperation in getting things moving towards the right decision. The right hon. Member for Deptford (Mr. John Silkin), who is the Opposition Front Bench spokesman on this subject, has exhausted himself in the public interest in Europe this weekend and is unfortunately unable to be with us at this late hour, but he authorises me to associate him with the sentiments I have expressed about moving towards a right decision. My right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Sandys), who has also been much concerned in Europe this weekend and is a major figure in the European scene, authorises me to say that he retracts not a word from what he said at the public inquiry. I have the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Tugendhat) in what I am trying to achieve.

I express, too, this evening the sentiments of the Georgian Group, the Victorian Society, the S.P.A.B., the Civic Trust, the British Tourist Authority and the unanimous view of all those in the party groups in my party concerned with environmental matters, of one of which I have the privilege to be chairman. I am happy to see two of my hon. Friends here this evening in support of me, and I hope that they will intervene in a moment, because I know of their concern with particular aspects of this problem.

For nearly 15 years I have served on the Services Committee of this House, where slow and often painful progress has resulted in some improvements in conditions for hon. Members. We have been much concerned with the far wider issue of the whole future of the parliamentary area. A great deal has been achieved since the war. We have seen the restoration of Downing Street, the restoration of Barry's Treasury and the exposure of part of the Tudor Palace contained therein. We have seen public Recess restored—and its use for proper purposes—to the Banqueting House, due so substantially to the continuous efforts of hon. Members who now sit on the other side of the House. I am happy to see the hon. Member for Barking (Mr. Driberg) present. His hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker) spent many years in this battle, together with some of us, and at last we have seen the Banqueting House restored to its proper use.

There has been the repair of the Admiralty House complex, which took a great deal of time; completion of the Ministry of Defence, which was still uncompleted when I arrived at Westminster; and the progressive cleaning and repair of much more. Dealing with the Ministry of Defence, I should mention the Henry VIII wine cellar, restored and I believe bodily moved out of the way of the present new building. It used to be accessible to the public. Perhaps for security reasons it cannot be so now, and I hope that my hon. Friend will say something cheerful about that. It is a most interesting building.

The progressive cleaning and repair of much more of Whitehall and area gives us heart. I see that a further candidate for cleaning—indeed the scaffolding is round part of it now—is the Home Office. We are very pleased to see that, for a good reason to which I will refer later. There has been the widest possible public debate about the future of the whole area. We have had a public inquiry, the results of which we await. A cautious approach is better than a hurried or dramatic and possibly wrong decision, but there are limits. I would also venture to suggest that architects work better within the discipline of an existing landscape and that the "clean sweep" method is not always the best solution. The time surely has now come to take another cautious step forward.

We must preserve the best, brought up to date where necessary for modern use, and replace the worn-out with well-mannered newcomers. I emphasise "well-mannered newcomers". The new parliamentary building, yet to be unveiled even in model form—and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will make it clear that if the House likes none of the designs, we need have none of them—should do just that: it should be a well-mannered newcomer.

On the preservation side, which has caused very great public interest and concern, I first mention Richmond Terrace. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Mr. Cormack), who was with us this evening, has put down many Questions and is much concerned about this, as are all hon. Members who are interested in environmental problems.

My case for Richmond Terrace is simply that because its preservation would preserve the human scale of that part of Whitehall, it should be fought for. There are many arguments against keeping it—for example, cost or that it is only grade this or that—but it would preserve the scale of that area and prevent another concrete cliff being erected against the Ministry of Defence. Its use might be varied. Residences were suggested at the public inquiry. These would not cost anything like as much as bringing it up to the standards of the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act.

Next, the original Norman Shaw part of Scotland Yard. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Allason) has some useful observations to make about the state of the interior. I do not know whether he would care to intervene.

Mr. James Allason (Hemel Hempstead)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It is interesting that the interior of the building is judged to be so bad by the Civil Service that it is unfit for use, at least as regards the inward-facing rooms. They would be absolute palaces, however, compared with the accommodation used for Members of Parliament. It would be rather attractive if we were allowed to go in there and make use of an otherwise useless building.

Mr. Cooke

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention. It merely points to the fact that many of these buildings which are condemned by some could be put to perfectly good use by others.

Further up Whitehall is Whitehall Court. This building has gathered friends as the years have gone by. It has been beautifully cleaned and I hope that it is safe in private hands. If it is not suitably listed, I hope that it will be.

Perhaps the Welsh Office, a distinguished building which, I believe, was called the Whitehall Club and designed by Octavius Parnell, might be combined with some new buildings in the Scotland Yard area.

One comes next to Middlesex Guildhall as a threatened building. My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Money) has some views about this and I believe that he has served in some of the courts there and finds them quite adequate.

Mr. Ernle Money (Ipswich)

I hope that neither my hon. Friend nor the House will cast any kind of imperialistic eye towards that building, which at present is maintaining no fewer than six Members of this honourable House in full-time work from the Point of view of being the biggest court in London occupied on the longest case. One point on which my hon. Friend might wish to cast his attention is that it is now in use as a Crown court and that the upper floors, which would serve perfectly for Crown court offices, are being used not for the benefit of the court but merely by the Greater London Council for nothing at all. It is a subject of great concern.

Mr. Cooke

I fear that "being used by so-and-so for nothing at all" can apply to quite a lot of the accommodation in Whitehall. I know that the Government have it in mind to sort things out but this great reorganisation of Government Departments which has been going on for so long must be brought to a crisp conclusion before many months elapse.

I hope that the Church Commissioners' building, which would have been wiped out by the Martin-Buchanan scheme, is safe.

If it is not listed, it certainly should be.

I have taken hon. Members round the perimeter of Parliament Square and mentioned the buildings in Whitehall with which we are much concerned but I now come to the cream. The Foreign Office, the Home Office, the India Office and Bryden's Treasury were all to have been wiped out by the Martin-Buchanan scheme. It would be criminal to destroy this group of buildings. Even Bryden's Treasury, that last great imperial building finished, I believe, just before the First World War, is magnificent when viewed from a reasonable distance.

Here I come on to the suggestion that we should commit ourselves now to demolish all the buildings along Great George Street opposite that building. They are largely—I nearly got carried away; they are somewhat an undistinguished group. I had better put it that way. There is one ancient house there, but it would collapse if the others were taken down. Bryden's Treasury, viewed from the new Parliament Square, is magnificent. I should not have to defend the Foreign Office. There is not a person of any susceptibility with any taste who has willingly allowed that the Foreign Office should be destroyed. We must take some of the bodies out of the building. There are slum conditions there in part, largely self-created; but if the personnel in this group of buildings were reorganised there is no reason why we should not keep them all.

There are two places in Parliament Square which should be rebuilt. Storey's Gate should be down for redevelopment, perhaps as Government offices or other offices, but it should be done in a style more in keeping with the dignity of the site. Abbey House is still in private hands. I feel that the private owners would be delighted to redevelop it if they were given the go-ahead. The stopper put on the whole area has prevented something worthwhile from going up there. What is to replace Queen Anne's Mansions, the ugliest building in the district? Perhaps the Government could take a few offices there; it might get them out of some of their difficulties in reorganising their Departments. Why the delay? Reorganising Departments of State has gone on throughout history. The Department of the Environment has moved out of part of the Treasury building. It used to be called the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. I wonder who has moved in. I am prepared to bet that it is something to do with the Home Office. The Home Office must learn to live in this area with its partner and neighbour, the Foreign Office, and all that goes with it. Somebody must make a decision.

I have the impression that there has been a kind of war going on between these two Departments. Wholesale demolition and the erection of a vast excrescence on the other side of Whitehall was the only solution to which they would agree. The Department of the Environment has been put in Marsham Street—in one of the beastliest new buildings we have had to set eyes on. It is an eminently civilised Department, and it is good for those in it to have to live with the ugliness that other civilised people often have to look at.

I do not wish to get deeply involved in the row, if row it be, between the Foreign Office and the Home Department, but somewhere in the activities of those two Departments lies the solution, and perhaps a gentle shove, or a hard shove, from us would do some good. If it is discovered that that is the difficulty, I do not suppose my hon. Friend will say much about it now, but there would be great support in the House for any move to sort it out.

There is just time for me to say something about Parliament Square and the traffic which must be removed from the Square—one might say "at all costs", but we must be realistic. The tunnel past the Terrace did not meet with much approval. The large, heavy traffic should be kept out of the area by the use of ring routes; but what about the necessary traffic which is bound to pass through the area? We are always told that the underground railway is in the way of anything that we might want to do. I wonder. It might be possible to sink the underground railway deeper and to have road tunnels where it is now, or to swing it further away from Parliament Square under the edge of the park. Then it would be possible to take all the traffic from the park, Victoria Street and that which goes along Millbank and the traffic down Whitehall underground before it reaches Parliament Square. There could be an underground roundabout under the middle linked with the new car park in New Palace Yard and Abingdon Street. Vehicles should not be allowed to despoil the landscape and to ruin it for the tourists.

Nobody has suggested this. I think that it is a new idea of mine, and perhaps my hon. Friend will think about it or tell the Minister about it, because obviously something must be done to get rid of the majority of the traffic.

Horseferry Road was a route abandoned by the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell) when Minister of Works. That was most regrettable. We should keep what is left of Horseferry Road as a relief route.

No doubt we can keep a lot of traffic out of the square by diverting it in that direction, although it may not be possible now to make it into a major highway. If we could keep as a pedestrian precinct the whole of Parliament Square and parts of Whitehall, what a marvellous place it would be!

The need for this hardly needs arguing. The area is the heart of the Commonwealth. It has come to be what it is as a result of centuries of growth. It has never been a stagnant area. Each generation has for good reasons made its changes. In this age two new factors have emerged—the increasing and worldwide interest in this historic place and the overwhelming amount of traffic which daily pounds its way through. Neither of these problems has received proper thought or attention.

Tourism tends to pollute unless proper facilities are provided for it. A fine walkabout area is what we need in Parliament Square, free of the appalling, killing traffic.

We might think for a moment of the very poor conditions in which the public are received at the Houses of Parliament. In connection with the new parliamentary building, we may be able to do something. There are rooms—I do not mean the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association room, which should certainly be kept close to Westminster—which could be well turned into a parliamentary exhibition hall and used to allow the public to see in comfort the proceedings of the House relayed. This would do a great deal to present Parliament to the people at large. It would be possible adjoining Westminster Hall when we have the new Parliamentary building.

There is growing public and parliamentary pressure for action in the whole field. The new parliamentary building will not just help Members of Parliament. That is a small part of what it will do compared with all the other things. It is high time we settled for the foreseeable future the fate of what we feel should be preserved and enhanced. I stress "enhanced". It is no good preserving this or that unless we can enhance the whole environment, and the newcomers—wellmannered newcomers—must fill the gaps. The environment in which we and the buildings that serve us can live happily together should now be improved. We must settle the future of Whitehall and Parliament Square for the end of this century and into the next.

12.53 a.m.

Mr. Tom Driberg (Barking)

I shall speak for only a few moments, to say how strongly I support everything the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke) said. Obviously he could have spoken for an hour, with all the material he had, and if he had done so I should still have supported everything he said.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Foreign Office. I am still in some confusion about the prospects for the Foreign Office. We were told at one time that successive Governments have taken a firm decision that it must be demolished, though at another time we heard that perhaps it was being thought about again. It is the most marvellous building. If the forecourt could be cleared of vehicles and there could be an underground car park and perhaps a fountain there, as in a piazza in Rome, it would be the most beautiful entrance to a Government building. Inside, the main staircase and the Foreign Secretary's room are magnificent and should never be destroyed.. Can the Minister clear up what exactly is intended for the Foreign Office now?

Secondly, on the general point about the proposed scheme, the threatened demolition of the Norman Shaw building and Richmond Terrace, I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland) about the time it has taken to announce a decision. One can always say that this is an important decision and therefore it must take 18 months or a year to announce, but this has gone on for an awful long time. Will the hon. Gentleman make an announcement tonight on this and on the future of the Foreign Office?

12.55 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Paul Channon)

All of us who are interested in the problems of Whitehall, Parliament and the surrounding buildings are grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke) for his continuing interest and for the many times on which he has raised the matter, often supported by the hon. Member for Barking (Mr. Driberg). I am also glad to see my hon. Friends who are here tonight.

What has been said in this debate will be noted and considered by the Government before any decisions are taken. I accept what the hon. Member for Barking said about the delay in announcing the Government's conclusion on the Willis Report. It is an extremely complicated subject and it is absolutely crucial to get the right answer.

As the House knows, in 1965 our predecessors accepted the Martin/Buchanan plan as a broad framework for future development. I will skip the history, in view of the short time in which I have to reply, but as a result of the deputation led by the present Duke of Grafton early in 1970, the previous Administration decided to set up a public inquiry into the aspect of the development particularly concerned with the New Scotland Yard Site and the proposed demolition of Richmond Terrace and the Norman Shaw (North) building. Mr. Harold Willis, Q.C., was appointed as the inspector to hold the inquiry. The General Election intervened between the appointment of the inspector and the date scheduled for the inquiry, but my right hon. Friend decided that the inquiry should go ahead as we believed it would help us to achieve a better understanding of the issues involved.

At the inquiry much of the evidence was directed towards the merits of the historic buildings on the site, particularly Richmond Terrace and the Norman Shaw (North) building, which both hon. Members have mentioned. The need for the inquiry arose from the central dilemma in all redevelopment of historic areas.

I think we are all agreed that there are many buildings in the Whitehall area which must be retained. Who in their right minds would suggest that we should destroy Westminster Abbey, the Palace of Westminster and its precincts, the Ban- queting House and many other buildings in this area? My right hon. Friend intends to publish the inspector's report and to make a statement on the future of this site at the earliest possible date as soon as a decision has been reached. I acknowledge and accept the criticism that my right hon. Friends and I have not been quick in reaching a decision, but it is absolutely essential that we get this decision right. Whatever we decide will affect the appearance of this part of London for at least a century and maybe more ahead.

All I can say tonight about that—the House will appreciate that I am in some difficulty in answering at this stage—is that my right hon. Friends will carefully note the views that have been expressed on both sides of the House during this debate.

Mr. Driberg

The Foreign Office?

Mr. Channon

I will deal briefly with the Foreign Office by referring the hon. Gentleman to the answer given by my right hon. Friend on 27th October, 1971, in which he said that we were considering the problem in consultation with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. As soon as we have anything further to say I will ask my right hon. Friend to communicate with the hon. Gentleman. I note the views which have been expressed by him and by my hon. Friend on this occasion and on earlier occasions.

To return to Richmond Terrace, it is essential that anything we do on the site should harmonise with the proposed parliamentary building which will be erected at the southern end of the Government site. The Government statement on Willis and Martin should not be too long delayed. As soon as it is possible to make a statement it will be made in the House.

My right hon. Friend announced on 10th December that the winning design in the parliamentary competition had been selected by the assessors, but that he was postponing, on their advice, making an announcement and publishing their report until the seven final stage designs with appropriate models could be exhibited in a way which enabled the layman to appreciate the competing designs. I hope that, in the next few weeks, a statement will be made about the exhibition. After it is over, my right hon.

Friend will wish to discuss further steps with the Services Committee.

As for roads, I know that the House attaches particular importance to the solution of the traffic problem, particularly in Bridge Street. My right hon. Friend hopes to submit to the Services Committee shortly a further report by a working party composed of experts from the local authorities and the Department of the Environment, but I cannot encourage hopes of a quick or easy solution.

We all accept that this area is important. Crucial decisions must be taken shortly about the future of many of the buildings. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his references, particularly on other occasions, to the stone cleaning and the general attempt to improve Whitehall. There will be much more stone cleaning. Some has now taken place experimentally in the Palace of Westminster. Three bays on the south facade have been cleaned in different ways. I intend to have notices displayed shortly, so that hon. Members and others can decide which they prefer. Then, in consultation with the Services Committee, my right hon. Friend will decide how best to proceed with the cleaning which most hon. Members want to see.

There is at the moment public access to the Henry VIII wine cellar, without charge, on Saturday afternoons. If hon. Members who want this extended will contact me, I will consider their representations. It is difficult to arrange in working hours, because it is part of the Ministry of Defence.

All these proposals—the removal of traffic from Bridge Street, the new parking arrangements for New Palace Yard and the stone cleaning—will be put to the Services Committee, I hope before Easter. They will be considered by my right hon. Friends, and hon. Members, through the Committee, will have the opportunity to consider them.

My hon. Friend has raised with me privately what should happen in New Palace Yard above the new car park. We want the landscaping and so on to fit in with the new parliamentary building.

I apologise for not giving substantive answers to some of these questions, but everything said in the debate will be carefully considered by the Government before decisions are taken. They will be taken in the near future and a statement will be made to the House. A statement on other matters will be made to the Services Committee, I hope before the Easter Recess.

I can assure the House that my right hon. Friends are determined to maintain the essential quality of this area. To use my hon. Friend's words, with which I entirely agree, everything must be done not only to preserve the area but to enhance its beauty, so that we can hand down to future generations an even better environment for this area than we have been fortunate enough to inherit ourselves. I note my hon. Friend's continuing interest and that of the House in what is an important matter to all hon. Members who have the honour to serve in this palace.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at four minutes past One o'clock.