HC Deb 26 June 1972 vol 839 cc1081-138

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

7.21 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Crosland (Grimsby)

We have chosen this second half of a Supply Day to discuss Piccadilly, Covent Garden and all other schemes affecting the centre of London. We have chosen it extremely fortunately, because we read in today's evening papers of yet another scheme affecting the heart of central London, Piccadilly Mark II, a scheme which differs in certain respects from its immediate predecessor in that it has 10 trees and a waterfall, but nevertheless one still based on the same unacceptable principles. What is more, like its predecessor, it has been cooked up behind locked doors between Westminster City Council and private developers, it is wholly subservient to developers' profits, and it shows not the slightest interest in the wishes of the public. We believe that it is high time that Parliament, representing the public, debated what is happening to central London.

I shall not advise my right hon. and hon. Friends to divide the House at the end of the debate partly because one or two of the proposals are sub judice at the moment, having public inquiries going on about them, and partly because some of the mistakes which have led to the present predicaments stem from decisions taken by a Labour Government and a Labour Greater London Council. Nevertheless, these various proposals—Piccadilly, Covent Garden and others that I shall mention—raise matters of national concern, of employment, of traffic policy, of housing policy, of amenity and above all matters affecting the character and personality of the heart of the national capital.

I shall not personally concentrate in detail on either Piccadilly or Covent Garden. Instead, I shall try to examine the total effect of all current plans, as far as we know them, on the character of the centre of London. I shall not do it at great length, and we shall have no wind-up speech from this side of the House because I hope that as many hon. Members as possible will be able to intervene in the debate. I intend to make my remarks under four heads.

The first is that all the current schemes will generate additional employment in central London, especially office employment. The Covent Garden scheme will generate an extra 6,000 jobs. Piccadilly plus Artillery Mansions will generate an extra 3,000 to 4,000 office jobs. There is a proposed new development for an office block at Cambridge Circus with one and a half times the capacity of Centre Point. Then there is Mill bank where the new proposals of the Crown Estates Commissioners will result in an extra 400,000 sq. ft. of offices. There is the Hatton Garden plan, again for more offices, and so on and so on

Surely this goes wholly counter to the policy of successive Governments to disperse and decentralise office employment out of central London—ideally to the development and intermediate areas which need jobs so badly, but to the extent that that is not possible at least to chosen centres of expansion in outer London and the outer parts of the South-East region. This is precisely why the previous Conservative Administration set up the Location of Offices Bureau. though it is curious that its chairman at the moment should also be vice-chairman of Westminster City Council's planning committee. It was in order to achieve this that the Labour Government introduced the system of office development permits. This dispersal was the whole object of the strategic plan for the South-East, which has been rightly and strongly praised by the Secretary of State on many occasions. The absence of a proper dispersal policy has been the object of continuous criticism levelled at the Greater London Development Plan.

I admit freely that there are considerable practical difficulties in the way of this dispersal. I was not at all satisfied with the point that Government policy had reached when we left office in June, 1970. But surely the objectives at any rate are clear. The policy of dispersing office employment out of central London is designed both to increase the volume and variety of employment in other parts of the country with desperate unemployment problems and also to reduce and relieve the congestion, the higher densities and the commuting which a high level of office employment in central London inevitably produces.

If we have to have more office development in central London it seems extraordinary to put it in Piccadilly, Covent Garden and Pimlico and not at the main-line London termini where British Rail would love to have it to help its ailing financial position.

So my first objection to these new plans is that they drive a coach and horses through any sensible policy for the distribution of office employment.

Mr. J. T. Price (Westhoughton)

If we want more office accommodation there is plenty at Centre Point which has stood empty for 3½ years purely to satisfy the ambitions of speculators. This is a crying scandal.

Mr. Crosland

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Westhoughton (Mr. J. T. Price) for underlining and supporting my case so strongly.

My second objection to these plans is that Piccadilly and Covent Garden especially will both generate a significant increase in road traffic. Both positively provide for a 50 per cent. increase in road traffic over 1960 levels. This, surely, is incredible planning.

The road proposals for Piccadilly and Covent Garden are based on a road strategy which is years old and now totally obsolete. They are based on a Ministry of Transport road strategy dating back to 1963 and, I regret to say, continued by the Labour Government. The strategy is not only10 years' old. It long pre-dates the Greater London Development Plan, which indeed makes no reference to it. Paragraph 7 of the Development Plan says: The task of planning central London's road system within the new conditions has yet to be more fully tackled and the developing structure of central London would largely depend on the secondary network throughout the area enclosed by Ringway One. In other words, we cannot conceivably take decisions about either the Piccadilly or Covent Garden road proposals until we have the results of the GLDP inquiry.

We must have a traffic plan for the whole of central London which tells us which streets are to be mainly for road traffic and which are to be for the pedestrians. Until we have that plan certainly we should not allow any major increase in traffic densities.

What is even more important than that is that since 1963 when the strategy was laid down we have seen a huge shift in public attitudes towards road traffic in city centres. We realise more clearly than we did a decade ago the appalling cost of a continuous increase in private road traffic in terms of noise, fumes, congestion, discomfort, the run-down of public transport and the need for more and more demolition of more and more homes to make way for the enlarged roads.

Even in terms of traffic management we now see more clearly that it does not work and that all that we do by traffic schemes is to shift the snarl-up a few miles ahead. The most dramatic recent example of that has been the effect of Westway in creating an almost continuous snarl-up in the busy rush hour period on the Edgware Road flyover. We have found time and time again that this is a self-defeating process. That is why in every city in the western world the trend is in the opposite direction. Two of the working parties set up by the Secretary of State to prepare for the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment also showed a strong trend of opinion in the opposite direction. The whole emphasis now is on priority for buses and bus-only lanes, on flat-fare and other schomes for public transport, on restraint on the private motorist and his exclusion altogether from certain streets—as the Secretary of State and I saw in Stockholm recently, particularly the street containing all the pornshops; whether that was a coincidental decision I do not know—and generally a greater emphasis on public transport.

I am glad that even the Conservative-controlled Greater London Council has now seen the light with its proposals for Oxford Street. I am particularly delighted that the Labour opposition group, likely to take power in May, has produced a radical plan for improving public transport and restraining private transport in the London area.

But the Piccadilly and Covent Garden schemes have been produced as though none of this change of opinion had occurred. It is not surprising that Sir Richard Way, Chairman of London Transport, said of the Piccadilly scheme in a letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, West (Mr. Deakins): The present proposals appear to reflect outdated planning concepts. It might be worth pulling Piccadilly down—I doubt it—to make way for an up-to-date traffic plan, but it is certainly not acceptable to pull it down to make way for an outdated traffic plan.

My third objection is that many of the schemes under discussion are destroying the character and sense of community of important parts of traditional central London. Of course these are subjective matters. One either likes Piccadilly Circus as it now stands—as I happen to do, except for the traffic—or one agrees with Mr. Cubitt who said that Piccadilly Circus is little more than a down-at-heel, neon-lit slum". But it is not in dispute that there are strong communities which are threatened by some of these development plans, most obviously that of Covent Garden. And as to the character of central London, the majority of Londoners—if we were to ask their opinion, which we do not—would say that they do not like the change of character which these grandiose, gigantic, comprehensive development plans produce.

We can list what we shall have more of after we have one of these schemes, and what we shall have less of after one of these schemes. After one of these schemes we invariable have less working-class housing, fewer small shops, clubs and restaurants, less variety of architectural scale, less mixture of income and occupation, fewer traditional landmarks and generally less community, character and humanity. Those are the things that traditionally go. What we have more of is traffic, concrete, tower blocks, upper-deck pedestrian ways and, in the process, invariably much higher rents and much higher house prices.

This is not what Londoners want—except the property developers. We are now seeing the beginnings of a violent reaction against this type of comprehensive redevelopment. The irony is that we have been extremely sensitive to this reaction in another sector, namely housing. In the Housing Act. 1969, the Labour Government, and now supported by the present Government—I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for this—and by the great majority of local authorities put a much greater emphasis in housing on improvement, conservation and rehabilitation as against massive demolition, clearance and redevelopment. Similarly, we are all today putting much greater emphasis on low rise building and a variety of scales and much less emphasis on enormous tower blocks. I believe that the same shift of emphasis is needed when we are talking about whole areas. I do not mean that there should be no change of any kind. There must be some piecemeal improvement to stop blight and general rundown. But the improvement should be a piecemeal, gradual and sensitive one and not these vast schemes for comprehensive redevelopment.

But the trouble is—and here I make a point which obviously must divide the two sides of the House—that piecemeal improvement is infinitely less attractive to the private developers because it brings them much less profit and site return than total demolition and rebuilding. We have an absolutely direct conflict between private profit and the public interest. We have a situation in which we shall not achieve the objective without the public ownership of development land.

My fourth objection is that what is going on in central London is the antithesis of any proper planning. We are in a muddle of piecemeal proposals. This is all very well and often positively desirable if we are discussing a single site, but it is disastrous if applied to central London as a whole. If we think of the present position, we find it almost incredible. We have wholly separate plans at present for Covent Garden. We have Piccadilly Mark I. We now have Piccadilly Mark II just produced out of a hat. We have a plan for a Trafalgar Square pedestrian precinct. We still have, I assume—I do not know what has happened to it—a Whitehall redevelopment plan which was prepared years ago by Sir Leslie Martin and Professor Sir Colin Buchanan. For my part, though, if that plan were sunk without trace I should not be sorry.

We have the Grosvenor Estate plan for Mayfair and Belgravia. A few days ago a new plan was announced by the Crown Estates Commissioners, a £20 million plan, for the 23 acres of the Millbank Estate. All these plans involve the inevitable increase in office space, the inevitable conference centre, the inevitable increase in road traffic and the inevitable increases in rents and house prices. None of these separate plans is related to any other. They are not drawn together. They are not presented as part of a coherent view of what sort of central London we want. They are not even produced by a single planning authority.

In passing, I must say that the way in which the GLC has abdicated responsibility for Piccadilly is a disgrace. It was simply part of a horse-dealing agreement with Westminster City Council, that if the GLC kept out of Piccadilly, Westminster would keep out of Covent Garden. That is not the way in which the affairs of a great capital city should be managed.

Not only are these plans not related to each other, but they are not related in any way to what may come out of Mr. Frank Layfield's GLDP inquiry and the Minister's decision on it. After all, the Minister will have to take decisions in the light of the panel's report on office employment policy, on densities for central London, on road traffic schemes in central London and on the whole character of central London. The decisions which the Minister, rightly, will have to take on these matters could easily totally destroy all the assumptions on which the Piccadilly, Covent Garden and other schemes are based. That is a farcical position.

Even more serious, without waiting for the results of the various inquiries now in process, developments are going ahead or are announced which will pre-empt the Minister's decision and in the process will determine the character of central London as a whole, while we can do virtually nothing about it.

Let us take the Covent Garden area as an example. There is the Hazlemere development at the back of Drury Lane, the demolition of Odham's Press building, and the proposal to which I briefly referred, Cambridge Circus, with Trentishoe Mansions, which I am told if improved could house 100 people, now having their tenants cleared out. The last one has now been cleared out, and the site is to be used for a development by Town and City Properties, a 19-storey office block with an office employment capacity one and a half times that of the long empty Centre Point, which my hon. Friend the Member for Westhoughton (Mr. J. T. Price) has mentioned. This is a development which would surely totally destroy the character of Charing Cross Road, with all its bookshops, which I should have thought would be a great loss to central London. I am happy to say that the Camden Council is fighting this development. I wish them every success.

But similar developments are going on in the rest of central London. For instance, in Hatton Garden we have a new plan for the Gamages site by Town and City Properties—again more offices, higher rents, and demolition of existing small traders' premises. At this moment, at the corner of Piccadilly and Hamilton Place at Hyde Park Corner, a group of 19th century houses is being demolished to make way for an hotel tower block for Pan-Am and BOAC. I was all for encouraging luxury hotels in London four or five years ago. Indeed, it was one of my schemes that gave such an incentive. But do we still need a large number of additional luxury as opposed to second-class hotels in central London? I doubt it.

Then there is Petty France and Queen Anne's Mansions practically across the way. Most of us discovered almost by accident a proposal for a huge tower block on that site to be designed by Sir Basil Spence. Whether we want any more contributions by Sir Basil Spence to London's skyline is, I should have thought, a matter for considerable doubt.

What is particularly objectionable is that much of this is going on in a secret, wheeler-dealer, hole-in-the-corner kind of way. Piccadilly Mark I was produced without its ever going to the Westminster Planning Committee. Piccadilly Mark II appeared in the evening newspapers tonight for the first time without anyone ever having seriously discussed it. There was the vulgar horse-trading between Westminster Council and the Land Securities Investment Trust over Artillery Mansions, I should like to hear the comments of Lady Dartmouth and her Stockholm working party on how these matters are being conducted in view of all that she and her party said about public participation and the need for public choice in these matters.

I believe with passion that it is now time to call a halt. It is time to stop this piecemeal hacking away at our city. It is time to say to the GLC, to Westminster City Council, to Land Securities Investment Trust, to Town and City Properties, to the lot of them, "Gentlemen, we've had enough. We, the people of London, now propose to decide for ourselves what sort of city we want to live in".

Only the Minister can make this wish effective. What should he do? I believe that as a minimum he should call for a stop to all major developments in central London at least till Mr. Layfield and his panel have reported on the GLDP. I do not mean that we should totally stop everything happening. Of course, we must have a continuing process of renovation, restoration and the occasional replacement of existing buildings. I am speaking about major schemes of the Piccadilly or Covent Garden variety.

It must be clear that we cannot take sensible decisions on any of these individual schemes until we hear Mr. Layfield's views on the road network, office employment and all those matters concerning London as a whole. But I do not think that will be enough because the Layfield inquiry goes very wide and covers the greater London area which has a population as great as some of the regions. It may not, therefore, go into detail on the historic centre of London which we are discussing tonight. We shall want to take a view of central London in the light of the strategy for greater London which emerges from the GLDP inquiry.

How do we get a total view of the kind of central London that we want? One alternative, I suppose, would be to use the Central London Planning Conference. I do not know how many hon. Members until recently, or perhaps even now, have been familiar with this body. I am ashamed to say that I have not been very familiar with it. It is a conference which has as its constituents a number of the central London boroughs. I see that it has recently approved a proposal for the preparation of a co-ordinated plan for the central area, to be called "The Advisory Plan for Central London".

I welcome its awareness that we must have a plan for central London as a whole, and I am, as the Secretary of State knows, a consistent defender of local democracy. But we are not tonight discussing simply a local Government problem. We are not discussing the centre of Grimsby, but the centre of our capital city. I discussed the centre of Grimsby on Sunday when I had to excoriate Labour as well as Conservative councillors for pulling down every building which was worth preserving in Grimsby. But I doubt whether the Central London Planning Conference is the right way to treat the matter now before us. We must treat it as a national problem.

I propose to the Secretary of State, therefore, that once he has the report of the GLDP inquiry, he should set up a planning inquiry commission under Section 62 of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1968, to examine in the light of the GLDP strategy all major schemes affecting the historic centre of London, the Commission to sit in public and to include lay members of the public. It should be deliberately designed to stimulate the most intense public discussion and debate. It is obvious that this would mean, let us say, a two-year delay or moratorium on all these plans. I would regard that as an admirable result. The Secretary of State quite rightly was willing to accept a two-year moratorium in the case of London's dockland, so if it was right to freeze development effectively for two years in order at the end to get a better plan as a result of a better survey for dockland, it surely must be right also for the historic centre of the country's capital.

If the Secretary of State rejects that, I do not mind what method he uses provided he achieves the objective, which is to prohibit further destruction until the public have taken a view about what sort of place they want Central London to be, and until the public have told us whether they share the vision of central London, which I certainly do not, that is presented by Mr. Cubitt, Mr. Prendergast, Sir Charles Forte and Sir Harold Samuel.

If the Minister takes the opposite view and allows these plans to go ahead, a very dangerous mood will develop amongst Londoners. There already is a mood of helpless resentment at the inability to stop these damned developments, and this may develop into a mood of active resentment. People will not have London continuously mutilated in this way for the sake of property development and the private motorist. They will not have an endless number of Centre Points and an endless number of uniform, monolithic, comprehensive redevelopments which break up communities and destroy the historic character of the city.

In conclusion, I will take a liberty which I do not often take of reading something I wrote in a book which I called aptly "The Conservative Enemy" and which I wrote 10 years ago. Excited by speculative gain, the property developers furiously rebuild the urban centres with unplanned and æsthetically tawdry office blocks; so our cities become the just objects of world-wide pity and ridicule for their architectural mediocrity, commercial vulgarity, and lack of civic or historic pride. I believe that is even more true today. The Secretary of State, like myself, has returned from the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment at Stockholm. Let him take the opportunity we have provided tonight to say loud and clear and once and for all that he and we place the human environment above the profits of the Land Securities Investment Trust.

7.48 p.m.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Peter Walker)

I thank the right hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland) for raising this debate. I am in considerable difficulty in commenting in much detail because I have a judicial capacity not only on the Greater London Development Plan inquiry with the massive impact that it has but also on most of the major developments that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned in his speech. It would be wrong, therefore, to make comments and prejudge the inspector's reports that I shall be getting on these subjects.

I welcome the debate because I certainly recognise and share the concern about the manner in which development may take place with the effect of ruining the character of a locality. I would always hope to judge planning decisions—and every other decision of my Department—on the basis of how I could improve the quality of the environment in any particular locality or region but in no circumstances on the criteria of the interests of the property development industry.

The right hon. Gentleman will recognise, however, that there are substantial difficulties in the type of solution he outlined. It is easy to speak in general terms about letting the public have their say without defining who are the public in the context of central London. For example, some hon. Members present may consider "the public" to be those living in central London, who naturally have a considerable interest in what happens in their locality, whereas many members of the public have a perhaps much more direct interest in London as a place to visit for entertainment and recreation. There is a range of sectors to which we can refer as "the public". Those sectors will almost certainly never be in broad agreement on any one issue. Anyone who has made major planning decisions, particularly the very controversial ones, will know that the one thing we can be certain of when we have made the decision is that those who approve will remain silent and those who disapprove will be very vocal.

For example, the right hon. Gentleman quoted his general feeling now against major central redevelopments, obviously referring in that context to London. Recently, however, I opened the main central development in the City of Gloucester, and as someone who spent quite a portion of his childhood in Gloucester I would argue that that redevelopment has reactivated the centre in such a way that it will be a livelier place with a great deal of public recreational facility and amenity that it lacked before. In my purely personal judgment—it was not a scheme that I approved but was presumably approved by the previous Government—it will do a great deal for Gloucester. On all planning matters it is very difficult to generalise and say "This policy should be applied".

I should like to speak about one or two of the major problems that I see confronting London as the centre of a massive conurbation, one of the biggest in the world, dwarfing any other in this country. Any decision-taking in London must first be carried out not simply in the narrow context of central London but in the context of a regional planning strategy for the South-East. The previous Government recognised this in preparing the Strategic Plan for the South-East, which I received on coming into office. To try to pursue that strategy, I decided to keep office development permits for the South-East and London and not to give them up, (as was correctly done in various other parts of the country where they were not effective.

Similarly, other policies affect future demands on the centre of a city: policies that we pursue in terms of developing new towns and new growth areas in the South-East, and policies towards the green belt. Once again we are in one of those phases of massive pressure on London's green belt. The developers would find it much easier to develop the green belt than any other area because of the constant demand there, and various strong cases for housing are propounded. But such development would have an effect on the centre of London. Growth points like South Hampshire influence the pressure on central London. London as a local government entity expresses its concern at a reduction in its population, a reduction in rateable value and a reduction in general activities within the centre. We must try to achieve a balance.

In office development there are again conflicting arguments. To some extent I would argue that it is right to go ahead with office development in the City of London area, purely because the levels of rentals for that one quite small locality are such as to mean that the people who go there are basically people with an economic need to be in the City of London. Office development policy, toughly applied in the City of London, had the effect not of hindering the property developers but of greatly enhancing their fortunes through the great escalation in rents that resulted. If we are to expand our activities as one of the financial centres of Europe and the world, we must provide in that locality the up-to-date and appropriate office machinery for such things to happen. The movement into the City of London which will now almost certainly take place, with many more European banks, insurance companies and so on establishing themselves, is to the national benefit. It is one of the factors affecting overall decision-taking on office development.

The right hon. Gentleman understandably raised, as have many people in the past, including my hon. Friends the Members for Hampstead (Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg) and the Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Tugendhat), the scandal of developers who have grown rich through the exercise of planning control on offices, both by the local authority and within the ODP context, which limits the availability of office space at a particular moment. Having obtained planning permissions, they have constructed office blocks and deliberately left them empty to enhance their capital gains. By their action these developers have frustrated the desire of the planning authorities to provide office accommodation at these locations and have prevented others from providing the accommodation thought to be necessary. They have also deprived the ratepayers of a substantial contribution to the rates and have outraged the nation by the sheer waste of substantial resources.

Some major developments have remained empty for many years—Centre Point has remained empty for eight years: six years under the previous Government and two years under the present Government. I believe that the time has come to bring an end to this highly undesirable practice. Therefore, I have decided that, unless those responsible take action to ensure that the practice ceases within the next few months, I will be ready to introduce legislation to guarantee that these existing blocks are suitably occupied, and that future office blocks in areas where office development permit sanction operates are not built in order to remain empty.

There are a number of possible courses of action open to me. They include imposing financial sanctions of sufficient magnitude to make it financially very unattractive to leave these buildings empty; or, alternatively, providing powers in office buildings that remain empty for more than a specified period to have their management taken over by a public authority for the purpose of seeing that they are speedily brought into use. When I have fully explored these two main alternatives I will, if the practice continues, be ready to introduce the appropriate legislation so that one of the worst abuses of our planning policies will at last be dealt with.

Mr. J. T. Price

All of us on the Opposition side, and, I am sure, Conservative Members, very much welcome the right hon. Gentleman's statement. But the scandal he has described is not limited to Centre Point. Unfortunately, previous Governments have baled out speculative developers at places like the State Building in Holborn, which was taken over by the Government, thus saving the bacon of developers, some years ago. State House, the development in Victoria Street, was a similar example which was taken over by the Government. Many developers know that if only they hold on long enough a Government Department will fill their offices with civil servants, at great cost to the public purse. I hope that the Secretary of State will be tough on that sort of thing.

Mr. Walker

Whoever has been the Minister responsible, including the former Ministers of Works, in whichever Government were in power, has tried to negotiate the appropriate rents. Funnily enough, when the previous Government introduced office development permits, it was just at the time when many developers were getting into difficulties by an over-production of office space. Therefore, I think that the introduction of the policy was a mistake, though it is easier to say that with hindsight. The imposition of a restriction on future office space meant that, if the developers waited for a time, there would be a further increased demand, with no further supply coming through. This of course helped them. This has been an incredible situation and I hope that in this way we will bring it to an end.

I go on to some of the other pressures in terms of office space and its association with the public transport system. I have considerable sympathy—once again I have to be careful in what I say—with the view that the direct linking of the public transport system by providing office space at main line termini and stations has considerable attractions. From the point of view of transportation in general, in terms of planning decisions by both my Department and local authorities, they will recognise the considerable advantages not only to nationalised industry. This is because it enables a centre to develop and utilise its considerable land assets and also in terms of basically sound planning, in enabling people to exit from a public transport system into an office block for their work.

I am concerned about hotel building and I disagree with the view that all luxury hotel building should be prevented. Quite rightly the previous Government allowed quite a few large luxury hotels to be built and gave assistance to help them to be built. All the projections of worldwide tourism, both at high and low income levels, indicate that it is likely that a city and a town so world-renowned as London will have a considerable increase in demand over the years ahead. From the point of view both of our balance of payments and of the world enjoying London as a whole, one should try to ensure that the correct amount of building takes place.

I was concerned when I found that whole residential areas were being turned into hotel accommodation. Once again this is a matter which only tolerably rarely comes to me for decision. However, there was an instance where a developer had bought a large block of flats in Chelsea and applied for planning permission to convert the block into a hotel. I rejected the application because it would drive people out of residential areas, with all the consequent disadvantages to the locality.

One of the dilemmas of the planning of central London is in trying to ensure that the people who live there now do not become victims of its overall development and to ensure that they have an enhanced environment as a result of development. It was for that reason that I decided to take the dockland area, a massive area of London and a unique opportunity, and give the consultants the task with the criterion of having as their first priority the provision for the people who now live there of a better quality of environment from the resultant development. As a criterion, that imposes considerable limitations on the planning. All sort of things, which would be exceedingly attractive in such a location in commercial terms, become far less attractive if one has to cater for an existing population on a basis which will be good for their environment and quality of life. I was of the opinion that that was the right priority to place upon that development. We suggested that the consultants should take 18 months and I am pleased to say that they are on time. We expect the report to appear at the time they originally promised that it would appear.

Sir Elwyn Jones (West Ham, South)

I appreciate the importance of the quality of living. However, an important element in the quality of living is the provision of work. We are a little worried that in the immediate area to which the Minister is referring long delay may frustrate many interesting commercial and industrial possibilities.

Mr. Walker

I am well aware of the concern of the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I am anxious that when we talk about the availability of work in a locality, we plan so as to give a very different and greater diversity of job opportunity than has existed in many of these areas in the past. One of the mistakes of planning—this applies not only to London but nation-wide—is the temptation, when looking at job opportunity, to place the same quality of jobs in the same area all the time and not to give an area a greater diversity of opportunity than at present exists.

In the development of London—this concerns the whole of the centre of London—prosperity has basically tended to be in the west and poverty in the east. That is, of course, generalising. The opportunity in dockland, combined with the decision to site the third London Airport to the east of London, can with the extra communication and public transport facilities which can arise give a unique opportunity for development in London which will be more in favour of the east than in the past.

In terms of general planning, I have announced my rejection of the application for a helicopter port at Shadwell Basin. One of the reasons for my rejection of that development was my rejection of the argument that the locality in question was not what one might call of high environmental quality which, therefore, was a good place to put such a development. That is the sort of mistake which has been repeatedly made in planning in the past.

In the total development of an area like central London one does not have a moment of time at which the situation will be static. Nor will the influences be confined to the narrow context of central London. In making any of these major decisions on public inquiries, I have the freedom to say that I shall delay taking a decision until I receive the Greater London Development Plan report or any other report which will affect that decision. I can assure the House that if I feel there is some advice which should reach me and which I should wait for, I will not hesitate to delay making a decision for that reason.

A public inquiry gives an opportunity for a great deal of public discussion to take place. For example, I shall defend the decision which I made on the Piccadilly Circus proposals to allow a plan to go forward for public inquiry. There was a comment in the papers at the time—there was no reason for such a comment—or a suggestion that I had provided office development permits on a massive scale which indicated that I was in favour of a large area of office space in that area. I was in the position when giving the permit that I could not get any application brought forward because until a permit is obtained, it is illegal to consider a planning application.

As far as that locality is concerned, I cannot comment on the attractiveness or unattractiveness of part of it. However, some buildings in that area were falling steadily into a state of disrepair because of complete uncertainty about what was to happen. In the past, developers have allowed buildings to fall into a state of disrepair, and I was anxious to get something much more positive and certain about the future. I was told that I had to grant an office development permit if developers were to bring forward any developments. Then I ask whether I could give a permit for a limited period so that it would not be possible to approve and build the offices in time but would enable developers to bring applications forward.

Accordingly, I gave an ODP for three months only: it ends and lapses in three months from the time I gave it. I considered that to be sufficient time for the developers to make an application. I then contacted Westminster City Council and told the council that if this was an application which it was in any way inclined to accept, it was one which I wanted to go to a public inquiry. In making the statement about office development permits—I quote from the Press notice issued by my Department—I said: Mr. Walker emphasises that issue of the permits in no way prejudges the decision of the local planning authority on the planning application, or his own decision if the applications are called in by him. That was the basis upon which the dialogue and discussion that is taking place was obtained.

The right hon. Member for Grimsby commented on the modification plan that is now coming forward. I see that the Evening Standard indicates that this is a plan which I know all about. I knew nothing about it until I read The Times this morning and the Evening Standard this afternoon. Presumably those concerned will be coming forward with their application, in which event it will be looked into by a public inquiry in exactly the same way.

In terms of another controversial decision, the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the building in Queen Anne's Mansions. He did not like this building and considered that the development had been planned in great secrecy. I hope he knows that this was no decision of mine. It was a decision in 1969 of the Labour Government which decided on examination not to have a public inquiry. If I alter that decision in any way now the owners and developers of that property will be entitled to substantial sums by way of compensation. However, that was a decision, made objectively by the then Government in 1969, which I inherited.

I agree with the right hon. Member for Grimsby about trying to get a total approach to the problem of transportation, not only in London but in any town or city. Again this is easier said than done. The knowledge available about the right balance for these topics is still very much a developing science. All I am basically sure about is that there is a need to improve the public transport system in most of our towns and cities.

In the immediate context of London, for example, we have injected more capital into the public transport system than any Government have done for a considerable time. All public transport systems, including those in urban areas, have had greater grants than were previously available. Even so, such financial aid may be spent on the wrong systems. We need to develop a much greater expertise in urban transport systems, both private and public, than exists not only in this country but anywhere in the world.

I am anxious to develop a new system of Government finance for transport systems as a whole. The present system, whereby we give various specific grants for roads, public transport and sundry other matters concerned with transport, results in much fragmented investment. For example, I would argue that we may spend millions of pounds on a road scheme which merely results in moving a traffic jam a mile up the road, thereby not getting the full benefit from the investment.

Now that we have the erstwhile Ministry of Transport and the planning side of the erstwhile Ministry of Housing and Local Government in one Department, I want to develop a total block grant for transport, so that we can go to the local authority concerned and say "When you have completed an adequate overall transportation strategy we will decide on the quality of that strategy and give you a grant to cover the whole of it, not just a fragmented part."

The skill in doing this in the most effective way for planning is relatively new and many failures have taken place. The classic failure—I am under great pressure to change our own policy—is the out-of-town shopping centre concept in America. That in my view has killed more American cities than any other sort of development. It can be argued that it has a whole range of advantages for the motorist since he can get to a locality quickly, park and not cause urban congestion. However, on the other side of the balance sheet the damage which this causes to city centres and the social life within them, with its tendency to leave poorer sections of the community in the inner city with the worst shopping facilities at the highest prices, makes it a concept which it would be a mistake for this country to pursue.

I apologise for not being able to take up and answer some of the detailed points made by the right hon. Member for Grimsby but I am limited in time. I hope my remarks have assured the House that the general anxieties mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman are not only on one side but exist on both sides of the House.

8.14 p.m.

Mr. G. R. Strauss (Vauxhall)

We all appreciate the Secretary of State's difficulty in answering or commenting in any detail on the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland). Indeed, speaking for myself, I cannot complain about anything the right hon. Gentleman said. I think his ideas are admirable and I hope he will be successful in carrying them out. Great difficulties will present themselves, as they do in all planning applications over big areas, particularly when the interests of the developer are in conflict, as they often are, with the interests of the public.

I shall detain the House for only a few minutes to make one or two general points.

My first point concerns the argument by my right hon. Friend about the mutilation of the City of London by modern architectural development. This is a matter of great importance regarding Piccadilly Circus and Covent Garden, two huge areas, where we are told there will be comprehensive development. It sounds all right. It sounds sensible. However, I get terrified when I hear of even small-scale development nowadays. And when it comes to comprehensive development, the irreparable damage that can be done to the character of London is absolutely frightening.

We should recognise that during the last 20 years, particularly the last five or 10 years, London's character has been badly damaged by the modern architecture which is going up. Some of it may be inevitable. Of course, some old houses have to come down and some areas have to be re-developed on a big scale. But, instead of the grace and elegance which was the characteristic of a large part of London, we are getting large, heavy blocks which are not only destroying their immediate neighbourhoods, but large areas around as well, because they can be seen for miles away. The tragedy is that so many large blocks are being built. This may be inevitable, in view of the many people who want to live in London and the need for further office and hotel accommodation. However, in the old days, when an architect built a street, a house, or a number of houses together and made a bloomer, and the result was unpleasant, the damage was not severe. One regretted it, of course, but the damage was localised.

Nowadays, these huge 10, 15 and 20-storey blocks which are being built all over London can be and are seen by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people every day. They will continue to be seen for perhaps 100 years or more. The damage is colossal. The situation must be watched carefully to be sure no more damage is done. A Canadian friend recently told me that every time he comes to London it appears to look more and more like Toronto. That is happening now. I do not know why these big buildings, so many of them objectionable and damaging London, are being put up.

Mrs. Lena Jeger (Holborn and St. Pancras, South)


Mr. Strauss

One reason in my view is that our architects are not capable of meeting the technical problems of today. They cannot build high blocks that are beautiful. It is a tragedy that so much redevelopment is taking place in London and when the standards of our architects are so poor.

Another reason, as my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mrs. Lena Jeger) said, is the need to maximise the profit in any development. It makes a developer inevitably much keener on utility and the money he can get out of it than putting up something of elegance and beauty. The pressure on a developer is enormously strong. That is another reason why London is changing in such an appalling way.

I ask the Secretary of State to bear all this in mind. Of course, it has been going on for some time. I am not blaming one Government or another. I am sure we all warmly welcome the announcement made by the Secretary of State about the action he has in mind regarding the Centre Point; but, for heaven's sake, do not let him preside—I do not know for how long he will be in his present position—over the destruction and mutilation of London's beauty and elegance. I beg the right hon. Gentleman to use his influence to stop this happening. When comprehensive development takes place on a large scale, as will happen, in Covent Garden, the danger is infinite, because once the damage is done it is irreparable.

My next point, which I shall express equally briefly, concerns the threat to the London theatre. The London theatre is famous throughout the world. There is no need for me to talk about its excellent and immensely high standards and the high regard in which it is held. Everybody realises that. It is due to a variety of things: tradition, the high skill of the actors and acting schools, the very large amount of money in subsidies which goes to various companies. Our London theatre has a deservedly reputation, but among the other factors which in my view give rise to that high reputation are the large number of excellent, delightful, beautiful and charming theatres. They are being seriously threatened. I understand that according to the latest plan the Criterion is to be saved as the result of a public outcry, and that is good.

In the Covent Garden Development Scheme a number of theatres are affected—the Adelphi, the Vaudeville, the Arts, the Duchess. What is happening is that the land on which the theatres stand is so valuable that developers are going, or have already gone, to the proprietors and saying they would like to buy them for a large sum of money to enable them to undertake large-scale development and make large profits. That is the danger to many theatres in London. Many of them are beautiful, most of them are elegant, nearly all are attractive inside. In a way in which in my experience no new theatre can, they create an atmosphere which is wholly pleasant to the audience; you melt as you go into the theatre and you look forward to the play. Most of them were built in the latter part of the last century or the first 25 years of this. They are beautiful theatres which it would be a tragedy to London to destroy. I beg the right hon. Gentleman to keep an eye on them and not let any of them disappear.

It is no use saying, as has been said in the past when some old theatres have gone, that new ones will be built in their place. Perhaps that is better than nothing, but it really is not any good because if a new theatre is built in a redevelopment scheme the cost will be colossal and it will be impossible for the new owner to run it at a profit unless he charges exorbitant and prohibitive seat prices. So there is a danger of the theatre being killed by the large-scale development which is taking place—not only the ones we are talking about today but future ones—killed by developers pulling down old theatres and replacing them by enormously costly new ones. We have the example of the Prince Charles Theatre which became a cinema. But even if there is a guarantee that it will remain a theatre it is essential to guarantee that it will be possible to rent the theatre at a reasonable price and run it at a profit without charging the public exorbitant amounts.

I ask the right hon. Gentleman to bear in mind the importance of the London theatres as buildings, as works of art, as some of the most gracious and lovely buildings in London. I ask him to preserve them, to have a general rule that no old theatre shall be destroyed, or where it is inevitable—and there may be some cases in which an old theatre has to come down—to ensure that any new theatre which is put in its place will be run as a theatre, that it will have all the proper accessories and that if necessary the developers will provide out of the profits they are making a sufficient sum of money to act as a subsidy to keep that theatre alive. Otherwise it may die.

It is terribly important that the numbers of our theatres should not decline, that our existing theatres should be preserved as far as possible and that, where they are pulled down, other theatres should be put in their place which will act as live theatres and play their part in the cultural life of London. I ask the Secretary of State to bear that point in mind, as it is of as much importance as the preservation of the character of the London we love, and which we hope he will not allow to be destroyed while he is the responsible Minister.

8.25 p.m.

Mr. Brian Batsford (Ealing, South)

I am very glad to be called after the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss). He mentioned the mutilation of the character of London, which is a point I should like to take up later in my speech. With other hon. and right hon. Members and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, we find ourselves in rather a difficulty in that, having said that we would have a debate on Piccadilly Circus, we were sent at the end of last week a very vast brief by the Westminster City Council on one plan and then got to the House this afternoon to find that it had been superseded by another. For that reason alone, I have no cause at all to go over the long and rather sad story of Piccadilly Circus over the past 10 years.

There is one point I wish to correct. I notice in reading this very large Press hand-out which was given to me by the Westminster City Council that they say that Piccadilly Circus is the only part of John Nash's grand scheme—townscape parade of 1814, in their words, which went all the way from St. James's Park to Regent's Park—which was never completed. This remark may be designed to show that the Westminster City Council and its architects are going to finish off what Nash began, but on the other hand I must say that this is quite nonsense because, to the best of my knowledge, Piccadilly Circus was finished by Nash. That is why it is called a Circus. Piccadilly Circus was very similar to Oxford Circus. There are photographs and drawings to prove this.

Thomas Verity's Criterion was not built in Piccadilly Circus at all but in Coventry Street, and that Circus as Nash designed it stood for 70 to 80 years. The Piccadilly Circus that we know today only came into existence in 1886 when Shaftesbury Avenue was cut through, and the London Pavilion, classical though it may look behind all its neon signs, was built at the same time. This, of course, involved the complete demolition of one corner of the original Circus. The last corner to be demolished was the South-West corner, the corner of Piccadilly and Lower Regent Street, and that was not taken down until as recently as 1930.

I agree with the right hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland) when he says that Piccadilly Circus as it now stands has no architectural unity, but in the 90 years that it has been in this rather strange, unplanned state this untidy jumble of buildings—and we all know that it is untidy—with the statue of Eros in the middle has probably come to mean more to Londoners and to visitors to London than any other part of our capital city. If we destroy Piccadilly Circus we destroy not only an architectural concept, but a legend, and whoever tries to recreate that legend in a slightly different position or in a slightly different way will find that he is performing a risky transplant of the heart of a city.

I notice that the Greater London Development Plan refers to Piccadilly Circus as an "action area". I suppose that that is a modern or gimmicky way of saying that something must be done about it, or perhaps at long last we have an alternative for the ghastly phrase "ripe of development". I always think that that phrase is one of the worst ever invented in our planning terminology. But whatever "action area" means, it is going to mean demolition on a scale which, in my view, is unrealistic and unjustified.

I always thought that the great redeeming feature of the 1968 Piccadilly Scheme Mark II, as the right hon. Member for Grimsby referred to it, was that it was probably the first time that all the developers from all the sites round the Circus, all the local authorities involved and all the architects employed sat round a table and agreed to collaborate in a unified scheme. I am glad to see that under the direction of Westminster City Council—though, like the right hon. Gentleman, I am sorry that the GLC left Westminster City Council to it—that collaboration has continued but, as a result, the redevelopment is on such a vast scale that it is destroying whole areas far beyond the Circus itself. We all know some of the streets in Soho behind the Pavillion which will go as a result of this redevelopment, and there is no guarantee of anything comparable being put in their place.

We now know—and it has been said during the debate—that the Westminster City Plan has received so much reaction from the Press and public that it is sufficient to kill it stone dead, and it seems from the papers tonight that it is stone dead. I have no doubt that some changes have to be made, but I agree with the right hon. Member for Vauxhall that surely we could be a little more modest with our modernisation, and a little less ambitious with our redevelopment. In other words, could we not do things on a slightly smaller scale?

This immediate public reaction to the scheme has emphasised the growing concern among people in London about the development of central London itself. We live in one of the most historic cities in the world, and more people than ever before are coming to visit London. I constantly hear people ask, "Why can we not leave it alone? Why can we not leave it as it is?" Surely our efforts should be concentrated on conserving those things which are irreplaceable, rather than on putting in their place things which are so speculative? I cannot help feeling that if the present rate of demolition continues there will be precious little left of the old and familiar London as we knew it, and very little left to show our visitors from overseas. And much that is left will be seen against a backcloth of concrete and glass.

As every day goes by we see more and more buildings being demolished and the sort of building which I resent being demolished as much as anything else is the smaller domestic building which lined our streets, what Professor Albert Richardson called people's Georgian. As one comes into London today one finds all the people's Georgian covered with outdoor advertising, but if that were removed one would still find underneath decent detail and good building.

What about the Victorian and Edwardian building? As a whole it is cosy, friendly, inconvenient and possibly ugly, but it is part and pattern of the London that we know. It is part of the townscape in London, and presumably it is being demolished because it is uneconomic. Presumably, also, in its place there will be put faceless, shapeless boxes which will not only be built of poor materials but will be finished indifferently, for the same reason, namely, that it is uneconomic to build them any better.

There was one large building in Westminster which I was very pleased to see come down—Queen Anne's Mansions. What a breath of fresh air its demolition meant; what a wonderful space against the background of Queen Anne's Gate and that beautiful little modern Guards Chapel. Then, to my horror, when I went to the Upper Waiting Room last week, I saw what was to take its place, something overpowering, ponderous and top heavy. The right hon. Member for Grimsby said that Sir Basil Spence was responsible. To be fair to Sir Basil, he was only the consultant architect. But there it is—this monster, looking like three old women in basket-weave hats sitting down in the middle of Westminster.

Hon. Members have mentioned Hyde Park Corner. The decent, unobstrusive buildings there are being removed—for what? Their place has been taken by a modern hotel, undistinguished in design and completely wrong in such a site alongside Apsley House. The only advantage the hotel will have is for those who go inside it and look out, because they will not see the building itself.

The catalogue of tragedy in London is long. Outside Westminster, there are the windswept concrete terraces of the South Bank complex. One thinks of them as being cold and raw and uninviting. No one ever goes there. No one ever sits there or walks there, because they are so uninviting. There are the great canyons of glass and concrete which now embrace so many of our city churches. There are the waste spaces of the Elephant and Castle. There are the monumental tombstones, like the Shell Building on the other side of the river. It occurred to me the other day that County Hall—not that I have ever loved it as a building—has one great advantage in that it shields this House from the Shell Building. Then one thinks of the buildings overlooking Hyde Park. One thinks of the Knightsbridge Barracks and wonders what happened at the top—whether the builder ran out of material or the architect of ideas.

The right hon. Member for Vauxhall mentioned Toronto. It is true to say that when one comes into London, by whichever way, one does not really know where one is. Any visitor could be in Milan or Barcelona or even in Detroit. I am not surprised that so many people who love our London ask, "Who is responsible for all this?" They want to know who is replanning and rebuilding the centre of London—whether, as has been suggested, it is the developers, whether it is the architects, or whether it is a combination of both. Or is it the Greater London Council, which is the strategic planning authority, or the Westminster City Council, which is the local planning authority? What of the Royal Fine Art Commission? That surely is a body whose rôle is very uncertain and unknown, although I have heard it said that most of the skyscrapers in London are so out of proportion because the top 20 feet has been cut off by the Royal Fine Art Commission.

Probably the responsibility for the future face of London is in too many hands. It is split up amongst too many authorities. If that is the case, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his great new Department of the Environment can fulfil the co-ordinating responsibility which is required. When my hon. Friend replies to the debate, I hope that he will give us some assurance, not only about Piccadilly but also about what other measures of control can be applied to the replanning of Central London as a whole.

8.40 p.m.

Mrs. Joyce Butler (Wood Green)

I hope the House will bear with me if for a few moments I shift the debate a short distance from Covent Garden and Piccadilly to the heights of Alexandra Palace. Alexandra Park and Palace are under the control of the Greater London Council and the greater part of them are in the Wood Green constituency where they have long been regarded as a vital local asset. They are a double asset because they combine open space with a valuable building. It is about 190 acres, mostly open park. This is a vital lung for the people in this part of London.

It has always been so regarded, and the former Wood Green Borough Council strenuously resisted any attempts to build there, even the building of houses on flat land which was formerly the Alexandra Park racecourse. The retention of this open space is even more vital at present. Unfortunately, since the Greater London Council took over control from the local authorities there has been a spate of planning applications from commercial interests, all competing for the use of the very limited open space.

Unfortunately, the Greater London Council has supported most of these planning applications. Perhaps I could indicate the kind of thing which has been suggested. A body calling itself Group Leisure has applied for a 12-hole novelty putting course surrounded by a concrete track for go-karts. Two separate applications have been made for squash courts, one for 12 courts, with associated facilities including baths and so on, and another for four adjacent to the existing ski slope, again with associated facilities. An application has been made for the erection of a model village which is innocuous. EMI Film and Theatre Corporation has applied for permission to put in a drive-in cinema. Module 2 Ltd wants an equestrian sports centre, and a new consortium which is so far unnamed has applied to put in a trotting course with adjoining stands and stables. Archform wants to build an international ice-skating centre and Leisure 2000 wishes to erect a massive domed structure for various family leisure activities.

The important thing about all these GLC-supported applications is that in the first place they would restrict more and more the amount of space open freely to the public, because the public would have to pay to enter all these facilities and there would be little open parkland left. Secondly, by their very nature some would involve substantial building in the open space. Even those which do not, would require pay booths, cloakrooms, bar or restaurant facilities and equipment stalls and so on, with a great clutter of buildings all over this valuable open space.

It is also important to note that the nearby Lea Valley regional park will provide much better outdoor sports facilities than could be provided on this site and in Islington, again fairly close, there is the £1 million Sobell centre, a very ambitious family leisure scheme which is in the course of erection. Even if there were no other objection to these applications they would still be completely superfluous in this area.

The local planning authority is Haringey Borough Council, and it has so far resisted all these planning applications on the ground that this kind of piecemeal development would ruin the implementation of the feasibility study which everyone has agreed is vitally necessary if existing facilities are to be used in the most appropriate way. This study has been promised by the GLC, but so far it has not done anything about it, although I believe it intends to start on it in the coming year.

Since the public has been mentioned, I should add that it is strenuously opposed to this "Butlin Holiday Camp" type of development. It is completely inappropriate for this area.

It is not just a question of ruining open space, because Alexandra Palace itself, as many hon. Members will know, is a vast late Victorian building which is far more substantial than its detractors will admit, and which has very many admirers as a building in itself. It has long been a landmark in that part of the world and it has three valuable facilities. It is a vast area of accommodation which includes the present BBC premises complete with studios and a theatre which will become available when the BBC gives up its lease in 1977. In the building itself there are accommodated the skating rink, banqueting suites, college of art studios, and a variety of other flourishing activities, but what is unique about the palace is that it has a great hall which is absolutely enormous. It makes a first class exhibition centre which has, unfortunately, been run down by the Greater London Council, although the council has now had to reverse its decision to close it to exhibitions after 1972.

The great hall lends itself, in addition to exhibitions, to the kind of vast assembly which is very popular nowadays, particularly among young people. One can hold concerts there, with thousands of people, and without any disturbance at all to neighbours because it is surrounded by open space. It contains the neglected famous Father Willis organ, the finest organ in Europe in its heyday, which the GLC recently sold for a negligible sum but which the new owners would be delighted to restore in situ if the necessary funds could be made available. In passing, I think it is worth noting that the amount of money lost by the Greater London Council by running down the exhibitions would probably more than cover the restoration of this famous organ.

My reason for raising the subject tonight is that I think it is important to realise that there are quite unique facilities in that part of London. People far more knowledgeable than I am, people like the late Sir Malcolm Sargent, and Yehudi Menuhin, and other people who are musical experts, are of the opinion that this could be a first class musical and cultural centre. Unfortunately, the clutter of buildings which the Greater London Council would like to erect in the grounds if planning permission could be given is not only designed to promote private commercial property, but I believe—and I am not alone in this—is also designed to make Alexandra Palace, the building itself, appear to be useless, so that the council can carry out its declared policy of demolishing the palace at enormous expense without too much opposition. It seems a mockery of planning to destroy at one and the same time a valuable open space which the public have enjoyed for generations and a unique, irreplaceable and priceless building which has so much valuable modern potential.

I am sorry that the Secretary of State is not here now, but I hope that he or one of the other Ministers in his Department will make a point of visiting Alexandra Palace in near future, and that they will do whatever is possible to urge on the Greater London Council the importance of starting the feasibility study at the earliest possible moment. It is a local problem, but it is much more than a local problem. In London facilities of this kind are extremely limited, and it is therefore important to the whole community that the most appropriate and publicly desirable use should be made of those facilities where they do exist.

8.50 p.m.

Mr. Christopher Tugendhat (Cities of London and Westminster)

I hope that the hon. Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Joyce Butler) will forgive me if I do not follow her remarks about her own part of London but return instead to the affairs of the centre of London, for most of the buildings to which hon. Members referred earlier are in my constituency. It is on my constituency that I want to concentrate, although the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mrs. Lena Jeger) has a share in one development.

Before coming to the main burden of my remarks I will say two "thank yous". First, I thank the Opposition for choosing the subject of tonight's debate. We in London do not have our fair share of the House's time compared with the more outlying regions of the Kingdom and I am grateful to the Opposition for making time available in this way.

I am also grateful to the Secretary of State for what he said about Centre Point. As he said, this matter has caused great concern to my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg), to myself and to hon. Members of all parties representing Central London constituencies. The announcement made by my right hon. Friend may possibly spoil Mr. Harry Hyams' dinner but it will bring great joy to the rest of the country. As soon as we see Mr. Harry Hyams' properties, which are scattered over a wide area of central London, put to good use, the happier we shall all be, whatever our differences of opinion on other matters.

The great majority of people tend to think of Central London in terms of the great developments such as Piccadilly Circus and Covent Garden, about which we have heard so much, and other grand buildings, since these are the things which are most obvious to people who do not live in the city but who come in from outside either to this Palace or to the centre of London to work. For those of us who live, work and have our being in the centre of London, Piccadilly Circus and Covent Garden, important as they are, are only the tip of the iceberg of the problems which concern us.

Because we do not have high unemployment and other problems which affect other parts of the country, there is a tendency to assume that we in London are particularly privileged and fortunate. But in a real sense we are a beleaguered city. Long-established communities are being broken up, familiar landmarks are disappearing and the population of the middle of London is declining rapidly. I illustrate that with two figures. In my constituency, the Cities of London and Westminster, which is only a small part of central London, the electorate for much of the 1960s was declining at the rate of about 1,000 a year. Since the 1970s began it has started to decline at the rate of about 2,000 a year. If people continue to leave, the middle of London at this rate, within less than the lifetime of most of us here the middle of London and the middle of Westminster will cease to exist as cities in which people live, have their being, bring up their children and live out their lives.

Of course, luxury flats and scores of houses will remain, in which diplomats will live. It may interest the House to know, as many people do not, that diplomats are exempt from rates. Diplomats will be able to continue to live in the middle of our cities. No doubt senior businessmen working for large national and multi-national companies, whose companies happily pay their living expenses, will also be able to continue to live here, and very nice it will be for them. There are also large council blocks. We have some fine council accommodation in the middle of London that will no doubt remain. In addition there will be poor quality accommodation of the sort that is still too common in all the London boroughs. That too, no doubt, will remain.

These accommodation units will be like ghettoes in a sea of office blocks, car parks and hotels. But what we need in the middle of London is not just the very rich, the very poor and the council tenants—although there is a place for all of them; we need a mixed community. We need the middling sort of people, people who are not very rich and not very poor. We need the people who marry, bring up children and participate in London local affairs. I do not mean the diplomat who comes in from Ruritania, lives here for a couple of years without having to pay any rates and then returns home. We do not only need the big businessman who lives in Grosvenor Square and goes every morning in his Rolls Royce to the City and then in due course retires and goes to live in the country. We need the mixed community of every sort of person, particularly those who are neither rich nor poor but who can participate in all local affairs and carry the community on their shoulders.

One has only to walk round Mayfair and St. James's to realise that at night they are becoming dead areas. If we compare the situation in St. James's and Mayfair with New York, we see what can happen to the middle of a city when development gets out of control and the interests of ordinary people are ignored.

I must declare an interest. I was born in the City of Westminster and I do not want to see this City, part of which I have the honour to represent, go the way of New York.

It is difficult not to get carried away by emotion, but I am certainly not a Luddite. I recognise that we cannot freeze a living organism for all time; the fabric of the City must be renewed from time to time. We have only to look at the present state of Piccadilly Circus to see what can happen when part of the city is allowed to deteriorate beyond a certain point.

Many parts of our city need restoration, renewal and rebuilding. London is a charming, delightful, magnificent place but its fabric has constantly to be renewed. It is a wonderful city because generations have contributed something towards its development. Every generation must make its own architectural contribution, and so must ours.

I recognise that we cannot shut our eyes to the requirements of traffic. Motor transport has become an integral part of our life and culture. It is no good saying that we must not become slaves to the motor car. We must learn to adjust our urban environment to the motor car. This, too, will require change at different times and in different places.

I understand—how could the Member for the Cities of London and Westminster do otherwise—the needs of the business community. The City of London is the world's leading financial centre; the City of Westminster is one of the country's leading business communities. Both the City of London and the City of Westmins- ter need to be able to build appropriate office accommodation. Because of that fact, and also because London is a tourist centre, we also need hotels.

But a balance must be struck between the various interests and the interests of the whole community. To my mind the balance has swung too far away from the people who live in central London towards those who make money out of it. In the long run if the balance is allowed to swing in the direction in which it has gone in recent years, business as well as the community will suffer. We have only to look to see what has happened in New York. In downtown New York, on Fifth Avenue and in all the fashionable places, the life has gone out of the middle of the city and a vacuum has been filled by poverty. New York has become such a highly disagreeable city to go into that an increasing number of businesses want to move out altogether. The people who work there do not want to go into the middle of New York or even into the streets which run off Fifth Avenue. They want to live and work in decent surroundings—in places where they are not attacked and knocked on the head. They want to go to places where the air is fit to breathe.

So one sees that New York first pushed out its people and brought in offices. But now, because it is so disagreeable, the offices are closing down and the commercial interests are moving out. This is a vicious circle. If we in London forget the interests of ordinary people and subordinate ourselves too much to offices we shall find that, although for a time we become an even greater business centre than we are at present, in the long run the city will die completely.

There are no easy answers to a matter as complex as this. We all know that the main need is for more housing of every sort, to rent and to buy. We need flats and houses, council accommodation, and above all accommodation in which individuals can live and have their own being in their own way. That is common ground between us. However, the Government can do a great deal in addition and before the housing becomes fully available. I referred to one possibility at Question Time today.

It is ridiculous that the National Coal Board and the British Steel Corporation should have their headquarters in my constituency when the development areas in which their operations take place are crying out for more offices and services. Though not as large as the British Steel Corporation or the National Coal Board, the Burmah Oil Company is moving to Swindon. I think that the Coal Board ought to be able to go to Doncaster satisfactorily. Communications are just as good as they are to Swindon. These are outstanding examples, but it is difficult to see why other nationalised industries and Government Departments should all be concentrated in the middle of London in the most expensive office accommodation in the world. At a time when hotels are being built in such profusion it is difficult to understand why the Government continue to occupy hotels in Northumberland Avenue which were taken over in the first World War. Both parties bear a great responsibility for what has happened in Central London. It behoves the Government to look first at the nationalised industries and then at their own operations if they care about what is happening now.

Much could be done to help those who are already here. With my hon. Friends representing Central London constituencies, I suggested earlier this year that the rateable value limits for regulated tenancies should be extended above £400 in the middle of London since this would provide the security of tenure that tenants need in the middle of London just as they do elsewhere, and the level of £400 is unrealistically low in this part of the world.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kensington, South (Sir B. Rhys Williams) introduced a Bill, which I had the honour to sponsor with him, for more stringent regulations to prevent residential properties being used for what have become known as creeping hotels for itinerant tenants. This practice is turning residential blocks away from their supposed and original purpose into fly-by-night hotels, albeit some of them very expensive.

Another problem is that of improvement grants. We know that they are necessary, and we support them in principle. But we all know from our correspondence how often improvement grants lead to the landlord getting rid of the sitting tenant and pocketing the profit. If improvement grants are to fulfil the purpose for which they were designed, strings must be attached to safeguard the position of sitting tenants.

We must also take steps against those who profiteer by keeping office and residential accommodation empty. Reference has been made already to the scandal of Centre Point. We all agree that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has done a useful night's work by announcing his proposals. However, in many ways the scandal of empty residential accommodation is even more important. The Pimlico Tenants and Residents Association and a councillor there have estimated that there are 1,000 empty residential flats in Pimlico alone. I do not know whether that figure is accurate. It may be exaggerated, though a walk round the area will reveal a great many empty residential units.

We all know why they are kept empty. Sometimes people have bought them and do not want to sell them now, or do not want to put them on the market for rent because they think that they will get a bigger price later, for rent or for sale. Landlords sometimes allow properties to dilapidate, to get the last remaining tenants out, and often that is quite an effective way of doing so. Landlords sometimes allow their properties to deteriorate in order to be able to say eventually that they have reached such a shocking and awful condition that they cannot be safe. It is then easier to get permission to redevelop them. This is a scandal, just as much, in its way, as Centre Point. Landlords who leave residential property empty for long periods for no good reason are jackals feeding off the hopes of would-be home owners and those least able to to look after themselves.

The Secretary of State has set an example in the way he proposes to deal with Centre Point. It may be that similar measures will be needed to take care of those landlords who are at present profiteering at the expense of those suffering from the housing shortage.

Finally, I come to the problem of rates. These have now reached in the middle of London, an intolerable level. It is of the utmost importance that the Government should push ahead as fast as possible with the reform of local government finance. Their aim in doing this should be twofold. They should, first, look for ways of relieving local authorities of some of the charges which ought rightly to be borne by central Government. Those of us who sit for central London constituencies, hon. Members of both parties, have in mind, the Inner London Education Authority, which takes an enormous amount out of our rates. This is something that all of us would like to see financed centrally rather than by the boroughs. There are other examples. However, time presses and I must move on.

The second aim should be to find new sources of revenue for local authorities. The Greater London Council, as we know, would like to introduce a lottery. That has much to commend it and it would be extremely popular. Another source of revenue we should like to tap is the tourists who come to our city. They provide great benefit to the country's balance of payments. But tourists require a very high level of service to be maintained and one which would not exist if it were only the inhabitants of London who were living here. It is right that tourists should be taxed. The way that I should like to see this done is by a bed tax. But there are other ways.

Some of my proposals may to some people seem extreme. But we are faced with an extreme problem in central London. I put forward my ideas as a contribution to discussion and debate. If the Government can come up with better ideas for saving the middle of London, so much the better. But they must act quickly. London and Westminster are beleaguered cities. The population has declined; communities are breaking up. Familiar landmarks are disappearing. London and Westminster need to be saved. That is the message which ought to go out from both sides of the House tonight.

9.8 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins (Putney)

We hear a great deal from the Government and their supporters about what ought to be done, but rather less about what they intend to do. While the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Tugendhat) has been speaking about what he regards as being his extreme remarks, one would have scarcely credited that it is his friends upon Westminster City Council who brought forward the appalling Piccadilly plan and it is his friends upon the Greater London Council who are bringing forward the Covent Garden redevelopment plan, about which many of us have increasing doubts.

When one listens to the aspirations put forward from the Government side of the House and when one gets the general atmosphere of concern and intention to do something about it, one asks precisely why these things are occurring and why have the Government, until now, done nothing about it, until public outcry reaches a level at which they are forced to say something. Even now, what does the Minister say? He does not say, "I will introduce legislation now." He says, "In a few months' time, if things do not get better by some magic or other, I will think about it." But if Mr. Harry Hyams were to disappear overnight, the causes of the problem would not disappear. There would be other people and organisations The Government's attitude in saying that this is some mysterious thing but that if we all act in good will together we shall get rid of it, does not wash.

I must admit that I once almost favoured the Covent Garden redevelopment plan, because when one looks at the background of how this thing grew up, one can see that, apart from the pressures which are creating the present situation, the process by which we arrive at it is one which can be readily understood.

During the 1950s and the 1960s I was a member of the LCC Town Planning Committee. At that time we were trying to repair the ravages of the blitz and consequently we got into the habit of deciding that areas must be cleared away and replaced with something fresh. The comprehensive redevelopment plan arose in those circumstances. It was justified and and necessary at that time but now we are dealing with areas in which life already exists. At that time there was no life in these areas. We were creating life. But we are now dealing with lively, active, vigorous areas, and if we are not careful we will remove the life and create deserts. What might have been a suitable proposition for the 1950s and 1960s is entirely unsuitable for the 1970s. Although I was originally attracted—possibly arising from my own background in it—to the tidy, rather nice proposition of the Covent Garden redevelopment plan, the more I looked into it the more worried I became about it because of my concern about the theatre.

It was in thinking about the impact of these plans upon the theatre that I began to realise that something was fundamentally wrong with our whole approach to planning in the present situation and with land values rising at the rates they have been. We have to look afresh therefore at the situation and ask whether we need fresh instruments of planning and a fresh approach to urban redevelopment.

I do not agree with some of the more strident screams of the Covent Garden Community Association, but basically it is right to be concerned at the possibility and the probability of the area deteriorating rather than improving under the present proposals with their emphasis upon road developments and so on. The developers of Piccadilly, Covent Garden and Cambridge Circus propose the demolition of the Criterion, the Lyceum, the Garrick, the Duchess the Adelphi, the Vaudeville and the Arts theatres. Some of these may be saved and others may be replaced. But if these theatres are to be dealt with in this way other theatres in the area are under threat also because the area itself is threatened.

Increased traffic means that roads will be widened driven underground or layered. It is already clear that the Cambridge will be surrounded by a sunken main road with pedestrial decks above and that the Coliseum the Duke of York's and the New Theatre will be pushed into a sort of cul-de-sac. The Shaftesbury Avenue theatres, the leases on which run out very shortly, are beginning to worry about the possibility of a Shaftesbury Avenue or a Soho redevelopment plan. We will then face perhaps the complete destruction of the world's most successful and most famous arts and entertainment complex. The complex has grown up organically but if we are not very careful we could dispose of it very quickly.

Meanwhile, on the South Bank the subcommittee of the GLC is meeting to dis- cuss how it can artificially inject into the deserts below the Thames some of the life it is proposing to take away by the redevelopment plan in the West End. I do not want to detract from the fine buildings on the South Bank, but no one would call it a lively area. We face the curious situation of being worried about an area which contains no life while it is proposed to create the same sort of desert north of the Thames as we already have south of the Thames. That is sheer lunacy. We need a much more drastic change than the Minister indicated he is ready to bring to the matter.

At one time I thought that from the Covent Garden scheme might come something beneficial to the theatre, but on reflection I am persuaded that I was over-optimistic. What we need is not so much comprehensive development as community preservation schemes. We need to look at the whole matter afresh. We need not so much roadway development schemes as car-free areas or perhaps car-free times in certain areas.

It would pay us to keep private cars out of some parts of central London altogether and perhaps provide a State-supported taxi service and a free bus service. It might not cost us any more in the end. We should have to have a series of free car parks surrounding London so that people could bring their cars into a reasonable area, leave them and then enjoy in the central area the free transport or the taxi service, which I hope would be provided at a reasonable rate. That may be a matter of longer-term planning, but we must start thinking in the longer term if we are not to make greater mistakes in the shorter term.

The majority group on the Greater London Council is committed to the concrete desert idea, but the Labour Opposition is beginning to show strong signs of disenchantment with the whole proposition of going on with an outdated concept beyond its utility period. I plead guilty to that as much as anyone else. The Labour group is beginning to say that it is not committed to the present plans. I believe that it is about to announce its non-committal to any of the present plans for the West End. That would be a good development because, if, as I expect, the Labour Party wins control of the GLC next spring, we may have an entirely fresh approach as compared with that of the Tory-controlled GLC.

The result of the public inquiry into the Covent Garden redevelopment plan is awaited. Meanwhile, it is reliably reported that dissent has broken out, even inside the Tory majority at County Hall, and that relations between Sir Desmond Plummer and Lady Dartmouth are at breaking point. [Interruption.] I note that I am not alone in having heard that rumour, which I welcome.

Leading GLC Tories have financial interests in the redevelopment of Covent Garden and would profit hugely if the whole area could be emptied of people and covered with unoccupied office blocks. We need a new approach. It needs to be drastic and quick, for as we talk, as the Minister talked earlier, about the need to see that people who live in these areas already are looked after, men are working overtime turning people out of the area, clearing old blocks to make way for roadways and so on. The whole process is already in the course of being carried out.

While we allow that sort of thing to happen, we are not really dealing with the problem, but are only talking about it. If the Minister were to say that instead of promising to legislate in a few weeks' or a few months' time we must stop this whole procedure now, we would really have cause to praise him. The Minister should say, "This kind of thing has gone on long enough, let us bring it to an end tonight".

9.20 p.m.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

The hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Hugh Jenkins) has spoken with his great knowledge of London and his previous service on the London County Council. I know that he would be the first to allow the right of any hon. Member from another part of the country to speak in this debate because, as the right hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland) said, London is not just a matter for London Members. It is a national matter and one of great concern. There are many aspects of London which are every bit as much the concern of my constituents in Bridgwater and West Somerset as they are of the inhabitants of London itself as our capital and our chosen visiting place on so many occasions.

There are two aspects of London which must concern those who come from other parts of the country, both what is happening here and the fact that what is happening here is preventing other things happening in the rest of the country. Perhaps I may speak first to my right hon. Friend on the subject of offices and what is happening in the City.

My right hon. Friend spoke very fairly of what we hope will be a major development. We look forward to the City of London becoming the financial capital of Europe. We trust that it will become a meeting place for many European institutions, firms and associations. Obviously there will be a need for capacity to accommodate them, and it would be tragic if we failed on that account, but at the same time one should not under-estimate the impact of the escalating costs and escalating rents on many existing tenants of commercial premises in the City of London.

We know that the theatre is living on borrowed time because of its leases, and many firms in the City of London are also working on borrowed time. Many of them have long leases at low rents and when those expire there is not the slightest prospect that they will be able to remain where they are. My first request to my right hon. Friend is that some attempt should be made to assess how much of the office accommodation will be surplus once those leases expire and how many of these firms really need to remain in London.

One is aware of the needs of stockbrokers to be near the Stock Exchange. One is aware of the need of commodity traders perhaps to be near the Baltic Exchange. But in these days of improving technical facilities and communications one knows how stockbrokers have moved their accounts departments out of the City and merely maintain what one might call the sharp end of the operation in close proximity to the Stock Exchange.

The impact of improved techniques and communications will surely have a significant effect and should be taken into account in assessing what the real future office requirement is for the inner City of London activity, and here I support what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for the Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Tugendhat) when my right hon. Friend was out of the Chamber and what was said to one of my right hon. Friend's colleagues at Question Time today about the transfer of both the National Coal Board and the British Steel Corporation from their present headquarters. If a firm is in commercial difficulties or is finding difficulty in producing an adequate return, one of the first things that it does is to look at its properties. In view of the financial situation of those two organisations, surely they cannot justify the costs of their present premises. I speak on behalf of what one might call the outside London Members who would be more than happy to help to accommodate some of their requirements.

I first took an interest in the problem of Government offices moving out of London when I discovered that the Egg Marketing Board had its headquarters in Shaftesbury Avenue. There seems to be very little logic in the decisions of the Government and nationalised industries in the location for their offices.

I said that London was of interest not only to the citizens of London but to everyone in the country, and therefore it matters very much what London is to be and what London is to become. We are very much concerned with the future of our industries, and our biggest industry is tourism. The biggest attraction that exists for tourists in this country is London. What do they come to find? What do they expect in London? Is it Buckingham Palace, the changing of the guard or the parks? One of the things above all which they come to find is that marvellous word "serendipity". There is so much more to London than simply the famous landmarks. One can go round making pleasant discoveries, which is surely the correct description of serendipity. There are so many interesting corners of London which one can find, and it is so much of this that is being destroyed at the moment by the concrete revolution.

I endorse what the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) and the hon. Member for Putney said about the London theatre. A recent survey of tourists to this country identified that for 60 per cent. of them the London theatre was a major factor in their choosing to visit and spend some time in London. It is one of the products in which we excel by any standard. If I may put it in the most total commercial sense, it is a product which we can sell to the world above all competition. It is something which will not have the facility and will not be able to display its wares unless urgent action is taken.

The right hon. Member for Vauxhall suggested that it might be possible to tighten up the conditions under which buildings which are redeveloped must include, if a theatre exists on the site, a new theatre in its place. The right hon. Gentleman suggested that because of the enormous capital expense, audiences would be priced out of the theatres if true development costs were involved. The right hon. Gentleman suggested that there should be a condition that cheap prices or rents would be charged.

That is not a realistic proposition. I do not see how one can introduce that system. However, some quite exceptional measure will have to be taken if we are to preserve an essential element in the fabric of what in its totality is the charm and uniqueness of London at the moment I would urge on the right hon. Gentleman the serious consideration that we should list the theatres of London as historic buildings and give them special protection. It is in their variety and number that the strength exists.

The hon. Member for Putney has listed the theatres which are threatened. Quite apart from the ones which are specifically threatened with demolition, we all know that they are all, as one of their deputations on VAT pointed out, living on borrowed time. They are all on the back end of leases at fairly low rents which have no possibility under normal commercial circumstances of renewal. Something in excess of one-third of the theatres in London are threatened within the next decade. Their commercial existence cannot continue unless quite exceptional methods are taken for their preservation. It is because of the theatres, together with so much else of the fabric of London which we respect and value, that those of us who come to London as visitors urge the importance of attention and action whilst they still remain to be preserved.

9.29 p.m.

Mr. Eric Deakins (Walthamstow, West)

I hope that the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Tom King) will forgive me if I do not follow him in my remarks as time is pressing. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I agree with nearly all he said in this connection. I have an interest as apart from being a Londoner born and bred I happen to live in Piccadilly Circus at the top of the Hay-market. Not only do I happen to live there but I eat and do my washing there. I know the district well. I am one who will be affected adversely by the change in the character of the area.

The scheme put forward for the redevelopment of the Circus is ludicrous on a number of grounds which were pointed out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland) in his opening remarks, particularly as regards the detrimental effect of the increase in traffic through the Circus on public transport. The Chairman of London Transport has roundly condemned the proposals as they will make the job of London Transport far worse than at present.

Whatever we may think about traffic in central London, we should bear in mind that the idea of putting pedestrians somewhere near first or second floor level so that they can get a view of the traffic racing through the Circus and at the same time be suffocated by the fumes rising up would not appeal to local residents, Londoners generally, provincials or tourists who use the Circus as an entertainment and leisure centre.

A further condemnation of the scheme is that it is bound to mean the loss of virtually all the small shops, businesses and entertainment centres in the area. Some of them may not appeal to right hon. and hon. Members or to the people who live there, but they appeal to those who use the Piccadilly Circus area as an entertainment centre. I hope it will never be true, particularly if the scheme goes through, that we shall be singing "Goodbye Piccadilly" and meaning it. However, that could be true it the scheme goes through.

The alternatives are to improve the premises locally and to reduce the amount of traffic going through the Circus. I do not know whether it will be possible ultimately to make it a pedestrian-only precinct at ground level. This would obviously have to await the overdue consideration of transport both private and public, in the central London area. Nevertheless, most hon. Members on both sides of the House are agreed that comprehensive redevelopment of this kind is not good enough.

A further aspect which needs consideration is that, as long as the future of Piccadilly Circus and other parts of central London remains in doubt and plans can be put forward and rejected because of lack of amenities and consideration for people living in the place and others who use it, there will be planning blight on the area. Landlords will have no incentive to maintain their properties, perfectly sound properties which could be refurbished and modernised.

The fact that we now have a Piccadilly Plan mark II is no real consolation. It was decided in secret. There was no public participation. It is typical of the way this development is being put through. It was a sordid and inglorious attempt to influence the course of debate. All that the developers have done is to assure us that the Criterion Theatre will be preserved, and we are to be fobbed off with a fountain. I regard that as rather ridiculous. Surely the Minister recognises that several elements are essential to any consideration of future development plans wherever they may occur in central London.

The first is the provision of reasonable cost housing. If we have Barbican type schemes throughout central London, we shall drive out ordinary people because they will be unable to afford the rents.

The second consideration is that, whatever we do about traffic, we should not have motorway type roads in central London. That would mean the traffic rushing through central London. The poor motorist who wished to go to the theatre, when he wanted to get off the motorway would probably have to drive half a mile or more beyond the point at which he wanted to get off it, go to a car park and walk half a mile back to the theatre. That would do more to ruin the theatre than anything else.

The third consideration which should guide the Minister concerns transport—not only public transport but taxis, because together they are the main means of getting around central London. It is instructive to note that there is no compulsion on developers in a comprehensive development scheme to take account of the interests of public transport. They have to take account of the absurd nine-year-old Ministry requirement to increase road capacity in this part of central London by 50 per cent. However, to stick to that these days is illogical.

I have already mentioned the improvement of existing premises. The Minister could do a great deal to help in that respect.

Finally, I fully support my right hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby on the need to call a halt to and have a breathing space to look at redevelopment in central London as a whole. Even if the Minister does not accept my right hon. Friend's suggestion of a planning inquiry commission, nevertheless he could call in all planning applications and developments in central London, including the even more preposterous scheme at the junction of Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue which will ruin Cambridge Circus by which Charing Cross Road will become a motorway and we shall have another Centre Point—heaven forbid. The Minister, or one of his civil servants, in a letter to one of my friends who lives in Broad Court, Bow Street, said that the Minister normally only calls in planning applications where issues of national rather than local importance are involved. In this case, it does not seem that the issues are such as to justify the Secretary of State's intervention. I respectfully submit to the Minister that if he considers it important enough to call in the application for the Piccadilly Circus redevelopment he ought also to do it for all other central London redevelopments. Then and only then will he be able to take full account not only of the residents and the local action groups in Piccadilly and Covent Garden, but of all the people who use the area as a leisure centre and regard it as a place worthy of our national heritage.

9.36 p.m.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

I wish to draw attention to what I consider to be a national disgrace. I refer to the several derelict bombsites in central London which are still in the same condition now, 30 years after, as they were when they were left by the civil defence authorities after a rough clean up during the war. Some of them, but too few, have been converted into small amenity gardens, beautiful little places greatly sought after as places of rest by city workers, but others—most of them—have been abandoned until, presumably, development permission is given for the area in which they are situated. Even if development has been delayed legitimately, there is really no excuse for these bombsites not to be cleaned up and used at least in the service of the people who live and work in the city. There is no reason at all why they should not be so used instead of being simply eyesores left for foreign visitors to gape at.

The body responsible, directly or indirectly, for this state of affairs is that archaic institution known as the Corporation of the City of London, which gets a great deal of its wealth and its reputation as the financial centre of the world from the labour effort and talent of hundreds of thousands of people who live outside its boundaries but who come into the city to work, including thousands of my own constituents. They get precious little in return for their efforts, and I would suggest that the City Corporation, which has spent so much money on things like festivals, and on the extension to the Central Criminal Court—on which it spent £7 million—might use some of its money on cleaning up these bombsites and making them available for the enjoyment of the people.

9.38 p.m.

Mrs. Lena Jeger (Holborn and St. Pancras)

We have heard many gracious and elegant speeches in this House this evening and I am sorry that my political neighbour the hon. Member for the Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Tugendhat) has had to leave because I was going to suggest that he should come even closer to me since the logic of much of what he was saying would bring him right across the Floor of the House.

It is absolute nonsense to talk about the need for more housing, mixed communities, facilities for people with modest incomes to live in central London, within the context of Conservative philosophy and support for land dealers and the representatives of profiteering speculators. That is what is wrong with the centre of London, and it is farcical nonsense for hon. Gentleman to make these sloppy speeches about beautiful theatres and lovely little communities, when they evade the basic causes of the economic disease that afflicts the middle London.

We should take a decision that public development is the only form of development in the centre of our cities, with the public ownership of land, that can make any sense. I say this and it is no use the hon. Gentleman the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) protesting, because he is complaining of many of the developments in central London which are symptomatic of the work of his friends and the supporters of the Conservative Party, and I think we have heard a great deal of humbug tonight on this question.

Mr. Tom King


Mrs. Jeger

No. I had to put up with the hon. Gentleman, and he will have to put up with me.

Great cities can absorb an occasional mistake, but in central London we are having a succession of mistakes arising out of separate decisions, and it is because we have so many contiguous mistakes in the centre of London that our great city is in danger of humiliation.

There is in my own constituency the problem of the redevelopment of the Hatton Garden-Leather Lane area. I hope that hon. Members opposite will spare a thought for the small business men in that area who trade in diamonds. I do not know why I should get up and speak for small business men, but I will. They are an important part of my constituency and they are associated, of course, with ancient crafts such as that of the silversmith. They are an essential part of the pattern of the area. They are desperately afraid that the development scheme for the area behind Gamage's in Leather Lane and Hatton Garden will eliminate them from that end of my constituency.

I have no time to refer to the ravages which have been made in Bloomsbury. Many of them have gone too far to be retrieved now. But I make no apology for mentioning once again the proposal to take another seven and a half acres of Bloomsbury for the National Library. The Secretary of State told me last November that he could not consider an alternative idea which had been suggested by Camden Council, because the matter was closed. But since then he has sent out Circular 80/71 suggesting the need for more consultation between local authorities and Government Departments in development. I therefore very much hope that he will look again at Camden Council's objection to the scheme.

Camden Council's objections arise not simply because seven and a half acres are being taken away but because those acres are contiguous to the Piccadilly and Covent Garden schemes. We shall thus get a whole area from Euston Station southwards of site after site which will have been deprived of its normal purposes. There is no reason why the National Library should be adjacent to the British Museum. The Dainton Committee stated that only 1½ per cent. of readers who went to the Museum Library also went to look at the artefacts.

There seems to be an attitude of sheer inertia and lack of imagination in designing this site. In Paris, I have not heard anyone complain that the Louvre is not cheek by jowl with the Bibliothèque Nationale. Scholars are not cripples. It would not do them any harm to walk. The Secretary of State referred sympathetically to the Dockland development. It would be marvellous to have the new National Library in Dockland. It would give a focus of culture rather lacking in that area. It would bring people to the area on a diversity of errands and would not ravage the housing position as it would in this very crowded part of central London.

I have the ignominy of being Member of Parliament for Centre Point. I am glad of what the Secretary of State said, but I wish that he had spelt out a little more what his intentions are. I understand that last year 8 million square feet of new office development was permitted for central London, yet the Greater London Council estimates that 7 million square feet of office accommodation is empty. Where are we going? What are we doing with all these offices? We keep nagging the workers about inflation and non-productivity. I can think of nothing more inflationary than a lot of people sitting in a lot of offices—or, even more inflationary, people who are not sitting in empty offices.

The whole public is outraged by the Centre Point scandal.

There have been several references to this in the Press. The Evening News of 23rd January caught the public mood when it said: Centre Point sticks up in London like a sore thumb. At a time when people are searching for homes and offices its seven-year empty existence is a gigantic symbol of antisocial behaviour. The fact that it has risen in value from £5 million to £20 million makes it a gigantic symbol of the fact that in property in these days you can make a fortune by doing absolutely nothing. Yet the Government will bully the railwaymen, the sewerage workers, bully those with quite legitimate pay claims who want more money for doing good and useful work and contributing to the community.

But these people can sit by and do absolutely nothing and see their property increase in value from £5 million to £20 million. I hope that the Minister will soon be able to tell us more of his intentions. He will know that he is likely to be receiving soon from the Camden Council a request for compulsory purchase order on the 36 maisonettes which form part of this empty building. It is an obscene outrage that with the present housing shortage and misery in a constituency like mine, over the years there should have been 36 empty maisonettes at the top of Centre Point.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will grant that compulsory purchase order. I should like to see the rest of Centre Point given over to London University as a hostel for students. It would be very suitable for that. They can put beds in just as easily as clerks can put desks in. It is a very good neighbourhood. If the developer loses out on the deal no one would be more pleased than I.

I must refer to Cambridge Circus and what is happening there. I am sorry that we are not to have a reply tonight, but I am sure that the Minister with his usual courtesy will write to me about Trentishoe Mansions at Cambridge Circus. Recently the GLC which owns these flats, which have been providing not marvellous but adequate housing in the centre of London, started to move people out. It has now completed this operation and has smashed up the plumbing and destroyed a lot of the internal fixtures in the unworldly belief that this will stop squatters moving in, which just shows how much some of these people know about the facts of life.

This site I understand has been earmarked for sale to Town and City Property Company. Half of the GLC says it has not been actually sold, the developers say it is as good as sold. The only result of this absurd situation is that an old planning consent, which has been in the pipeline since 1959, is being invoked so that, if you can believe it, Mr. Speaker, another office block one and a half times as big at Centre Point can be built 300 yards away from the empty skeleton that is Centre Point!

This is not planning. Let me be non-controversial for a moment. The whole House must agree that this is an idiocy of planning resources and an encouragement to inflation and profiteering of the worst type. I would like to suggest that plans for Cambridge Circus be held up and that Covent Garden should be put on ice—and I am sorry that time does not permit me to speak more fully about Covent Garden, part of which is in my constituency and about which I have had many discussions with the local people who are to be the first victims of the present proposals, who will be the first to be chased out of the neighbourhood which has a rooted village reality and to which the hon. Member for the Cities of London and Westminster paid such a moving tribute. I hope he will try to move some of the speculators who are making money out of these people who are to be thrown out of Covent Garden.

There are not only people whose homes are threatened. It is no use our being told that there will be a lot of new housing. I have been following very carefully the problem of new housing in Central London. Whenever I see advertisements of flats in my constituency I make a point of ringing up and asking what the rents are, and I have worked out that for a new two-room flat in my constituency the average rent is between £30 and £40 a week, and £50 a week in the summer. It is obvious that people are trying to cash in on tourists, who will spend that sort of money for a brief period, but it is not possible to spend it and provide for a family's living, even if a family could live in two rooms.

What will happen following the Government's abominable Housing Finance Bill? In the fixing of fair rents one of the criteria which rent officers are supposed to take into account is the prevailing rent in the neighbourhood. Goodness knows what sort of rents will be payable in the centre of London. Therefore, if hon. Gentlemen on the Government side mean what they say about preserving communities, about wanting people to have homes in central London, I hope they will do some homework about the economics and about the non-profitability of this and recognise that, just as developers are ready to leave slum clearance to the local authorities, developers should also leave other schemes to the local authorities, because they have absolutely no contribution to make to the solution of housing problems in central London at present. I am concerned with the people most in need of homes, and the people most in need of homes are not the people who can afford the developers' rents in central London.

So I end with just a few suggestions which I make with no humility because I have served on St. Pancras Council and the London County Council and I have been chairman of the housing committee in St. Pancras and I know a little bit about these problems. It is absolutely wrong to blame architects for all the horrible slabs which are being erected. The architects themselves are conditioned by the demands which are imposed on them to get the maximum square footage, and the maximum profits out of the sites, and that cripples any artistic or human instincts which even some modern architects may still have. We cannot blame the architects and the planners for what is basically an economic problem.

I therefore want to see land in the centre of our cities as first candidate for public ownership in any policy for the national public ownership of all land. Why should the private developer care about the destruction of neighbourhoods and the banishment of deeply-rooted residents or of small shops in preference to the building of offices, hotels and, luxury apartments which produce money for him? I think he is quite right, because he is in business to make money. It is we here who should take the responsibility, and it is for Parliament and the local authorities to call a halt and to impose all this distortion of human life and the disasters of the destruction which is going on. If we do not, posterity will not forgive us.

So let us try to do one or two things immediately which I think even the present misguided Government might help us to do. One is not to start with traffic, because I think that was what was basically wrong with the Piccadilly and the Covent Garden plans. I should like to see the planners start by seeing how far they can keep traffic out, not how far they can enlarge the facilities to bring in more and more traffic.

On the question of hotel development it would be more useful socially if the Minister could pay some attention to provision for staff in hotels, because hotels tend to generate jobs without generating homes. It is all very well to have a few attics in which Spanish bachelors can live while they are spending a few months trying to learn English, but where does the middle-aged chef with three children live? These people are my constituents. They work long hours in Soho and they can walk home, but in future they will have to walk further and further.

Third, we must put the whole emphasis of housing development in central London on to the local authorities. No private developers—again I do not blame them, it is not their job—are able to put up housing which can be afforded by the people on our waiting lists. The number of homeless families in London is increasing. We must consider the plight of people who are moving so slowly up the waiting list. It is no use saying that if they cannot afford to live in central London they should not live there. Many of them are tied by their jobs to central London.

I have a very interesting constituency. Living in it are men who take out the first trains in the morning from and bring back the last trains at night to King's Cross, Euston and St. Pancras Stations. I have in my constituency Hansard workers, and printers who leave the daily newspaper offices at four or five o'clock in the morning. I even have a large collection—perhaps the largest—of Members of Parliament who find it convenient to live not too far from their work.

It is impossible to get a balanced community providing houses at all income levels for a diversity of workers unless we accept that it can be done only by public authority housing. I am not didactic about it being local council housing. I should like to see our Co-operative Movement taking a much greater part, as it does in Sweden, in providing housing accommodation.

We shall never settle this problem if we fail to recognise the economics of the situation. Economics distorts the scale of our planning and makes people feel that they are just pawns to be pushed around by firms of developers. That has a disastrous effect on the neighbourhood, completely depersonalising and destroying it. Although I know that the Government—which I hope will not be there much longer—cannot out of their philosophy deal with this problem in the basic way in which it should be dealt with, I appreciate that the Secretary of State has made many courageous and helpful decisions. Even if we have to leave our philosophy on one side, some of the practicalities can be dealt with.

I hope that the Secretary of State will be a bit meaner in the future with office development certificates in London. I hope that he will be generous when he gets the application from Camden Council for the compulsory purchase order on Centre Point, and that the application will provide a useful precedent for other local councils to be as adventurous as Camden in taking constructive action about the scandal of empty property in a situation of desperate housing need.

9.58 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Cannock)

There is not much time available so I will discard what I had hoped to say and make one brief point. We have spoken this evening about many developments. There is one on our doorstep which threatens the scenery and harmony of Parliament Square itself. I sincerely hope that my right hon. Friend will use all his earnest endeavours to make sure that this monolithic piece of Teutonic ugliness is not created across the road from the Palace of Westminster.

The Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty's Household (Mr. Walter Clegg)

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.