HC Deb 20 July 1976 vol 915 cc1757-66

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

2.25 a.m.

Sir Brandon Rhys Williams (Kensington)

Before we adjourn there is a number of points that I should like to raise in connection with the strange way in which the Foreign Office has handled the question of the new site for the Russian Embassy.

To put the matter into perspective, I understand, although I have never been to Moscow, that our embassy there is one of the few remaining in the centre of the capital. It is on a site with a magnificent view of the Kremlin, but the building itself is rather small. For many years the Russian Government have warned us that they may want us to move to another site further out, particularly if we require more space. To facilitate these negotiations the Foreign Office has been eager to offer the Russians a site that will be more to their liking in inner London, although they already have extensive accommodation here, including a number of properties which are magnificent and very large.

I understand that the Russian Government have refused to co-operate with the Foreign Office by supplying a list of the many properties that their diplomats and other officials are currently occupying. We know, of course, that they have their big permanent trade delegation in High-gate, their eye-catching row of shops in Holborn and the splendid Aeroflot offices within a stone's throw of Piccadilly Circus, as well as the embassy and consular buildings in Kensington. I should like to deal more fully with those.

It was in 1930 that there was first an outcry when the Russian Govern- ment acquired the lease of the Crown property at No. 13 Palace Gardens for their ambassador. Now, however, they occupy no fewer than five of these very grand properties in Palace Gardens, as well as many other sites in the borough I have the honour to represent.

Those properties known by the council to be occupied by Russian officials, when I inquired a year ago, were No. 3 Rosary Gardens, Nos. 2 and 43 Holland Park, No. 79 Addison Road, Nos. 9, 10 and 11 Earl's Terrace, Nos. 21 and 23 Pembridge Villas, No. 23 Camden Hill Gardens, and No. 8 Holland Park. There may well be others. That is surely a large Russian presence in Kensington. I believe that the Russians also have extensive accommodation in other boroughs, especially in Camden.

To accommodate the Russians' desire for space, the eye of the Foreign Office lit, some 10 years ago, on the old barracks in Kensington Church Street. This stands on Crown property and was given up by the Services in 1972. It is beginning to become rather derelict through planning blight, and is being used in unsatisfactory, temporary ways.

The barracks site covers about 1.7 acres and is potentially one of the most valuable sites in the Royal borough awaiting redevelopment, having a frontage on to Church Street sufficient to accommodate 11 shops and with useful commercial and residential potential at the back in an area greatly in demand, standing near to the High Street and having easy access into Kensington Gardens.

I understand that from the outset the borough council made known its reservations about the use of the barracks site for a low-density diplomatic development, particularly if it would have the effect of shutting the people of Kensington out and, of course, losing much of the potentially useful income from rates. I have made known my own objections very plainly over a number of years.

To make progress, in 1973 I suggested to the borough council that it might consider putting forward another site which it would prefer the Russians to use, and this it did. It came forward with the recommendation of the magnificent site at the top of Palace Gardens, which was formerly occupied by Nos. 1, 2 and 3, and takes in as well the land where Nos. 4, 5, 6 and 7 Palace Gardens still stand. Each of those buildings would be large enough for a normal embassy in itself, so together with the other five buildings which the Russians already use in Palace Gardens, this site would bring up their accommodation to the equivalent of 12 embassy buildings besides the trade delegation property in Highgate, and all the rest. This alternative site, facing south over Kensington Gardens and taking in the corner of Palace Gardens, is one of the most splendid in London and is about an acre larger even than the barracks site. It covers about 2.7 acres, I understand.

I fully expected that that offer would solve the problem, and I thought that the difficulty arising from the fact that the existing buildings are protected could probably be overcome, possibly by constructing the new buildings inside the existing facades. However, last year the former Prime Minister launched his programme of closer co-operation with the Soviet Union. I suppose that it was in wake of his agreements with Mr. Brezhnev in February 1975 that the Foreign Office took the decision that I find especially disturbing.

The Minister of State wrote to me on 9th July 1975 intimating—I can put it no more strongly—that the Russians were being encouraged to think of taking both these major Kensington sites, not just one or the other. His letter to me was so oblique that I did not take in what was being done; but I consider that the Foreign Office acted in bad faith in allowing the borough council to suggest the Palace Gardens site as an alternative to the barracks site, only to have it added on to the other with Foreign Office connivance and even, as it now turns out, encouragement.

While the Minister and I were exchanging letters earlier this year—at his request I did not even show his reply to the town clerk—the Foreign Office decided to make a statement to the Press without letting me know.

The first I heard of it was through a telephone call on the morning of 3rd May, asking me for a statement on the report in The Observer, which I had not even seen. To add to my embarrassment, when I called the following day at the office of the architects commissioned by the Foreign Office to work out the detailed plans in the hope of learning what was intended, I was told that the Foreign Office had given instructions that I was to be told and shown nothing. I had to leave without even seeing the models that had already been shown to officers of the borough council and to one of the councillors.

I would like to add now that I believe the architects retained by the Foreign Office to assist the Russians are extremely competent people, and they have shown me, personally, every courtesy.

It was only in the past fortnight that I was finally allowed to see the draft plans. These include, for the Palace Gardens site, an office block, six floors of flats, the new consular building, and the embassy proper, in a lavish layout with trees and open space. The plans for the barracks site are startling. They include accommodation for 60 flats in a tower block, a school, a gym and paddling pool, a sauna, a theatre and dressing room, a library, cultural and interview rooms, car parking, a garden area and concourse, and a tennis court. All are to be built at very low density—about one-third of the normal for Central London. Most striking of all is the proposal to build a range of shop fronts along the pavement of Church Street, which can be used for propaganda displays.

The whole plan for this compound is reminiscent of the Iron Curtain capitals, and the people of London, who will presumably be permanently excluded from it, may well conclude that it is little more than a costly forcing-house for spies.

If the Foreign Office chose, they could surely persuade the Russians to fit all these projects on to the Palace Gardens site and still be well within the normal density limits. I cannot calculate what the citizens of the borough will forfeit in the way of rates if the plans for these very spread projects are allowed to proceed, but I suppose that their unwilling permanent tribute to the Soviet Union through loss of revenue will amount to at least £1,000 a week.

I have only touched on the problem of the listed buildings that might prevent the free development of the Palace Gardens site. These are not of the first rank of importance, and if the Russians proposed an attractive and harmonious scheme, I believe that the public would show a reasonable degree of agreement. There is bound to be controversy when old buildings have to go, but it must be admitted that the condition and interior quality of Nos. 4 to 7 Palace Gardens are not in their favour. The massive Czech Embassy building opposite, with its trailing radio wires, and the deplorable Seifert block of flats on the next site to the south have already changed the character of the north end of Palace Gardens beyond redemption, sadly though I have to admit it.

As to the public inquiry, the inspector will no doubt examine the detailed proposals and make his recommendations about the future of the protected buildings. But we all know that it is for the Secretary of State to force the final decision, if he chooses, on policy grounds.

The political aspect of the matter is what causes the deepest concern to the House and the general public. Do we think it right to allow the Russian Government to assume this looming, over-whelming presence in Central London, like a colonial Power? Do we agree to their representatives in London being herded into a compound where they can be shielded from contamination by Western ideas through normal contacts with the native population? Is it worth paying this very high price for a comparable area outside the centre of Moscow—if the Russians are indeed offering a comparable area—and do we ourselves want such a costly embassy development in Moscow anyway? Our diplomatic strength is much smaller there than is the Russian presence in London.

One point, however, the Foreign Office seem entirely to have overlooked in all the years during which these negotiations have dragged on. That is the deplorable contrast between the conditions in which the Russians' commercial and technical people are able to operate here and the miserable way in which our business men and experts are forced to work in the Soviet Union. Why does the Minister not exercise some leverage here? It is the sort of bargain the Russians would understand.

If the Foreign Office would exert itself in the British interest instead of lying down to be walked on by the Russians and letting them overrun Central London, it could still redeem itself in spite of the supine lack of heart, skill, or even good faith with which it has handled this wretched sell-out from the start.

2.36 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. John Tomlinson)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Kensington (Sir B. Rhys Williams) for having raised this question, but from the outset I must say that I do not accept some of the rather intemperate language that he has used. I do not accept that the Government have acted in bad faith, or that the Foreign Office has engaged in connivance and encouragement, or been supine in any way.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for raising the question. It is one that has concerned Her Majesty's Government for some time and it may be helpful to the hon. Member and the House if I mention briefly one or two aspects of its past history.

Some years ago the Soviet authorities indicated their wish to concentrate most of their accommodation in London in the Kensington Palace Gardens area, where they already had leases on a number of sites. They have been in the area since the 1930s. Their wish was to rehouse the ambassador, his principal offices and much of his embassy's staff accommodation in this area.

Discussions have been going on for a number of years about the possibility of the mutual provision of sites in London and Moscow on which the premises of the Soviet Embassy in London and of ours in Moscow could be erected.

The Soviet authorities have at various times shown interest in several different sites in the Kensington Palace Gardens area and have at various times contemplated seeking permission to develop different combinations of sites. Last year they expressed a firm preference for three of them—Nos. 1–7 Kensington Palace Gardens, the ambassador's existing house at No. 13 Kensington Palace Gardens, and the old Kensington Barracks site.

The sites in London are the property of the Crown Estates Commission. It is envisaged that their development as sites for the Soviet Embassy would be Crown development, which would be governed by the Department of Environment's Circular 80 procedure. The procedure is intended to ensure that applications governed by it do not receive more favourable treatment than those for private development. This means that building plans are submitted in the normal way to the local planning authority, Kensington and Chelsea in this case. This involves full public consultation by the local planning authority, in the same way as for a private application. Subject to the local planning authority's view, it is then open to the Secretary of State for the Environment to call a public inquiry.

This is a perfectly normal procedure where Crown development is concerned. There is no question of riding roughshod over local planning requirements, given the existence of the planning safeguards that I have mentioned.

At present the Soviet authorities are working on the plans and specifications of the buildings that they would like to have on these sites if planning authority for them can be secured. They are being assisted in this work by a British firm of architectural consultants, whose role is to advise the Soviet authorities on the harmonisation of their proposals and the various local planning constraints.

If, at a later stage, the architectural consultants can recommend these plans so that they can form the basis of a planning application, they will be notified by my Department to the local planning authority under the provisions of Circular 80. The hon. Member may recall that this explanation has already been given to him in a reply by the Minister of State on 7th May 1976.

Sir Brandon Rhys Williams

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Does he agree that neither the inspector nor the Secretary of State for the Environment, in considering the inspector's report, will take any cognisance of the political implication of the question, which is the most important aspect of the matter?

Mr. Tomlinson

The point that I am making is that normal planning procedures will take place. There is no question of anybody riding roughshod over the normal planning requirements of the Circular 80 procedure.

Perhaps I should again spell out what those procedures are. The Circular 80 procedure, which would apply in this instance, is intended to ensure that no applications governed by it receive more favourable treatment than those for private development. The Soviet plans will have to meet the normal requirements of the local planning authority, including, of course, full public consultation by the planning authorities, and thereafter the plans may be the subject of a public inquiry. In that sense there is no question of any decision being taken that in any way pre-empts the normal planning requirements.

I think that I should mention why the Government are helping the Soviet Embassy with its planning application. It has been suggested that they do not normally give assistance of that kind to other embassies. We are involved in this case because we require assistance from the Soviet authorities with the rehousing of our embassy in Moscow, in the face of a planning decision by the Moscow city authorities to take over our present site, which we do not own, in the not-too-distant future. But I emphasise that any assistance that the Government provide in the development of sites for the Soviet Embassy in London will be fully in accordance with normal planning procedures and will be conditional on the Soviet authorities providing us with corresponding assistance in Moscow.

The matter has been referred to as being of great public interest. I think that the hon. Gentleman was slightly wrong when he suggested that he had seen firm plans. Indeed, he gave us an extensive description of some working drawings that he had seen. I understand that the plans are not yet ready. The Soviet authorities are presently working on them, with the assistance of a British firm of architectural consultants. When they are finally notified to the local planning authority, they will, of course, be made available for inspection. That is the normal and proper procedure.

I should make it clear that there have been a number of discussions on this matter within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The House will not expect me to divulge the details of exchanges that may have taken place between Her Majesty's Government and another Government, but I can assure the House that my right hon. Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary has taken, and continues to take, a close personal and active interest in this proposed development. The Soviet authorities can be in no doubt about the implications of the proposed development.

I have no reason to suggest that anything other than normal planning procedures have taken place, and I am sure that that is what the hon. Gentleman would expect the situation to be. It is one of long standing and substantial discussion—discussion that is continuing—and it will be resolved only by the use of the normal planning procedures laid down in Circular 80.

Sir Brandon Rhys Williams

If we hand over to the Soviet Embassy and its staff in London this area of several acres, what are we to get in exchange? It is suggested that we should move out of the centre of Moscow, where we have a splendid building, to some place outside. What about our commercial representation, which is pitifully inadequate? Is the Foreign Office taking any notice of our salesmen and technicians, who are trying to develop better relations and dealings with the Russians?

Mr. Tomlinson

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are always deeply conscious of the issues that he has raised. There is no question of the Foreign Office handing over a site to anyone. There is a site—Crown land—that is the subject of possible application under the Circular 80 procedure. When that application has been made, as I emphasise for the third time, it will be treated in accordance with the normal planning requirements.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fifteen minutes to Three o'clock a.m.