HC Deb 14 May 1976 vol 911 cc883-907

2.12 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Guy Barnett)

I beg to move Amendment No. 1, in page 4, line 20, leave out Clause 5.

Mr. Speaker

With this amendment it will be convenient to take the following amendments:

No. 2, in page 3, line 23, leave out ' subsection 'and insert 'subsections'.

No. 3, in line 28, at end insert: '(5B) In any case in which the Theatres Trust have advised that planning permission be refused and the local planning authority concerned have acted in accordance with such advice no claim for compensation shall lie against the authority concerned as a consequence of such refusal'.

No. 4, in Clause 7, page 4, leave out lines 7 to 13.

No. 5, in Title, line 2, leave out from theatres 'to 'and' in line 3.

Mr. Barnett

It is with no criticism of the Bill that I ask the House to reject the clause. The Government have every sympathy with the Bill, as I have personally. How could I, with the Greenwich Theatre in my constituency, oppose legislation with the purposes of this Bill? Perhaps I may indulge in a little advertising by saying that my wife and I go to the Greenwich Theatre on a number of occasions—we wish that it could be many more—as I hope you do, Mr. Speaker, because of the very high standards that the theatre achieves.

I move the amendment because I believe that the purposes for which the clause was drafted can be better carried out in other ways. The difficulty with the clause is that it would be out of keeping with the general pattern of legislation on the requirement to consult if we added the words proposed to Section 29 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971. I am aware that there is one exception, but as that was fairly dealt with in Committee by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science, I need not go into it now. The requirement to consult with which the clause is concerned is normally covered by the Town and Country Planning General Development Order under the Act.

This Order requires consultation with bodies such as the National Coal Board and the Nature Conservancy Council. Therefore, it is logical and natural to put the requirement to consult in that Order and not in the Act. It is more than just a convenient way of doing the job. There are considerable, advantages. I doubt whether in many cases consultation would take place if the Bill became law with the clause in it, because I doubt whether many planning officers or staff would have a copy of the measure or would be able to obtain one quickly and easily. We are all aware that many people possess copies of Acts in which amendments have not been entered. Therefore, it is probable that owing to an oversight the requirement of the clause would not be met and that a change of use, demolition or whatever might be approved without anyone realising that consultation should take place and without consultation taking place.

I am told that one document which a planning officer or member of a planning staff is certain to possess is a copy of the Town and Country Planning General Development Order. It will be a heavily-thumbed copy to which he will repeatedly refer when faced with decisions of this kind. Therefore, if the requirement were placed in the Order it would undoubtedly be effective. That would make it almost certain that the law was adhered to.

I know that there has been some public concern that by putting the provision in the Order we should be devaluing the legal requirement. I assure the House that the legal requirement would be the same whether it appeared in the Act or the Order. The provision would have exactly the same sanction of law. What I am arguing is that there would be more likelihood of the law's being obeyed if it were in the Order. I think that part of the concern resulted from Press reports that were not entirely accurate.

I wish to advance another relevant argument. As many of us know, a good many other admirable activities take place in theatres. I am aware of the fact that Clause 6 gives a definition of the word "theatre" and describes it as any building or part of a building constructed wholly or mainly for the public performance of plays. I am no lawyer, but I am aware of a number of institutions in relation to which it could be argued that they were not wholly or mainly for the public performance of plays". For example, I can think of one institution asociated with the Greenwich Theatre namely an institution in Woolwich called the Tramshed. The Tramshed puts on anything that comes along and is worth putting on. At the moment there are jazz performances at that theatre, which cannot by any stretch of the imagination be said to be within the definition of the public performance of a play.

There are other institutions associated with drama, such as the Roundhouse, or an institution which many hon. Members will remember, the Players Theatre under the arches of Charing Cross. They are institutions of great value in which all kinds of experimental performances of one kind or another take place.

It could be asked whether there is any need to consult in respect of an institution of that kind, which may not be wholly or mainly for the public performance of plays". Therefore, if we were to write the words in Clause 5 into the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, they would appear there for all time, whatever developments might take place in the world of the theatre. It would be much easier to include such a provision in the general development Order, which is amended or revised from time to time. If we wanted to widen the definition in any way, that could be handled by means of the order. On the other hand, it would be virtually impossible to include such a provision in current legislation.

I intend this argument to be taken seriously because I am trying to demonstrate that, in moving the amendment, I am in full support of the purposes of the Bill. I am well aware of the "Save the London Theatres" campaign and of the good work carried out by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) in promoting and piloting this Bill through the House.

I want to give an absolute assurance that the Government support the purposes of the Bill and accept the need for consultations on the lines suggested in the clause. I give the hon. Gentleman an absolute assurance that when the general development Order comes up for revision this year, we shall ensure that the Order contains wording corresponding roughly to the wording suggested in Clause 5. I wish to assure the hon. Gentleman that, barring unforeseen accidents, that will be done this year.

I hope that with that assurance the House will be prepared to accept the amendment to delete the clause, on the full and fair understanding that the Government intend to see that the requirement in the Bill will be included in the revised general development Order when it is laid later this year.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins (Putney)

I apologise to the House for not being present when my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment began his remarks. I regret that I was not present because it is the first occasion upon which I have had the opportunity of hearing my hon. Friend speak from the Front Bench. However, I heard the bulk of his remarks and obviously he will be as persuasive from the Government Front Bench as he was from the Back Benches.

I listened to his remarks with great care, but I hope that he will not mind if I seek to press him a little further. I understand that we are now addressing ourselves to Clause 5 and to the amendments thereto.

Mr. Speaker

And also Clause 7. We are now dealing with Amendments Nos. 1 to 5, which are being taken together.

Mr. Jenkins

I am obliged to you for that information, Mr. Speaker. In that case, I may have to speak for a little longer period than I had hoped.

I wish to address myself initially to the first part of Clause 5 and to press my hon. Friend on the question of the general development order. Obviously, the theatre is in a special and different position from many other spheres of activity. Therefore, what is being asked for in the Bill is different from what is usually required to be done in relation to land and buildings.

In the past when an application has been made to convert a building to another use, the matter has been examined by the planning authority to see whether it has a special architectural value. The authority is frequently advised that, in such circumstances, it should not grant planning permission to pull down that building and for the site to be used for another purpose.

However, not all these matters can be dealt with from the point of view of the special architectural value of the building concerned. Experience in the 1950s was very drastic indeed. In view of that situation, the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) brought forward this Bill, a measure which I welcome. I congratulate him on his good fortune in the Ballot.

The reasons for the vulnerability of the theatre are of a special character. The Minister said "If the House agrees with the Government to delete the clause, the Government will give an assurance that later in the year they will give effect to a proposal which will have precisely the same effect and which will further improve the situation." May I press the Minister to say when the changes in the order will be issued? Will this happen before the end of the current calendar year? I am sure that any information he can give on that score will be helpful to the House.

The reason for the special vulnerability of theatres stems from experience in the 1950s. Members who are old enough will recall that as late as the 1950s the country was covered with a forest of theatres. There were 150 theatres throughout the country in quite regular use.

The reasons for their disappearing were complex. Television was one of the main reasons, but there was another which was less well known—namely, increased site values. That increase meant that the land upon which the theatres sat suddenly became much more valuable. Site values became more valuable than the monetary return that the theatres were capable of achieving.

There was the curious situation that if a theatre happened to be in a good position in the High Street in a provincial town, it would disappear, even though in theatrical terms it was paying its way. But the theatre would remain which was in an obscure position in a back street, even though it was possibly not paying its way. That was because the site was of less value. The theatre which was being utilised commercially for only two hours in the day became unable to provide the same returns as an office block, a development site, or a department store, which could be used for eight hours or more in the day. With that sort of usage the return would be very much greater.

2.30 p.m.

For those reasons the theatres became extremely vulnerable. In fact, they disappeared. The local authorities were unable to prevent their disappearance. However, I think that some authorities could have done more. They found themselves threatened because they knew that if they failed to grant planning permission, the site owners would sue them and they would have to pay enormous compensation.

The authorities became frightened. In many instances they gave up their right to maintain the theatres at an earlier stage than was necessary. In other cases they gave up their rights when they should not have done so. They became convinced that if they decided to preserve a theatre, they would have to pass on to the ratepayers a demand for a great deal of money.

In the 1960s and 1970s the end result was that some authorities decided to build their own theatres because of the disappearance of the commercial theatres. That provision cost the ratepayers a great deal more money in the long run. That demonstrates once again that we can be short-sighted in failing to spend municipal money at the right time. We can end up spending much more at a later stage because of a failure to spend money wisely at the proper time.

Perhaps I have said enough to illustrate why we are sensitive and worried, why it is that we are seeking to press my hon. Friend quite considerably before we agree to his proposal to remove the clause. It was my proposal not to remove the clause but to add to it. I suggested that an additional subsection should be inserted to add the words: In any case in which the Theatres Trust have advised that planning permission be refused and the local planning authority concerned have acted in accordance with such advice no claim for compensation shall lie against the authority concerned as a consequence of such refusal. My hon. Friend will recognise immediately why I suggested that addition. I did so because of the experience of the past, when many authorities were deterred from giving theatres the protection that they might have given because they thought it would cost a great deal of money to do so.

I believe that my hon. Friend may be able to give us some worthwhile assurance. If he is able to say that, owing to subsequent legislation, perhaps the legislation of 1974, there is not the possibility that a local authority that refuses planning permission will have to pay heavy compensation, it will be possible for me not to press the amendment. Whether I take that course must depend on what my hon. Friend has to say. I shall be grateful if he addresses himself to this issue. The fear that I express in the amendment is that an authority might be deterred from refusing planning permission if it thinks that the financial consequences will be grave. Is that a real fear? If it is, we need the additional subsection. In any event, this is a matter on which I want to hear my hon. Friend's views.

It is relevant to consider the position of the London theatre, which illustrates why the Bill is of great importance. The London theatre is a great artistic and commercial asset. It acts as a magnet for foreign tourists and makes a considerable contribution to our balance of payments. There are 15 London theatres with leases which fall due before the end of the present century. Four of them are safe in that they are already in public hands. Of the remaining 11, five of the freeholds are owned by property development companies—namely, the Cambridge, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, the Palace and the Royal Court.

The land on which those five theatres stand is already in the hands of property development companies. It is possible that they may be content for the buildings to remain theatres, but that is not in the nature of the beast. The remaining six have freeholds which are owned by individuals and trusts. They include the Albery and Wyndham's, which are owned by the Salisbury estate, which has not yet indicated to Mr. Albery that it is prepared to renew his lease although he has been pressing the matter for some time, the Globe, the Queens and the Ambassadors, which are owned by a charity, and Drury Lane, which is owned by the Duke of Bedford.

I am sure that the House will agree that if we were to remove about half of those 11 theatres the heart of the West End theatres would disappear. One has only to name theatres such as the Albery, Wyndham's, the Globe, the Queens, the Ambassadors, the Cambridge, Covent Garden, the Royal Opera House, the Palace and the Royal Court to realise that they are vital to the continued existence of the entertainment complex which constitutes the West End.

The Bill is vital to drawing public attention to the reality of the problem, but it is vital that we have a measure which will deal with it. That is why my hon. Friends and I are detaining the House this afternoon. That is why we shall await my hon. Friend's reply with great interest.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

By this amendment the Minister seeks to remove an important clause from the Bill. I listened carefully and closely to his argument because naturally I am concerned that I should not lose Clause 5, which is the heart of the Bill, giving it meaning and reality. I congratulate the Minister as this is the first time that I have heard him address the House from the Dispatch Box. I am pleased that he is now on the Government Front Bench and trust that he will deal with matters in future as he is dealing with this delicate and important matter today. The hon. Gentleman has earned his place and I am sure that he will be there for as long as the Government remain.

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Jenkins) because he has only recently left the Government Front Bench having been a distinguished Minister responsible for the arts for the past two years. It is a great pleasure for me to welcome him to the debate and to hear him speak strongly in favour of the Bill and in favour of protecting the theatre in London and the rest of the country. This is a subject which has been close to his heart for a long time. As a Minister he sought to serve the theatre with all the powers that his office could give him.

I am particularly grateful that he has found time to support me and to add his weight, which stems from a long experience and knowledge of the theatre, to the Bill. He has given us this catalogue of danger concerning the London theatres in particular. In doing so he has helped the debate greatly. I am glad that he has said that he will withhold acceptance of the Minister's proposal until he is sure that his hon. Friend is in no way weakening something which he feels must not be weakened.

I am addressing myself to Amendment No. 1 and Amendments Nos. 4 and 5 which are consequential. These deal with the heart of the Bill which the Minister has suggested should be taken out. I must explain the view that I have taken about the Bill and this clause. The Bill has not exactly filled the Chamber, but the Chamber is not filled very often on a Friday. That is of no consequence. What is important is that on a Friday, Private Members' Bills are given the opportunity of reaching the statute book. These Bills are by no means insignificant. They have an important part to play in our legislation, and Fridays are still a vital and treasured part of the House of Commons routine.

I am happy to have the opportunity of speaking about my Bill. I hope that before the end of the day it will be on its way to another place. It is a small measure compared with those other great pieces of legislation which are so necessary and which are Government-inspired. Some would say that this Bill is not necessary. Some would argue that there are already sufficient powers to protect theatres in danger of being overtaken by the desires of the developer or the bulldozer. Some would maintain that it does not require an Act of Parliament to establish a trust. I would not deny these assertions.

There are powers available to local authorities and the Secretary of State under the Town and Country Planning Acts, whereby local authorities can withhold planning permission in a wide variety of circumstances, described, in the main, in general terms. It is true that we do not need an Act of Parliament to establish a trust, in this case a Theatres Trust. The object of this Bill, as described in the Title, is to Establish a Theatres Trust for the better protection of theatres; It is this and no more.

2.45 p.m.

The hon. Member for Putney rightly said that theatres were vulnerable. It is because they are vulnerable that I and those supporting me feel that something must go on to the statute book which takes especial care of them and does not leave them to the general care of the Secretary of State under the Town and Country Planning Acts. We feel that theatres are so vulnerable as to require a measure which will safeguard them. I believe that "better protection"—the phrase used in the Bill—is needed. I am convinced that the law needs strengthening for this purpose. That is why, after a great deal of consultation with learned counsel and parliamentary draftsmen, I decided to include Clause 5, which seeks to insert a further subsection into the Town and Country Planning Act 1971.

The strength of this small Bill was to be written into it for all to see. That was my intention in including Clause 5. In the centre of the Bill is the legal statement that the theatre would be so protected. Planning authorities, theatre owners, the public, developers and those who get their livelihood from the theatre —actors, actresses, authors, playwrights, producers, directors and all the rest who make up the living theatre—would see that there was the protection which so many so desperately wanted.

I feel it is important that this Bill should send up a signal for all to see. It will, on the one hand, be a warning shot to all those who want to disregard the significance of the theatre. The Bill will be welcome to all those who want to see one of the great treasures in our rich artistic heritage preserved whenever possible. I say "whenever possible" because the Bill does not give complete and absolute protection in perpetuity for the theatre. All the Bill seeks to do is to fire a warning shot across the bows of any developer who might seek permission to change the use of a building which is today a theatre and which tomorrow might be used for some other purpose or might even suffer the indignity of being bulldozed so that a shopping centre or a factory might be built. The Bill does not stop that. It is a warning shot. It provides a pause. It requires the giver of planning permission, the local authority, to say "Not so fast."

The developer cannot proceed without this matter being referred to the Theatres Trust which is set up under the Bill. The trust would comprise a group of persons appointed by the Secretary of State, not lust theatre-lovers but a mixture of persons who would apply themselves to seeing whether there was a case for protecting and safeguarding the theatre. It may be that they would reach the conclusion that there was no case for protecting a theatre in a certain circumstance and that planning permission should not be withheld. Alternatively, if they felt that there was a case for safeguarding the theatre and allowing it to continue, they would make that statement to the local planning authority, which would in turn, ask the trust what it would do about it. The trust would then have to take such steps as are set out in the Bill, using its own funds, to see that the theatre was maintained.

I believe that it was necessary to single out the theatre for special consideration. There will he those who argue "why the theatre, why not some other type of building?" I do not believe that the existing planning laws are sufficient to safeguard our theatres, which are particularly vulnerable. Theatres often do not have artistic or architectural merit. The artistic merit in the theatre is mainly inside. It comes from within, from living people performing on the stage. It is the live theatre that I want to protect—the platform on which the live theatre can grow and develop as it has done in this country for several hundred years.

I regard the Bill as a recognisable barrier against aggression—not an impenetrable barrier, but a hurdle which would keep the public eye on anyone who sought to jump it. It is an important message that in these days of economic bleakness, when such progress as we do make seems to take us further into the concreted jungle, we are still prepared to use a Friday morning in Parliament to show that we are determined to protect some of the great traditions and heritages of this country.

Our theatre, and all those who work in it in London and the Provinces, contri- butes much to our enjoyment and artistic achievement, and gives much enjoyment to tourists who make their contribution to helping our bleak economic situation. What a rich flowering we have seen in recent years with new theatres being built, notwithstanding the fact that in the last 30 years we have lost many. New ones have sprung up—in Sheffield, Coventry, Guildford and Chichester and, of course, in London. In London there has been the particularly great achievement of the establishment, across the river, of a National Theatre for the first time in our history.

I realise, of course, that the largest theatrical audience these days sits before the television screen. Millions still go to the cinema. But for the great majority, a visit to the live theatre is all too rare an event. How terrible it would be if we lost the opportunity of seeing our actors and actresses—dare I say it—in the flesh. It is fitting that in the year when we saw the opening of the National Theatre we should also establish a means of protection for theatres throughout the country.

I listened to the Under-Secretary very carefully and I was heartened when he spoke of the Government's full support for the purposes of the Bill, and mentioned his own personal interest. It is very important that a Minister should feel that he can back up his brief with his heart and head as well.

I have listened to his arguments, and the proposal he made to delete Clause 5 and to replace the strength of it by something which, he claims, will be even better from a legal point of view. I am not completely convinced because I feel that to amend the Town and Country Planning Acts to require local authorities to consult was absolute enough, but I do take his point that the general development Order placed before the House has the force of an Act of Parliament. I take his point also—and he has more experience than I have—about the attitude of planning officers in councils throughout the country towards the mass of legislation that ends up on their tables. Perhaps they would be more aware of an amendment to the general development Order than of a small measure like this clause which goes through Parliament on a Friday morning.

I am prepared to accept his assurances that his processes in law will, in fact. perform the duty of giving legal strength to the Bill better than the way I suggested. I note that the Minister said that such an amendment to the general development Order of the Town and Country Planning Act would be made this year. I would be grateful for this, because I would like to see the Bill come into effect this year. I do not want any further delay and I would not like to think that it would be reconsidered in the Department, amended, and even rescinded in future years. Here we have a chance with a new Bill before Parliament and the Minister hoping to strengthen it by an amendment to the general development Order. I want to be absolutely sure that the Minister would not expect it to be amended or rescinded at the drop of a hat. I do not think that this is his intention, but I want to be doubly sure because I am making a great concession in allowing Clause 5 to run away like this.

As a result of the Under-Secretary's assurance I have been prepared to give way and not to oppose his proposal to drop Clause 5. I note, however, that the Minister said that there would be an amendment to the general development Order this year "barring unforeseen circumstances". In view of my concession those circumstances would have to be almost catastrophic.

Mr. David Weitzman (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

I strongly support the Bill. I recognise its object in protecting the theatre. I also appreciate the need for that to be done, particularly in these days of television, bingo halls, and so on.

The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) said that Clause 5 was the heart of the Bill. I do not think that he really meant that. The heart of the Bill is surely Clause 2, which sets out the very deserving objects to be performed by the Theatres Trust. In his view, Clause 5 is important. He has used a great many words about it—preserving the traditions, upholding the theatre, and so on. But, when we come down to practical effect—to brass tacks—what is the difference between Clause 5 and the Minister's proposal? Clause 5 does not say that the planning authority must not only consult the Theatres Trust but carry out what the trust desires to be done: it merely demands that there shall be consultation.

3.0 p.m.

I read the interesting debate which took place in Committee on this clause. I read the categorical assurance given by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science that Article 13 of the Town and Country Planning General Development Order would be amended so that specifically the planning authority would be required to consult the Theatres Trust.

What is the difference between the two? They both achieve the same object. The only point is that one must look at the matter from a legislative point of view, from the point of view of convenience. As has rightly been said by the Minister, the planning authority looks at the regulations dealing with planning, paying attention primarily to them. If there is an amendment to the regulations specifically requiring the planning authority to consult the Theatres Trust, the object is achieved. The Minister's proposal is much more satisfactory.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins

It might be useful if I explain that we pressed the point in Committee because we wanted to be sure that the bird which is in the bush is equivalent to the bird which is in the hand here and will eventually be plucked out of the bush and allowed to fly.

Mr. Weitzman

I wonder why my hon. Friend said that. Surely the bird in the bush was the Minister who gave the categorical assurance in Committee.

Mr. Crouch

The bird in the bush really was a bird, if I may say so, since it was the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science. She rather suggested that the planning authorities are encouraged to consult in advice given in a departmental circular. We all know, however, that advice by a Minister to a local authority does not carry the weight of a general development Order. I am not suggesting that the hon. Lady did not say later that she had in mind a general development Order, but today we have had a more than categorical assurance that there will be an Order. We were concerned in Committee that perhaps we might be dealing only with a bird which could easily fly away.

Mr. Weitzman

I read the Official Report very carefully, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science gave a categorical assurance that there would be a provision on this matter in the planning rules: From the practical point of view, there is no difference between these two proposals, but there is greater advantage in its being done in such a way that the planning authority has the whole matter before it. I applaud everything that the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) said about the necessity to protect the theatres and the great importance of paying attention to their vulnerability, but surely the proper way to deal with the matter is to accept the Minister's proposal.

Sir Stephen McAdden (Southend, East)

Not for the first time, the House owes a debt of gratitude to the hon. and learned Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Mr. Weitzman). He is a regular member of what I call the Friday Club. He attends nearly every Friday and, unpaid, gives us the benefit of his legal advice.

My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) is to be congratulated on his success in the Ballot and on introducing this Bill. He requested my presence today because he feared that the Bill would be ruined by the removal of Clause 5. He regards it as the guts of his Bill though, elegant orator that he is, he would not use such words. The hon. and learned Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington said it would not be ruined if a different course of action were taken.

My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury has explained the importance of Fridays when we can discuss Private Members' Bills and motions, but I do not think that this is a widely-held view. The Deputy Speaker has to be in the House, as do all the servants of the House, the Serjeant at Arms and the police. But what happens on a Friday? Only half a dozen hon. Members turn up.

When I was told that the deletion of Clause 5 would ruin the Bill and that it had to be resisted at all costs, I ex- pected to see a reasonably crowded House today. I thought that at least the sponsors of the Bill would be here.

Like the boy on the burning deck whence all but he had fled", my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury is here, as is the Government Whip, the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham), who is also a sponsor. The rest of the sponsors have disappeared. If this matter is of such vital interest, one would have thought that a few of the sponsors would be here, if only to say "Hear, hear" occasionally during the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury and to resist the attack on the guts of the Bill. But nobody is here.

I must protest at this attitude of hon. Members who sponsor Bills and do not bother to turn up when they are being debated. It is an abuse of the House. I have mentioned it many times before, but my words have fallen upon stony ground. Perhaps one day hon. Members who sponsor Bills will feel it incumbent upon them to do something active to support the legislation.

I come to the Bill as a stranger, apart from the advice given by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury. The Minister, whom I congratulate on his new appointment and wish every success, seeks to delete Clause 5. I should like some advice whether this is necessary. My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury feels strongly about the matter. I presume the other sponsors do not feel much about it at all. Without the advice of the hon. and learned Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington I would not know whether or how I should cast my vote, in the unlikely event of a Division taking place.

This is an important Bill. Better protection for our theatres is a very good cause. As the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Jenkins) has very rightly said, they are a great source of attraction to tourists. London theatre is the best in the world. It is also the cheapest in the world. To try to see in New York the kind of theatre that is available in London would cost a fortune. The Americans have a black market in the sale of their tickets in the great American cities. However, in this country for a comparatively moderate charge one may enjoy some of the best theatre to be found anywhere in the world. Therefore, it is right that we should support a Bill that aims at giving theatres some protection from those with predatory ideas about the sites that they occupy.

I am glad that the Bill has come forward. I congratulate my hon. Friend on having introduced it. I shall wait a little while longer before I leave the Chamber in order to discover whether I am supposed to oppose the amendment or to support it—a situation about which I am in some doubt. I do not doubt that my doubts will be resolved in due course.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

I congratulate the Minister on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box. He has joined the Friday Club, apparently. I am a Friday Front Bencher and a late-night performer at the Dispatch Box; not an understudy, not yet quite a matinee idol, I suppose.

On behalf of the Opposition, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) on bringing the Bill forward and on his skill in bringing it back to the House for consideration. He has a wide and lively interest in the arts. Indeed, he is part of a team of Opposition Members who are doing much in a wide variety of fields.

I must refer to my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir S. McAdden). His talents in this field are many. At one time he was a levision star. He has been seen in the Palace of Westminster in the company of a succession of Miss Worlds. He looks after the interests of the music users. He gives very good value for money. We have all enjoyed him here this afternoon, free of charge.

I recall also the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam), whose interest in the performing arts is well known. My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) deals with music, my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Mr. Goodhew) deals with the Arts Council, and my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. More), with great assistance from me, attempts to fight for the national heritage and all that that means. My hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South-West (Mr. Cormack) has an interest in historic churches that is well known. All of us work with, if not under the wing of, my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas), that distinguished former Minister for the Arts.

The Minister began by saying that he had a genuine personal interest in the theatre. I followed him in much of what he said because, together with my wife, I all too seldom get the opportunity to visit those theatres such as the Theatre Royal in Bristol, the oldest theatre in the Kingdom, or, at the other end of the scale and quite recent in construction, the Pavilion Theatre at Weymouth, which the Minister will know from his previous political activities.

It is a sad reflection that the Georgian theatre in our county town of Dorchester was destroyed to build shops comparatively recently. That was all the more tragic because of the flourishing Dorchester Amateur Dramatic Society, members of which I am happy to welcome frequently at Athelhampton. Unfortunately, I do not possess a theatre in which they can perform. I believe that the Dorchester theatre would not have been destroyed if my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury had been fortunate in getting this Bill on the statute book earlier. More public interest would have been aroused.

3.15 p.m.

The central point of the argument is whether we should accept the Minister's assurance that words included in the general development Order will be even more effective than Clause 5. I believe that the Minister is right, subject to certain qualifications, and I want to question him on exactly what he meant.

The general development Order is dated 1973, amended in 1974, further amended in 1976. The Minister said that there was to be a review of the Order. Do I take that to mean that the whole of this series of order and amendments will be reviewed this year and that a comprehensive, complete general development Order will be brought before the House? We already have three documents, one of them fairly slender. The part of the new order which will embrace what my hon. Friend seeks to do in Clause 5 will presumably be another slim piece of paper.

It is important that there should be a comprehensive document embracing all these matters. Certain, signals that I have observed suggest that we shall have such a document before the end of this year. I hope that before the end of this debate, we shall be given an assurance that we are to have a composite comprehensive document. That is vital to back up the Minister's contention.

If we have a document, a planning bible, which is a shortened version of the Town and Country Planning Act procedures on all these matters, that will be most helpful. I am glad that the Minister did not suggest, as I think was suggested in Committee—at least, we had that impression after the Committee proceedings—that a circular would do.

I want to raise a matter relating to listed buildings which I raised in Committee. I do not believe that the provisions protecting listed buildings, even in Article 14 of the general development Order, are entirely satisfactory and comprehensive. I do not believe that the Department thinks so either. A recent circular which I saw only yesterday draws the attention of planning authorities to the need for special care in development proposals affecting the settings of historic buildings.

When we started along the road of trying to protect buildings, we gave scant attention to the subject of settings. It was all buildings, and very little about their environment. The word "environment" was not invented in the first Town and Country Planning Act. Therefore, the circular suggesting to planning authorities that they give special attention to the settings of historic buildings is not an effective way of dealing with them.

I hope that in the general review which is to take place—now we know that there is to be a review—all matters affecting the preservation, possible uses and the settings of historic buildings will be enshrined in a new general development Order. That would do a great deal to allay the widespread fears on this matter and seek to prevent some of the awful planning decisions such as those which have been made recently.

I gave many examples along these lines when I tried to put through a similar Bill myself some years ago, but I will limit myself today to one. The Historic Buildings Council for England recently went on a tour. One of the houses that it went to see was Harlaxton, not far from Belvoir Castle, which has the finest view in Europe, according to Professor Sir Nikolaus Pevsner—a marvellous straight avenue from the house leading down to a church spire of an earlier age. The house itself is of 1837—a magnificent house.

What has the local planning authority done with the middle of this view opposite the entrance gate screen of Harlaxton? It has allowed the development of half-a-dozen quite nice but utterly inappropriate modern houses, which have ruined the view. If they had been sited differently, the view from the house would not have been ruined. People could have enjoyed that view for all time, for Harlaxton House will never be demolished. I could wax eloquent about it, but I must not digress further. That is why the general development Order review is most welcome. I hope that the Minister will assure us that it will be a comprehensive review.

I come back to theatres. Of course they need special protection. They are all too vulnerable to the pressures of modern development. I hope that, if the Minister has leave to speak again, he will give us the assurances that we require.

The Bill will go to another place. We have the advantage of a new Minister for the Arts in the other place. That is no reflection on the former Minister. The Minister said very little about historic or theatre buildings. I hope that the Minister in another place will wax eloquent on this subject, because we should appreciate his view.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East said that there were not many of us here on a Friday, but that all the policemen and other staff of the House have to be here, including you, Mr. Speaker, in the Chair. We are grateful for your presence this afternoon.

I commend the attitude of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury in accepting what the Minister said, subject to his giving certain assurances which I think I have made clear to him.

Mr. Guy Barnett

With the leave of the House, Mr. Speaker, I should like to reply to this interesting debate.

At the outset, I should like to thank all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate for their kind remarks about my appointment. I took particularly to heart the fact that my personal commitment to theatres and, indeed, to matters ranging into the arts, was welcomed. After all, I have been appointed only as a humble planning Minister. However, I hope that a humble planning Minister may in that capacity do one or two things for good because of a direct personal interest in the arts and in theatres.

What came across during the debate was that all who took part are united in the same purpose. Where there may be difference—clearly there was for my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Jenkins)—is in regard to an absolute feeling that the proposals that we have put forward are as effective as the Bill was thought to be. The debate has been about means, not ends. 1 think that we are all totally united about the ends that we are trying to achieve.

Naturally, and understandably, my hon. Friend the Member for Putney sought further assurances. I respect his reasons. I know of his life-long interest in the theatre, apart from the responsibilities which he shouldered as Minister for the Arts until recently. Therefore, he has a deep personal concern and natural anxiety that the assurances that I gave meant precisely what they said.

The hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Cooke) asked certain questions about the assurances that I gave. I gave those assurances barring unforeseen circumstances, by which I meant something catastrophic. I meant what I said. I added that rider because no Minister likes to say anything absolutely, as though nothing could conceivably go wrong. The Government intend that there should be a review of the general development Order, that this item should appear in Article 13, and that the document as a whole should be consolidated. That is the intention and those things will be done. Naturally, my hon. Friend the Member for Putney will not expect me to give a date. I cannot say that it will be done on 5th December, or anything like that. However, I assure him that it will be done by the end of this year.

I hope that he will accept that that is as satisfactory as we can get, and that it is about as copper-bottomed a guarantee as it is possible for a Minister to give. It is given in the hope that the House will agree to the deletion of this clause.

Mr. Robert Cooke

I should be grateful if we could have a copper-bottomed guarantee that the Minister will endeavour to consolidate the aspirations expressed in the ministerial circular together with Article 14 as it applies to listed buildings as a whole. It would be a pity not to use this opportunity to do so. May I have that assurance?

Mr. Barnett

I take it that the hon. Gentleman is asking for a circular?

Mr. Cooke

No. There has been a circular—I said so in my speech—on development as it affects listed buildings, particularly their settings. I hope that what is said in that circular can be included in the general development Order, amplifying Article 14. It would be a pity to have a review and not get Article 14 right.

Mr. Barnett

May I write to the hon. Gentleman about that? We are, after all, concerned with a debate on the amendment of the Theatres Trust Bill, and I do not think the hon. Gentleman would expect me to give an assurance on that point now. I acknowledge its importance, and if I may write to him as soon as I have received advice on it, I think that would be the best and most reliable way of dealing with it.

I was about to express my thanks and appreciation to the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) for accepting the assurance which I gave to the House, in the spirit in which he did. I am aware of the work that he has put into the Bill, and I know the work involved in preparing a Bill, meeting outside interests and piloting it through the House.

I felt for the hon. Gentleman when he said—I am only paraphrasing his words —that I was taking the legal guts out of his Bill. That is why I appreciate the words of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Mr. Weitzman), who has now left the Chamber, when he said that in a sense that was not the guts of the Bill. Indeed, as I read the Bill, I do not think that it is. The guts of the Bill is that it is intended to set up a theatres trust. That is perhaps the vital feature that we are giving responsibility to a body set up by the Secretary of State to look after our heritage—our unrivalled heritage, as the hon. Member for Southend, East (Sir S. McAdden) said —which we are proud to possess in this country and particularly in my own city of London.

I am grateful that this assurance has been accepted. But I recognise the doubts which my hon. Friend the Member for Putney expressed. At one point he expressed worries, and very rightly so, about the experience of the theatre during the 1950s. As I know he understands— in fact, as was expressed so often in his speech—there is a limit to what planning can do. The situation which he described was economic. The threat to theatres arises basically from economic factors. The only effective solution to the problem is the provision of adequate finance.

I was interested when the hon. Member for Canterbury said that he saw a theatres trust being able to contribute directly to that purpose. Clearly its purpose could easily be frustrated unless it had the right, which it will be granted in the general development Order, to be consulted on every occasion on which a change of use is proposed.

A very important technical point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Putney when he asked about the issue of compensation. As he referred particularly to an Act passed in 1974, I ought to refer to the Town and Country Amenities Act and explain the situation, because he may have misunderstood the position.

It is provided in that Act in relation to listed buildings and buildings in conservation areas subject to listed building control that if listed building consent to demolish is withheld, in the calculation of compensation there shall no longer be a presumption that listed building consent would have been given. The effect is to reduce the quantum of compensation. This is essentially a listed building matter, and, as my hon. Friend will be aware, not all theatres would be such buildings, although in London some probably are.

The point remains that, in our view, it is undesirable to discriminate in the way my hon. Friend proposes in his amendment and thus deprive owners of theatres on their own of any compensation to which they might be entitled where planning control had refused the possibility of change of building use.

3.30 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins

I ask this question for clarification. In the event of compensation becoming payable by a local authority as a result of its refusal of planning permission, would such compensation be based on the existing use value of the site, that is, at theatre value —which would be reasonable, because the trust could, perhaps, then acquire the theatre—or would the compensation be payable at a future use value, which would be quite out of the question since the possible use of the site might be for development as a supermarket or the like? It would be unreasonable to expect the local authority to find such compensation or to expect the Theatres Trust to find money of that sort. If my hon. Friend could give an assurance that the compensation payable would be at existing use value, that would set some minds at rest.

Mr. Barnett

I cannot immediately answer that question, as my hon. Friend will understand. I hope that I can obtain the information for him, or, if I cannot do so now, I shall let him have it after the debate. It is a technical matter, and it might be better dealt with afterwards.

I have done my best to answer the points raised in the debate, and I hope that the House will accept as satisfactory my general assurance regarding what we propose to put in place of Clause 5. Indeed, I feel that in many respects what we propose is far preferable to the form of control or protection for theatres proposed in the Bill itself.

The whole House is grateful to the hon. Member for Canterbury not only for introducing the Bill but for the eloquent speech which he made today, a speech of great sincerity expressing a great love for and belief in our theatres for the future. In many respects, I thought, he expressed feelings which most, if not all, of us in the House share.

I return now to the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Putney. I am advised that there is seldom compensation for refusal of planning permission. My hon. Friend was referring to compensation stemming from listed building control. I think that it would be simpler and more satisfactory if I wrote to him about it, since it is a narrow point. Perhaps I got on to the question of listed buildings rather too quickly, and I ought to have made the generality of the matter clearer. The basic point is that, in general, refusal of planning permission does not automatically—indeed, it hardly ever does—involve any question of compensation, and I think that my hon. Friend may have been misled about that.

I commend my amendment to the House and, in so doing, I reaffirm the undertakings I have given about changes which will in due course be made in the general development Order.

Mr. Crouch

I accept the Minister's assurance and I am prepared to put my trust in him. The Bill is designed to give effective protection to theatres. I am prepared to accept the use of Article 13 of the general development Order on the requirement to consult. Adding the Theatres Trust to Article 13 is as strong a safeguard as Clause 5 would be.

It is no longer necessary for me to call up my reserves of several hundred hon. Members who are waiting outside the Chamber. I shall leave the Chamber quickly so that they will know that I do not require them to come to my aid.

Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas (Chelmsford)

I join in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) on his Bill and I am pleased that it has made such good progress. I hope that it will reach its final stages without any difficulty. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Cooke) for the way in which he has spoken from the Front Bench.

Mr. Speaker

All this is in harmony with Amendment No. 1.

Amendment agreed to.

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