HC Deb 13 February 1979 vol 962 cc1097-108

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

10.19 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins (Putney)

I should like to talk briefly about the Theatres Trust and to go on to the specific problem of the London Pavilion.

I gave the Government's blessing to the establishment of the Theatres Trust when I was Minister for the arts. It was set up as a result of a Private Member's Bill introduced not by the Archbishop of Canterbury but by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch). Such a Bill cannot attract Government money and it was clearly understood when the hon. Member, one of the few Conservatives with a real feeling for the arts, introduced the Bill that it could not carry any attachment of Government money.

However, when I was Minister it was never my intention that the trust should be excluded for ever from the beneficence of the State. The trust has no purpose other than to sustain the physical fabric of the theatre of this country. That purpose is so beneficent as to make it obvious that, as soon as the opportunity presented itself, any civilised Government would wish to seize it in order to help the trust in a task that is not only culturally essential but economically and socially valuable. That opportunity has now arisen.

The Government announced today their intention to set up a national heritage fund to replace the national land fund. I congratulate the Chief Secretary to the Treasury on introducing the White Paper. All that now needs to be done is for the Minister who is to reply to the debate to say that he will recommend to the Chief Secretary, who was no bad friend to me when I was a Minister, that the Theatres Trust and other theatre-owning trustees in London and other parts of the country, designated by the Theatres Trust as suitable, may apply to the national heritage fund for help towards the purchase or maintenance of essential theatre buildings. I hope that the Minister will feel able to do that. I am asking him not to commit the Government but merely to say that he will transmit my proposal—with his blessing, I hope—to the Chief Secretary.

Turning to the specific case of the London Pavilion, at first glance it may not seem to be a very good case. The London Pavilion occupies the best theatre site in the West End. It is a listed building and one of the few that are worth looking at in the West End, as distinct from SW1 and other parts of London where there are still many good old buildings and one or two good new buildings. Indeed, it is beginning to dawn on some people that the National Theatre is one such good new building. The London Pavilion also has a distinguished theatrical history.

I am glad to see that the hon. Member for Canterbury, to whose perspicacity in introducing the Bill I have just paid tribute, is entering the Chamber. I am glad to repeat my congratulations.

Having mentioned those three not inconsiderable attributes of the London Pavilion—its history, the value of the building and its prime site—what else can I say? Is there only a dirge after that? I must admit that the place has not been used as a theatre for donkey's years. But wait. Is one entitled to draw the inference that has been drawn that no one has wanted, or does not want, to use it as a theatre? Not at all. It was acquired by cinema interests at the birth of the talkies. If my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary does not recall the birth of the talkies, at least Mr. Speaker will. For a time it seemed that this new development would sweep the theatre away. The cinema interests that acquired the Pavilion made a packet. It has been a successful cinema ever since.

Why should cinema interests relinquish this to theatre people? The owners have never been willing to sell, so until the lease began to run short there was never any question of the Pavilion's returning to its original and proper use. Immediately it was known that the building might become available, two major West End theatre managers made overtures and bids to restore it to its rightful role. The idea that the fact that the building had not been used as a theatre for many years meant that it was not wanted as a theatre is fallacious.

The theatre is short of buildings in London—so much so that cinemas have started to return to being used as theatres. Examples of this are the Astoria, the London Casino and whatever it is that houses "The Rocky Horror Show" along the King's Road.

Everybody concerned is opposed to proposals for the London Pavilion that have been provisionally approved—only provisionally, thank God—by the Westminster city council, with the blessing of the landlords, the GLC. These proposals will destroy the London Pavilion as a theatre. The Arts Council, the Theatres Trust, the Piccadilly Campaign, the Soho Society, the Cinema-Theatre Association, Equity, NATKE, the Musicians Union, the Save London's Theatres Campaign and are all opposed to the proposal to destroy the London Pavilion as a theatre.

Who are the destroyers? Who supports the vandals? Mr. Horace Cutler, of the GLC. Mr. Laurie Marsh, of Cooney Marsh, one of the leading London theatrical producers and theatre owners, wrote to Mr. Cutler. He complained to the GLC that Mr. Sandford, who apparently runs the Westminster city council—or seems to—had refused to listen to Mr. Marsh's proposals, which he argued would not only preserve the theatre but improve the traffic scheme.

The present plans, which have been provisionally approved by the West-minster city council, envisaged three floors of shopping surmounted by a restaurant and two small cinemas on top of each other. This would increase the height of the building by about 30 ft.

Mr. Marsh is also chairman and chief executive of Classic Cinemas. This is very interesting, because Classic is the third largest chain of cinemas in the United Kingdom. His proposals have not been effectively and properly considered. They were not before the Westminster city council committee which, in spite of being never really allowed fully to know the objections or the alternatives, voted by a narrow majority to endorse their eager leader's mania. This is not wholly a party matter. There were some members of the council who were not carried away by the enthusiasm of their leadership to destroy this historic cinema.

What goes on here? I quote from a letter that Mr. Marsh wrote to Mr. Cutler: I have heard nothing from Councillor Sandford or any of the other persons who were clearly endeavouring to press forward with the plans already submitted, whether they were better or worse than mine. What did Mr. Cutler have the infernal cheek to reply? He told a highly successful theatre owner and producer that his proposals were not commercially viable and that he would not look at them.

What else did Mr. Cutler do? The hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas)—I am glad to see him in his place—is on the side of the angels in this matter, as is appropriate for him. He wrote to Mr. Cutler on 11 January, saying: Dear Horace, I am very concerned about the future of the London Pavilion and I have had a whole number of representations and delegations to see me about its future. They are very concerned that the proposed development of the Pavilion area will mean the loss of the chances of the Pavilion returning to the status of a legitimate theatre. I must say I have great sympathy with them. I believe the ideal solution would be for the Pavilion to revert to its original use as a theatre. Failing this —and this is to the hon. Member's credit— it should be preserved as a cinema. It would be very helpful if we could have a meeting about this with myself present as Opposition Spokesman on the Arts, together with representatives of Save the London Theatres and Mr. Lawrence Marsh, who, I understand, has proposals to put forward. Perhaps we could be in communication to see if a convenient time for us and a place could be arranged. What happened? We do not know. We have heard rumours, but we do not know. What I do know is that I arranged to see the Secretary of State—

Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas (Chelmsford)

I am glad to be associated with the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Jenkins) and my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) in trying to preserve this theatre for the future. I have not been in agreement with Mr. Cutler on the future of the building, but he came to the meeting with his supporters and was extremely courteous. He listened to all the arguments that were put forward, but unhappily he was unable to accept them. I should like to pay tribute to him for the way in which he listened and for giving up a whole morning to the discussion. At least, each side had the opportunity of hearing the other's views.

Mr. Jenkins

I readily understand that the hon. Member would wish to pay his tribute to the leader of the GLC. However, what happened subsequently was that I arranged to see the Secretary of State, together with the hon. Member for Chelmsford, the Shadow Leader of the House, to ask him to call for a public inquiry so that the whole issue could be thrashed out. We did not expect him necessarily to adopt our suggestion. One could hardly ask the Secretary of State to do that, because I think that he takes up a quasi-judicial position in these matters. We simply expected him to say that there would have to be an inquiry before a decision could be taken.

We had an appointment, but the hon. Member for Chelmsford was not there. It may be that he was unavoidably prevented from being there.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not wish to misinterpret my position. I had no appointment with the Minister. I wrote to the Secretary of State for the Environment, who very kindly suggested that I might accompany him to a meeting that he had arranged. Unfortunately, because of my timetable that morning, I could not be present.

Mr. Jenkins

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman could not be present. I hope that it is not true that the reason why he was not present was that Mr. Cutler—so I was told—got in touch with the Leader of the Opposition and that it was as a result of that communication that the hon. Gentleman was not present. That may not be so, and if the hon. Gentleman says that it was not so, of course I entirely accept what he says. But, for one reason or another, the hon. Gentleman did not accompany me.

Fortunately—I think that he will be glad to know this—although the hon. Gentleman was not present on that occasion, and in spite of the fact that he was not present—and I would have been very glad of his company, because it would have put this matter on an all-party basis—the Minister of State who saw me on that occasion said that he would com- municate with Westminster city council and ask it not to make the matter final at its meeting which was to take place that night. That was the urgency of the matter. If the council had made a final decision that night, I do not think that we would have had this debate tonight, because it would have been too late.

Therefore, although the hon. Gentleman was not there physically, I give him full credit for being there in spirit. I believe that possibly his spirit helped me to convince the Minister, because I was able to say that I had the hon. Gentleman's support. The hon. Member for Chelmsford is on record as giving his support, so there was no question about whether I was telling the Minister the truth, because I was able to produce cuttings to substantiate that. Therefore, I think that the Minister was convinced that this was an all-party matter.

I put that matter on one side, not wishing to pursue it, because I am much more concerned to save the London Pavilion than to argue the question who is or is not responsible for saving it. It still leaves the GLC and the Westminster city council alone in reality.

How were the objections to which I have referred placed before the Westminster city council? I must not take up too much time, because I want to leave my hon. Friend time to reply, but, I must say that the manner in which the massive objections were placed before the city council was hardly worthy of a matter that is of national importance. The director of architecture and planning of the City of Westminster submitted a document of about 20 paragraphs, culminating in a recommendation. Of those 20 paragraphs, only one referred to objections. It was headed "consultations". It said: There have been objections from the following organisations and societies: The Theatres' Trust, the National Association of Theatrical, Television and Kine Employees, the Cinema Theatre Association, the Save London's Theatres Campaign. A summary of their objections is: the potential loss of a theatre, and the unacceptable appearance of the glass superstructure above roof level for the upper cinema. That is all that the Westminster city council town planning committee was presented with as a summary of objections from six or seven different bodies, each one of which occupied several pages of typescript. That summary, at that stage, was all that the Westminster city council received.

I therefore submit that the matter was never properly considered by the council, because the objections, which were massive, were dismissed in a single paragraph and never placed in full before the council, certainly not at this stage, at any rate. They were simply summarised in that very cursory and undesirable fashion.

I was in receipt of a letter from Councillor Sandford. He said: Thank you for your letter of 1 December 1978 enclosing a copy of your letter of 17 August to Sir James Swaffield and your letter of 8 November to Mr. G. Lacey of Westminster City Council. Regretfully, I cannot agree with the line the Trust is taking. Yours sincerely. That is all. That is a cursory dismissal of a considered and stated objection from a body which contains people of all parties and which was not put forward in any partisan manner whatsoever.

There it is. In the circumstances, perhaps it is a miracle that this enormous pressure has not produced an irreversible result. But it is reversible.

Let me finally say why the result should be reversed in the words of a recommendation other than my own. I refer to a letter which appeared in The Guardian last week, under the heading of "Save the Pavilion". It said: We appeal to the Secretary of State for the Environment, Mr. Peter Shore, to hold a public inquiry into plans for the redevelopment of the London Pavilion. It went on to say what an overwhelming wish there is within the theatrical profession for this theatre not to be lost if at all possible. It is signed Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Flora Robson. I submit that those four names make this issue a matter of national importance, if nothing else does so.

I ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to recommend to the Secretary of State that he calls in this application and that there be a public inquiry. Everything is as has been said. The public and complete conclusion is that the London Pavilion must, in effect, become a shell housing a conglomerate. If that were the ultimate conclusion after very full public consideration, I would have to say "So be it", but I ask my hon. Friend to say that what happens in the heart of the West End to a building, of no mean stature and of no mean history is a matter of national importance and that its fate must be determined with the full knowledge of the facts, openly and in the light of day.

10.40 p.m.

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

My hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Jenkins), who is well known to the House for his concern over theatres, made an interesting speech about both the Theatres Trust and the London Pavilion.

I am glad to see the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch), who piloted the Theatres Trust Bill through the House, because he and I will remember one debate that took place in which we both took part.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Putney will understand that I cannot answer all the questions that he put to me, because the subject is mainly for the Department of Education and Science. I shall try to be as helpful as I can on those points with which I am competent to deal.

My hon. Friend dealt, first, with the question of the Theatres Trust and the issues that arose at the time of the legislation about the possibility of granting funds to enable the trust to carry out its duty.

The Theatres Trust Act 1976 was promoted as a Private Member's Bill and, as my hon. Friend clearly stated, that made it impossible to include in it a money resolution committing Government funds to finance the trust. The Government were able to support the Bill only on that understanding. Ministers not only said that during the passage of the Bill; they have also had to remind my hon. Friend of it on subsequent occasions.

The fact is that in passing the Act Parliament empowered the trust to pursue various activities in furtherance of its object of protecting theatres for the benefit of the nation, but it did not require it to carry out any or all of these activities, many of which are still held in reserve. The presence among the trustees of those who might be expected to be able to encourage private funds to help the trust to fulfil its object is surely indicative of the promoters' original aspirations regarding finance.

The Government have gone along with these arrangements, and have been happy to do so. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science appoints the trustees, but that is the limit of the Government's function and responsibilities.

The requirement to consult the Theatres Trust about all applications for planning permission involving theatres was introduced into the general development order and was the Government's response to a specific request. In order to accommodate the trust's wish to be consulted about development proposals involving any land on which there is a theatre, the Town and Country Planning General Development Order 1976 was amended to include the trust among the bodies to be consulted. In being consulted in this way, the trust is in a privileged position accorded to few other bodies.

The requirement to be consulted under the general development order was not thrust upon the trust but was made entirely at its own request. I thought that I should make that clear. I know that the trust has important work to do. I do not suggest that it would want the burden of being consulted to be removed, because I know of the enthusiasm and interest which the trust takes in the work that it undertakes. However, I regret that the Government are not able to find money to give support in the way suggested by my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend mentioned the national heritage fund, about which he knows a White Paper has just been published. He asked me to consult the Chief Secretary to ask whether that fund could be made available for purposes that he outlined in his speech. I understand that that fund is to be independent, with trustees appointed by my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for the Environment and for Education and Science. I believe that it will have authority to spend up to £1 million without seeking authority from the Government. In that sense, I advise my hon. Friend, when the trust is set up, to seek to press his case with it rather than with the Chief Secretary or the Government.

I turn now to the issue of the London Pavilion. The proposal for redevelopment ought, first, to be seen as part of a series of proposals for the Piccadilly area. The House will know of the long history of planning difficulties that have affected the Piccadilly Circus area, stretching back over 20 years. During that time a number of schemes for the comprehensive redevelopment of the area have been prepared but eventually abandoned for one reason or another.

Subsequently, in 1972, Westminster city council, which is the local planning authority, published fresh proposals in the form of a consultation document and invited public participation in determining the general principles for the redevelopment of the area. Out of this emerged the planning brief approved by the council. It sets out guidelines for the piecemeal and gradual rehabilitation of the Piccadilly Circus area and provides an opportunity to end years of indecision and blight which have so adversely affected this part of London. The Government and, I am sure, all those who have the interests of Piccadilly Circus at heart are anxious that the redevelopment and rehabilitation of the area should proceed without further undue delay.

Some progress has already been made. The redevelopment of the Monico site is now almost complete, and plans for the Criterion site, including provision for the Criterion theatre, have been approved. Other schemes are in the pipeline. Plans are now well advanced for the redevelopment and rehabilitation of the Trocadero site—and they include the rehousing of the Almost Free theatre. There are also proposals for the redevelopment of 19 to 23 Shaftesbury Avenue, in which the Piccadilly tourist centre was until recently temporarily housed. The centre is now to be relocated in Great Windmill Street on a site to be vacated when the Shaftesbury Avenue development is ready, So, after two decades of discussion—and frustration—a start is at last being made in dealing with this important area.

This, then, is the background against which the planning application to redevelop the London Pavilion site must be considered. Important issues have been raised in this debate and outside the House, and I welcome this opportunity for discussion. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend and the House will appreciate that it would not be right for me to comment at this stage on the merits of the proposals for the London Pavilion site, as they could come before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for his decision at a future date.

As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction told my hon. Friend when he saw him last week, the primary responsibility for considering applications for planning permission in this part of London rests with Westminster city council. That council, after considering and taking account of the representations of a number of interested persons and institutions, has approved the proposals in principle, subject to further negotiations with the applicants over a number of matters of detail.

Representations have been made that the council paid insufficient regard to objections to the proposals, particularly that the present building should be preserved for its possible future use as a live theatre. Approaches have apparently been made to the Greater London Council, which is its freeholders, by theatre managers about the possible reinstatement of the building as a theatre—its original use before being converted to a cinema in 1934. It has been argued that my right hon. Friend should call in the planning application because the issues raised are of national concern. My hon. Friend has asked me to recommend that course of action.

However, the House must recognise that it is a basic element of the planning system approved by Parliament that decisions on development proposals are primarily the responsibility of the local authorities. My right hon. Friend intervenes rarely—and then only if major issues of national or regional importance are involved. My hon. Friend argued persuasively that the London Pavilion, with its long history, is such a case, which deserves consideration as a national issue, but I think that he will recognise that such arguments are not uncommon in London, where there are many important sites.

I emphasise to the House that where a change of use is proposed—as in the case of the London Pavilion—the planning system cannot guarantee that the previous use of the site will continue. In this case, for example, even if permission were refused for a change of use, it would not ensure that the building would be used for theatrical purposes.

My right hon. Friend will, however, want to consider most carefully all We representations that have been made to him before deciding whether he should call in the application. The debate tonight has been most helpful, and I am grateful for the opportunity to hear my hon. Friend's views—

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

Adjourned at eleven minutes to Eleven o'clock.