HC Deb 05 March 1984 vol 55 cc709-16

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

10.24 pm
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the subject of the intended demolition of St. Mary Overy wharf in the borough of Southwark in my constituency. I am only sad that the occasion that allows this debate to take place is the illness of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross). At short notice he was unable to raise the matter that had been listed for the Adjournment tonight.

The demolition of the St. Mary Overy wharf was a matter that I had sought the leave of Mr. Speaker to debate as a matter of considerable urgency because the wharf will be demolished within weeks, if not days, unless the Secretary of State changes his mind.

I shall begin by describing the wharf and its historic importance and the circumstances leading to today, the nature of my application to debate the matter and my request to the Secretary of State to change his mind.

About a mile downstream from here on the opposite bank of the Thames is the oldest settlement south of the river—that part of the other side of the crossing that was originally by ford and later by bridge—the south side of London bridge. In early days Southwark—then in the county of Surrey—became a borough, and in 1295 it had become recognised as having a site of historic importance. The ancient and important priory of St. Mary Overy was built at that ford on the bank of the Thames. A trade grew up around the site which, in the middle ages, dealt in some things that we would not mention too often in this place. It was a place of entertainment for people leaving the city. It was the site of the Globe and other theatres and of bear and bull baiting. It was therefore a natural site in the last century for the construction of buildings with the newly arrived industrial and trading position of London. The port developed and its heyday, as the port of London, was at the end of the last century.

Over 100 years ago—1882–83—St. Mary Overy wharf was constructed beside the Thames, adjacent to where Southwark Cathedral now is, adjacent to the site of the palace of the bishops of Winchester and of the clink prison. That is the prison that gave its name to the phrase, "In the clink." People often use the phrase without realising where it originated.

Anyone who has been to that side of the river will realise that it has one of the most impressive townscapes in London, if not of any river or dockside in the country. The building constructed in 1882—83 was designed by George A. Dunnage, ARIBA. I describe the building in the way that the inspector who conducted the public inquiry three years ago did. He found as a fact that the east and north facades facing the dock and river are elaborately detailed and are unlike others on the Thames. The south and west facades to the cathedral and Clink Street have more austere detailing. The building has eight floors including an attic and basement, with the ground floor raised above road level. A stair tower at the south-west corner rises above roof level. St. Mary Overy wharf, like the buildings and the wharves at right angles to it along the river, only three years ago was found to be in a reasonable structural condition for its age and structurally sound in the main. There is no doubt that the building could survive and be refurbished if that were allowed.

The inspector continued: The wharves along the river frontage of the site are prominent when viewed from the bridges to the west and east and from the river and north bank between the bridges. On the landward side, views are confined by the railway viaduct to the west and south and by solid cathedral to the east. Indeed, to this day one can look down on the wharf from the railway line coming out of Waterloo or Charing Cross as it approaches London Bridge station. So important is the site that several years ago it was listed as a conservation area of particilar importance in the borough of Southwark. The area encompasses not only the wharf but the adjacent St. Mary Overy dock and the buildings round it. Since then many publications have been issued drawing attention to the importance of the site, which is now on the route of the Silver Jubilee walkway. On official guides and maps of London, the wharf and the dock are mentioned as buildings of particular importance.

The wharf overlooks a dock that remains to this day a place into which the tide flows in and out. The site was the subject of various planning applications made by the then prospective developers, European Ferries, at the beginning of this decade. Among the applications made under the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, one application was for consent to demolish what was by then a grade 2 listed building, designated as such by the Secretary of State for the Environment only a couple of years earlier.

As a result of the local authority's refusal to accept that the building should be demolished, a public inquiry was held from 30 June until 27 August 1981. The inspector reported to the Secretary of State, who issued his decision. The letter containing his decision bears the date 19 August 1982. Several schemes were the subject of interrelated planning applications, but I shall not confuse hon. Members. I shall concentrate on the one that would have involved the demolition of the St. Mary Overy wharf.

The inspector approved the scheme in general terms, and recommended that it be granted planning permission. However, the inspector did not recommend—indeed, specifically opposed—the demolition of the St. Mary Overy wharf. That decision was later reversed by the Secretary of State on the basis of the plan then put forward. However, it is because the plan has recently changed in one of its fundamental concepts that I believe it to be an appropriate subject for debate tonight.

In his report to the Secretary of State, the inspector wrote: In my opinion, St. Mary Overy wharf fully merits inclusion in the list of buildings of special architectural or historic interest and the incorrect attribution of the building to George Dunning rather than George Dunnage in the listing description does not detract from its merits. It is an imposing building in a prominent location and, although at present dirty and dilapidated, will, if cleaned and repaired, reveal a wealth of colourful detail in a Queen Anne revival style. It is the only warehouse fronting the Thames which displays so wide a range of the eclectic detailing which typifies the style, while the more austere landward facades complement those of other earlier warehouses in Clink street. The internal structure, while of interest as an integral part of the building, does not in my view contain features which are of sufficient intrinsic value to merit preservation in their own right. The wharf is one of a tightly-knit group of Victorian warehouses, and the combination of tall buildings and narrow streets imparts an ambiance to the area which vividly captures the character of the riverside commerce of Victorian London. The Greater London Council, the Victorian Society, Save and others have in my view rightly extolled the special townscape value of the area and the important contribution which it makes to the character and appearance of the wider outstanding conservation area. The inspector went on to refer to the representations made to him by Save Britain's Heritage, the Royal Fine Art Commission and others, but that is why he said that the building should stay. He said that the proposal to demolish the listed building would remove a building that was making a very significant contribution to an outstanding conservation area. He concluded that the advantages did not override the strong presumption in favour of the preservation of the listed building.

The Secretary of State considered that and overruled a decision that he had made only a year or two before, thereby setting a precedent. The Secretary of State said: While recognising the intrinsic merits of St. Mary Overy wharf as a listed building and the contribution that this warehouse and the neighbouring wharves collectively make to the character of the conservation area, the Secretary of State feels that the argument for retaining this building must be weighed against the very considerable advantages that would accrue from the implementation of the scheme described above. A fundamental part of that scheme was that the Discovery would be moored there. That was the ship in which Scott went to the south pole and which for many years has been part of London's heritage on the Thames. That nationally known and internationally recognized historic vessel was to have been an integral part of the site. Of late, it is clear that that vessel will go with other historic vessels to St. Katherine's dock on the other side of the river. The Maritime Society and other interest groups have supported the change of plans that takes the Discovery from where it might have been to St. Katherine's dock.

Instead of a vessel dating from the beginning of the century with particular links with London, a vessel which was laid up in the East India dock for many years before the last war and which was handed over to the London division of the Royal Naval Reserve, visible to everyone who went up and down the Thames, it is proposed to install a schooner, the Kathleen and May — no doubt an historic vessel—which has no links with London. That vessel took cement and coal between Oban, the Channel Islands and the Irish ports.

I understand that any smaller vessel than the Discovery does not require the dock to be widened to accommodate it as part of the scheme. When the change of plan was discovered, the relevant bodies associated with planning and restrictions, such as local borough councils, the GLC and all the interest bodies, complained. Some have written to the Secretary of State asking him to think again. The Victorian Society wrote to the Under-Secretary only a fortnight ago. It said: I attach a letter to Neil McFarlane concerning the destruction of St. Mary Overy wharf. It is a shocking case and we do hope that you will ask a question in the House about it. We would be happy to give you further assistance. The society is worried that the Discovery will not now be moored there. The Society states: The necessary spoilation of the unique dockland area represents an affront to the enlightened approach to historic buildings embodied in recent legislation. I accept that all that I can do tonight is seek to persuade the Secretary of State, through the Minister, not to revoke planning permission for the scheme and not to do anything that will detract from what has been agreed, and has the Secretary of State's approval, for the bulk of the scheme. The wharf is a small part of the total scheme.

The Secretary of State should think again whether it is necessary to demolish the wharf. My argument, and that of many interest groups and others concerned with London's heritage, is that it is not. It would be a relief to them, and a great development in terms of the conservation of important buildings, if the Minister, now that one of the integral parts of the scheme as proposed has changed, would be brave and enlightened enough to think again. To do so would not detract from the potential benefit of the scheme that he saw when he gave planning permission and overruled the inspector two years ago. More important, it would deal with the unusual precedent that has been set by the Secretary of State of listing a building and then agreeing to the listing being taken away.

Planners and developers are concerned about the change of plan. The building had been listed and all the factors concerned with planning gain and so on had been taken into account. It was decided that a specific building must override those factors because of its importance and be retained, irrespective of the merits of the rest of the scheme. That has now happened. However, the scheme when proposed, was regarded by the Secretary of State as being of benefit.

The changed proposal was the result of an agreement and, later, of approval by the Secretary of State which was general in its nature in that it did not specify that the Discovery had to go there. It permitted a considerable variation from what I believe the Secretary of State contemplated at the time and certainly what the inspector and the public expected to happen. We have an opportunity tonight and in the coming few days, without detracting from the commercial, recreational and other benefits that the Secretary of State saw, to think again and reverse the decision on this building.

I accept that there might have to be some relatively small payment in damages to the developers. However, I am not suggesting that the Secretary of State must say, "I am revoking planning permission." He could vary the consent and say, "It is not now necessary, unless you can satisfy me that the Discovery or a vessel of equal national importance will be going there, that we should lose this important building."

An hour ago I came past the splendid building standing on the riverside casting its shadow on the Thames. The building has been there for 100 years. It is part of a particularly historic part of our city. It would be nothing less than a tragedy if, unnecessarily, it were now pulled down. The Secretary of State is the only person with the power to stop its demolition and so enhance the conservation of our heritage along the Thames. I beseech the Secretary of State, on behalf of thousands of people, of our city and of the nation, to think again.

10.43 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Neil Macfarlane)

The House will wish me to extend a sympathy to the hon. Friend of the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross), for the fact that he is ill and unable to initiate his Adjournment debate. We wish him a speedy recovery and a full return to the House as soon as possible.

The historic appraisal which the hon. Gentleman has given coincides with my understanding of the background to this important decision, which was made some years ago. I congratulate him on his grasp of the subject and the clear account he gave of how he sees the situation and the problems that affect his constituents.

I must point out at the outset that the location of historic vessels is not a prime planning matter for me. Most of these ancient vessels are owned by the National Maritime Trust, and the Discovery was not an integral part of the planning application, merely a possible idea. The Secretary of State's decision, therefore, does not, nor did it, depend on that detail, and it cannot be construed as a condition of the planning permissions or of those listed building consents which were given three or four years ago. At that time we confirmed support for the idea of a historic ship, the RMS Discovery or another, being berthed at the St. Mary Overy dock. It was not an integral part of the planning application. That must be put on the record fairly, straightforwardly and clearly. I am happy to note that the hon. Gentleman quoted the Victorian Society, for which I have endless admiration for the good and great works that it does. I shall make it my business to study its submission to my Department as quickly as possible.

The hon. Gentleman has given a clear account of his concerns over the developments now taking place in the vicinity of St. Mary Overy dock, which comprises part of his constituency. The developments follow planning decisions made by the Secretary of State in August 1982. I shall come to those decisions shortly but, first, I shall make one or two general points.

There are clearly limits to what it is both appropriate and useful to discuss on the merits of particular decisions taken by my right hon. Friend from time to time. Planning decisions are taken quasi-judicially by the Secretary of State, commonly following on a public local inquiry, and on the basis of the inspector's report. Such a report takes into account the representations of the interested parties both for and against the particular proposals which have been submitted.

I must inevitably reiterate largely what is already known and published in the inspector's report and the subsequent decision letter. The appraisal in some detail of to decision letter is forbidden this evening because of constraints of time. The hon. Gentleman quoted from the letter of 19 August 1982. Certain paragraphs can be quoted as one sees fit, depending on which side of the argument one is. The decision letter and the inspector's report are as they should be. There are occasions—the St. Mary Overy proposals are an example—when my right hon. Friend does not agree with the inspector's view. It is well known that a decision to disagree with an inspector is not taken lightly or without careful consideration of all the factors.

Once a decision is taken, there are statutory periods when my right hon. Friend's decision can be challenged in law if it is thought that he has erred. Those periods have long expired in this instance and no notice of such a motion was served.

Mr. Simon Hugh


Mr. Macfarlane

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, but he took the better part of 18 minutes out of the debate and if he wants a full reply I am more than happy to continue. The debate is limited to 30 minutes but, if he insists, I shall give way.

Mr. Hughes

I merely ask the Minister to confirm that the change in relation to the vessels was subsequent to any potential appeal time limit.

Mr. Macfarlane

I suspect that the hon. Gentleman's attention was distracted. None of the original planning applications was an integral part of and dependent upon the location of the vessels. If he considers that he has been harshly dealt with, I shall write to him to confirm what I have said. If he reads fully the report of the debate that will appear tomorrow, he will understand what I am saying. It is important to understand that the time for appeal has expired and that no notice of such a motion was served by any of the interested parties upon my Department. The main issues centred on whether certain listed buildings and other non-listed buildings in a conservation area should be retained or demolished to allow new development to take place.

St. Mary Overy dock is a narrow inlet on the south bank of the Thames between London bridge and the railway bridge serving Cannon street station. It dates back to medieval times contemporary with Winchester palace, of which little, alas, remains. St. Mary Overy wharf, to which the hon. Gentleman has referred, is located alongside the dock and fronts the Thames, Clink street and Cathedral street. The building was designed by George A. Dunnage and built in 1882 when London was a thriving port of Europe and of the world. It is an eight-storey building, including a basement and an attic with a stair tower rising above roof level. The dockside and riverside facades are ornate, with considerable modelling and much use of constrasting brickwork.

The building was listed as grade 2 and has long been disused. It has been left open on many occasions and has suffered two fires, the first of which removed the northern part of the roof.

In 1978, European Ferries Ltd. acquired the site from the previous owners, the proprietors of Hays wharf. The previous owners had held discussions over 10 years with the London borough of Southwark on the redevelopment potential of the site. I give this history to show the long period when the area was largely in decline. The entire area has been in decline for the better part of a century.

The owners made applications to the London borough of Southwark for listed building consent to demolish St. Mary Overy wharf and other adjacent wharves. Those applications were not determined by the council, and the owners appealed to the Secretary of State. They appealed also against the refusal by the London borough of Southwark to permit demolition and alteration of existing warehouses, the erection of a mixed development of offices, a museum and other uses, and alterations to St. Mary Overy dock. That became known as scheme A. It is important to touch on that point. Clearly, the hon. Gentleman has done his homework on that study and knows what I mean by scheme A. He understands the decision letter of 19 August 1982, and has closely studied it on behalf of his constituents. This matter requires some understanding, because when looking through the back papers, the files and the complicated procedure, it is important to know precisely about what one is talking and the permutations of each of the schemes.

The matter was compounded, because the owners made four further applications to the London borough of Southwark for planning permission — one for the refurbishment of St. Mary Overy wharf and four other adjacent wharves, and, in addition, the complication of the demolition of two wharves and the erection of offices. We are dealing with an additional scheme, known as scheme B. As though that were not enough to comprehend, three more applications sought listed building consent, either to demolition of or alterations to listed buildings, including St. Mary Overy wharf.

That is the complicated background of schemes A and B and three further applications. Hon. Members will understand the complexity of this matter.

The Secretary of State, using powers under section 35 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1972, called in those four applications for his decision and arranged for a public local inquiry into them and the appeals already made. That inquiry opened in June 1981 — a considerable time ago. That is another complexity. These decisions have largely been made, and the whole subject was thoroughly appraised by the interested parties.

Following the public local inquiry, the inspector reported to the Secretary of State. He recommended, first, that the appeal should be allowed and planning permission should be granted in respect of scheme A—the hon. Gentleman touched on that point—secondly, that the appeals in respect of the demolition of St. Mary Overy wharf and four other wharves should be dismissed and listed building consent should be refused; thirdly, that the application for listed building consent to demolish the majority of St. Mary Overy wharf should be refused; fourthly, that the application for planning permission in respect of scheme B should be refused; fifthly, that the application for listed building consent for the demolition of two other wharves and for the alteration of St. Mary Overy wharf should be granted.

In arriving at those recommendations the inspector in his conclusions said: Scheme A has considerable advantages but the proposal entails the demolition of a listed building and other buildings which make a very significant contribution to an outstanding conservation area. The advantages do not in my view override the strong presumption in favour of the preservation of the listed building. The listed building to which he referred is St. Mary Overy wharf.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State took a different view. In the letter conveying his decisions, the reasons are clearly stated. I repeat those points, emphasising the theme in my own words. My right hon. Friend recognised that this site played an important role in the life and economy of central London, close to the City and London bridge station. Early regeneration of the site is of the utmost importance to provide employment opportunities and to halt progressive decay and dereliction. He agreed with the inspector's recommendation that scheme A should be permitted, that the mix of uses proposed was appropriate, taking full advantage of the riverside potential, and that the design was acceptable and sympathetic to the general surroundings. He recognised also the intrinsic merits of the grade 2 listed St. Mary Overy wharf and the four other unlisted wharves in the conservation area.

It was, however, necessary to weigh the advantages in conservation terms against the benefits that would be derived from the implementation of the redevelopment proposals. These benefits would include the general enhancement of the riverside environment, the improved presentation of the remains of Winchester palace, the enlivening of the area for tourists and the general public and the general suitability of the mix of development proposed.

In the light of those factors, my right hon. Friend concluded that the proposals offered opportunities and advantages of a nature and scale sufficient to justify overriding the normal presumption in favour of the preservation of the listed building. Accordingly—

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

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes to Eleven o'clock.