HC Deb 21 April 1988 vol 131 cc1095-102

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

10.14 pm
Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

I am grateful for the opportunity to draw the attention of the House to the royal palace of Hampton Court—set between its splendid gardens, the River Thames and two royal parks. It is one of the most glorious and beautiful of the buildings of Britain. Hampton Court palace is of immense historical and architectural interest. As a cherished part of our national heritage, it has an obvious national importance, but hon. Members will understand that it also has a local dimension; thousands of my constituents, not only in the Hamptons but in Teddington, Twickenham and Whitton, know Hampton Court well, love it and are proud of its history and status as a royal palace, which they want upheld.

In the past two years, Hampton Court has suffered two grievous shocks. First, there was the disastrous fire on Easter Monday 1986 and then, in October 1987, the hurricane destroyed some 800 trees in the gardens and royal parks. These were dreadful tragedies, but we must now look forward rather than back. We must try to use what happened as an opportunity to strengthen and recreate all that is best in Hampton Court, so that as the years roll by it can enrich the lives of yet larger numbers of people.

The fact that Hampton Court has so much to give its visitors is not the only reason why it should try to attract more of them. There is the financial aspect. I make no apology for mentioning that. Apart from the exceptional fire reinstatement costs, which are about £5 million spread over three years, the annual running and maintenance costs amount to £6.6 million. That includes the cost of running not only the palace but the gardens, maze, home park, Hampton Court green and the towpath.

By contrast, let us consider the takings from admissions to the palace and maze, the souvenir shops, car park and real tennis courts. I know that you, Mr. Speaker, are very familiar with the real tennis courts at the royal palace of Hampton court because of the championships awarded to members of your family there, but 1 mention the real tennis courts as a part of the Tudor Hampton Court of King Henry VIII, another very distinguished figure.

The takings from Hampton Court amounted to £1.2 million in 1984–85, and these have increased to £1.6 million in 1987–88. The target for 1988–89 is about £1.8 million. It is encouraging, up to a point, to note that the takings for the Easter weekend, of which I was informed in reply to a written question on 14 April, suggest an annual increase of about 10 per cent.—a trend that is being sustained. However, it is encouraging only up to a point, because there remains an annual gap of not far short of £5 million, which is now being met by our fellow taxpayers.

As a royal palace, Hampton Court is a priceless part of our national heritage; it should never be considered as a mere business. I would certainly not consider it as such. Neither, I am sure, would Ministers in the Department of the Environment. But even if it were regarded as such, it would be fair to remind the House that as a beautiful historic royal palace, Hampton Court helps to draw in overseas visitors; they do not come to Britain for our weather, but for our history, royalty, traditions, arts, heritage and beautiful places; Hampton Court incorporates all those aspects.

The visitors spend money in hotels and restaurants and on shopping; and so generate incomes and jobs which produce a tax yield for the Government. Those effects cannot be measured exactly, but they certainly exist and it is proper that the House should have regard to them because we have a duty to scrutinise financial and economic matters.

It seems to me that £5 million a year is a needlessly large sum for Hampton Court to be expected to pull from the taxpayers. In that connection, I should like to make a number of suggestions. My first point is about access. The biggest obstacle to tourists visiting Hampton Court is the inadequate provision of car parking space, especially during peak seasons and in particular at weekends in peak seasons. It is essential to crack this problem, perhaps by using an area behind existing walls in the north-west corner of Home park or across the Thames at Hampton Court station.

Secondly, on summer weekends on all four approach roads to Hampton Court from Teddington, Kingston, Hampton and over the bridge there are traffic jams trailing back from the zebra crossings at the roundabout at the palace entrance. That is because of peak visiting times the flow of pedestrians is almost continuous. The traffic tailbacks and jams are bad enough to deter some visitors, and are inconvenient to many other people and must be dealt with. So far I have found a noticeable lack of enthusiasm on the part of Richmond borough council in seeking to deal with this by installing traffic lights. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will ask his colleagues in the Department of Transport to take an interest in this matter and to discuss it with Richmond borough council. This afternoon I asked London Buses to carry out a survey on summer weekends to find out how its buses are held up and to make the results of this survey available to the Government, to Richmond borough council and to the Metropolitan police.

Thirdly, parts of Hampton Court are rather bare. The Tudor kitchen, which should be an important feature, is empty. One should be able to go into that kitchen and see Tudor pots and pans and ladles and copper jelly moulds. Perhaps the Government can twist the arm of other great museums that have hoards of objects stashed in their cellars so that those museums will lend some of those objects to Hampton Court. Museums are always asking the Government for money for roof repairs, and I have no doubt that the Government have some pull and influence with the museums. They should be able to persuade them to get those things out of their cellars and into Hampton Court and other places where they can be shown to better advantage.

Fourthly, the presentation at Hampton Court could be modernised. Fifthly, there are empty parts of Hampton Court palace which could be opened up to tourists as tourism grows as part of a long-term trend. Sixthly, the marketing could be improved. Hampton Court is best known for its Tudor associations. The part designed by Christopher Wren is at least as prominent and may well be larger than the Tudor part. However, every schoolchild is taught about Wolsey and Henry VIII and the Tudor monarchs of Hampton Court. Many people are fascinated by the personality of King Henry VIII and his six wives. He could be much better exploited.

Hampton Court can learn something from York. In developing its tourist trade, York wanted to use the Romans as a feature. It was advised by a public relations company not to do so, but to use the Vikings who were thought to have more sex appeal. York homed in on the Vikings, with tremendous success. There has been a terrific growth of tourism in York. Hampton Court could learn from that and make more use of its associations with King Henry VIII.

All this can and must be done in a way that does not cheapen Hampton Court palace. If its distinguished royal character is not maintained, we shall lose what people want to see.

Seventhly, the souvenir shops have been doing well, but they could do much better. It appears that, at other stately homes and tourist centres, souvenir shops have a booming trade. Much more still can be made of the Hampton Court souvenir shops.

Eighthly, plant sales could be profitable. Many people visit Hampton Court gardens and ask the gardeners where they can obtain some of the plants that they see. A plant sale point could be set up, perhaps at the new car park, if one is provided. I hope that the Minister will confirm that access to the gardens will continue to be free of charge.

Ninthly, more use should be made of the River Thames. A better, higher-grade quality of boat could be laid on. People could perhaps set out from Westminster pier, have a rather good lunch on the boat, see Kew, Richmond, Twickenham and Teddington, see Hampton Court and then return to London by train.

Tenthly, the marketing process should concentrate on increasing the flow of visitors in the months of March to May and September to November, because Hampton Court is at fairly full capacity in June, July and August.

Eleventhly, there are two blots on the landscape which should he removed. The first is the hideous new ticket office, and the second is the obtrusive white canopy overhanging the exterior of the Tiltyard restaurant. It should never have been put there. It is a disgrace to Hampton Court and should go.

There is also the threat of a further building which could be obtrusive. That would he in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Esher (Mr. Taylor), whose deep concern for the environment is well known, not only in his constituency, but also in mine. I refer to the site of Hampton Court railway station at the south end of the bridge in East Molesey. There is a planning application for a new building there, which has not yet been decided by the local authority in my hon. Friend's constituency.

I have also received representations from my constituents at Hampton Court green who are concerned that, if they stand on Hampton Court bridge and look along the river downstream, with the historic palace of Hampton Court on their left, they might see a modern building on the right facing across the Thames to Hampton Court. As it is in my hon. Friend's constituency, it would be proper for me to write to the Minister on that matter, with a copy to my hon. Friend, rather than to give my views on the matter in the debate. I hope that that will be acceptable to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher)

When my hon. Friend considers the transport problems, particularly in respect of the site that he has just mentioned, upon which I do not wish to comment now, will he pay attention to the siting of Hampton Court station, which serves Hampton Court and is in my constituency? Many of my constituents are worried about the intentions of British Rail in respect of that historic station and we are anxious to ensure that it is preserved in use. I am sure that that will be of assistance to my hon. Friend and to the visitors to Hampton Court.

Mr. Jessel

My hon. Friend is right. It is not only outside visitors to Hampton Court and his constituents in East Molesey, but my constituents who live in the palace and around Hampton Court green who use that station and regard it as an attractive old Victorian station. If my hon. Friend decides that he wishes to make any representations on that matter, he can count on my support and that of my constituents.

Finally, there is the administration of Hampton Court palace. It has been extremely fortunate in two most distinguished Chief Stewards—the present incumbent, Lord Maclean, the former Lord Chamberlain, and his predecessor, the late General Sir Rodney Moore. I also pay tribute to the excellent contribution both of the last administrator, General Thompson, and the present, acting administrator, Mr. John Yarnall. A new administrator is to be appointed. The right man must be found; but I wish that the Government would get on with it. I cannot see why it has to take six months. There is a need to end the uncertainty and to build up morale with leadership, zest and enthusiasm. That is the way for Hampton Court's future to be worthy of its great past.

10.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Colin Moynihan)

I am particularly privileged to answer this Adjournment debate in your presence, Mr. Speaker, as your personal and family interests have rarely been surpassed in the history of the occupancy of that position, particularly in view of the sporting excellence of your son-in-law, Alan Lovell, whose great ability as a real tennis player, particularly at Hampton Court, has matched the outstanding historical surroundings in which he has played real tennis and the way in which he has always been the best possible ambassador for his sport.

It is also a privilege to be in the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel), whose interest in, and dedication to, Hampton Court has been a consistent feature of his contributions to the debates in the House, and his lobbying, often intensive but always dedicated, of the Minister who happens to be at the Dispatch Box. I know that he has Hampton Court palace very much at his heart, and is careful and considerate about its future. I appreciate the fact that I am now, as a result of his good fortune in securing this Adjournment debate, given the opportunity to explain the general background and some of the details about which I know that he is concerned.

My hon. Friend takes a close constituency and personal interest in Hampton Court. His detailed knowledge and constructive suggestions arising from that are very helpful. I shall deal with his individual comments in a moment, but first I shall say a few words about the palace and what we are setting out to do.

As hon. Members will know, Hampton Court is an unoccupied or "historic" royal palace. That is to say, it belongs to the Queen in right of the Crown, but it is not used as a royal residence. The Queen's policy interests at the palace are looked after by the Lord Chamberlain. Statutory responsibility for its daily running, including maintenance and opening to the public, rests with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

Hampton Court is one of the country's major tourist attractions, as my hon. Friend has rightly pointed out, with around 600,000 paying visitors a year. It is also a complex business. The total budget for the palace, gardens and park is currently around £8 million. This includes in the current year about £1.5 million for restoration work following the major fire at the palace in March 1986, and a further £2.25 million for other construction and maintenance work. Income is forecast at £1.8 million for 1988–89. About 150 staff are employed at Hampton Court, and although it is not a royal residence, some 60 or so people live there, comprising grace and favour residents, officials and retired officials, of the royal household and of the Department of the Environment.

Although visitor levels are high, the presentation of the palace to the public has fallen behind developments elsewhere, as my hon. Friend has said. In recent years, great strides have been made in improving the presentation of historic houses to the public. The leisure and tourism industries have become more sophisticated and developed, and it is no longer enough—as it was in the early days—simply to open the doors of historic houses to guarantee visitors or visitor satisfaction. Simply opening the doors is not a sufficient guarantee of a fair slice of the visitor market.

That is not a criticism of the way Hampton Court has been run, or of those involved in the past. I am not seriously suggesting that we have done literally nothing but open the doors of the palace in recent times. However, it is sometimes useful to step back and look at what is being done elsewhere. We have done that at Hampton Court and are in no doubt that improvements can be made. The burden on the taxpayer of running Hampton Court is high, and by attracting more visitors and enhancing visitor satisfaction we aim to improve revenues and reduce that burden.

My hon. Friend mentioned the appointment of the administrator and I take on board his comment about the timing. That appointment is the crucial element in the new unified management structure at the palace, introduced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, to put into effect the improvements we are seeking. I am sorry about the resignation of the first administrator, but I give my hon. Friend the assurance he seeks this evening, that we will be recruiting a permanent successor to General Thompson as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, as my hon. Friend knows, we have appointed an acting administrator at the palace, who is taking forward the work already started by General Thompson.

As I have said, we will be looking to improve the presentation of the palace. We shall also be looking at ways to reduce costs. The first task give to the palace administrator has been to prepare, as quickly as possible, a five-year forward business plan and a five-year forward works and maintenance programme. Those plans and programmes will form the basis of future developments at Hampton court and will set out how the business position can be improved. The detailed arrangements for handling the plans and programmes have yet to be worked out, but final clearance will be necessary with both the Lord Chamberlain, on behalf of the Queen, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

It is too early to say what those plans will contain, but my hon. Friend has asked for an assurace, which I am happy to give. Any future developments will have full regard to the status and dignity of Hampton Court as a royal palace; it will not be turned into a Disneyland or a leisure park. What Hampton Court has to offer the visitor, as he rightly points out, is a unique part of our national heritage and we shall build on that. In trying to improve Hampton Court's presentation, we are well aware of the dangers of changing its unique character and status, which are its very attraction.

Before turning to some of the further specific comments and suggestions raised by my hon. Friend, I wish to assure the House that there are no plans—nor could there be—to privatise what is a royal palace. Wild reports that have appeared in the newspapers to that effect are just that. Lastly, my hon. Friend also asks for reassurance on the question of public access to the gardens. I am happy to repeat the firm assurances given by my predecessors that we have no plans at all for charging for entry to the gardens.

My hon. Friend highlighted traffic movement and parking facilities as crucial ingredients in the future development of Hampton Court. I agree with his comments and entirely endorse them, particularly in respect of weekends, holidays, and other busy seasons. Anyone who has been caught up in the traffic surrounding the palace on a summer Sunday will know that congestion is a very real problem there.

How to improve visitor access and traffic flows around the palace is one of the issues for the business plan. I know that the administrator will be tackling this as an early priority. I have to say that I think it unlikely that the Department of Transport will be prepared to finance the installation of traffic lights as recommended by my hon. Friend, as on the roads concerned that would be a local authority matter. However, I appreciate that he has raised the point in view of the importance of discussing the matter with the local authority. We have asked the administrator to talk to the local authority along the lines he requested this evening, to see what improvements can be made.

Car parking also is a serious problem. Facilities at the palace are at present limited and will have to be expanded. Without expansion, we would create serious difficulties by attracting more visitors, and without more car parking, we can do nothing to improve the woefully inadequate signposting on the roads around Hampton Court.

Finding space for new car parking will be difficult—given the special character of all the land in the park and gardens. We do not yet have any firm proposals on this, though I note my hon. Friend's suggestion that we might eventually acquire new land in the immediate area. I was also grateful for his suggestion of "cut and cover" parking provision—if I may summarise his observations and comments to my Department—although experience suggests that it is likely to be too expensive a solution for the return we are likely to get from car parking charges, given the seasonal nature of visitor patterns.

My hon. Friend raised interesting and constructive suggestions about marketing, which I think we should consider carefully, and for which I am grateful. His suggestions of high-quality river trips, the staging of concerts and ways of improving the presentation of the palace, especially the Tudor areas—he mentioned the Tudor kitchens—are all very much in line with the options that I see as presenting opportunities for the future. I shall ensure that those specific ideas are examined by the administrator and his advisers who are involved in developing future marketing strategies.

I note my hon. Friend's comments about the current planning application, for the development of the land on the British Rail site opposite the palace. I know that he has brought it to the attention of my Department. All development around the area of the palace is of course sensitive, and is scrutinised carefully by all concerned. I shall draw my hon. Friend's comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State; but, as the applications are currently before the local planning authority, he will understand why it would not be appropriate for me to comment further at this stage.

Mr. Jessel

Although my hon. Friend cannot comment on planning aspects, can he make the procedure clear? If an application had been received by local authority, and the authority granted planning permission, would the Department of the Environment have any locus if it disagreed, or would it be too late?

Mr. Moynihan

If the local authority is content with planning applications that come before it, that is perfectly in order and not a matter for any further intervention—even if such intervention is considered wise by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I am sure that it would not be, because the matters that the local authority will consider are purely for that authority. I hope that that helps to satisfy my hon. Friend's concern that any further delay on sensible planning proposals brought to the local authority's attention could be deferred further to the Secretary of State.

Work on the restoration contract, following the major fire on Easter Monday 1986, is now due to start in July or August. We expect the work to take about three years, and if possible to be completed just before the summer season in 1991. During the work, some disruption to the public visiting the palace, and to staff and residents, will be unavoidable. However, we are doing all that we can to minimise this, first by ensuring access routes for the deliveries and contractors' vehicles that are the least intrusive, and secondly by restricting deliveries of materials to between 8 am and 10 am on weekdays.

I appreciate my hon. Friend's feelings about the unfortunate appearance of, for instance, scaffolding during the summer season. The administrator is also very concerned about that, and discusses individual cases with the Property Services Agency. Wherever possible, areas to which the public have access, or which impact on their enjoyment of the palace, are kept free of works during the summer season, but this is of course not always possible. Sometimes there are emergencies, and in some cases good weather is required for the works to be carried out.

I was sorry to hear about the problems associated with potential vehicle damage to the towpath, on which representations have been made to me. Steps have been taken to instruct palace staff on the need to avoid damage to the grass verges when collecting litter. We shall look into possible solutions to the problem of speeding.

I hope that, in the brief time available to me, I have dealt with most of my hon. Friend's points. I will ensure that any that I have missed, or to which, because of lack of time, I have been unable to turn my attention—particularly those relating to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Esher (Mr. Taylor)—will be considered by the administrator. I agree strongly with my hon. Friend on the need for a strong sense of direction following the major fire and the recent organisational changes. I hope that the changes that we have planned will build on the loyalty of the royal palace staff and add to their satisfaction. We should all recognise that loyalty as critically important and of great service to the palace.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.