HC Deb 15 June 1989 vol 154 cc1123-6 3.32 pm
Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the future of the Rose theatre site.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Nicholas Ridley)

My announcement on 15 May that Imry Merchant Developers had agreed to delay work on the site of the Rose theatre for up to one month, gave a valuable breathing space. Imry recently announced a new design at an extra cost to them of £10 million.

English Heritage has advised me that the new design will, if it receives planning permission from the London borough of Southwark, both protect the remains and allow their proper evaluation and display. Scheduling is not necessary at this stage.

I have decided, after consideration, to accept that advice. I would reconsider my decision if that became necessary. I hope that all parties will now work together to make a success of a thoroughly sensible deal.

Mr. Soley

Does the Secretary of State recognise that there is an overwhelming demand in this country and overseas that the site should be scheduled? Virtually everyone wants that. The way in which we are treating our heritage is becoming a major item on overseas news broadcasts. The site fully qualifies for scheduling under the National Heritage Act 1983, as the Secretary of State is aware. English Heritage confirms that the site should be scheduled. Building an office block on top of the site is an act of vandalism and incredibly short-sighted, even from a commercial point of view. If the site was properly developed and enhanced it would bring in far more money as a tourist attraction than half a dozen office blocks on the land. Does not the Secretary of State also realise that if he persists in this course and if he does not change his mind, because of the National Heritage Act 1983 and other legislation, he is likely to face a challenge in the courts sooner or later?

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Gentleman clearly comes new to this subject. The demand, with which I have every sympathy, is that the site should be protected and conserved for future public inspection and remain for all time available for people to see. The demand is not for it to be scheduled. The hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that English Heritage has recommended scheduling. It has not done that. The criterion for scheduling is that I should feel that the site is threatened in some way. As a result of advice from English Heritage, I do not feel that. The scheme put forward by Imry Merchant is probably the best way of protecting and putting these very important remains on public display. Instead of always griping in the way that he does, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will pay tribute to the developers for their enormous contribution and co-operation.

Mr. Gerald Bowden (Dulwich)

May I say how pleased I am that my right hon. Friend has come forward with a scheme that is practical and that brings together the parties —the developers, the London borough of Southwark, English Heritage, the museum of London and those of us who wish the site to be made available and accessible and preserved for posterity. If there is any further delay, the site may deteriorate. What is there now may be lost to future generations.

I recognise that the proposed solution will not satisfy everybody. There are those who feel that this is holy ground and that nothing should overshadow it. However, those who appreciate the necessity of recognising that we are in the 20th century but who nevertheless wish to preserve these elements of the past feel that this solution, which Imry has further considered and to which it is making a contribution of some £10 million, is one that we should support.

Mr. Ridley

I agree with my hon. Friend that we should pay tribute to all concerned for the wonderful co-operation that they have shown in finding this solution. In the previous plan, 11 of the piles might have interfered with the foundations or other relics that were known to be there. The new design provides that the 11 piles will be moved to locations beyond the outer wall of the theatre. That shows remarkable co-operation. If this is holy ground—I would be too demure to express a view on such an important matter—holy ground needs to be protected. I believe that this is the best way to protect it. The wind, the rain, the frost and the sunlight will not do the ruins any good. They need to be protected.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

Does the Secretary of State recognise that I appreciate the efforts that he, his Under-Secretary of State and Imry have made so far? However, the proposal is still a completely hit and miss approach to archaeology and to the rescue of our national heritage. Does he not accept that the logical way forward is to complete the excavation of the site and then to decide what building can be built on, near or around it that will not do any damage?

English Heritage has already agreed that the present proposals—to excavate in the area of the piles—may do damage and has said that as and when anything is found there may well be a request to the developers to move their piles yet again. There could be a series of requests and a series of altered designs. There have already been three. Would it not be far better to say, "Let's get the design right but only after the archaeology has been completed."

The Secretary of State concedes that this is a monument of national importance. English Heritage has admitted that it is a schedulable monument. Is it not crazy for the Secretary of State to say, "I may schedule it later and thereby give it the protection of the criminal law"? At the moment he is relying on a deal with the developer—and it could be a new developer if Imry were to sell tomorrow —which has no statutory force. At the time that the site needs most protection, which is now, the Secretary of State says that he does not intend to use his legal powers to intervene.

Mr. Ridley

I am grateful to the tribute that the hon. Gentleman paid to the Under-Secretary of State who has, I believe, worked wonders in getting this deal through. The heat wave of the last month has created a risk of serious damage to the remains. It is now essential to provide protection for them. A membrane of Terram, followed by 40 cm of clean washed sand, is being placed on the remains for their best preservation. I do not believe that we should expose the remains to the risk of further damage from wind, weather and sunlight. That, therefore, is the correct procedure. If the hon. Gentleman would like to find the cost of deferring the building, I leave it to him individually to do so—

Mr. Hughes

People are willing to do so.

Mr. Ridley

I do not think that the people who own the site are willing to sell it, so the hon. Gentleman has to take both sides of the bargain into account. I do not believe that the monument is under threat, unless we fail to cover it up now. It is only if I believed that the monument was under threat that I should be justified in scheduling it. That is why I have left the position open. If it is under threat, I shall reconsider the position.

Mr. Michael Marshall (Arundel)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of my interest as a member of the Theatres Trust, which sought to exert a moderating influence in arguments that at one stage were getting a bit frenzied. I am most grateful for my right hon. Friend's remarks and for putting down a certain backstop. I acknowledge the points made by the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), but a reasonable compromise has been reached. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we are in future to encourage other developers to take a responsible attitude there should be some recognition of the developer's role and that we should be seen to suport the work of English Heritage in difficult circumstances?

Mr. Ridley

I am grateful to my hon. Friend's for his remarks. The one-month delay that I intervened to secure, at some cost to public funds, was necessary in the unique circumstances of this important case. I am extremely happy that the result is that English Heritage, the developers, the voluntary sector and others co-operated to produce the correct solution. I echo my hon. Friend's tribute to Imry, whose costs were not inconsiderable. The outcome is a strong endorsement of the system of voluntary preservation and action that the Department has developed to preserve such remains. The whole House ought to be pleased at today's result, which strikes the right balance between the need for development and the need for preservation.

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

I urge the Secretary of State to reconsider four points. First, English Heritage said that the site is of schedulable quality. Secondly, will he look again at his responsibilities under the 1983 Act? Contrary to the right hon. Gentleman's description of them in respect of vulnerability, that legislation defines three criteria and sub-criteria, and the Rose is generally considered to meet them all. Thirdly, archaeologists, the acting world and the public demand scheduling. The Secretary of State misrepresented that aspect. If he does not schedule the site, I suspect that an effort will be made to seek a judicial review or an appeal to judicial process. Fourthly, the right hon. Gentleman is correct to say that Terram and sand cover the site but I believe that Imry intends concreting on top of that sand, if it has not already done so. If the Secretary of State does not urgently reconsider his decision not to reschedule, he will preserve a 10-storey office block but he will not preserve the Rose.

Mr. Ridley

I am not arguing whether the site is of schedulable quality. The question is whether it is under threat. I am certain that I am correct in thinking that it is not. The hon. Gentleman said that he had four points to make but he only asked in four different ways whether I will reschedule. The hon. Gentleman drew attention to the fact that a skin of concrete is to be laid over the washed sand. that is being done on the recommendation of English Heritage to preserve the monument. The hon. Gentleman does not seem to want to preserve the monument. He takes his case much further than is justified.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that those right hon. and hon. Members who know the people who run English Heritage have great confidence in their judgment, and believe that their advice to date was wise and balanced and that the solution in prospect is sensible? My right hon. Friend is wise to retain an open mind. I ask him to take a personal interest along with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, who played an extremely constructive and helpful role during a rather difficult period. I ask him also to keep in touch with Southwark borough council. It is important that the remains are displayed in a proper and attractive manner and that the building erected over the site is worthy of its setting.

Mr. Ridley

There is no way that I could avoid taking a personal interest—not only because I want to do 30 but there is intense public and parliamentary interest. I took a considerable amount of interest in events as they unfolded. I believe that the Government's action in this matter has resulted in an extremely satisfactory position. I am not saying that that will always be the case, but so far the result is extremely good.

I certainly agree that Southwark borough council has an extremely important role to play as it will be necessary to accommodate the new solution with planning consent—I must not prejudice whether that would be right or wrong—and there are various other ways in which Southwark can play a major part in contributing to the success of this operation. I am optimistic that it will work out.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the House that it will be possible to raise this matter in the debate which we are about to have on the arts. Some hon. Members now rising have already expressed their interest.