HC Deb 27 February 1990 vol 168 cc215-24

Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read a Second time.—[Sir John Wheeler.]

9.16 pm
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

The Bill has apparently been taken on the nod, but I am interested in the repeal of certain statutory restrictions upon the development of land on the north side of the river Thames, between Westminster bridge and Blackfriars bridge. The House is owed an explanation before we pass the Bill on the nod.

I realise that this is the Third Reading and that there have been preceding stages——

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)

Second Reading.

Mr. Cryer

There may have been a preceding stage. You read the Question mellifluously, Madam Deputy Speaker. I misheard "second" for "third".

On Second Reading, it behoves the House to have an explanation. I am sure that my hon. Friends, with their desire for keen scrutiny and examination, would want a brief explanation from the Bill's promoter, the hon. Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler). I am not asking for a debate lasting an hour and a half, but it would be handy to have an outline of the legislation.

The passage of legislation such as this is recorded in Hansard. People who may be affected by the Bill will wish to read that. If the Bill is pushed through on the nod, people may consider that to be a contemptuous way in which to treat a Bill which is so nicely set out and which affects people.

Therefore, I hope that the Bill's sponsor will give us an explanation. I see him leaning forward in his place with an air of eager confidence ready to share his thoughts with us.

9.18 pm
Sir John Wheeler (Westminster, North)

I am delighted to address the House on this modest little measure. If hon. Members wish me to take considerable time, I shall be delighted to assist them therewith. I could begin with a recital of history going back to the reign of our late sovereign King George III, when legislation was passed in 1771 to enclose part of the embankment adjacent to the river Thames, resulting in that delightful piece of property now known as the Adelphi, but I apprehend, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the House will wish me to leap from 1771 to 1990.

I shall therefore discuss the modest nature of the Bill. Its sole purpose is to repeal three Acts of Parliament dating back to 1771. One provision which remains unspent from those three Acts is section 34 of the Adelphi Estate Act 1933, which restricts the height of buildings on the estate. The proposed repeal in the Bill before us is of that provision, which would leave any proposal to raise the height of buildings to the planning committee of the local authority, in this case the council of the City of Westminster, rather than to Parliament.

I know that the House does not like to authorise works and planning consent through small, private planning Bills, but in this instance all the Bill would do would be to transfer the responsibility to the planning authority. I understand that the promoters of the Bill have already made planning application to it, so that is a matter for the planning committee to decide.

That is the nature of the Bill. I have nothing further to say about it.

Mr. Cryer

Can the hon. Gentleman tell us what the reason was for the restriction on height? Was it an aesthetic reason? Is the Bill proposed in order to enable the development of ugly skyscrapers and multi-rise blocks?

Sir John Wheeler

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I cannot engage upon a debate this evening as to the character of any extension. All I can say is that, in the City of Westminster, the beauty of the buildings is of great concern to the planning committee. No doubt it would wish to take those factors into account.

9.22 pm
Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

The hon. Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler) has not given us much to go on. I have grave concern about why we should want to remove the protection on height and give power to Westminster city council, when we are all aware of the record of that council. While one might be prepared to repeal old Acts if other authorities were involved, one looks at the Bill suspiciously and with grave doubt when it covers Westminster city council.

The hon. Gentleman did not identify the area of the site, how important it is and the implications of altering the skyline and allowing development to take place. He said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) that there are fine buildings of character in Westminster; he is not referring to some of the buildings which many of us see, because some appalling developments have been approved by Westminster city council. If we are to judge them by the criteria which Westminster city council has used in recent years, I am doubtful about the Bill.

Mr. Cryer

As my hon. Friend pointed out, I sought further information, which I did not get. The Bill refers to buildings which may be erected, built or piled upon the said lands". As the site is on the side of a river, there may be reasonable engineering reasons for limiting the weight of buildings. Behind the Bill may lie the complete removal of existing buildings to allow deep piling, using modern engineering techniques, and the construction of buildings which are out of character and different from the existing buildings.

Mr. Pike

My hon. Friend makes an obviously valid point. In the days before we had planning legislation, which was introduced by the Labour Government soon after the war, there were many calculated and deliberate ways to control development. The legislation that this Bill seeks to repeal is one such example.

I know that, in the case of my own house, the development was planned in Victorian times, when it was laid down that the house to be built should have a rentable value of not less than £72 a year, and at that time that determined the character of the building. I forget what year the hon. Gentleman said that this legislation dated from, but it was certainly some years ago, long before we had planning Acts, and it was intended to control the type of development on this important site, adjacent to the river. Many people may feel that that legislation is the best way to contain developments, and it may well be.

If one considers what we have allowed to happen to the riverside—the river Thames which runs through the capital of this country—then I think that in many cases we should be ashamed of the developments that have taken place along it.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment is sitting on the Front Bench. I know that Government buildings are controlled in a different way, but I have to say that Government buildings, and even the Department of the Environment's building in Marsham street, are no credit to the skyline of Westminster, because they are disgraceful developments.

The hon. Member for Westminster, North needs to give us more insight if we are to be persuaded to allow the Bill to make further progress. I recognise that the Bill is at an early stage, but it is likely to suffer a stormy passage unless we get more assurances about why it is sought——

Mr. Cryer

Would my hon. Friend care to comment on the way in which my inquiries seeking further information have been dealt with? They were left entirely with Westminster planning committee. This House, which gives consideration to primary legislation, is being treated with contempt, because we are not allowed any sort of information about what lies behind this very expensive, if it is adopted, private legislation.

Does my hon. Friend not think that we should have at least the same sort of information that is submitted to the local authority planning committee?

Mr. Pike

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I would have expected the hon. Member for Westminster, North to make a longer speech to convince the House why this should happen. We all know of the events within Westminster council—one does not know whether the planning committee has a better reputation. Other aspects of the council, such as Westminster cemeteries, give cause for grave concern in the Chamber tonight.

When I came into the Chamber, I was not aware of the implications of the Bill. I expected the hon. Member for Westminster, North to explain why the House should consider the measure. However, he had to be pressed to make any comment at all. He merely moved the Second Reading formally; it was only when my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South pressed him that he made any statement—it must have been one of the shortest speeches in support of a Second Reading that I have ever heard.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

Should the hon. Member for Westminster, North not have explained to us in greater detail the nature of the 1771, 1933 and 1938 legislation? I know that it is up to hon. Members to have gone to the Library and sought the information. For instance, the Adelphi Estate Act refers to various types of buildings which are appropriate, but we have not been informed what they are. In the absence of having been able to find out the details of the legislation, we have an hon. Member in the House who is involved and who should be explaining matters to us so that we can make a reasonably mature judgment.

Mr. Pike

Indeed. I understand that certain provisions in the 1771 Act are to be removed, leaving no control over the height of buildings other than what is considered appropriate by Westminster council. That is worrying. In theory, a building could be erected high enough to beat the Shell building or the NatWest tower, which might be entirely inappropriate to the site on which it was built. Of course we are keen on developments where they are needed, if they improve London as a tourist attraction and the capital of a major nation, but the hon. Member for Westminster, North has not convinced me that that will happen.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

My hon. Friend has reminded me of what I believe to be historical fact—perhaps the hon. Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler) could confirm this. I believe that, in the 1920s or 1930s, some altercation took place about this very site. I seem to recall an historic building being demolished to make way for the existing building, which is neither unusual nor impressive.

My hon. Friend mentioned the NatWest tower. I also seem to remember some controversy about a "green giant" that was to be built not far upstream from the Houses of Parliament. Can the hon. Member for Westminster, North reassure us that the Bill would not permit such a development?

Mr. Pike

It is indeed possible that the council could, under the Bill, approve a development similar to the "green giant", which I believe was to be built on the opposite bank. A good deal of anxiety was expressed at the time. I think most people would agree that we have failed to take advantage of most of our post-war opportunities to develop and improve London's Thames banks. A possible exception is some of the original south bank development, but in general we have failed to make the river into a focal point for the people of London and the country as a whole, as well as visiting tourists. It is different in Paris: no such desecration of the river Seine has been permitted.

Mr. Cryer

My hon. Friend has considerable experience of local government, having been a council leader. What standard of information would he have expected Burnley council to present if it were seeking opportunities for development through the repeal of existing restrictions? Surely, as leader of a local authority, he would have given Parliament much more information than we have been given in justification of the Bill.

Mr. Pike

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If Burnley council were promoting such a measure, it would have provided a detailed information pack, explaining not only the development that it envisaged but why it envisaged it.

I did not intend to speak for very long. I hope that the: hon. Member for Westminster, North will give us more positive reasons for supporting the Bill: if he is unable to do so, he will find himself struggling to get the Bill through, although it may be given a Second Reading tonight—and that is still in question.

Mr. Cryer

It is important that my hon. Friend should dwell on his local government experience. There is an important parallel to be drawn. It may seem trivial in comparison, but the local borough in my hon. Friend's constituency has developed the verges of the Leeds and Liverpool canal in a way that is attractive and pleasing to the eye. It has taken time, patience and careful consideration to provide a view of the waterside that is pleasing to the inhabitants of Burnley. I should like my hon. Friend to elaborate on why we should not insist on being given information——

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I am sure that the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) could elaborate on Burnley's virtues—but not tonight, and not on this Bill.

Mr. Pike

I shall not allow my hon. Friend to lead me astray. However, Burnley has done that. It has put together a very good proposal, with Lancashire county council.

I came here in order to hear what the hon. Member for Westminster, North had to say about the Bill. I saw that it had been set down on the Order Paper. I wanted to find out exactly what it entailed. It is an important site. It is next to a major river, the river Thames, in our capital city. Parliament should ensure that the site is safeguarded. We must not allow it to be desecrated. If we do not provide adequate safeguards, future generations will blame not Westminster city council but this House and the hon. Member for Westminster, North.

9.37 pm
Mr. Hugo Summerson (Walthamstow)

Opposition Members have had a go at the Bill off the cuff. I did not see any of them look at the Bill, or at the promoters' statement. I have at least read the Bill and the statement.

Opposition Members referred to piling in connection with the redevelopment at the site. Paragraph 8 of the statement says: The Promoters of the Bill own the Adelphi building and wish to enlarge and improve it by adding two storeys to it. I am a chartered surveyor. If additional storeys are added to a building, that increases the load on the foundations. No one in his right mind would increase the load on the foundations of an existing building without looking at them to make sure that they are up to carrying the additional load.

According to the promoters' statement, they want to add only two storeys. The Adelphi is a large building that was constructed in 1933. I notice that the plans have been approved by the Royal Fine Art Commission and English Heritage.

Mr. Pike

Can the hon. Gentleman give the House an absolute assurance that, if the Bill is passed as it stands, it will not be just a sweetener and that as soon as the matter is in the hands of Westminster city council a different proposal will not be made? That is what happened with Battersea power station.

Mr. Summerson

The hon. Gentleman believes that I have rather more influence than I enjoy. I have no influence over either Westminster city council or the future of the Adelphi building. The hon. Gentleman said that this is a great city. Nothing can stand still; full use must be made of the building.

The promoters' statement refers to the 1771 Act which authorised the Adam brothers and other owners of land adjacent to the River Thames to inclose and embank a stretch of the River". When estates were laid out and developed in those days, the buildings were not designed to last for two centuries. Normally the freeholders granted ground leases for a certain term, so the buildings were not designed to last any longer than the leases. After all, who would design a building to last 200 years when the lease for the building is for only 50 years?

On many occasions I have rung up the district surveyor about buildings which now stand in conservation areas to ask about the condition of houses in a particular street on behalf of a client—that was before I was elected to Parliament. The first thing he said was, "They are falling down." That puts one on notice. When one examines the building, one finds all the usual defects associated with houses of that age and type—bulging brickwork, sagging roof timbers and evidence that the foundations have settled.

Mr. Cryer

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that that applies to that building? I cannot recall it in the promoters' statement. The hon. Gentleman may be making a general case that has considerable merit, but we are talking about one building and I must ask him to distinguish between general observations and the condition of the building.

Mr. Summerson

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman made that point. A building erected in 1933 would have been far more substantial than any houses the Adam brothers ever built because its construction is far more sophisticated. It should be well able to sustain the additional two-storey load that the promoters are suggesting.

It seems to me that there is nothing hidden within the Bill to cause alarm and despondency to the Opposition. It seems a perfectly reasonable proposition and I very much hope that the House will give it a Second Reading.

9.42 pm
Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

The House should know what the Bill is doing. I do not think that the hon. Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler) explained it to us in terms of the legislation which is being replaced. The Bill and the promoters' statement show us what the Bill intends to do, but that depends on what it intends to sweep aside.

I have managed to obtain copies of the Adelphi Estate Acts 1933 and 1938. I do not yet have the original Act of 1771 because, like my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike), who became interested in the debate as he heard it developing, I am a hangover from a previous debate. Had not my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) encouraged the hon. Member for Westminster, North to explain the Bill a little, we would have passed it on the nod in an entirely blind fashion.

The Adelphi Estate Act 1933 is a considerable piece of legislation with 38 clauses and 40 pages. The 1938 Act is a smaller amending measure, but the details of the Adelphi estate in the 1933 Act cover many wider considerations.

Mr. Cryer

My hon. Friend is saying that an entire 40-page Act is to be repealed by this measure without any list in the schedule of repeals of the ground covered by the repeals. That is not uncommon where repeals are carried out by public Acts. The hon. Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler) has given us no explanation of the extent of the repeals.

Mr. Barnes

I am trying to get the hon. Member for Westminster, North to explain the details of the Bill. It seems that we must refer to previous legislation to flush him out.

The 1933 Act is wide ranging. It amends the 1771 legislation and refers to the Adelphi foreground and the ability to build thereon. The 1771 Act is in the cellar, but the Library is trying to unearth it. When it does so, we shall find that sections 3 and 4 have been repealed by the 1933 Act.

Mr. Cryer

I am grateful for that information. Is my hon. Friend telling the House that the promoter has not placed the 1771 legislation in the Vote Office so that the best possible information is available to hon. Members? I should like my hon. Friend to elaborate on that and to explain how difficult it is to obtain such information.

Mr. Barnes

The short notice that hon. Members are given of private Bills makes it difficult for them to obtain information from the Vote Office. I obtained my information from the Library, where a young man who has a broken arm had to climb a ladder to dig out the two Acts. A search party is trying to find the 1771 Act. We should keep debating the Bill until that Act is before us. It would be monstrous if we did not know what the amending legislation was based on.

We wish to know which of the provisions of the 1933 Act will be repealed by the Bill. For instance, the Act contains powers on street works and various subsidiary works. It mentions the underpinning of houses near to street works, the power to divert in various areas and easement, for which councils and planning authorities are normally responsible.

Mr. Cryer

My hon. Friend mentioned street works. Something rather more widespread may be involved in the Bill than appears on the surface—the handing over of obligations under existing legislation to Westminster city council, which will remove burdens from the developer, who can then zoom ahead to better, cleaner and purer profits.

Mr. Barnes

That is possible, but we do not really know. The 1933 Act refers to the extinction of private rights of way over land. As that Act will be swept aside, will the Bill reinstate those provisions, and will responsibilities under the 1933 legislation be taken over by Westminster city council?

Other provisions in the 1933 Act affect different authorities. It refers to the London Electric Supply Corporation Limited and Charing Cross. There are similar measures concerning the Gas, Light and Coke Company. Obviously, there have been vast changes in legislation which have moved some matters into the public sector and others out of the public sector. Specific measures are contained within the 1933 Act which refer to such matters. The 1933 Act refers, for example, to the Commissioner of Police in connection with the Adelphi building. We must consider a wide range of measures affecting arrangements in the area and the Victoria Embankment, yet I have only recently been able to glance at the earlier Acts. Why do we not have a similar Bill now for the Adelphi estate? Why is it such a limited and short document when it is dealing with a wide range of measures?

We have at last received the 1771 Act direct from the cellars of the House of Commons Library. The Bill dates from the reign of George III and it is a substantial document.

Mr. Cryer

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Would it not be preferable to adjourn the House for 10 minutes while my hon. Friend looked at the Ace?

Madam Deputy Speaker

The hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) could have looked at the Act earlier today. He knew that this debate was taking place tonight.

Mr. Summerson

Further to that point of order., Madam Deputy Speaker. Would you kindly ask the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) to treat that aged volume with great respect?

Madam Deputy Speaker

I shall happily do so. Volumes. that are available to the House of Commons should be dealt with very gently. They are very beautiful books. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will see that the book is returned to the Library at the earliest time.

Mr. Barnes

I shall certainly treat the book with great respect, Madam Deputy Speaker. I hope that the House will treat with great respect this legislation and that contained within other volumes. The House should not pass the Bill in a half-hearted manner and without detailed consideration. This document is important not only as an historic relic, which the Bill seeks to make it, but as a living piece of legislation, which has been amended by the 1933 and 1938 Acts. It is the law at present and will still be the law even if the Bill is given a Second Reading. It will remain the law until other due processes have been gone through. We need to adjourn for some time to study the 1771 Act.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not lick his fingers again in that way when turning over the pages. He is dealing with very precious volumes.

Mr. Barnes

Apart from having some difficulty in seeing the words, I find that the Act is not written in standard English. It is a creature of the reign of George III. We need to find someone who understands such literature. We need more than merely to collect a copy of this precious document—which I presume is the only such document in the country—from the Vote Office.

Mr. Pike

Would it assist the progress of the House if Westminster city council, the promoters, and other interested parties were to transcribe the 1771 Act into a modern form so that all hon. Members who may debate this important Bill at a later stage can have copies of the document without having to borrow this book and thus risk damaging it?

Mr. Barnes

It really is quite unacceptable that I should have to stand here holding the original in order that I might take part in this debate. Indeed, I am worried about how I should handle it.

Mr. Cryer

Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be ideal if we had the same procedure as is adopted in dealing with public legislation? When there is a proposal to repeal three Acts of Parliament we should be able to go to the Vote Office and collect the relevant documents. We should be provided with a summary of each clause that is to be repealed. In addition, there should be a translation into modern English of the wording of the 1770 Act. In the ordinary course of events, Members can go to the Vote Office half an hour or an hour before a debate takes place to get the necessary documents.

Mr. Barnes

That is exactly what is required. We should have been provided with copies of the actual legislation. Anything else is an interpretation. An interpretation of the 1777 Act is necessary, but we should have been provided with copies of the other two Acts, which are much more modern. We should also have been provided with documentation relating to the Bill under consideration so that we might relate it to those pieces of legislation.

Bodies seeking to promote legislation in this House should have such an obligation. If procedures such as those to which we are being subjected in respect of this Bill were adopted in respect of public legislation, we should object strongly. Actually, we have a right to object to the form of some of the public Bills that come before us. It is often difficult to get to grips with the wording of clauses and of amendments. However, we at least have an opportunity to examine documents relating to public legislation to get an idea of the nature of its provisions. If there were an opportunity of that kind in cases such as this, Members who intended taking part in a debate could then equip themselves with information. But so could Members who happened to turn up and began to take an interest. All Members, in the course of the debate, would have an opportunity to decide what position to take.

We now have before us—no, I have before me—three Acts. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South is able to examine them because he happens to be sitting beside me. I have had no opportunity to study this precious document, which must be returned to the Library, or the other two Acts. It would be beneficial to adjourn or to move on from this stage without making any decision on Second Reading. That would give us an opportunity to examine these measures in detail. Having done so, we might decide that there was nothing wrong with this Bill, and that there was nothing to worry about. But that is not the point. The point is that, as legislators, we are supposed to scrutinise documents and information carefully. If we do not, we will not be in a position to discharge our duties properly. I should think that our constituents would expect that to be normal procedure in this House.

Mr. Cryer

I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the Adelphi Estate Act 1938, which states: No building shall at any time be erected within the limits of deviation shown on the deposited plans of a greater height than 145.64 feet above Ordnance datum measured to the top of the roof of such building but excluding the chimneys thereof. Surely those words suggest that that was a very important aesthetic consideration in 1938. It might be regarded as important today, yet the promoters have not explained the importance or relevance of adding two storeys to an existing structure.

Mr. Barnes

When similar measures are before us, the plans associated with them are often available for examination in the Private Bill Office. The matters to which the Bill refers are matters that we should have the opportunity to examine. We should be able to go to the Vote Office to get the basic information and then find specific items elsewhere in the House. If we saw the plans and information and were reminded of the aesthetic considerations at stake, we might decide to move down the embankment——

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed on Thursday 1 March.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Before we move on, may I ask those hon. Members who have precious volumes belonging to the House to return them to the archives?