HL Deb 01 July 1926 vol 64 cc722-36

LORD GORELL rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether permission has been given to the Kensington Borough Council to curtail the acreage of Kensington Gardens, and, if so, on what grounds; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Question to which I have to ask your Lordships' attention is, at any rate, void of all political significance, and it has the further merit of being simple, though not quite so simple as it may appear at first sight. It is a Question that I have been asked to raise by a great many people, and, though it may on the face of it appear to be of local interest only, it will be found when examined to be of much wider importance than that and to have a definite importance, not only to those who live in the great City of London, but to all who come up in the day and breathe its atmosphere. In fact, it is not too much to say that a great principle is involved—a principle to which a good deal of attention has been directed quite recently. It is rather a paradox that just at a time when a project such as that which I have to describe is being put on foot, more attention is being directed to the preservation of the open spaces of London than has ever been paid to that matter before. The project to which I wish to draw your Lordships' attention is this. It is proposed to take away a strip of Kensington Gardens at the southwest corner, from the Broad Walk up to the end of the Gardens.


Going west?


Going westward from the Broad Walk to the end of the Gardens. It is a strip about 20 feet wide by some 850 feet long. That does not sound a very big strip, but it involves a big principle. It also involves the destruction of quite a number of trees. At least six big trees will have to be felled to allow for pedestrian and other traffic, and also a number of smaller trees. The taking away of this strip is said to be part of a large project for widening one of the arterial roads out of London. I will show in a moment that it cannot be that. It is, at any rate, in itself quite without bearing upon the traffic of the thoroughfare opposite the place where the strip would be removed. Any one who has occasion to go frequently along that thoroughfare will know that there is no congestion whatever opposite the Park itself. That this is demonstrable is, I think, made evident by the fact that at the present moment, at the spot where it is proposed to widen the road there stands a taxi-cab rank at the side of the road and also a large wooden shelter for taxi-cab drivers. In spite of these obstructions to the present width of the road everything which passes it passes it without congestion at all. There never is congestion between Broad Walk and the south-west corner of the Park. The congestion begins further westward and that has a bearing upon this Question.

It is said that the taking of this little strip is part of a much larger plan; that there are negotiations in progress for widening the High Street further to the westward. In the Report of the Committee which recommended the taking of this strip, they mentioned those negotiations and specified that they were taking place with regard to the widening of the High Street between the Metropolitan Station of High Street, Kensington, and Young Street, which runs off almost from where Church Street comes in from the north. No project is known of for widening the High Street between those two points of Young Street and the end of Kensington Gardens and therefore, if all the projects which are talked of or definitely planned are put into operation, there would still remain a narrow neck of High Street between the end of the Gardens and the beginning of Young Street. And that would obviously remain a neck, because during the past twelve months there has been erected in that spot another of those large overgrown commercial buildings, and any widening in the middle of the neck would mean the pulling down of a building which is now not quite completed. Furthermore, no widening to the westward of the strip could be done without setting back that large block of buildings which forms the Royal Palace Hotel.

Therefore, even if these two projects—the one to which I am drawing attention and another which is the subject of negotiations—are carried out there would still remain a narrow neck of the High Street where the congestion now is, and that congestion would be all the greater because of the erection of a great building, which must have received the assent of the Crown since it blocks out the light from a Crown house just behind it. So we are faced with the paradox that this project for taking a strip of the Gardens is to be proceeded with first. One would think that, at any rate, the more difficult and controversial question of setting back the big buildings would be decided before any permission was given to take away a piece of a public park and destroy the trees at the side of it. It is obvious that if this project is carried out, so far from the arterial road being widened uniformly along its length the angle at the Palace Hotel will be made sharper. It seems fairly obvious that the object is not to obtain greater facility of traffic, but in order that the cars of persons coming to a shopping centre may have some place in which to stand.

The principle that seems to be involved is the principle of the sanctity of our great public parks. I would not by any means go so far as to say that in no circumstances whatever should any strip be taken away from our public parks. I remember some years ago a little corner being cut off at the Marble Arch which has proved to be of considerable public benefit, but I think that before any strip is taken away from a park certain conditions must be fulfilled. First of all, I think, any project to take it away must be subject to very close scrutiny. Secondly, I think that the public, who, after all, are mainly concerned, should have full opportunity to express their opinion upon the matter. Those conditions have not been fulfilled in this instance at all.

There has been practically no discussion of this project. It was produced in the Borough Council on the Report of an Improvement Committee and it was passed without discussion in the Borough Council late at night at the end of a long sitting. The public were completely unfamiliar with the fact that anything of the kind was contemplated. So much was I in that position that after hearing the very emphatic words of the First Commissioner of Works in this House in March, in relation to a similar project in regard to Hyde Park, I felt sure that such project had been dropped. It was not until the residents, who followed it with great interest, came to me and told me that it was about to be put into execution that I thought it was evident that the public were being kept completely in the dark.

Further, I think that before any piece of land is taken away from our public parks the necessity for doing so should be abundantly proved and it should be shown, not only that great public benefit will result, but that that benefit can be obtained in no other way. In view of the complete absence of congestion at this spot, it is impossible to show that the taking of this strip is necessary at all. If this precedent were to be created it would mean that at any point, north or south, of either Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park or any other of our parks, some great firm might set up an emporium and then claim that the traffic so created was so great that you must either widen the thoroughfare to meet its needs or widen the thoroughfare to one side or the other in order to facilitate the convenience of their customers.

I will read to your Lordships the words used by Lord Crawford, a former First Commissioner of Works, when speaking in March last. He admitted, as every one does admit, that speed in a great city of to-day is necessary, but at the same time said that there are things more necessary to the community than speed and those are health and repose. He went on, in relation to the project to which Lord Airlie had drawn attention, to say:— Every slice you take off Hyde Park throws back the area of repose so many yards and removes from the Park so many acres, and to that extent is a direct diminution of the health and the repose of the community. What applies, so far as health and repose are concerned, to Hyde Park, applies with even greater force to Kensington Gardens, which is, above all places in London, used for the health of the children and the repose of old and weary people.

I have heard no justification attempted of this project, except the time-honoured excuse that although it is a crime it is only a little one. It is true that the piece of land which it is pro- posed to take away from the Gardens is not very large, but if you are going to take away upon a plea such as this a piece of public land I think a very dangerous precedent is being established. It seems to me an extraordinarily bad case, and it would be perfectly easy for anybody with an ingenious mind, driven perhaps by commercial or other interests, to make out a much better case for taking away pieces of Kensington Gardens, of Hyde Park and of other parks. If this is granted it will certainly be the forerunner of many similar demands and proposals, and we shall have the parks gradually whittled away. After all, though the twenty feet is not very much, the total space between Kensington High Street and Kensington Palace is not very large, and every yard of it is used in the summer time by children to play in. How accurate my information is, of course, I have no means of knowing, but I know that this has been passed without discussion by the Borough Council.

I understand that the Minister of Transport has given his consent. With regard to that, I will only say that the Minister of Transport is mainly concerned with roads, and if he has given his consent it is obvious that he has been directing his attention to speed without considering this question of health and repose. But I understand even further that, though everything has been done in such a secret manner, the First Commissioner of Works has issued, or is about to issue, his licence, and that tenders are actually about to be considered for beginning this work; therefore it is a matter of some urgency. I must remind the noble Viscount the First Commissioner of Works that in March he appealed to your Lordships to support him against proposals of this kind, and he concluded a speech, which seemed to meet with the approval of those of your Lordships who heard it, with these words: I trust that your Lordships will give me every support in resisting proposals of this kind, made by Philistines who apparently want to diminish the amenities of the Park and curtail the pleasures of the people. It is, perhaps, hardly necessary to say that London, of all the great cities in the world, is alone in the possession of parks in its centre, and that they are its glory.

This proposal to rob a little piece for no demonstrably good purpose in the way of facilitating traffic seems to me a cynical and even a servile proposal, and, if permission has been given, I think it is an illegal permission, for, as I understand it, the Office of Works do not deny that the consent of Parliament is necessary before permission to take away a piece of a public park can be given. I hope that the noble Viscount, having all those considerations, as he must have had them, in mind, will be able to assure us that his consent has not been, and will not be, given to this proposal. If, as I hope is not the case, he is unable to give us that assurance, I trust that your Lordships will insist upon the fullest explanation and, if there is no more justification for the proposal than any one examining it from outside can discover, will demand that it should no longer be proceeded with. I beg to move.


My Lords, as Chairman of the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association, I rejoice that my noble friend Lord Gorell has brought this subject before your Lordships' House. Perhaps I may be able to throw a little more light upon the subject, because my association has been in correspondence not only with the Kensington Borough Council but also with the First Commissioner of Works, and on March 17 this year I received the following letter:— I am directed by the First Commissioner of His Majesty's Works to inform you that the Department is in general agreement with the principle that an equivalent area of open space should be provided when park land is surrendered for road widening purposes. Apparently, then, there is no conflict between us and the First Commissioner of Works as regards the principle; but he goes on to say— I am to point out, however, that in the case of the proposed widening of the Kensington Road, as to the need of which the Department is satisfied, only a small piece of park land is to be sacrificed, and it will be appreciated that it was not practicable to stipulate compensation elsewhere. I desire to see if I can persuade your Lordships that there is some error in the idea that nothing can be done.

What is actually proposed? It is proposed to give up a strip of Kensington Gardens — public ground, originally Royal—between Palace Avenue and the Broad Walk, 850 feet in length by approximately 20 feet in width, or about 1,830 square yards, that is nearly a third of an acre, for the widening of Kensington Road. I am always trying to get for our association one-third of an acre in London, and I do not see at all why His Majesty's Government should give up a third of an acre and say that it is impossible to obtain land in London. I can show them large numbers of places a third of an acre in extent which would be of the greatest possible service.

It was only last Saturday that a great meeting took place under the chairmanship of one of the most distinguished members of your Lordships' House, the noble Marquess, Lord Crewe, at which there was also present the Solicitor-General, Sir Thomas Inskip, and Lord Crewe, speaking in the coarse of his remarks about the disappearance of open spaces in London and the necessity of preventing their disappearance, said: The problem that we are concerned with is urgent, as there is a tendency in all towns for open spaces to disappear. From my experience I can assure your Lordships that that is the case, and that gradually open spaces are being nibbled away in every direction. It seems to me a bad example for His Majesty's Government to set, for they seem to consider that a little bit of ground can be nibbled away here and another bit there without doing harm to a movement—I am not alluding to my movement—which has strongly developed and which has brought large sums of money to Lord Crewe's association for purposes which are very much needed all over the country. This is not an ordinary case, and I think that your Lordships' House should take into consideration all the facts.

The principle hitherto has been upheld that when a public open space is encroached upon compensation shall be given by the provision of another open space elsewhere. The Metropolitan Public Gardens Association, therefore, approached the Office of Works in order to find out if this salutary principle was being observed in this case. In their reply, which I have already read, the Department stated that only a small piece of land was to be sacrificed. They acknowledged that it was to be sacrificed, but they said it was small and that it was not practicable in this case to stipulate compensation elsewhere. I say it is practicable, and, even if ground could not be given, is it not possible to look for compensation in money, which could be given to some important body like the London County Council or the Middlesex County Council, which need money for open spaces? Yet here the Government are giving away land for nothing.

However that may be, it is not very satisfactory that a Government Department should break away from a principle which has been embodied in an Act of Parliament—namely, the Development and Road improvement Funds Act, 1909. I wish your Lordships would look at Section 19, in which it is provided that no land shall be taken forming part of a common, open space, or allotment except by way of exchange unless Parliament itself confirms the transaction. I am advised that a similar provision is contained in the housing and Town Planning Act of 1909. In both Acts the expression "open space" means any land laid out as a garden or used for the purpose of public recreation. Therefore, unless some special circumstances apply to Kensington Gardens which do not attach to ordinary parks and open spaces it would look as if the Department were exceeding its powers in giving up this area for road improvement purposes without Parliamentary sanction. In the case of a very recently secured recreation ground at Mill Hill, Hendon, open space compensation had to be provided by the Middlesex County Council for part of the ground which was required for the purposes of a road, and it is very desirable that the same form of compensation should be given in other cases in which road improvements are concerned.

I am not one of those who want to find fault with His Majesty's Government for broadening roads and streets. All my life I have advocated the improvement of roads, especially of arterial roads, and if there was any chance at this. moment of this little addition increasing the efficiency of the arterial road which goes through Kensington High Street I should think twice before coming down to your Lordships' House and supporting my noble friend. But is there any such chance? Kensington High Street is the neck of the bottle. You may widen as much as you like on the Kensington Gardens side, but an immense number of vehicles will still converge on that narrow bit which you all know in Kensington High Street, and until the houses there are removed and the road is made a really good, wide arterial road, the widening of the little piece alluded to by the noble Lord will be useless. It may be years before anything is done, but when the time comes that Kensington desires to have a wide road the matter can be dealt with. In the meantime practically nothing could pass over this little widened bit of road and motor cars would be held up in attempting to get through the neck of the bottle. Therefore, I say that you should widen that bottle-neck first of all and then go to the Government, if you like, and say: "Now is your time to give the piece of ground" which they are now proposing to hand over. It would be very well, I think, if this matter could be delayed. There is a strong feeling in the country against meddling with our open spaces, and I most sincerely hope that before any definite answer is given His Majesty's Government will examine the Acts of Parliament I have mentioned and see whether they cannot do something in the direction indicated by my noble friend. Lord Gorell.


My Lords, with the indulgence of your Lordships I should like to say one word on this Question as I happen to be a member of the Kensington Borough Council which has been attacked rather severely by the noble Lord opposite. He has called us Philistines; he has suggested that we have done something in a cynical, servile way, and has accused us of doing things in a secretive manner. I am just as jealous as my noble friend of the preservation of open spaces. When my attention was called to this matter I went into it in as critical a spirit as possible and I am perfectly satisfied that the case for the widening is made out. This is a very old story. The questioning of the widening of Kensington High Street has occupied the attention of the Kensington Borough Council for the last fifteen or twenty years. Kensington High Street is one of the main arteries out of London and it is obviously important that it should be widened if it can be widened. It is equally obvious that it is of no use widening it in one or two places unless it can be widened at the neck of the bottle.

The noble Lord, Lord Gorell, is not quite right in some of his facts. He says there is no project, or no visible sign of a project, for widening eastward from Young Street to Kensington Gardens. In that I am glad to say that he is mistaken. The reason he gave was that a new store has been erected on the north side, and there is also, he said, the Royal Palace Hotel. That is perfectly true, but at the point between Young Street and Kensington Gardens the widening will take place on the south side. When the negotiations first started twenty years ago the Office of Works decided that it was impossible to do anything about Kensington Gardens because it was not possible to widen right through. Since then an arrangement has been made or practically completed whereby the widening from the Metropolitan Railway Station to Young Street will take place and it is the settled policy of the Council to continue the widening eastward on that side. We have every reason to suppose that that will be attended with success.

The noble Lord was quite right in saying that there was an angle there. That angle was the very reason why it was desirable to shave off that comer of the Gardens in order to make the curve more level on the way round. I think that at the back of the noble Lord's mind there is a suspicion that some of the larger ratepayers of Kensington are getting something out of this in the way of parking places for their cars, or something of that kind. I have probed into the matter and I can assure him that as far as I can discover any suspicions of the kind are entirely baseless. The Office of Works has agreed with regard to the piece of land in question, and it is perfectly true that the whole widening will not be carried out this year or next, but we believe it is just as well to get on with the work while we can. In regard to the trees, I have every sympathy with my noble friend. He states that several large trees will be cut down. I have been into that matter with particular care. I find that it is true that several small trees will be cut down, but no big ones. I hope that the one big tree which is affected will remain in the footpath of the roadway.

As to the accusation that there was some secrecy about the way in which the Kensington Borough Council dealt with this question, it is perfectly true that the matter went through at a meeting of the Council somewhat late in the evening, and if it went through without discussion I think it was because the merits of the matter were perfectly well known to those who were present. There is a very vociferous minority of Labour members in the Kensington Borough Council, and I think your Lordships can be quite sure that if they had, any opportunity of making trouble they would be only too glad to take advantage of it. I wanted to say those few words in defence of the Kensington Borough Council because I am able to say quite frankly that in this matter I think they have a perfectly clean sheet.


My Lords, the Question asked by the noble Lord opposite is .…whether permission has been given to the Kensington Borough Council to curtail the acreage of Kensington Gardens, and, if so, on what grounds.… Let us see, first of all, what is the exact area of the land in question. The area of Kensington Gardens is 275 acres and the strip proposed, not to be eliminated but to be thrown into the roadway is about three-eighths of an acre in extent; it is, that is to say, 1,830 square yards. Nobody dislikes or detests more strongly than myself, as I have stated in your Lordships' House more than once, ally curtailment of the area of the parks. No one is more conscious than I am of the magnificence of our parks and the tremendous advantages they give to our people for recreation and refreshment. If only I could give your Lordships a list of the number of suggestions that I have refused for the erection of buildings and other obstructions in the parks I think von would realise that I am a trustworthy guardian of these parks.

The next thing I detest most strongly is the cutting down of a tree. I would sooner, if I may say so without disrespect to your Lordships, sacrifice, I will not say almost any one of your Lordships, but one of your Lordships, rather than I would sacrifice a tree in any of the parks. I have gone carefully over these trees, and there really is only one, as the noble Lord behind me stated, which is of any importance as a tree, and that is a sycamore. I walked round that tree several times in the hope of seeing whether it could or could not be spared. I am not sure about it, but if it is possible to leave it in the roadway without causing unnecessary obstruction I shall take good care that that shall be done. Really, therefore, I think you can dismiss the question of the trees.

The noble Lord was perfectly right in his history of this question. It is about twenty years old and I am rather surprised to find that the noble Lord opposite (Lord Gorell) seems to think it has sprung up like a thief in the night and that nobody has become aware of it until the last twenty minutes. Apart from the discussions that have taken place on previous occasions, only last March there appeared a long account of all this in The Times. I do not know whether the noble Lord only reads The Times months lifter it is issued, but there it was four months ago for all the world to read. It is not my business to defend the Borough Council or any other council, but I think it is rather absurd to suggest that this was surrounded with mystery until the noble Lord discovered it.

I was also a little surprised to find that the noble Lord passed over rather lightly the putting of 1,830 square yards into the roadway. I take a very serious view of the slightest curtailment of the park. The noble Lord spoke as though he did not mind the land that was being thrown into the roadway in the Marble Arch improvement. That was 6,300 square yards, four times the amount involved here. The noble Lord was perfectly satisfied with that, but he is disturbed over this 1,800 yards. Further, I rather regret that he should have suggested that an improvement of this kind was being carried out in this rather underhand manner apparently for the benefit of some large shop in Kensington. I have no interest in these large shops in Kensington and I think it is rather an unworthy suggestion that an improvement of this kind can be worked or managed simply on the influence of some shop.

The grounds on which this slice of park is to be cut off are much wider and far more grave than were suggested by the noble Lord. The great pressure comes from two authorities in London—not from the Borough Council at all, but from the Ministry of Transport and from the Police. I have always felt in these cases that the one thing that would make one more lenient towards any suggestion of this kind is the great and dominating argument of public safety and this matter has been pressed so strongly upon us, both by the Police and by the Ministry of Transport, that, much as one may dislike agreeing to anything of this kind, it is very difficult indeed to resist pressure exerted by such powerful authorities as those I have named. That really is where the whole pressure comes from and I think that that fact, in itself, is an answer to what the noble Lard, Lord Gore11, has said about there being no congestion at this spot. The authorities whose business it is to look after congestion are very much impressed by this congestion.

There is one curious fact that I confess was new to me, and that has reference to what is called "the bottle neck." The noble Lord thought that opposite Kensington Gardens there was no necessity for any widening, that further down the Kensington Road was narrower and that, therefore, if you widened at Kensington Gardens you would only make the situation worse. The noble Lord made those statements in good faith, but you have only to test the matter by looking at the map and you will find that the statement of the noble Lord is not accurate, because the narrow part of the road is precisely opposite the widest part of the strip that is proposed to be taken from Kensington Gardens. The road narrows to 53 feet there and, if you look all the way down to the westward, you will find that the road is everywhere wider than 53 feet.

As I have already observed, this is an old matter. It is twenty years old and has been brought again and again before the Office of Works. It has always been refused unless it were to be part of a general widening and improvement and it is only on the direct pledge of the local authorities concerned that this road right through is to be widened up to eighty feet that one would think of assenting to any proposal of the kind. This is a great main traffic road and the improvement is urged upon us by the Police and the Transport authorities. The noble Lord has suggested that there is going to be a widening at this point opposite the park side, that then there is to be a gap where there is to be no widening, and that there is to be a further area widened on the south side as far as the Metropolitan Railway Station, in respect of which negotiations are already proceeding, with the assistance of the County Council. Not one part but the whole of the road is to be widened. Nobody in his senses would agree to anything else and I am rather surprised that the noble Lord suggested that any licence would be given to widening unless the whole area were to be widened. This is all part of one large scheme for widening the whole road to eighty feet.

I think your Lordships will have some sympathy with me in the position in which I am placed. You know how I detest these diminutions in any form, but when you are faced with the fact that you are going to obstruct the widening of a great main traffic road running out of London it is extremely difficult for any First Commissioner of works to resist such an appeal. People whom I occasionally call "the Philistines" are always pressing for great roads through the Park and other places, and I am inclined to think that one is in a far stronger position to resist such requests, which really would diminish the amenity and attractions of the Park, if you agree when a scheme of this kind, cutting off a strip as part of a great through traffic improvement in London, is urged.

If you resist such an appeal there is some danger of being regarded as rather unreasonable in these matters, and you would not be so well able to resist the tremendous pressure of public or traffic opinion when it urged you to make a larger road through the Park. Therefore, while I view this reduction of the Park with great regret—though it is not more than one-eighth of one per cent. of the whole area of Kensington Gardens—I think that in this case the demands of traffic and the security of the public are over-riding considerations. Although one does it with great regret, one must assent to it. I hope your Lordships will agree to this small strip being taken out of the Park and put into the roadway, not only for the benefit of traffic, but for the safety of the public.


My Lords, after what has fallen both from my noble friend the First Commissioner of Works and also from my noble friend Lord Balfour of Burleigh I shall not press the matter further, but there are one or two observations I think I ought to make arising out of what has been said. I never maintained that the present path opposite the Gardens was wider than the path between Young Street and the end of the Gardens. What I said was that there was no congestion at all opposite the end of the Gardens and that there was serious congestion further westward. That that is proved is, I think, evident from the fact that the traffic authorities which the noble Viscount quoted do not allow omnibuses to stop westward though they do allow them to stop opposite the piece which is intended to be widened. The noble Viscount made no reference whatever to the fact that there is now a cabstand always occupied with taxi-cabs and a cab shelter standing in this part which it is proposed to widen. The noble Viscount made no reference whatever to that part of my observations.

It was a very great relief for me to hear that this was a definite part of a complete scheme, because in reading the official report of the Borough Council meeting I find no mention whatever of any scheme for widening the middle portion. That, it is satisfactory to hear from the First Commissioner of Works, is a definite promise and I am very glad to hear it. I was also glad to hear what both my noble friends had to say about the trees, though I cannot see how the widening is going to he done without losing at least half a dozen trees. Though I am not slender enough to interpose myself between the railings and the sycamore as the noble Viscount seems to have done, I have very carefully scrutinised the trees standing on each side of the path and it seems to me that either trees will be left in the roadway in front of cars or else will jut out in front of pedestrians. But I am very glad to hear that the First Commissioner is satisfied that there will not be more than one tree less and it may not even be that.


I did not quite say that. What I said was that there was really only one tree of importance. There may be three or four other trees which would only come in the third class.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.