HL Deb 22 May 1947 vol 147 cc1057-61

2.36 p.m.

LORD METHUEN rose to ask His Majesty's Government to consider scheduling Kings Weston, near Bristol, as an Ancient Monument, and to have its 18th Century fireplaces, etc., replaced; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name. Kings Weston is a house of historical as well as architectural interest. It was built by Vanbrugh in 1723 and embellished some fifty years later (probably in 1778) by Capability Brown, who at that time was laying out its gardens. I hope the Minister will see his way to protect this house and its amenities by scheduling it, or possibly by listing it, for it is hoped that the house and grounds may in time be rehabilitated. It used to be one of the show places of our West Country. I would also like to suggest that the freestone that is stacked on the promises, and which came from the recently demolished part of the house, should not be removed, as this will probably be required for use again. I beg to move for Papers.

2.39 p.m.


My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Methuen, has pointed out, Kings Weston was built in 1720 by Sir John Vanbrugh. It was one of the smaller country houses for which he was responsible. I understand that the house was occupied as a residence until the end of 1937, when it was bought by the trustees of the Bristol Municipal Charities, on behalf of Queen Elizabeth's Hospital, for use as a school. Plans for its conversion were drawn up by a well-known and distinguished firm of architects and before being accepted were carefully considered to make sure that the fine character of the Vanbrugh house would not be injured. The alterations proposed involved the demolition of the kitchen wing of the house, which was not designed by Vanbrugh but was added about 100 years ago and was, I understand, generally considered to detract from the appearance of the house. In the place of this wing, an addition was planned to be of stone and stucco and in keeping with the rest of the house. Work on the extensions was begun in 1939. The demolitions were completed and the new walls were about ten feet high at the outbreak of war, when, of course, the work had necessarily to be brought to a halt. Resumption of the work to complete the extensions to the building is held up by the shortages of materials and the fact that, in the present difficult circumstances, a permit cannot yet be issued to allow the work to proceed.

During the war, and until July of last year, the house was requisitioned for Service purposes. During the assault on the Continent it was used as a staging camp. Some Nissen huts had to be put up in the grounds, but these are still required for the accommodation of workmen who are enlarging a nearby airfield, and for whom there is no other accommodation available. I am glad to say, however, that the work is expected to be completed in a few months, when it seems likely that derequisitioning will be possible. The occupation of the house by troops has inevitaby brought about a certain amount of damage. I am assured that not a great deal of harm has been done to the house itself—the main fabric is virtually intact. More serious effects, however, were felt in the ground as some cedar trees were cut down and some of the garden buildings damaged In particular, one of the marble statues has been overturned and broken and the head is now missing. Compensation for damage to the building is in process of settlement, and a claim in respect of other damage is being prepared. I am sure we all regret that the house and grounds should have suffered damage, but I think it should be regarded and accepted as part of the inevitable price of our all-out war effort and its aftermath, to be repaired as soon as, and so far as, cumstances will permit.

As regards the proposed extension, it is the intention of the Bristol Municipal Charities to proceed with that when conditions are more favourable than they are to-day. It is unfortunately true that part of the extension projects over the line of the "Vista" from the eastern front to the banqueting loggia. But the boundary of the site owned by the Bristol Municipal Charities is, on this side, so close to the house that it was probably not possible to avoid the encroachment. To prohibit the extension would be a serious matter for the present owners. The new wing is essential if the property is to be used for the purpose for which it was purchased. I suggest to your Lordships that, as a matter of principle, it is better that these old and distinguished homes should continue to live and serve some public purpose, rather than that they should lie idle and wasting as empty shells. I am sure it would be generally agreed that there is no better way of keeping a house in good condition than by its being lived in and properly cared for under responsible ownership. That will be the case with Kings Weston when the school is able to take up its abode there.

In the meanwhile Kings Weston is in good hands. The trustees have its best interests at heart. They have appointed an excellent caretaker, who keeps the house dry and well tended. When it was requisitioned, the fireplaces, which were practically the only interior fitments left by the previous owner, were safely stored away from possible damage. The trustees have assured me that, so far as possible, they have every intention of replacing these fireplaces in their earlier positions in the house. Owing to the extension to the house and projected altered functions of some of the rooms, one or two will not, in fact, be replaced; but I should mention in this connexion that only two of them form part of the original building, the remainder having been added later.

I now come to the question that Kings Weston should be scheduled as an Ancient Monument, as an insurance to preserve it from harm in the future. I am sure there will be general approval for the proposal that the house should be protected. We are entirely in agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Methuen, about that, but we differ as to the best method of achieving this aim. As your Lordships are aware, where a building is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments Acts, the owner, before carrying out any demolition, addition, or alteration, has to give the Minister of Works three months' notice of his intention. During this period, if the Minister considers that the proposals are likely to harm the building's essential character, he has power to issue a preservation order to protect it. But there is a proviso in the Act to the effect that buildings occupied as dwelling houses, other than by a caretaker or his family, are outside its scope. Consequently, it was not possible so to schedule Kings Weston while the previous owner was in occupation. It is quite true that it could be scheduled now; but if this were done the need to give notice of alterations, and the power to issue preservation orders, would lapse as soon as the building once again came into use as a dwelling place—as it would when it became a school. Nevertheless, although the Minister would have no control over the care of the building, it would still remain scheduled and for this reason would be exempted from protection under another power.

This other power is that given by Section 42 of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1944, or, in a more comprehensive form, by Clause 28 of the new Town and Country Planning Bill which will come before your Lordships House for consideration immediately after the Whitsun recess. It is provided that buildings of special architectural or historic interest should be included in lists prepared by the local planning authority or by the Minister. Once the building is listed in this way, the owner must give three months' notice to the local authority of any intention to demolish or seriously to alter the structure. If it is desired to stop such work, there will be power to issue a building preservation order. This order may be issued by the local planning authority, with the approval of the Minister, but in default the Minister himself will have power to issue such an order if necessary. This power, and also the obligation of the owner to give, notice, are not affected by the question as to whether or not the house is a dwelling place. It may be accepted that Kings Weston will be so listed by the local planning authority or by the Minister, and I think I may add that if at any time a building preservation order should be considered necessary it will be issued.

I think your Lordships will agree that the action which the Government have in mind will be effective. If hope also that it will satisfy my noble friend, Lord Methuen. I can assure him that our aim is his aim—namely, to assure that this and other beautiful old houses, which we all regard as such precious heritages, shall be preserved from possible decay by neglect or damage through ill-considered action. As a final word, I would like to express our gratitude to the noble Lord for bringing this question to notice, and for the opportunity it has given me to tell your Lordships of the intentions of the Government in the matter.


I wish to thank the noble Lord very much indeed for his assurance. I think it will go a very long way to calm our fears about Kings Weston. I make no apology at all for bringing this matter up. It at least has given the Minister a chance of airing his views on the matter, for which we are extremely grateful. That, in itself, has been an assurance, not only in the case of Kings Weston, but for many houses which must be threatened, or shortly be threatened when they are de-requisitioned, because it is no longer possible for private individuals to live in these large houses. They are expensive and, as the noble Lord has said, to survive they must find a new use. In that matter I am entirely in agreement with him. I thank him for his assurance, and we hope that Kings Weston will find better days. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

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