HL Deb 21 November 1950 vol 169 cc389-93

2.40 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to ask the second Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask His Majesty's Government whether, in view of the enhanced prospect from Parliament Square revealed by the demolition of the old Westminster Hospital, they are prepared to re-consider their intention to erect the new Colonial Office on the hospital site.]


My Lords, I must apologise to your Lordships for the length of my reply, but in view of the public interest in this matter since the noble Lord's Question appeared on the Order Paper, the Government consider that a full statement should be made.

As long ago as October 11, 1946, the Government announced their intention to build a new Colonial Office on the site opposite Westminster Abbey which was occupied by Westminster Hospital and the old Stationery Office. In a statement issued at that time, it was explained that until the project could be realised the Colonial Office would be accommodated temporarily in Church House, Westminster, and the adjacent Sanctuary Buildings. It was explained that the building then occupied by the Colonial Office in Downing Street was entirely inadequate, not only to house the staff but also to provide suitable amenities for the reception of the many visitors from overseas. The staff were dispersed in five separate buildings in different parts of London in addition to the main building in Downing Street. It was stated that to provide a more fitting Headquarters for the Colonial Empire the Government proposed to acquire the site formerly occupied by Westminster Hospital, and that immediate plans were being put in hand for the design and construction of a new Colonial Office on that site and that of the old Stationery Office.

Your Lordships may recollect that before the war this site was acquired by private interests, who proposed to erect on it a modern commercial office block. The First Commissioner of Works, as he then was, had been charged under the Westminster Hospital Act of 1913 with the duty of safeguarding the national interests in regard to any development of this site, and he caused the first plans for the proposed commercial office block, which went up to a height of 128 feet, to be very considerably revised. In their revised form these plans were accepted by all the authorities concerned, including the London County Council and the Royal Fine Art Commission, but the outbreak of war prevented their being proceeded with. In 1946 the Middlesex County Council proposed to acquire the site for the erection of additional offices for themselves, and a draft compulsory purchase order was in fact published. In order to secure this site at the heart of the Empire for national purposes, the Government introduced a Bill in 1947 which later became the Public Offices (Site) Act, 1947.

The Act was passed for the express purpose of acquiring the site of the old Westminster Hospital for public offices. When the Bill was before the House it was stated that the site would be used for the erection of a new Colonial Office, and the proposal commanded general approval, without question or dissent. No vote was taken in either House, and there was a ready acceptance of the statement by my right honourable friend Lord Henderson, who moved the Second Reading of the Bill on the 10th July, 1947, that there is no more worthy use for this fine position than as the headquarters of our Colonial Empire. During the passage of the Bill, and particularly during the discussion in Select Committee in another place, full consideration was given to the limits which should be imposed on the size of the new building, and the Site Act does in fact contain provisions embodying what Parliament then decided. The plans of the proposed new building are, of course, in conformity with these provisions.

As I have explained to your Lordships, the Royal Fine Art Commission had already approved designs for a building which covered the hospital site to the full extent permitted under the Westminster Hospital Act of 1913. The Government had in 1947 agreed, in order to meet the views of the town planning authority, to a further setting back of the building lines; but when the plans of the proposed building were submitted to the Royal Fine Art Commission, that body departed from its former opinion as to the proper development of this site and represented strongly that the new building should be set back so far as to leave the old site, which had by then been acquired at a cost of over £400,000, almost entirely vacant.

Your Lordships will appreciate that it is the duty of the Ministry of Works to plan its buildings in consultation with the client Department and in conformity with its requirements. In this case full compliance with the revised views of the Royal Fine Art Commission would have made the building too small to house the Colonial Office, and thus made it impossible to use the site for the purpose for which Parliament had authorised its acquisition. Furthermore, important financial considerations were involved, as well as the question of amenity. The Ministry of Works therefore re-examined the whole question in consultation with the Royal Fine Art Commission, the Ministry of Town and Country Planning and the Treasury, to see how far the views of the Commission could be reconciled with the requirements of the Colonial Office and the ever-present need to economise in public expenditure. The elevation was redesigned and the resultant compromise, which was accepted as such by the Com-mission, was admitted by the town planning authority to be within the limits of density of development proposed for the area. This envisaged the surrender of over a third of this most valuable hospital site for amenity purposes. The cost of the area to be surrendered is approximately £150,000. This will greatly improve the amenities of the area, and the prospect of the Abbey and other surrounding buildings. The adjacent roads, Princes Street and Broad Sanctuary, are to be widened, and the new building has been designed by an eminent private architect.

I have gone into this matter in some detail in order to show your Lordships that this question, which His Majesty's Government are now being asked to reconsider, was in fact reconsidered in all its aspects by the proper authorities in 1948, when the present plans were settled. Your Lordships will appreciate that in addition to the very considerable cost of the site, large expenditure has also been incurred in connection with the preparation of the plans. Contracts for the preliminary foundation work should soon be placed, and demolition of the old Stationery Office has already begun. The present position is that in accordance with the decision taken in 1946 and the provision of the Public Offices (Site) Act, 1947, the new Colonial Office is to be built on the combined site of the Stationery Office and Westminster Hospital. The new office is urgently needed.

I would add that a great deal has been and is being done to improve the amenities in this area. Your Lordships are aware of the extension of the area of Parliament Square, which is already proceeding, at a very considerable cost. This has been made possible by the purchase of land on the west side of the Square to which the Government contributed £130,000. As stated in the original Government announcement in 1946, the object of the Colonial Office rebuilding scheme was—and here I quote from the statement: A building … in keeping with the historic surroundings and worthily expressing the high value which the people and Government of this country place on the friendship and co-operation of the Colonial peoples.


My Lords, whilst thanking the noble Lord very much for his full and helpful reply, may I ask him the following two supplementary questions. First, do His Majesty's Government think that the arrival of several thousand additional civil servants in this particular area is going to ease the already overbearing traffic problem in the centre of London? Secondly, will the noble Lord not agree that it was not until the Westminster Hospital had been actually pulled down that the public had a chance to realise what a wonderful opportunity we had of enhancing the whole of this unique site?


In regard to the first supplementary question, I am advised that no additional civil servants will be brought into this area as a consequence of the use of this building. The staff of the Colonial Office are at present housed in five different departments, but all are in the same vicinity. With regard to the second supplementary question, the fact is that the Act of Parliament was passed through both Houses of Parliament, and went through a Committee stage without any vote being taken in either House of Parliament. Surely amongst the members of your Lordships' House, as well as amongst Members of another place, there was sufficient imagination to realise then what the result would be without waiting until the contracts were about to be let for the commencement of the new building.


Would it be possible for the Government to put a picture or sketch of this building in its final design in the Library of the House?


I myself see no objection, and I will inquire whether that can be done.


Would there be any objection to the publication of the design in the national newspapers?


I do not know of any objection to that.


May I ask His Majesty's Government whether a model has been prepared? Because I feel that a model would be of great use in this vexed question.


I have not personally seen a model, but I will inquire whether there is one and I will let the noble Lord know.