HL Deb 09 July 1957 vol 204 cc886-908

6.35 p.m.

LORD SILKIN rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are prepared to take all possible steps to save the St. James's Theatre. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to ask the very short Question standing in my name on the Order Paper—namely, whether the Government are prepared to take all possible steps to save the St. James's Theatre. I hope that this House will forgive me if, for as short a time as I can, I give some of the background to the Question that I am asking. Most of it will be familiar to your Lordships, and I will therefore be quite brief.

The St. James's Theatre was built in 1835, and therefore is one of the two remaining Georgian theatres in London. It has had a long and distinguished history and tradition. I need only mention a few names of famous actors and actresses who have been associated with the theatre. Sir George Alexander had a long tenancy as actor-manager. Mrs. Patrick Campbell was a sensation in The Second Mrs. Tanqueray. The theatre saw the first performance of The Importance of Being Earnest, The Prisoner of Zenda and The Last of Mrs. Cheyney. I am sure that the very titles bring back nostalgic feelings to many of your Lordships. There have been many other famous performances at this theatre. Since the war it has been the London home for a festival and repertory theatre from all over the country, arranged and financed by the Arts Council. No doubt noble Lords will have seen Sir Laurence Olivier in Anthony and Cleopatra and Cœsar and Cleopatra. Many foreign countries have used this theatre for special seasons, including the Comédie Française and the Jean-Louis Barrault Company—and so I can go on. The theatre has, I think, an almost unique history in the theatrical world.

In 1954 an application was made to the London County Council for approval, in principle, of a scheme to pull down the theatre and for the erection of a block of offices. The London County Council gave approval. I think that if that application had been made to-day undoubtedly it would have been refused. Everybody recognises that to-day in that part of London there is a superfluity of offices—indeed, the Minister at that time, Mr. Duncan Sandys, actually prohibited the London County Council from giving planning consent for change of user into offices. Why the London County Council gave their consent in principle, I cannot say. No doubt it was a mistaken decision; I think they would be the first to admit it. But I should be the last to blame them. They get many thousands of applications. I was myself chairman of a town planning committee of the London County Council for five years, and I should be the last to say that it is impossible for that Committee to have made a mistake during that period. But I think they would frankly admit that they were mistaken.

After giving that decision, unfortunately, when the detailed application came along they felt themselves bound to approve the decision to change the user and to approve the plans; and last month the London County Council gave formal approval. The applicants are not being slow in making use of that approval. If one is to accept the statements in the Press they propose to begin demolishing the theatre next month.

I want to make just one point about the way in which these applications are made. I am not criticising, but it is a fact that very often the general public know nothing about an application until it is too late. If the public had had an opportunity of knowing that this application in detail was being made, public opinion would, I believe, have been sufficiently aroused to make itself heard and felt. But public opinion had no opportunity because it did not know that the application was being made. Indeed, between 1954 and the present day the general impression throughout the country remained that this matter was not being proceeded with because the Government were opposed to the change of user into offices in that area.

Consent has, however, been given, and we have the extraordinary paradox that a theatre which I believe everybody would recognise is required and should remain in existence is being demolished, and that a block of offices, which everyone would recognise is not essential in that area at the present time, is to take its place. Why are we in that position? I believe that, but for the question of compensation, the London County Council would be only too glad to revoke the consent which they felt obliged to give. They have the power to revoke the decision, as has the Minister. I need hardly inform the noble Lord who is to reply (he is as well aware of it as I am) that under Section 100 of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947, there is power to revoke a decision at any time; but I recognise that the same Act (I believe by Section 22) requires that in those circumstances compensation must be paid.

The leader of the London County Council recently stated quite bluntly that the Council would have revoked the decision but for the fact that compensation has to be paid, and that he thought it was unfair to burden ratepayers of London with that compensation. There is a general feeling prevalent that the amount of compensation would be in the neighbourhood of £50,000, though I do not know where that figure comes from. To me, it sounds greatly excessive, in view of the terms of the Act, because— again speaking of what one reads—the actual cost of converting the theatre into offices is only £200,000; therefore a figure of £50,000 as compensation for revocation would seem to me excessive. But I am not at this moment quarrelling with the figure; and even if it were £50,000 I feel that that money would be exceedingly well spent in protecting one of our priceless heritages.

Since the war, we have already lost eight theatres in London. London is increasingly becoming one of the world's tourist centres and the theatre is one of the places to which tourists naturally gravitate. There is an increasing need for theatres. It may be asked why any particular individual should therefore be required to run a theatre at a loss. As a matter of fact, the St. James's Theatre has never been run at a loss except in the early years of its existence. I have seen the published figures of net profits, and in recent years, and certainly since the war, it has made a profit every year. I do not say there has been an enormous profit, or that it would not be a more profitable undertaking to build offices: but certainly in the last five years the theatre has made a substantial profit. There is therefore no excuse on that ground. The theatre can be run at a profit and with a view to rendering a public service.

Her Majesty's Government have themselves recognised the importance of the living theatre. In this year's Budget they abolished, at a cost of £2¼ million, the entertainments tax on the living theatre. I praise the Government for their attitude towards the living theatre, but it seems to me rather strange that they should do that on the one hand and yet, on the other, boggle at the amount of compensation that might be payable in order to preserve this historic theatre. I want to appeal to Her Majesty's Government, in the strongest possible terms, first to take steps to revoke the decision. There is a great urgency in the matter. If nothing is done, there is the threat that demolition will actually begin in the next few weeks; so, in order to hold the position, some step must be taken immediately. I appeal to Her Majesty's Government, who I am sure recognise the value of this theatre to the tourist industry, and also to the cultural life of the country, to preserve one of the few surviving theatrical monuments. It may well be that, at the end of the day, it may not be possible even to provide the necessary money as compensation; but at least let there be sufficient time and opportunity to see what can be done by those who are lovers of the theatre and anxious to preserve it. For these reasons, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, will be able to give an assurance that "first aid" steps will be taken forthwith to see that this matter does not go by default. It will then be possible to see what active steps can be taken to preserve this theatre.

6.47 p.m.


My Lords, I should like strongly to support the line taken by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, in his Unstarred Question. Each year the treasures of this kind that we have in this country, our historical buildings, seem to get in shorter and shorter supply, and actually have to be sought out; whereas in my youth one seemed to be able to go round the corner and find some building which one looked upon with real pleasure as a reminder of past beauties. It is rather a paradox that this plea for conservation should have come originally from the Benches opposite the Party of conservation, but I have no doubt that from those Benches, too, there will be support for the view of the noble' Lord, Lord Silkin.

Speaking from Benches which are in opposition for longer periods than those of any other Party, I have noticed that it is always the Government who are reluctant to take the kind of steps which we are now urging. I remember that when the Labour Party were in power I urged them not to spoil the surroundings of Westminster Abbey by going too far with the new Colonial Office building; and there were many other projects, such as the Westminster Precinct site, which were shelved time and time again. Now it is a Conservative Government who jib; and yet, talking to them individually, whether Ministers or Back Benchers, one finds them fully appreciative of these beautiful things and as anxious as anybody else to preserve them; so that it would look as if it were the Department behind which was difficult. But if one approaches civil servants one finds them extremely civil, appreciative and sympathetic, and I am sure the difficulty does not lie there. There seems to be an innate obstinacy which is not in the Government or in the Department behind them. I hope that this little debate tonight will make them loosen up and give the concession which the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, seeks.

6.50 p.m.


My Lords, I rise very strongly to support the appeal made by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, and supported by the noble Lord, Lord Rea. I am convinced that we are intervening to stop a blunder that will be deeply injurious to London, and deeply injurious to the reputation of Her Majesty's Government. I want to make a few perfectly simple points. The first point mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, is: for what purpose is it proposed to demolish this theatre? It is proposed to demolish this theatre in order that it may be replaced by a seven-storey office block to attract more office workers to the St. James's district. This is contrary to the declared policy of Her Majesty's Government.

I do not know how many noble Lords have had an opportunity of studying the last Annual Report, the Report for last year, of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. I do not wish to quote from that Report at length, but I should like to refer the House to two or three admirable paragraphs in the current number of the Economist, headed: "St. James's and the Octopus". It rightly connects this problem of St. James's Theatre with the question of attracting all these further office workers into this district—a matter to which the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, quite rightly referred. May I just read these few sentences from these paragraphs: Between 1948 and 1955, employment in the London region was growing half as fast again as in the country generally, and 35 million square feet of office space were built or licensed for central London. This tidal wave of office building foreshadows a still further increase in the number of jobs. As the proportion of London wives and dependants who go out to work is already extremely high, these jobs can only be filled by immigrants to London from other parts of the country. Where are they going to live? Then, the Economist analyses some of the possibilities and comes to the inevitable conclusion that these people will have to make long daily journeys from outside London. The final words of the paragraphs are these: Unless the Government bestirs itself to preventive and curative measures—by switching some office building elsewhere, if it is only to the suburbs, and by at least keeping pace with traffic requirements—the octopus of over-concentration which throttled St. James's threatens to bring all London still nearer to a standstill. I believe that those are the views of Her Majesty's Government themselves. Those are the views that follow inevitably from a study of the Ministry's last annual Report. So the first point I would put before the House is this simple and clear one: that the purpose for which this theatre is to be destroyed is to do something which, by the admission of the Government themselves, is contrary to the public interest. That is point number one. Point number two is that, in order to carry out this anti-social purpose, it is proposed to destroy one of the three or four most beautiful theatres in London. It is as though a thing undesirable in itself were made more tolerable because a great act of vandalism was to be associated with it. That is the second point, the destruction of a beautiful and valuable theatre.

Let me now come to the third point, which again was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin—it is, again, not unimportant. The planning authority themselves admit that the decision is a wrong one. There has been no attempt by the London County Council to defend the planning decision on its merits—none whatever. This, in effect, is what the London County Council say: "If we reverse a bad decision then, under the Statute, it will involve us in a payment." The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, said that the figure of £50,000 had been mentioned as a possible amount. That was mentioned by my right honourable friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government in another place. But I agree, and the Minister will probably agree, that there is no certainty as to the figure. That figure is an estimate of what flows from correcting a decision which is admitted to be erroneous.

In these circumstances, what is the Minister's duty? I cannot quote verbatim what the Minister said in answer to a series of Parliamentary Questions in another place, but I can say that he admitted—as indeed he was bound to, because it is the fact—that he is responsible, under the Statutes, for the right use of land. I think it is not a mere coincident that the first speech in this debate was made by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, who for so long occupied the important post of Minister of Town and Country Planning, and he is being supported from these Benches by the former junior Minister who had the honour of piloting through another place the two Acts of 1943 which gave authority to the Minister of Town and Country Planning and powers now inherited by the Minister of Housing and Local Government. Under them the Minister himself (it is not a question of the local authorities) is responsible for the right use of land. The default powers he is given for correcting blunders by local authorities are not for use merely accordingly to his whim: they are for use to carry out the national purpose of the right use of land everywhere, and to correct a blunder in the use of land into which a local authority, for whatever reason, may fall.

Does the Minister dispute that this is a wrong use of land? Not at all! He has declared himself generally in agreement with his predecessor, Mr. Duncan Sandys, who mentioned this case of the St. James's Theatre as one that "slipped through". Mr. Duncan Sandys, as Lord Silkin pointed out, was by no means without hope of preventing what Lord Silkin and I are now anxious to prevent. But he himself, by implication, described the planning consent as a blunder. The words "slipped through" are applicable only to a blunder. How then can the Minister justify not using his undoubted powers? What is the reason he gives? He does not say that this is a right planning decision. Not a bit of it! He deplores the result as much as anybody. He deplores what is to go up in place of this theatre. He deplores the destruction of this theatre. What, then, is the reason he gives? The reason he gives is that, if the blunder were corrected, then, under Statute, a sum would become payable by the London County Council.

I have long known the Minister, as have many other noble Lords, and we all know that there is not a more conscientious man in politics. I am quite certain that throughout this affair he has been anxious to do the right thing, and is so anxious to-day; but in all seriousness I wish to express a legal doubt, which I hope will be considered by the best legal brains in the Government, on whether he is being correctly advised by his Department on what are the considerations which he ought to have in mind in deciding whether to intervene to save this theatre.

In my respectful submission on the law, what he has to consider is: Is the proposed development consistent with Government policy on the use of land? Is it in accordance with Government policy that the theatre should be destroyed on this spot and that a great new office building should be put up there? If the answer is, "No; that conflicts with Government policy," then, in my submission, he must, or at least he ought to, take the steps which are within his power to prevent the blunder. It is not a relevant consideration, and he ought to be so advised, that the reversal of a blunder would lead under Statute to an expenditure of money; and the fact that he has sympathy with the local authority which wishes to avoid that result is not, in my respectful submission on the law, a proper consideration which ought to govern and decide his mind on this issue.

Under Section 100 of the 1947 Act, to which the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, referred, of course the Minister must consult the planning authority. But the decision that he comes to must be his own. If the planning decision is a right one, of course he will not interfere with it; but if it is not, it is his duty to interfere, whatever the financial consequences are to the local authority that made the erroneous decision. Personally, I do not find any particular outrage in the thought that the local planning authority who make a wrong decision may have to pay for their mistake. It may make them much more careful next time.

It has been questioned sometimes how far a Government should take an unpopular course when that course is right, but it is generally thought to be foolish to rush to take an unpopular course when that course is definitely wrong. This particular course, which, I suggest, as did the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, is clearly wrong, has been condemned by every daily and weekly paper, quite irrespective of Party. I do not wish to weary your Lordships with quotations, but I should like to give one from a journal with which I am not in any great sympathy. It is seldom that I quote the New Satesman with respect and in support, but I do ask your Lordships to read the article in the number of June 29, signed T.C. Worsley, which starts: So barbarism wins another triumph. It says later: Mr. I. J. Hayward and his fellow-killers on the L.C.C. planning committee can congratulate themselves on only a minor victory over the decencies. Now comes the paragraph which I wish to quote in full: Yet I, for one, should not care to be Mr. I. J. Hayward nor any other member of the Committee who decided that there was ' no reasonable course open ' but to agree to the demolition of this charming and unique little theatre whose surface has been lovingly rubbed by many fine and able craftsmen, and bears the patina of their achievements. It is not a pleasant thing to have a murder on your conscience, as they have; I wish I could think it would haunt them, one and all. I hope the histories of the theatre in the future will not forget to record, for as long as records run, the names of the assassins. And let them in justice record, too, that they ' regretted the loss of the theatre to London ' while ' seeing no other reasonable course open.' Let the insult of their crocodile tears not be forgotten either. I know that there are some who have been impressed by a letter in The Times to-day form the pen of Mr. St. John Ervine. I have often been delighted by his pen and by his work, but I would make two comments on his letter. The first is the matter so well pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin. It is simply not true that this theatre cannot pay as a theatre. It has paid, and it has paid recently. There was a long and successful run of Mr. Rattigan's Separate Tables, which many noble Lords will have enjoyed. The truth is simply that the property would pay more if exploited for a purpose which is contrary to public policy. Secondly, Mr. St. John Ervine points out that this theatre is not in Shaftesbury Avenue, which he seems to think is almost a sine qua non. That it is not there is undoubtedly true, but the implications of that statement are very dangerous because neither is Covent Garden Opera House nor the Haymarket Theatre. If that argument prevails, it will not be long probably before we are threatened with the loss of the Haymarket Theatre and Covent Garden Opera House.

If Her Majesty's Government intend to do nothing to reverse this blunder, they should have the courage to proceed to the logical conclusion: let them scrap the Planning Acts altogether. I can see no justification whatever for pretending that they are in favour of the Planning Acts and then leaving this blunder uncorrected. To-day the theatre still stands, one of the most beautiful in London. It can still prosper as a theatre. No respectable argument has been produced for pulling it down, and it is to be pulled down to be replaced by a great office building, a replacement which Her Majesty's Government have themselves stated to be contrary to the public interest and contrary to the policy which they are generally enforcing. There is undoubtedly a statutory power to stop it. But even supposing there were not; supposing it were true that there was a real difficulty in stopping this proposal, what would have happened, I ask your Lordships, if any Minister in any Administration over which Sir Winston Churchill presided had said that he was impotent to stop something which ought to be stopped?

My right honourable friend the Prime Minister is a humane and civilised man. To-day he has many great matters to occupy his attention. Nevertheless, I beg him, as an old friend, not to regard the issue which we are raising here to-night as unimportant but to give it his personal attention. It is not only the fate of the St. James's Theatre which is at stake; it is the good name of Her Majesty's Government.


My Lords, I am going to be as brief as my noble Leader, Lord Rea, and take one minute of your Lordships' time. One point which has not been brought out is the question of the artistes, the people who go to R.A.D.A. and the Webber-Douglas School. They want to play at the St. James's Theatre and the Haymarket. They love it. That, to them, is tradition, because that is where Garrick and Beerbohm Tree played. So, for Heaven's sake! let us keep the place.

7.10 p.m.


My Lords, I do not know who is the owner of the St. James's Theatre, but he decided that he wished to sell it, presumably because he found it was economically more profitable to sell it than to keep it. The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, wishes to interfere with that decision, and so do the other noble Lords who have pleaded so persuasively. I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, was a little self-contradictory when he was dealing with the material side of the question, to which he devoted the greater part of his speech, because earlier on he said that a block of offices in this neighbourhood was not wanted, not from the æsthetic point of view but from the material point of view. That, I must say, is not my experience. I find that offices in the neighbourhood of St. James's are in very short supply.


I hope the noble Lord will forgive me for interrupting. If I expressed myself not as lucidly as I should like, perhaps he will allow me to make myself clear now. I did not say that you could not let these offices. What I meant was that, from the planning point of view, the erection of offices in this area has been declared to be undesirable.


Of course, that is a different matter. From the point of view of pare economic materialism, I think it is difficult to deny that it is desirable to replace an old theatre by a modern block of offices. Noble Lords who have pleaded so persuasively desire to set that decision aside and to preserve the St. James's Theatre indefinitely as a monument of architectural interest and of dramatic historic tradition. One needs to examine that proposition, for which we must all have great respect, and see whether the case has been made out. If one were talking about the theatre at Bristol—I forget whether it is called The Royal or The King's—I should be prepared to argue in favour of the retention of that theatre. Nothing could be more inconvenient or unhygienic, both back and front, or archaic, both from the point of view of the players and the audience; I know it well, both backstage and front, and it could not be worse. But I am very ready to retain that theatre, because it is a unique example of a mid-eighteenth century theatre. There is nothing else in the country anything like it, and as long as it can be retained I hope very much that it will be, although the outside of it has no architectural merit.

Noble Lords have argued in favour of retaining the St. James's Theatre as an object of architectural merit—the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, described it I think as "a priceless gem", and the noble Lord, Lord Conesford, spoke in somewhat similar terms. They wish, no doubt, to retain both the interior and the exterior. What merits does the interior of the St. James's Theatre possess? It is simply an obsolete, inconvenient, uncomfortable old playhouse. There is nothing historic about that. It is not, as the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, said, Georgian; it was raised in the days of good King William IV. If it is desirable to retain the interior of St. James's Theatre as an example of discomfort, then it will rank only second or third among London theatres, because the Criterion and the Lyric, Hammersmith, will easily defeat it for discomfort. I venture to think that it possesses no interior merit which is worth preserving from the architectural point of view. So far as the exterior is concerned, well, it has quite a nice façade, but certainly in the immediate neighbourhood in St. James's Street there are at least four buildings with which it cannot compare in any respect. Therefore I would submit that the case for retaining the St. James's Theatre, from the architectural point of view, is not made out.

Furthermore, one must remember that opinions upon the merits of architecture differ very much. The other day I was travelling on top of a bus towards Hyde Park Corner and we passed the building which has recently been erected by the National Farmers' Union. To my old-fashioned eyes it appears to be quite a nice building; and I should have thought that it would appeal to the noble Lords, Lord Silkin and Lord Conesford, since it has certain Georgian embellishments and is not in the modern style. But behind me on the bus were two young architects—or they may have been architectural students; at any rate, they were young men in the profession of architecture. Nothing could have been more damning than their condemnation of this building as they passed They described it to each other as a monstrosity, and could not understand how any member of their profession could have been responsible for such an erection. Therefore there is a difference of opinion between people of the age of the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, and myself and those who are starting their careers. They may not, perhaps, have the same reverence for buildings like the St. James's Theatre that we have.

Turning from that, we have to consider whether it has a dramatic tradition which qualifies it to be retained indefinitely—because that is what noble Lords are asking for—as a historic monument. I submit that there are only two theatres in London, excluding the Opera House at Covent Garden, which might qualify for that honour, and those are Drury Lane and The Haymarket. I should be very sorry indeed to see, and should certainly argue strongly against, the demolition of either of those two theatres. I would submit that they have a much stronger artistic tradition than the St. James's Theatre. The noble Lord, Lord Colwyn, who spoke for a moment just now, said that Garrick appeared on the boards of the St. James's Theatre. But he cannot have thought very carefully before he spoke, because, of course, Garrick acted in his heydey just about one hundred years before St. James's Theatre was opened.

It would appear to me that the tradition, so-called, of the St. James's Theatre rests largely upon the twenty-six years' managership of Sir George Alexander. He was a most reputable and successful actor-manager, and during that period he produced a number of successful comedies: Lady Windermere's Fan, The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, The Importance of Being Earnest, His House in Order, The Prisoner of Zenda—I could go on for quite a long time. None of them were great plays, but many of them were amusing, successful plays. One or two, but not more than one or two, have since been revived. I do not think that that constitutes a historic tradition which justifies noble Lords in asking the Government to take steps to retain this theatre indefinitely as a historic monument, to be maintained by the owner, presumably—and the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, says at a profit, but I do not know how much profit. No doubt he would not have said it unless it was correct, but one cannot help remembering that about eight theatres have been closed recently in the Metropolitan area because they could not make a profit, and no complaint has been made about it.

Although Lord Silkin's and Lord Conesford's nostalgia for the St. James's Theatre is on a high plane, there may be lowbrows who consider that the tradition of the Gaiety Theatre, in their sphere of dramatic interest, was as great or even greater than that of the St. James's. That might also apply to Daly's Theatre. When we talk about the success of Sir George Alexander and refer to him as a great actor and actor-manager, let us be careful not to exaggerate those observations, because the late Mr. George Edwardes, in his sphere of dramatic art, in the eyes of many was an even greater producer of works than was Sir George Alexander. One is inclined to think, perhaps, that works like The Merry Widow, The Country Girl, The Geisha, and so on, which the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, and I enjoyed so much in the days of our youth, have been revived more than Pinero's plays and Sutro's plays in the years that have gone by, and have given greater happiness to greater numbers than the works which have been produced at the St. James's Theatre.

For those reasons, although I respect the sentiments which animate the two noble Lords and Lord Rea, who have spoken so persuasively on the subject, I submit that they have not made out a case for retaining the St. James's Theatre, and I hope that the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, will not recommend the Government to take steps to spend the ratepayers' money in Westminster in compensating the owner and undoing the permission which has been given.

7.23 p.m.


My Lords, I will not detain your Lordships for more than a few minutes at this late hour, but I should like to say to the noble Lord, Lord Blackford, that I do not think any speaker to-day has claimed that the sole reason for the retention of the St. James's Theatre should be as a historic monument. The reason why we wish to retain it is that it is one of the more successful theatres in London. Quite a lot of money was spent on it not so long ago, and I would not agree that it is an uncomfortable theatre; I think it a comfortable and an attractive theatre. I agree that it has a few disadvantages. There are, perhaps, rather more seats than there should be with which pillars interfere, but that is common to a great many of the older theatres. On the whole, it is a comfortable, attractive and a successful theatre, and, as my noble friend Lord Conesford has said, it has had quite a big success with Separate Tables. With my knowledge of the theatre, going back over twenty years, I would say that it is certainly one much above the average of the general run of theatres in London.


Then why does the owner want to sell it?


I will not say any more, because the case has been ably put by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, and the noble Lord, Lord Conesford. But it is admitted, quite frankly, that this planning permission and permission for change of user has slipped through. I believe it is contrary to public policy to have more office accommodation in that area. Possibly it is popular because the people who work in those offices can be handy to the Clubs round the corner in St. James's Street. But whether that is public policy or not, I do not know. I appeal to the Government with regard to this most unfortunate lapse which has slipped through so far: will they not let down the net of Government policy and save this theatre from going over the weir of destruction before it is too late?

7.25 p.m.


My Lords, I make no attempt to disguise my own feelings in this matter. I am a Londoner born and bred, and I pass this theatre, I suppose, half a dozen times a week. It is almost next door to my Club. I am, as the noble Lord, Lord Rea, pointed out, a Conservative. I do not like seeing anything, certainly not an old friend, disappear unless it has to. I am a keen theatregoer. I see from my programmes, which I keep, that I have been to this theatre twenty-four times in my life. My own feelings are quite immaterial to this matter. What I think is material is the facts, and some of them have gone a little astray. Perhaps I can help your Lordships to form another judgment if I lay some of the facts before you—facts which may possibly be new to you.

This matter was first heard of in January, 1955. It was heard of from Equity, who wrote expressing concern at the prospect of this theatre's loss. The Government asked the L.C.C. for a report. The L.C.C. informed the Government that in 1954 outline planning permission was given for the erection of an office block on this theatre site. Your Lordships are familiar with planning, and will understand that this means that plans have to be submitted afterwards. But it is a permission and, of course, it enhances the value of the site. What the L.C.C. apparently had in mind was this. First, they felt that the use proposed conformed with the general character of the area and its zoning in the development plan as it then stood—I should like to emphasise those words, "in the development plan as it then stood"—which they had submitted to the Minister. Secondly, they felt that the office building proposed would conform with L.C.C. planning standards. The third point which they had in mind was this—it is one which has aroused some controversy this evening. The theatre was not included in the statutory list of buildings of special architectural or historical interest, although it did appear on a supplementary list of lower grading.

May I remind your Lordships what that list involves? There is an Advisory Committee on Buildings of Special Architectural or Historical Interest. It is an influential body which sits under the able chairmanship of Sir William Holford, to whose plan we gave such an enthusiastic reception some months ago in this House. It also contains, among others, Mr. Goodhart-Rendel, Mr. John Summerson, Mr. Anthony Wagner, and the noble Lord, Lord Euston. It is the duty of that body to advise the Minister on just such points as this. For good or ill, whether we agree with them or not, they told the Minister that this building did not come in the statutory list of buildings of special architectural or historical interest. I would suggest that it is no good taking the advice of a body like that only when it suits you; you must either set them up and lake their advice or go your own way. My right honourable friend Mr. Duncan Sandys, my present lord and master at the Ministry of Defence—who was then Minister of Housing and Local Government, and whose keen interest in these matters, I think, is typified by his recent inauguration of a body known as the Civic Trust which has had a delighted and popular reception in the country—saw Mr. Prince Littler, the joint owner of the theatre, in an effort to save it. Mr. Littler told my right honourable friend that application for permission by a prospective purchaser had been made without his knowledge, or without the knowledge of his partner, Mr. Gilbert Miller. They themselves, they said, had no present intention of demolishing or selling the theatre.


What date was that?


That was in 1955. They went on to add that they were anxious to preserve the theatre if that was economically possible. Mr. Littler was not prepared to say, however, that if the permission were revoked he would forgo the compensation that could be claimed. That claim might amount to something like £50,000; indeed, it could possibly be more. I believe that I have heard a sum of up to £100,000 mentioned, though I am not positive on that—a large sum could be made out if permission were revoked. The London County Council were not prepared to revoke at that cost to the public funds. My right honourable friend the Minister was not prepared so to direct them.

In July, 1955, there were further talks between the Minister, Mr. Littler and Mr. Gilbert Miller. They told him that they had contracted to sell their interest to a Mr. Wingate, who intended to continue running the theatre as such, at any rate for the time being. Nothing more was heard of it until May of this year. There is one other event of 1955 which perhaps I ought to mention; that is, that my right honourable friend Mr. Duncan Sandys approved the London County Council Development Plan. He added, however, certain paragraphs to what is called the Written Statement which lays down policy according to which day-to-day control will be exercised. One paragraph which he added laid down that permission would not be given, except in very special circumstances, for a change of user for office purposes of residential buildings and places of assembly, such as St. James's Theatre, even in an office zone or in the Central zone. So the London County Council's hands have thus become, thanks to my right honourable friend, greatly strengthened.

Unfortunately, there is a fact that we have to face which not all of us are prepared to face: that planning alone cannot save theatres. I cannot pretend that, now that this has been written into the "book of words" by my right honourable friend, no theatre will ever go out of use. The facts of life are against it; economics are against it. It is impossible to force someone to run a theatre if he does not want to, but it is now possible to prevent a theatre which is a good going concern from being sacrificed simply to make way for some more lucrative form of development. I hope that the L.C.C. will use this power sturdily—indeed, I know they will give us an assurance that they will. That is what my right honourable friend Mr. Duncan Sandys had in mind when he said in October, 1955, as the noble Lord, Lord Conesford, has quoted To be frank, the St. James's Theatre slipped through the net before we got on to this point. In May, 1957, we were told that detailed plans had been submitted to the L.C.C. for an office building on this site. The plans, with minor modifications, would conform with planning standards. The plans were put in by the present owners, whom I believe to be a property investment company, but I am afraid that I do not know what transactions have occurred since 1955. The present Minister, the Minister of Housing and Local Government, at once discussed this matter with the L.C.C. The L.C.C., as the House knows, were not prepared to revoke the permission, and my right honourable friend was not prepared so to order them.


May I ask a question? I thought the noble Lord said that in 1955, in discussions with the Minister of Housing and Local Government, Mr. Littler and Mr. Gilbert Miller said that they were not prepared to sell. What transpired so that in 1957 they were prepared to sell?


That, as I understand it, is what they did say at that date. What transpired between the two dates I do not know. Detailed permission was given by the London County Council in June of this year. These are the facts to date.

Let me make the Government's position perfectly clear. I should like to let your Lordships know exactly what the Government think about this matter. I have given a pretty broad hint as to what I think. The Government much regret the selling of this theatre by theatre interests to commercial interests. The Government regret that planning permission has been given for office development on this site, but my right honourable friend feels, as your Lordships know, that he is not justified in giving a direction to the L.C.C. to revoke permission. There is, of course, no power to prevent demolition of any building unless an order is made for its preservation as a building of special architectural and historical interest. I have already referred to the statutory list explaining how that comes about. General powers are directed only to the question of what can be built in place of a building demolished.


My Lords, may I put one question to the noble Lord? I am very much interested in what he has just said. Will he suggest to his right honourable friend that he should take some legal advice, possibly of the Law Officers, to ascertain whether, disapproving of this development as my noble friend has just said he does, he is right to consider that the question of the payment that would be payable by the planning authority is a relevant reason for refusing to exercise his powers?


Yes. I have made a very careful note on that point; I am coming to that in a minute. We have had considerable criticism, both in your Lordships' House and outside, of the Planning Acts concerned with this transaction. Local planning authorities, as your Lordships know, take decisions on applications for permission. If the applicant is aggrieved by the decision and then appeals to the Minister, the Minister's function is to be a refuge and help for individuals who may be unreasonably refused permission to do what in the course of their lawful business they want to do. The Minister acts across this philosophy when he directs local planning authorities not to give a permission which they think should be given.

To order them to revoke that permission goes further still. It can be done I admit; but it goes further still, and I submit to your Lordships that it should be done only in extreme cases, because it makes nonsense of responsible local government. Certainly, it makes considerable nonsense of it if it is used as easily as some suggest. Not only that, but it causes real injustice to the citizen who has obtained permission and then has it taken away. In this case, as your Lordships know, heavy compensation was involved. The people concerned may not have acted wisely or in a way which meets with cur approval, or which pleases our sentiments or our particular interests; but that they have acted perfectly lawfully with their own property, within their rights, cannot be doubted.

The Minister has tried to save the theatre and, as I have told your Lordships, has considerably strengthened the hands of the L.C.C. for the future. What we have to ask ourselves is this. Are we going to tell somebody that he must run his property in a way he does not want to? Unfortunately, the fact is that this theatre is going out of use because the present owners are prepared to let it do so. Even if we take the hat round, as some have suggested, I cannot really see that that will save the situation.

There are the facts. I have made no attempt to disguise my own feelings about the matter. I have made it perfectly clear that the Government deplore the situation—I make no bones at all about that. I have made it perfectly clear that the Government have taken steps to prevent something like this happening again. I have also, I hope, made it perfectly clear to your Lordships that there is another side to the question, another injustice which might arise, another serious devolution from the powers of the Planning Acts if the course proposed by your Lordships and many others were to be taken. I hope I have shown that the facts prove that the Government have taken a decision which, however regrettable it may be to your Lordships, is right.

The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, asks me to take steps to prevent the demolition of this theatre which, as we all know, looms near. I cannot hold out the hopes that he would like me to. All I can do is to bring to the attention of my right honourable friend the particular legal point which the noble Lord, Lord Conesford, has made. I know he will give it the attention which an opinion coming from such a learned, interested and informed source deserves. I will bring the whole of this debate to the attention of my right honourable friend. There is no point in having debates in your Lordships' House on matters which are of keen personal and public interest if the Government do not pay attention to them. But I think I should be doing something cowardly if I were to hold out hopes that my right honourable friend is likely to change his opinion.


My Lords, perhaps I may address one or two remarks to my noble friend who replied for the Government in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Silkin. Perhaps he would be good enough to refresh the House again on the conversation which took place between Mr. Littler, Mr. Gilbert Miller and my right honourable friend who was the Minister of Housing and Local Government. As I understand this conversation, it took place in the early months of 1955, when a figure of £50,000 was put upon the value of the St. James's Theatre. But at that time these two gentlemen, as I understand the noble Lord's answer, informed his right honourable friend that they were not prepared to sell, and, indeed, they were not contemplating selling the property at that price. If I understood my noble friend correctly, in the course of two or three months they changed their attitude and decided to dispose of the building for that particular figure. Is that correct?


My Lords, I am afraid I have no right of reply to the question of my noble friend, but, with your Lordships' permission, I should like to say that the facts are as I have stated them. There are certain gaps, in that I do not know what transactions occurred on certain dates.


My Lords, would it not be proper that this matter should be considered afresh—that the whole matter should be gone into again before the time comes when this theatre is finally demolished?


My Lords, I have no right of reply, but I hope that your Lordships will allow me to say, first of all, that I am not satisfied, and secondly, that I propose to put down a Motion in the course of to-morrow asking that action on the demolition of this theatre should be postponed until Parliament has had an opportunity of expressing its views on the subject.

House adjourned at eighteen minutes before eight o'clock.