HL Deb 23 July 1957 vol 205 cc67-78

4.15 p.m.

LORD BLACKFORD rose to call attention to the proposal to erect a hotel of thirty-four storeys in Park Lane, to consider it from the æsthetic and especially from the traffic aspects; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: The glamour of limelight so skilfully directed by experienced producers upon the St. James's Theatre has tended to obscure the proposition mentioned in the Motion which I now beg to move, which will have a far more profound, an infinitely more profound, effect upon the aspect of the Metropolis than the other. I refer to the proposal to erect a mammoth hotel, largely financed with American money and constructed with sky-scraping American architecture, in Park Lane next door to Londonderry House.

I understand that there is a shortage of hotel accommodation in London—indeed, Mr. Wontner, the chairman of the Savoy Hotel Group, appeared on television about a month ago and said that there was a shortage of hotel accommodation for two-thirds of the year, and that in the other third there was plenty of room because it was an off-season. Therefore, I am not against construction of more hotel accommodation, and my regret is that this particular place has been selected for the purpose, and this particular style of architecture. To my mind, there is a much more convenient place where an elegant hotel could be constructed; that is, at the north-west corner of Portman Square, the garden in which Lord Portman's house used to stand—it was bombed in the war—and which is now used as a car park. That is about an acre in extent. It is surrounded by four nicely broad roads, none of which is in the main stream of traffic; indeed, quite little traffic uses them. It is in a very central position, close to Marble Arch Tube, close to the shopping centres and so forth. I should like to see a new hotel put up in that position. But I suppose that the magic words "Park Lane" and "Mayfair" are expected to attract overseas visitors. Therefore, the Park Lane site has been chosen, although, after all, the most popular hotel with overseas visitors is probably the Savoy which, of course, is far from Mayfair.

In my Motion I have said that I would direct attention especially to the question of traffic congestion, but on reflection I have come to the conclusion that that would be a mistake, and that the æsthetic aspect of the question is very much more important. So, with your Lordships' permission, I will dispose of the traffic point first. There is no need to enlarge upon the troubles of traffic congestion in this city, and I draw attention to it only because it has several times been overlooked in the past. For instance, I suppose that nobody can deny that the congestion of traffic at Marble Arch has been, and still is, greatly increased by the fact that the entrance, both for visitors and luggage, to the Cumberland Hotel has not been recessed. Your Lordships will remember also that originally the entrance to Claridge's Hotel was recessed, but a few years ago somebody gave permission to the hotel authorities to take that recessed part into the hotel, with the result that the entrance is now flush with Brook Street; and although Brook Street is a one-way street there is no doubt that, as a result, congestion continually takes place outside Claridge's.

In the case of the Westbury Hotel, forethought was taken. It has been recessed; and, furthermore, the shops in Band Street have been arcaded, so that no extra traffic congestion has arisen at that extremely bad cross road. But then the Westbury Hotel is only a small one, with some 250 bedrooms, and is not what one may describe as an entertaining hotel. Banquets, balls and functions of that kind are not given there, and the amount of traffic which goes to it is therefore so much the less. This great new hotel, with 700 bedrooms and two floors or banqueting and other entertaining rooms, will attract a very great deal of traffic. It is true that it faces on to a part of Park Lane which is wide. It is also true that provision is to be made for a garage under it for 250 cars, but I do not think that that will deal with the in-and-out traffic of visitors and luggage all day long, nor with the back parts of the hotel. Those back parts abut on Pitts Head Mews, a tiny narrow gangway, Stanhope Row, at the back, which is even narrower, and Hertford Street, to the south, which is by no means a wide street. Moreover, access to this hotel from Curzon Street, which is a very busy thoroughfare, will be through Derby Street, a mere lane; and access from this hotel to Piccadilly will be from down Hamilton Place, which again is a very narrow thoroughfare.

I hope, therefore. that if planning permission for this hotel is given, special care will be taken by the planning and traffic authorities to consider all these aspects—and I dare say others of which I have not thought—and that the hotel will be suitably recessed, not only in front but also at the sides and back, so that there may be access to it without reducing traffic either to a standstill or to a trickle, as is the case with the tradesmen's part of the Dorchester Hotel which, again, has not been recessed. The traffic in Tilney Street is always a mere single-car traffic which is often brought to a standstill.

Let us now turn to the æsthetic aspect of this question. There is no intelligent citizen of this country, or indeed of the Commonwealth, who has not a great affection and admiration for St. Paul's Cathedral. The height of the Cathedral to the top of the cross is 365 feet, and we all know the graceful way in which the Cathedral tapers, through its columns and dome and the structure above, to the cross at the top—it is a pride to all of us. The structure which we are now considering will not be anything like that. It will be 13 feet higher—378 feet—and it will be a solid column, 216 feet wide, with no redeeming feature whatever. It will face Hyde Park, a mass of windows by day and, I suppose, a torch of light by night. These two structures will have an overpowering effect on all central London. They will be visible from every vantage point to all the citizens—to the east, a lovely structure symbolising Almighty God, and to the west, a massive structure symbolising the almighty dollar. I do not know whether that will be a pleasing prospect for the citizens. Personally I am very sorry to think that this may happen.

Is this not an opportunity to consider the general skyline of London? Your Lordships will remember that when Bucklersbury House was planned, there was a debate in your Lordships' House on that subject, and a great many speakers were against the proposal. None the less, the building has taken place, and Bucklersbury House is nearing completion. That building is a mere 186 feet high, yet I submit that those of us who go to the City every day cannot admire it. It has an overpowering effect on that part of the City and it bids fair to be, when finished, an ugly, unattractive building overshadowing such buildings as the Mansion House and the charming little Church of St. Stephen Walbrook.

I would invite comparison between that building and the one immediately opposite to it, which has been put up by the Bank of London and South America. I should imagine that that building is about 110 feet high. It is a delightful building which reflects great credit upon those who have raised it. I have an idea that the name of the architect is Boynton, but whoever he is, it is a type of architecture which, I submit, is ideal for this City of London of ours; and I deplore the idea that our city should be Americanised. That seems to me quite unnecessary. We know quite well why the buildings on Manhattan Island have been made to climb to the skies. The highest, I believe, is now something like 1,000 feet, but that is due to cramped space. We are not so cramped in this city that we need to copy them to that extent. It may be said that 378 feet is not so overpowering a height, but in fact it is three times the height of Grosvenor House and three times the height of the Dorchester, both of which are 110 feet high.

There is another aspect of this point—that is, in connection with our parks. We are well and happily supplied with parks, both in London and outside it. There was an interesting discussion on television last night between Sir William Holford and a Mr. Summerson, who is Curator of the Soane Museum. They were talking about the possible, even probable, destruction in a few years' time of the Nash terraces in Regent's Park, which of course they deplored, and we should all deplore. Both these eminent gentlemen agreed that to maintain and reconstruct the Nash terraces would cost a colossal sum of money, and your Lordships will not be surprised to hear that both of them agreed that the taxpayer ought to find the money—in spite of the fact that, in all probability, 95 per cent. of the taxpayers have never heard of the Nash terraces.

However, we are not discussing the Nash terraces now. I am concerned with only one remark of Sir William Holford, when he said, in effect: "You get into the middle of Regent's Park and you see only trees—perhaps there may be an occasional cornice of the terraces peeping through the trees. You get the illusion that you are out in the quiet of the country. That is one of the great charms of our parks, and we should be very jealous to safeguard it". My Lords, I say that that applies to Hyde Park. If you get into the middle of Hyde Park you are surrounded by lovely trees; you have no idea of buildings. There may be an occasional peep of a tower of Knightsbridge Barracks or something like that; but, on the whole, you feel that you are in the country and relieved from the pres sure of buildings. If you allow this massive pylon to be erected in Park Lane you will never get away from it; its overpowering impression will be with you wherever you go in Hyde Park or the Green Park, or, for that matter, anywhere in Mayfair.

If your Lordships doubt that, I would strongly urge any one of you who has any spare time to go to Richmond Park and drive from Richmond Gate to Roehampton Gate, because on Roehampton Hill there have been erected a large number of flats, hideously ugly flats, some nine, ten or twelve (I cannot remember exactly how many) storeys in height. They rise above the trees overlooking Richmond Park, and I guarantee that any of your Lordships who does what I have suggested will agree with me that the aspect from Richmond Park to the east has been utterly ruined. They may be very nice flats—indeed, I am sure they are very nice for the people who live in them. I should like to have one myself. The view over Richmond Park, which is our most beautiful park, is, of course, delightful. But from the point of view of citizens who use Richmond Park, the amenities of that place have, in my opinion, been very considerably spoilt by the new accession in the shape of these flats. I am anxious to avoid the same thing happening in Hyde Park with this gigantic new erection. I hope that planning permission for it will not be given. I hope that the people who are interested in the venture will not attempt to proceed with it, but will seek to attain their ends by the erection of a hotel of large proportions, though not of overpowering proportions, in Portman Square. I shall look forward to hearing what the Minister may have to say. Possibly he may have something reassuring to tell me on those lines. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

4.35 p.m.


My Lords, I rather gather from the noble Lord, Lord Blackford, that he is opposed to the construction of any skyscrapers in London. I am afraid that, while I agree with his sentiments about this particular skyscraper in Park Lane, I cannot agree with him about the general aspect. I think many people are coming round to the point of view that London has soon to come to terms with the architecture of the 20th century, both æsthetically and also economically, as land becomes more and more expensive. The London County Council, I believe, have open minds about this question, although they have said that they prefer the tower type of skyscraper to the slab type. In an interesting article on skyscrapers in The Times to-day the writer stated: Many who are prepared to see London face the challenge of the skyscraper console themselves with a mental picture of slender glassy towers rising gracefully into the sky. But they will find in practice that all their towers are slabs, which look slender enough end-on, but from any other aspect become enormous cliffs blotting out the sky and over-shadowing their neighbours. While I myself do not oppose skyscrapers for themselves, I think the siting is extremely important. For instance, I think there can be no objection to placing a very tall building on the South Bank. Indeed, I believe that plans have already been passed for the Shell Company offices to be built on the South Bank. These will be 340 feet in height—not quite as high as the proposed hotel in Park Lane, but nearly as high as St. Paul's, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Blackford, pointed out, is 365 feet in height.

But I do not think one can really argue fairly that because St. Paul's is of a certain height—365 feet—no building in the whole of the metropolitan area of London (which is really very large) should attain to that height; because surely the only buildings which affect St. Paul's are buildings which are fairly close to it or can be seen on the skyline or along the sweep of the river. I cannot see that one could object to those flats overlooking Richmond Park (to which the noble Lord, Lord Blackford, referred for other reasons) in connection with St. Paul's, for they are at a very considerable distance away from the Cathedral. The Shell Company office buildings on the South Bank will be part of a group of buildings which will mostly be 100 feet in height and this particular building will rise like a campanile in the middle. I think the whole should make an impressive group. I believe all visitors to Moscow would agree that the skyscrapers that are being built there are a very impressive part of the city.


There are only two. One of them is the university and the other is on the other side of the city. I have never seen any other.


I am grateful to the noble Viscount, but when I was in Moscow there were three skyscrapers. The third may perhaps have been built since the time of his visit. The point I was trying to make was that these skyscrapers are situated at strategic points round the city and are very impressive. For that reason I think that the whole policy of skyscrapers in London needs investigating, and I am glad to see that the Civic Trust are proposing to carry out an investigation of this kind. For instance, I think skyscrapers would make quite an impressive skyline along the river.

Coming to the particular hotel which it is proposed to build in Park Lane, we find that it is to be 390 feet in height; that is to say, it will be taller than any other building at present planned in London. On the other hand, one understands that it will provide accommodation for 1,200 people and for 250 cars. There is a very urgent need for hotel accommodation in London. The noble Lord, Lord Blackford, mentioned a Portman Square site. I believe that plans were put forward to build a hotel on that particular site, but is was found that it could be economically viable only if it was a very tall building, and it was then found that it would overshadow the squares adjacent to it. I believe the promoters were asked to make it much lower but found that they were not able to do so, and the whole scheme was withdrawn for that reason. But I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Blackford, that this site off Portman Square would be a much better site.

Also, the South Bank would be an excellent site for an hotel of this kind, but the difficulty is, I believe, that our visitors from abroad, particularly from the United States, prefer to stay in the West End of London. I am sure that the noble Lord, as a business man, would agree with me that it is necessary to give the customer what he wants. I think that this is one of the difficulties confronting any promoter of hotel accommodation in London. The places where the authorities would like hotels to be built are not the places where visitors would like to go. The places where a promoter would like to build his hotel are usually so expensive and the land so valuable that it is necessary to build very high in order to make it an economic proposition. That is just one of the problems we have to face.

Of course, an hotel of this kind would be of tremendous advantage as a dollar earner. I believe that it would bring in 30 million dollars a year, which is a very considerable sum. On the other hand, I must agree with the noble Lord, Lord Blackford, that the site at the end of Park Lane is not the best place for it. It may be argued that Park Lane is such a mess architecturally in any case that another addition to it would not matter very much. I think it is one of the greatest tragedies of our time that this fine street facing the park should have been pulled down piecemeal when the houses had to be put on the market, instead of being planned in a proper way. It could have been one of the finest streets in London; but that is what happened.

I agree that the site is not very interesting architecturally. I have a certain affection for the Venetian palazzo there, though perhaps in some ways it is not so interesting or exciting as the late Barney Barnato's Venetian palace up the street; but it is not without interest. Yet I cannot say that it is sufficiently important architecturally to be retained. I think that the most important aspect of the whole scheme will be its effect on other buildings. We must remember that these very tall buildings cast great shadows over the surrounding areas, and in this case it would cast them over the trees, the grass and the flowers of the Park. As has been pointed out, it would have an effect on the people using the amenities of the Park. With buildings overtopping the trees, there would be a feeling of being boxed in.

I noted that in to-day's Times, the Town Planning Committee of Westminster City Council, have stated that they do not object, in principle, to this scheme, provided it is subject to certain modifications regarding the overall density. Of course, the final decision will rest with the London County Council; but I should be very interested to hear the Government's view.

4.43 p.m.


My Lords, may I speak on the Motion moved by my noble friend Lord Blackford? My noble friend did not mention that in this hotel there is to be an entrance which is off Park Lane altogether. As regards the æsthetic point of view, my family built Dorchester House, and it was very comfortable. I think that this new hotel is essential to provide London with more hotel accommodation. If we do not construct it at some height, we shall not obtain the necessary accommodation, because we must have an hotel of at least 600 rooms in order to make it pay. Providing it can be planned so as not to lose money, there is nothing against the proposition.

I disagree with my noble friend Lord Blackford about the architectural beauty of tall buildings. I do not see why a tall building cannot be made beautiful. I have been in New York, and from what I have seen there, I would say that it could easily be done. The idea in this new hotel is that, if they could get over the "ancient lights" problem, they would put two wings on the top of the building, and they could then make the building as a whole a little lower. It is proposed to go down about forty feet under ground level for a car park, and they are to have an entrance through the middle of the hotel. In the base of the hotel, which will be only 45 feet high, there are to be the reception rooms and restaurant. Then the building will rise up in a new shape, so that most of the rooms will be overlooking Hyde Park. That will be a great attraction to visitors. I think that it is essential that London should have a new hotel. We have not had a properly built hotel put up in London for many years. I have been associated with the Ritz-Carlton Company and they are a good company, for whom I have a great respect. I think that this hotel should be built, and if anybody can find a better site, I am sure that it would be carefully considered, though I do not think that Portman Square would be a good one.

4.47 p.m.


My Lords, having been chairman of the first Town Planning Committee of the London County Council for a period of five years, with only one division in those five years—and it was done on Party lines—I should like to support every point made by the noble Lord, Lord Blackford. He knows what he is talking about, and I realise that what he has said is true. I think that we should all be careful in seeing that this new hotel is placed on the best possible site.

4.48 p.m.


My Lords, this proposal to put up an hotel in Park Lane is at the moment still under consideration by the London County Council. I understand that it was on their agenda yesterday for discussion, but for some reason convenient to that authority it was taken off the agenda and postponed to a date of which, so far, I have not been notified. If and when the matter comes before my right honourable friend the Minister, it will come in one of two ways. Either it will come in the form of an appeal, if permission has been refused by the London County Council; or the Minister may, if what I am told is right, call it in before any decision is made by the London County Council and make the final decision himself. Therefore your Lordships will see that I am not at the moment in a position to give any real indication of the Government's views. I do know, however, that as this is a subject of such wide interest to so many people, the Minister is taking a close personal interest in the matter and has asked the London County Council to inform him of any provisional decision they may make. I can also assure your Lordships that everything that has been said in this debate will be carefully noted by my right honourable friend the Minister, and he will, I understand, have a public inquiry before any final decision is made.

Having told your Lordships that we cannot at this stage say whether the plan will be approved or not, I would go on to add that the detailed points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Blackford—whether or not it is right to have a building of this sort on that particular site; the car parking arrangements; whether the traffic arrangements will be adequate and whether the hotel's design will offend artistic feelings—will be very much part and parcel of the deliberations which will take place before a decision is taken to grant or refuse planning permission.

The noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, went rather wider and talked of skycrapers as a whole. I will certainly draw the attention of my right honourable friend to the fact that it is thought in certain quarters of the House that skycrapers might be of use in some places in planning hotels and flats in London, bearing in mind the increased accommodation that will be required. I hope that I have answered the noble Lord, Lord Blackford, satisfactorily, and I will keep him informed of any further information that I have.

4.52 p.m.


My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Earl for his helpful remarks, and I am interested to hear that the London County Council will discuss this matter to-morrow. I am grateful to other noble Lords who have shown their interest by making observations in the debate. I hope that our combined efforts may have some influence upon the London County Council, but even if they are not satisfactory, from our point of view, there is, as the noble Earl has said, a final appeal to the Minister. I am grateful to your Lordships for your attendance, and I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.