HL Deb 09 June 1959 vol 216 cc773-7

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

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied that the proposed alterations to George Square, for the expansion of Edinburgh. University, derive from necessity and not from convenience; whether the possibilities of other adjacent sites have been fully explored; and whether they will set up a public inquiry to determine whether the destruction of such unique Georgian planning is justifiable.]


My Lords, the primary responsibility in this matter rests with Edinburgh Corporation as local planning authority. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, however, had occasion to consider the situation in the light of representations from the Cock-burn Association and other bodies, and I am sending the noble Earl a copy of his final reply to the Association. As this reply explains, after the appropriate consultations my right honourable friend reached the conclusion that he would not be justified in seeking to bring the University's proposals under further review.

The University's object is to reintegrate and expand the main teaching departments, along with the necessary library and other ancillary provision. Sufficient land adjacent to the existing University buildings in the area is not available without the redevelopment of George Square. The present frontage on the west side of George Square is to be retained, and also the unbuilt area in the middle. While the redeveloped Square, of course, will be very different from the present Square, my right honourable friend is confident that the University and the eminent architects who are advising it will produce something of which both the University and the City can justly be proud.


My Lords, I should like to ask a supplementary question. My noble friend has given a fairly clear Answer, but I should like to know quite definitely whether he could give me any specific reason for this development in the middle of the City of Edinburgh.


My Lords, the reason is that the reintegration and expansion of some of the main teaching departments is a major purpose of our present educational plans and its importance is fully endorsed by the University Grants Committee. There are no alternative sites available in the area where the existing University buildings are situated which might enable the University to achieve its objects without redeveloping George Square. All the available land adjacent to the existing University buildings is earmarked already for use by the University sooner or later, and therefore this redevelopment of George Square cannot be avoided by the use of alternative adjacent sites, while the use of different sites in completely different areas would not allow the University's object of reintegration and expanion to be achieved.


My Lords, while thanking my noble friend for his reply, I should like to ask him this further question. I am exceedingly anxious, as indeed are a great many other people, that scientific investigation in this modern world shall not be in the middle of thickly populated cities. I would ask my noble friend whether there is any indication that science in its advanced stage is likely to be centred in George Square. We have had certain instances lately of the damage to public health caused by fall-out.


My Lords, I think this is a question of all branches of university education. I do not think there is any particular question of advanced explosives operations being conducted in the middle of Edinburgh.


My Lords, will the noble Earl say why, however great the need by Edinburgh University to expand, and however much alternative sites have been explored, there should be any objection to a public inquiry, considering the present-day tendency to demolish—in this case, a square of considerable beauty and interest—and to erect on the sites buildings which, accepting their functional utility and value, are frequently offensive to the eye and to good taste? Is there any reason why public opinion should not be consulted in the matter? Should not the public at least be asked?


My Lords, the allocation of this area for University purposes appears in the statutory Development Plan, which has been approved after the normal procedure of objection and inquiry. My right honourable friend does not see any justification for having a further inquiry on the matter. He has consulted a number of bodies, including the Historic Buildings Council a year ago, and obtained their advice on this matter, and he does not think there is any ground for further ventilating it by a public inquiry under the Town Planning Act.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Earl whether the ultimate sanction on this matter lies with the Secretary of State? Is the noble Earl saying to-day that the Secretary of State has given his final decision and rejected the plea put forward by the noble Earl, Lord Haddington?


Yes, my Lords, that is the position; he has given his final decision. However, I should like to make it clear that he has not done so in any hurried manner. It is already more than a year, as I remember, since the opinion of the Historic Buildings Council was consulted; and my right honourable friend has, together with the local planning authority, been considering this matter, for a very long period.


My Lords, there is one short supplementary question that I should like to ask. Is the noble Earl aware that, whatever the merits or demerits of this scheme—and I have my own views on that score—there is a considerable measure of public disquiet in Edinburgh that in this matter justice has not been seen to be done?


My Lords, I should like to add one further question to that. Is it not the case that George Square is quite a small area which in itself is rather a gem, but surrounded by an area which is not really very satisfactory from an architectural or other point of view? Would it not be better now to consider development in other nearby areas?—because, if I may take an observation from my noble kinsman's question a minute or two ago, once this has been done, it can never be reversed, and after ages may regret it.


My Lords, I am most reluctant to say anything which might discourage anybody from trying to preserve Georgian architecture, of which I think we have much too little. As for this being a gem, I agree that it is a valuable piece of urban layout, but I could not honestly say that it is of sufficiently outstanding architectural merit to justify delaying the urgent necessities of Edinburgh University. It is not in the same class as the best examples of Georgian grouping in the City of Edinburgh. I think most people agree that the West side of the Square is rather better than the rest of it, and that side is being retained without alteration. The other buildings have been considerably encroached upon already, particularly by the George Watson's Ladies' College, at about the end of the last century, and the buildings are of varied architectural merit. I think that everything has been done to consider the architectural merits of the case, and while we are reluctant to destroy anything of architectural or historical importance, I honestly do not think it can be said that this is quite in the class which would justify action of the kind suggested. I cannot agree with my noble friend Lord Ferrier that, after the long inquiries from so many sources which have been held, justice in the matter has not been done. We cannot go on arguing about it for ever.


My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for his Answer to my Question, and other noble Lords for supporting me in this matter. The noble Earl on the Front Bench can hardly expect me to be satisfied with his Answer. Would he not agree that an issue like this, the destruction of this wonderful old Square—the first Georgian Square to be built in Edinburgh—which has led to thousands of petitions, is a matter of public interest, and not merely a matter of interest between Edinburgh University and Edinburgh Corporation? Is the noble Earl satisfied that the reasons why a previous inquiry has already been refused are justifiable?


My Lords, I think it has been dealt with as a matter of public interest, and not as a matter of private interest between the University and somebody else.


My Lords, has it been dealt with by public inquiry—not just as a matter of public interest? That is what we are asking.


My Lords, if the House is taking such a great interest in this matter, some noble Lord ought to put a Motion on the Paper and not pursue it any further at Question time.