HL Deb 12 November 1964 vol 261 cc479-90

6.5 p.m.

LORD AMULREE rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will consider undertaking the cleaning of those public buildings in London for which they are responsible, and encouraging other authorities to follow their example. The noble Lord said: My Lords, many of your Lordships who have recently visited Paris must have been surprised and delighted to see the effect of the cleaning that has taken place in that city, the very extensive scheme of cleaning public buildings. The city has become far more light, far more cheerful, and a much gayer place altogether; and one can now see those buildings as they were intended to be seen by the architects and builders who first constructed them. The object of the Question I have put down is to inquire whether we cannot do more of the same thing in this country.

I am bound to say the Ministry of Works have done a certain amount. They have cleaned, among other buildings, the Banqueting House in Whitehall, one of the gateways of the Tower of London and probably quite a number of other buildings, though I do not want to make a catalogue of them now. It seems to me that some private firms have cleaned Bridgewater House and, I think, the one next door to it, Spencer House, and certainly the effect of that is most spectacular. If you walk in the Park one fine Sunday morning and look at the scene of Bridgewater House you will realise the enormous change. The same thing has happened with some of the buildings made of brick. I think that the police station at the top of Charing Cross Road was cleaned two or three years ago, and again the effect is quite startling; and there are many more examples. I would add, in parenthesis, that I am not referring in the Question to painted buildings but merely to brick and stone buildings.

One rather curious thing, which seemed to me surprising, was that although a great deal of money was spent on the conversion of the Treasury and No. 10 Downing Street, and there was a scaffolding all around the building for a long time, no attempt was made to clean it at the same time. I am informed—I do not know whether it is right or wrong—that it would have cost about another £2,000, once the scaffolding was there. The balustrade at the bottom was damaged in the war and it is entirely new, and some pinnacles at the top damaged in the war are entirely new. The rest of the building, which is a remarkably fine building, has not been cleaned and looks dark and dreary. Think what the effect would be, if we could have the Treasury Building, the Scottish Office, Horse Guards and the Admiralty all cleaned at the same time. The view, looking up across Trafalgar Square to the National Gallery at the top, would make a sight well worth seeing, and would, I think, draw more visitors to London than come at the present time.

I realise that it would be an expensive thing for the Government to undertake this work at the present time, when one wants to cut down on public expenditure, and I feel that my Question has not come at a very propitious time. But I think it is something which could be borne in mind. What the Government could do would be to encourage local authorities to clean buildings in their care and possibly some prosperous bodies, such as the members of the Bar, or the Law in general, to get the Law Courts cleaned. They are not inspiring buildings, I know, but they would look far better if they were not covered with dirt. One is told of the large amounts of money that counsel make with their cases; so I am sure there is plenty of money there. That is something the Government can do. Then there is the Civic Trust, which has taken a certain interest in cleaning buildings in the provinces. That would be prepared to offer good advice on what could be done.

One has seen other examples to which I have not referred. There is the front of the great Cathedral of St. Paul. That has emerged in a most astounding way from being cleaned. In fact, someone told me—whether rightly or wrongly I do not know—that some of the stone turned out to be marble. This was not known until it came to be cleaned. That was a fairly expensive job. The Lord Mayor's Fund was I think for £150,000, and the area of the building is 140,000 square feet. I am told that to clean Portland stone, which is what most of these buildings consist of, costs about 12s. 6d. per square foot, which corresponds roughly with the figure required for cleaning the buildings in Paris, where the cost is about 20s. per square metre. So there is not a great deal of difference between the two countries in the processes involved. The processes involved in cleaning are really the same—that is to say, water is squirted under considerable pressure, upon buildings.

I am told—and perhaps the noble Lord can answer me on this point—that one difficulty about the washing of buildings in London is that there are certain bylaws or regulations, call them what you like, which make it difficult, if not impossible, when the water main is on the pavement, for people to do that work except during week-ends and at night. That makes matters extremely expensive. The objection to doing this work in the day time does not appear to be a valid reason, because if one goes round buildings where building work is being undertaken now you can find water being pumped away in the street during the complete 24 hours, and nobody worries. If there is some reason why this washing cannot be done during the day, some restriction because the water may drop on the pavement, I am wondering whether that state of affair; could not possibly be changed and some modification made.

One of the sad things I saw in one of the cheaper papers was that somebody said that the Whitehall Banqueting House now looked like a lump of cheese. I am quite sure that that is not the attitude of mind of people in the military world in regard to these things. Therefore I wish to put my Question to the noble Lord as to whether more of this work cannot be undertaken at the present time.

6.14 p.m.


My Lords, I feel that I must support the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, on this matter. But before I do so, I must declare an interest and say that I am a director of a cleaning company. Her Majesty's Government have maintained that they are anxious to modernise Britain. May I suggest that they now encourage the use of modern methods in the cleaning of public buildings, not only outside but inside? Over the last few years cleaning methods have improved enormously. It is now possible to clean carpets in public buildings really well without taking them up at all. With these modern methods you get a first-class finish.

The method of cleaning buildings outside has progressed enormously in the last few years. I am sure that many of us have seen the result at St. Paul's, which is now, I think, excellent. Why not Westminster Abbey, and a host of other public buildings, many of which look in the last stages of decay but could quite easily be renovated and made to look nice? The noble Lord, Lord Amulree, mentioned the cost as being 12s. 6d. per square foot, and suggested that is similar to the cost of cleaning a square metre, 30s. I rather feel that he has his figures somewhat mixed. But the Government have said that they are going to modernise Britain. Why not have a brighter and cleaner Britain? I hope that Her Majesty's Government will be able to look at this matter a little more closely.

6.16 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to support what the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, and the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, have said about the cleaning of buildings. I am inclined to think on occasions that we are apt to overclean our paintings in the national collections and to neglect our buildings.

This seems a little unfortunate, because if you clean a painting or overclean it the damage is irreparable, while of course a building is much tougher.

The noble Lord, Lord Amulree, rightly pointed out the wonderful things that have been done in Paris. I fully agree with him. I found it a revelation to drive up the Avenue de I'Opéra and see the Opera House in all its glory, with its copper roof gleaming green in the sun. With due respect to the present Administration, I wish that we had someone like M. André Malraux with us in this country, not only to clean buildings and brighten up the city, but also for preserving buildings which are not always of tremendous interest but do mirror a particular period. I agree also about the Law Courts, though I must beg to differ with the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, in one respect: I think the Law Courts comprise a very fine building. But whether one thinks that or not, it is a most important building, and its present state, does not, it seems to me, do justice to the site or to the important proceedings which go on inside.

There is also the question of statues, which I feel should come under the category of buildings. I think that one or two of those could do with a clean-up and some brightening. There is poor old Rima, the Epstein memorial in Hyde Park. This is a matter which I know the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, has raised before in this House. I can remember when this memorial to Hudson was first created by this distinguished sculptor and erected there. It was tarred and feathered almost every month, such was public opinion. It is completely neglected by the Ministry of Works. The pond is silted up, and the plaque, when I last saw it, only recently, was dirty. Therefore I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, will be able to tell us what is intended to be done with regard to statues as well as with buildings.

The Clean Air Act which was recently passed, and which is being extended to the various areas of Central London, has had the wonderful effect that one can see, on a sunny day, a blue sky, but it has also shown us the defects in the buildings when they are neglected. It is more than ever necessary, now that the air is becoming purer, that we should be able to see the beauties of our city. One hopes that the Government will give this matter their urgent attention.

6.19 p.m.


My Lords, I, too, have an interest to declare, in a rival firm to that of my noble friend Lord Teynham. I am going to speak for only a moment. If the Government are considering a wider extension of this cleaning, the matter of timing is extremely important. The interior and exterior cleaners tend to be the same men, and, naturally, to work outside in the winter is not at all a pleasant task. The contractor is frequently stopped by bad weather, and so on, and therefore it is bad business for the Government to do their outside cleaning in the winter. They should do their inside cleaning in the winter and their outside cleaning in the summer. It takes a considerable time to finalise these contracts, because it is not nearly such an easy business as it sounds.

Great experts on the quality of stone have to be called in to decide what is the right sort of cleaning to adopt. Considerable consultation has to go on between the Ministry of Works and the contractors before the specification for the contract can be drawn up at all. Therefore, now is the time to start thinking about next summer's contracts. It is vain to think that one can start on outside buildings now.

6.22 p.m.


My Lords, I want to say just one word in supporting the noble Lord, Lord Amulree. I am not the director of any stone-cleaning company, but I was for thirteen years a "director" of a "company" which worked in the buildings to which we are referring. And I suppose the noble Lord opposite will tell us that we ought to have done more about it than we did. I agree with everything noble Lords have said. Nobody who has been to Paris lately can fail to have been struck by the transformation in that beautiful city in the last few years.

It probably was not worth while doing anything in London in the old days, for it was a very filthy city and tons of soot and dirt came down every 24 hours on our buildings. Even to-day it is fairly dirty, as anybody knows who has left a car out for 24 hours. But there was an excuse in the old days, and the idea that London is a filthy city in a perpetually swirling, yellow fog is to be found still in many places abroad. I do not think there is nearly so much excuse for it now as there used to be in the old days. I do not see why we should go oil seeing these dirty, soot-stained buildings when we now have smoke-free zones and everything is much cleaner. We were given a good lead this year by what the outgoing Lord Mayor of London did for St. Paul's in the Fund which he set up for its cleaning. We have seen what has been done in the Banqueting Hall, as noble Lords have said. I am sure we should do more. We were talking earlier on this afternoon about holidays and tourists. I think we should do well, if we want to attract people to this country, to see that London is a sprightly painted and, above all, clean city.

There are many places we could start with. We could start with Somerset House: we could do the Horse Guards. We could finish what Lord Amulree described, Kent's old Treasury building, which at the moment has a rather deplorable piebald look. We could do the Royal Naval College at Greenwich, probably the finest set of buildings of its type to be found in this country. There are all these places which could be dealt with. Perhaps we might one day be able to look upon Nelson on his column as he really is supposed to be, and not have to pay for eight months in the year for the floodlighting of what looks like a small black chimney-sweep on a burnt-out rocket.

Who knows, some of the less distinguished buildings might appear a little less ordinary, and perhaps less repulsive, than they sometimes look now. Might it not lighten the heart of the traveller down King Charles II Street, which flows like the River Styx in the dark underworld between the old India Office and what are laughably called the new Public Offices, if they were given a good scrub? Of course, there are more important things, aid I appreciate that fact, as does the noble Lord, Lord Amulree. But I hope that we shall not concentrate only on essentials and neglect the arts and amenities. I think we should he surprised if we tried to clean these buildings. We should be surprised at the difference it could make to London, to those who visit it, and perhaps, above all, to those who live in it.

6.25 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure I speak for the whole House in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, and the other noble Lords who have spoken on a matter which, after all, comes home to all of us. We live here in London. We have spoken principally about London, although, in fact, this is a question which affects a good many other large cities, too. I remember being told when I was very young that "Cleanliness is next to Godliness", and I also remember hearing a Yorkshire proverb, in a rather opposite sense, "Where there's muck there's brass". I think, in a way, both those things are very relevant to what we have to say to-day.

There are really two schools of thought about the slate in which public buildings should be left, apart from any difficulties in doing the job. There are some people, the "Cleanliness-next-to-Godliness" school, who would like them absolutely clean, and there are others who find a certain attraction in what I have heard described as the patina of old buildings. There is just the same point about pictures, and my noble friend Lord Strabolgi mentioned it in connection with their cleaning, too. One cannot quite meet everybody's views about this: but there is, of course, a problem. It is not so easy as one thinks to get these buildings right. Some of them—for instance, the Horse Guards, which Lord Amulree specifically mentioned, as did another noble Lord—have been tried.

There was a Question in this House in 1952, by the noble Lord, Lord Rennell, mentioning a number of buildings which he thought ought to be cleaned. The Horse Guards was one. The Ministry of Works had a try at the Horse Guards, and Lord Rennell was invited to have a look at the result. He did so, and agreed then that it was really hopeless. I know that there have been improvements since that time, but, in fact, the principal method in London still appears to be washing or using steam on the buildings. That is because most of the buildings concerned in this Question are of Portland stone, and one can deal with Portland stone in that way.

The French buildings are of a rather different stone. It is a very attractive stone when it is fully cleaned, and it is easier to clean than the stone out of which most of the London public buildings are built. Then there remains Bath stone which is easy to clean and does not patch—I will refer to that in a moment—but it presents a rather disappointing appearance when it has dried. It looks "flat"—or that is what the architects think about it, and I daresay that some of your Lordships would, too.

I do not want to trouble your Lordships at this hour with a list of the buildings which have been attempted. Some have been completely successful. There are such cases, and perhaps the most obvious one is Buckingham Palace, which has been done, bit by bit, over a number of years. That has been a complete success. That was a "new" building, and these are by far the easiest to deal with. It is the picturesque and older buildings that present the difficulty. The usual difficulty is what I referred to just now as the "patchy" result. One does the cleaning, and then the building develops patches and looks worse than it was before.

My Lords, I do not want to be too discouraging about this. It is, of course, the case that the Ministry of Works go on, year after year, cleaning the public buildings for which they are responsible. I cannot think that Lord Nelson would have welcomed a description of himself as "a public building, for which the Government were responsible", and therefore I am going to leave out statues. Moreover, I do not know anything about them.

But surely the real remedy in this matter, and the long-term remedy to get the city looking more or less uniform in this respect, and to get something which will last, is to avoid depositing the dirt, instead of cleaning it away after it has been deposited. Clean air legislation, and its proper carrying-out and enforcement, are in the long run far more useful, though of course—I do not want to disturb the noble Lord, Lord Amulree—I would not for a moment say that you have not got to do something about what is there. But it is the case that clean air legislation is, really, the more important side of the matter, as I see it.

My Lords, I repeat that it is getting late and I do not want to keep your Lordships, but I feel that I am a bit of a poacher turned gamekeeper. That always happens when there is a new Government. I am sure I am not the only person in this place who has been, for a very large part of his time indeed, asking the Government of the day to spend money on something or other, and at the end of it all it is a question of how you weigh up these things. But I must remind noble Lords that, coming in as a Government, we have found a state of affairs which from a financial point of view is pretty critical. I do not want to rub it in at this stage and during this debate, but if your Lordships will think for a minute of what was said in another place the other day, you will remember the amount of money which we are in process of borrowing, in order to pay back foreign countries or foreign bankers who are lending to us. You will remember, too, the prospective Budget deficit and the need, which I think both Governments have felt, one after the other, for a really critical review of Government expenditure. So this is not quite the moment to spend too much on anything, if I may put it that way.

When it comes to a choice of priorities, I can see a case for saying (I put it no higher than that) that the needs of the poorest people in this country, who are provided for in the statement made the other day—the pensioners, the widows, the people who have to find houses in London at the moment, and the others who, in one way or another, have difficulty or misfortune consequent, perhaps, on the complications of our society—must quite definitely come first. This kind of operation, necessary though it is, must be treated, comparatively speaking, as a sideline. We must not allow ourselves to beautify the city at the expense of the inhabitants. I think, if I may be allowed to use a quotation, that it was Thucydides who said, that it was the men, not the walls, that make the city. If we have to look after one and not the other, then, surely, it is the men and women who live in it who have the first claim on any available resources.

I hope I have not been contentious on what is a non-contentious subject. It is perhaps extraordinarily difficult to get out of one's bad habits in that respect. But I agree with what has been said about the need for cleaning. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, that it is going on steadily all the time. I have a list of buildings here which have been cleaned year after year. I can say that we must look at the matter against the background, as it were, both of our present financial situation and of other calls—more urgent calls, I think—on our necessarily limited resources.

Having said all that, I trust that those who feel strongly about some particular piece of cleaning (and the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, mentioned one) will let my right honourable friend the Minister of Works—or, if they like to use me as a postbox, myself—know what it is, and I will tell him. Perhaps I ought not to say that I have already had one public building for which the Government are responsible called to my attention to-day, and I propose to ask the Minister of Works whether this is not a proper case. This is clearly an instance of "No names, no pack-drill." But I hope that the matter will be ventilated by those who feel that a particular case needs attention.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I should like to ask a question, purely out of ignorance. Is it possible, provided the stone is hard enough, to do anything by abrasive methods with a rotary electric scraper or anything, like that?


Yes, my Lords, I understand that it is. I am sorry that I did not go into that matter, but it was a question of time. That method is used for sandstone, as I understand it, and peppering grit on to the buildings has been tried. That did not work very well, but the cleaners are hopeful now about some experiments with soft grit that are going on. It is a concept which I find a little hard, but apparently there is something called soft grit, and there are also various chemical methods. It is not only in this country that these methods are being tried out, but in other countries too. But no startling breakthrough has yet appeared, as I understand it, and we still remove the dirt in the old-fashioned way in which we remove it from ourselves—by washing.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down may I ask him one question? Bearing in mind the financial considerations to which he drew your Lordships' attention, would he not consider that from a financial point of view it is very important that the cleaning of buildings should be borne in mind? I say that, because their cleanliness would help to attract tourists and visitors to this country as part of the invisible exports, which it is very essential that we should increase by every means we can. It is really part of that.


My Lords, of course that falls to be considered. I do not have any information—I doubt if anybody has—on what degree of dirt deters the tourists from going to a place. I think it was in Dublin that they were always rather proud of being rather dirty, and thought it attracted tourists. But I do not wish to offend anyone who has opposite views. I would merely say that, clearly, there is an advantage in having clean buildings, or, if you support the other school, reasonably clean buildings; but it is a subject which is, after all, a comparatively minor item of expenditure. One must attend to such matters case by case, as time goes on, and welcome the assistance of those who have noticed a particularly bad example and want something done about it.

House adjourned at twenty-three minutes before seven o'clock.