HL Deb 27 February 1968 vol 289 cc758-70

5.46 p.m.

LORD AMULREE rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have any firm policy to prevent or discourage parts of parks, commons, gardens or squares in London from being built over or turned into roads, garages, car parks, et cetera. The noble Lord said: My Lords, in rising to put this Question to the Minister and to Her Majesty's Government I want to say that my putting the Question does not imply any general criticism of the way in which the Ministry of Public Building and Works take care of the parks and grounds which are under their care. One has merely to see the excellent work they are doing now at Chiswick, where they are working on a house and grounds which the local authority found very difficult to do. But I am concerned over a number of serious attacks upon the Royal Parks, attacks that have been going on for some considerable time.

The Royal Parks are unique in the world. We have, so far as I know, the only capital, certainly in Europe, which has them or anything to compare with them. They have been maintained and cared for for the entertainment of the people at large. But, unfortunately, there has been a gradual building-up, going back to the 1920s, of what one might call the reservation of certain parts of the Parks for certain privileged classes of persons. I believe that the first deliberate case occurred when Mr. George Lansbury founded the Lido at the Serpentine. That is something which has given great pleasure to a great many people, and something to which I myself have no objection. But it means that, whereas previously members of the public could walk around the Serpentine, now they cannot. The Lido has been followed by bowling greens, putting greens and football pitches, which are I think used over the weekends. These are amenities to which, as I say, I have no objection. But one must realise that one is creating a class of privileged persons who use certain parts of the Parks that were originally intended for the use of the public in general. One wonders where this is going to stop.

One may say, of course, that there was a certain amount of privilege accorded in the Parks before the time I am talking about. But I can think of only two real cases. One was the Botanic Gardens in Regent's Park, where members of the public were not allowed in on Sundays, in the morning; but they were allowed in during the rest of the day and during the week. That was not a very big case. Secondly, there was a small open-air school in St. James's Park, which did not survive the war. One might say that, earlier, Rotten Row provided a privilege but I am not sure that that was really so, because if you did not mind getting your feet covered in earth there was nothing to stop you from walking in the Row. Indeed, as I know, because before the war I was myself a fairly regular rider in the Row, people did that. That is why I say that I have no objection in principle to what is going on; but I do wonder where it is going to stop. There is one activity that has ceased. At one time there was a baseball pitch at the northern end of Hyde Park, but to the best of my belief that has now gone. In Regent's Park there are football pitches and one little cinder track on which people can practice running. But one would like to know whether that is to be extended, and whether the time may come (I think it will not) when the general public will find their use of the park seriously curtailed because of the various sporting activities which are going on there.

From time to time rather curious things occur. Not so many years ago a restaurant was opened by the Serpentine, in Hyde Park, and I raised a Question then, because a certain part of the Park was taken away to make a parking place for motorists coming to that restaurant. When I protested I was told that if there was nowhere to park their cars people would not come to the restaurant. That did not seem to me to be a good reason, because if there was no-one to patronise the restaurant there would be no need for the restaurant to be there. If one goes into Regent's Park one finds a similar restaurant; but no part of the park has been taken away to provide car-parking facilities. One wonders where the kind of thing that has happened in Hyde Park will stop.

There has also been constructed in the middle of Hyde Park, at great expense, a large subterranean garage which will contain 1,000 cars. I have not been in it very frequently, I admit, but I have never seen that garage completely full. One would have thought the first thing that would have been done would be to compel people to go into the garage before parking in Hyde Park itself, where it is taking away some of the pleasure of the park if there are cars standing all round the various carriageways. I admit that in some of the bigger parks out of London—for instance, Richmond Park—the parking places serve a good purpose, because previously people tended to park too much in the roads, thus blocking the traffic trying to drive through.

Then we come to a more serious matter, and I have not yet been able to find out what went wrong. I am referring to the Fun Fair in Battersea Park, which was constructed in 1951, when the Festival of Britain exhibition was on. My impression was that it was said that this fun fair would end in about four years' time, and that it would then be reconsidered. So far as I know, that fun fair still continues. The result is that one of the most attractive of London parks, with lawns and flowerbeds going down to the river, has been completely spoilt, certainly for the large number of people who wish to enjoy the park. It has become a place for privileged people who want to take part in fun fairs which I am sure is not what the Royal Parks were originally intended for.

To revert to the subject of cars, a large amount of Hyde Park has been taken away to make the East Carriage Drive with Park Lane. That scheme took away part of Hyde Park, a little piece of Green Park and a certain amount of the gardens of Buckingham Palace. One wonders what the Government policy about this will be in the long run. If we continue to say that because there are more cars we must take more of the parks to make bigger roads, we shall be left with a large number of cars and no open spaces, whereas possibly one would rather see fewer cars allowed into these parks and the parks preserved as they are. One was told (though I do not think it is true) that there was a danger that part of the park might he taken off on the South side to make another dual carriageway, and one wonders whether the North of the park, near the Bayswater Road, is entirely safe, because that is a busy road which takes a good deal of traffic at the present time.

Turning to other open spaces, whenever the authorities pull down a 19th century or late 18th century row of houses they take away a certain amount of open space and garden and trees, because although some of these gardens were not very well kept a certain number of them were, and thus a certain amount of greenery was visible. Now they are replaced by large blocks of concrete—concrete deserts or jungles; I do not mind what they are called, but they are unattractive, and certainly they do not give any feeling of things growing or being alive, or of natural beauty.

This brings me on to the rather more delicate part of what I want to say, because under a General Act of Parliament, of, I think, 1884, it was said that no disused burial ground shall be built over except for the purposes of extending a church or chapel. Now the Church can get round this by the Private Bill procedure of your Lordships' House and another place. I am bound to ay that I have a great deal of sympathy with the Church in their troubles, because expenses are going up and they have to raise more money somehow. They have to preserve the churches, to make the stipends of their ministers more adequate; and they have to provide pension schemes for them on retirement. Hence they require money, and one can well see why they resort to the Private Bill procedure, to get money from the sale of the churchyards which are no longer required.

It is difficult to oppose a Private Bill, because, in the first place, to petition against a Private Bill is an expensive thing to do, and one must be quite sure that the would-be petitioner has the right kind of locus standi. I once opposed the Second Reading of such a Bill, dealing with the burial ground of St. George's, Hanover Square, which was a large piece of land behind the Bayswater Road. I am not quite sure what occurred. It was in 1964 that the Bill was passed, and so far as I know nothing more has occurred. There again I should like to know whether the Government can give any lead in these matters, any policy which we can accept as being what the Government think about it. If you have the tiniest bit of open ground in a built-up city, if it is well gardened or landscaped it makes an attractive place for people to sit in and have their sandwiches or their lunch and get away from the streets with their eternal rows of buildings. I should like to know what has been done, because the Act of 1884 is certainly being eroded on a very big scale.

It is said that if these places are going to be developed the development has to be subject to planning consent from the planning authority, and that this gives some protection. I quite agree; but it does not give a very great deal of protection. One has seen what they are planning in some places—in Canterbury for instance. That has not been settled yet. All sorts of dreadful things occur, even with planning permission, so I do not take that as being the real bulwark that it might be. I know that the Government are very reluctant—and quite rightly so—to tell local authorities what to do; and that would be a deplorable thing to do, I think. But supposing the Government have a policy, I think that the local authorities often tend to follow the Government's policy if it is well enough known, even if they are not told to do so by the Government.

There is one very brief point to which I should like to refer, and that concerns one of the commons which is outside the Inner London area. I refer to Wimbledon Common which is, after all, part of one of the biggest open spaces in the Metropolitan area. There again, because of the incessant demands of traffic, certain roadworks have to be done, and they include a certain amount of tunnelling. The contractors need somewhere to dump the material, and with the consent of the Conservators of the Common it has been dumped upon the Common, on top of the heather and the gorse and the other plants that are growing in the ground.

The subsoil from that part of the world, not unexpectedly, consists of London clay, which is not a very attractive thing to have dumped on a Common; and the contractors have found that they have to add a good deal of extra material to the clay to make it solid and make up the tracks for their lorries to the places for tipping the subsoil. What has been happening (I have a good deal of evidence of this from the people in that part of the world) is that a good deal of tipping has gone on with material which does not come from the site. The Conservators have not really been able to exercise sufficient control. When the contractors have work in other parts of the country, or maybe in the town, and have seen a good place to tip on Wimbledon Common they have come to tip there. although the material they tip does not come from the work which is being done on the spot. We are told that the ground will all be made good, and that what was a piece of flat common is now going to be a range of hills which will be landscaped and properly planted. That is as may be; but I wonder what the Government feel about the way the Conservators are exercising their powers, and whether something might be done. I will not say in this particular case, but in future, to see that parks like Wimbledon Common are not damaged by unnecessary dumping.

My Lords, I have fired quite a number of questions at the Minister to which I hope he will be able to give some reply. I have not given him much warning, and if he would rather reply to some questions by post I shall quite understand, but I trust that he will be able to give some sort of reply to a good deal of what I have said.

6.5 p.m.


My Lords, I am very glad the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, has put down this Unstarred Question and I agree with a good deal of what he has said, particularly about the parks. But if I may say so with respect to the noble Lord, I do not agree with all that he said. I agree fully about the state of the riverside walk in Battersea Park, which I think we Londoners have put up with now for a good many years and too many years, and I wonder when it is going to be restored to what it used to be—a very charming and delightful walk, which is now a strip of concrete. I wonder when that terrible, decrepit old showboat is going to be done away with. I think it was originally put there for the Festival of Britain in 1951, and it has been mouldering there ever since. But I do not agree with what the noble Lord said about the East Carriage Drive in Hyde Park. I think it is an example of extremely good planning. Although a certain part of the park has been cut off, nevertheless the hillocks and banks constructed along the edge of the park I think really make for greater privacy within it. That is the kind of thing that could be done if we need to take up more space, although I hope we shall not.

I also do not agree with the noble Lord about the restaurants. The two restaurants, one at each end of the Serpentine, are a great advantage to London. For years people have been complaining that our capital city has never had a restaurant of the standard of restaurants the French have in the Bois and so on, and here the authorities have at last given us first one restaurant and then two, and I think one should welcome that as an excellent extra amenity for London and her visitors.


My Lords, perhaps I may interrupt the noble Lord. I was not saying a word against the restaurants at all; I think they are quite all right. What I was objecting to was that a large part of the park had been taken away for a car park for people going to the restaurant.


My Lords, I would not say it was a large part of the park. To my knowledge it is really not much more than the size of a tennis court, outside the restaurant. I will not follow the noble Lord there.

I should like to deal very briefly with one aspect of this problem that the noble Lord was not able to develop, and that is the question of our squares. I think it is right to say that the squares in London are unique. No city in the world has so many squares and so many beautiful ones and so many magnificent trees. One thinks, for instance, of the Place des Vosges in Paris which is one of the most beautiful squares architecturally in Europe, but the garden in the middle is a patch of gravel with a few saplings; and one compares that with the lovely squares we have. I believe these squares were originally laid out in this way so that one could see the buildings across them, and in the 18th century it was never envisaged that we should have these large trees and fairly thick undergrowth; in fact, people then would have been rather shocked if they had seen what we have done now. On the other hand, we are in the middle of the 20th century, and I think these patches of urban greenery are very valuable and I hope they will be preserved. I think it would be absolute vandalism to cut the trees down in order to construct underground garages. I believe it is very difficult to build a garage underneath a square garden unless you cut down most of the trees. You can keep a few round the edge, but it would be very difficult to preserve the majority of them.

Can one imagine Eaton Square, or Belgrave Square, or Berkeley Square, or St. James's Square without their trees? They would become prim little patches of space, with shrubs in pots, and crazy paving. If anybody thinks that I am exaggerating, he has only to look at Golden Square in Soho, which must have been a beautiful square garden and is now as I have described. Another good way to compare what can happen is to look at the top part of Cadogan Gardens in relation to the bottom half. The top half has been used to create an underground garage. I think the authorities have probably done their best and have tried to keep as many trees as possible. But it is not at all like the bottom half, which still preserves its oasis of greenery and its rather wild effect with the lawns and the trees. One hopes that what has happened to the top half, the northern half, will not happen to the rest, and to other squares.

Of course, this is a great problem with the amount of traffic in London, and the parking problems that this brings about. One wonders what the Government have in mind on a long-term basis. We should be evolving a definite policy of building far more multi-storey garages, and also making it a statutory requirement to build more garages below new constructions. Yet all over the West End of London one sees large new office blocks, and blocks of flats without any garages at the bottom, and one wonders why that is. Here is a chance to build more underground garages at this time.

Also, I would have thought it necessary to prohibit street parking for non-residents except by meter, and to make the residents pay for their parking by the stamp system. This has just been brought into operation in Westminster, where I live, and I think it is most successful. It has stopped many people from bringing their cars into London, dumping them in our streets all day, and taking them back in the evening, so that one has no room to park one's own car. The residents do not mind paying about fifteen shillings a week by way of stamps for the use of the street space. Other people can use the meters if they wish to come in for an hour or two. I think that that is the kind of solution that we should bring in in other parts of London.

Once these square gardens have been destroyed we can never get them back again. It takes hundreds of years for trees to grow up, and I think it would be absolute vandalism and a shortsighted solution to an ever-growing problem, because the more garages you build underneath these square gardens the more people would be encouraged to bring their cars into London. That is something that we want to discourage. So I shall be most interested to hear what my noble friend Lord Kennet has to say on this matter which the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, has been good enough to raise.

6.15 p.m.


My Lords, the House ought to be, and I am sure is, grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Amulree for raising this interesting and pleasant. and fundamentally non-controversial topic, and I welcome the opportunity of telling the House what the system is and what the rules are, and what improvements we seek to make in both the system and the rules.

One should distinguish between Royal Parks and other public open space and burial grounds, as the noble Lord did. Of course, Royal Parks are administered by my right honourable friend the Minister of Works. He cannot alienate any interest in the Royal Parks; that is to say, he cannot part with the land to anybody else, without getting an Act of Parliament to do it. So that is all rig it. If Parliament agrees, it will let him have his Act; if it does not, it will not.

He can, of course, manage and regulate goings-on in the Parks, and successive Ministers of Works have approved all the goings-on which have been the object of both favourable and unfavourable comment here this afternoon. I will not take up all the examples given by Lord Amulree in relation to the Royal Parks. But the Serpentine restaurant car park really is more like a tennis court in extent than, shall we say, a major battlefield.

Lord Amulree spoke about the underground garage under Park Lane running under the East Carriage Drive. He asked, why was not a rule made that that had to be filled up before any part of the carriageway could be used for parking. There is such a rule. When that garage was opened there, it was the fact that parking was able to be forbidden for the first time in the north carriageway. That is the sort of advantage that you get by permitting the construction of these things. So it is that I think that the carriageway looks a great deal better on the surface now.

What went wrong about the fun fair in Battersea Park? This is so much a matter on which two views are possible. For myself, having numerous children and not knowing of another fun fair within one hundred miles of where I live. I am profoundly grateful that it continues. I think it is a great feature of London life and a great asset; and I should hate to see it go. On the other hand, those who have no children and live quite close to Battersea Park might take a quite different view. It is so much a province of local government to settle these issues.

On the question of Wimbledon Common, I entered into correspondence with the Conservators after a recent Starred Question in this House; and I thought at the end of that correspondence that everything was all right. But if the noble Lord assures me that it is not. I will willingly look into it again. Perhaps he can let me know in detail what is still wrong, and I will have another look at the matter.

On squares, which of course count as public open spaces just like the majority of non-Royal Parks do, the Government, and I myself personally, share to the full the views of my noble friend about keeping the trees there, and that it would be deplorable vandalism to permit any development underneath the squares which is going to kill off the trees by the roots. I should like to send to my noble friend later on details of what it is proposed to do under Cavendish Square. where a scheme has been drawn up which is ingenious, and I hope and am convinced is a successful plan to preserve the fine forest trees which stand there.

My right honourable friend has caused discussions to be opened with interested parties on the possibility of drawing up a sort of code, or book of rules, or a drill to help planning authorities decide what sort of garage under London squares will be all right from the tree point of view and what sort will not. I am not yet in a position to tell the House whether we shall be able to have one, but this I will say: that if we get one I will take an opportunity of informing the House what the code is and how it is going to be put into operation.

On the question of burial grounds, the situation is this: that if the church authorities or the owners of any church want to change the use of their land (and, typically, this is done at the same time, that they want to demolish an old and unattractive church and put up a neater and more modern one) they have to have an Act of Parliament, as the noble Lord said. That Act of Parliament may or may not contain a saving for town and country planning. If it does, it may not propose any specific use for the rest of the site, but simply seek powers to dispose of it. In that case planning law applies, and they must get planning permission, from their local planning authority; and if there is a row about it the Minister will be as well able to call in that planning permission as in any other case. If, on the other hand, the Bill specifies the use to which the burial ground site is to be put, then that attracts Class XII of the General Development Order which confines local planning authority power to details only. In that case it is a matter which ought to be looked at by Parliament to see whether Parliament approves of the use to which it is proposed to put the site.

Parliament is busy, and there are many of these Bills. I have cast a general glance at the list of 10 Bills which are before the House at the moment, and I do not think there is anything in them which it would be my duty specifically to draw to the attention of the House But in view of this afternoon's debate I will have another look at them, and if there is anything in them I will make it my business to draw it to the attention of the House.


My Lords, before the noble Lord leaves the question of burial grounds, could he tell me whether it is the case that the planning authority cannot control the planning unless they are prepared to meet the cost, which may be very high indeed?


My Lords, may I look into that, and again take the opportunity in the near future to let the House know, or to communicate privately with my noble friend about it?

The general policy about public open space in London is a policy devised and applied by the Greater London Coun- cil, as the overall planning authority. It is a policy which they inherited from the L.C.C. The County of London Development Plan, which is the existing Development Plan for Greater London now in force, contains the policy statement that all existing open space is to be retained, and it is to be increased wherever it is below a certain minimum standard; namely, 4 acres per 1,000 population. Open land is not to be released for any other purpose except in exchange for other open space of equal area within the neighbourhood. That is the present situation. Public statements have made it clear that the Greater London Council will continue this policy in the new Greater London Development Plan which they are at present preparing and which they will submit to my right honourable friend towards the end of this year.


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to thank the noble Lord for his very helpful reply.