HL Deb 27 May 1976 vol 371 cc445-56

4. I 5 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. Experience has taught me that the necessary ingredients for piloting a Private Member's Bill on to the Statute Book come under three headings. First, the result, or the anticipated result, must be seen to be for general good. Secondly, the Bill must be modest in what it wants to do. Thirdly, perhaps most importantly, it must have a strong element of support from the Government of the day. I can say with complete confidence that this Bill, guided through the other place by my honourable friend the Member for Canterbury, Mr. David Crouch, passes all three tests. I think that we can accept the requirement of the first test easily; whether it be on cultural grounds or on material grounds, assisting the national balance of trade, this Bill is clearly eminently desirable. With regard to the second test—that the Bill should be modest—I believe that it is modest even to the point of being too modest as regards asking Parliament for more legislation to attain desirable ends. On the third test—the important one—the Government have shown very clearly up to now that they are sympathetic, and I know that no one is more sympathetic than the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, who is to speak for the Government in this debate.

Briefly, the Bill is designed to make it more difficult for anyone to add to the demise of existing live theatres by demolishing them or by radically changing their nature and making them unusable as live theatres. Under the Bill such a change would have to be examined by a theatre trust, set up by the Secretary of State for Education and Science, before any planning authority could sanction such a change that would mean the end of a theatre. I believe that anyone who has even a passing knowledge of the history of theatre in this country would recognise that such delaying powers have been long overdue. If note is taken of the many British theatres which have been allowed to perish over recent years, it will be seen that time ought not to be allowed to go without trying to rectify what has been an omission. We have seen the inevitably disastrous effects that losing so many theatres have had on those employed in the theatrical profession. We have seen, too, the danger it presents to our being able to maintain our world leadership in the quality and the standing of the British theatre.

We can also look at the matter in money terms. The income which the theatre brings to our tourism, the royalties from new plays which are presented and are sent on tour, and the income from the actors' salaries, all added together, form a very important part of the Exchequer income, and we cannot disregard that. Your Lordships will know that for many years certain theatres have been protected from premature demolition because the structure of the buildings brought them within the ambit of being of either special architectural or historic significance. This power has been exercised under the Department of the Environment for a long time and has been used to some purpose.

This protection operated at the planning stage under the auspices of the other Ministry, the Ministry of Environment. That will remain, and it is in no way affected by what is proposed in this Bill. It is quite separate from it. They are both doing the same thing, but they are doing it under different auspices and for different reasons. What we are now endeavouring to do by means of this Bill is to protect from ill-considered demolition bona fide theatre buildings which have no special architectural or historic significance but which are good working theatres, meeting a public need and providing a venue for preserving the art of acting in Britain. That is the purpose of the Bill.

My Lords, having described it in those general terms I can say with confidence that this is a realistic Bill. There is no question of trying to establish by Statute that a certain site must carry a theatre in perpetuity, in spite of other considerations. It is recognised that other considerations, such as a radical change in population in any area, may make a situation different. It is recognised that clear proof that a theatre could never come anywhere near paying for itself is a matter that would have to be taken into account; and this Bill is an indication of the awareness of those realistic considerations. The Bill merely lays down that before a change of user under existing planning permission is made, a Theatre Trust set up by the Minister of Education and Science shall be consulted, not with any powers to stop it at that stage but in order that it may be made certain that all of the considerations for preserving the theatre have been taken into account.

My Lords, this is also a realistic Bill in what is intended from this point of view. There is no question at all of the Trust comprising what I would call " stage-struck bigots ". It will consist of men of commerce and business, professional people and the consuming public, as well as those who are of the theatre and who understand the nuts and bolts of theatre management. It will cover the whole range, and the considerations to be taken into account will be taken into account by people of experience, not overborne with emotionalism such as I have described as being " stage-struck ", or anything of that sort. When consulted, the members of this Trust would apply themselves to seeing whether there was a case for protecting a theatre. If they decided there was no case—and there will be instances where that will happen—they will report, and the Trust would then withdraw, leaving any planning decision to the normal planning authorities.

Alternatively, if the Trust were to report that the theatre should be maintained and the owners of the theatre and the site were to find difficulty in maintaining it, then the planning authority would ask the Trust what it would do about it, having recommended that a theatre should he preserved but that there are practical reasons which make that difficult. If the Trust, recognising those dangers, still recommend that planning permission for demolition or alteration should not be given, then the planning authority asks the Trust. " What do you do about it? ", and the Trust would then have to take such steps as are set out in the Bill, using their own funds, to see that the theatre was maintained.

Let me emphasise at once that there is no question of public money being made available to the Trust. If they make a decision which necessitates their stepping in at any time in a way which involves the spending of money, then they have to raise the money in order to give effect to what they are recommending. There is no question of Government money being involved. I emphasise that in view of the comments made by the noble Lord the Leader of the House when he warned your Lordships about asking for all sorts of extra facilities which cost money and, at the same time, complaining about the high level of Government spending. In this instance, if the Trust makes itself responsible for giving a recommendation which will maintain a theatre and it is going to cost money to go on maintaining it, they must find that money in order to see that it can be done. It is at this stage that I think it right to ask the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, the Minister responsible in this House, to reinforce here the undertaking given by his colleague in another place.

I have suggested already that under the Bill the Theatres Trust must be consulted before any planning decision is given. In fact, such mandatory powers will be given, not under this Bill; the mandatory powers will be given by adding the words set out in Clause 5 of the Bill to the appropriate section of the existing Town and Country Planning Act 1971. The words in Clause 5 were: 5.—(a) Before a local planning authority grants a planning permission for the development of any land on which is situated any theatre as defined in the Theatre Trust Act 1976 they shall consult with the Theatre Trust incorporated by this Act. This requires an authority other than the Ministry of Education and Science to include in their instruments this necessary mandatory power.

The colleague of the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, has given a clear undertaking in another place that this will be brought in this year in order to make the Bill effective; and I should be grateful, while accepting a categorical assurance given in another place, if the noble Lord, for the Record here, could give a similar undertaking in this House. Having got that, I think one can then recommend this Bill to your Lordships as being something worth while and which in the future will be valuable.

I think that the timing of this Bill is about right. We have to keep in mind the often-mooted redevelopment of the centre of London, especially in the Covent Garden area, where no fewer than 16 theatres are affected by the Greater London Council's plan for redevelopment-16 London theatres. We cannot overlook the fact that many theatres have leases with only a few years to run, with the owners being more interested in property development than in the social balance. I do not abuse them for that. It is not their responsibility or duty, but it is the responsibility and duty of Parliament, of which this House forms a part, to see that the social balance is maintained.

The owners to whom I have referred have their rights, rights which must be treated fairly; and this is a Bill which allows for them to be treated fairly. If they are robbed of their full development rights they can call upon the Trust that is forming some obstacle to their having full freedom of action in that field to justify their opposition to it by finding money of their own. There is much more to all this in my view—and this is the reason why I undertook the piloting of this Bill through your Lordships' House—than merely rescuing a theatre or two from bankruptcy. The one field in which we truly lead the world is the British theatre and British acting. There is no argument about that. It is universally acknowledged. Having achieved that very satisfactory situation, it increases our influence in the world—for the theatre is the most articulate of all lobbies.

Furthermore, if we remain supreme in that field, it will not only maintain our leadership; it will add to our coffers, for the theatre overspills into films and into television and television, in particular, is only in its infancy. We think that because we have three or four channels of television in this country there is a lot of television about. The effect of television and the extension of it throughout the world is only beginning; only a fraction of the world is using this medium in the way it is being used in this country and in America. That will grow. If we can remain the centre, the power house for providing the material for this great industry which is going to grow, we can become the Hollywood of the world just like that part of America was when films were at the beginning.

I believe this is a true vision. We should be stupid in a very material sense if we did anything which took away from us the leadership which we have in the world of the theatre and acting generally. This Bill may be of only miniscule proportions in aiming to maintain this supremacy. But though tiny, its influence can be important and I believe the timing of its entrance on to the Statute Book is just about right. Because I feel that your Lordships will feel the same way, I am encouraged to believe that before the end of the Session it will form part of the legislation of this country. With that hope in mind, I am happy to move its Second Reading. My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Harmar-Nicholls.)

4.31 p.m.

Viscount NORWICH

My Lords, the afternoon is already rather far advanced and I am perfectly sure that your Lordships will not want to spend a great deal more time listening to me. Fortunately, I do not think your Lordships are going to have to do so, because the Bill we are considering is first of all a model of clarity and conciseness. Secondly, it has been most admirably summed up by the noble Lord, Lord Harmar-Nicholls. Thirdly, I have a clear feeling that, in any case, if I did go on " rabbiting " about it for too long, I should only be preaching to the converted. If there is any better argument for a short sermon then I should like to know it.

The basic purpose of the Bill—and there can be no disagreement of any kind on this—is admirably summed up in the Preamble. It is simply for the better protection of the theatre. As the noble Lord said, it goes farther than that because through protecting the theatre we also protect the hard-pressed, overcrowded, struggling, underpaid theatrical profession. We also give a superb cultural feast to foreign and particularly Commonwealth and American visitors, and improve our balance of payments.

I know that the following is not the purpose of the Bill, but it is a useful spinoff of it: we shall protect a great many theatres of very considerable architectural merit, because although not all theatres are of any considerable architectural merit, a great many are and the architectural conservation side, although not an integral part, is something which, none the less, is not to be dismissed. Far more important is the fact that in bringing this Bill on to the Statute Book, we are striking another blow for the greatness and glory of the English theatre. It has been the brightest jewel in our cultural crown in the past 400 years, and it is the duty of us all to keep it bright and burnished.

The protection that we shall give if' the Bill is passed is of vital importance and necessity—let nobody be in any doubt about that. We can all draw up a fairly long list of theatres of which we have had personal knowledge in the past twenty years or so which have disappeared. Scores and scores of them, literally without exaggeration, have gone since the end of the last war. At this very moment there are fifteen London theatres whose leases are due to expire before the end of the century. Five of those are in respect of freeholds held by property development companies. They include the Royal Opera House and the Royal Court, which are two of the subsidised theatres.

On top of that there is the unfortunate but undeniable fact that even the theatres that make money are at risk, because they do not make as much money as an office block would do on the same site. It is totally unrealistic to expect a theatre, which operates for three or four hours a day at most, to make as much money as an office block in which every room would be occupied for about eight hours per day. Therefore, the great enemy of the survival of the theatre—I do not think there is any point in whitewashing it—is greed.

To some extent, also, it may be said to be due to insensitivity on the part of local authorities. There is no more dangerous doctrine than that which holds that it is the inhabitants of a locality or the local authority which should he responsible for the architecture, atmosphere or amenities of that locality. We have seen what has happened in so many of the historic medieval cities in this country, such as Gloucester, Worcester and, in part, even Bath. We have seen the appalling threat hanging over Petworth Park, due to the incredible insensitivity on the part of the Sussex County Council, and we have to assume that a great many local authorities have been simply unwilling to bother about what seems to them a matter of relatively minor interest in these days of television, and have been only too ready to grant planning permission.

At the same time, we should not be too hard on all local authorities, some of whom are models of enlightenment and who have simply had to give in because they have known there was no good legitimate reason why planning permission should be withheld. By continuing to withhold it, they might have laid themselves open to the risk of being sued for enormous sums of money: and they have had to give in. In particular, it is those enlightened local authorities who should be particularly grateful for the protection offered by this Bill. I do not think there is any reason for me to repeat the terms and the form this protection will take. That has been admirably described already by the noble Lord, Lord Harmar-Nicholls. When I looked at this Bill in its present form, I shall not conceal from your Lordships that I was very concerned to see that, however admirable its basic principles seemed to be, it did also seem to be totally devoid of teeth. There seemed to be absolutely no reason why the Theatres Trust, having been formed, need be consulted; but 'this is a matter which has been hammered out at very considerable length in another place. I understand it has been agreed that the best way of achieving its purpose is not to amend the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 hut to achieve the same end through an amendment to the General Development Order under that Act. This is a technical question which I shall not pursue, because I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kings-bridge, is just about to do that, with far more authority and clarity than I can boast.

However, before leaving the point, I should like to join my voice to that of the noble Lord, Lord Harmar-Nicholls, in asking the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, whether he will—and I am certain he will be delighted to do that—repeat the assurances already given in another place. The first is that the General Development Order will be amended when, as I understand the position, it comes up for revision in any case during the course of the present year. The second assurance, which I am sure your Lordships will agree is equally important, is that by achieving the aim in this way we are giving the point every bit as much of the force of law as if we had decided to keep the original Clause 5 in the Bill and amend the Town and Country Planning Act 1971.

When I looked at this Bill for the first time, it seemed to me that this Theatres Trust would be the same kind of animal as the National Trust in which, as some of your Lordships may know, I have an interest and I serve on the Committee. I now see that in several important respects it will not be at all similar to the National Trust. First, it will not he a private charity, as the National Trust basically is, despite the fact that it boasts over 500,000 members; and, secondly, the members of the Theatres Trust will be appointed by the Government. These are very important differences. But there is one overridingly important respect in which the two are similar, which is that the Theatres Trust, like the National Trust, will serve a tremendously important purpose. It will achieve something which, if the Government themselves set out to achieve it with their own money, would prove enormously expensive. As it is, this very important task will be achieved without the expenditure of a single penny of public money, and for this alone it seems to me that this Bill is of most vital importance.

Finally, it only remains for me to add another word to the points already made by the noble Lord, Lord Harmar-Nicholls. Our theatre is, and always has been, the best in the world. In the present grim period through which we are passing, it is rather marvellous to think that at least the theatre, despite all the appalling financial difficulties with which it is surrounded and which occasionally threaten to crush it, has in the last few years gone from strength to strength. During the years in which I have had the honour to be a Member of your Lordships' House, we have seen the abolition of theatre censorship, we have seen the establishment of a National Museum of the Theatre, and of course we have seen the great buildings going up on the South Bank, with the final realisation of the long-awaited dream of a National Theatre in this country. I believe that this measure will he another step forward in the same splendid progress, and for that reason I hope very much that your Lordships will give the Bill a Second Reading.


My Lords, in this brief intervention I want only to say, firstly and lastly, how much I support this Bill. I believe profoundly, as the noble Viscount, Lord Norwich, has just said, that our theatre is one of our biggest credits abroad, apart from the edification of our people, and I feel that this Bill is something which your Lordships' House should support.

4.43 p.m.

The MINISTER of STATE, DEPARTMENT of EDUCATION and SCIENCE (Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge)

My Lords, when one is going to say, No, to something, it is as well to take one's time about it. But if one is going to say, Yes, there is no reason why one should not do so quickly. This afternoon, I am in affirmative mood. Our position on the Bill is quite clear and we welcome it. We agree with its aim, as described in detail and extremely clearly by the noble Lord, Lord Harmar-Nicholls, and, as we understand it, its purpose, which is not simply to preserve buildings as architectural monuments, which is already covered by other legislation, but also to protect theatres for the performance of drama. I shall add nothing to what has been said about the common ground between us, that for financial reasons theatres have been eroded in the last 10 or 15 years and need protection.

I do not mind saying that the Bill is particularly welcome to the Government, because it does not involve any finance and it is very much to the credit of the movers and the people behind this Bill that they have quite firmly said that they will shoulder the cost. I do not think it need be a very heavy expense when it works out, hut, at any rate, it is theirs and not ours and we are wholly behind the objective.

Both noble Lords who spoke first asked me to renew the assurance which was given in another place. The position is that subsection (5)(a) to which the noble Lord, Lord Harmar-Nicholls, referred has been removed from the Bill as it now stands and will appear in the same, or similar provision, in the General Development Order, under Article 13 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, as something to which planners have to refer before they can give planning permission. The Government, and particularly my colleagues in the Department of the Environment, took the view that this was a much safer way of making certain that this was looked at than having it in the Bill.

The assurance that noble Lords are asking for from me is that that will be incorporated within the year. This assurance was given by my honourable friend in another place and we are in the very strong position of having a charming colleague of his in this place. If there is any delay we can all make certain, through my noble friend Lady Birk, that that delay is immediately halted. Therefore I think that I can give this assurance with absolute conviction.

I shall say no more on that point. I shall not go into the detail any further than this because I think that we all understand it. I hope that this will turn out to be one more weapon in the armoury with which to defend the theatre in this country. I agree with everything that has been said about the predominance of the British theatre today not only in Europe but throughout the world. I was rather surprised to hear the noble Viscount suggest that this has always been the case. I could find some periods in the nineteenth century when it certainly was not the case, but this has nothing to do with the argument. Today we lead the world. The Government are as anxious as everybody else to see that we continue to do so. This is one method, combined with the £3 million that we are spending on the two national companies and twice as much again on the companies outside them. It is no mean sum. Combined with that, this should be one further weapon towards maintaining the predominance of the British theatre. I hope that nobody will doubt that the Bill will have a fair passage through this House.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.


My Lords, with the leave of the House, on behalf of all of us on these Benches may I wish noble Lords in all parts of the House a very happy, relaxing and, for some of us, rehabilitating Recess.


My Lords, on behalf of noble Lords on this side of the House, may I thank the Chief Whip very much for her kind wishes. We reciprocate them fully.


My Lords, on behalf of noble Lords on these Benches may I also thank the Chief Whip. We trust that she shall come back greatly restored. I cannot see that the Chief Whip needs a great deal of restoration now, but I take it that she probably feels she does!