HL Deb 28 February 1978 vol 389 cc443-66

6.9 p.m.

Lord MOLSON rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what plans they have for the restoration and modernisation of Government buildings in and around Whitehall; and what new buildings they intend to erect on the Westminister Hospital and other sites in the area. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I intend this to be, strickly speaking, a Question, and I have no intention of making any suggestions, directly or indirectly, as to what should be done. This Question simply seeks information; I am not pressing for any particular solution, but it is time we were told what is going on in the mind of the Government in regard to these immensely important decisions in an area which is of outstanding historical and architectural interest.

Mr. Tom Driberg, as he was at that time and who became known to us in this House as Lord Bradwell, said: We can always say that this is an important decision and therefore it must take 18 months or a year to announce, but this has gone on for an awfully long time. Mr. Driberg complained that it had been going on for an awfully long time on 24th January 1972. I hope, therefore, that your Lordships will acquit me of any charge of impatience if I ask for an indication of what progress has been made. I do not expect an immediate answer and I cannot emphasise too strongly that am anxious that as long consideration should be given to this matter as will result in our reaching a right conclusion. It has dragged on for so long and so many inquiries have taken place that I had to ask my honourable friend Mr. Robert Cooke, who has been most persistent in this matter and who has done signal public service in keeping it before the House of Commons and successive Governments of both Parties, to bring me up to date with what has happened.

I am familiar with what one might call the beginnings of this particular development. I was Minister of Works when it was decided to acquire what was then called the St. Stephen's Club on the opposite side of Bridge Street and where subsequently it was decided to erect a Parliamentary building for the benefit of Members of the other House. In 1963, an inquiry, called the Martin Buchanan Inquiry, was held at the instance of Mr. Geoffrey Rippon, at that time Minister of Works. Its recommendation was for the wholesale destruction of practically everything we know as Whitehall and its replacement by an immense beehive occupied by no fewer than 4,000 civil servants.

This wholesale demolition was unacceptable to public opinion, which was guided and led by all those who are concerned with the preservation of London's historic and beautiful buildings, even if at that time the Victorian style of architecture was not fashionable. It was as a result of the general protest against this that two further inquiries were set up. One was the Willis Inquiry, which resulted in the recommendation that the Norman Shaw buildings, at that time the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police and called New Scotland Yard, and Richmond Terrace should be preserved. In 1966, Sir Robert Matthew was appointed to look at the whole matter again and lie roundly condemned the proposals of the Martin Buchanan Inquiry and urged large preservation of the existing buildings with such modifications as were necessary to increase and improve the accommodation.

The first announcement we had of the great changes in Government thinking on this subject came from Mr. Paul Channon, speaking in another place, when he was Minister of State at what was then the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. Since then, there has been a change of Government and of course the whole economic and financial position of the country has deteriorated, and I make no complaint at all that the present Government should have looked at the entire matter again. I certainly do not blame them for having taken a considerable amount of time to to so.

My Question falls into two parts, although of course the whole of Whitehall must be dealt with as a single area. The old Westminster Hospital site has now been derelict for a very long time and it is sad that better use cannot be made of it than as a car park. Again, I do not complain that time is being taken to consider what use should be made of what is one of the most important sites in the whole of London. Giving, as it does, a remarkable view of Westminster Abbey, it is of the utmost importance that it should be properly used. It is indeed a good thing that my noble friend Lord Duncan-Sandys, who I hope will be speaking later in this debate, turned down the proposal that it should be used as a new Colonial Office. Alas, we no longer have any colonies and there is no need for a Colonial Office; to be flippant, I can only say I hope that the Government will not think it a suitable site for new offices for the Crown Agents.

I should be glad to know the thinking of the Government on this subject. It is open to argument that it should be left as an open space and it is arguable that it would be better if only part of it were left as an open space because I am one of those who think that Gothic architecture is most impressive and beautiful when seen fairly close to and I am not one who admires great open squares like the Place de la Concorde in Paris; I should be sorry if we had anything of that sort in London because I do not think it is suited to the character of our city.

I understand from my friends in another place that there are some Committees there which are at the present time considering this general question of the redevelopment of Whitehall, and I should like to ask the noble Baroness whether she can indicate at all the line of demarcation in these studies between the Legislature and the Government. Quite obviously, whatever is going to be done must meet with the approval of another place, but at the same time it is an excellent thing that those who are going to take the ultimate decision in this matter should be considering it at the present time.

I have said that I want only to seek information. I am asking only for a report on progress. I shall fully understand if the noble Baroness indicates that no decisions have been taken as yet, and if she says that, having regard to the general condition of the country, no work will be undertaken for some considerable time. That was made quite plain by Mr. Edward Short, now the noble Lord, Lord Glenamara, when he was Lord President of the Council. He announced then that the Government had no intention of proceeding with the Parliamentary building which was shown as a model some two years ago. Various arrangements have been made in the buildings which are owned by the Government around this Palace to improve the accommodation for Members of another place.

There are, I think, two considerations which are relevant in deciding about the future, and I have given the noble Baroness notice that I should be glad to have at any rate some indication from her, first, as to the estimated number of civil servants who will have to be accommodated in the vicinity of this Palace. I know that the general policy is that there should be dispersal over the whole country, but, generally speaking, the civil servants who go into the Provinces are those who are concerned with (shall I say?) rather routine affairs, and there will always be many who have to be in close touch with Ministers and with Members of both Houses of Parliament who will require to be accommodated in this vicinity. Secondly, in considering whether it is justifiable to go to the capital expense of building new accommodation, it is important to consider the high rents which have to be paid in London at the present time for leased accommodation; and if the noble Baroness can indicate to what extent the building of new offices might result in a saving of the heavy expenditure upon rent, I feel that that would be a very valuable piece of information. The Prime Minister's recent and welcome directive as to the reduction of expenditure on general Government administration may well affect these figures.

My Lords, I know that the noble Baroness takes a very keen personal interest in all these matters of amenity and in the preservation of our buildings of beauty and historical interest, and I shall be most grateful to her for anything that she can say to us this evening in order to indicate the Government's thinking upon this matter.

6.25 p.m.


My Lords, your Lordships will be grateful to my noble friend Lord Molson for asking this Unstarred Question this evening about a matter of great public importance which we have not discussed for some little time. At a distance of a decade, or perhaps a little more than a decade, it seems almost unthinkable that the Martin-Buchanan Inquiry of 1963 to 1965, referred to by my noble friend Lord Molson, should have come up with the decision which it in fact did—two distinguished architects who today, quite frankly, would not even be considered as suitable people to review the situation again were there need to do so. What is so particularly curious is that in 1968, only a matter of three years after the Martin-Buchanan Inquiry took place and had reported, and after their report had been released to the public, a further matter arose so short a distance away as the Tate Gallery from the centre of the Martin-Buchanan Inquiry; that is to say, the public offices and Parliament Square.

I do not know whether from that one can judge that there was an insufficient amount of comparison between the two inquiries, but your Lordships must recollect that in the autumn of 1968 the Tate Gallery—a very important building constructed by Sydney Smith between 1893 and 1897—was the subject of a formal application given by the Ministry of Public Building and Works, as it then was, to demolish the steps and the portico of the Gallery.

The public outcry, which will be very easily recollected, was immense at that time, and subsequently, as your Lordships will recollect, the plan was withdrawn. But I believe it to be true to say that however important a particular area is for a public inquiry in the centre of London, the lessons to be learned from it are never really taken on board by all branches of Government. I believe it is true to say that in the case of the Martin-Buchanan Inquiry no less than five listed Grade I buildings were being considered for demolition. I will name them. They were the Foreign Office, the Home Office, the India Office, and Bryden's Treasury and part of some other public offices adjoining. I do not think it has been a matter of history that a single Grade I listed building has been demolished in the United Kingdom since listing began years ago. But were this proposal to be reexamined, I am perfectly certain the noble Baroness will inform the House—and she will inform us whether this is correct—that no listed Grade I buildings are at present thought to be under threat of demolition in this area.

My Lords, I believe that in examining the situation as it is today we have to be particularly grateful to a number of bodies. I am delighted that I am very shortly to be followed in this debate by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, because I believe that the work of the Historic Buildings Board of the Greater London Council, the authors of this very important document called Do you care about Historic Buildings?, was instrumental in bringing about great public interest in those public buildings and other buildings which in the last few years have been saved in the Westminster and central area, the subject of this Unstarred Question.

What a large number of successes can be recorded! Surely the restoration of the Palace of Westminster from the moment when Colonel Clifton-Brown laid the foundation stone in 1948 and its completion about eight years later was one of the most important. The restoration of Downing Street; the cleaning and restoration of Barry's Treasury, the restoration and renovation of the Banqueting Hall and the renewal and replacement of the pictures in the original sitings in the very celebrated ceiling; the completion of the new Ministry of Defence, a building which, incidentally, was constructed only, I think, 15 years ago to a plan originally designed in 1911; and, of course, the refurbishing of the Admiralty and other public offices. But perhaps the most significant in recent years has been the cleaning of the five public buildings referred to; and, more important even than that, has been the restoration of one side of Westminster Abbey. Public feeling in this area is passionate, and I am certain that an imaginative concept for the pedestrianisation of certain parts of the area would be particularly welcome by the public at large. Whether this is possible is a matter for other considerations.

My noble friend Lord Molson referred to the Westminster Hospital site and suggested that this might still be considered for an area of open space. There are many who would heartily support that view. Further, there is in this area a great shortage of trees, following the felling of a certain number of them; and were it possible to renew the landscaping with the planting of suitable species it would be a further addition to this highly important and sensitive area in the centre of London.

My Lords, I believe, as I am sure all noble Lords believe, that it was indeed fortunate that the Martin-Buchanan recommendations were never implemented, that time has been, up to date, on our side, and we look forward to the reply which the noble Baroness has to make on the subject. But I also believe that what have to be reconciled are matters which are not entirely reconcilable: the needs of the users of the buildings, the needs of the millions of visitors to London and the Provinces, the users of heavy commercial vehicles in transit through this area and the needs, above all, of the Londoner. If these can all be woven into one sensitive whole, a great benefit will be conferred on future generations.

6.35 p.m.


My Lords, I want to direct my remarks this afternoon primarily to the question of the Broad Sanctuary site—sometimes referred to, as by the noble Lord, Lord Molson, as the Westminster Hospital site and sometimes called the Colonial Office site. It is a site which, as has already been said, has been empty for a great number of years. I, as a former chairman of the planning committee concerned with planning in the central London area, have had a certain amount of involvement over the years with proposals about what in fact should happen on this site.

We have had reference already to the advantage, possibly, of having an area of open space and this idea was embodied in the proposal of the surveyor of Westminster Abbey, Mr. Dykes Bower, which proposed creating a new square in the area of the Westminister Hospital site and involved diverting Victoria Street into Gt. George Street via Storey's Gate. This, on the face of it, might have sounded an imaginative proposal, but on examination it was clear that the diversion of Victoria Street along the lines suggested would have interfered with some valuable historical buildings in Gt. George Street was not therefore one which could be considered.

The other proposal which one knows has been on the stocks for some time is that to build a small, high-security conference centre seating about 300 people on a part of the Westminster Hospital site. In fact, a feasibility study has been carried out in detail by Sir Philip Powell. This would envisage a paved area as well as the building of the conference centre. I understand that this conference centre would be for use for Government purposes, particularly, probably, in connection with meetings necessary in regard to our membership of the EEC. However, although this proposal has been around for some time, there has not seemed to be any immediate hope that finance will become available for the proposal to proceed. Therefore, one is driven back into looking at what might be a short-term use of the site if these longer plans are unlikely to materialise in the near future.

One of the problems ill this particular area has been for many years the question of coach parking. There have been a number of complaints by Members of this House and of another place about the clutter of coaches in this area at certain times of the day, and particularly in the morning. Indeed, this was a matter on which I, in my former capacity, submitted evidence to the Services Committee of the House of Commons; following which there is now an availability for coach parking during the Recess in the car park which exists on the Westminster Hospital site at the present time. My view is that this facility should be made more readily available for coaches because the tourist influx into Westminster Abbey is at its peak during the morning period. Very few tourists, on the whole, visit the Abbey by coach in the afternoon. My thought would have been that, whatever their other needs, the House of Commons could cope with their car parking needs in the large underground car park during the morning period and that there is no need for this additional, extra car park during the morning.

I think that we should remember that there are about 3½ million visitors to the Abbey each year. This is in addition to those who go to the Abbey to worship, so there is a sizeable influx of tourists into this particular area. Therefore, the proposal has been put forward recently—and there has been some publicity of it in the Press—that there should be a tourist centre on the site. I welcome that idea. It is likely that the erection of such a centre would be viewed by the tourist as being an official tourist centre, although the proposal, as I understand it, is that it would be run by a private charity although there would be likely to be an input by the official tourist bodies.

In the circumstances, I think that tourists would no doubt regard this as being an official centre, and therefore it is important that the highest standards should be maintained within such a centre. One of the problems with which we are continually faced every year is stories of tourists having been, as it is said, "ripped off" in one way or another. Therefore, our concern has been particularly to see that any possibility of tourists being "ripped off", whether by ice-cream sellers or sellers of Coke or by a bureau de change when changing money, is lessened to the greatest possible degree. Therefore, we would want to ensure that those interests of the tourists are protected; also that, if such a centre was opened, such souvenir shops as there would be would sell souvenirs of the highest quality.

At present, a bureau de change has to be licensed by the Bank of England and must publish the rates of exchange. Nevertheless, there are situations where the rates of commission which are charged are high. One hopes that, if this proposal goes ahead, the Department of the Environment, in coming to the arrangements, will be able to control the rates of commission being charged and oversee how the allocation of subleases goes forward. If we are establishing a tourist centre on this important site, it is important to ensure in advance that no abuses will occur.

If I may go to some of the wider issues involved in the Question (which I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Molson, for raising), in the past a study was carried out by the GLC called the "Three Squares Study". This involved looking at the quality of the environment in Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square and Parliament Square, an area of great tourist attraction and public interest. As the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, mentioned, it is an area where there are possibilities of pedestrianisation. As a result of that study, there has been an element of pedestrianisation in Leicester Square.

The proposals for Parliament Square were rather costly and so had to be shelved at the time that they were considered. However, one has the feeling that it should be possible to improve the pedestrian environment in Parliament Square. I am very pleased, as is the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, that the cleaning process has started. I only wish that the authority of which I was formerly chairman was able to do something about cleaning up Middlesex Guildhall. If we had that building cleaned up it would present a much more pleasant aspect on the northern side of the Square, particularly since the Chartered Surveyors' building has recently been cleaned and presents a pleasant picture.

Those, my Lords, are some of the thoughts that I have about this area of tremendous importance. I do not say that, because it is so important, we should allow ourselves the luxury of delaying decisions still further: I think that it is time that decisions were reached.

6.42 p.m.


My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Molson for putting this Unstarred Question on the Order Paper. He has, to a certain degree, succeeded in shooting my favourite fox. As the noble Baroness is probably by now aware, I have had this Question on the Order Paper every year since the memory of man runneth not to the contrary. I have always had the same answer—not a bad one, either. It was that the Stationery Office site—as we used to call it—then the Westminster Hospital site, cannot be considered in isolation. It has to be considered in consonance with the whole of the Parliament area: the Bridge Street site, the new Foreign Office, and so on. There is a lot to be said for that argument. But if we carry it too far we will not get a final decision until the crack of doom because so many of these decisions are controversial.

We have had many improvements made. Parliament Square has been relaid. At the time, there was a tremendous controversy about that, but we have all forgotten it. The car park in New Palace Yard caused tremendous controversy. The only controversy which still remains is about the statue in the middle. That only goes to show that for every plan for such an important site as this there is bound to be controversy. We have to remember that we have achieved a great deal—both Governments can take credit for this—and the controversy has subsided.

I was glad to hear my noble friend Lord Sandys mention the cleaning and polishing up of the whole of the Whitehall area. This has been a tremendous success. He also mentioned Westminster Abbey. I realise that this is not the responsibility of Her Majesty's Government, therefore I do not ask the noble Baroness to address herself to it; but I cannot help regretting that it is taking so long to clean Westminster Abbey. It did not take anything like that time to clean St. Paul's. What is the difficulty? Is it because it is a very much older building and therefore a more delicate task? Is it a shortage of men, materials or money? I hope that we shall be told, because it is something to which the public would like to lend a hand.

While on the subject of time—and, heaven knows, the car park took long enough!—why is so much time being spent on repairing the bomb damage round Westminster Hall? I have not seen the statue of Oliver Cromwell for years. It is one of the finest statues in London. It is also interesting because, as your Lordships probably realise, there are only two statues within the curtilage of Parliament: one is the statue of Oliver Cromwell and the other is the statue of Richard Coeur de Lion which is outside our own front door. Richard blankly refused ever to summon Parliament and Oliver Cromwell tried to abolish it. That reflects well upon our logic.

May I ask the noble Baroness how much more she thinks can be done without prejudicing the overall plan? I appreciate that point. We do not want to do anything which cannot be undone and which will ruin the overall concept of this most important site. May I ask about the shops in Bridge Street? I asked her this some months back and I received, if I may say so, a rather brusque answer. I am not going to repeat it in case the noble Baroness follows my example and repeats it again in the House. Perhaps I did not express myself sufficiently tidily. What I was trying to get at was this: the buildings in Bridge Street, where there was the old St. Stephen's Club, will be there for a long time before they are pulled down and rebuilt along any new design. Underneath it are a large number of shops stretching from Westminster Underground Station, round the corner and up to the Post Office in Parliament Street, near the Cenotaph. They are a disgrace. I am not going to mention their names; I do not want to hurt anybody's business, for they are people who never hurt me. Those shops are obviously left there temporarily, everybody thinking that they will be pulled down in five minutes. That is not going to happen. I do not know what the lease situation is, but the shops ought to be put on a much more dignified footing.

I do not want to suggest anything grandiose or sumptuous; that is not necessary. There is a tourist area there, as the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, has pointed out, and most of the customers in those shops are tourists. So are the customers of the shops in the Ponte Vecchio in Florence; so are the customers of the shops on the Rialto in Venice; and so are the customers of the shops in our own Burlington Arcade. Those are all small shops; they are not tawdry, they are not undignified and they are not tatty. Something we can do without a vast expenditure of temper or money is to put the shops on to a much more dignified footing.

Will the noble Baroness give us a word or two about the future of the Foreign Office? Is it going to be covered over? How far have plans progressed for that? If I have ever done anything in my public life of which I was proud it was my success in your Lordships' House many years ago in "dishing" the Government's attempt to put two top storeys on to Carlton House and turn it into a new Foreign Office. We had a splendid debate and the Govern- ment were laughed to scorn. The argument put forward was that, if you stood out in the middle of Horseguards' Parade, you would think that the two top storeys belonged to the buildings behind. If you stood right underneath them you would not be able to see the two top storeys at all. That is the most nonsensical recommendation for a building that I have ever heard! It reminds me of Gilbert and Sullivan's Trial by Jury: You'll soon get used to her face, said he; And a very nice girl you'll find her; She might very well pass for 43; In the dusk with the light behind her. That argument was put forward by Lord Jowitt, who was then Lord Chancellor. Even he was a bit ashamed of it; and, as you know, my Lords, it took a lot to make Lord Jowitt ashamed of anything! I hope we can be told that that scheme has now been put into a long and distant cold storage.

I come back to the point at which the noble Lord, Lord Molson, opened the debate: the Stationery Office site. The reason why I first started to ask questions about it was twofold. First, it was a matter of social disrepute at the time: it was the centre for a gathering of methylated spirit drinkers, of all things. The police did take a poor view of this and steps were taken to make the place a good deal more dignified. It is not yet very dignified but it is a great deal better. I want it to remain open for quite a different reason than that which has been put forward.

I share the dislike of the noble Lord, Lord Molson, of Gothic buildings being left wide open: I prefer them crowded, as they are in places like Rheims and Amiens. But that was not quite my point. My point was that I wanted left open the spelndid view, revealed by the destruction of the Stationery Office, of the Methodist Central Hall. It is one of the best new Baroque buildings in London. It was put up by Lanchester and Ricard just before the First War and it is highly regarded even though—and your Lordships may not remember this—it is incomplete. There should be four little turrets on each corner; and perhaps the Midland Bank or the Methodist fraternity might like to take an example by looking across at Westminster Abbey, remembering that Wren and Hawksmoor put those two towers on the end a long, long time after the Abbey was originally built. But, my Lords, whatever is planned, I do hope that sufficient space will be left open on that site to let that view of the Methodist Central Hall remain as it is now: a very fine adjunct to the whole site.

I hope I have said enough in these few remarks to show that, while I realise that the whole plan must not be prejudiced by some major upheaval, there is still a lot that can be done to enhance this most valuable site without prejudicing a major plan. A great deal can still be done. A great city is judged by the way in which it does two things: in the way in which it treats its heritage and in the way in which it treats its refuse. As any ratepayer in this City will tell you, we treat our refuse abominably. I can only hope that we treat our heritage with a greater respect than we treat our refuse.

6.53 p.m.


My Lords, I wonder whether, before I get down to the specific points put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Molson, who introduced the debate and asked his very important Question in the most patient, courteous and kindly of manners, I might crave your indulgence and put the whole problem within a rather wider context in which I personally see it. Since the Great Pyramid of Cheops around BC 3700, since the Palaces of Darius and Xerxes at Persepolis, in BC 500 and since the Parthenon in BC 450, great building works have been symbols of national pride and Government confidence. The style spread by the Romans across the Western European cradle of civilisation during the past 2,000 years is still popular and its derivatives are capable of exciting passion—not least at Chiswick, as we have seen recently. But as some powers have waned others have risen, and the great tide of Gothic architecture that gave us the European cathedrals gave us also, in the Victorian age, the Palace of Westminster and this very Chamber. Alas! my Lords—and this is the point that I personally feel is at the bottom of so many of our problems and indeed of the Government's problems in dealing with this—national pride in building is now far more muted. That is why the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Molson, is a good if uncomfortable one. Of course, there is always the problem of resources to which noble Lords have referred but even more important, I believe, is that this is an area of Government diffidence which does not apply only to the present Government, but which for many years now has applied to all Governments.

We live in a series of Chinese boxes of guilt where grand architectural statements are no longer acceptable to governmental conscience and democratic approval. In Eastern Europe, on the other hand, the wedding cake edifice of architecture is a virile symbol of political power. Here we are swayed by the views of all those who consider it outrageous that Ministers, Members of Parliament and public servants should be comfortably and aesthetically housed when public expenditure cuts are seen to bite on schools, hospitals and motorways. And the greater the expansion of the public sector, the greater the guilt for what is seen as "working-homes for the boys".

There is a real dilemma here. For a democratic Government with heavy social commitments, a balance must be found between enhancement by means of elegant edifice and justifiable spending on restoration and modernisation for Government use. I believe it was the acknowledgment and realisation of what I consider to be these deeper considerations which enabled the noble Lord, Lord Molson, to be so relaxed and so understanding in the way he posed his Question.

These rituals of self-denial make us postpone rescuing, for example, the wonderful but rapidly decaying buildings of Richmond Terrace. We have left Bridge Street and Parliament Street dingily waiting for sunnier financial days; and we still live with a hole of squalid ugliness where Westminster Hospital once stood. However, out of all this delay, financial stringency and crises of conscience, some good, even if it is not apparently visible, has come. If some of the large-scale redevelopment plans of past decades had taken off, we could today have been unhappily tied to buildings, half-buildings and buildings on the stocks which we had already learned to hate and which made no concession to the disparate beauty of historic Whitehall's styles of architecture. I think it was to this that the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, referred. The Banqueting Hall, for example, stands witness to how much of any grand overall plan ever gets built. The Martin Plan for the National Government Centre was abandoned without a brick being laid.

Fortunately, we no longer have faith in the god of Comprehensive Development. We now have the opportunity to preserve and enhance the historic character of Whitehall, as we modernise accommodation in the older buildings, restore empty buildings and redevelop important semi-derelict sites in the area. To be fair, I think we must agree, as has been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, that much has already been done over the last two decades, but the pace must, of course, depend on the general economic and financial climate and on how high a priority we put on the loving resuscitation of the centre of our Government.

Also, the circumstances for housing civil servants in and around Whitehall have now changed. Dispersal and relocating of jobs outside London will lead to rationalisation of the Government London office estate and, in the long term, to a reduction in the pressure for the accommodation of civil servants in London itself. The noble Lord, Lord Molson, suggests that increasing the amount of Crown building in Whitehall should lead to savings in rents for leased accommodation, and that these savings could help to provide funds for the erection of new buildings. I am afraid that it is not as simple as that. It is true that rationalisation of the civil estate following dispersal should lead to savings in leased accommodation in London, but these will not arise until the 1980s; they will be outside Whitehall and will have the objective of meeting the cost of providing new Crown accommodation in the regions under the dispersal programme. The noble Lord, Lord Molson, asked me about a figure for headquarters department staff who will remain in Whitehall. I understand that the figure will be of the order of 34,000, of which 20,000 will be in Crown accommodation and 14,000 in leased accommodation.

If I may now pass to some of the specific projects mentioned, I will start with the Westminster Hospital site, which is also known as Broad Sanctuary or the Stationery Office site. I say straight away to the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, in answer to the question which he so properly and regularly asks, that we are certainly not—and I certainly am not—talking in terms of taking an overall look. Fortunately, in our whole approach to conservation and restoration we now realise that we must look at things individually or in small pieces. We are still suffering from the period of enormous redevelopment plans when, very late in the day—perhaps, halfway or a third of the way through—it was realised that a mistake, perhaps a very large and long-term mistake, had been made, and certainly where-ever I have any influence I am absolutely opposed to that kind of approach. I am also extremely sorry—perhaps the noble Lord will take me gently aside and tell me what was said—that I was brusque on paper, or in any reply that I made to him. I have no recollection of it, and that is the last thing I would want to be in replying to him or anybody else.

If I may just briefly run over a little of the historical background of this site, although I appreciate that noble Lords have mentioned it and it is not news to anyone, it was originally occupied by Westminster Hospital and was bought by the Government in 1948 for a new Colonial Office. I am going over this history in order to get together in one story the different pieces put forward by various noble Lords. These plans were shelved in the late 1950s, when it was decided, by the Government of which the noble Lord, Lord Molson, was a distinguished member, that the site was too important for offices and should be used for a building of national significance. Since then a plethora of plans have emerged for a new Government international conference centre.

In the 1960s, as has been said, these plans became caught up in the overall development plans for Whitehall, on which Sir Leslie Martin and Sir Colin Buchanan reported in 1965. A public inquiry in 1966 recommended that a single redevelopment proposal should be prepared for the Government's site, plus the adjoining buildings occupied by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors and the Institution of Civil Engineers. Plans were prepared, but these were overtaken by the movement away from major redevelopment towards conservation. I think it is because of this that many people are now of the opinion that, although the delay has been increased, some terrible mistake has not been made which would have taken generations to get over and put right, if that had been possible.

There have been a number of alternative proposals for use of the site, including turning it into a permanent open space. But the Government decided, and agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Molson, that an open space so near to the Royal Parks would be rather a redundant exercise. I am also inclined to agree that, so long as one is able to work in a certain amount of appropriate and relevant landscaping, you do not want to have open spaces among the Gothic buildings.

The Government are still committed to an international conference centre, to which my noble friend Lord Ponsonby referred, and feasibility studies have been carried out by nominated private architects. Although mainly used by Government, any spare capacity could meet the needs of private organisations and bring in foreign capital, as well as enhancing London's prestige and, I hope, its appearance. But the main function and advantage of this building would be to maintain London's position. When we have it, I hope that it will be let for overseas conferences, so that when they are talking we are earning the money, rather than that the talking is being done by us and we are paying for it. But back we come to the question of competing priorities and the opportune moment, and I think on this that we are all agreed that circumstances have not yet been economically propitious for starting new building.

In the meantine, at last—and not before time—the Government are seeking the best alternative use for the site, and I think that to find a use for it really pre-empts the points made by my noble friend Lord Ponsonby, who is a distinguished chairman of the London Tourist Board as well as having a very long connection with the GLC. We could really solve the problem—or not solve it, depending on which way you look at it—so far as using the site for the parking of cars and coaches is concerned, since, as a short-term measure, the Government are considering proposals for a temporary tourist centre, which would make use of part of the site until it is needed for redevelopment.

I must make it quite clear that no decision has yet been taken, but we must ensure both that the short-term proposals are suitable and aesthetically pleasing for the area and that the long-term proposals are not prejudiced. I can certainly assure my noble friend that any interim plans would, of course, be carefully scrutinised not only by my own Department but also by the Royal Fine Art Commission and the Westminster City Council. I would add that it would be our duty to keep a very keen eye on any concessions that were put out from any organisation, if this did come about.

I should now like to say a word about Cromwell and Cromwell Green, in answer to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft. Cromwell has been covered up for quite a long time, and the noble Lord will be pleased to hear that he is in extremely good condition, very well cared for and protected. When he is finally unveiled, only a minor amount of cleaning will be necessary. The hoarding has been kept around the site because, until the landscaping and other clearing has been completely finished, we are very concerned that no damage should be done to the statue. We hope that work will begin on the landscaping by 1st April. The hoarding should be removed about a month after that, and the restoration should be complete by the end of July. But the statue will not be uncovered until July, so as to avoid damage while the work is in progress.

I should point out, in addition, that it is proposed that an archaeological dig will be carried out, with the intention of looking for traces of buildings of the time of Richard II and also to establish further the outline of Thorney Island. My latest information from our architects yesterday was that it is not expected to delay completion of the work, which will go on while the dig is continuing.

I now come to Richmond Terrace, which is very close to my conservation heart. It has been unused since 1973 because it was structurally unsound, and in 1975 the Government announced their decision to preserve the facades and commission a feasibility study of ways of providing new accommodation at the rear. I can reassure the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, that any idea of the Government having plans to demolish any Grade I building is certainly not under consideration, and would certainly not be "on" at all. In fact, we are trying as hard as we can to encourage people to look after Grade I, Grade II star and Grade II buildings, whether central Government, local authority or individual. But the plans for Richmond Terrace, unfortunately—I say this with a sense of very bitter disappointment because I hastened the feasibility study—had to be shelved when the severe public expenditure cut-backs of 1976 took place.

Again, this ties up with what I said at the beginning of my reply to this Unstarred Question, about Governments almost having to bend over backwards so far as their own activities are concerned, compared with services provided for the people. However, we are now currently considering further feasibility proposals which should result in housing about 1,000 staff. This would be done by building behind the facades but keeping and restoring them: preserving Richmond Terrace and the Whitehall facade between Richmond Mews and Derby Gate.

As well as saving the beautiful Richmond Terrace itself, a major advantage of this scheme would be the provision of substantial additional accommodation in Whitehall which would enable the Government to give up expensive leased accommodation in London. This was a point which the noble Lord, Lord Molson, raised. Again, however, I have to say that, as with the Broad Sanctuary site, any decision to take firm action must depend on the general economic situation. The only hopeful thing I can say is that at least we have gone part of the way by starting a feasibility study on Richmond Terrace, although this is rather different from starting the new building which would have to be built on Broad Sanctuary.

I turn now to the Bridge Street site which was acquired for the new Parliamentary building. I believe that it was on this point that the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, said that he received a brusque answer. This site is still earmarked for eventual Parliamentary use, but again funds are not yet available for its redevelopment. Until funds become available, we are trying to make the best use of the existing accommodation by granting short leases for certain premises.

This is a slight improvement on the answer which the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, has received in the past, because until last August the Property Services Agency were unable to lease out the premises for a longer period than six months. It was then that the House of Commons Accommodation Committee decided that with the new Parliamentary complex hardly beyond the advanced planning stage, it would be possible to grant leases of three years. This helps a little, but I am sure that the noble Lord will agree with me that for even this period of lease it is difficult to attract clients who are prepared to carry out significant alterations or improvements to the premises. The problem is that the buildings are earmarked for eventual demolition. In the meanwhile, we are trying to make the best possible use of the premises, and even for such short leases there has been a certain amount of competition for some of them. I hope this will enable us to be a little firmer about the condition in which those premises are kept.

The all-Party Services Committee in another place are currently considering what recommendations they should make to the Government about the future development of the Parliament Street/Bridge Street site. The noble Lord, Lord Molson, asked me about the line of demarcation. To put it briefly, the answer is that the bulk of the day-to-day decisions about restoration and rebuilding lie with whichever is the relevant Government Department. However, so far as major projects which directly affect the interests of the Houses of Parliament are concerned—that is, the Parliament Street/Bridge Street premises—Parliament is fully consulted. Bridge Street is, of course, ultimately earmarked for Parliamentary use.

One of the Government's current projects is the improvement and modernisation of the Old Public Offices. The Government are preserving and maintaining the structure of the building while putting it to functional use. In future, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will occupy all of the Old Public Offices. That part of the Old Public Offices which was formerly occupied by the Home Office has been vacant, as the noble Lord is aware, since their move to new headquarters in Queen Anne's Mansions last summer. At the end of last year the Government announced their decision to preserve the existing facades of the Old Public Offices and as many as possible of the fine exteriors. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, will recognise that today he would not have to make the valiant fight that he made at that time and which I was delighted that he won.

Extensive reconstruction within the façades was considered but this was found to be too costly. This is another of the problems to be faced when one is dealing with old buildings which require tremendous skill and care to restore. There is also the problem of trying to convert some of the buildings to a particular modern use. However, such conversion was found to be too costly in relation to the traditional accommodation provided. It has therefore been decided to retain the building as it is, but to carry out a programme of improvement and modernisation over the next few years as resources permit—in other words, to try to find a use for the building without spoiling it or incurring the prohibitive expense which would be required to turn it into a Government Department of the kind which previously occupied it. Cleaning and restoration of the stonework and the inner courtyard is already in progress.

The noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, asked me about Westminster Abbey. As he quite rightly pointed out, the Government have no locus so far as Westminster Abbey is concerned, since its maintenance is the responsibility of the Dean and Chapter. However, I understand that the major restoration work which is now in progress is being financed entirely by means of private donations. The work has to keep pace with the rate of the available incoming funds. The Dean and Chapter seem to be very pleased with the current rate of progress, although the noble Lord would prefer it to be faster. The results are beginning to show and restoration is proceeding very well, but I believe that the noble Lord will find that the problem is largely a financial one.

I hope that I have convinced the House, although I have not been able, as the noble Lord, Lord Molson, foresaw, to give any specific answers or to indicate any great progress. However, I strongly share the view that we must do our best to preserve and enhance this historic area of London. Certainly I promise, for what it is worth, that anything I can do to speed along this process I will, for all the reasons which have been mentioned, and many more besides. Important but unobtrusive work continues daily.

We are all aware of the recent restoration of Dover House and of the work carried out to Inigo Jones' Banqueting House. A great deal of stonework has been cleaned and restored throughout Whitehall, most recently the Horse Guards building, and plans are afoot to modernise several buildings in the area as part of a nationwide office improvement programme for Government offices. The largest of these programmes is scheduled for the Great George Street offices and the old War Office building. I find the most satisfactory part of all this to be that the approach now is the right one. The problem is being looked at in the right way—by means of a combination of conservation and preservation, where that is possible; and where modernisation is needed it should fit in with and enhance the whole area.

Finally, as my noble friend has pointed out, our tourist industry is increasing all the time. Today it is one of our most valuable invisible exports, for 11 million domestic visitors and 9 million overseas visitors came to London in 1977. It is safe to say that the majority of these visitors found themselves at some point in the Whitehall area looking at the Houses of Parliament, visiting Westminster Abbey and going up Whitehall to see the changing of the guard. When I hear the warm tributes that are paid to London and the real affection that people have for our city and for our people, I believe that we have an added financial and national incentive to make the centre of the world's oldest democracy worthy of its history and pride.

The noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, was quite right when he spoke about the two problems of refuse and heritage. It is absolutely true that the shoddier a place looks, the shoddier will be the way that people deal with it and treat it. One of the very important reasons, apart from the matter of our own visual, aesthetic heritage, why it is essential that we should, as soon as we possibly can, give this the highest priority is that only by restoring it and only by making it a centre of which we can be proud when we look at it and walk around it, as well as being proud of the feeling that we have for it, will we also be able to encourage and educate and persuade people to treat one of the most important centres of this magnificent city in the way in which it should be treated.