HL Deb 02 February 1983 vol 438 cc801-3

2.45 p.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will order a public inquiry into the redevelopment of the partially demolished Kensington Town Hall.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, local planning authorities have statutory responsibility for the day-to-day control of development within their areas. The policy of the Government is that individual applications for planning permission should be taken out of the hands of a local authority only in exceptional circumstances. These usually involve matters of national or regional significance. The issues related to the redevelopment of the Kensington Town Hall site are of local significance only, and call-in of any planning application is not therefore justified.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, I should like to thank the Minister for answering that Question. Does he not agree that, even if this is not an exceptional situation, it is deplorable in that for nearly eight months now the Kensington residents and also the diplomats and tourists who use this very central thoroughfare, Kensington High Street, have been deeply affected by the tragic appearance—if not the eyesore—of the partially demolished Kensington Town Hall? With one planning appeal still waiting to be heard, building work is unlikely to commence for many months to come, so does the Minister not agree that a system whereby an owner is allowed to pull down a building many months before redevelopment planning has been agreed is seriously at fault?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the situation in this case is that the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has acted all along totally within the law. It is not for the Government to make moral judgments in matters of this kind. As the noble Baroness has said, there is an application in at the moment and the public inquiry into this begins on 22nd February.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

My Lords, although the noble Lord is undoubtedly right that the borough has technically acted within the spirit of the law, is it not also true that, by its precipitate action in knocking down half of Kensington Town Hall, it was in fact acting against the wishes of the local residents who they had been consulting about the redevelopment?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, this is exactly the kind of moral argument which I said I was not prepared to be drawn into.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, does the Minister subscribe to the widely believed legend that this precipitate action was to forestall action by another body? In that case, is it entirely consistent with his comment that these matters are of local interest only?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I have not the least idea why they undertook the action that they did. All I know is that the action has happened. The town hall, which I visited this morning, is in a totally unsatisfactory state. Therefore, my own feeling is that anything at this stage would be better than leaving it in the way that it currently is.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that, if he has not the least idea why this happened, he must be alone among the literate population of central London?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I think that we are straying into the dangerous area of matters of opinion, and I do not think that that is desirable.

Lord Shackleton

My Lords, if the noble Lord is not prepared to comment on the morality of this matter, is he prepared to consider expressing a political or even a social opinion, which is of some concern, I should have thought, to this Government?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I thought that I had already done that. I do not think that it is a satisfactory state of affairs for the building to be left in the condition in which it currently is.

Lord Wells-Pestell

My Lords, is it not the responsibility of this Government to know why certain things have happened and, when asked by this House why they happened, to give an answer?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the responsibilities of government, so far as I know, have not changed since the noble Lord was on the Front Bench opposite. If I have acted in any way differently from the way he would have done in the circumstances, I apologise.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, is this area not in fact a democracy? Are there not some electors, and is it not their right to comment on this matter in the usual manner in the proper way? What more needs doing?

Lord Skelmersdale

Exactly, my Lords. As I sought to explain in my original Answer, this is a local problem which should be dealt with in the normal, local democratic fashion. The local population are indeed pressurising their council over this particular case. As I understand it, opinions locally are very much divided as to what the council should do; but what they decide to do, as I have said all along, is strictly a matter for them.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, would the Minister not agree that the council, having asked the Royal Fine Art Commission beforehand for their judgment for a replacement building, then disregarded the advice given to them by the commission?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the position of the Royal Fine Art Commission is quite straightforward, I think. Its advice was sought; it was listened to, but was not in the end agreed with. It is entirely for the council, as the local planning authority, to decide the weight they should give to any views expressed by the commission, by their own electors or anybody else.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, if the GLC had committed this action, would the Government have taken quite so detached a point of view?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I would have thought that that was a rather hypothetical question.