HL Deb 15 May 1989 vol 507 cc936-40
Lord Hesketh

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat the Answer which has been given to a Private Notice Question in another place. It is as follows:

"Archaeological work on the site of the Rose Theatre has been in progress for some five months. This work has been financed by the developers, Imry Merchant Developers plc, under guidance from English Heritage and the Museum of London. It has become clear in the light of the most recent discoveries that the remains are of greater importance than was previously thought.

"As a result, the developers and their architect have been working urgently on possible ways of ensuring that the excavated remains are properly preserved and displayed to the public. I invited them to a discussion this morning, together with English Heritage, who have advised us on this throughout.

"I am very glad to tell the House that Imry have agreed to delay work on the theatre site for up to one month. This is to enable them and their architect to work with English Heritage and with us on the various options. The roof will go back over the site immediately, so that the excavated remains are fully protected while these discussions continue.

"English Heritage, assisted by the Government, will be contributing financially to the cost of the delay.".

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I must thank the Minister for repeating that Answer given in another place. From what he has said, the Answer sounds encouraging. I was particularly encouraged to hear of the financial help from English Heritage and the Government to protect the Rose Theatre.

Can the Minister tell the House any more about the form which the protection is likely to take? As we understand it, the threat which was to take effect at 6 o'clock this morning but apparently was not carried out was that piles should be driven through both the body and the stage of the theatre established by Burbage on which Shakespeare's and Marlowe's plays were first performed. That would really have been an outrage. Is the Minister telling us that that threat no longer exists and that the stage and the body of the theatre will now be protected first from piling and secondly from backfilling, which was the other imminent threat which we understood hung over the theatre as of this morning?

Will the Minister express on behalf of the House, as I do now on behalf of these Benches, appreciation of those who by their demonstrations over the past few days and today have prevented what would have been irreparable damage to the theatre from taking place this morning?

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, I should like to associate myself with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, and say how encouraged I am, as I am sure are all other noble Lords, by the news that there will be a delay of one month before any action is taken and—which is very important indeed—that the awning is to go back. We should however like further and rather more unequivocal assurances than we have yet received as to the plans envisaged by the developer in association with English Heritage and the Government.

As the noble Lord said, it is absolutely crucial that infilling does not take place. It is also vital that the piles are not driven through the stage and extremely important that when the plans are finally made they should allow the public to have access to this extraordinarily interesting site, which is of great importance in British theatrical history.

I wonder whether the noble Lord has had his attention drawn to a letter published today in the Independent from Mr. Ian Mackintosh, who is a trustee of the Theatres Trust appointed by the Minister. He is a designer of courtyard theatres, including the Cottesloe and the Wilde in Bracknell, and he makes practical suggestions as to ways and means by which the theatre could be preserved and made available to the public. In his opinion, if additional permission were given for an extra storey to be built on the building for which planning permission has been given, there should be no financial loss involved. I should very much like to hear from the Minister categorical assurances both that there will be no damage—not minimal damage—to what has been discovered and that the public will have access to this site.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I can answer some of the noble Lord's questions. First, there will be no backfilling taking place during this period. Secondly, at this moment there is no piling going through and alternatives are being considered. However, that of course is a matter for the architect. I certainly am no expert on that front.

If I understood him correctly, the last point made by the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, concerns the possibility of another floor, a suggestion as to which in this morning's Independent he drew to our attention. That would be a matter for the London Borough of Southwark, which granted planning permission in the first place. I know that your Lordships would not expect me to comment on that.

So far as concerns public access, as the Prime Minister said, we hope that all these remains will go back on public display.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the Answer which he has repeated is in a considerable degree reassuring but that some noble Lords would like him to go a little further and indicate that it is the Government's intention that in the outcome this immensely interesting relic of our artistic and theatrical history will be preserved and in a form which will make it accessible to the public? Will the Government bear in mind that, apart from the strong feelings which many of us have as to the importance historically and aesthetically of this site, it offers a considerable contribution to our tourist industry?

Lord Hesketh

The purpose of the delay, as I have said, is so that English Heritage, who are contributing toward the cost, will, it is hoped, find and achieve a satisfactory outcome which will involve public access.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, apart from the interest displayed by all noble Lords, I have a family interest in the theatre since my direct ancestor's brother was the Lord Chamberlain at the time when Shakespeare was working and writing for the Rose Theatre. Indeed my ancestor was his employer and protector, technically speaking, at that time. He used to go over to Somerset House to receive payment for himself and his company. Therefore, I think that in some degree a member of my family has been responsible for William Shakespeare's place as the most important figure in our literary tradition.

Of course I share the sentiments expressed by my noble friend Lord Bonham-Carter and other noble Lords. It seems to me to be inconceivable that in a country with a site such as this, which has been discovered recently and which relates to so much essential in our culture and literary history, all efforts should not be made to make sure that it is preserved and indeed made accessible to all members of the public so that they can be aware of this extremely valuable memorial of an important era in our literary and cultural history.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on having had the courage and the good sense at this late stage to do something about the Rose Theatre. However, is not my noble friend a little disappointed that the advisers should have been so late in the day in coming to the conclusion which has brought about this change of mind? In the Statement he said that it was only during the period when the people of the theatre were making a stand in order to protect the site that the Government realised the full importance of it. Should they not have realised it earlier? Will it not add to the value of the compensation that may have to be paid as a consequence of it being so late in the day before the full importance of the site was taken into account?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, that is why Imry Merchant in the first place allowed some four and a half months for the archaeological study to take place which resulted in the importance of the site being seen for what it was.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, like other noble Lords I greatly welcome the Statement by the noble Lord and the action of delay by the Government. However, is this Statement not a little tardy, as the noble Lord opposite has just said? If, as the noble Lord told us, English Heritage has been advising the Government for four to five months, why is it only today, when construction work was due to begin, that the Government have taken this action? Had it not been for the protests made by prominent figures in the theatrical and literary world, would not the Philistine element in the Government—which likes to see mortar and bricks built at a profit rather than the English heritage preserved—have gone ahead? Why has it taken the Government so long—right up until the last moment—to take action seen in many parts of this country as the preservation of a genuine British heritage?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I do not feel that I can usefully add to what I have already said on the subject.

Lord St. John of Fawsley

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that these curmudgeonly sentiments that have been expressed are not shared by many others in this field who are very grateful indeed for the Statement that has been made? With regard to the question raised by my noble friend Lord Harmar-Nicholls, does my noble friend agree that a death-bed conversion is just as welcome as an earlier one?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, so long as it results in salvation.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, like everyone else I welcome the moratorium. However, can the noble Lord be more specific in informing the House precisely what will be going on during this month? First, will there be an architectural study? What will be the purpose of that study? Will it be to find out whether it is possible to leave the Rose Theatre untouched in the basement of the building? Will there be an opportunity to negotiate financially? To what extent are the Government committed to resolving a financial problem that may arise? How much of the money is expected to come from English Heritage? What percentage are the Government themselves prepared to give?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, the amount of money is not yet certain. However, it will come through English Heritage. As regards structural and engineering problems, the reason we have the moratorium is that the architects are at the moment trying to resolve whether they can reposition the piles. I am not an architect, but I believe that that technical difficulty is the greatest problem facing them.

Lord Sefton of Garston

My Lords, will the Minister give an assurance that the Government will be just as sympathetic to the preservation of modern day amenities and listed buildings around the King's Cross area when that development takes place?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, that is another Question for another day.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, may I press the Minister on one aspect of his answer? I understood him to say that there would be no backfilling at this stage. I would prefer him to give me a categoric answer to the effect that there would be no backfilling at any stage because backfilling will wreck the Rose Theatre.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, Imry has agreed that it will not proceed with backfilling while the further discussions on the options continue.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that while we all welcome very much the Statement that he has made, some of us feel that the reply given to my noble friend Lord Hatch of Lusby was perhaps a little short? The point that my noble friend made was this. Had there not been a bevy of well known public figures—actors and the like—the bulldozers would have moved on to the site at six o'clock this morning. What will happen on other sites—they may not be the sites of former theatres but are just as important from many other aspects—if one does not have that bevy of public figures? That is what we are concerned about. The Government were not prepared to act: it required action by these public figures to bring about the very desirable result that the noble Lord has announced today.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I came to your Lordships' House today in order to repeat an Answer on a specific Question. I am not in a position to answer hypothetical questions.

Lord Howie of Troon

My Lords, at the risk of being thought curmudgeonly, are we not in danger of going overboard about this interesting matter? From remarks in the press and indeed in this Chamber, it might be thought that we were preserving the Rose Theatre, important no doubt though that is. Are we not preserving a footprint of the Rose Theatre? Is it possible that we are going too far to preserve a footprint rather than an artifact?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, as the noble Lord said earlier, it depends slightly on whose footprint it was.

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