HL Deb 15 February 1994 vol 552 cc94-6

2.46 p.m.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have for the future development of the vacant St. Pancras site immediately north of the British Library.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, the Government plan to dispose of the land to the north of the St. Pancras site once it is no longer needed for the building project. The British Library is preparing a case for retaining some of the land for further library buildings. We shall, of course, consider the library's proposals carefully when they have been finalised.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer so far as it goes. However, is she aware that three important functions of the British Library— namely, the National Sound Archive, the Photographic Processing Unit and the Conservation Bindery— are in other parts of London and cannot be included in the present building? Would it not make administrative sense if at least part of this site could be reserved specifically for the British Library so that in any future extension those units could be incorporated?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, the case for relocating the areas about which my noble friend spoke will be considered when the British Library has completed its investment appraisal for use of the surplus land. Those sections operate satisfactorily from their present locations. Knowing that this Question was coming up, I took the opportunity last Friday to spend an entire morning on the site in the building—

Noble Lords


Baroness Trumpington

— and I brought back a pack full of riveting information for your Lordships which I have placed in the Library; that is, the Library in this House, not that library.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that the retention of this site is essential for expansion since, after 14 years in construction, the British Library will have room for only 1,200 readers — that is, not many more than Great Russell Street— while the French national library, which has taken only five years to build and will be completed next year, will have room for 3,500 readers? Is it not therefore essential that the new site should be used for an additional reading room?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, in the long run it is a question of cost. The reason why our British Library will have fewer places than the French library is that, although it was originally planned to have 3,000 places, further examination, which was undertaken very, very thoroughly, proved that that is really not necessary.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I declare an interest in this Question as a user of the British Library. Is the noble Baroness aware that a national library must grow? Will she also bear in mind that none of us is in a great hurry to go through again the expense and dislocation of the relocation of the British Library? Is she therefore aware that if this land is not made available to the Library that might happen rather sooner than we wish?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I answered the first part of the noble Earl's question when I said that it was a question of future cost. We are already spending a great deal of money on the first part of this library and we shall have to examine the future costs very carefully. I put it to the noble Earl that it would be a sad reflection were the field of creative endeavour in which this country has most excelled over the centuries— in other words, literature— to have no single focus for celebration, preservation and active use. It is very important that this library continues. Perhaps I may also remind your Lordships that we are not talking about the library in this Question but about the site at present used by the builders.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford

My Lords, is the Minister aware that most people regard the way in which the national library has been planned and built as a total national disaster and a vast waste of public money?

Baroness Trumpington

No, my Lords. I entirely disagree with the noble Lord. Furthermore, as I have already said, today's Question refers to the builders' site and not the library.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, if the Government are not prepared to retain the land, perhaps for the future development of what must be regarded as one of the world's greatest libraries, will they at least give a categorical assurance, preferably in this House and now, that the British Library will be given the opportunity to raise funds to purchase the land itself, so that the future development of that library will be possible?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, the Government would be prepared to consider proposals for private funds; but the British Library would also need to prepare a business case showing how it would meet the cost of the building and the ongoing costs.

Lord Quinton

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it would be better to lease the land for a period of time, perhaps long enough for the anguish felt about the cost of the library as it currently stands to abate and when perhaps more optimistic views could be entertained? The land on which it is sited will not be recoverable once it is sold. It was a unique happening to find 13 acres of land together in the Somerstown site. That will not occur again. The drawing together of the parts of the British Library has largely been achieved by the existing structure. Is my noble friend concerned— indeed I ask her to show some concern about the matter herself— at the remoteness of the newspaper library, which is way up in the rustic, further regions of the Northern Line? Does she agree that the great virtue of the existing site is that it is on the inner circle? Is not the accessibility of the site its greatest virtue?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, the present building meets the British Library's key requirements. It is already library policy to operate from the two sites: London and Boston Spa. There is room for expansion at Boston Spa. There is another element, on which your Lordships have not touched, concerning this land. It is why we are being very cautious about our plans for it. The Union Railways has indicated a requirement to lease 2.8 acres of the land for site purposes from 1997 to 2003. But that will depend on the timetable for the construction of the Channel Tunnel link.

Lord Dainton

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the site referred to is not of great market value, in the sense that it is scheduled by the planning authority for use only as an open space or for community housing? Is she also aware of the fact that the National Sound Archive, which is now housed at Exhibition Road in South Kensington, ought to be next door to the Music Library? It has always been the ambition of the library to put it there. Furthermore— I speak from direct knowledge because I negotiated the arrangement— is she aware that, if that site of the National sound Archive at Exhibition Road is sold, under the terms of the agreement that money can be used only to provide similar accommodation elsewhere? In other words, first, the land is cheap, if it is realised, and, secondly, already the British Library has an asset at Exhibition Road which can be used to defray the cost of some of the building. Will those factors please be taken into account?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, the last factors mentioned by the noble Lord will be taken into account. The current value of the land is estimated at £ 1.5 million. But at the time of any sale the value would be determined by the most favourable planning consent that could be obtained at the time.