HC Deb 18 November 2003 vol 413 cc215-21WH

11 am

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)

I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce an Adjournment debate on an issue that has caused a great deal of stir in my constituency and in my part of London. I shall focus on access and access charges to the ornamental gardens at Hampton Court palace. Anyone listening for the first time to my comments might think that the issue is very narrow and specific, but it is not. It concerns important issues of principle and public policy, with potential for precedent. I know that Ministers have been actively involved in the issue, and that the Minister for Media and Heritage, Lord McIntosh, has been to Hampton Court to discuss the proposals. I am sure that the Minister for the Arts, who is present, is well aware of the substance of the matter.

Although Hampton Court is in my constituency, the issue is not one that is of concern only to people in the Twickenham area. Hampton Court is effectively at the intersection of three parliamentary constituencies. Across the river, over Hampton Court bridge, is the constituency of the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor), who has been active in this campaign. Also across the river is the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), who has also been actively involved and has been to see the Minister for Media and Heritage about the problem.

We have worked together, across the parties, to represent a common view among our constituents. All three of us are conscious that the matter has stirred up the amenity societies and residents' groups, which in many ways provide much of the social fabric in our communities. In my area, the Hampton Court Association, the Hampton Wick Association, the Hampton Society, the Teddington Society and the Hampton Hill Association have been voluble in their comments on the proposal. I single out Mrs. Spence of the Hampton Court Road environment committee, who has in many ways led and orchestrated residents' representations.

Now that a decision—frankly, a rather regrettable one, which I want to talk about—has been made, I acknowledge that there were some positive features to the process by which it was reached. I acknowledge the role that the Hampton Court authorities, probably prompted by Ministers, played in making things a little easier. I praise the extent and thoroughness of the process of public consultation. Many residents were consulted and a professional MORI poll was conducted of local opinion. I regret that the conclusions of the surveys do not appear to have been listened to in reaching a decision, but none the less the consultation was wide and thorough.

I acknowledge too—again, in a positive spirit—that there have been compromises and concessions to local opinion. First, some elements of the gardens, such as the wilderness and the tiltyard, for example, which will be familiar to people who visit regularly, have been excluded from the charging proposals. There is a proposal for a new access route so that residents can gain access to Home park, the large deer park that accounts for 640 acres of the 700 acre estate. They will not be barred from access and will not have to pay. There will be no charge in winter. I recognise that those moves go a little way to assuage residents' annoyance—or probably anger, in some cases—about what is happening.

There are three headings to my comments on the proposals. One is the principle of access, the second is legality and the third is the economics of the proposal. On the broad principle, I am conscious that I represent an area with a strong sense of history, ranging from Hampton Court at one end to Marble Hill house and park at the other. The constituency is rich in history and people are conscious of their history and the various associated traditions. I grew up in the city of York surrounded by mediaeval and Roman remains, so I know how heritage is valued and how people identify with it if they live in such areas.

A long-standing tradition is that residents have uninhibited free access to the grounds of Hampton Court. In 1834, Queen Victoria decreed that the palace grounds and parklands should be open to the public. Local historians have found that there was access to the gardens long before that—going back two centuries or more.

Some highly symbolic and important battles have been fought in the area on free access to royal estates. One of the large royal deer parks in the Twickenham constituency is Bushy park, which is a few hundred yards from Hampton Court. The park has long been a royal establishment, but is managed by local wardens called rangers. There was a major issue 250 years ago, when the then monarch delegated powers to a ranger, who tried to close off access by the local public. A legal action was raised by a local cobbler, who won the case in court and forced the monarchy, through the rangers, to open the park to local residents so that they could walk across it. That is quite an important principle of local liberty.

A similar thing happened to Richmond park, which is in an adjacent constituency. It was established by Charles I, who tried to enclose it as a royal preserve, but protests were so severe that he was forced to concede the principle of pedestrian access by local residents and, indeed, established walls and little access points so that residents could walk through it.

Under subsequent monarchs, there was an attempt to row back from that commitment. In 1761, there was another legal case when the park manager tried to restrict access by residents. That case was fought in the courts and the public won. We are talking about historic rights that go back hundreds of years and which are remembered and valued, but they are now being set aside.

What concerns many residents and should perhaps concern us all is that, once we concede the principle that the owners or managers of heritage sites can charge for access to gardens, that potentially opens an enormous Pandora's box. I imagine that directors of parks in many local authority areas who currently extensively maintain beautiful ornamental gardens may well lick their lips when they hear of the decision, because many of their financial problems would no doubt be overcome if they could establish a gate and charge local residents for admission to the local park. Clearly, there is institutionally a difference between royal palaces and the local parks of local councils, but the principle is the same and I can see a worrying precedent being set.

Secondly, I shall focus on the decision's legality. I am not a lawyer and do not propose to debate and contest the legal opinion that has been given. However, I have been sent copies of a letter in which a summary is given of the Attorney-General's view on the matter, and I will read that because it is important for the record. The Attorney-General concluded that it was permissible to make a charge for admission to the formal gardens, with the proviso that the cost was reasonable, related to the cost of upkeep, and not at a level that in effect restricted public access. That is the Attorney-General's legal opinion, which we must accept.

However, the opinion is being strongly contested by local residents, who have sought an independent legal opinion. It would be desirable if some of the legal reasoning could be published, and I think that the Minister for the Arts has given an assurance on that. I know that the Attorney-General's opinions are never published and I am not asking for that, but there will be a legal commentary explaining why the view sought by local residents is invalid. I believe that an assurance has been given that that will be published. Can the Minister for the Arts confirm that?

I am more concerned about the common-sense aspects of the matter. What is meant by a reasonable charge? The proposed charge for access to the gardens is £4 for an adult and £12 for a family. A season ticket, which would apply to local residents who visited regularly, would be £20 for a single person and £50 for a family. The question arises whether, in a commonsense use of the term, that could be described as "reasonable". Evidence from the various surveys that have been carried out suggests that many local residents would not regard it as reasonable. The report of the royal palaces comments on the surveys. It freely acknowledges that most people are opposed to the change, and that although one third of residents accepted the principle of a charge as being useful and necessary for maintaining the upkeep of the gardens, the average figure that they thought reasonable for a season ticket was £10—half the proposed price.

The season ticket, which is intended to be a concession to local residents, becomes viable only if people visit the gardens more than five times a year. The evidence from the survey suggests that 62 per cent. of visitors visit the gardens more than once, but do not go there more than five times. For them, that concession will therefore be of no value.

The other key point in the legal ruling is that the charges should not be set at a level that has the effect of restricting public access. However, because of the way in which the charges will be imposed, public access will be restricted. Some 20 per cent. of the people in the palace's service said that they will no longer go to the gardens; their access is being removed for reasons of affordability or issues of principle.

A further point concerns the opening hours of the gardens, and I hope that the Minister may be able to give practical help on that matter. It is proposed that opening hours for the gardens will be restricted to the opening hours of the palace. Those who live in the area will know that one of the great pleasures of Hampton Court is the ability to walk in the gardens in the evening. As I understand the proposal, the gardens will now be closed on summer evenings—the point at which they are most enjoyed by local residents. The day visitors, who come as tourists, presumably will not object to these charges, but the residents who enjoy walking in the gardens in the evening will be faced with the galling sight of the gardens being locked, because they will close at the closing time of the palace. It seems reasonable to ask why the palace authorities cannot open the gates when the palace shuts and let residents walk in the gardens in the evening. There will be no loss of revenue because they will not be charging if the gardens are closed. That small but important gesture would be greatly valued.

My final point about the principle of restricting access is that there is a problem for pensioners. The people who have time and perhaps care most for the ornamental gardens are the elderly. They are being given a concession, but it is not very generous: the standard rate will be £4 per adult, and the concessionary rate will be £3. For a state pensioner who lives locally and is used to visiting the gardens once a week or more, £3 to walk around the gardens will seem rather steep. I am not sure that the palace authorities appreciate the hurt that that will cause. I hope that the question of the concessionary charge for pensioners can be re-examined.

In conclusion, I shall discuss the other legal issue—the question of residents' preference—which has not been properly dealt with in the commentaries that have been made. In June, when I first met Mr. Giddons to discuss the proposals, he said that the palace authorities had no alternative but to charge local residents for visiting the park because of a European Court ruling that it was no longer permissible to discriminate against non residents. I can understand that it is illegitimate for palaces or other authorities to discriminate against non-British citizens who live in the European Union—the courts have to uphold the single market—and it would be wrong, given that we are part of the European Union, for British citizens to enjoy lower charges than do citizens of other member states.

That is not the issue, however. The question is whether it would be right for the palaces to charge a preferential rate for people who live in the three adjoining boroughs, constituencies, or narrowly-defined postcode areas; we are not talking about Britons as opposed to other members of the European Union. I have never received a clear answer as to whether the Government and Historical Royal Palaces believe that even that kind of preference is now illegal because of the European ruling. That would be a mind-boggling and, for one who broadly supports the European cause, uncomfortable conclusion. If it is illegal, there are enormous implications, as many heritage institutions in Britain offer special discounts to local residents. I would be grateful to have clarification from the Government as to where we stand in that respect.

My final point relates to the economics of the exercise. It would be useful to see a copy of the business case that HRP has put forward for the proposal. Even if it makes sense in its own terms, I am sceptical: the gardens are extensive, and there would be a considerable cost involved in establishing charging points. Economists talk about that boring problem, elasticity of demand: when the price of something that is not a necessity goes up, people stop using it. The Government know painfully from the experience of museums that once charges are imposed, visitors are lost. I suspect that that will happen in this case. Not having seen the figures, I do not know whether the business case for the charges stacks up. There is a telling sentence in the letter from the Minister to the chairman of HRP: I know that in arriving at your decision you will wish to balance the relatively limited financial benefits to HRP against the views of the local people. I share the view that the benefits are relatively limited. If it is too late to change the decision, I would ask the Minister to consider opening the gardens in the evening when the palaces are closed; publishing some of the background documents, particularly those related to the legal opinion on access; and giving a clear statement about the issue of national versus local residential preference in the light of the European ruling.

11.19 am
The Minister for the Arts (Estelle Morris)

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on having secured an Adjournment debate on what must be a burning issue both in his constituency and in neighbouring ones. I do not know the area well, but I can understand that the gardens are an important element of the community's facilities and amenities, and I suspect that many generations will have grown up with a degree of access to them that might not apply this time next year.

While I can understand the hon. Gentleman's case, and imagine the force with which his constituents have made it to him, I also acknowledge the position of Historical Royal Palaces. It became a non-departmental public body in 1998, receiving no grant in aid, yet it was willing to take on the responsibility of raising sufficient funds to run the royal palaces. That is creditable—it is the way it should be—but consequences flow from it. It did not imagine at that time that one of those consequences would be that it would have to charge for areas of ground that are not currently charged for, but much has happened in those four or five years.

I suspect that if visitor numbers had not fallen, we would not be having this debate. The numbers have fallen from 3.5 million in 1998–99, to 2.8 million last year, and a predicted 2.5 million this year. That creates a problem for running the palaces. Fewer people pay to visit the parts of the palaces that require payment, so the income is less but the expenditure has not fallen commensurate with that. The expenditure needed to maintain the gardens is £2 million, and 38 full-time members of staff are employed.

Historical Royal Palaces realises that areas of the gardens have never been charged for but it wants to keep the gardens in good order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman recognises that it carries out those responsibilities to the highest standard, and none of us wants that to diminish. However, the books do not balance in the face of decreasing visitor numbers. The proposed measures would do no more than balance the books and secure the revenue needed to run the gardens.

There are two opposing aspects of the argument. The first is the historic tradition, which the hon. Gentleman forcibly covered. Local residents feel strongly that the gardens are a valuable part of their community and amenity and do not understand why they should be charged. In the face of that, HRP needs to secure money to maintain the standards, and that is the dilemma that it faces. The hon. Gentleman rightly said that the Government's position is that, having been made a non-departmental public body in 1998, HRP must make the decisions, and I do not want to interfere with its right to run the gardens and palaces as it sees fit. However, changes must be thorough, consulted on and reasonable. They must allow reasonable access and not be set at a disproportionate level that would make it difficult for local people to pay.

The consultation has been thorough, and the results may be that people would say that if they had to pay, they would not visit. That is an exact snapshot of the feelings of people in the hon. Gentleman's constituency and neighbouring constituencies and boroughs. Only time will tell whether those feelings change, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that the amenity is such that some people who say that they would not pay, in an attempt to influence a decision not to charge, would pay at the end of the day.

I support HRP. I do not think that it is by nature good to charge, but I support it in doing its job. It has to decide whether the money secured might cause fewer people to visit, and is therefore not worth the financial effort. HRP must put its costings and plans into the public domain. I hope that someone from HRP will read this debate, make a decision, and write to the hon. Gentleman. Anyone running an institution must make such a judgment. I am pleased that it has decided to consider the issue for a year, review it and ascertain whether the arrangements needed for charging, and the possible break of relations with the community, are worth the funds that it will secure from it. It has made clear that it will charge from next year, but I am pleased that it will also undertake a review.

I want to clarify that Home park, Barge walk, Hampton Court green, the west front, the rose garden, the tiltyard and the wilderness will remain free of charge. Of the 60 acres of the gardens, we estimate that more than half—36.5 acres—will remain free of charge. I know that that is less than was previously free of charge—only 5.5 acres had to be paid for before the changes. There is no doubt that less of the land is free of charge.

The hon. Gentleman did not mention that the charge will apply for six months of the year during the summer season. During the winter period, which I presume runs from October through Christmas to Easter, in April or thereabouts, it will be free of charge to local residents and anyone who wants to visit. He said that £20 for a season ticket and £10 for a concessionary rate—the Government were very keen that there should be a concessionary rate for people on lower incomes—was not reasonable. We could debate at length the legal basis for what is and is not reasonable, but HRP believes that there comes a point at which the level is so low that it is not worth setting up the mechanisms for charging. It believes that £20 for a season ticket, £10 for a concessionary rate, free access for half the year, and £4 for access to all gardens that charge for entrance—I understand that it £3 at the moment—is reasonable.

I do not want to enter into a debate about charges, but I want to express my satisfaction at there being a concessionary rate. We must leave it to local residents to decide whether £20 is reasonable. The Government have no power to intervene, but as the hon. Gentleman said in the meeting that he and his colleagues had with my colleague, and as the letter said that is now in the public domain, we certainly want HRP to take local people's views into account. Following the consultation, it has now done that. As I said, when the year is over, I have no doubt that HRP will consider the extra income that it secured and decide whether it was worth it.

It was the drop in the number of visitors, not from Europe but from further afield, that brought about the changes. In the years to come, I hope that there will be an increase in the visitor numbers from America—the largest drop and the greatest problem for HRP—and from the middle east and far east. I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman and his constituents will be alert to any increase in visitor numbers and that they will bring them to the attention of HRP for its response.

I am happy to clarify the European position, which I was not aware of until I prepared to answer the hon. Gentleman's question during Department for Culture, Media and Sport questions last week. The judgment was made in January in, I believe, response to an Italian case. His reading is absolutely right: it is illegal not only to differentiate between visitors from the United Kingdom and from other European countries, but for his constituency and neighbouring constituencies and boroughs to discriminate by charging different amounts.

The charging structure relates to state-owned institutions, not to private institutions, which can still charge less for any group of people who live in a neighbouring borough. As the hon. Gentleman said, it appears that institutions in his area and other state-owned institutions have illegally been charging less for local residents for some time. As he might imagine, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will need to draw their attention to the fact that they are acting outside European regulations.

I will write to the hon. Gentleman if I am wrong, but I understand that the regulation is not new and that we have been acting outside it ever since it was introduced. That fact was brought to our attention as the result of a court case this January and in response to representations made by Italian institutions or Italian residents. His reading of it is absolutely right. There should be no need for Government, or anyone else, not be absolutely clear about the position. If I have not made it clear and put it on the record, I would be pleased if he could write to me and I will happily do so. We have no doubt about the interpretation of the regulation, and want to put it in the public domain as soon as possible.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing the matter to the attention of the House. This sort of local issue is very important to constituents and to Members of Parliament. It is crucial that such issues are aired in this Chamber and in both Houses of Parliament. I will do all that I can to let HRP know the strength of opinion held by the hon. Gentleman and his constituents, although I say again that I have no powers to intervene in its decision. My hon. Friend and I will watch what happens and see what the response of HRP will be to the charges that it has introduced.

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.

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