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Aintree (Grand National Steeplechase)

Volume 767: debated on Tuesday 2 July 1968

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

With permission, I wish to make a statement about the future of Aintree and the Grand National Steeplechase.

This race is one of the nation's great sporting festivals and its continuance is inevitably bound up with the ownership of the Aintree course, since it is clear that the race will completely change its character if it is transferred elsewhere. The Government also believe it to be important for considerations of regional policy to keep as many important events as possible in the provinces.

With these objectives in mind, the Government initiated talks with all the interested parties and as a result I can now make an interim statement following discussions with the Liverpool Corporation, the Turf Authorities, the Horse Race Betting Levy Board and Messrs. Tophams Ltd., the present owners.

The chief consideration is that of ownership and Her Majesty's Government have informed the Liverpool Corporation that we are prepared to give loan sanction for the capital sum required for the acquisition of the land. We shall also be prepared to apply the provisions of Section 8 of the 1966 Local Government Act in order to make them a grant not exceeding 50 per cent. in respect of that portion of the site which is to be kept as public open space.

I am glad to say that the Liverpool Corporation places great importance upon obtaining full public access for general recreational purposes at Aintree, on all days when racing is not taking place. As Merseyside has much less open space than the national average this will be a significant contribution to the social life of the neighbourhood.

It is hoped that this offer will facilitate negotiations with Messrs. Tophams for the purchase of the land.

If Liverpool acquires the site it is understood that it will wish to lease the racecourse to a non-profit-making trust body to be established under the chairmanship of Lord Leverhulme. This trust will seek to develop Aintree as a National Hunt Racing centre in the North, a scheme which has the support of the Horse Race Betting Levy Board. By these means the Grand National and racing at Aintree will be maintained and no charge will fall upon the Liverpool ratepayers in respect of them.

It is believed that at a later date the Liverpool Corporation may wish to establish a sports centre on the site, a project in which the North-West Regional Sports Council is much interested, and, if so, we would expect that there would be the fullest co-operation in the design and provision of buildings of a multipurpose character between Liverpool, the Racing Trust and the Levy Board.

Mr. Speaker, I hope that this announcement will enable negotiations to be brought to a successful conclusion for the purposes that I have outlined.

Everyone interested in racing, and particularly in the future of the Grand National, will welcome the Under-Secretary's statement and it will be generally welcomed that in future Aintree is to be used for other recreational purposes. However, in spite of the hon. Gentleman's statement, the future of Aintree will still clearly depend on a successful conclusion to the negotiations between Liverpool Corporation and Messrs. Tophams, and this may take time.

Can the Under-Secretary therefore assure the House that there will be no time limit to the offer of a grant under Section 8 of the Local Government Act, 1966? Can he say whether negotiations for the purchase of the land between Liverpool Corporation and Messrs. Tophams are now in progress?

I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman has said. I can assure him that the offer is obviously intended to be kept open. He will understand that negotiations could not begin until we had made these arrangements with Liverpool Corporation, and we were able to conclude them last week. Liverpool Coporation now knows what help it will get from the open space grant which I mentioned and is, therefore, now prepared to enter negotiations immediately with Messrs. Tophams.

Will my hon. Friend take it from me that his statement will be received with great satisfaction on Merseyside? However, will he give an undertaking that the other authorities who are bound to be involved in the recreational side of this project will meet their part of the burden?

The whole point of the arrangement is that although we might have a sports centre, it is not an early prospect. The main point is that this arrangement will enable the whole of the land to be used for almost all the time, excluding race days, for general recreational purposes by the people of Merseyside. This is a significant step forward..

I, too, welcome what the hon. Gentleman has said. Can he tell the House the likely cost of the land and say whether Liverpool Corporation will have any representation on the non-profit-making body, so that it can watch the day-to-day administration in the landlard's interest?

The issue of representation on the non-profit-making trust will not cause any difficulty. The parties are anxious for Liverpool to have such representation. It would be wrong for me to say what I think the land is worth, or what it will fetch. That is a matter to be negotiated between the paries, subject to the approval of the district valuer.

Is my hon. Friend aware that there will be widespread pleasure that this major international event is to be retained in the North-West? However, can he say more about the financial side? Is there to be any public or Ministerial appeal against any amount which may be agreed between Liverpool Corporation and Messrs. Topham? Secondly, as there is only one race meeting a year at Liverpool, is it intended that Aintree will still be used for only one meeting, or are there to be more race meetings?

As I have already said, whatever price is agreed will have to be subject to the normal district valuer procedure, and that is, therefore, a public safeguard. My hon. Friend is correct in saying that there is only one race meeting a year at Aintree, but it is proposed by the trust and the Levy Board that in future there should be more race meetings a year; but this is a matter for negotiation between the parties and is not for me.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware how much I welcome his statement, as the great Aintree racecourse is in my constituency? Is he aware that, although it is in the area of the Lancashire County Council, I believe it right that negotiations should have been with the Livei-pool Corporation, because the Liverpool conurbation will inevitably get far more of the advantages out of this remaining open space? What the hon. Gentleman has said—

Order. Even when an issue affects his constituency, an hon. Member should ask brief questions.

When will the hon. Gentleman be able to announce, or does he have any idea, when these negotiations may be concluded? It sounds from his statement as though there are many hurdles to overcome.

I shall certainly not risk my neck as a punter or forecaster on that sort of guess. My hope is that things can now proceed much more rapidly than over the last five or six years. I know that the hon. Gentleman has a constituency interest and I take his point about Lancashire, which has been extremely helpful in these negotiations, although part of the course happens to be in the constituency of one of my hon. Friends.

Is my hon. Friend aware that part of the course is in my constituency? [HON. MEMBERS: "Only the start."] Is he aware that for many years many of us have been advocating that the area should be brought within the control of the Liverpool City Council and that, therefore, his statement is most welcome to us and to the people of Liverpool, who have always wanted to keep the Grand National in our area? Can he say—[HON. MEMBERS:"Too long."]—whether the plans which he suggests Liverpool Corporation already has for a future sports stadium are well advanced, or are merely in the air without any concrete basis?

I am glad that my hon. Friend managed to get his horse over Beechers Brook. There has been a considerable measure of agreement right across the board among the various parties in Liverpool since negotiations first began. Plans were drawn up by Lancashire County Council for the sports project, but then Lancashire ceased its interest and the discussions moved to Liverpool and the project has obviously taken on a new meaning. I am not able to say that this sports centre can be produced at an early date, but I can say that Liverpool and the North-West Regional Sports Council want to do this as soon as they can financially.

As Aintree is almost the only open space between Liverpool and the Prime Minister, may I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on keeping this cordon sanitaire? I welcome the proposal to keep the race on Merseyside, but will the hon. Gentleman say whether there is still room on the Aintree site for housing as well as the sporting development?

There were discussions with Lancashire County Council about small pockets of land which might be available for housing purposes by Liverpool. These discussions have not proceeded very far, but this would be a matter between Liverpool Corporation and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government.

As the only Member of the House who lives in Aintree, may I thank my hon. Friend for his statement? Will he also agree that, under the Labour-controlled Lancashire County Council, this is what was intended, but that, when the Tories got control in Lancashire, they went back on the agreement?

I do not think that this is a moment for me to introduce party political factors when we are in sight of reaching agreement, but I am in a position to say that there is some historical substance in what my hon. Friend has said.

Without associating myself with the remarks made personally by my hon. Friend, may I ask whether he will be careful about co-ordinating the planning activities of all the surrounding local authorities? In the initial discussions this was a great stumbling block to a decision. I hope that he will resist any move to put housing on this open land as a first measure of this development, because, once housing gets in, the rest will go by the board?

That point is understood and taken, but I am happy to assure my hon. Friend that the Lancashire County Council and Liverpool Corporation are working harmoniously together in these matters.