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European Architectural Heritage Year

Volume 893: debated on Wednesday 11 June 1975

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1.48 a.m.

At the start of the debate, although questionably in order, I hope that I may ask the Minister whether the Department will consider the urgent need for a worthy British Embassy in Brasilia, in that splendid and challenging country, where we were the first to acquire a site but are one of the last to provide an effective embassy. I hope that it will be British in character but using exciting Brazilian materials and local craftsmanship.

To return to the question of the architecture of Europe, there is no doubt that architecture has more influence, direct and subtle, on our lives than has almost any other factor in the environment. Our spirits can be raised or our souls depressed according to our surroundings. That is why Architectural Heritage Year Europe is such a fine affair, launched as it has been with distinguished and royal patronage. We in the United Kingdom have been fortunate to have the chairmanship of Lady Dartmouth, whose work in the GLC is so well-known and applauded.

We should here pay tribute to the work of Lord Duncan-Sandys over a whole lifetime in Parliament in one House or the other, whose devotion to these things resulted in much valuable protective legislation.

Architectural Heritage Year Europe has resulted, in the United Kingdom and in Europe, in much that is excellent and first class. I would be the first to pay a generous tribute to the successes of this venture—successes which have been achieved and which are yet to come. However, there is so much that is wrong in these matters and there are so many fears held by so many people. I am informed by an organisation called "Save the National Heritage"—"Save is its key word—that 620 listed buildings had been the subjects of applications for demolition until May of this year.

That is surely a distressing state of affairs. Today has seen the publication of a forceful and formidable book entitled "The Rape of Britain". It is written by Mr. Colin Amery and Mr. Dan Cruickshank, both of whom are on the committee of "Save". Valuable publicity is given in it and a great number of cases which are worth considering. I thought that I was fortunate in having an advance copy of this book, but I see that the Daily Mirror has also received one, and that Mr. Waterhouse, who is a most cogent writer, has devoted the whole of the centre pages to a review. He draws attention to many of the things in it, and I should like to do so, too.

The Poet Laureate has written a foreword in which he says
"This is a devastating book. In my mind's ear I can hear the smooth tones of the committee man explaining why the roads must go where they do regardless of the humble old town they bisect. In my mind's eye I can see the swish perspective tricked up by the architect's firm to dazzle the local councillors. I see the tailored models walking past the plate glass, bent forward against a strong breeze. Round the corner I see senior citizens and youth representatives sipping Cinzano under a striped umbrella in the hot sunshine which always lends a Costa Brava look to architectural drawings. I hear words like 'complex', 'conurbation', 'precinct', pedestrianisation' and that other couple of words which mean total destruction, 'comprehensive development'. Places cease to have names, they become areas with a number. Houses become housing, human scale is abandoned. We must put in something to please these tiresome people, the preservationists, and so we will leave, shorn of its suroundings, a Georgian building which has been praised in a guide book".
It is true that some people regard some of the Poet Laureate's particular fancies as being an expression of a dotty devotion to all things past, but I do not share that point of view. The worthy Sir John has often had to overstate the case to get anybody to listen to him.

The book is dramatic in its method of presentation. It gives examples of what has happened to the city of Gloucester, where I spent some of my earliest days. Almost all of it is gone except for the cathedral precinct. I have represented the city of Bristol as councillor and Member of this House for 21 years. There we have lost more since the war than the Germans destroyed by bombing. We have had our successes, but it has been a hard job, and one must be ever vigilant. We have fought off threats to the Avon Gorge and we have saved Ashton Court—at the eleventh hour—and Kings Weston, although the garden buildings are in ruins. The city docks are not to be filled in. There has been much good restoration work in Clifton, and Montpelier and St. Pauls would have been wiped out had not the citizens protested and the planners relented.

There are lessons here, particularly concerning the growing influence of local amenity societies. There is one, in every ward of my constituency, doing splendid work. Some of them came on the scene a little too late and we lost a great deal.

In Newcastle there has been the celebrated case of Eldon Square. What happened there must never be allowed to happen again. In Salisbury, not far from my home, a great deal is being torn down but the traffic is being diverted not very far from the city centre. We all know about the situation in Bath. You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, know all about Cardiff, although I gather that Llandaff, that historic place where I was born, is so far untouched by developers. However, the constituencies of your parliamentary colleagues are threatened with one kind of "improvement" or another.

What is to be done? Obviously publicity in advance of irrevocable decisions is eminently desirable. The conservation societies are doing a splendid job and should be encouraged in every possible way. If local authorities are not carrying out their statutory duties in taking note of what local people feel, as expressed in individual letters, or representations from Members of Parliament because their constituents have approached them, or of what the societies say as a body, I hope that the Minister will at least say that he will twist their arms, or whatever the appropriate phrase is, by means of a circular or something more severe should that be necessary. I hope he will ensure that local authorities are aware of the need to take local people into their confidence at the earliest possible moment.

That is not to say that the amenity societies should not be told, fair and square, that they are expected to come forward with imaginative and constructive proposals. There have been societies in the past which have simply opposed every single thing suggested by a local authority, thinking that that was their duty. Far from it. This is a two-way operation.

At the national level no one can deny that the amenity societies are highly responsible bodies which often produce constructive and imaginative solutions to problems about which officialdom had not thought. The local societies are growing in calibre. If they are given the right encouragement they will continue to improve.

What of the future? How can we keep up the impetus we have achieved as a result of Heritage Year? There is a sad lesson to be learned from the "Plant a Tree" campaign of 1973. By 1974–75 we had the capital transfer tax and the wealth tax proposals, which have certainly killed much of the activity in private forestry, which provides the trees that are admired by future generations.

The attitude of the Forestry Commission, the official Government agency, is leading to the planting of what lay people call Christmas trees—coniferous forests, which are not so attractive as the hard woods grown on private estates. I must not digress too far, but while I am on the subject of trees I will say that one owner of a great estate calculated that the only way in which he could pay the wealth tax for one year on his estate was to cut down a three-mile avenue of oaks that had taken 200 years to grow.

I know that the Chancellor is paying close attention to this and will carefully examine the report of the Select Committee dealing with the subject. I hope to have a certain amount to do with that. There are other celebrated cases on which the Minister may be able to comment. There is the case of the sewage farm that threatens Audley End Park. Is he happy about that? What about the motorway that threatens to destroy Petworth Park, or the controversial road proposal, about which we have heard much in The Times, affecting Chilston Park? Are we to take heart over the victory at Levens Park—a victory achieved only after constructive public outcry? We had the sad loss of Saltram Park, where the road carved right through the landscape. There is Conway Castle, and the horrifying bridge which will dwarf all the other structures. Is that inevitable?

I put it to the Minister that many of the landscapes to which I have referred are irreplaceable. At any rate, it would take a couple of centuries of devoted work to create anything like them again, even if the resources and the location were available. I do not want to be unkind, but I feel that even with a sustained effort over two centuries the municipal parks departments of our great boroughs would probably not be able to do as well as Mr. Capability Brown or Mr. Repton with a private patron behind him. It is not their sphere.

We are making mistakes—every generation will make mistakes—and we are still losing so much, and things are not going in the right direction. Recently they have tended to take a positive turn in the wrong direction, despite considerable penalties for attacking fine buildings, and despite considerable Government interest, not with enormous financial backing but with an increasing amount of resources available to the Historic Buildings Council which is a Government agency. I must be delicate here, because I am a member of it and do not wish to say things that I should not.

One thing which might help to move things back in the right direction would be to make it advantageous to people to take an interest in the fine buildings they may happen to own, or seek to own, by giving them a tax advantage. I must not talk about legislation, but the Minister may consider a proposal along that line to give a worthwhile incentive so that people would seek out historic buildings as a form of tax haven.

There was a public exchange—which has been printed—between the Select Committee dealing with the wealth tax and the Inland Revenue. The Revenue was asked whether it was immoral for people to put money into historic buildings instead of allowing the Revenue to collect it in taxes. Even the Revenue had to admit that tax evasion or avoidance in favour of historic buildings was a social plus. I hope that the Minister will consider that suggestion.

The Minister with responsibility for the arts is to publish shortly a glossy booklet on what I suppose he would call the achievements of the Government, to be entitled "Arts and the People". We await that booklet with great interest. How about a Department of the Environment booklet entitled "Architecture and the People"? I am sure that there is no authoritative document which brings together all the useful information required by people who are anxious to help with the restoration and enhancement of the nation architectural heritage. There is no good guide book on this subject. I hope that the Minister will consider that suggestion. It might even give a little more information about the splendid work of the historic buildings councils, although I blush to mention it. The councils are doing their best, and have done over many years, with limited resources.

As I draw to a close I shall say a word or two about our own back-yard, that is, Parliament and the parliamentary precincts. We have stuck to our fine old palace and in many ways enhanced it recently. We have tried to make it look more attractive and to restore it to something like its original condition. In some places we have successfully adapted it. The only real "monster" is Star Court, but we all know that that was run up during the holidays by an enthusiastic Minister of Works who was determined to provide an office or two. I shall not pursue that matter further. Norman Shaw North has been rescued from destruction, I would claim, by the House of Commons insisting on having it as an office building. It is a fine building and the Department has made a good job of putting it in order for us at far less cost than a new building.

What about the Bridge Street site? Are we to proceed with the Spence and Webster proposed new parliamentary building? Has the Minister any estimate of the cost of that building with all the supporting services? Are we to consider keeping Norman Shaw South as well as the north block and the Whitehall Club, and perhaps putting on the rest of the site a well-mannered stone building which need not be built all at once but built as a gradual progression—a building which would not overshadow this fine building on this side of the street?

Surely Bridge Street is an important site in London on which we do not want any architect to show off. It should not be used for a building that shows off but for a building that fits in with its more important and significant neighbours. I believe that we could consider a new idea for the site in that it could be linked with this palace at principal floor level. I shall not go into that matter in detail lest every architectural pundit in the country reaches for his pen and writes to all the national newspapers and we go off on some red herring which distracts from the main theme of the argument. However, if we had a link with principal floor level the building would not be a lost soul; it would be part of the palace and would provide valuable additional accommodation.

The link would also serve to obscure some of the view from Parliament Square across the bridge to some of the rubbish on the other side. I mean not County Hall but the absolutely faceless other buildings which will be there for a long time. And looking from the other side of Westminster Bridge to Parliament Square one sees the sides of some appalling buildings. Perhaps the sort of link I have mentioned would be a positive improvement. As for the traffic in Parliament Square, I hope we shall get rid of that by the end of the century.

What about the Foreign Office? How many of the fine rooms will be retained? What about the courtyard? Are we to roof it over and save the interior walls and the statues, and avoid any destruction?

I now turn to the question of building materials. In Architectural Heritage Year are we to see the run-down of Bath and Portland Stone firms, for example, and the loss of skilled craftsmen? I have spoken before about this matter and have written to the Secretary of State about it. It was one of Sir Christopher Wren's principles that
"when sufficient funds were not available for the elaboration of the whole of a design, some one or more important features should be worked up to a higher ideal than the rest, instead of adopting a lower standard for the whole".
Is there not an element of truth in that principle for our times? We could put fine stone features into our buildings that are otherwise dull and functional. What about stone for restoration work? Much could be ordered in advance of building work and lie to mature, like good wine in the yards.

I return to Sir Christopher Wren. In the last Parliament of William III, Christopher Wren, Knight, was a member of this House for Melcombe Regis, in Dorset. That is within walking distance of the Portland stone quarries which are now somewhat depressed. I believe that it is said that St. Pauls was built of Portland Stone because of Wren's constituency interest. That is not true. Portland stone was used because it is the best stone in the world. Sir Christopher Wren would have spoken with more eloquence than I about the millions of cubic metres of concrete now being poured into public buildings where good stone could delight the eye of succeeding generations. Sir Christopher richly deserved the inscription in St. Pauls—"Si momumentum reauiris, rircumspice". Are the Government happy with what they see when they look around at our threatened or vanishing architectural heritage? Certainly the Government have no reason to be complacent. Architectural Heritage Year is an awakening of interest. We cannot afford now to go to sleep. I hope that the Government will from now on show more energy and imagination in working towards the rescue and enhancement of that Britain we know and hope to keep.

2.10 a.m.

The hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Cooke) is well known in the House and throughout the country for his deep and abiding interest in architectural matters, in our national heritage, and in the materials which make up that heritage. In the far-ranging debate which he has initiated this morning, he has manifested to the House that very considerable interest in those topics.

There was a time when the fact that an hon. Gentleman might begin a debate by mentioning Brasilia would have terrified me. I think the second debate to which I replied in the House related to the Property Services Agency. I had little idea at that time what that agency was and in the ensuing debate Opposition Members mentioned the subject of lamp shades in embassies. I sent a little note to the "Box"—which does not exist but Ministers pretend it does—about this matter, asking, "Surely this is a matter for the Foreign Office?" The reply came back: "No, Minister—this is a matter for you." That explains why I was not as shocked as I might at one time have been by mention of Brasilia in a debate on European Architectural Heritage Year. I realise that the hon. Gentleman was seeking to get across a point about our embassy, and his remarks will be conveyed to the appropriate quarter.

In talking about European Architectural Heritage Year we are not always inevitably looking at the past, and, indeed, the far-distant past. That heritage is created as well as inherited. We must remember that we are creating a heritage for people in the future. That was clear from what the hon. Gentleman said about building in stone, and he linked his remarks with Brasilia—that splendid capital which is a great symbol to the people of Brazil and their nationhood.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for introducing this subject tonight because we are nearly half-way through European Architectural Heritage Year. Therefore, it is a good thing that we should take some stock of the achievements so far and consider whether this long-planned campaign is proceeding as it should.

The aims of the Year are fourfold: to awaken the interest of the European people in their common architectural heritage; to protect and enhance buildings and areas of architectural and historic interest; to conserve the character of old towns and villages; and to assure for ancient buildings a living role in contemporary society. I know that the hon. Gentleman agrees with those aims.

In this country many of those aims are already integral elements in our planning system. We already protect buildings and areas of architectural or historic interest, and last year the Government gave every facility for new legislation to increase the powers of local authorities to control demolition in conservation areas. I refer to the Town and Country Amenities Act, which strengthened the control of historic buildings and conservation areas.

The Government have also maintained their assistance to owners wishing to repair historic houses, and conservation grants have been made available towards environmental work designed to preserve and enhance conservation areas.

The work of the United Kingdom national committees responsible for the campaign in Britain has been directed mainly at awakening and maintaining the interest of our people and in encouraging a constructive conservation effort in as many ways and in as many conservation areas throughout the country as possible. Of course, the country has its own set pieces which, as co-ordinated conservation ventures, compare favourably with any in Europe and, indeed, in the world. The pilot projects selected by the Council of Europe provide national examples of fruitful co-operation between local societies and local inhabitants, local authorities and the Government. These are at Chester, in my own county, which is a very beautiful city, as the hon. Gentleman will agree; Poole; the Georgian New Town of Edinburgh and the Scottish National Trust's "Little Houses" scheme in the County of Fife. These and other places which qualify as national showpieces, such as Greenwich and Dover Castle, are attracting a great deal of overseas as well as domestic interest.

I agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about some of our priceless, incomparable heritages. He mentioned Conway Castle and a number of other places which, unless there is careful planning, may be threatened, not in themselves but environmentally by surroundings which would destroy them—not for ever but for many years. I am certain that the buildings would last far longer than the encumbrances surrounding them. The hon. Gentleman was right to raise this point. It is a matter about which not only my Department but the Scottish Office and the Welsh Office have deep concern.

The Government in Heritage Year have encouraged and helped financially more widespread conservation efforts in projects undertaken by local authorities and amenity societies. The Civic Trust, which has responsibility for the day-to-day management of the campaign, has helped administer an allocation of £180,000 in grants towards work carried out in conservation areas not normally qualifying for grant. Well over 100 projects have been assisted. The quite small amounts of money which have been provided for individual schemes—in tree planting, paving the undergrounding—a dreadful word in my brief; I prefer to say "the placing underground"—of wires, and other environmental projects, have provided a stimulus out of proportion to the money involved in terms of the enchancement of conservation areas throughout the country.

These grants were for projects which could be completed in 1975. To help continuing conservation effort the Government have agreed to help the setting up of a National Heritage Fund. This is designed to further the very useful work of local building preservation trusts which buy historic buildings and restore them for resale. In providing low interest topping-up capital for this work, the Heritage Fund will make it possible for new trusts to come into being and existing ones to extend their work. The Government have agreed to match, pound for pound, money raised privately, up to a maximum contribution of £500,000.

The Government are also involved in the educational and publicity aims of the campaign. An international seminar is being organised by the Department of the Environment—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Wednesday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at eighteen minutes past Two o'clock.