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Hampton Court Green

Volume 201: debated on Friday 20 December 1991

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

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[Mr. Neil Hamilton.]

2.30 pm

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the subject of Hampton Court green in my constituency. This has long been a beautiful, cherished and treasured public open space. It is valued by visitors, passers by and residents within my constituency at Hampton Court, Hampton Wick, Hampton Hill, Hampton and surrounding areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Esher (Mr. Taylor), whose East Molesey constituents nearby enjoy the use of Hampton Court green, asks to be associated with my remarks.

Hampton Court green is a royal property which is now the responsibility of the Department of the Environment, exercised through its Historic Royal Palaces Agency. There is an increasing tendency to use the green for parking. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has received a petition from local residents, which reads as follows:
"We the undersigned local residents and members of the public note with deep concern the decision of the Hampton Court administrators to use The Hampton Court green for car parking in connection with commercial ventures at Hampton Court Palace. This use is fast becoming an established practice—with the subsequent deprivation of the local residents and the public at large of the free enjoyment of this long established unspoilt open green space.
We wish to express our grave fears that, in the absence of any specific assurance to the contrary, the Palace administrators tend increasingly to view The Green as merely an adjunct to Hampton Court Palace with minimal regard to its intrinsic value as a local amenity which enhances this beautiful historic area.
We consider that such use is not necessary for the efficient and successful management of Hampton Court Palace which is an important local amenity as well as a national institution.
We therefore call on you to take urgent steps to build into the present policies and terms of reference clear and unmistakeable safeguards to define the permanent status of The Green as an area of public recreation and enjoyment and to prohibit its use at any time for car parking."
I must declare an interest. For the past 22 years, I have lived on the edge of Hampton Court green. But the fact that I live there does not mean that my neighbours, who are also my constituents and who also live there, should expect any greater or less a service from me as their Member of Parliament in the protection of their environment than any other constituents—for example, if somebody decided to park cars all over Twickenham green. I know that that point will be understood by the House and accepted by the Department of the Environment.

Government policy is to protect open space, whether in urban or rural areas. That includes greens, village greens and commons. The protection of open space does not just mean keeping buildings off them. It also means upholding their character and keeping them open and free from clutter of any kind. In upholding that Government policy, the Government should set an example to local authorities where the Government themselves own parks, open spaces, commons or greens.

At Hampton Court green this task has been delegated to the Historic Royal Palaces Agency, but the agency is clearly responsible to Parliament, as set out in its own annual review for 1990–91, which states on page 6:
"The Secretary of State for the Environment is accountable to Parliament for the agency's policy, operations and resources."
There is no doubt whatever that the Government are answerable to Parliament for the management of the green.

Furthermore, the question of parking on the green cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be said to be merely a matter of day-to-day administrative detail. Whether or not the green is used for parking on a major scale is basic to the whole character and existence of the green.

I estimate that in the spring and summer of 1990 Hampton Court green was covered with car parking, fairs and their paraphernalia for more than 40 days. That is far too much. My constituents do not accept it; nor do the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Esher. I do not accept it. It makes a deep inroad into the character of the green, it is in conflict with Government policy, and it ought to be drastically curtailed. The problem is that the Historic Palaces Agency also manages Hampton Court palace. This palace is a great national treasure and a vital part of our national heritage.

I am aware, Mr. Speaker, that a member of your family is a distinguished real tennis player on Henry VIII's historic court there, that you go to Hampton Court from time to time and that you therefore recognise the great value of Hampton Court palace. The agency has been asked to increase the revenue of the palace and to decrease its enormous running losses. They are exceedingly heavy, due to the fact that Hampton Court palace is a very big and very old building. The agency has also been given responsibility for Hampton Court green.

Therein lies the difficulty. The green would have been better protected if, like the adjacent Bushey park, it had remained, like the other royal parks, under the royal parks bailiff. As it is, the agency and the palace administration seem to view the green as a satellite to the palace that can be used and even sacrificed in the interests of the palace.

Unlike other village greens, it has neither the protection of any local authority, as common land, nor the protection of the Department of the Environment, through its royal parks department. When the agency was established it seems to have been given no clear or specific instructions about the protection of the green. Either instructions of that kind should now be given to the agency or the green should be removed from the responsibility of the Historic Royal Palaces Agency and put under the protection of some other part of the Department of the Environment so that its character as a green can be preserved.

What has angered local residents is that since the agency was set up two or three years ago the green has been used as a public car park for up to 2,000 cars when commercial events to do with the palace have been staged. In July 1990 and July 1991 there were five-day flower shows in Hampton Court park, also known as Home park, Hampton Court, on the Kingston side of the palace. The description "flower show" is a little misleading. It was only about one third to do with flowers, while the other two thirds were devoted to the sale of other bits and pieces connected with gardening.

Only 5,000 cars were parked in Home park where there is room—out of sight behind walls and closer to the site of the flower show—for very many more cars, provided that the parking is well organised, which this year it was not. The congestion had a severe impact. The parking, as well as the traffic, needlessly damaged the environment of the people who live in the area and who suffered from it.

In June this year, parking was allowed all over the green for the quincentenary of the birth of King Henry VIII in 1491. Again, the cars should have been parked in Home park. I hope that the Minister will confirm that that was a one-off episode for the green.

Fairs, however, are traditional, time-honoured and accepted. One expects fairs to take place on greens. That is quite different from using Hampton Court green as a car park for an event being held in a different place. Each year, there are three traditional fairs on the bank holiday Mondays at Easter, Whitsun and the end of August. Each time, the green is covered with fair paraphernalia and clobber for 10 or 11 days. Fairs are allowed to bring all that in on the Monday before, be open for five days from the Friday until the following Tuesday of the bank holiday weekend, and have to move off on the Wednesday.

Whatever has been allowed in the past, that is far too long. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to request the Historic Royal Palaces Agency to impose a far stricter timetable on the fair proprietors, and then to see it enforced. Although the Historic Royal Palaces Agency sounds like an independent body such as a quango or nationalised board, it is not. It consists of civil servants in the Department of the Environment, to whom certain work has been delegated.

Next, the so-called craft fair each September is in no sense a traditional fair. There are no roundabouts, no big wheels, no dodgems, no Punch and Judy shows and no skittles. It is a relatively recent addition. It consists of shops on the green. It is not right that a public open space—a village green—should be used to set up shops, whether in parades or tents, and then to excuse it by calling it a "fair". If it continues—I hope that it will not—I hope that it will be most tightly controlled and that controls will be applied and enforced as to the number of days it is open, the number of days on which equipment can stay on the green, the volume of piped music and of announcements, and that shopkeepers setting up shops on the green should not be allowed to park their vehicles on the green at all—certainly not in the chaotic manner which took place this year under the chestnut trees, to the damage of the environment and close to houses where people live.

I remind my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State of the name of his Department. I want him to tell me exactly what the Department of the Environment intends to do to protect the environment of Hampton Court green.

Finally, before I sit down, may I be allowed to wish you, Mr. Speaker, and Mrs. Weatherill a very happy Christmas and thank you for all that you do for us all.

2.42 pm

I am delighted to have the opportunity to respond to the debate introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel), in which he has focused on progress and developments at Hampton Court palace and, in particular, on the use of Hampton Court green.

My hon. Friend is not only well known on both sides of the House and outside as a most vigorous champion of the interests of his constituents but has been extremely energetic in pursuing the points that he has made on the Floor of the House. He has been in consultation with the Minister of State, Department of the Environment, Baroness Blatch, and is therefore already aware of the close attention that my Department has been giving the issues that he raised.

Hampton Court palace, with its gardens, Home park, to which my hon. Friend referred, and Hampton Court green, is one of the palaces of the Historic Royal Palaces Agency, which was established on 1 October 1989 as an executive agency within my Department and under the Government's "next steps" initiative. "Next steps" agencies are different from Government Departments. They have been designed to give them more freedom in their operations and day-to-day management than would be possible if they remained directly within the functions of a Government Department. Although some of the staff may have been civil servants, it would not be true to say that the agencies are staffed exclusively by civil servants.

The Historic Royal Palaces Agency was set up with three aims: to improve the experience of visitors to the palaces, to preserve the palaces to the highest possible standards and to provide a more efficient and effective quality of service. Those aims determine the philosophy, approach and action programme of the agency of focusing on three needs: first, the needs of the buildings and estates themselves and the importance of conserving them for future generations; secondly, the needs of today's visitors who expect—rightly—a service of improving quality and a new approach to the presentation of the palaces which is intended to bring them alive in an historically authoritative way; and thirdly, the needs of the taxpayer who, understandably, is looking for improvements in effectiveness and a reduction in the level of public spending on the upkeep of magnificent palaces.

Since the agency was launched two years ago, significant improvements have been made against all three of those requirements and more are planned for the future. The chief executive, Mr. David Beeton, and his management team have provided a focus for the management of these palaces. Their energy and commitment have set in hand a programme of work more ambitious than has been contemplated for some time. It has all been made possible through the work of the "next steps" philosophy which is one of delegated accountability.

The aims of the agency are established by Ministers——

This is all very valuable information to do with the palaces, but my debate is specifically on Hampton Court green. Can the Minister say whether the agency has been given any terms of reference about what it is to do to maintain the green and its character?

I am coming to the green. As my hon. Friend generously allowed me rather more than my share of the available time, I thought that it would be helpful if I put what I was about to say in the context of the Government's overall strategy for the "next steps" agency, a point on which my my hon. Friend touched when introducing the debate. However, I was about to deal with the green.

The aims of this agency and others are established by Ministers who remain accountable for them in this House, but the day-to-day responsibility for management decisions—in this case, for the palaces—which are necessary to achieve those aims rest with the chief executive. That is set out in the framework document for historic royal palaces which was published on 1 October 1989.

I and my colleagues are fully committed to the "next steps" principles of delegated accountability. Local management matters must be left to chief executives who are accountable for them, but I welcome the chance to provide the House with some additional insight into the operations of Hampton Court palace and to respond in particular to my hon. Friend's concerns.

I shall deal first with the Hampton Court green. I appreciate what a close personal interest my hon. Friend has in the green, living as he does adjacent to it. It is an open space of about 18 hectares. It is bordered by the palace gardens which cover 27 hectares and by Home park which covers 223 hectares and it adjoins Bushey park which covers 445 hectares. Therefore, the neighbourhood is generally supplied with open spaces of various kinds.

As with all the other areas, the green is subject to the royal parks regulations. It has been managed alongside Hampton Court gardens and Home park to which my hon. Friend has referred. The tarmacked car park which is located on a small part of the green—and has been for many decades—has for some time been used as a coach park and as the overflow car park for Hampton Court palace. As I understand it. my hon. Friend is not objecting to the continued use of that as a car park——

It is on the site of a former Army barracks. Therefore, it has never been an open space and it should not be quoted in order to justify any other parking on any other part of the green.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's warning, but I had no intention of quoting it for that purpose.

The green has been traditionally used for a variety of temporary functions and events, some of which my hon. Friend mentioned. I believe that a traditional fair—I am not certain whether it has the requisite number of roundabouts or side shows—has been held on the green for up to three times a year since the turn of the century, and dates back to before the agency was established.

In addition, before the agency was established, an annual craft fair was allowed on the green in 1988. Those two fairs mean that the green is currently used for events on about 39 days in any year. That statistic precedes the agency's creation. Since the establishment of the agency the green has been used for five further days for parking for the international flower show in Home park and for three evenings for parking for a midsummer masquerade held in Hampton Court gardens in June 1991. Of the annual usage, only five days and three evenings have resulted from events organised since the establishment of the agency. I appreciate that there has been an increase over the previous traditional usage.

I hope that my hon. Friend will not treat the craft fair, which started in 1988, as a traditional usage.

It is clearly not a traditional usage in the same sense as the other fairs that have been held throughout the century, but it is important in the context of my hon. Friend's concerns about the agency to say that the craft fair started more than a year before the agency was established.

The use of Hampton Court and its estate for such events is entirely in line with policy in other royal parks. Parks are for open-air enjoyment and recreation, and can also facilitate programmes of special events such as fun runs and Pavarotti concerts. The use of Hampton Court green for short-term parking is seen as necessary to support those special events at Hampton Court palace and gardens.

I have noted carefully what my hon. Friend said about restricting parking on the green and assure him that I shall bear in mind the comments which he expressed forcefully. I know that the agency and its management would want to balance the very proper pursuit of revenue-generating activities, which we encourage and which form an important part of their overall objectives, against any activity that may cause widespread concern within the local community.

The protection of open space, to which my hon. Friend referred, is an important objective of the Government, but it is not the only one. There are some occasions when the temporary use of open space for another purpose, whether parking or anything else, may be an essential means to facilitate additional objectives that the Government also consider high priorities and which enable large numbers of the community to enjoy and share in activities which would otherwise be impossible to stage. I am not absolutely convinced that the additional eight days of usage on top of the 39 days established usage before the agency commenced necessarily constitute the enormous change that I think my hon. Friend may have been suggesting. However, I shall certainly bear his points in mind.

I think that my hon. Friend asked whether we could reduce the amount of time that the traditional fair, which has run from the turn of the century, spends on the green. It takes a long time to set up and dismantle that fair, but I can assure my hon. Friend that that time has not increased during recent years and is in line with the contract conditions. The agency is not aware of any occasion on which the traditional fair has stayed beyond the time allowed under the contract. Had it been aware of any such instance, it would have taken vigorous steps to ensure that the terms of the contract were met. The three-year contract for the traditional fair has expired and is up for renewal. The agency will take careful account of the health and safety requirements for the inspection of any fairground equipment used and will be seeking to reduce the number of days required to set up and dismantle that fair. As my hon. Friend knows, in response to a request from him, the agency has already reviewed the length of time required for setting up the craft fair and has managed to reduce it by one day this summer.

As my hon. Friend knows far better than I, most of the use of Hampton Court green is related to the traditional fair, which is provided essentially for the enjoyment and benefit of local residents. My hon. Friend will be sensitive to the likely public reaction to any suggestion that the fair should be entirely discontinued. Other functions and events at the palace account for a few more days' usage and the provision of car parking on the green will continue to be needed for those purposes. I cannot, therefore, hold out to my hon. Friend the prospect of an instruction from the Government requiring those arrangements to end, but, as I have assured him, we will keep an eye on the situation. We believe that those functions and events are central to the core business of the agency—perhaps more so than the traditional fair. The midsummer masquerade organised last summer brought thousands of local people to the palace to enjoy its unique atmosphere and historic gardens, in a way that was consistent with the aims that Ministers have set for the agency. The palace was brought alive on those evenings, which were not only educational but extremely valuable.

I hope that my hon. Friend will feel that his concerns are being carefully noted. We shall, of course, continue to pay the closest possible attention to any criticisms that he has of the way in which the green is being used and I shall certainly reflect carefully on his comments about the disadvantages of using the green for such purposes. I hope that the green will continue to facilitate—without damage—the enjoyment of activities that would not otherwise take place.

As this is the last debate before Christmas, my hon. Friend took the opportunity to wish you, Mr. Speaker, and your family a very happy Christmas. We have been debating Hampton Court. Christmas is the one time of the year when, even at the end of the 20th century, some of us may enjoy meals of a style perhaps more traditional in Henry VIII's day, when I understand a feast-day dinner would normally comprise up to 10 courses, commencing with items such as venison pies, baked carp in wine with prunes, followed by boiled mutton, swan, cock, roast boar with a pudding and, finally, cream of almonds, wafers and marzipan. I believe that your personal tastes, Mr. Speaker, are somewhat more ascetic than that, but I am sure that that will in no way detract from the enjoyment that you and your family have during the next three weeks. I wish you and my hon. Friend the compliments of the season and hope that my hon. Friend will he able to enjoy a peaceful stroll across Hampton Court green on Christmas morning without bumping into too many parked cars.

If it is in order, Mr. Speaker I shall make use of the two minutes that remain to us.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for his reply and in particular his indication that, when the contracts for the fairground proprietors for the bank holiday fairs come to be renewed, the number of days on which they are allowed to leave their plant on the green could be reduced. That is the only concession that my hon. Friend has made so far.

On the craft fair, I ought perhaps to have given the Minister notice of my point that the shopkeepers were parking their cars on the green and that that ought to be stopped. Will my hon. Friend say whether he can have that matter looked at to see whether the practice can be curtailed, as it has been causing some annoyance? This year the craft fair was not completely removed on the day on which it ought to have been removed—whatever official letters flying to and fro may have said.

My hon. Friend the Minister referred to Henry VIII and the consumption of swans. I hope that he will not mention that when he comes to my constituency, although, on other grounds, he will be welcome in view of his very helpful planning decision against the construction of a Marks and Spencer shop in the riverside part of Twickenham earlier this year. I hope that he will keep quiet on the subject of the consumption of swans, which are highly valued along the River Thames and which my constituents do not want to be eaten on Christmas day or any other day of the year.

Before I adjourn the House for Christmas, I wish, on my account and on behalf of my Deputies, to express my warm thanks to the Officers and Staff of the House who serve us in such a devoted way throughout the year. To the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel), to the Minister and to the Whip, the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton), I express my warm thanks for their good wishes to me, which I return in full measure. I wish them and all Members of the House a very happy Christmas.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Three o'clock, till Monday 13 January 1992, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of 12 December.