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Free Trade Wharf Site

Volume 385: debated on Monday 11 July 1977

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2.50 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether it is with their approval that the Inner London Education Authority has purchased the Free Trade Wharf area at Wapping as the site for a polytechnic; and whether any such approval included an understanding or condition about the future of the site's listed buildings which are of historic interest and among the few remaining.

The MINISTER OF STATE, DEPARTMENT of EDUCATION and SCIENCE
(Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge)

My Lords, the acquisition of land by local authorities for a number of purposes, including education, is not subject to detailed control by the Government. Accordingly, the Answer to the first part of this Question is negative and the second part does not apply. I can confirm, however, that the Free Trade Wharf is a listed building and could be demolished only if building consent were granted. I understand that no application for consent has been made.

My Lords, since we are again in danger of losing historic buildings on the edge of the river in London, can my noble friend say whether the plans of the ILEA involve demolition of these historic buildings and, if so, was it not rather foolhardy of them to buy, assuming that they would get that permission? Secondly, since plans for residential use for this important site and for these beautiful buildings as well as plans for leisure facilities and a riverside walk and so on, do in fact exist and are important for bringing life back into this part of the edge of the river, is this not exactly a case for a public inquiry and, finally, for Ministerial decision on the planning issue?

My Lords, answering the second part of my noble friend's supplementary question first, the question whether the land should be used for one purpose or another—that is, for residential purposes or for school buildings—is one for the planning authorities, to whom it has been referred and who have not yet replied. Until we get their answer we can make no further comment.

As regards the question of Ministerial decision, that arises when, and if, planning permission is given. If the local authority then apply to demolish a listed building, the matter will go to the Secretary of State for the Environment, who will have to make a decision.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that these buildings survived Hitler and that, if the ILEA tries to destroy them, there will he a great deal of fuss on these Benches and doubtless from other sides? Furthermore, does it not seem rather odd that, when the ILEA is declaring a large number of buildings redundant, it should be buying still further buildings for polytechnic purposes?

My Lords, the behaviour of local authorities does sometimes seem odd; it sometimes seems odder than in fact it is. If there is a need for something—and there is clearly a need for space to rebuild part of the polytechnic—it is perfectly reasonable to buy some land with which to do so and, later on, to keep the rules which are perfectly clearly laid down and which may, in the end, involve Ministerial consent.

My Lords, in view of the fact that there is considerable anxiety about this, particularly in that part of the world which I had the privilege of representing some 40-odd years ago, will the Government not do something to try to influence those who are giving planning permission so as to see to it that, as far as possible, these buildings are preserved? It may not impose an obligation on them but at least the Government can offer an opinion and do their very best to see that that opinion is carried into effect.

My Lords, the conception of the Government trying to influence planning committees seems to be an entirely subversive one and I cannot for one moment support it.

My Lords, I should like to press my noble friend to this extent: will he make it clear to the ILEA that it simply must not assume that the purchase of this land will automatically carry Government consent to demolish these buildings? If that could be made clear, we might make some progress in preventing the vandalism that is threatened.

My Lords, it is quite unnecessary to make anything so obvious clear to a body that is intellectually so well equipped as the GLC. It will have the opportunity of reading the report of this exchange of views and I confirm exactly what my noble friend has said.

My Lords, does the noble Lord realise that the GLC Historic Buildings Board has a record which is second to none in the preservation of historic buildings?

I do, my Lords, and I appreciate it and consider it to be a safeguard which should alleviate my noble friend's anxieties.