Skip to main content

The Royal Naval College, Greenwich

Volume 569: debated on Thursday 29 February 1996

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

3.16 p.m.

Whether they have received any support for the Secretary of State for Defence's proposal to lease the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, for unrestricted purposes for 150 years and, if so, from whom.

My Lords, nine proposals relating to the whole site, and three for part use, have been received. At this stage we regard such expressions of interest as commercial-in-confidence. It is for the interested parties to decide whether they wish publicly to declare their interest. Two have so chosen; namely, the University of Greenwich and the National Maritime Museum.

My Lords, will the Government consider enlarging the remit given to the advisory committee—I refer to the group of four, including Dame Jennifer Jenkins and Sir Jocelyn Stevens—which is at present confined to advising the Secretary of State on the desirability of those who come forward; that is, the nine applications? Will the Government consider enlarging that remit and charging that group with forming an opinion on what are desirable uses and what are desirable classes of persons to have Greenwich, so that the Secretary of State can then actively seek them instead of sitting back and waiting for anyone who comes along?

My Lords, I believe that the advisory group already has that remit very much in mind. The group was set up to advise my right honourable friend on the expressions of interest which we received in mid-November on the future use and management of the Royal Naval College. The members of the group have been asked to give particular attention to the extent to which the proposals are sympathetic to the status of the building and its wide enjoyment by the public. I believe that they will be conscientious in fulfilling that remit.

My Lords, how can anyone predict what circumstances will be like in 150 years' time and be absolutely sure that a letting of the building will be a safe thing to do, bearing in mind the ignorance of the circumstances in 150 years' time?

My Lords, we are proposing a lease of 150 years. It is necessary to have a long lease to give predictability to a future occupant who may need to invest considerable sums of money in the site. However, if no suitable non-defence use comes forward, we have a longstop. The Defence School of Languages has been identified as a suitable occupant. However, we are keen to find a non-defence use to enable much greater public access and enjoyment, not least the possibility of opening up the grand axis. That vision was very much in the mind of Dame Jennifer Jenkins when she prepared the Royal Parks Review.

My Lords, the noble Earl will be aware that the Government may propose, but Parliament in this matter will dispose. In view of the fact that your Lordships have not yet had a chance to debate the particular clause in the Armed Forces Bill, why are the Government forging ahead on something which may well not pass your Lordships?

My Lords, the final decision as to who: should occupy the Royal Naval College rests with my right honourable friend as sole trustee of the Greenwich Hospital Charity. However, I am well aware that, as the noble Lord stated, the Armed Forces Bill contains a clause to widen the scope for my right honourable friend to take that decision. I do not believe that any action that the Government have taken to date pre-empts parliamentary consideration of that clause.

My Lords, my noble friend said that the National Maritime Museum was one of the parties which had shown an interest. Wearing my DoE hat of a decade or so ago, I have seen what a wonderful museum that is. Do the Government agree that, if it is interested in doing so, the National Maritime Museum would be the ideal body to look after those buildings?

My Lords, I quite agree with my noble friend that the National Maritime Museum is to be congratulated on the way it has looked after the buildings in its care. However, I cannot give it any preferential treatment.

My Lords, for this reason. There are nine expressions of interest for the whole site and three for part of the site. It would be wrong for me to pre-empt the full and considered advice of the advisory group. However, I note my noble friend's remarks, and I am sure that they will find sympathy throughout the House.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the Government regard this group of buildings as one of the noblest and most historic of its kind in this country and possibly in Europe? Will be also confirm the Government's acceptance of the principle that its use must conform to their character and not merely be protected by planning legislation in future years?

My Lords, I am pleased to take this opportunity to emphasise that the Government are firmly committed to finding an occupancy for this magnificent site which is sensitive to its heritage status and which will allow public access.

My Lords, in that case, can the Minister reassure the House that the phrase "unrestricted purposes" on the Order Paper is not a fair reflection of what the Secretary of State has in mind?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and gallant Lord, because that is a point that I had not yet picked up. It would be quite wrong to suggest that the options for the use of the Royal Naval College are unrestricted. There are real constraints, such as those of Grade I listed building status and its status as an ancient monument, which will protect the fabric for the future. There will be major planning constraints on any future use. In addition, my right honourable friend, as trustee, would not hesitate to put appropriate constraints—such as the need for public access—in a lease. That, again, is a real restriction on the uses to which the site can he put.

My Lords, will the noble Earl agree that the Secretary of State has not yet placed any restrictions on the intended use beyond those of the law in general which apply to any development anywhere? Will be also agree, on reflection, that he did not answer my first supplementary question, which was not about whether the advisory group was likely to stick to its terms of reference but, on the contrary, whether those terms of reference could be changed and widened?

My Lords, I am sure that it is quite possible for my right honourable friend to request the advisory group to expand its remit. Of course I will ensure that my right honourable friend takes note of the noble Lord's comments. However, it is perfectly correct that to date no constraints have been placed on the advisory group in relation to the expressions of interest. Those expressions of interest are considered by the group pari passu, and we shall have to wait and see what the advice is at the end of the day.