§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Peel.]
§ 4.10 p.m.
§ Mr. John Parker (Dagenham)
This is the story of a chapel which was situated in a park in Uxbridge and was recently demolished by the local council through the casting vote of the mayor. My complaint is that this action took place without effective intervention by the Minister of Works in the only effective way possible in such a case—by the issue of an interim preservation order. The building was a thirteenth century building of some interest and was one of the only three surviving chapels built by the Knights Hospitaller in this country and the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, which reported in 1937, recommended it to be "specially worthy of preservation".
It was certainly not a monument of great historical or architectural merit.
552 but it was of considerable interest and typical of many throughout the country. Most hon. Members will agree that in this country we have an architectural heritage as good as any in Europe. Especially in this present age, when we have a boom of new building as great as at any time since the Victorian age and when, unfortunately, like the Victorian age, much of the building is not of outstanding architectural merit, we need as far as we can to preserve buildings of the past Which are of interest and, where necessary, to adapt 'them to modern current use.
In the country there is now general interest in our major historical monuments. When it is a matter of preserving Westminster Abbey, or a building like Hammon Court, or the Tower, or any Of the great country houses, there is much interest and the Ministry of Works takes a lead in seeing that these things are done. With such buildings as it has in, its own care, the Ministry has done a good job the public generally wants to keep these great historical monuments for the future.
However, there is a lesser but equally important part of our national heritage. It is the lesser buildings—the parish churches, some small ones like this chapel, old meeting houses, cottages of various kinds and built in different styles and of different materials, town houses, farm houses, fishermen's cottages and so on. Whatever it may be, this is a part of our national heritage which should be kept and used, because in this age it is 553 interesting to see what building has been done in the past and to compare it with what is being done in this generation. It is more interesting to see these different kinds of buildings about and to live in them and make use of them than it would be to live in a community made up entirely of contemporary buildings. There is a national and Government responsibility to see that whatever can be done is done to preserve this part of our heritage.
There is a realisation of the desirability of doing this in many other countries, such as Holland and Scandinavia, which have a very fine record of trying to preserve their past and make the most of it. In Germany, following the destruction of the war, great efforts have been made to preserve what has been left both in country towns and in the bigger towns. Despite the enormous damage of the war, Poland has spent large sums of money on rebuilding the old town of Warsaw, which dates from 1370 to 1850, and the authorities there have reconstructed in the original styles, correcting all the mistakes made in Victorian times. If other countries can do these things and think them desirable, we should do the same. It is the job of the Government to give a lead in this direction in the public interest.
There are two types of lesser buildings of this kind. Many are grouped together in pleasant villages like those in the Cotswolds or in towns like York, Ludlow, and Tewkesbury, and sometimes in districts of towns. A number of the type I have been describing can be found in many old market towns in different parts of the country where very fine High Streets with pleasant buildings can be found.
I think that most people would agree that in nearly all these towns in their ordinary streets it is not the particular architectural merit of one building that is of interest but that of a group of houses. Their preservation is desirable. I am not discussing this problem today, but I should like to see steps taken, possibly on the lines of those taken in Yugoslavia, to create museum towns or districts and schedule whole streets, or towns, or groups of houses where no major structural change could be made without approval.
It is not with such groups of buildings, however, that I wish to deal today but 554 with the isolated survival of the past, examples of which exist in many parts of the country, in the smoky nineteenth century waste of industrial towns in the North or Midlands or in the subtopian wastes of twentieth century suburbia. I submit that these isolated survivals of the past have a particular interest where they are surrounded by buildings of no great architectural merit from a later period; where they provide a special opportunity of adding variety to the scene and where they can be an object lesson for the children growing up in the area in what has been done in the past.
This particular monument was situated in a public park and I should have thought that a public park was an ideal place for keeping an ancient monument. I have only to mention Chiswick House or Greenwich Observatory to point out that a great deal is added to the value of these parks by their containing these historical buildings. Such buildings as Chiswick House, or some small folly erected in an eighteenth century garden to entertain guests, add greatly to the merits of these parks in their use by a twentieth century public. I should have thought, therefore, that to restore and preserve this monument would have been the right thing to do and that it would have improved the park as an amenity for the people of Uxbridge.
In this case the land was in the possession of the council, as was the ruin itself. It had long been left to deteriorate and neither the council nor the Ministry of Works was willing to find the money to repair or restore the building. I agree that the Ministry of Works has limited funds and that it is quite right that it should spread that money in the most desirable way in preserving what it thinks is most important from the national point of view, but in this case the Ministry was not being asked to provide money to preserve the building.
In 1958, Uxbridge Council gave notice of its intention to demolish the building. After representations had been made by the local historical society, a year was allowed for people to raise the necessary funds to restore the building. As a result of the drive for funds, a sum of £500 was raised by the local historical society and £500 was promised by the Middlesex County Council. Before the twelvemonth limit was up the balance of the 555 necessary money to consolidate the building on the lines on which the Ministry of Works usually consolidates ancient monuments was promised.
Uxbridge Council, however, was not satisfied with this. It wanted the complete restoration of the building so that it could be used once more as a chapel. As a result the necessary balance of money to enable complete restoration to take place was forthcoming or had been promised by The Friends of Friendless Churches. This information contradicts the Answer to a Question which I put to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works in which he said:Although the building was derelict and dangerous, the Uxbridge Borough Council deferred demolition for over a year while attempts were made to raise money for full restoration. I understand that the sum subscribed fell well short of this."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th December, 1960; Vol. 632, c. 26.]My information is that the necessary money for carrying out the restoration was forthcoming and that the Knights of St. John were quite prepared to use the building as a chapel and the room beneath it as a museum. Had that been done I think it would have been an asset to the locality.
I wish to turn from the acts of the Ministry to what happened locally. I very much regret that in the Uxbridge Council this became a party issue. There the Labour Party voted for the demolition of the building and the Conservatives against it. The voting was equal, as I understand that the three Independents voted with the Conservatives, and the decision to demolish the building was carried by the casting vote of the mayor. I regret very much that this became a party issue locally, for it should not be so. I am pleased to know that Mr. Frank Beswick, the former Member for the constituency, and others on the Middlesex County Council, took an active part in trying to preserve the building. Whatever the local politics may be, if there is a question of preserving a building of some value to the national interest it is the duty of the Minister of Works to intervene in the national interest.
On 20th June, 1960, the Minister replied to Dr. Myres, President of the Council of British Archaeology, as follows: 556I am glad that it is now very likely that sufficient funds will be raised to save this building. I have no reason to suppose that the Uxbridge Borough Council will insist on early demolition. I have received a number of suggestions that I should again intervene, but I am unwilling to do so unless there is some clear indication that the Council are not prepared to honour their original decision to permit the building to be preserved if the money for this was raised.I would suggest that the bodies concerned with raising the funds should make a direct approach to the Borough Council. If as a result of such an approach it should become clear that the Council is about to demolish the building, I would be prepared to intervene (but I should not feel justified in serving an Interim Preservation Notice). I shall watch the developments with interest.My complaint is that the Minister has not intervened, and certainly did not intervene in the only effective way in which he could intervene—by making a preservation order. In the circumstances, it would not have committed the Ministry of Works to any expense. The necessary money for the full restoration of the building had been promised and was forthcoming. I, therefore, make the point very strongly that in this particular instance the Ministry behaved in a very regrettable manner.
I do not wish merely to talk about this particular instance, but to generalise from it because this kind of thing is in danger of happening all over the country. There are many cases where similar buildings may be in danger and where preservation in the national interest may be desirable. This is a very unfortunate precedent for the future. I hope and trust that in future the Ministry of Works will take a more active part in order to preserve our national heritage.
§ 4.24 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works (Mr. Richard Thompson)
I am obliged to the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker) for raising this matter, which is of somewhat wider public importance than the particular case on which he hung his argument.
Before I get down to the actual affairs of Moor Hall Chapel, perhaps I should say that we in this country and at the Ministry of Works take very seriously indeed the question of preserving our national heritage in ancient monuments and historic buildings. We always wish that we could do more than that, in fact, 557 we do now, but we spend about £1 million a year on this. Although that does not include all that we should like to do, we believe that it is an earnest of our intentions in the matter.
On the specific question of the Moor Hall Chapel, it seems that the case I have to answer falls under one or two very clear heads. First, the hon. Member clearly feels that my right hon. Friend was wrongly advised in this matter and that he ought to have stepped in and made an interim preservation order. The hon. Gentleman fortified this argument by saying that in his view the preservation would have cost the Ministry nothing, and that the necessary money to restore and maintain this building was forthcoming. I think that is a not unfair paraphrasing of what he said.
The history of this building and of its present decline really starts from 1926. It is a thirteenth century building which, by that time, had fallen into a state of disrepair. At that time, it was fully restored by public subscription and used as a Sunday school. Unfortunately, the churchwardens were unable to afford to maintain the building and it lapsed into disrepair. The original resolution of the local authority actually dates from 1948, after the war. I make that point because, whatever view we may take of the decision, it is not a sudden thing which has been rushed on us. Since 1948, there has been a danger that this building would be demolished.
At that time the council sought our assistance and we tried to interest the Order of St. John in the building, but without success. I shall have a word to say later about the reference which the hon. Member made to that. We inspected the building and our advice was full restoration which at that time was estimated to cost £3,000. In 1952, the council served a three-months' notice of its intention to demolish. In 1953, the roof had become dangerous and was removed. I am trying to tell the hon. Gentleman that we have taken a great deal of interest in this building, short of issuing a preservation order. We urged the council to seek financial help from charitable bodies and in 1958 the Uxbridge Local History and Archives Society decided to raise funds for the work.
558 Unfortunately, the fund grew rather slowly and by April, 1959, had reached only £1,000. The council again voted for demolition. Then there was a local election and the new council, in May, 1959, rescinded that order and allowed a further twelve months until June, 1960, to provide a breathing space for the necessary funds to be collected.
By this time the estimate for full restoration upon which the council insisted—in view of its experience before when the building had decayed to a point of collapse I think it a reasonable thing to ask—was £4,336. Finally, in September, which was fifteen months' grace, and not twelve as originally proposed, the council voted again for demolition. At that time our understanding was that no more than £2,000 was immediately available for restoration work. The hon. Gentleman questioned whether I was being misleading in a reply which I gave to him some time ago, and I am satisfied that I was not.
The point is that not all the money had been subscribed. A certain sum, about half, was available and the society, The Friends of Friendless Churches, had undertaken that the balance should be raised. It was ready to guarantee that it would be raised, but that is not quite the same thing as saying that the money was there. Without expressing any view about the propriety of the council's action, I can see that after its long experience of trying to get this building repaired, and after the considerable period of time it had allowed for the money to be raised, there is an argument for it wishing to insist that the full sum should be ready and that there should be no question of some of it being raised in the future. That is my understanding.
As I have already said, the Ministry gave all help short of the serving of an interim preservation order. We encouraged the council to preserve the building itself and to get in touch with the charitable trusts. We gave advice and estimates of repair. We helped to organise the 1959 meeting between interested parties, which resulted in the further year's grace for the collection of funds.
I will now deal with the point that an interim preservation order should have been issued. The point is that this 559 kind of notice is issued only for monuments of outstanding national interest and importance. Nothing short of this rigorous definition justifies us in the use of compulsory powers, with the likely consequence of some expenditure of public money. We can differ quite honestly and sincerely about what is and what is not a building of outstanding national interest and importance.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that the decision not to issue an interim preservation order was not arrived at hastily or carelessly. My right hon. Friend gave it the most anxious consideration over this considerable period of time. His conclusion was that the building did not measure up to that standard and, therefore, an interim preservation order should not be issued.
The hon. Member made an important point when he asked why we did not issue an interim preservation order, because, in view of the assurances—the guarantees, if you like—offered by The Friends of Friendless Churches and the Uxbridge Archives Society, in the end it would not have cost the Ministry a penny; in other words, the building would have been protected and the work of maintenance and repair would have Fallen on somebody else.
If we do not accept that a building is of outstanding national interest and importance, we should not go on and make a preservation order. If we issue a preservation order we incur a possible liability for compensation to the owner. I agree that in this case it would have been very slight in view of the use intended for the land where the building was. We incur an inescapable obligation to ensure that the building is repaired and kept in repair. With the greatest respect to the local societies, whose valiant efforts to raise this money I readily and warmly acknowledge, there was not and could not be a guarantee that they would find all the money necessary in the first place and then continue to support the building's upkeep for ever thereafter.
If we had made an interim preservation order it would follow that we must be prepared, in the last analysis, to protect the building which we had decreed should be preserved. We did not make the order because we did not think the 560 building was of the necessary standard. If we had made the order we should have had to accept the possibility that the cost of some of this would fall on us.
The hon. Member made some reference to the proceedings on the local council. I am sure that he will understand me when I say that this is not a matter on which I can make any comment. The council is an elected body, and if something was amiss I have no doubt that the electors of Uxbridge will draw what conclusions seem appropriate.
I propose to say a few words on the advice which my right hon. Friend received, because I believe that all the time at the back of his mind the hon. Gentleman feels that my right hon. Friend was possibly wrongly advised. It is true that the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, in its Report in 1937, referred in appreciative terms to this building. I have the reference here. The building was scheduled as a result of that Report. By the time these matters came to a head the Report was nearly twenty-five years old. At the time the Report was made the building, whose condition was described as "poor, stone much perished", was even then dilapidated. A quarter of a century later that process had gone much further.
One of the principal features of the building which attracted the Royal Commission—and I quote from its Report—was thatThe roof is of the 16th century and of the queen-post type, with cambered tie-beams and curved wind-braces.All that went in 1953, when it was thought that the building was dangerous and the council removed the remainder of the roof. Therefore, the Report which is prayed in aid relates to a building very different from the one which fell to be considered by my right hon. Friend when he had to make his decision.
The Minister is not statutorily obliged to take the advice of the Royal Commission although, naturally, he pays regard to its recommendations. It is a very authoritative body doing absolutely first-class work. The source of his advice is his own Inspectorate and the Ancient Monuments Board, both of which comprise experts of the very highest standing.
Referring to the likely use of this building by the Knights of St. John, 561 if and when restored, it is true that they were interested in this building for a time. I must inform the hon. Gentleman that they withdrew their offer to take a lease on the building early in June, 1060, as the money for its preservation had not, up till then, been subscribed. If it had been it is conceivable that they might have been willing to renew the offer.
The conclusion of this matter—the hon. Gentleman has really stated it—is that we cannot preserve everything, however much we would like to do so. The hon. Gentleman quite fairly agreed that this building was, perhaps, not of the most outstanding importance, although it had value. We cannot preserve everything we would like to preserve and the real touchstone of whether or not we issue a preser- 562 vation order is whether a building is of outstanding national importance.
As I have said, my right hon. Friend takes very distinguished advice in this and did not make up his mind lightly. If we are not satisfied we are not entitled to go ahead. After very careful consideration we did not feel that the building reached the necessary standard and everything which has happened since then is quite apart from that main consideration. We did not think that the building was quite good enough. That was the reason why we did not intervene in the way in which the hon. Gentleman would have wished us to have done.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes to Five o'clock.