HC Deb 12 December 1969 vol 793 cc881-92

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

4.11 p.m.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon (York)

On a point of order. I assume, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, for the purpose of allowing the Minister time to reply to the debate, that I have 30 minutes for the debate and not 20 minutes.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: (Mr. Sydney Irving)

According to the Standing Order the House will have a 30-minute debate on the Adjournment.

Mr. Lyon

I wish to raise a matter of considerable importance to my constituents, but a matter which, in the eyes of the House, and against the national issues in which it might be involved. may seem to be comparatively trivial. It has become a test case for the Government in their attitude to regional development generally because the issue has been seized upon by a number of interested persons and bodies to determine whether the capital city is to be the only city in the country which is a proper place to house a national museum.

The story arose in this way. About 1928 there was established in York the first railway museum in the country under the aegis of the old L. & N.E.R. No other museum of railway exhibits was established in this country until after the war. As I understand, the museum in Swindon came into existence about 1957, but there was none in London until 1962. As I understand the speech of Lord Robertson. in another place, in a recent debate, it was because of his influence and the influence of another chairman of British Transport Commission that it was decided to create a more fitting place in London for old railway and transport exhibits.

Thus came into being the Clapham Transport Museum. In my view, it was always doomed to failure, because the site was badly chosen. It was an old London Transport station and had no rail connection. As a result, moving the rail exhibits in and out and moving them about the museum is a matter of considerable difficulty.

When the future administration of British Railways was considered in the 1967 White Paper on Transport, the question was raised whether a national railway should have placed upon it the burden of maintaining these museums. Of the three, only York made a profit. The others were making a loss, and Clapham a substantial loss. Accordingly, British Railways properly said, "We cannot have that added to our deficit."

As part of the agreement, preparatory to bringing in the Transport Bill which later became the Transport Act, 1968, it was agreed that these museums would be transferred, the Swindon Museum to the Swindon Corporation, in whose building it was housed, and the other two to the Department of Education and Science. That was not done from pique or in a fit of the moment by my right hon. Friend. It was done after very careful consideration by a sub-committee of the Steering Committee on Transport.

On that sub-committee were represented not only the Ministry of Transport and the Treasury, but also the Science Museum, the Public Records Office and the Department of Education and Science. After careful scrutiny of the provision for railway museums, they came to the conclusion that they were unsatisfactory and that certain tests should be applied for the creation of a new one.

They decided that it would be possible to provide another new museum by selling the sites at York and Clapham and thereby producing a sum of about £500,000, out of which another building could be either built or converted, either in London or elsewhere. At that stage, they clearly did not have in mind that the site would necessarily be outside London. The decision was entirely open. It was, however, clear that from £500,000 there would not be the money to provide a completely new building.

They therefore looked around the country for suitable buildings, in and out of London, and came to the conclusion that the best of all was an old motive power depot in York. Since York already had the first museum, a museum which was paying its way and not suffering a loss, was part of an old railway centre and was, in addition, in a city which is known throughout the world for its buildings and is a tourist centre—the immense potential of which for tourism has only just been tapped and is now more vigorously exploited—it was clear that it was a sensible decision to site the museum in York.

I therefore come to the first point which I wish to raise, and I shall leave my right hon. Friend the Minister of State enough time to reply to her critics. Is it right that there should be only one museum? The answer is that, in theory, it is not right. There ought to be as many museums as can be filled by the exhibits available, and there are enough to fill many. The fact is, however, that we do not live in a vacuum. We are living against a tight rein of public expenditure over the next five years, for which the allocation for musuems has already been made.

Therefore, when some of my right hon. and hon. Friends who are interested in this matter tell me that there should be two museums, I suggest to them that they should look at the recently published Government White Paper on public expenditure over the next five years and see from that where the Department of Education and Science will find something like £1 million for the provision of a new building. It it simply pie in the sky. The money is not available, and, however much pressure is applied, it will not be available. When the Department has to find new ways of paying for the increase in university expansion, comprehensive education and the raising of the school-leaving age, it is inconceivable that it will also squeeze from the Treasury another £1 million for a new museum. Therefore, desirable as it may be in principle to have more than one museum, there is not the money for more than one.

I turn to the bigger question: if there is to be only one, must it be in London? This takes the question right out of the realm of a mere constituency matter and outside the realm of a mere transport matter, for this is a basic question of principle for the Government. If the Government are to say that the only meaning of regional policy is to provide a few Government-built factories in the regions, the regional policy is doomed before it begins. We have not only to move people from the South-East back into the regions to keep the regions as much alive as they should be, we have not only to build an infrastructure of roads and railways, but we have to build an infrastructure of civilised amenities. This is the test.

If the decision had gone the other way and there was to be only one museum but it was to be in London and not York, I wonder whether the Transport Society would have protested that York was losing its museum. I wonder whether Lord Montagu would have staged a special debate in the House of Lords. I wonder whether many ex-Chairmen of British Railways would have protested. Of course they would not. This is only because in the thinking of the Establishment London is predominant and if there is any kind of invasion of London's preeminence it has to be attacked with all the force that London can command, including the leader columns of The Times and, if need be, by the husband of the Queen herself.

If the Government were to go back upon their decision to send this museum to York, every hon. Member from the region ought to be up in arms. This has now become the test of the Government's sincerity. If we cannot get a mere transport museum out of the clutches of Metropolitan predominance in this country, if we cannot find in York with all its vast potential a suitable place as an alternative to London. how are places such as Birkenhead, Sunderland and Wigan to share in the good things which have gradually been accumulated in London?

Why is it that London has four orchestras, none of which can be made a paying proposition, but so many of the regions have no orchestra? Why are so many art exhibits concentrated in the large number of art galleries in the centre and never seen in provincial centres? Why is so much of the theatre controlled and dominated by the West End? Why is it that when the Arts Council gives the grant Covent Garden is so preeminent? This is only because there is imbued in the mind of those who make decisions the feeling that it must be in London and that if anything is left it can go somewhere else.

There was a part of the speech by Lord Montagu in another place which got to the bottom of this question. He said that the; Clapham Museum— is in fact being destroyed and dispersed; and no equivalent museum is to be set in its place."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, 2 December 1969; Vol. 306, c. 77.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Member cannot quote from the speech of a Member in another place unless it is a Ministerial speech.

Mr. Lyon

In those circumstances I say that the noble Lord inadvertently suggested that the museum was being dispersed. It is not being dispersed but moved lock, stock and barrel with the exception of a number of railway exhibits, a very limited number, to York.

The London Passenger Transport road exhibits could also be moved if the London Board had agreed. By 1974 there will be another building available alongside the motive power shed which could easily house the road exhibits, if they were free to come. However, the Government do not control those exhibits; they are controlled by the London Transport Board and, therefore, by the G.L.C. now. If the G.L.C. was willing to allow them to come, I would press that they should be kept together in one museum. They are not. It should not be blamed upon the Government that that is so.

Apart from that, they are not being dispersed. The assumption that they are being dispersed, and to some barren corner of England, is the kind of arrogance on the part of Lord Montagu against which I protest as being typical of the whole administration of this project.

4.25 p.m.

Mr. Edward Lyons (Bradford, East)

I rise to make it a pride of lions.

It is my pleasure to support all that has been so ably said by my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon). York has shown excellent taste in choosing my hon. Friend as its Member. There is no reason to doubt that it will show equal taste in extensively patronising the National Transport Museum.

I speak not only for the regions, but also for Bradford. I have been asked by the Town Clerk, on behalf of the Council of Bradford, to support my hon. Friend in his argument. I gladly do so. I speak also on behalf of the children of Yorkshire, including my own. Where will they go on a rainy afternoon if we cannot take them to the Museum at York? Every year 150,000 people attend it.

The wealth of England often comes from the smoke and grime of areas outside London, but the wealth of England is so often spent in London. Consequently, there is a feeling in the North that the people there are at a discount, that they are wild and savage people living in a northern clime. I know of one lady who, when she came from London to visit her daughter who had married a Yorkshireman, brought with her tins of tomato soup in the belief that they were not sold in Yorkshire. That is a true story.

What we want in Yorkshire is to be recognised as people who have a taste for culture and want the infrastructure of culture to which my hon. Friend referred. I have a good deal of confidence that this Labour Government will recognise that call from an area where their most devoted supporters live. I am confident that the Government will recognise that call, guided, as they are, by the wise and right hon. Lady on the Front Bench.

I add my support for this excellent project. I am sure that it will do well in York. The York Museum has always paid its way. It brings to the North the flavour of past and dying ages. It stimulates the imagination and the appetite for learning of its children. It would be a tragedy if the people of Bradford, Leeds and other West Riding towns were denied the opportunity of continuing to enrich themselves by attending it.

4.28 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Miss Jennie Lee)

I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for York (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon) and for Bradford, East (Mr. Edward Lyons) for raising this important subject today. The subject is important not only for itself, but also, as has been made clear, because of the relationship between London and the rest of the country.

We all know that Clapham is wholly unsuitable to be the headquarters of a National Transport Museum. It has no internal mobility. It is not connected with the railways. It has no possibility of external growth. Therefore, although we dislike taking anything from children anywhere, no case could be made out for retaining Clapham as the centre of a National Transport Museum.

The money available is roughly £½ million from the sale of the sites at York and Clapham. For £500,000 it is impossible to build a satisfactory purpose-built transport museum. Therefore, we had no alternative but to look around to see where we could find an existing building that was suitable for conversion.

There is not the slightest shadow of evidence to support the case made by some Londoners that London claims were not fully considered. They were not just fully considered; they were exhaustively considered, as were other parts of the country. I would remind hon. Members that when the case for Clapham was dismissed, St. Pancras Station was also advocated, but those who did so forgot to inform themselves that this was not available. It will be used by the Railways Board.

Then suggestions were made about Woolwich Arsenal and Alexandra Palace, but these are not rail-connected. One of the most recent suggestions has been for a new building at Nine Elms. Apart from the cost of a new building, which I have already said is out of the question, the space shown in a sketch of the Nine Elms plan which was sent to my Department by the Secretary of the Clapham Society shows an area of only 35,000 sq. ft. on the ground floor, and the large exhibits must go on the ground floor. It is just "not on". There is not a single London project which has been brought to our notice which would satisfy our needs.

Just as London's claims have been seriously considered, so, too, have the claims of other parts of the country, and we are satisfied that the best available site is that which is being offered in York. York has many advantages, as my hon. Friend has outlined. It is a beautiful city. It is an old railway centre. It is a tourist centre, and the new museum will be sited close to the station. This building will not only be connected by rail, but it will have two internal turntables which will make it easy to carry out rearrangements of the exhibits as new material arrives in the future. It will also help maintain the authentic atmosphere of what is essentially a railway building.

Hon. Members may be interested to know that above floor level there will be a gallery on which some of the smaller exhibits will be shown, and this will also provide a vantage point for a general view of the larger exhibits on the main floor below. Another interesting feature is that the inspection pits over which some of the locomotives will stand will allow opportunities for a view from below, which has probably never been possible in a museum before.

The layout has been carefully worked out. All the locomotives and rolling stock at present in the Clapham and York museums can be accommodated, bar two. So there ought to be no more talk about our dispersing a national collection. York will be adequate for all but two, and for those two we can find excellent homes.

Like Clapham and the existing York Museum, the new museum will cover the whole field of railway history. It will have its social side. It will be involved in all the technical aspects. It means that we now have the possibility of building up a first-class living museum and it must not be forgotten that the Railways Board will have a duty to offer to my Department free of charge all interesting redundant material as it goes out of service. It will only be if the Department decides that it is not required for the York Museum, that the board will have a right to dispose of it. This is an important additional safeguard which has riot been in operation before.

There should be plenty of room at York, also, not only for the present but for future needs. In the plan being prepared, 83,000 sq. ft. of space is being provided for the exhibits. In addition, if no convenient site for expansion can be purchased from the Railways Board, it will be possible to extend the museum over the area allocated for use as a car park, and other arrangements will then be made to provide parking space.

My hon. Friend the Member for York referred to leading articles in The Times. I draw attention to a paragraph in what I thought a most interesting article in the Sunday Times of 20th July. The writer said something which is true: The provincialism of the capital is neatly caught in the belief that nothing provincial can be national"— and he went on— If any honour at all it to be paid to the principle that life beyond the borders of London has the same value as life within them, the case of the Transport Museum seems as good a place to start as any". That brings me to the other aspect of this matter which my hon. Friends have stressed. London is a wonderful city. Our Government deserve credit for having sustained its great museums and galleries not just as well, but better than they have ever been sustained in the past. But, just as we are concerned about London, we are concerned that there should be high points of excellence in other parts of the country.

I notice that the East Midlands Economic Planning Council, in its annual report published this year, had this to say about opportunities in the East Midlands: Economic planning must be directed towards a rewarding life and not merely to the creation of wealth; and even within the narrowly economic field, prosperity must be largely dependent on the provision of an attractive and stimulating environment in which to live and work. I assure the House that the decision to make York the centre of a great National Transport Museum has not been taken lightly or without full consideration. We consider that this is the best site possible. We know that it has all the potential for future development. Also, we must listen to the voice of representatives in this House from other parts of the country. We like to think of a future Britain in which the best will be available, not just in London but even in the remotest parts of our country. We cannot have a balanced economic life in Great Britain, we cannot have the well being, cultural as well as economic, which is within our reach, unless we marry cultural opportunities with economic opportunities.

We keep these regional considerations in mind. Indeed, the decision to have this great museum at York is in line with obvious future developments. There will be those who want a museum for coal mines and those who will want a museum for steel. I see my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) in his place. He could not possibly have a museum for steelworks in London. There will be those who want a museum for the cotton industry—and why not?

Those museums of the future, as the present industrial age with its dirt and grime vanishes, will obviously wish to concern themselves not just with the material environment but with people. So vast spaces will be needed. It is nonsense to assume that we could have one vast transport museum for all forms of transport. We have already taken away the waterways from Clapham, because it was impossible to keep them together.

In the future, I see London not only maintaining its present glories, but enhancing them, and at the same time I see wonderful possibilities in all our other great cities. I am entrusting this great project to York not only with hope but with confidence. I am sure that all its citizens will take pride in seeing that it is the great museum which we are certain it can become.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes to Five o'clock.