Orders of the Day — Festival of Britain (Supplementary Provisions) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 23rd November 1949.

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Photo of Mr Francis Noel-Baker Mr Francis Noel-Baker , Brentford and Chiswick 12:00 am, 23rd November 1949

I am sure the House will have listened with attention to the speech, particularly to the last point, made by the hon. Member for Tonbridge (Mr. G. Williams) and I would like later to say something which bears on the same point. Had it not been for your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, I should have wanted to mention a number of other connected matters which are not specifically mentioned in the Bill, but, in view of your Ruling, I shall not detain the House for more than a few minutes.

I must start by saying that, of course, my enthusiasm for this project would have been a little greater had the county mentioned been Middlesex and not London and had the park been Chiswick Park and not Battersea Park.

I turn now to the more serious side of the Debate, and say quite frankly that I have been very much shocked and surprised by the dismal gloom coming to us from the benches opposite. I hope that at least the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter), when he winds up for the Opposition, will do us the favour of telling us precisely what is the policy of himself and his colleagues on this matter. We are getting used to the idea that they do not have clear views on major issues, but we felt that on this issue at least they might speak with a united voice.

Is the policy of the Opposition that which we heard from the right hon. Member for Southport (Mr. R. S. Hudson), that he approves of the Festival, but disapproves of the Battersea Park scheme? Is it represented by the views of the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. R. A. Butler) and the right hon. and gallant Member for the Scottish Universities (Lieut.-Colonel Elliot)—and may we ask why they are not present at this Debate? I understand that as members of the Council of the Festival of Britain they have made no objection whatever to the scheme we are discussing at present. Is their absence explained by the fact that the right hon. Member for Southport warned them of what he was going to say and that they thought it wiser and more discreet not to be here?

Or is the policy of the Conservative Party that of the hon. Member for Wood-bridge (Mr. Hare), who wants this scheme but not in its present form, or of the hon. and gallant Member for Macclesfield (Air-Commodore Harvey) who wants a Festival of Britain, but of an entirely different kind from that which we have been discussing in this and previous Debates? Finally, is the policy of the Conservative Party that which we have heard very often from the hon. Member for Orpington (Sir W. Smithers)—who is absent and has been missed in this Debate—who has persistently said he does not want any Exhibition, or Festival, or any celebration at all? We might be told by the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames precisely what is the official view of the Opposition on this question.

I was interested in some of the criticisms in the speeches from hon. Members opposite, because they remind one very forcibly of many of the things which were said 100 years ago, when the Prince Consort and his friends had critics of the Exhibition held at that time. One hon. Member, who sat on the benches opposite 100 years ago, complained about the holding of the Exhibition in Hyde Park and said that people living in the area would be well advised to keep a sharp look out after their silver spoons and the forks … and their maidservants and went on to make a number of violent complaints about the way in which the tone of that area would be lowered. The criticisms were so extraordinary that the King of Prussia apparently took fright and wrote asking the Prince Consort whether it would be safe to allow his relatives to visit the Exhibition. The Prince Consort replied as follows: Mathematicians have calculated that the Crystal Palace will blow down in the first strong gale, Engineers that the galleries would crash in and destroy the visitors; Political Economists have prophesied a scarcity of food in London owing to the vast concourse of people, Doctors that owing to so many races coming into contact with each other the Black Death of the Middle Ages would make its appearance as it did after the Crusades; Moralists that England would be infected by all the scourges of the civilised and uncivilised world; Theologians that this second Tower of Babel would draw upon it the vengence of an offended God. The Prince Consort finished his letter by saying: I can give no guarantee against these perils, nor am I in a position to assume responsibility for the possibly menaced lives of your Royal relatives. I hope that when my right hon. Friend replies he will be able to give a slightly more encouraging answer to some of the criticisms levelled today than the Prince Consort was able to give to the King of Prussia a hundred years ago.

Turning to the Bill itself, I am sure that, the great majority of Londoners and the great majority of future visitors to the Exhibition will welcome both the gardens and the fun fair. I hope the gardens will be of the very highest quality we can produce in this country. I think it is clear from the names of those who are to supervise the work that they will be. I hope they will be an encouragement to boroughs, organisations and private people all over England to vie with the gardens at Battersea in brightening up their own parks, their own streets and their own gardens. I hope something of the work done all over England and in relation to the landscape gardens in Battersea Park will brighten some of the drearier parts of this country for many years to come.

Perhaps because I have not reached the age and discretion of some hon. Members, I also hope that the fun fair will be a very good fun fair. I hope there will be big roundabouts and switchbacks which run at great speed and "dodgems" and other things which I enjoy and which I am sure many other people, having seen the more serious exhibits on the site on the South Bank, will also want to enjoy. Although it is only to be a small feature, I am sure some of my hon. and right hon. Friends, whom I once saw disporting themselves in a similar establishment, will share my point of view.

I was interested in the points made about Kew Gardens by the hon. Member for Abingdon (Sir R. Glyn), to whom I always listen with very great respect, and the hon. Member for Tonbridge. I would put in a local plea, although it is not only local, that if we are to have piers higher up the river, there should be one at Chiswick. I dare say some of my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench have heard me express the hope before, but I repeat now that I hope that Chiswick will play a part in the Festival of Britain. I am sure my constituents would welcome an extension of the river bus service up the river and I very much hope that a pier will be provided for them. Might I also suggest that if the water buses are to run up the river past Battersea Park, it would be well worth considering extending the service down the river so that visitors should not only be able to see the Maritime Museum, but also have an opportunity of making tours around the Port of London. The Port of London is unique in the world, and is a very vital part of our life and economy; and such a facility would be welcomed by many visitors, not only from foreign countries, but from other parts of Great Britain as well.

In this Debate, a great deal has been said about the financial aspects of the Festival. The hon. Member for Ton-bridge could probably, if he had reflected, have answered most of the questions he put, which I expect will be dealt with by the Lord President of the Council. It is quite clear that the Festival, and the particular part which we are discussing now, are not going to show a profit; but it is equally clear that it will give a stimulus to the tourist trade, and should also give stimulus to our export trade which, in the end, will make this venture a very sound financial effort. After all, it has always been the purpose and achievement of exhibitions of this kind in other countries to give a great stimulus to industrial and business activities of the countries concerned. Concerning the finances of the Festival Garden in Batter-sea Park, may I ask my right hon. Friend to think again and, if during 1951 this venture is a great success and looks as if, if it were extended for another 12 months or so, it would recover the losses, to consider keeping it open for a few more months. It may be that visitors to London will have become used to the new amenities of Battersea Park and will enjoy them, and that an extension of the fair for another year or two might help to meet the deficit which is expected.

I am sure that the great majority of people in this country welcome not only the proposal we are discussing but the great effort of which it is a part. We look forward to a time when we can not only show the rest of the world what we have achieved during the past hundred years, but when we can look around and enjoy ourselves a little also. I do not believe that the charges of extravagance which have been made can be sustained, and I am sure that when the Exhibition is over, the critics who have today been attacking my right hon. Friends will feel very much as the critics who attacked the Prince Consort a hundred years ago felt, after the overwhelming success of the first Great Exhibition in 1851.