South Bank (Future)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th December 1951.

Alert me about debates like this

2.22 p.m.

Photo of Captain Malcolm Bullock Captain Malcolm Bullock , Crosby

I am very glad to have the opportunity of raising the question of the future of the South Bank. The Festival is now over and the moths who were attracted by lights of the Skylon and the blaze of candles and electric globes have ceased to cross the bridge, and we must look very carefully to the future of the whole of the South Bank.

The Festival has made the people conscious of the beauty of both the river line and the sky line of London. Since the bombing of London we have begun to realise the harm which has been done to our city by bad planning and bad building, and each one of us now realises the great heritage that we have. I know quite well that our ideas for the South Bank must be divided into two parts—there must be the immediate future plan and the more distant future plan—but let us be very careful that those two parts merge into each other and that nothing is done in the near future to spoil the plan for the distant future.

In the lifetime of most of us here we have seen horrible things happen in London. Berkeley Square is enough to make those of us who knew the old Berkeley Square realise what can happen if there is not a proper combination between the Ministries and the councils and the opinion of the general public. We have seen Chesterfield House disappear, and we have seen Spencer House become an auction room. In those days the public were not conscious of their city, but what has happened to Apsley House, since the war, with the general approval of the whole of the country indicates that Ministries and councils are taking a different view of the acknowledged beauty of our city.

I want now to deal briefly with the near view of the South Bank. I am not clear where the powers of the London County Council end and those of the Ministry begin, but I know that both the Ministry and the Council have been very wise in appointing Mr. Hugh Casson to supervise the whole scheme. I believe that the Ministry and the County Council will be working together and that they will merge the near and distant views.

I believe that the near view is to plan the Embankment as quickly as possible with flower gardens, and perhaps we should retain the charming restaurant from which we have a unique view over London. I believe that that would pay if the food and the service were equal to the beauty of the view. In the near future I should like to see a scheme for an open-air swimming pool at the back of the flower gardens. I believe this would pay and it is not an impossible thing to have in the middle of a great city now that people know how to cleanse and disinfect the water.

Other great cities which are just as smoke-ridden as London have their open-air swimming pools. I believe that it would induce people to cross the river, for they would be able to swim in the open-air pool and eat in a restaurant in the middle of our city. We have nothing like it at the moment, and I should like to offer that suggestion to the County Council or the Ministry or their combined forces.

I would urge the Ministry to do away with all the Festival buildings. It is no good keeping something which was lovely when it was surrounded by lights and colour and there was the excitement of crossing the Bailey Bridge, dancing, music, and so on. It is no good attempting to keep the Skylon there or to retain the Dome of Discovery. The Dome is nothing to look at from the outside; it looks rather a monstrous brown mess. The lion and the unicorn comprised one of the most charming things in the exhibition, but they are quite unsuitable for a picture gallery, about which I saw a suggestion in the Press. Other buildings could quite well disappear.

I read in the Press a suggestion about moving the air terminal from Kensington to the station end of the exhibition. That seems to me an admirable scheme. Those of us who go to Kensington station know the difficulty and the expense of obtaining taxis there some distance from the Tube and it is important to be right on the Tube as we should be at the South Bank. The proposal would not interfere with the river front because the terminus would be very far back.

There is also a suggestion that an air terminus hotel should be built, financed by American money. There is a great need in this country for an air terminus hotel for the benefit of people who have to arrive late and leave early; it would be convenient for them to have such a hotel in which to spend one or two nights. I offer that suggestion to the Government.

I believe there is also a suggestion about building Government offices next to County Hall. We do not know what kind of offices are proposed. I believe that no architectural plans have yet been prepared, and I urge the Ministry to consider the advisability of not putting Government offices there. There are too many Government offices in the centre of London as it is, and there must be a great many which could be moved to the outskirts of London where they would be in a more suitable position than on the South Bank. If we have Government offices on the South Bank we shall have there a beehive with a great many small windows, and to go to the South Bank to see Government offices from the outside will be no attraction to people. I urge the Ministry to think twice before they go further with their scheme for an enormous block of Government offices next to County Hall.

There is also the matter of the exact placing of the National Theatre. The concert hall is one of the ugliest exteriors in London at the moment. I am not speaking about the interior, which is almost too perfect, but the exterior is a nightmare of a hangar in some very remote part of some very remote war. It is one of the worst things we have seen for a long time. This is the only permanent building, and we can only hope that the London County Council will have a better plan for the exterior of the concert hall than the impression which has been given.

It is proposed to put the National Theatre up against the existing bridge. I suggest that it should be moved further back, with a courtyard in front giving on to the Thames; otherwise, however fine the exterior of the concert hall eventually becomes, there will be two large blocks of buildings with a bridge in between. It would be very much better to move the site of the National Theatre further back, with an attractive river front and a courtyard adjoining the promenade. I ask the Minister to give this aspect his attention.

For many years there has been a question of a scientific centre in London and a university of technology. Does this come in the scheme for the future? It would be a fine thing if we could dispose of the Government offices and put them in a more suitable place, and devote a large portion of the South Bank to the scientific centre of England and the university of technology.

In planning the South Bank, we must think not only of what we know as the present South Bank, but we must remember that the future plan extends as far as Blackfriars Bridge. All that property which belongs to the Duchy of Cornwall is in the future scheme for a great South Bank, curling round towards St. Paul's. I do not expect my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to answer now for the future of the area between Waterloo Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge, but I ask him to keep in mind that the whole of the South Bank must be treated as one great river front and one great skyline. So many little things have been put into position which look very pretty and agreeable when they are there, but no thought is taken about what is on their right or on their left.

I should like to think that people will be attracted to go to the South Bank. People who are really musical will go into the concert hall because they like music, but those who merely like music will not be attracted by its exterior. Anyone who goes, for instance, to Stockholm may not like music very much, but one has only to see its most beautiful concert hall to be unable to resist going inside. Here, the position is exactly the opposite. One has to like music very much to cross the river to go over to what we have at the South Bank.

In the near-future plan, people must be made to get used, leaving out the Bailey Bridge, to cross to the South Bank. I am sure that if in the near-future scheme we have something which is attractive and easy to approach—my idea of a swimming pool comes in again here—thousands would get used to going to the South Bank. In this way, we should be helping the future of the National Theatre. My only criticism of the National Theatre is that people are not yet accustomed to crossing to the South Bank. If in the near future people are made conscious of the South Bank and of the beauty of the river from it, we will help the future both of the concert hall and of the National Theatre.

2.35 p.m.

Photo of Mr Marcus Lipton Mr Marcus Lipton , Lambeth Brixton

One must be brief in a discussion of this kind, but I say at once that we are all indebted to the hon. and gallant Member for Crosby (Captain Bullock) for his good fortune in having the opportunity of raising one or two very important matters concerning the future of the South Bank.

I cordially agree with the suggestion that the South Bank should not be used for the further construction of Government offices. The Parliamentary Secretary will know that the Ministry of Works have already undertaken very large commitments, amounting to many millions of pounds, in the provision of Government offices in other parts of London and in the Provinces; and it would be a great pity if this unique site at the South Bank were wasted by having Government offices built upon it.

What is the effect of building Government offices anywhere? During the daytime, they are more or less a hive of activity. At 5 o'clock in the evening, the place goes dead, which means that we should have a black uninhabited pile taking up space on the South Bank site.

What we should do in connection with the South Bank is to ensure that it is an attractive place for people to visit on summer evenings. That is why flower gardens ought to be provided along the river front. The restaurant that is already there should be continued and, if necessary, open-air restaurant facilities should be provided. The idea of a swimming pool is excellent. One further addition which I suggest is provision for open-air dancing during the summer evenings. This would attract the young people, and also the older people who derive pleasure from seeing the young folk enjoy themselves. Thus, without any unnecessary noise or glare, the South Bank could become a kind of social family centre for the large population of inner London, who, I am sure, during the summer evenings at any rate, would welcome the opportunity of going to the South Bank.

At London Airport, restaurant facilities have been provided. Visitors are en- couraged to watch the aeroplanes coming in and leaving. As has been suggested on other occasions, part of the South Bank could be used as a helicopter landing ground. That would be an additional attraction. Some kind of space should be reserved for it now, because helicopter services are bound to develop in the not too distant future.

It would be extremely valuable to have a helicopter station right in the heart of London, on a part of the South Bank set aside for that purpose. That would save a considerable amount of time that now has to be spent in going from the centre of London to one or other of the airports. With the helicopter station could be constructed an air terminal hotel, which would be a great boon to travellers and would save much time for those travelling to and from London by air.

The National Theatre will, I hope, in the not too distant future, be an additional attraction to the South Bank layout. I am not quite so sure about the wisdom of having a scientific centre, because that would mean, presumably, another large building which would be closed at night and would be a black spot on the South Bank in the evenings, unless, of course, some kind of attraction were provided in the centre which would induce people to go there in the evenings.

The Ministry has a unique opportunity in the development of what can easily become a centre of cheerfulness and recreation, besides being a great attraction to visitors to London from abroad and from other parts of the country. I hope it will make very good use of the unique opportunity which the South Bank now provides.

2.40 p.m.

Photo of Mr Henry Brooke Mr Henry Brooke , Hampstead

.As a member of the London County Council, I am not at all sorry that the proposed Government offices are having a rather rough passage in this debate. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Crosby (Captain Bullock) explained that he was not quite certain how much responsibility for future planning of the South Bank lay with the County Council and how much with the Government.

It was as long ago as March, 1947, that the London County Council agreed to grant a lease of all the land between County Hall and Hungerford Bridge to the Ministry of Works for Government offices; so that part of the matter rests entirely with the Ministry. The London County Council can express views, of course, but it has no longer any power there. I do not think that members of the Council generally would tear their hair or gnash their teeth if the Government announced that they were willing to reconsider their plans to put Government offices there.

Not much has been said about what I regard as the loveliest of the long-term plans for the South Bank—that is, the gardens which are to run all along the river front on the four acres of land which the new river wall reclaimed from the Thames. A colleague of mine on the London County Council, Mr. Coucher, put forward an inspiring suggestion, which I am glad to say has commended itself to the Council and the people of London generally. That was the suggestion that these gardens should form a permanent memorial to those people of London who gave their lives in the defence of London and the Empire in the late war, and that there should be a central feature, suitably placed, commemorating the fact. Those gardens will give great enjoyment and great beauty along that stretch of the river, when they are constructed.

Obviously one cannot lay out permanent memorial gardens in all their loveliness at the same time as demolition is going on just behind them. Consequently, for the time being what we have to aim at is getting that stretch along the river wall open to the public so that, as my hon. and gallant Friend said, people can become accustomed to going freely up and down the South Bank. I feel that by suitable co-operation between the Ministry and London County Council it ought to be possible to get a strip of land open there and pleasantly laid out and, I trust, screened from the demolition works and scarred and derelict land which is bound to remain for some time until the permanent development of the South Bank can take place.

My hon. and gallant Friend did not seem absolutely sure about the siting of the National Theatre. The other event which has taken place is that in July of this year the London County Council granted a lease to the Shakespeare Memorial Trustees of the land between the Festival Hall and Waterloo Bridge where the Shot Tower now stands. No one can tell when the National Theatre will be built, nor has anyone yet decided how far back from the river it is to be.

Some people have suggested that that is not the best place for a National Theatre at all, and others have asked that consideration might be given to placing a hotel on the riverside, on the ground that the enjoyment of the river would be enhanced more by people being able to look over it from the rooms of a hotel, than from a theatre where one wishes to look inwards, and not outwards. However, that matter is in the hands of the Trustees.

There are also the great financial questions of the future of the buildings, such as the Dome of Discovery; and, perhaps, of the Skylon. That is one of the reasons why I particularly welcome the debate, because the public have taken so little interest in the doings of the London County Council since the war that matters on which the Council has to express an opinion are often decided without any play of public thought upon them.

Photo of Mr Marcus Lipton Mr Marcus Lipton , Lambeth Brixton

The fault is neither with the people of London, nor the L.C.C. If the Press gave a little more space to the proceedings of the L.C.C., I am sure the public would be more interested.

Photo of Mr Henry Brooke Mr Henry Brooke , Hampstead

I entirely agree with the hon. and gallant Member, and the Press might have given more space if his right hon. Friends had given the Press more newsprint. The demolition of the Dome of Discovery and the Skylon and their erection elsewhere would obviously be extremely expensive. We want to know whether the public would wish to meet the heavy price for re-erection. That ought to be a subject for discussion in the Press and elsewhere.

I agree that as soon as possible those exhibition buildings which have no permanent value should be removed, but I also trust that it will be possible to work out arrangements between the Ministry and the London County Council which will ensure, not only that the amenities of the river strip are protected, but also that the approaches to the Royal Festival Hall can be made as pleasant as possible. It is clearly not only in the interests of the Council but of everyone that the Festival Hall should be freely visited, and one does not wish to have to pick one's way through puddles and around hoardings to get there.

The South Bank site strikes me as is setting for jewels in the heart of London. But the jewels are not there yet. I trust that the discussion here and in the Press, and among the public, will ensure that that setting is filled before long with gems, and not with paste.

2.49 p.m.

Photo of Sir Geoffrey Hutchinson Sir Geoffrey Hutchinson , Ilford North

We are all very grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Crosby (Captain Bullock) for raising this important subject this afternoon. It is quite clear that we cannot plan the South Bank site in the course of a debate lasting 45 minutes; but I am glad to note that the proposal for Government offices is not apparently one of the "jewels"—if I may borrow the expression used by my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Brooke)—which hag found much favour in our discussion.

There is one condition which is essential for the success of this project. It is essential that there should be secured a comprehensive and continuous overall architectural treatment of the whole of the river frontage from County Hall to London Bridge. Mr. Forshaw and Professor Abercrombie, in the County of London Plan, which made its appearance in 1943, made proposals which would have secured that purpose. They proposed that buildings should be set back from the river front in order to provide what they described as a continuous esplanade and that there should be gardens for the whole length of the river frontage from Westminster to London Bridge.

The only buildings which ought to be introduced into that part of the site which lies to the north of Belvedere Road should be the buildings which they described—I apologise for using an expression I do not very much like—as "cultural buildings," by which they meant the concert hall, National Theatre and youth centre and, I think, the swimming pool to which reference has been made, and some other things.

What stands in the way of the realisation of this great project? Here, I wish to address myself particularly to the Parliamentary Secretary. The main obstacle, is the proposal of the Ministry of Works to erect a vast block of Government offices on the site between Hungerford Bridge and the County Hall. If that is carried out it will make the comprehensive and continuous treatment of the river front an impossibility. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to tell us that that proposal is to be re-considered.

There is no time for me to elaborate the reasons why I say that this project of the Government will destroy the prospect of a continuous treatment of the river frontage from Westminster Bridge to London Bridge. But I think every hon. Member who has spoken has condemned this proposal, and I hope that my hon. Friend will hold out some assurance that it will be re-considered.

I am not so critical of the proposal to site Government offices on some part of the South Bank as some of my hon. Friends would appear to be. The County of London Plan contemplated that groups of offices should be placed between Belvedere Road and York Road and I think some of those offices were assigned to the Government. Therefore, if my hon. Friend is able to say that this project for the site adjoining the County Hall is to be re-considered it will not necessarily follow that a site cannot be found for the purpose that the Ministry of Works have in mind.

2.53 p.m.

Photo of Mr Arthur Molson Mr Arthur Molson , High Peak

We are all indebted to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Crosby (Captain Bullock) for having initiated a debate upon a matter of great interest to all of us who have a regard for the amenities and future development of London. The lay-out of Kensington is a reminder to us of the success of the 1851 Exhibition, and I am sure we are all extremely anxious that there should be something which will remind us of the Festival of 1951.

As my hon. and gallant Friend rightly pointed out, the future of the South Bank site must be considered from all points of view, both from the immediate stand- point and as regards the more remote future. About the more remote future I do not propose to say very much. That is a matter for the London County Council. They have prepared proposals, and it will be necessary for them to obtain the approval of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. Regarding the immediate future, the 27-acre site is the property of the London County Council who have made it available for the purpose of the Festival. My right hon. Friend is under an obligation to return the site to the London County Council, clear of everything which the County Council does not wish to retain. My right hon. Friend attaches the utmost importance to carrying out this obligation as quickly as possible.

"The Times" has published two special articles and a very valuable leading article in which they emphasised the ill-effects upon London as a whole, and upon the site in particular, if there is a long period of time in which the debris of the Festival is left lying about. It is because we feel that this is a matter of importance and urgency that my right hon. Friend and I had a meeting yesterday morning on the site with officials and architects of the Festival and representatives of the London County Council. It is intended that all decisions shall have been taken before 1st February in order that the work of demolition may begin at once.

While it is the intention to remove all the buildings as a general policy, there may be a few buildings which can be either retained upon the site or removed elsewhere. This matter has been considered between the London County Council and the Government Departments concerned. They have divided the site into a number of zones and have considered how each one of those zones could be developed, what buildings could with advantage be retained and which might be done away with as soon as possible.

First, there is the riverside walk to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. H. Brooke) referred. That is the responsibility of the London County Council. I understand they intend to open that walk as soon as possible, and, when what is taking place on the site permits, to lay out a memorial garden. I am sure they will take into account the suggestion of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Crosby about an open-air swimming pool for the people of London.

The rest of the site can be regarded as falling into two halves. There is the down-stream section between Hunger-ford Bridge and Waterloo Bridge which contains the Royal Festival Hall, the only permanent building among those put up for the Festival, the Shot Tower, the Tele-Cinema and various other buildings. The London County Council will consider whether it is worth while to retain any of these buildings for any purpose. There is the question of the Tele-Cinema. It has also been suggested that it might he worth while retaining the administrative offices against Waterloo Bridge for the Council of Industrial Design, but this would mean the expenditure of a large sum of money.

Photo of Mr Marcus Lipton Mr Marcus Lipton , Lambeth Brixton

Does that mean that the Shot Tower might come down?

Photo of Mr Arthur Molson Mr Arthur Molson , High Peak

I am not dealing with the Shot Tower. That has been bought by the London County Council and it is entirely a matter for them. I am referring only to the temporary buildings put up for the Festival and which we are under an obligation to remove, unless the London County Council is wilting to take them over. We understand that the London County Council is most anxious that this site shall not be left derelict, and intend laying out any part of the site which is not at present used, as a temporary garden.

The upper part of the site lies between Hungerford Bridge and the County Hall, and we shall take account of what has been said this afternoon when considering the use of that part. It was some time ago that the Ministry of Works agreed to take a lease of this site from the London County Council for a period of 200 years at a rent of £106,000 a year, for the purpose of erecting additional Government offices. Since that was done there has been the ban, imposed by the ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer on 27th July, on the building of any additional offices at the present time.

The House is sufficiently familiar with the present economic condition of the country to realise that there is no likelihood that the building of these offices will be undertaken in the immediate future. Whether or not it will ultimately be necessary to build these offices is a matter which will be considered, and which will naturally be considered, in the light of the speeches which have been made this afternoon. I do not think that a decision on that is likely to be reached for some considerable period, because, manifestly, nothing is likely to be done at the present time.

Photo of Sir Geoffrey Hutchinson Sir Geoffrey Hutchinson , Ilford North

Does my hon. Friend appreciate that, if these buildings are constructed, it may well be impossible to carry out the original proposal in the County of London "Plan for London"?

Photo of Mr Arthur Molson Mr Arthur Molson , High Peak

I do realise that, but that is not a matter which falls within the responsibility of the Ministry of Works. That is a matter for the London County Council and the Ministry of Housing and Local Government.

In the meantime, this area which is now leased to the Minister of Works will be laid out in the form of gardens or in some other way to preserve and increase the amenities of London, there are negotiations which, if successful, would result in British European Airways taking over Station Gate and using it as a substitute for their present terminal in Kensington, which it is likely they will have to leave in the near future. There is also under discussion the question whether or not that open space would be a suitable landing ground for helicopters. No decision has yet been reached upon that, and alternative suggestions have been made.

The London County Council have until 1st February to decide whether they wish to acquire any of the buildings. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison), in a recent speech, expressed the hope that the London County Council would acquire the Dome of Discovery and would remove it to the Crystal Palace and re-erect it there. We should naturally be very happy if the London County Council decided to do that. We believe that they share our view that the Skylon should be removed from its present position and that the Nelson Pier should also go. It is quite likely that the Rodney Pier will be retained.

The answer, therefore, to the questions that have been asked is that it is the intention of the Ministry of Works to carry out as quickly as possible its obligation of clearing the site. We have every reason to suppose that the London County Council will take the same view that we take—that this is a site which must not be allowed to lie derelict, and that everything must be done to preserve the amenities and to encourage people to go there, pending re-development of the site as a whole at a later time, when it is possible for such re-development to take place.