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The House will be aware that a Motion was carried in another place last night by 22 votes to 18 in the following terms:
That in the opinion of this House no action should be taken to demolish or otherwise prejudice the continued use of St. James's Theatre as a theatre pending a decision on the matter by both Houses of Parliament.
I thought it right to invite Mr. Fenston, believing him to be the present owner of the theatre, to come and see me today, in order that I might communicate to him officially the terms of the Motion carried in another place.
I must make it clear to the House that nothing can secure the continued use of St. James's Theatre as a theatre unless the owner is willing to have it used as such, or is willing to sell it to someone who will so use it.
Is it not a fact that the right hon. Gentleman has the power, if he wishes to use it, to preserve this theatre? Does he not recognise the widespread support there is for this campaign to save the theatre, and the many offers of financial help, including one from his right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill)? Will he not, even at this eleventh hour, recognise his public duty and alter the decision that he has reached? How can he ignore the decision of another House, expressed in very clear terms, merely because it was carried against the advice of the Government?
The action that I could take would be to direct the London County Council, as planning authority, to revoke the planning permission which it gave. That, of course, would not in any way secure the continuance of the St. James's Theatre in use as a theatre. The present owner could turn it into a cinema or to other uses, so that it is a complete error to suppose that all this turns on the revocation of the planning permission. The revocation would, of course, involve a substantial sum by way of compensation, and I explained the position in an Answer that I gave yesterday to my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Teeling).
I am not sure whether the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. K. Robinson)is asking me to make a building preservation order under the Town and Country Planning Act. A building preservation order can be made by the planning authority or, in default, by the Minister, but it is my duty under that Act to take expert advice, and I have an Advisory Committee on Buildings of Historic and Architectural Interest. That Committee has expressed the view to my predecessor that this is not a building that deserves to be put on the statutory list. In those circumstances, I do not think that I would be right to reverse the decision that I have already announced to the House.
The Minister will surely not deny that, if he wants to use it, he has the power to get the London County Council to revoke this licence. The question that we want the Minister to answer is this. In view of the decision of the House of Lords yesterday, and of the undoubted fact that practically all the people in this country who are interested in the welfare of the arts are most anxious to preserve this theatre, will he approach Mr. Fenston and express to him not only the decision of the House of Lords but the general desirability that, if possible—and if the money is available that appears to be available, and on which the whole question of preserving and maintaining the theatre hinges—the theatre should be preserved?
If I were to direct the London County Council to revoke its planning permission, that would, of course, involve the payment of a substantial sum by way of compensation, half of which would fall on the ratepayers of London and half on the general taxpayers. But it would by no means preserve the St. James's Theatre for use as a theatre. That would depend on the action of the owner.
I should make it clear that I acted quickly in this matter. I have already seen Mr. Fenston.
Does not my right hon. Friend admit that this, by universal agreement, was got through by a slip—a mistake—and that, in fact, there is no reason why a similar set of arguments should not be adduced in favour of demolishing the whole of this quarter of London? There are many, or several, small buildings, that give character to that part of London, that are of no particular architectural or historic interest in themselves; yet the destruction of them would greatly alter the character of that part of London. Is it not desirable that this piece of rank bad planning should be revoked?
As to other theatres in the West End of London, if my right hon. Friend is referring to them, my predecessor has already written words into the London Development Plan which will ensure that a decision on a planning application which would have the effect of converting a building now in use as a theatre to offices, or demolishing a theatre for the purpose of building an office, will not be reached until the matter has been fully ventilated.
But I must emphasise to my right hon. Friend, whose sympathies in this matter I fully understand, that the problem would not be solved by the revocation of planning permission. The problem will be solved only if the present owner is prepared to decide to keep the theatre in use as a theatre or, alternatively, is willing to sell it to a purchaser who will do that.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the interior of this theatre, as is the case with many other London theatres, does not come up to the requirements of those who pay to listen to the actors who are now causing widespread agitation for their own publicity?
Is the Minister aware that there are a good many of us on this side who agree with his resistance to the pressure being put upon him? Is he aware that the London County Council is a popularly elected public authority of considerable magnitude and importance and that it has taken all the matters into consideration, including the consequences that he has mentioned? Would it not be a serious thing for this House to press the Minister to over-ride an elected local authority that has taken all the considerations into account? How long has it been the practice that Members of this House of Commons, the supreme House of Parliament, should urge that a decision of another place, on a private Member's Motion, should determine the action of the Government?
Mr. Speaker, I have sought to be completely frank with the House. I am the Minister responsible, and it seemed right to communicate the decision of another place as rapidly as possible to the present owner of the theatre. I have, in addition, answered the Private Notice Question which was put to me, and I have explained as clearly as I can the position as I see it. I stand by what I have said.
Is my right hon. Friend not aware that that piece of rank bureaucratic complacency which we have just heard from the right hon. Gentleman opposite is exactly the sort of thing which makes us distrustful of the judgment which has been arrived at—[An HON. MEMBER: "Get back over the Border."]—and that if it were not for us provincials coming down here the prosperity of London would be very much less than it is? This is exactly the case where the provincials desire to rescue London from the unfortunate consequences of its bureaucratic officialdom.
Is it not a fact that, despite the safeguards that now pertain due to the action of the Minister's predecessor, there is literally nothing that can prevent the owner of a theatre pulling down his theatre and leaving an open space until the pressure of the ulginess created will force the London County Council to allow the owner to build again?