New Palace Yard (Car Park)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 22nd December 1972.

Alert me about debates like this

2.55 p.m.

Photo of Mr Marcus Lipton Mr Marcus Lipton , Lambeth Brixton

I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment for being here this afternoon and to the five back benchers who are present to listen to the debate. Looking at New Palace Yard, we realise that the Government are in a bit of hole. Therefore, it is not surprising that they should delegate the most amiable of their Under-Secretaries to deal with this subject.

I should like briefly to recapitulate the history of this enterprise. On 9th June last, there appeared on the Order Paper a non-committal motion headed "House of Commons (Services)", which read: That the Fourth Report from the Select Committee on House of Commons (Services) be now considered. The then Leader of the House moved that motion at 3.55 p.m. on a Friday afternoon. In the course of the very few minutes during which he spoke, he did not mention New Palace Yard or the car park; he merely expressed the hope that the House would agree to what the Services Committee had recommended. He did not say what the Cornmittee had recommended.

But for my vigilance on that occasion, in being able to get in a minute or two before 4 o'clock, that motion might have gone through on the nod. Indeed, when this matter first came before the House in June 1971, it was slipped through in a most ambiguous and covered-up manner.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Acton

I was present on the occasion my hon. Friend has mentioned. If he had not caught Mr. Speaker's eye, I think that I should have managed to raise this matter. However, I think my hon. Friend is wrong about the date. My recollection is that this matter first came before the House on 30th July 1971 when we had the Sixth Report from the Services Committee. I understand, and have checked, that that was put on the Order Paper the night before. Therefore, hon. Members had precisely two hours on a Friday, if they were here at 9 a.m., to consider it. The only way of stopping it would have been to ask the then Leader of the House to withdraw it or to talk for six hours to talk it out. Was not this a disgraceful way of accepting the principle of the car park which we were told last month it was too late to overturn?

Photo of Mr Marcus Lipton Mr Marcus Lipton , Lambeth Brixton

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The Government have been guilty of sharp practice all the way through, and I am glad that he made the point about what happened in 1971.

The Government have persisted in their desire to sneak the thing through without any public discussion. As they could not get their way at five minutes to four o'clock on Friday 9th June, they had to bring the matter up again at eleven o'clock on 13th June. By that time, certain Members had become alerted to what was going on, and, as a result, the right hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes) was able to make a valuable contribution to the debate.

The other day the Minister for Housing and Construction kept repeating that the original estimate was £2·2 million. If the Under-Secretary of State refers to the Sixth Report of the Select Committee on House of Commons Services in 1971, he will see that the estimated cost then was about £1·3 million. When we come to the Fourth Report which was the subject of debate in June of this year, we find that the estimate was slightly under £2 million. When we come to the debate itself, we find that the then Leader of the House confessed that the estimate was £2·2 million. I find it difficult to believe that that estimate will not be exceeded. Does it take into account the fact that there was a strike? Will the strike have no effect at all on the ultimate cost of this venture? I should like the Under-Secretary of State to give the most explicit and definite assurances on that.

What it boils down to is that at a minimum cost of £2·2 million—which is almost certainly to be exceeded—about 280 cars will be accommodated in five tiers below New Palace Yard. In any event, the capital cost for every car space provided will amount to thousands of pounds. The Minister said the other day that it would be only about £4,500. My estimate, for what it is worth, is that it is likely to be £6,000, £7,000 or perhaps £8,000.

Some very interesting figures have been extorted—not without difficulty—from the Department. Reports appeared that there had been a subsidence at the north end of Westminster Hall, and as a result of questioning—one had to ask twice for this—it was admitted that there had been a subsidence of 4mm, but it was said that a vertical movement of anything up to 25mm was nothing to worry about because that would not affect the stability of the structure. If that is the kind of estimate on which the Government are basing the stability of the structure—that it can subside to the extent of 25mm without giving cause for concern—they are being very optimistic.

I now turn for a few moments to consider the stability of Big Ben. We have known for some time—long before these works were embarked upon—that Big Ben is tilting in, I think, a north-westerly direction to the extent of several inches. In conditions of great secrecy, work was carried out to reinforce the foundations of the Big Ben tower. As a result of a Question I put, the Minister admitted in the House on 13th December that it had been decided to stiffen four piers which support the clock tower because a survey in 1971—that is, at least a year ago—had shown that the plaster and brickwork of two of them was cracked. The Minister went on to say, in reassuring terms, that the condition was not alarming and that the work in hand was not connected with the underground car park.

That is as may be. I just wonder whether the strengthening of the piers would have been carried out if the car park had not begun to be excavated. I do not understand how it is that the work on these piers, which were discoverd to be defective in 1971, was not started until fairly recently. I should like the Minister to say when the work was put in hand and when the job of strengthening the foundations for Big Ben will be cornpleted.

The whole situation is most unsatisfactory. Naturally, anyone interested in the matter views with great suspicion the Government's constant desire to avoid discussing it, to sneak things through without the knowledge or approval of the House. It was only in the OFFICIAL REPORT of the second debate on 13th June that the heading was changed from House of Commons Services to New Palace Yard (Underground Car Park). That change would never have happened but for the objections that had been taken to the methods employed by the Government to secure the approval of the House for the various stages that they had to go through.

I hope that others who will take part in this brief debate will probe to a greater extent than I have been able to do what is going on. I want to know to what extent precautions have been taken to prevent the River Thames from percolating into the car park, and what is the condition of the catalpa trees on the north side of New Palace Yard, which the Government promised would be carefully preserved.

Whether the whole project is worth while is open to doubt. The right hon. Member for Ashford was dubious about the whole thing when we last discussed it. It is Government policy to dissuade private cars from coming into the centre of London. Here, we are spending a few million £s to enable cars to come into London. A car park of the kind contemplated will lead to cars going in and out, and thus adding to the congestion in Parliament Square. As a result of the car park, the Prime Minister may have to walk between the House and Downing Street many more times in future. I must warn the Under-Secretary that some of us will continue to watch with a very beady eye the further processes of this enterprise.

3.8 p.m.

Photo of Mr William Deedes Mr William Deedes , Ashford

I am glad to be able to add a word to what the hon. Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton) has said on this subject. I think that I am entitled to support him to a degree, without accepting everything that he has said, and without appearing wise after the event. As he was kind enough to observe, on the night of 13th June, when the decision was taken—at an hour that some hon. Members now regard as unreasonable—I was present, and I joined the hon. Member in questioning the wisdom of what we proposed to do.

I then drew what seemed to me an important distinction between a proposal of a Select Committee and a decision of this House. A Select Committee with stewardship of our services, which this Select Committee had, cannot be justly attacked for making a proposal such as this. The House, which is accountable for everyone else's affairs besides its own, has a duty to view such a proposition in good perspective. It is our failure to do that that troubles me most.

I am not perhaps as deeply concerned as I should be whether there is a subsidence of Big Ben or whether Westminster Hall is sinking. I am not even concerned about the escalating—if it is escalating—cost of the project. What bothers me is the principle involved, on which, I think, we have proved ourselves at a loss. We have lamentably failed to put this project in good perspective. In the context of present times, this project submitted from anyone else might well have been regarded as, if not a blunder, something to postpone. Financially it is not easily defended, and administratively it raises a number of questions for which there are not satisfactory answers.

I accept the usual argument about Members of Parliament having tools for the job; that goes without saying. I do not believe that we improve our performance by rejecting the various amenities which are offered for the work. But the car park seems a very major item in terms of tools for the job. How does one square the perfectly justifiable protest of the Prime Minister about the condition of traffic in central London with this plan to construct, in the heart of the busiest traffic area, a sort of privileged snuggery for 500 motor cars? The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) asked this week whether this aspect of affairs had been considered. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State, whose Under-Secretary we are pleased to see present this afternoon, was at pains to explain a little earlier this week that attacks on his Department were out of place, and he said that his Department was acting on instructions of the House.

That is all right as far as it goes, but I doubt whether that argument would carry much conviction with the taxpayer. I doubt whether the taxpayer will see it in that light. Indeed, it illustrates the weakness of our position. The Under-Secretary will agree that, in respect of everyone else, such a proposition as this would have run the gauntlet of the Treasury and of possibly a Cabinet Sub-Committee. It would have been scrutinised by more than one corner of the responsible Department, and it would have run into our matchless machinery, unsurpassed anywhere in the world, for preventing people from building things.

In this instance, the proposition went through on the nod. There would have been no questions if one or two people had not raised their voices. In many people's minds, this must raise the question—if I may lapse from order briefly —" quis custodiet custodes?"—who is to look after the people who are supposed to be guarding public money? If we so misjudge a matter affecting our interests such as this car park, we cast doubts on our capacity to judge the needs of others and to control the financing of matters such as this.

This matter is now over the dam and we must suffer the consequences. My main reason for intervening in the debate is not to embarrass the Under-Secretary, the Government or anyone, but to ensure that this lesson now be taken to heart. We cannot again help ourselves in this fashion, not in 1972. The public will not readily comprehend an assembly which may, for instance, be widely critical—I am making no party point here—of something like the Civil List but passes this kind of proposition on the nod. The public will simply not understand that.

Before we come to the next proposal, which I suppose will be this folie degrandeur plan for the place over the road, we must ensure that any proposition we make for ourselves shall be subject to the checks and balances to which the propositions of others would be subject. I should like an assurance from the Under-Secretary not that that will happen—that would be an absurd assurance to ask of him—but that he will pass that on to other channels to ensure that in future in these matters we handle our affairs differently.

3.14 p.m.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Acton

I intervene briefly in the debate because I do not think that the right hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes) has quite perceived the point I made in my intervention.

It was not true to say that the principle of this matter went through on the nod on 13th June. It was put to us on that day that the House had already decided in principle that it should be so. The report which we were then discussing was a matter of increased costs and some of the details. It is true, however, that the matter did go through on the nod on 30th July 1971, and I fear that the culpability lies with the then Leader of the House or the people who advised him.

In the debate on 13th June 1972, reported at columns 1412–3, I rehearsed those circumstances in detail, and they have not been denied. The business for the week commencing 30th July 1971 as announced on the previous Thursday did not include the matter of the car park, which was to be put there in principle. It was added to the Order Paper late at night on Thursday 29th July, and, therefore, it did not appear in print for hon. Members to see until the Friday morning at 9 o'clock. At 11 o'clock on that day it was on the Order Paper and the matter went through on the nod.

I believe that this House is responsible for checking the Executive, but it is also the moral duty of the Executive, whether the Government or the Leader of the House, to make it clear that matters should be placed before Members in plenty of time. It was not so on that occasion. It was a dreadful lapse, not on the part of the House but on the part of those who should have a much higher regard for those who work to uphold democracy.

There are those who believe that the secondary schools in inner London should be rebuilt and that money should be allocated over four years for this purpose, the cost being equivalent to the cost of this car park. In terms of balance of expenditure, hon. Members and citizens of London should bear that in mind.

3.17 p.m.

Photo of Mr Reginald Eyre Mr Reginald Eyre , Birmingham, Hall Green

I thank the hon. Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton) for his kind personal remarks and would say how glad I am that he has chosen this subject for his Adjournment debate as it gives me the opportunity to inform the House of how the work is progressing.

I know, too, from Questions which the hon. Member and others have asked that there is a certain amount of anxiety over the effect of the workings on the stability of nearby buildings, particularly Westminster Hall and the Big Ben Clock Tower. I hope that what I have to say in amplification of answers already given on specific points will allay the fears which have been expressed on this score.

Finally, I should like to say a few words about the estimated cost of the project and to correct any impression which may be current that this has already been exceeded or that a substantial excess is likely to emerge before the end of the contract.

Before going on to deal with these matters, perhaps I should, however, say a word or two about the origin of this project and the position of the Government and, in particular, of my Department. As regards the latter point we do, of course, accept responsibility for the design of the car park, for its financing and for anything short of an act of God which occurs during its construction. But the decision to build the car park beneath New Palace Yard, its scale and, therefore, the general order of cost stem from recommendations of the Services Committee—I emphasise that the Services Committee has all-party representation, and its decisions, which are important, receive considerable publicity— going back to the Session 1967–68, which was endorsed by the House without a Division on this specific proposal in a debate which began at 3.55 p.m. on 9th June 1972, was continued at 11 p.m. on 13th June and ended at 12.34 on the morning of 14th June this year.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Acton

I think that if the hon. Gentleman looks at the report of that debate he will see that the Leader of the House said it was too late to deal with the matter of principle which had been dealt with in the previous year. It is all very well to say that we discussed it; we had then no power to reverse it.

Photo of Mr Reginald Eyre Mr Reginald Eyre , Birmingham, Hall Green

With respect, the hon. Gentleman is misrepresenting the position of the Leader of the House. If any hon. Member thinks that the car park is in the wrong place or that its whole concept is too costly or out of tune with current environmental concepts, he should consider what he was doing when the decision to go ahead was made without a Division. I am not, of course, implying that the hon. Member for Brixton was not here to voice his misgivings. He was here in customary strong form, as was my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes). I have no doubt that they will admit in turn that they did not move to bring about a decision. In those circumstances all Members of the House must collectively accept responsibility for the decision that was made.

The hon. Gentleman should also remember that the Government, and to be fair, their predecessors, and my Department neither actively promoted nor opposed this proposal. They were carrying out the instructions of the Services Committee as subsequently endorsed by the House. I stress that in matters of this kind my Department acts entirely as the servant of the House.

Turning now to more specific points which have been raised, I would say that in spite of the difficulties which are inevitable in a new project of this nature, especially one which has to be carried out in a restricted space such as New Palace Yard, surrounded by historic buildings and crossed daily by large numbers of people, including Members of this House, the work is proceeding as quickly as could be expected. We have, of course, had a delay of some six-and-a-half weeks during the strike which it has proved impossible to make up, and this means that it will be the end of January 1973 before any car parking spaces are available on the surface of the Yard. But we still hope to have the car park ready for use early in 1974, compared with the original estimate of late 1973. In the meantime, I take this opportunity of thanking all Members for the forbearance they have shown in the face of all the inevitable inconvenience, dirt, noise and turmoil outside.

The hon. Member for Brixton expressed his fears about the possible effect of the underground workings on the important and historical buildings in the neighbourhood when he spoke in the debate on the Select Committee's Report. He has also proved himself to be a vigilant and assiduous guardian of the precincts whilst the work has actually been in progress. My right hon. Friend has, of course, already answered some of his questions in usual form. These answers showed that there had been a very slight degree of settlement at the north end of Westminster Hall and that so far the Clock Tower has not been affected. To complete the picture, I should now add that there has been a very slight settlement in the canteen under the Grand Committee Room, on the west side of Westminster Hall, but that thanks to our monitoring system, which consists of a daily survey check on control points throughout the adjacent buildings, this, too, has been arrested in good time and appropriate remedial action is in hand.

The hon. Member will no doubt wish me to amplify these answers. First, let me make it clear that what really matters is the rate of movement, not its extent. If modern survey techniques had been available we should have found that all these buildings had moved continuously over the last century and a half. Moreover, the fact that there has been some movement since this work began in no way invalidates the advice given by my predecessor that the diaphragm wall technique being used prevents dewatering of the adjacent areas and avoids subsidence, and that it is also relatively silent and vibrationless compared with piling.

Hon. Members will remember that this advice was incorporated in paragraph 8 of the Services Committee's 6th Report for the Session 1970–71. The point about the slight settlement which occurred early in October is that in an effort to speed construction the large cylinder borings were begun concurrently with the sinking of the diaphragm wall. It was the vibration from this which caused the settlement. The cylinder borings were, therefore, stopped until the outer wall was complete, and since then the settlement has been arrested.

We have no reason to believe that now the diaphragm wall has been completed the soil outside the "box" will be significantly affected by workings inside it. I hope that this reassures the hon. Member about the north facade of Westminster Hall. Similarly, as regards the subsidence beneath the Grand Committee Room on the Cromwell Green facade; this occurred as a result of the vibrations caused by pile driving for a related but secondary structure outside the diaphragm wall. This is a two-storey plant house incorporated into the design at a very late stage in the development, which houses mechanical and electrical equipment, pumping plant for removal of surface water and an emergency generator. The position is, therefore, that the slight movements which have occurred were monitored at an early stage and that immediate steps were taken to rectify the situation, and I am advised that there is no need for alarm. I can, however, also repeat the assurances which were given in the past that we shall continue to watch developments closely, and we shall, of course, keep the House informed as necessary.

Hon. Members will, I am sure, appreciate that the structure of the Palace of Westminster has to be kept under constant surveillance quite apart from anything which may arise from the building of the car park. This is inevitable on a site of this kind where none of the buildings is new. Cracks appear from time to time, and when this happens my Department takes appropriate remedial action. Normally this is a matter of day-to-day routine which attracts no publicity.

The Clock Tower is a case in point. All hon. Members may not know that this is equipped permanently with a plumb line which at once indicates any movement. There has for a long time been an inclination of some 9½ inches to the north-west. This may either be due to the Tower having been built slightly out of plumb or it may have settled soon after construction. Between 1960 and 1968 a maximum settlement of one- eighth of an inch was recorded. Since then there has been no further movement. We shall keep a particular watch whilst the remaining cylinders are being sunk during January.

However, as I said, the structure is inspected regularly, and during one such inspection late in 1971 it was found that two of the piers had cracks in their brickwork and in the surrounding plaster. There are four piers altogether supporting the Clock Tower, and, whilst this condition, which has been dealt with successfully elsewhere in the Palace, was not alarming, it was thought sensible, in view of the stresses borne by them, to reinforce all of them by a concrete girdle. This has been done and the work completed at a cost of some £2,500. It is a normal item of routine repair in buildings of this age, but it is understandable that the coincidence of timing should have led to speculation that it might be directly consequent on the car park work, which it is not.

The cost of each car parking place in the car park, which will accommodate 500 cars on five storeys, is £4,450.

Flood precautions for the Palace as a whole are also continually under review by my Department. The main safeguard is the raising of the Terrace wall. The car park will have its own anti-flooding devices when it is completed. Any flooding during construction would be dealt with by pumping and would not constitute any additional risk to the surrounding buildings.

The catalpa trees are being protected, and so far as we can see they have suffered no damage from the works. However, they have already exceeded their life span of 80–90 years, and young trees are being held in reserve for when the present specimens die.

Finally, there is the question of cost. The hon. Member for Brixton recently asked whether we could confirm a Press report that the cost had already risen by about 50 per cent. above the original estimate of £2·2 million. He was informed that this was not so. I do not know where this report originated. However, I can say that the report is without foundation so far as my Department is aware. The contract for the work is what is known as a "firm price" one. This does not mean that there can be no variations. If the client asks for something unusual or additional to be done which was not anticipated when the contract was signed there have to be adjustments. But the normal hazards are fully covered, and I am advised, for example, that anything arising from the strike during the summer would be a contractor's liability. While, therefore, we may have to pay for minor additional items which arise during the course of construction, we have at present no reason to expect the total to be more than marginally affected.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford asked how it was possible to justify a snuggery for cars. The basic answer, which probably entered the minds of the members of the Services Committee, is that the hours of work for Members and officers in the Houses of Parliament are unusual. Some people would say that sometimes they were excessive. Members and officers regularly leave their work in the early hours of the morning after the public transport services have ceased. Therefore, there is a special need for Members and officers to have transport home.

To sum up, we share the concern of all other right hon. and hon. Members that these works, which were considered by the House as a whole to be essential, should not cause damage to the surrounding buildings. So far this is the case, and we shall take immediate action if we have any reason to believe it will change. Apart from the dislocation caused by the strike, the work is going ahead more or less at the rate expected and should be completed by the beginning of 1974; and the cost is still well in hand. We will gladly give the House further reports from time to time if they are needed. In the meantime, I hope that what I have said today will reassure both the hon. Member for Brixton and all other Members of the House.