Hull (Operation Eyesore)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 10th January 1974.

Alert me about debates like this

10.33 p.m.

Photo of Mr Kevin McNamara Mr Kevin McNamara , Kingston upon Hull North

After the heat of the last few days I hope that we shall have a little water poured on the situation. In this short debate, to which I and my hon. Friends the Members for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. James Johnston) and Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) attach considerable importance, I hope that there will be a little bending by the Government and a realisation that an error of judgment has been made, so that we may go from this debate satisfied that our pleas are heeded.

The debate arises from "Operation Eyesore", an imaginative scheme introduced by the Government, when they were seeking to reduce their unemployment problems, to have a lot of local works carried out by local authorities. Hull Corporation seized this opportunity and submitted 34 schemes costing £192,528, of which £129,940 was to be found by the Government and the balance by the corporation. Most of this work was carried out by the corporation, and our constituencies are, as a result, much pleasanter places in which to live.

Indeed, I have a photograph, which I frequently show to the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), of the finest gilded equestrian statue of our late Sovereign, King William III, in Great Britain or even, I would guess, in the Six Counties. It was re-gilded as a result of the scheme. The general effect of the scheme in the city has been a considerable success. There were three schemes which were of particular cosmetic importance to the city, not costing a great deal of money. They were the schemes for the cleaning of public buildings, and they would have had a most beneficial effect on the appearance of the city centre and other areas.

The first scheme concerned Holy Trinity Church—the largest, in area, of any parish church in the United Kingdom, a church of cathedral proportions, a beautiful building with a unique history. Holy Trinity was to be cleaned at a final cost of £26,000—£5,500 being supplied by Hull Corporation, £16,500 by the Department of the Environment, and £4,000 by the appeals committee of the church itself, which has worked very hard indeed to raise money to improve the building.

The second group of buildings was in Queen Victoria Square, in the centre of my constituency—indeed, in the centre of the city itself. The buildings to be cleaned included the art gallery, the city hall, very find old docks buildings, and a statue of our late noble Sovereign, Queen Victoria. The total expenditure involved would have been £8,975, of which £4,232 would have been found by the Government.

The third building to have been cleaned was part of the Paragon Station, at a cost of £4,174, of which £1,044 would have been found by the corporation. All these schemes were presented well in time and were approved by the Department.

Work commenced first upon Holy Trinity Church, but then the trouble started. Because of the beneficial winter there had been a low rainfall. The spring, too, had been kind, and a serious water shortage developed in Hull, which meant that when the cleaning of Holy Trinity had barely started a ban was put upon the use of hose pipes. By this time, only the west elevation and most of the south elevation of the church had been cleaned. The remaining walls had still to be done.

It is particularly important that these walls should be cleaned, because the schemes for redevelopment in the area envisage the new buildings, in white stone, blending with the church, and the church will look an eyesore if it stands among them looking half unwashed. As the Hull Daily Mail said, Operation Eyesore looked like turning into "operation washout".

The Government were aware of the situation. On 24th April last, the corporation wrote to the Secretary of State explaining the difficulty. In May, he made a statement extending the period in which schemes under Operation Eyesore could be concluded, in view of the difficulties which local authorities had had, but none of them had the peculiar and unique difficulties which we in Hull had had due to the water shortage.

Again, in July, the Corporation, realising that the position was still serious, wrote to the Secretary of State explaining the problem, and it wrote again after the expiry of the whole of the scheme in October. It was some time before we got a reply.

The position is, therefore, that the principal church of the city is still only half washed. All the other main public buildings are unwashed.

On Friday 12th October the ban on the use of water was lifted. I have pursued the matter in correspondence and by Questions in the House. I have talked about the matter with the Secretary of State. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has appreciated the anomaly that the water shortage created and the difficult position in which Hull Corporation and the church authorities are placed. He has had his attention drawn to the problem by the Archbishop of York. Special problems are raised for the church authorities. They have to raise the money to complete the work if they do not receive it from the Government. We now know that because of the financial situation money will not be as readily forthcoming as it has been in the past for church restoration appeals. The money which the church authorities have already raised—or most of it—is covenanted money which comes in yearly as income. The authorities do not receive that money in a lump sum ; it is normally spent as and when it comes in.

I felt that the Secretary of State's reply of 14th November left a little hope. He said that he could allow grant only for work done before 10th May 1973. Only one of the projects had been started by that day. I presume he meant that it might be possible to get money for Holy Trinity. I do not know whether that is so, but it seems that it is a scheme which came into being as a result of Government initiative. The schemes were put up and the Government approved them. The money was voted and allocated by the corporation, the Government and the church authorities. That money is already in existence.

There was then a unique water shortage in Hull. It was without precedent in the rest of the country. The Secretary of State said in a reply to me that it was a unique situation. Surely this is a situation which unites all the Members for Hull and the hon. Member for Haltem-price (Mr. Wall) in asking the Government for assistance. The money has been voted. The workmen are available. The work has to be completed. We have done everything possible. Surely on this occasion the Government can say, "Go ahead, and we will find the money."

10.44 p.m.

Photo of Mr James Johnson Mr James Johnson , Kingston upon Hull West

I am glad to speak in the short time available, because I believe, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), whom we should all thank for initiating the debate, that Hull has had a shabby deal. The claim and the events of the past year are unique. I think that my colleagues and I have been shrugged off by the Secretary of State.

My hon. Friend mentioned the Archbishop of York. I have a confession to make: I am an old choir boy of the Anglican Church, and so I have a sentimental attachment to it. I have often been in the church, and I am one of the Members for the city. A clear outline of the situation has been given and there is little need for me or anyone else to give statistics—we should avoid tedious repetition. However, there is no doubt that the buildings, especially the church, are part of our civic heritage.

Hull is an old and dignified city. Its charter goes back to 1295. We have a fair which is older than the Goose Fair in Nottingham. The buildings are fine and they should be cleaned up, especially in view of past promises.

I have quite a file about this matter, but I shall not use it. I came into the matter some time ago when some people wrote to me, not least the chairman of the appeal committee, Sir Robert Payne. Yorkshire, especially the east of the county, has fine Norman churches. As well as York Minster, there is Beverley Minster and Selby Abbey. Our civic church is considered to be in the same category, although it is parish church.

The Committee got a good deal of the money towards the target. The church is now partly clean and partly covered still with the dirt and grime of centuries. It is very unsightly to those of us who pass it, or go inside. The cost of the job is about £19,000. I and my colleagues and the other people involved, who come from a wide range of classes, urge the Minister to look on the church as a special case. It is unique because of our local climatic conditions and the value of the city. It is something that the Minister should value personally.

I know that we have the Secretary of State's No. 2 here and I do not know how far he can speak for his right hon. and learned Friend. Not only did I write to him, as did my colleagues, but I saw him personally, and I have since had nothing but silence for weeks. I sent him a letter this week, and then got a telephone call today mentioning this debate and saying, "You may be interested." Of course we are deeply interested. There is some slight discourtesy here—how slight the Minister will have to judge.

I urge the Minister to give this matter sympathetic consideration.

10.58 p.m.

Photo of Mr Patrick Wall Mr Patrick Wall , Haltemprice

This is clearly a matter chiefly for Hull Members, but I should like to support the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), who put the case clearly. I have been in correspondence with the Minister on this matter for the past eight weeks, as have other hon. Members. I agree that this is a special case and would not create a precedent, so there would be no danger if the Minister made a concession for this church.

I fully support the views of my colleagues from the city of Kingston upon Hull. Like other people in the surrounding area, the people of Haltemprice take a great interest in this old church. I hope that the Minister will consider this matter sympathically.

10.59 p.m.

Photo of Mr Graham Page Mr Graham Page , Crosby

Hon. Members concerned have presented this case as special and unique. In that respect, both the Secretary of State and I have great sympathy with them. "Operation Eyesore" was introduce as long ago as February 1972. We call it that, but its proper name was the Special Environmental Assistance Scheme, and it had two aims.

The first was to provide employment. The second and more important from our point of view, was the aim of improving the environment. It was a tremendous success. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) said that it was a considerable success in Hull. I agree that it was a tremendous success in Hull. It was introduced on a short-term basis so that it was limited to the 16 to 17 months from February 1972 to June 1973. It was announced in February 1972 and local authorities were called upon by letters from regional offices to consider what might be done to create more employment by carrying out minor schemes of environmental improvement.

It was pointed out that grants similar to the derelict land grant would be awarded if local authorities applied for them. The grants would apply to work carried out before 30th June 1973 in development, intermediate and derelict land clearance areas. The rate of grant would be the same as is applicable to works for the reclamation of derelict land, that is, there would be a Government grant in intermediate areas such as Hull of 75 per cent. of the cost of the scheme for schemes completed by 30th June 1973. We estimated then that we would spend—local and central government—about £10 million. In fact, £35 million worth of schemes fell within that period and the total was over £36 million for England by the end of the extended period.

The period for completion was extended by an announcement by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment on 10th May 1973. It was extended to 30th September 1973. As a quid pro quo for the extension, my right hon. and learned Friend said that he would approve no further projects after that announcement and that projects would have to be completed by 30th September 1973 to rank for grant. Any project in Hull, to rank for the 75 per cent. grant, had to have an approval given on or before 10th May 1973 and be completed by 30th September 1973.

I said that "Operation Eyesore" was a tremendous success and it was. In the Yorkshire and Humberside region there were 3,800 projects completed worth £8 million. That was two-ninths of the total for England in that region alone. Hull had over 40 schemes completed, totalling £145,000-plus. Grant was paid on those schemes. Then Hull suffered the misfortune which has been referred to.

Three of the schemes were for cleaning up buildings. One was the Holy Trinity Church. Perhaps I may give the actual figures, because I do not think that they have been given accurately. The whole cost would have been £28,200. There was a contribution from the parochial church council of £4,000. The amount ranking for percentage grant would have been £24,200, which makes the 75 per cent. grant £18,150. That scheme was approved in February 1973.

It is interesting to note that the application was made on 12th February and was granted on 14th February. That was pretty rapid work by my Department and I pat my officials on the back for approving these schemes so rapidly so that those concerned could get on with the work. The Queen Victoria Square scheme was approved a little later and the Paragon Railway scheme a little later, both in about March 1973. The work on Holy Trinity Church started in March and then, unfortunately, there came the ban on the use of water. That ban came into force on 16th May 1973 when about £6,000 worth of work had been done to the church.

The ban was not lifted until after the extended period, after 30th September 1973. Incidentally, I should not like the House to think that that ban was imposed by the Government. The ban was in fact imposed by the Hull Corporation, which is the water authority. I do not say that it was wrong in doing so—it was probably quite right—but carrying out the work and the unfortunate ban on the use of water for cleaning buildings was the corporation's responsibility.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North started his speech by talking about a mistake or error of judgment by the Secretary of State. There is no question of a mistake or an error of judgment here. There had to be a limit to this scheme, and where one has to put a limit to grant-aided schemes, there is always someone who will fall on the wrong side of the line. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. James Johnson) said that he had been shuffled off by the Secretary of State and that there was some matter of discourtesy. I do not think that he could say that with sincerity and honesty. The Secretary of State has been extremely sympathetic, personally, in all discussions about this matter and it may be that the delay in replying was caused by his attempt to find some solution to meet the demands of the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Mr James Johnson Mr James Johnson , Kingston upon Hull West

The right hon. Gentleman knows that I am not the type to behave in the fashion that he has suggested: we have been long enough in the House for the right hon. Gentleman to know that. It is a fact that I not only sent a letter seven weeks ago, but that the Secretary of State also spoke to me. I was then told that I would get a letter ; the letter did not come.

Photo of Mr Graham Page Mr Graham Page , Crosby

As I say, this is a difficult matter, and it has been one to which the Secretary of State and I have tried to find a solution. When the request was first made for payment, I looked at the papers carefully to see whether there was any way of getting over the limit set to this grant-aided scheme. Because of the popularity of Operation Eyesore, there were many projects which local authorities wished to get into the programme but which, on a time basis, just failed to qualify. It happened that, as far as I could discover, there was no other scheme to which these circumstances applied. Work had been started and had been stopped by a ban on the use of water for cleaning buildings, and therefore completion had been impossible. I am dealing with the case only where the work had been started. I do not think that I can possibly hold out any prospect of a concession in the two cases where work has not yet been started.

With regard to Holy Trinity Church, we have looked at the case extremely sympathetically. Up to the time of the ban £6,000-odd had been expended. The Department had promised in September—this was before the time had run out—to pay £4,359, subject to the completion of the whole project by 30th September. When I came to look at that, I thought that it was reasonable to waive that condition and to leave that £4,359 there as paid. But that was as far as I felt I could possibly go in advising my right hon. and learned Friend to concede in this case.

One cannot help but be sympathetic in a unique case such as this, particularly in the case of a church of this kind. I was sympathetic to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West when he said that he was a choir boy in the church—I earned my education as a choir boy, and so I sympathise. But I think that we have gone as far as possible in the payment for the work which has been done up to the deadline. Strictly taking the rules as stated when the announcement was made about the extension of time, we ought not to have paid anything unless the scheme had been wholly completed.

It seemed reasonable, looking at the facts of the case, to allow the payment that had been promised to be made in September. But if we went further it would be difficult to stop the floodgates opening for so many other schemes which local authorities had been anxious to get in within the time and just failed to qualify.

I can only express sympathy and hope that the payment, or at least part of it—quite a substantial sum of £4,359—will be some satisfaction.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Eleven o'clock till Tuesday next, pursuant to the Resolution of the House yesterday.