Skyline Protection

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 16th March 1977.

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4.29 p.m.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack , Staffordshire South West

I beg to move. That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the protection of skylines of historic interest or outstanding natural beauty; and for connected purposes. I hope that this is a Bill that will commend itself to the whole House. I am sure that most hon. Members present do not need convincing of the need for a measure along these lines. What in effect the Bill seeks to do is to provide for notable views and existing and beautiful skylines in town and in country what the Civil Amenities Act did for historic and lovely areas in our towns and cities. In effect, it extends the concept of the conservation area.

I do not think that there are many hon. Members in the House who welcome the changes that have occurred to our skyline over the last few decades. The postwar era has seen disruption and destruction of many of our finest townscapes and landscapes, especially here in London. The zeal of the developer is not a new phenomenon, but though in the past he often won his battle and many fine buildings were destroyed in the last century and the early part of this century, the scale of the replacements was rarely offensive. The urge to change and to modernise was curbed largely by the London Building Act of 1888, which was itself inspired by royal displeasure at Queen Anne's Mansions, which interfered to some degree with her late Majesty Queen Victoria's palatial privacy. The limits—80 feet or a height equal to the width of the street that the building faced—which that Act introduced were removed in 1956, and in the last 20 years we have witnessed an insensitive transformation of the London skyline.

In that time, 2,089 high buildings have been approved by the LCC and the GLC, 465 have been refused and 344 withdrawn. The figures speak for themselves.

St. Paul's—366 feet—that noble expression of national sentiment during the war, has been dwarfed time and time again. I think of the GPO tower, at 579 feet, and the Barbican development, which goes to over 400 feet, and only this week we saw on the front page of The Times the topping-out ceremony for the National Westminster Tower, of some 600 feet or more.

Many fine views, particularly of St. Paul's Cathedral, have gone for ever. That masterpiece of Christopher Wren has been hedged in—"cabin'd, cribb'd, confin'd"—and not only St. Paul's has suffered. The pastoral aspects of the royal parks, about which people were concerned when the applications to build the Hilton Hotel were first filed, have gone. And if one goes to the Department of the Environment, where those who have to exercise protection over our conservation areas reside, one sees perhaps the most insensitive monument to bureaucracy ever erected.

It is not just a London issue. Up and down the country, from Newcastle to Birmingham, fine views have gone. In Lincoln, certain views of the cathedral have been obliterated, as they have in Gloucester and in Peterborough—where I know that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sr D. Renton) fought a valiant battle to try to protect them—and in Worcester. All over one sees that the skyline has been marred.

But all is not lost. That is why I am seeking leave to introduce the Bill.

It is not a revolutionary Bill. In fact, it draws much of its inspiration from the theory—I underline the word "theory" of the GLC's high buildings policy. It places upon planning authorities the task of designating skyline views to be protected when they devise their structure plans. It also vests certain reserve powers with the Secretary of State.

I can promise hon. Members that the Bill will be printed and will be available for inspection and scrutiny within a very few days if the House gives me leave to introduce it. I have been greatly helped in preparing this Bill by a remarkable man, Mr. Arthur Kutcher, who was for a time the Chief Planning Officer of the old city of Jerusalem and who wrote a remarkable book on planning and politics, and whose beautiful drawings and remarkable photographs I shall place in the Library after this speech if the House gives me leave. They tell far more graphically than could any speech of mine, or anyone else's, just what is at stake. Perhaps I may very briefly refer to some of the things.

There are several views of this noble Palace of Westminster and Whitehall which need protection. The view from Lambeth Bridge is sensitive to high buildings in the vicinity of Leicester Square and Covent Garden. In the City, planning permission has already been granted for a 12-storey office block at Fresh Wharf which will obscure this view of St. Paul's and St. Magnus Martyr, as well as views from Tower Bridge. Cumberland Terrace, Regent's Park, deserves to have its setting protected. The roof lines of the Temple are at the mercy of high buildings. I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend would agree wholeheartedly about that. If one looks into Parliament Square from across the Thames and sees the silhouettes of Westminster Abbey and Methodist Central Hall, one realises that these need protection from the burgeoning mini-Manhattan in Victoria Street.

I hope that the Bill will afford the House—there is a little time on the Government's hands and I hope that they will take over the Bill—a basis for sensible and sensitive legislation. I am not proposing what is done in Switzerland, where scaffolding has to be erected of the shape and size of the proposed building for people to inspect before they actually put up the thing. But I am suggesting that applications for development in these areas should be subject to the most detailed and critical scrutiny and examination.

Most of us who are privileged to sit here love this place and most of us would at least agree with those who are a bit cynical about politicians that, as far as the Palace of Westminster is concerned, distance lends enchantment to the view". I would hate to see the day when the noble vista of the Victoria Tower from the Serpentine was obliterated.

These are the sorts of thing for which we should be fighting, so that future generations and the increasing numbers of tourists who come to see what we have to offer may enjoy what fine sights remain.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Patrick Cormack, Mr. Peter Brooke, Mr. Geoffrey Rippon, Mr. Bruce Douglas-Mann, Mr. Stephen Ross, Sir David Renton, Mr. Mike Thomas, Mr. Donald Stewart, Mr. Reg Prentice, Mr. A. J. Beith, Mr. George Cunningham, Mr. Paul Channon.