It is a great pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby, to tell what I hope is an uplifting story about one of the finest cultural institutions in this country, although I am afraid that it has a rather sad twist, which leads to my being here.
I am delighted to see Sir Malcolm Rifkind in the Chamber. The better known part of the exhibition centre is in his constituency and I know that he has a strong interest in this matter. I am also delighted to see my hon. Friend Helen Goodman, the shadow Culture Minister here, which reminds us that this is not just a local or a London issue, but a national issue as well. I look forward to the Minister’s response, because he is not only a great patron of the arts, but a local resident himself and no doubt a user of the exhibition centre. I hope that we will be joined by other hon. Members.
I acknowledge the people from the Earls Court Area Action Group, who are here in substantial numbers in the Public Gallery. They helped me prepare for this debate and, more importantly, they have been stalwart in the defence and promotion of the exhibition centre, since we learned that it was under threat. I thank them for their incredible efforts. I am wearing the badge today, but not the T-shirt. I hope that they will find this debate rewarding.
In providing a brief background to the importance of Earls Court, I could not do better, although I could try, than to simply read the introduction—the long description—on its own website. So I shall read from it for two minutes.
“Earls Court One opened for business in 1937 with the Chocolate and Confectionery Exhibition, and was joined in 1991 by Earls Court Two which still boasts Europe’s biggest unsupported roof span. Earls Court One and Two together have a total 60,000 square metres of event space and add to these facilities the purpose-built conference centre and the Museum Hall party space can boast a venue and a space for every event.
Over the years, the venues have welcomed visitors to shows such as the London Boat Show, the British Motor Show, the Ideal Home Show, the London Book Fair, the Great British Beer Festival and the Good Food Show”,
to which we might add the royal tournament.
“The halls have resounded to performances by world-famous artists such as Madonna, Pink Floyd, Iron Maiden, George Michael, Elton John, Kylie, Rod Stewart, Queen and the Rolling Stones.”
“hosted the BRIT Awards, and sporting events such as boxing and wrestling contests, and some of the country’s largest companies have held conferences, training sessions and…staff parties in” the venues.
All of this puts Earls Court at the heart of the communities in which they operate, as the 1.5 million visitors, 15,000 exhibiting companies and 300 events that we cater for every year have a sizeable economic impact—in terms of jobs and expenditure.
A study carried out on behalf of Earls Court and sister venue Olympia London, showed that the two venues together supported
£258m of expenditure in their boroughs and over £1.25bn in the London region, and accounted for…over 1,000 jobs in the boroughs and around 12,500 in London.”
The study...showed that one in two Londoners visits the venues every year.”
One could go on and mention the history, even before the centres were built.
I have listened to my hon. Friend listing the events. Does he think that it is tragic that we are going to lose this important venue, which was so central to our successful bid to win and host a successful Olympic games and Paralympics in 2012, and that losing it in this way will close off the opportunity for London to host such major sporting events in future?
It is the largest exhibition space in central London and is clearly a versatile space. It has a swimming pool 60 metres by 30 metres available inside it. In its time it has hosted ski runs 100 feet long. It was used in both world wars.
During the construction of Earls Court Two, the new part of the exhibition centre in my constituency, residents put up with some years of pile-driving—I was first a councillor there in the late 1980s—but they knew that a venue was being provided that could rival any other in the United Kingdom and internationally. Its expansion, only 20 years ago, provided jobs for the local community and an unrivalled conference venue. It has hosted operas, rock concerts and the Olympics; it is a venue that cannot be replaced.
I say all that because we are here to praise Earls Court, but we are also here because others wish to bury it. That includes Earls Court’s current owners Capital & Counties, the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham and Transport for London, which between them own the Earls Court opportunity area—one might call them partners in crime. They are abetted by the planning authorities, which conveniently are also the owners of those bodies in two out of three cases: the Mayor of London and the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. They are joined, I am afraid, by the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in sounding the death knell for the exhibition centre by granting consent to the master plan for the development of the 80-acre site, which will lead not only to the demolition of the exhibition centre but the demolition of 760 high-quality, affordable homes on the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates and the loss of 550 skilled jobs and a major manufacturing site for Transport for London at the Lillie Bridge depot. Each of those deserves a debate in its own right, and indeed I have previously raised them in the House. They are part of a much bigger plan to destroy Earls Court.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent case. Does he agree that the potential destruction of the Earls Court site, which has an iconic 1930s art deco building and provides employment, would affect an important area of London that is a real place with a real community? If we take Earls Court with Smithfield, we see that all the city will be turned into expensive flats for people who do not live in them. Does he not think that will make London an intensely boring city?
My hon. Friend makes several good points. She is right about Smithfield, although I note that Smithfield, which is an iconic site, albeit much smaller than Earls Court, has been granted a public inquiry, as has the Shell centre. In the case of Earls Court, the Secretary of State has cynically refused a public inquiry for 80 acres in the centre of London. My hon. Friend is also right that, in place of the rich employment, cultural and residential areas that we now see, we will have 8,000 faceless high-rise luxury flats sold off plan to foreign investors with, at most, 11% new affordable housing—a quarter of all housing—that will not be affordable to any of my constituents. Unfortunately, every day in west London is Christmas day for developers, but there is a lot of collateral damage.
In the remaining time, I will address the damage that will be caused and the real loss that will be occasioned if the exhibition centre goes. The proposal is part of a much bigger time scale. We have had five years of attempts at demolition and resistance from the community, but we have up to 25 years of further development on the site. That long time scale notwithstanding, it is appropriate that we should be talking about Earls Court today because we stand between two important events for the future of the exhibition centre. Last week, the developer submitted the first detailed application for that part of the site, which includes the potential replacement for the exhibition centre should Earls Court One and Two be demolished. That detailed application followed the granting of the planning application for the master plan for the whole area in November 2013.
With what would the developer and the local authorities replace the exhibition centre? The answer is luxury flats. The total floor space of the detailed designs submitted to replace the exhibition centre is 290,170 square metres. The amount for culture, education, health and community is 324 square metres, which works out at 0.1% of the site. There will not be one single affordable home, but there will be 1,324 luxury homes in massive apartment blocks. That is what we will have on the site instead of the Earls Court exhibition centre if the detailed planning application is granted. Meanwhile, there is a question of land ownership, and on Thursday of this week Transport for London’s finance and policy committee—there are serious questions on whether that is the appropriate body and whether it has the powers to do this, but no doubt it will attempt to do so—will recommend that the board approve TfL entering a joint venture arrangement with Capital & Counties Properties and/or a wholly owned undertaking of Capco, on which hangs other tales, with regard to the development of Earls Court One and Two, of which London Underground is the freeholder and Capco the long leaseholder, along with other properties owned by London Underground and Capco.
The matter has been debated at length in the London Assembly. On
“This Assembly notes that the Mayor of London has approved the Earls Court Opportunity Area plans, which will mean that…the Earls Court exhibition centres will be demolished in the absence of a full, independent economic impact assessment, and in the face of opposition from the event organisers industry”.
“TfL should not enter a joint venture to develop these sites”.
That very clear instruction from the London Assembly was totally ignored by the Mayor. I am pleased to say that the same members of the Assembly have today written to TfL:
“We are writing to strongly urge you to defer your recommendation on entering the proposed joint venture with Capital and Counties…with regard to the redevelopment Earls Court and West Kensington Opportunity Area”.
The letter points out that the London Assembly transport committee has yet to discuss the matter, and indeed we have yet to hear the Government’s response to today’s debate. The letter states:
“There has not…been a full independent economic impact assessment on what the loss of the Earls Court Exhibition Centres will mean to the local and national economy. There are also concerns that TfL will not receive the best value from this deal until the value of the land has been properly and independently assessed.”
I do not want to run too much over my time, but I hope the Minister will bear with me if I go one or two minutes over because this is an opportunity to present all of the issues. I want to say two other things. First, in the view of those who understand, what will be the effect on the exhibitions industry? According to Karim Halwagi, the chief executive of the Association of Event Organisers:
“At a time of deep economic recession, the exhibitions industry is a shining example of national resilience and economic growth. The events economy expanded by over 18% from £9.3 billion to £11 billion between 2005-2010 and this uplift occurred during the worst economic recession in recent years.
We must ask why, in the midst of a property-busted recession, should loss of the halls…rob London of a much-needed cultural and business hub at a time when Britain needs more space devoted to cultural and commercial exhibitions.
This debate is set against a mounting concern in the local residential and business communities that will be directly affected by this contentious development. The failure by the two local authorities to conduct an Area Action Plan, which would have provided a wide-ranging strategic assessment of the proposed development, has left the immediate area vulnerable. The impact of this development is already being felt with businesses and amenities that support the vitality that residents enjoy, already closing.”
I pause to observe that the local businesses that have been sustained by the footfall to Earls Court over the years—mainly small businesses in Kensington and Chelsea and Hammersmith and Fulham, but also businesses in the wider area—are not only facing the loss of most of their trade due to the closure and demolition but are effectively being blackmailed and forced out by the developer, which is increasing their rents by up to 100%. Mr Halwagi also points out that ExCeL, which is considered the alternative to Earls Court, is 36th in the world rankings, whereas Paris has two venues in the top 10. We know that the national exhibition centre is possibly threatened because of the forced sale due to cuts to local government funding in Birmingham. Ironically, the NEC was supposed to provide an alternative to Earls Court all those years ago.
It is therefore not the case that we can do without Earls Court, which is unique by virtue of its space, history and central London location. Indeed, more exhibition centres are needed. There are only 52 weeks in the year, and in any one week we need as many exhibition centres as we have. The industry is expanding, and we are trying to compete on the world stage. It is the sheerest folly to have decided to destroy such centres without putting anything in their place.
Finally, because this debate is primarily about the culture of the area, I turn to a letter published in the Evening Standard on
“The planned demolition of the iconic landmark Earls Court Exhibition Centres is nothing but cultural vandalism. The authentic Art Deco building represents the visual heart and hub of a community vital to the life-blood of the London economy. The venue attracts on an international scale, with a history of millions of visitors and crowd-drawing events on the world map…Trade shows, product fairs, artists, musicians and performers hold this venue in high esteem because it offers an unrivalled space in a central location. The substantial loss of income to local traders and to London as a whole is inexcusable. Nothing about the so-called Masterplan is beneficial for either the neighbouring community or for the long-term economy, only more shops, offices and apartments for the super-wealthy…London’s skyline is already at risk according to UNESCO and yet the shameless glut of luxury property building continues. It is a scandal that will scar the capital forever and a bubble that will have to burst in the near future, inevitably…A far more modest spend on the buildings infrastructure would guarantee the Earls Court heritage for the long term future, with a continuing enrichment both of London’s creative life as well as the national economy.”
I could not have put it better. That is what is at risk.
This should not be a party political issue, and certainly was not in the past. I am grateful for being sent a press release from Sir Horace Cutler, the Conservative leader of the Greater London council in 1979—gosh, that does seem a long time ago— announcing that £5 million was being provided to sustain and improve Earls Court. He said:
“It is tangible proof of the GLC’s total commitment to retaining and encouraging major exhibitions and conventions in London.
It is also evidence of our support for Earls Court in particular. The £5 million that the GLC is injecting will, together with money and expertise from the Earls Court management, ensure that operations go on here for some considerable time.”
I hope that that “considerable time” is not cut off in its prime by the demolition plans. As I said at the beginning of my remarks, I am delighted to see the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington here. His constituents have also written to me, so I know that he has said:
“I would like to see Earls Court being preserved.”
I know that he appreciates as much as I its value as a cultural, as well as economic, asset to the area. I look forward to working with him, with my hon. Friends and, I hope, with the Minister as well. I apologise again for taking slightly more than my allotted time, but I hope that the Minister will indicate whether the Government are prepared to show sympathy to retaining the Earls Court exhibition centre for all the reasons given—and if not, why not—and what do they see as the alternative to preserving and enhancing the cultural and economic life of this part of central London?
Given the time available, my speech will be brief, but I start by congratulating Mr Slaughter on raising this subject. The Earls Court exhibition centre itself is primarily in the Kensington constituency, but the proposals form part of a much larger development, involving the demolition of large numbers of houses in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, so I fully understand residents’ concern about all the changes. The hon. Gentleman has set out the position fairly.
This description has already been used, but Earls Court is an iconic building. It is always sad when such a building moves on. That has been part of the history of London, which has seen so many changes of this kind. Part of why London remains a vital and extraordinarily successful city is that it not only tries to preserve the best, but adapts to changing circumstances. The hon. Gentleman gave some of Earls Court’s history and I can add to it in one important respect. In 1935-36, when it was being built, it was reported that the
“project did not go exactly to plan; it ran over budget and was late in completion.”
Running over budget might not seem too strange, but the total cost rose to the extraordinary, astronomic sum of £1.5 million in 1937. When Earls Court Two was constructed in 1991, inflation meant that it cost some £100 million. We are therefore dealing with major projects. I am sad that Earls Court exhibition centre is likely to disappear. That is unfortunate, because it has made an important contribution in the way the hon. Gentleman describes.
With regard to my constituents, the massive development is going to last for not one year or five years, because it will be up to 20 years before the work is complete, and that has substantial implications for those who live in the immediate vicinity. I want to make particular reference to the residents of Eardley crescent and Philbeach gardens, the two streets that are closest to the centre. The volume of traffic, the demolition and all the various works associated with any major development are bad enough, but something of this scale will be of great significance. I visited the exhibition centre to see the developers’ presentation, and I must confess that I was impressed by their awareness of implications for residents in the immediate vicinity of the area, the steps that they are taking to try to ameliorate the difficulties, their willingness to have ongoing consultation with the residents of the adjoining streets, who will have to bear the brunt of the noise and dust, and various measures to ensure that much of the rubble that is removed will not be taken through residential areas. I am sure that the two local authorities—Kensington and Chelsea, and Hammersmith and Fulham—will be responsible for monitoring the work closely as it develops. Conditions can be imposed on developers, but that is not good enough. Even when good conditions exist, what can sometimes be more noticeable is a lack of willingness to respect them once the development has actually started. Local authorities have sometimes been less than perfect at imposing real conditions that can be enforced.
The project could take up to 20 years to be completed. It could represent an exciting new phase of London life but, whatever its success, the loss of the centre and the short and medium-term impact on people’s lives are matters of sadness. The hon. Gentleman has done a service in raising the issue, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
I am grateful to be speaking under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby, and for the alert that I have only five minutes in which to make my points. I do not regret that, however, because it is extremely important that local residents—whether due to being here in the audience, or reading the record—are aware of the clear exposition of Mr Slaughter, as well as the equally clear speech made by my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Malcolm Rifkind. My right hon. and learned Friend’s speech was rather shorter, given that this is not his debate, but both he and the hon. Gentleman expressed their views as local MPs.
This debate could range far and wide. I cannot be blind to the fact that there is a huge debate about the merits, or otherwise, of the entire development of the Earls Court area. However, while I put on record that I do not doubt the sincerity of the points made by the hon. Member for Hammersmith, or of the residents’ action group, which campaigns on the issue, the hon. Gentleman has used Earls Court as a good way to raise much wider issues in Parliament and to seek a response from the Government.
I will focus on the Earls Court exhibition centre, which is the focus of the debate. The hon. Gentleman gave a good history of the area. It is interesting to note that the site was first opened as an entertainment ground in 1887. Known as the Earls Court exhibition grounds, the site closed in 1914 and was commandeered for the war—none of those historical buildings survives. As was pointed out, the grounds were replaced by the exhibition centre in 1936 to 1937, with Earls Court Two added in 1991.
The key point lies in the fact that although people have talked about a magnificent art deco building, one of my most important responsibilities as heritage Minister is to decide whether to accept listing recommendations from English Heritage, the official body that advises the Government on such matters. It is worth pointing out, to provide clarity and context to the debate, that the application to list the building was first made in 2006, under the previous Government. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, this is not a party political issue, and I respect and understand the fact that every heritage Minister not only takes their responsibilities seriously, but approaches any decision on a listing recommendation in a quasi-judicial capacity, if I may put it in such terms.
At the time, the clear advice from English Heritage was not to list Earls Court and, further, it provided a certificate of immunity from listing for a period. The issue came back in October 2010 and again, although some note was made of an exhibition centre that had survived, given that a lot of such centres were temporary, the view of English Heritage was:
“In terms of architectural merit…this is an extremely functional building, designed to maximise floor capacity on a difficult site, with limited embellishment...While of regional interest as one of the capital’s most prominent exhibition centres, in a national context Earl’s Court has insufficient architectural interest to warrant listing.”
As far as I am aware, no other opportunity to list Earls Court will come up again for a number of years—not until 2016 at the earliest—so there is no protection for the exhibition centre as a listed building.
The hon. Gentleman widened the debate to the merits or demerits of the development itself, which is the subject of a Terry Farrell master plan. Sir Terry Farrell was used by the previous Government to carry out master plans, and at the moment is undertaking a review of the architectural profession on my behalf. The hon. Gentleman is familiar with both sides of the argument, but the opposing points to those he made are: the development will provide 7,500 homes, 1,500 of which will be affordable; there will be 750 replacement homes for the residents of Gibbs Green and West Kensington estates; there will be 37 acres of new open space, with a five-acre public park; and there will be investment in the local tube stations of West Brompton and Earl’s Court. In terms of exhibition space—