The Independent London Newspaper
26th April 2019

ILLTYD HARRINGTON: How Angela Lansbury’s grandfather blazed a trail in conservation

    George Lansbury, who was briefly the leader of the Labour Party, inaugurated National Parks and a Town and Country Planning Bill to restrain the greedy. Picture: Devi Prasad

    Published: 2 October, 2014

    SHE is indestructible. At 88, Angela Lansbury has conquered and reconquered Broadway, and after a season of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit she is the undisputed winner of this year’s West End theatrical offerings. 

    Lansbury retains the strong personal values of her grandfather, George Lansbury, who reared her and her sister. George, a pacifist, was for two very brief years the leader of the Labour Party, after the Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald betrayed them by forming a Labour-Tory coalition. 

    Lansbury edited their daily paper, The Daily Herald. But when MacDonald formed a second Labour government in 1929 he tried to palm George off by giving him what was regarded as a non-job, the First Commissioner of Works. They under-estimated their man. He galvanised what was taken to be nothing more than a dead-letter office. His enthusiasm swept his staff along. He was not chair-bound. He left Whitehall to visit the sites of old buildings, historic houses, and places of historical interest. Then as now there was the firm and well organised opposition of property developers who were capable of finding a loophole in the most finely drawn bill, unconsciously assisted by grand politicians who refused to dirty their hands. Not so the First Commissioner. He went everywhere. In The Man from the Ministry, Simon Thurley, who has been head of English Heritage since 2002, pays him glowing tribute. 

    I never realised that it was Lansbury’s determination that saved Hadrian’s Wall. Even the lido in Hyde Park was his idea. Now millions trek to Stonehenge. Less than 100 years ago developers actually built cottages on the site. This was outrageous and the houses were bought up and demolished. 

    After him others picked up the sword of vigilance. He had shown Whitehall and beyond how to stop the wreckers’ ball. It took another 30 years for a Labour chancellor, Hugh Dalton, to swing support; and not just for mission heritage. 

    He also inaugurated National Parks and a Town and Country Planning Bill to restrain the greedy. Fresh air became available for the proletariat. Even to this day listings of historic buildings and sites number over half a million. 

    All of this ran into the buffers when Margaret Thatcher induced a mood of deregulation. Planning control was secondary. 

    In retrospect, one takes pride in places like Tintern Abbey, the Victoria and Albert museum and even the rash of blue plaques. The monsters were bridled for a time. 

    The massive redevelopments of the 1960s were stopped. I was sorry that Thurley glossed over the profound effect that the LCC and its successor the GLC had. Think of Kenwood House, of Ranger’s House on Blackheath and Marble Hill House on the Thames near Richmond. The GLC had legal power and used it. Think of the proposed ripping apart of Covent Garden in the 1960s. It was reckless and insensitive. It was the combined strength of the Covent Garden Association and the GLC that arrested them in their tracks. 

    I recently found some papers belonging to George Lansbury, which I sent to Angela Lansbury in Ireland. 

    She replied very quickly and reassured me that her children were well aware of his values. 

    George Lansbury blazed an unlikely trail but he treated it with great respect.

    Men from the Ministry: How Britain Saved its Heritage, by Simon Thurley (Yale, £20)