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High Spen, Durham (Development)

Volume 640: debated on Wednesday 10 May 1961

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Colonel J. H. Harrison.]

11.50 p.m.

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise a subject of public importance on which many of my constituents hold the strongest views as a result of circumstances which have been thrust upon them. I refer to the profound despair, hardship and lingering regret which has been created by the decision of Durham Planning Authority to refuse any further housing development in the village of High Spen in my constituency. Differences of opinion and outlook have gone to such a degree of deep resentment that solicitation in the form of a petition by the worthy residents has led me to take this step. The petition is no idle contest of words. It demonstrates the respective interests as a last resort in appealing for a peaceful and orderly adjustment of the future of the village.

I admit right away that town and country planning in its interpretation of most complex provisions has become such a speculative subject that it is not always easy to follow. I am further led to believe that the whole object of planning is to ensure that the development of land should proceed in an orderly manner. One cannot complain about attempts to achieve satisfactory standards in order that unsightly errors of the past shall not be repeated. In all cases of proposed projects, they should be considered in the light of public interest so that justice will not be denied. In varying degrees it is not hard to find other villages in Durham County which are suffering the same fate as High Spen. Evidence can be produced which is far more palpable than any which can be given by statistics.

Any general biography of High Spen would afford the means of explaining why its inhabitants have a clear collective impression and equal interest in the preservation and progress of their village. I shall not deal with the whole history of High Spen's problems, but I think it might be convenient if I said a few words about its background. Taking the general retrospective view. High Spen is recognised as a mining village established in the last century and over the years it has been built up. Subsequent developments show that the conditions and defects of its dwellings vary considerably. A successful effort has been made in recent years by the local authority and private individuals to build houses of a much more permanent character.

A snapshot of the population gives an estimate of 2,200 people, but, as the mine is no longer in use, the working population earns a livelihood by travelling to other areas. Although it is not what one would regard as a monastery garden, any account of its geographical presentation cannot fail to attract the observer to its distinctive endowments which reveal woodlands and fields in natural and pleasant surroundings. Many of the older houses have recently been vacated through slum clearance. The tenants have been moved to other districts. The rest of the older parts will eventually be scheduled in the same way, with no prospect of replacement.

In addition to this, it must be said that within three-quarters-of-a-mile of High Spen is what is known as Barlow. It stands on an elevated, healthy position commanding a panoramic view of the Tyneside and the County of Northumberland.

The House will be interested to note that a reliable local firm of builders and contractors applied for permission to build houses on its own farmland at Barlow. This in itself appeared to be a reasonable proposition which would give some encouragement and fresh heart to the whole area. The rejection of this proposal would take some time to explain in full detail, and why the refusal to grant permission to proceed is in conflict with the new town map of Blaydon. This has recently been presented and evidently indicates that no residential development will take effect either at High Spen or at Barlow before the year 1974. As I see it, the effective operation of this decision is supposed to secure the desired ends of many things.

For instance, there is a tendency to mass people together in greater communities for personal and social possibilities. We are made aware that the aim in removing residents from High Spen is to enable them to be within easy reach of the Tyneside industrial area, in the belief that more jobs will be available there, at the same time avoiding the waste of effort which travelling involves. This idea appears to be the determining factor.

Such, in essence, we are told, is the main reason why these people have been moved in order to look to the future. But whatever are the objective calculations of planning, I am disposed to look at this shifting of the population as something which is surely fundamental to the locality of High Spen. It ought to be made widely known that the vast majority of these people are happily settled. To a certain extent the decline of the mining industry in the area has been met by various expedients, which proves that travelling is no longer regarded as a serious obstacle. Workers engaged in various occupations are already travelling to work where the distance to work is not too great. Everyone knows that travelling to work is a common thing these days. It is difficult to avoid, and however careful the planning may be, it cannot eliminate this. Nevertheless, in practice it is something which depends on the success of informed local criticism in having the choice of where one wishes to live.

Serious consequences in these matters of most vital local concern are naturally to be expected. A deep gloom has settled over the whole village and people are looking with despair upon its future. This is a matter of too much importance to be dismissed without mentioning some disturbing aspects. To be quite frank, I must submit that the houses which have been cleared in the latest slum clearance scheme ought to have been cleared before the war. I do not want to labour that point, but it would be a reasonable and legitimate assumption to regard well-constructed business premises, shops, clubs, public houses, picture hall and co-operative store as adequately serving the needs and interests of the inhabitants of the locality.

Such a minor but complete public service is at present absolutely crippled, and the disturbing effects that have unquestionably been produced by this event cannot be overlooked. It also constitutes a relatively important and direct bearing on the uncertainty of those people with initiative in private and collective business. Business of this kind assumes honesty of purpose, even though one must accept such necessary changes, but the action of the Durham County Planning Authority in refusing the facilities for providing for any replacement of population has made the confusion and disillusionment much worse.

In such a predicament, what are the owners of this property to do? How does the planning authority expect them to pursue their normal business when faced with such a profound loss of custom? The cumulative effect of all these things is such that these people just cannot transport their property to where business might be more profitable. It is now impossible for them to conceal their justified anxieties, especially when it is well known that further disintegration will follow the demolition of more houses in a few years time. In such a state of affairs, reminiscent of the blight outlined in Oliver Goldsmith's Deserted Village, one must expect that as a general rule people are entitled to complain.

In ordinary daily life there is no more disagreeable person than the habitual and confirmed doubter, but many people's lives always function under some handicap, and both mental and emotional disturbances are more prevalent in times of individual and social distress. Whatever else may be true, I know of nothing more disturbing to peace of mind than the uprooting of old people from their age-long habitation and routine, and sending them to other areas. Many of the older people in High Spen have been bitterly disappointed in their humble expectations of what retirement would hold for them.

The drastic changes imposed on these old people, after they have spent a regular life in the same surroundings, is both hard and harsh, and has manifestly produced a psychological current for the rest who may have to follow. I can hardly persuade myself that such a policy is right. After all, it must be said that the attainment of happiness in old age is one of the ultimate objects of life, and contacts and associations are always in favour of people living in the circle in which they have moved all their lives.

In those circumstances, I believe that a principal purpose should be established for the older people. The village is not an isolated example of an independent community tucked away somewhere on the fells. An indication of the location of the village can be gained when it is remembered that the village is only a 30-minute bus ride from the City of Newcastle. That proximity shows how the village is a component part of the whole area, not only having an efficient transport service to and from Newcastle, but linked also with other important villages. In fact, to and from Newcastle there is an excellent transport system operating every 15 minutes.

Bearing that in mind, it can be realised that High Spen is urgently in need of recognition, so much so that in order to preserve its usefulness, houses must be built. It is not a mammoth municipality that is requested. All that is requested is permission to build a few houses. The inhabitants of this village do not seek anything great, but a refusal to this request will be tantamount to their forfeiting the right to a convenient and decent place to live, which is the basic necessity of life.

All around us, throughout the country, we see the development and modification that is accomplished. Step by step, with one task succeeding another, it is accepted that the principle of town and country planning can be viewed as a means to improve and transform. This being subject to change, one can spend hours classifying changes that are related to human settlement. In such a policy of dispersal that I have outlined. I believe consideration should be given to the thought that the real test of redevelopment would in a positive way fit into the basic structure of urban life.

Having taken that into account, I suggest that perhaps the area to which I am referring tonight could be helpful to people living in the more congested areas. Many people wish to live in a quiet environment, to have the countryside nearby and to have all that goes with it. And, in this connection, I see no reason why sites could not be carefully selected in this village to cater for the country lovers who are at present living in congested areas. That proposal would not only meet their requirements, it would also give a fresh perspective to the area, which would become a dormitory district.

To express myself more clearly, I confess to have the highest regard for the county planning authority, upon which falls the responsibility to master the syllabus of planning; the scope and clarity of thought that underlies its purpose to achieve a responsive recognition will be appreciated by the inhabitants of the area.

This also springs from the belief that opinion should be welcomed as a means of offering guidance or provoking thought on such a subject of practical importance, but the task of forming an opinion to meet the reasonable and obvious needs of High Spen enlists my utmost thought and endeavour, and the least I can say is that, from whatever angle opinion is taken, the prevailing bewilderment among the people who are adversely affected is a constant reminder of the need for more deductive observance if we are to resolve the essential interests in all reasoned appreciation. In this manner one would hope to see proper measures applied to find a satisfactory solution to this problem.

12.10 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government
(Sir Keith Joseph)

The hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Woof) and I both came into this House as a result of by-elections in an ice-bound week in February five years ago, and I have a great regard for him and his sincerity. He has left me only 10 minutes in which to reply to his speech of 20 minutes, but I know the strength of feeling that he represents.

The hon. Member mentioned the word "change". I know that he realises that every country, and this country particularly, has to adapt itself the whole while. Whether it is the old charcoal burner giving way to the iron ore, the canals giving way to the railways or the roads changing from bridle tracks to great arterial systems, there are always changes which leave some villages and expand others. Among the greatest sources of change, of course, is the taste and fashion for alternative supplies which makes a community which has been built on a substance like coal particularly susceptible and vulnerable.

The hon. Member recognises, I think, that as a result of all these processes not every community can be perpetually kept at the same size. After all, what has happened in High Spen has been that people have left voluntarily—the hon. Gentleman would be the last to suggest that people should be kept where they do not want to stay—people have left voluntarily in search of work as employment at the coal mine has dwindled. People have not wanted to develop at High Spen; I am told that only one application to build one house has been made in the last few years.

The hon. Gentleman painted to us graphically the spirit that covers a community in these circumstances. What he has not painted is the positive side of the picture. He knows very well that the response of the planning authority has been to say that this decline of employment, this decline of a desire to live in certain areas is happening all over the coalfields in this area and therefore what must be done is to get new employment and focus it in selected centres where better living conditions can also be concentrated and education establishments and proper social centres set up so that there can be live, flourishing communities where people can go. That is what is happening. The hon. Gentleman has not talked about it, but I know that he knows about it; and in paying tribute to the Durham County Planning Authority he himself paid tribute to what it is doing.

This situation in High Spen is not a new situation. It has been known, or should have been known, by the people concerned for more than 10 years, because it was foreseen in the Durham county development plan. That plan, which was published in 1951, listed a number of villages, to which it gave the label "Category D villages," which were going to be allowed to run down because the employment in them was dwindling. As I say, the corollary to that was that a number of other villages and communities were selected for expansion and for receiving the new employment that the area needed.

In the 1951 development plan High Spen was one of the category D villages. There was a public local inquiry in February, 1952, at which the classification of High Spen could have been challenged. I am told that, in fact, no objection was made at the inquiry to the classification given to any of the Blaydon villages. In fact, the development plan with the category D still attached to High Spen was approved by my right hon. Friend's predecessor in 1954. So there was within the planning system full knowledge of what was planned and full opportunity to debate that proposal before the plan was approved by the then Minister of Housing and Local Government. Since then the details of the development plan have come to be filled in, and what is at issue at the moment is the town map of the Blaydon urban district area. I have the draft town map before me. It is the first town map, the draft town map, and it has no formal validity until it is approved by my right hon. Friend. There will be an inquiry. Not until after the inquiry and after all the arguments adduced at it have been fully considered by my right hon. Friend will this draft town map be approved as it stands, be modified, or be not approved at all. All the points made by the hon. Member and by those he represents can be amply ventilated at the public inquiry, of which full public notice will be given. Because the matter it is to that extent sub judice, I cannot—as I am sure the hon. Member recognises—comment in detail on what has been said tonight.

I ask the hon. Member to recognise that there is a positive side to all that he has been saying and to give as much publicity as he can to it. The county plan and the town map both provide for the revivification of communities within the area to which he has referred. Each community cannot be restored to its old vigour because employment takes different forms. Some communities depend upon a coal mine, and when the coal mine provides less employment, the area may not be an ideal place for new industrial employment. But, as the hon. Member said, the communication system is good. It is the object of the county and the urban district authorities to see that there is industry, decent housing and proper education and social facilities within reach of the people of the area.

What we cannot possibly ensure is that all the people who have established commercial premises in every community will be guaranteed against change. People going into business take risks. That underlies all business, whether in the West End of London or in a mining village in the North of England. Some of the changes are to their benefit and some are to their prejudice. They cannot be guaranteed against change.

I am sorry that I cannot answer in more detail the points underlying the hon. Member's speech. I hope that he recognises that there will be ample opportunity for all the arguments to be made before my right hon. Friend's inspector, probably in the autumn, when the draft Blaydon Urban District Council town map comes to public inquiry.

The Minister mentioned that some communities in the neighbourhood were scheduled as communities which were to grow and become new centres of life. How near to High Spen is the nearest such community? What will be the other side of the medal when, as my hon. Friend fears, there are no longer people living at High Spen? Will those people be added to the already crowded Newcastle, or will they be in some nearby centre which will be growing up into new life?

Rowlands Gill is one expanding community, and that is much closer than Newcastle. Also, there is Blaydon itself within the urban district in which High Spen comes. They are both quite local. Also Winlaton, another place in the immediate locality, is to receive some of the expansion.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes past Twelve o'clock.