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New Towns Programme (Reappraisal)

Volume 929: debated on Tuesday 5 April 1977

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With permission, I should like to make a statement about the English new towns.

The House will know that I have been much engaged with two important and in certain respects inter-related aspects of planning policy—the future of the new towns and the future of the inner cities. I hope to make a statement on inner cities tomorrow, and wish now to inform the House of the conclusions I have reached so far in my reappraisal of the new towns programme.

This reappraisal—the first comprehensive reappraisal since the mid-1960s—has taken particular account of the substantial changes in national and regional population trends, of changes in our economic and industrial position, of changed conditions in our major cities and of changed attitudes of the conurbation authorities towards population movement, and of the new balance that we are seeking to achieve between development within the cities and development outside.

I begin with the earlier new towns, most of which have now largely and successfully fulfilled the purposes for which they were established, and here I have no major changes to announce. I have decided against any extension of the designated areas of Bracknell and Skelmersdale and I find no grounds for initiatives to be taken for the expansion of Redditch. No change is proposed in the population targets of Basildon, Corby and Runcorn.

In the cases of Harlow and Stevenage, public inquiries into proposals for extension of the designated areas were held last year. I have decided not to make extension orders for either town. The normal growth of the towns, especially for second generation families, will be matters for the local authorities concerned to deal with under other legislation. Decision letters giving my reasons have been sent to the interested parties today, and I have arranged for copies to be placed in the Library of the House.

It is my intention that, subject to the necessary consultations, the development corporations in these eight new towns will be wound up within the next five years. Discussions will be started with the local authorities on the arrangements needed for the continued normal growth of these towns, for the housing needs of people who were born in them, and for the requirements of industry.

The three new towns in the North-East—Ayciffe, Peterlee and Washington—have greatly helped to stimulate industrial growth in that region. I am not contemplating any fundamental changes in their programmes, but I am still considering the contribution which these towns can make to the economy of the North-East. I shall make a further statement after Easter.

I now turn to the six third generation new towns which, as the House will recall, were launched in the mid-1960s. Here the factors I listed at the beginning of my statement have particular relevance. Population forecasts have changed radically. Whereas it was then expected that the population of England and Wales would rise to 60 million by 1990, recent trends strongly suggest that the population will reach only 51 million by that date. On the other hand, the number of potential households will continue to increase for some time ahead.

I have also to consider how best to balance the industrial and employment needs of the inner areas with the need for new industrial growth points. Last but not least, I must also take account of the infrastructure already provided in these new towns and the extent and pattern of their development, and the need to allow them to develop into balanced and viable communities. The third generation new towns are, like their predecessors, one of the outstanding successes of post-war Britain, and nothing I am doing should reduce their ability to continue building on the foundations already laid.

I have myself recently visited most of the third generation new towns. My broad conclusion is that there must be a substantial reduction in the target figures set 10 years ago for the growth of these new towns. Given the factors I have referred to, I believe it is necessary over the next seven or eight years substantially to maintain the momentum of their development—even in the changed circumstances of the conurbations. But we must do more to help the inner areas by taking a higher proportion of disadvantaged people, and we must also do more to meet the growing demand for owner-occupation. I now intend to enter into detailed consultations with the development corporations and the local authorities concerned, including the exporting authorities, about revisions of their population targets. I shall do so on the basis of the following preliminary conclusions.

In the South-East, as the recent Review of the Strategy and the report of the Lambeth inner area study have both indicated, the still pressing housing needs of London require some help from outside the conurbation. Planned provision must therefore still be made for this.

In Milton Keynes my proposal is that the development corporation should induce growth until the population reaches 150,000 in the mid-1980s. With natural growth, this should mean a population upwards of 180,000 by the late 1980s, with the possibility of continued growth thereafter to 200,000. The original target was 250,000.

In Northampton I propose that the development corporation should provide induced growth up to 173,000 by 1982, which, with natural growth, should mean a population of around 180,000 by 1990. The original target was 230,000.

At Peterborough my proposal is for further induced growth up to 150,000, which, with natural growth, should result in a population of around 160,000 by the mid-1980s. The original target was 180,000.

In the West Midlands, the total overspill needs of the conurbation, though still substantial, are declining, and the conurbation local authorities are increasingly reluctant to lose employment opportunities in, or close to, their areas. Two years ago a reduced interim target for Telford was published in place of the original long-term target of 220,000. My proposal is that induced growth should continue until 1986, when the population may be expected to reach 130,000 to 135,000. Natural growth should result in a population of about 150,000 by about 1990.

In the North-West my examination has been much influenced by the local authorities' latest views of their housing needs and by the importance of balancing the industrial requirements of other places in the region with the growth of these two new towns, Warrington and Central Lancashire. Because of these considerations it now seems unlikely that the new towns will provide homes for more than about 50,000 people.

For Warrington, induced growth should continue until the population reaches 160,000, which, together with natural growth, should mean a population of about 170,000 by the late 1980s in place of the previous target of 205,000.

In the case of Central Lancashire New Town I have today issued my decision approving the development corporation's outline plan in a modified form to provide for a population intake of 23,000, compared with the intake of well over 100,000 previously proposed. I shall consult the relevant local authorities and the development corporation about its future beyond that. Copies of the decision letter will be placed in the Library of the House.

In total, I am proposing a reduction of some 380,000 in the programmes of the third generation new towns, but the revised programmes that I have suggested today should provide adequate scope for their future development. Our plans must be capable of being adapted to meet the as yet unforeseen circumstances of the next decade. The new towns have proved themselves to be adaptable in responding to changing requirements and I am sure that they will respond positively to this new situation. I hope that the consultations that will now follow will be conducted expeditiously so as to enable me to report to the House my final decisions by the summer, and thus establish a sound basis for the final stage of our new towns programme.

Is the Secretary of State aware that we welcome the fact that he has at long last produced a statement on the future of the new towns? Will he initiate a debate on the statement, which, in many respects, resembles a White Paper, both in length and in the wide range of issues that it covers? We agree that each new town requires separate consideration and treatment, and to that extent we welcome his general approach. However, will he accept that we have considerable reservations about much of the detail that he has announced?

Will the right hon. Gentleman state whether the new towns that are to be required to take a higher proportion of disadvantaged people from inner cities are to be given additional resources, through social services, in order to meet the additional responsibilities that are to be thrust upon them? With his acknowledgement of the growing demand for owner-occupation, will he give complete freedom to the development corporations to sell their houses to their tenants? Will he give an estimate of the savings in resources earmarked for the new towns arising from the reduction in population targets for the third generation new towns?

Will the right hon. Gentleman also say how much less agricultural land will be taken up as a result of these changes? Will he justify to the House his decision to retain the Central Lancashire New Town Development Corporation when he has reduced the population target from over 100,000 to 23,000? Will he not reconsider his decision to keep that corporation in existence? Will he also accept that we are disappointed that he has shown no receptiveness to the new thinking concerning disposal of commercial and industrial assets to pension and investment funds in order to release much-needed capital for investment in the older urban areas?

I shall be only too pleased if we can arrange a debate on this admittedly lengthy statement.

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of detailed points. I believe that it will be helpful to the House if opportunity is taken to examine my decision in relation to Central Lancashire so that hon. Members can see the main arguments that I had presented to me and by which I have been persuaded that it is right to go ahead with the Central Lancashire New Town, although on a very much reduced scale.

I can only give one firm answer to the hon. Gentleman on the question of the saving of money. We reckon that there will be a saving of about £20 million a year by 1979–80, and, of course, other savings will accrue. But I would rather not be more definite about that, or about the question of agricultural land, until I have had the consultations to which I have referred and upon which I am about to embark.

I have nothing to add to the statement on owner-occupation made by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he was Minister for Planning and Local Government, only a few months ago, when he discribed the position relating to the new regulations affecting the sale of houses in the new towns.

Finally, I hope that the new towns concerned will be able to do more for disadvantaged people. I believe that it will be a matter for the social service authorities in the areas concerned to make the necesary dispositions in order to help the increased numbers of disadvantaged people. In so far as that factor has to be taken into account in the rate support grant, of course it will be.

The House can see how many right hon. and hon. Members wish to catch my eye. I shall do my best to see that those with constituency interests are called, so hon. Members may contain themselves in that knowledge. It will be of great help if right hon. and hon. Members, instead of asking a series of questions, will concentrate on the one issue that concerns them in their constituencies.

In his review of the resources to be devoted to the new towns will my right hon. Friend undertake to hold consultations with the Commission for the New Towns in respect of the second generation new towns to see what express provision they can make to meet the increasing demands by parents and often widows of newtowners who have been left stranded in inner city areas while their families are tucked away in the new towns?

I am sympathetic to the need for accommodating second generation people in new towns and, indeed, as far as possible making it possible for family units to be brought together. But once there is no longer a need for a town to have special new town status, it is for the council concerned to make the necessary provision, as all other councils have to do, to secure the housing and other developments necessary.

Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that his decision not to make extension orders for Stevenage and Harlow will be widely welcomed by enlightened opinion both amongst the local authorities and the generality of the population in Hertfordshire? Does he agree that any necessary residual action can well be left to the efficient performance of the local authorities concerned?

I note what the right hon. and learned Gentleman says, but it is not for me now to speculate on the reactions to my statement in different parts of the country affected by it. I believe that the initiative, as it were, for securing any necessary extensions that there may be in respect of these two new towns and of others must now be taken by the district councils concerned.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his decision not to expand Harlow and Stevenage fails to take into account that there is not sufficient building land available to meet the needs of the existing second generation? Is he aware that in the 1980s there will be 700 to 800 new applicants a year, but in the case of Harlow all building land resources will be exhausted in 1980? Is he further aware that, unless something is done to change this state of affairs, it will be regarded as a betrayal of the families who went out to the new towns of Stevenage and Harlow in the hope of getting a new life? What does he propose to do to give these people and those in the surrounding areas who need housing an opportunity to get it?

I understand very well the problems to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention, particularly in the case of Harlow, where, it is true, the amount of land available—and therefore the possibility of new building—is now running out. A problem undoubtedly exists there. But it must not be inferred from my decision that I necessarily accept the financial and other factors set out in the inspector's report, or the conclusions that he draws from them. I feel that there may well be need for more houses to be built to meet the needs of Harlow, but I emphasise that application, and provision following such application, must now lie at the initiative of the district council.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we welcome his statement but that we shall want to see the inner cities getting some of the positive stimulus that the corporations gave to new towns? We welcome his caution in the case of the North-East, as the three new towns there have played an integral part in the industrial strategy of the area.

I note what the hon. Gentleman has said about the North-East. I hope to make another announcement about my consideration of those three new towns shortly. I note what the hon. Gentleman has said about the inner cities, but I think it right for me to hold my fire about the inner cities until tomorrow.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in their decision on the Central Lancashire New Town the Government are deliberately breaking their promise to half a million people in North-East Lancashire? Three senior Cabinet Ministers—Tory as well as Labour—have repeated the promise made to these people. Is my right hon. Friend aware that if the Central Lancashire New Town goes forward without that promise being implemented for the people in North-East Lancashire, he will be striking a paralysing blow at that area? I serve warning on the Government that I shall stump through North-East Lancashire to see that this picture is drawn to the attention of the people there. The Government have sown some sour seeds.

I would not willingly or consciously have broken a promise made to the people in Central and North-East Lancashire, and I shall look carefully at the points made by my hon. Friend, who has very strong concern for the area.

The target for Peterborough, which falls partly within my constituency, is being only marginally reduced. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the defects caused by the lack of funds for education and hospital development and by the lack of rate support grant for Cambridgeshire, in which Peterborough lies? As Peterborough is to continue largely on the scale originally planned, will he ensure that these defects are overcome as soon as may be?

Ministers directly concerned with the particular services will clearly take account of the planned growth of each individual new town, including Peterborough. I need say no more than that, except to remind the right hon. and learned Member that I have had the opportunity of hearing him and representatives from Cambridge County Council on the matter of the rate support grant. I have noted and I shall study carefully what they have said.

Why is my right hon. Friend so certain that the planners are right in stopping the new towns when, having achieved the dereliction of the inner cities, they now seek to achieve the dereliction of the new towns? Will my right hon. Friend say why a few of the planners cannot be got rid of? Is my right hon. Friend aware that in Northampton a binding agreement with the development corporation has been entered into by the borough council—which this decision will break and which will mean dereliction of our city shopping centre? What kind of compensation is the Secretary of State prepared to discuss with the borough council?

I can agree with at least the first part of what my hon. Friend said. I heartily endorse the view that planners are not always right, and that is something that we must bear in mind. To build in a certain element for the change in planning decisions is only sensible. I am not at all persuaded that such dire consequences as my hon. Friend predicts will follow from my announcement. In any event, we shall have an opportunity of consulting the local authority as well as the new town corporation during the period ahead.

As it appears that no change has been made for designated areas of third generation new towns, is it fair to assume that in a growth point such as Milton Keynes there is no reason why that town should not reach its target population of 250,000?

I do not wish to add to the figures that I have already announced. They represent a careful and considered preliminary judgment of the development of that new town.

Does the Secretary of State's approval of the Central Lancashire New Town outline plan also express acceptance of the road works contained in that plan? May we be assured that the decision letter is available in the Library so that we can check up on that?

It is indeed my belief and hope that that document is in the Library now.

It would be wrong for me to go into too many details about individual internal arrangements and facilities for each of the new towns, but obviously road planning—given a change in the whole size of the proposals for the Central Lancashire New Town—is bound to be affected. I cannot go further than that.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his decision drastically to reduce the size of the Central Lancashire New Town provides the chance of an end to the long feud between those who want an enormous monstrosity and those who, like myself, do not want it at all?

Will the right hon. Gentleman consider looking again at the size of the bureaucracy that will remain to govern this much reduced new town? It is expensive, and if it is to remain the same size many of the savings that the Secretary of State seeks will be frittered away.

I am not aware that new towns have been accused in the past of having swollen bureaucracies. The general feeling is that they have been extremely efficient, but certainly a new town organisation must reflect the task that it has been given, and no doubt that point will be noted. I am glad to hear that what I have said will bring greater contentment in that area, but a major factor—particularly in the North-West—is that the population growth there has been about the smallest of possibly all the regions in England. That is bound to affect a decision that was taken 10 years ago against a different background.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement will give unlimited relief to the 2¼ million people who have moved into new towns? While the Minister has rightly resisted the idea that has recently been expressed by the Opposition that we should kill the new towns, will not my right hon. Friend's action in trimming new towns means that the delicate balance between houses and jobs could be affected? Is there nothing that the Secretary of State wants to say to the House about the transfer of assets?

I can assure my hon. Friend that it is no wish or intention of mine to kill the new towns. They have been highly successful and have given much happiness to the hundreds of thousands of people who are fortunate enough to live in them. As for the New Towns Commission, I was afraid that I might over-weary the House with the length of my statement so I have decided to make a further statement on that later.

Is the Secretary of State aware that most of my constituents will warmly welcome his decision to reduce substantially the target population figure for the Central Lancashire New Town? Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the two villages of Grimsargh and Haighton and the rich agricultural land around them will be excluded from new town development? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in Penwortham the new town is one of the most unpopular developments ever to be imposed on an unwilling community, and will he take steps to see that in reducing the target population he will halt the development of the Central Lancashire New Town in Penwortham?

I ask the hon. and learned Gentleman to look at the decision later rather than to ask me to attempt to comment on details. I shall be consulting with the new town development corporation and with the local authorities concerned, and I am quite sure that I shall be able to take fully into account particular and local matters of importance of the kind that the hon. and learned Gentleman has just made clear.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have just come back to the Chamber from the Library and the decision letter to which the Secretary of State referred is not available.

Order. I am quite sure that the Secretary of State will see to that, but it is not for me to do so.

My right hon. Friend is chary about basing his views on predictions of the future population because that is liable to be unpredictable. Will the Secretary of State for Scotland make a statement about the Scottish new towns, and particularly about the mature new towns such as East Kilbride?

I am sure that what my hon. Friend has said will be reported to the Secretary of State for Scotland.

I take this opportunity of apologising to the House for the fact that we have not yet put in the Library the document that I wished to place there. We shall do our utmost to remedy that without delay.

I wholly agree with my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride (Dr. Miller) that I cannot wholly and emphatically prejudge the future population of this country.

In relation to Bracknell New Town the Minister has said, as I understand it, that he will open discussions with the local authority about "normal growth", but does he expect that any part of that normal growth might take place outside the designated areas? Does the right hon. Gentleman recall saying, in relation to inner cities, that he hoped to entice back some of the industry that has moved to the new towns? Can the Secretary of State assure us that he does not propose to take any action that would dismember living and lively new towns such as Bracknell?

I have no intention of injuring the town of Bracknell. As for its possibilities of expansion through the district council, I remind the hon. Gentleman that of course there is in the territory of Bracknell considerable land some of which, at any rate, might be available for development if the town wished to build more.

Will my right hon. Friend explain how the situation can arise in which his Department, having fixed a 1986 target for Telford only just over 18 months ago, can today announce a reduction of some two-fifths of the difference between the present population and that target? Will he comment on what that tells us about the efficacy of the planning procedures of his Department?

There are bound to be estimates about the pace at which towns expand and at which people leave other areas of the conurbations. We are not a command society in which we say that there will be a build-up of X per cent. or of X thousand people a year. We are not driving people from one part of the country to another. There are therefore bound to be differences between estimates and outturn. Frankly, I do not find the discrepancy to which my hon. Friend refers a very great one.

My constituency covers the designated areas of two new towns, and I have two questions to put to the right hon. Gentleman. The first concerns Runcorn. I accept his decision that it should be allowed to complete its proposed development, but does he intend that new towns should do more to meet the growing demand for owner-occupation? Will he therefore now remove those fetters that prevent the development corporation from selling houses in Runcorn to tenants when it wishes to do so?

My second question concerns Warrington, and here the right hon. Gentleman's statement is inadequate. If it is intended that the population should be reduced by 35,000, does that mean that the Secretary of State proposes to redefine the designated area, thus reducing it, and to remove from that area those parts of my constituency which at present are in it and which never should have been in it from the beginning?

It would be premature for me to speak about changes in the designated areas. I have explained that I am simply launching a consultation, and I must proceed with it before I make any firm announcements.

As for owner-occupation, I believe that the announcement by my right hon. Friend some months ago, tailoring the different degrees of permissiveness to the actual situation in each new town to the number of people actually wanting rented accommodation, was a very sensible and wise decision. I shall look at the matter again, but I am pretty certain that that decision can stand for some time.

The right hon. Gentleman has referred to the growing demand for owner-occupation and to the changes in population movements. In the case of Redditch, will the right hon. Gentleman say whether the development corporation will be allowed to cater for that demand? I think that he referred to third generation towns in that context. Will he say that there is now no longer any justification for Birmingham representation on the development corporation board? Is he now in a position to make the appointments which have been outstanding for so long.

I hope to make announcements about appointments in the very near future. My remarks on owner-occupation were addressed principally to the third generation new towns. Beyond that I need not add to the statement I made in reply to the two previous questions on the present regime in first and second generation new towns affecting sales to owner-occupiers.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement will be broadly welcomed by the citizens of Peterborough as being much less painful than they expected it to be? Will he say whether any individual township will be discontinued because of his proposals? When will he be able to give us a decision on the western sector outline plan?

I certainly would not propose to take any decision on the western sector until I had had my consultations with the Peterborough authorities. It would be wrong to assume that the development of particular districts or areas is either made necessary or ruled out by my statement.

Order. I shall call the four hon. Members who have risen to their feet. I say without offence to those who have already been called that I often keep the best until last.

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman a simple question? In his statement he said that the new towns were to take a higher proportion of disadvantaged persons. Will he give an assurance that the relevant area health authorities will be given sufficient funds to meet the health needs of these disadvantaged people?

If there were significant increases after my statement in such numbers I should take the matter up with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his recognition of the contribution made by the new towns in the North-East to the provision of jobs and to the raising of environmental standards is widely welcomed? Will he accept, however, that an early statement on their future is necessary?

I recognise the desirability of an early statement on that matter. I am only sorry that I have been unable to bring matters forward in order to make it today.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the strong feeling and opinion that the problems of the new towns and inner cities are separate issues that should be treated separately? Is he aware that the Central Lancashire New Town is a focal point for growth in the North-West Region, a region which has been stricken by unemployment? Will he ensure that there are immediate consultations with the local authorities and the development corporation and that a time limit is set for these consultations so that the issue may be completely clarified?

Yes, I have in mind that these consultations should be thorough but, nevertheless, reasonably speedy. I hope that I shall be able to report to the House before the Summer Recess. I acknowledge that part of the case for the Central Lancashire New Town is that it is well placed geographically and that it is well placed for growth.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that even without the Central Lancashire New Town Development Corporation there would be considerable development of housing in the new town area but that it would be chiefly of a private nature and would be intended for owner-occupation? Is he aware that there is, nevertheless, an enormous demand for rented accommodation? Is it possible for my right hon. Friend to instruct the new town to use some of its resources, especially that part which will not be wasted on roads, in putting funds into the town centre so that houses may be built for rent?

I do not like the word "instruct", but I am certain that there is plenty of scope, particularly against the background of the individual needs of the people in the area concerned, for modifications of the housing tenures or of the kind of houses built by the development corporation.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It will be obvious to you that the statement by the Secretary of State for the Environment has raised as many questions as it has answered. Since my right hon. Friend the Lord President is present in the Chamber and since there is no chance of dealing with this matter on the Business Question this week, can my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House take the opportunity of indicating when we might have a debate on this matter?

If the Leader of the House had the chance, maybe he would take that opportunity, but it does not seem as though he wants that chance.