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New Towns

Volume 37: debated on Friday 25 February 1983

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Goodlad]

2.41 pm

In introducing this debate on the future of the new towns, I do so both as a Member of Parliament fortunate enough to represent two such towns and as a Member of Parliament keen to assist the Government in carrying out their commitments in this particular area.

Let us recall from the outset that the Minister and his Department of the Environment colleagues have been instrumental in putting into practice this Administration's correct and realistic policies on the new towns. Already a number of end dates have been announced; already a more realistic balance between rented and private housing is being achieved; already a reduction in unnecessary bureacracy has been instigated; and already enhanced opportunities for enterprise and commercial organisations are being provided. But speed is of the essence if the frustrations of the local people whom we are seeking to serve are to be overcome, not least in those new towns served by the commission.

Announcing end dates for the newer new towns has indeed been welcome, although it might be argued that there, too, a faster approach could be adopted. But why is there still no definite winding-up deadline for the Commission for the New Towns, which continues to administer much of the first generation new towns? Although the local offices have now been withdrawn as a sign of that intent, an actual date would do much to spur activity. I appreciate that the appointment of Sir Neil Shields as chairman is a further sign of that determination, but still a date eludes us.

Together with my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen), for Paddington (Mr. Wheeler), for Chorley (Mr. Dover) and for Birmingham, Yardley (Mr. Bevan), I have presented a Bill to abolish the Commission for the New Towns so that its end will be sooner rather than later. I urge the Government to support that measure as a means of providing the ends—in more ways than one—which we all seek.

It is encouraging that substantial progress is being made on the transfer of communal assets to the local authority and that much surplus land has been sold. I look forward to discussions soon of plans for the ownership of the remaining assets when the commission has been abolished.

The sale of new town assets is an integral part of the withdrawal process of the Commission for the New Towns quango. I look for a quicker instigation of the powers of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration being available to investigate the problems arising. The sales—or lack of them—have created perhaps more difficulties than any others for the people directly involved.

The Government have rightly laid much emphasis on the right to buy for council and new town housing tenants and it is being extended to many in housing association properties. But what we need in the new towns is equal emphasis on the right to buy for sitting commercial and industrial tenants.

No doubt the speed of sale of the commission's assets has been disappointingly slow in the Government's view, but that disappointment can be more than matched by local firms still awaiting the chance to purchase. Even harsher are the feelings when expected opportunities do not materialise for one technical excuse or another, while the Commission for the New Towns still appears able to continue its own developments.

There is an understandable concern to achieve the correct return on the taxpayers' investment in the new towns, but that has to be balanced against ensuring that those who committed themselves to creating success in these same new towns by their investment are also assured of a fair return.

Repeatedly, I and colleagues such as my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stevanage (Mr. Wells) are faced with frustrated local business men who appear not to be afforded such rights. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to discuss this increasingly serious situation with the new towns commission chairman at the earliest opportunity.

I have emphasised the need for speed, but once the key outstanding matters have been settled it should be a case of the former commission towns growing old with dignity and with minimum interference.

The future of the remaining new towns should also be based upon a recognition of that same need for speed, allied to which should be the lessons that can clearly be learnt from the first generation new towns. It is essential to give full rein to private enterprise and to ensure the decline of public sector involvement. It is vital to be realistic about curtailing such new town development so as not to create greater imbalance with inner city areas and to prevent further loss of the countryside.

This Government have done—and will continue to do—a service to the new towns by overcoming some of the wrong-headed Socialist policy decisions of Labour Administrations to which the Labour party still adheres; by exposing the total lack of interest or views by the SDP-Liberal alliance about this important sector of our community; and by applying Conservative principles to ensure the continuing and future success of new towns such as Welwyn Garden City and Hatfield.

2.48 pm

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mr. Murphy) for raising a matter that concerns many hon. Members representing urban constituencies not only in the new towns but in the larger conurbations. The general feeling is that it is about time that the Government gave an end date. The assets can now be sold off and the commission can be wound up. That does not mean that the commission is not doing a fine job—it is doing a good job—but all good things come to an end. The Minister will agree that it about time that a date was fixed.

My hon. Friend mentioned imbalance in the new towns. I want to take the argument further and discuss the imbalance between the old and the new towns. The imbalance is not financial but involves talent. For example, 22 per cent. of Liverpool's population and 21 per cent. of Manchester's population have left the cities' boundaries in the last decade. People move from the inner or middle cities to the new towns. The more mobile, skilled and talented tend to get out leaving behind an imbalance of elderly, ill and unemployed people.

Money is not the answer to the problems of the inner cities. I do not want my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment to think that I am suggesting that the money saved on new towns should be pumped into the inner cities. That is the last thing I want, because in many ways the problems of the inner cities have been generated by too much public money, which has been used in areas where private money could and should have dealt with the problem.

The Government must be made to realise that the £2 billion spent on Merseyside has done little good. The inner cities are a bottomless pit into which public money can be pumped without effect.

The main problem is how to get people back into the inner cities and to achieve the right mix in the population, with neighbourhoods responding and prospering, rather than having to be propped up by successive Governments because they cannot stand on their own feet.

Unless the Government take a more robust view, there will be a drift out of the principal towns and cities, because Government grants, regional aids, special development area status and so on encourage firms to move to green field sites, thus denuding local authorities of rate income and the inner areas of a balanced population.

We need positive commitments from the Government to fix a date for the winding up of the commmission and to prevent the expansion of old towns on to green field sites. The old towns and the new towns are getting closer and the green belt, sandwiched between the two, is coming under increasing pressure.

The Government ought to reverse their aid policies so that inner areas are encouraged to develop and outer areas are discouraged. That is the only way to correct the imbalance between inner and outer areas. Pumping public money into new or old towns is not the answer. The important aspect is how that money is used. The Government have correctly tried to use it as a lever to bring in private money. The next stage is to use public and private money to get people to help themselves. People should not lean on central and local government to solve their problems, because they will never do so.

2.48 pm

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mr. Murphy) for raising this topic and for presenting his case with his customary vigour and clarity. I also appreciated his kind remarks about the Government.

It was also a pleasure to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen) developing a theme that I have heard him develop on other occasions. His views have helped to influence Government policy. We are winding up new town corporations and setting up development corporations in the inner cities, which is exactly what my hon. Friend wanted us to do.

The future of the new towns is an important and complex subject. I shall begin by taking stock of the progress made under existing legislation towards completing new town development programmes and making them better-balanced communities. I shall deal later with the principles that will govern the arrangements that we are making to deal permanently with the assets and liabilities of the completed towns.

I know that my hon. Friends feel that we ought to be going faster, but there are some restraints, and the existing legislation is an important one. It gives the commission a central role in winding up new town corporations and it has specific statutory duties as a permanent body.

The Government consider that permanent special arrangements for the new towns are no longer justified and we have already announced our intention to wind up the commission in due course. My hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield will point to his recently introduced Bill to do just that. However, I must tell him that the task of winding up the commission is slightly more complex than is suggested in his rather short Bill. For example, we have to make sure that we sort out all the assets and liabilities of both the commission and the remaining new town corporations. What is needed is an orderly process of selling to the private sector those assets which should be in the private sector and transferring the others to the appropriate part of the public sector. We shall introduce legislation on winding-up as soon as we can within the constraints on parliamentary time, which are familiar for my hon. Freinds.

We have, nevertheless, made considerable progress. When we took office we undertook a review of all the new towns. The previous Government had already announced target winding-up dates for most of the first and second generation new town development corporations. But we took an objective look at these. We decided that Corby, Harlow, Stevenage and Bracknell were ready for winding-up and this has been done and their remaining assets are now with the commission. But others, such as Washington and Skelmersdale, needed rather more time. As for the third generation, my right hon. Friend the previous Secretary of State announced the results of our review of these on 4 February 1981. This means that we now have sensible target dates for winding up all the English new town development corporations. I hope that my hon. Friends will agree that that, in itself, is a big step forward.

Some new towns still have substantial development tasks ahead of them—tasks supported by many of the authorities concerned. We are doing all that we can to encourage the private sector to play its part—for example, through private housing initiatives or through forward funding of new industrial and commercial development. But some new town corporations still have a role, especially to provide basic infrastructure. No one would thank us—least of all those living and working in the towns—if we left the task half finished. That is why our targets are realistic and why "instant winding-up" is not. Still less are some of the ideas that I have seen from the Opposition, who would keep corporations in existence long after there was a need for them.

So we are pressing on as fast as we can. A major element in moving towards winding-up is the sales programme. This has three aims. First, it raises capital, which can be ploughed back into the new towns for essential public sector investment. Secondly, it reduces the public sector borrowing requirement. But, thirdly, and very important, I know, to my hon. Friends, it reduces the abnormal role of the public sector as landlord in these towns, and enables the private sector to participate fully in their development.

But sales take time. Since 1979 the new towns have sold £350 million worth of commercial and industrial assets. The commission alone has sold over £140 million. In Welwyn Garden City and Hatfield I understand that the commission has sold about £20 million worth. That is an excellent achievement.

My hon. Friends constantly ask why we cannot go even faster. The answer is that we have to ensure that the taxpayer—who paid for these assets—gets a proper return. But if purchasers offer fair prices the opportunity to buy is there. We want to avoid distress sales.

Will my hon. Friend hazard a guess—we shall not hold him to it—as to when we might see the end of the commission?

I shall deal with the commission in a moment.

My hon. Friends may also say that it is fine for the large institutions to buy, but what about the tenants? Do they get a fair chance to buy? I have had several interviews with my hon. Friends and representatives of tenants of the various new towns and the answer is that all new towns are aware of the need to give tenants a good opportunity to buy their freeholds and many tenants have already done so. In Welwyn and Hatfield the majority of the sales so far have been tenants of the commission buying their freeholds, and more recently we have been glad to see a group of tenants of smaller units coming together as a consortium to buy their factories which could not sensibly be sold individually. Nor are tenants necessarily competing with institutions: often they look for different things. And where there is marriage value, both the town and the tenant have a financial interest in seeing the sale go to the tenant.

Over the past three years we have changed the whole direction of new town housing development. No longer do we assume that new town housing should be dominated by public sector rented housing. Instead we have given people—especially those on lower incomes—the chance to start on the ladder of house ownership, through shared ownership and starter home schemes. New towns are leading the way in this, tapping the skills and initiatives of private builders. And, of course, we have given existing tenants the opportunity to buy—and since 1979 over 16,000, nearly one fifth of the total, have done or are doing so.

These are all important steps towards disengagement and making new towns better balanced communities. I hope shortly to resume discussions with the ADC on the financial terms for further housing transfers.

We are also making good progress on community-related assets. We have prepared a carefully-thought-out, workable scheme for their transfer to district councils. It is now with the ADC and the new towns for consultation. A limited transfer has already taken place at Stevenage. I have now agreed the principles of the proposed scheme for transfers at Welwyn and Hatfield, and I am considering the proposals recently put forward at Bracknell.

I come now to the commission. The present chairman, Sir Neil Shields, has brought a new impact to the work of the commission, and I endorse what my hon. Friend said about his role. I think that all those who are involved with the commission will appreciate his foresight, drive and sound judgment.

I have already mentioned that the commission recently took over responsibility for four further towns. I also mentioned the good progress that it is making with sales. It is pressing ahead rapidly with disengagement. All the local offices, except Corby, have now been closed. Over the past three and a half years it has reduced its staff by over 50 per cent. I know my hon. Friends feel that that is not fast enough, but the commission still has one or two things to do. Even in the towns other than Corby there are sites that it can usefully open up for development by the private sector, and at Corby it has a major role to promote new industry in the wake of the steel closures.

I should also like to pay tribute the commission for the success that it has had at Corby. Since 1980, it has created over one million sq ft of factory space and 2,500 vitally needed jobs.

All the tasks that I have outlined take time. That is why we have told the commission that it will not be wound up before the end of 1984. I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend, but I cannot announce the winding-up date in this Adjournment debate.

I come to my second theme—how are we to wind up not only the commission but the existing new town corporations? As I have already explained, new legislation will be needed, and I cannot prejudge that, but I can run through the issues and our current thinking on them.

Our aim is to sell the commercial and industrial assets to the private sector. That is well under way, and it will continue. Similarly, we aim to sell the housing to all those tenants who wish to buy. The remaining housing will then pass to district councils, on terms still to be settled. Community-related assets should be sold to tenants or voluntary organisations or passed to district councils on financial terms which are fair both to taxpayer and ratepayer, as outlined in the guidelines that we have already prepared.

However, even after that has taken place, towns are likely still to have in their possession some assets and liabilities. It is unrealistic to think that everything can be sold—or transferred—quickly. So we shall have to find a way of dealing with those assets, making sure that they are properly managed until they can either be sold to the private sector or transferred to an appropriate voluntary body or body in the public sector.

A further element is finance. I shall not say much about this today, because the House will soon have an opportunity to discuss it. My hon. Friends will be familiar with the problem of increasing revenue deficits, especially in the third generation towns. My hon Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction recently announced that, as an interim measure pending winding-up, we will be suspending appropriate amounts of new town debt. However, we accept that these financial matters will have to be fully resolved in the measures we take to deal with the winding-up.

Before I close, I should like to say a few words about the achievements of new towns. With the quite understandable emphasis on winding them up, it is possible to lose sight of what they have achieved. So I should like to express the Government's appreciation to their boards and their staff, who have coped so well with the problems of development, and adapted so well to the task of disengagement. Over the past three and a half years they have managed to reduce their staff overall by 2:5 per cent. That highlights how effectively they have responsed and their skill in harnessing the resources of the private sector to help get the necessary development done. Indeed, these staff and cost reductions show how far down the road we already are to satisfactory disengagement and winding-up.

I should like to close on a note of interest to all hon. Members concerned with new towns. In his book "The New Town Story", published in 1970, Frank Schaffer wrote that
"there has been controversy for 20 years about what happens to a town when it has been built, and the battle of ideas still rages".
In the past three and a half years we have gone a long way towards resolving that controversy. The measures that we shall be taking in due course will, I am confident, ensure a successful and prosperous future for all the new town communities.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes past Three o' clock.