HC Deb 07 May 1952 vol 500 cc507-11

Considered in Committee, and reported, without Amendment.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."

9.54 p.m.

Mr. G. Lindgren (Wellingborough)

While we welcome the Bill and give it a Third Reading enthusiastically, I should like to put one or two points to the Parliamentary Secretary in regard to the increased expenditure which is now being made available to the Ministry. I would congratulate his right hon. Friend on the great interest he is showing in new towns. His visits to two new towns are very much welcomed by the development corporations, as I know from my own personal experience. It is encouraging to them to feel that the Minister is taking such a first-hand interest in the work which they are undertaking.

On the Second Reading of this small Bill, stress was laid by a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House on balanced development for these new towns, and in that balanced development the development of social activity is of the greatest importance.

The new town development corporations came into being only because the local government machine has not had at its disposal, either in staff or in rateable value, sufficient resources to enable it to absorb the development and to provide the resources for the area. It is because of that that the development corporations ought to undertake quite a large number of these social developments. There is, perhaps, a Departmental tendency to say that the normal government functions should be undertaken by the normal local government machine, and if the local government machine is capable of absorbing them I would entirely agree with that.

The new towns vary considerably. I learn from the local Press that the Department are not agreeing to expenditure by the Hatfield Development Corporation on the provision of playing fields. Side by side with it is the Welwyn Garden City New Town Development Corporation. Hatfield is a parish council, while Welwyn Garden City is an urban district of long standing and considerable rateable value.

It is quite probable and possible for the Welwyn Garden City Urban District Council to undertake social functions in regard to, say, playing fields which the Hatfield Parish Council cannot undertake. To put it bluntly, in Hatfield the parish council are without the financial resources but have the power to provide playing fields, while the urban district council have the resources but not the power. The present discussions seem to show that the development corporations were willing and anxious, and, in fact, promised, to provide the initial equipment for playing fields, which are essential when an industry comes into a town like Hatfield. A young industry—De Havilland's, for example—with virile workers is anxious to have the facilities of playing fields. The development corporation is anxious to provide them, but the Department do not agree.

That is a rather restrictive policy, and I feel that in providing the moneys under the Act and, now, under the Bill, the intention of Parliament was that according to the resources of the area the development corporation should assist the local authority, particularly when it is a parish council, in the provision of some of the normal local government functions which could not be provided by the local government machine.

The same sort of thing happened in the adjoining new town of Welwyn Garden City. When it was first started, the old Garden City Company had to provide the playing fields and facilities, otherwise there would not have been any because the initial resources of the urban district council were so slight. I appreciate that the Parliamentary Secretary may not have details of that particular case, and I do not press him, but it is on that type of activity that I should like an assurance from him on the general principle.

We feel that the money allowed for in the Bill ought not to be used only for the provision of houses, roads, sewers, shops and the rest. It should be used for social amenities such as playing fields and in assisting the development of halls for social activities, so that the new towns, which are developing and which have no history or general development behind them, can form their own local consciousness and develop into units with some central social activity.

I welcome the Bill and conclude, as I opened, in congratulating the Minister on the activity he is already showing in encouraging these new towns in normal development, and I bring this to his attention thinking that he will take advantage of the opportunity to rectify it.

10.0 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Ernest Marples)

I am obliged to the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Lindgren) for the kindly references to my right hon. Friend. I will convey them to him when I see him tomorrow morning. I also take the opportunity of thanking the hon. Member, my predecessor in the office I hold, for his cooperation in getting this Bill expeditiously through the House, because he, with his long experience of local government and all the constructional activities of local authorities, knows full well that every hon. Member is behind the new towns in principle.

We disagree of course as to some of the methods of implementing the principle and some of the administrative steps taken, but in general the entire House is in agreement with the principle. My right hon. Friend has shown that by visiting most of the new towns, and he proposes in the course of the next few months to complete his visits to them all. He is doing his best and will be most appreciative of the generous tributes paid by the hon. Member.

The question I am asked on Third Reading is whether we intend to have a balanced development in the new towns, and the answer is, undoubtedly, yes. But the hon. Member must realise that there are inherent difficulties in having a planned development in a new town and bringing it forward in the correct stages. There are great inherent difficulties in building a new town. It is difficult to bring together at the same time services such as roads, sewers, disposal of sewage, water supplies, the building of shops and houses, the supply of amenities and of schools; first the roads will be ahead and then the houses will be ahead and the roads left behind.

At the moment, the new towns are suffering from lack of amenities for the inhabitants. That is a problem which my right hon. Friend recognises, but we are trying in the Department to reduce the number of technical checks which are imposed by the Department, not only on the new towns but on local authorities. My right hon. Friend is of the opinion that in the past local authorities and the new towns have sent in their plans for housing and then the technical officers of the Ministry have made a technical check. It is not satisfactory when one architect is taking another architect's work. What we are trying to do in the Ministry—and my right hon. Friend is stressing the point —is to see if it is possible to apply an administrative check on the actual checking of the cost of the scheme sent in by the new towns and local authorities and to give greater freedom to them both.

So my answer to the hon. Member is that we are trying to give greater freedom to the new towns in selecting how they will spend their money. It must be borne in mind that if they spend more money on social amenities they may have less to spend on such things as housing and roads. It is difficult to give more amenities in addition to the level of work they are already undertaking. It is not only a question of money. The money provided under this Bill must be matched by resources and if some of the social amenities which are wanted require a great deal of steel, it would be extremely difficult to give permission to carry out that building if it meant that there would be fewer houses or perhaps less water supplies, or sewerage, or something of that nature.

Therefore, the amount of work to a large extent is governed by the supply of steel and of timber. Subject to those materials being available in sufficient quantities, I do not think the hon. Member will find my right hon. Friend is unsympathetic to the point of view he so lucidly and moderately expressed. But each case must be taken on its merits; one must strike a balance of advantages in each case. If the hon. Member would be kind enough to send details of the cases he mentioned we will have a look at them again, because I expect the decision of those cases was made when the technical check imposed by the Department was more stringent than it will be in the future. We are trying to get greater elasticity and flexibility in the future than there has been in the past.

I wish to conclude by again expressing my appreciation of the attitude of the hon. Member for Wellingborough in assisting the Government to get this Bill through all its stages in the House and achieve what we all desire—the rapid expansion of the new towns.

Mr. J. Slater (Sedgefield)

Can the Parliamentary Secretary tell the House what consideration the Minister has given to the appeals made during the Second Reading debate about the rents being charged for houses in the new towns, and whether he is prepared to give assistance to the new town corporations by means of an increase of subsidy as compared with the subsidy given to local authorities?

Mr. Marples

My right hon. Friend is watching the question of rents, not only for the new towns, but in the case of local authorities as a whole. One of the reasons why he has gone out of his way to stress the importance of the new so-called People's House is because it results in a smaller rent for the occupant not by giving an increased subsidy but by reducing building costs. The answer to the problem of high rents is not necessarily always an increase of the Exchequer subsidy, because if an increase is to be automatically given when costs rise there seems to be an unfortunate tendency for costs always to rise. The answer is to reduce building costs by a stable financial policy.

My right hon. Friend is devoting a lot of his time to seeing whether it is possible to keep building costs at their present level, or to reduce them. How successful he will be depends on the success of the monetary policy as a whole. We all agree that the rents which are having to be charged in some new towns are beyond the means of most of the people who want the houses. The question is, what method can we adopt to reduce the rents? I am not sure that an increased Exchequer grant is necessarily the way to do it. A freer flow of materials to the builders, a reduction in building costs and the better planning of houses will achieve that. My right hon. Friend has that matter very much in mind.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.