HC Deb 02 April 1965 vol 709 cc2099-110

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

4.3 p.m.

Mr. William Hamling (Woolwich, West)

I am glad to have the opportunity to raise on the Adjournment today the question of the future development of the Royal Arsenal site. Perhaps it is an ironic coincidence that we should be coming at this stage to the end of the Royal Ordnance Factory at Woolwich at the same time as the Borough of Woolwich has been extinguished. We are now part of the new Greater London Borough of Greenwich. To the people of Woolwich it is a source of great regret that the Royal Ordnance Factory has come to an end. It would be out of order for me to raise that question today, because it is not the responsibility of the Minister who will answer the debate. The decision has been taken by the Government and I am assured that there is nothing we can do which will change that decision.

The result of this decision is that a very large amount of land is now available for redevelopment. Perhaps I might say, in parenthesis, that a great part of this land has been available for redevelopment for years. Many hundreds of acres have been lying idle for nearly ten years which could have been made available for housing and other social developments, but at least Her Majesty's Government have now taken this decision.

I want to discuss the form which the new development will take, and whether this decision is simply to be for building houses. I am very glad to note that Her Majesty's Government have already said that the development will be along the lines of a new town development. Obviously, it is not a new town in the sense that it is an appendage of London, but it will take the form of a new town development in the sense that there will not only be building of houses. Part of the area will be earmarked for industry, and there will be such social development as shops. What the people would like to see is that this development is made an integral part of the existing borough. We do not want to see a new town developed on the north-east of the borough and lying outside the borough. We should like it integrated with the existing redevelopment which is going on already in the old town. I use the word "town" because we who live there speak of the "town" of Woolwich, even though Woolwich has been, for a long time, a Metropolitan borough. Woolwich has had an urban quality all its own.

The old borough of Woolwich started, and the new borough of Greenwich is carrying on with, a redevelopment of the existing town centre. They have imaginative plans. We should like to see the new development on the old Arsenal site integrated with that development. I should like particularly to refer to the development taking place at the Western end. We have been assured by the Department of Defence that, on the land which has been earmarked as borough land at the western end of the site, certain buildings will be preserved for historic reasons. I know that this is not the direct concern of my hon. Friend, but I hope that he will take back to his colleagues who are responsible the feeling of the borough that great thought ought to be given to the question of how the preservation of these buildings will fit in with the plans which the borough has for that new development.

The plans which the borough has already developed are most ambitious. Woolwich has been engaged for the last ten years in rebuilding a Victorian town. I can think of no borough in the country which has embarked on such an ambitious project. Great steps have already been taken at the west end of the borough in St. Mary's and dockyard. It is only fair to say that the borough has had tremendous assistance from the old London County Council in this. We are now engaged on reconstructing the eastern end of the town, in Plumstead, which has a great history and which is adjacent to the Arsenal site. There is a point to which I should like to direct my hon. Friend's attention, and that is that an enclave on the site is to be retained by the War Department. We hope that, when plans are made, the enclave reserve for the War Department will be looked at from the point of view of redevelopment. We do not want to redevelop all around and leave the enclave undeveloped.

The other thing to which I should like to direct my hon. Friend's attention is the situation in the dockyard. The dockyard is part of the area which is being redeveloped. I know that it is very much in the mind of my hon. Friend that what we have very much in mind in the borough is that the whole of the river front should be opened up. This could be a most exciting prospect for future generations, with the opening up of the River Thames from Greenwich right down the river. I know very well that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, who is a Londoner, and who knows the river far better than I shall ever know it, must share our enthusiasm for this exciting project.

May I say a word of two about industrialised housing? There has been a most interesting development at Morris Walk under the auspices of the L.C.C. We have it in mind that when this new estate is developed industrial housing will provide the bulk of the development. But will my hon. Friend give us an assurance that in the industrialised housing of the future we shall see a much greater variety of design and a much greater use of colour, for example? Far be it from me, as a citizen of Woolwich, to criticise what has taken place in Morris Walk. It is a magnificent scheme. But some of us locally feel that there might be developments there, and some of us have in mind the establishment of a Government factory for industrialised housing. I know that the Government have made one or two statements about this already, but it seems to us that if we are to have a very large development on the Arsenal site, with the adjacent river, with transport facilities already well developed, and with raw materials on the site, we might contemplate some construction work taking place on that site on an industrial basis.

Will my hon. Friend also say a further word or two about organisation? He said something about this in the debate on the Milner Holland Report. We know that a steering committee is to be set up. We should particularly like to see the development going on not just under the auspices of G.L.C. but under the auspices of a consortium representing the Greater London Council and also representing the local boroughs—not only our own borough but other boroughs which have an interest in this development.

We do not want to be parochial about this. The people of Woolwich have welcomed in the past citizens from many other parts of the country, not only from other parts of London. Were that not so, I should not be the Member for Woolwich, West. When this development takes place, we shall welcome many thousands of Londoners, not only from Bermondsey, Lambeth and Southwark but from other parts of London, too. We know that during the last ten years, with the new Abbey Wood Estate, we have had very fine people coming into Woolwich and already playing a useful part in the life of the borough. We want to see an agreed plan of development going forward in which advantage can be taken of local interests and local enthusiasms.

May I in the last few minutes say a word about industrial development? My hon. Friend knows very well that I have been active in trying to persuade the Government to consider the placing of Government factories on the site, because part of the site will be devoted to industrial development. He also knows very well that the Government do not share this view, on the grounds of national economic policy. They feel that if there is to be a Government factory it ought to be in a place where unemployment is a much greater problem than it is in the South-East. But we should like to hear some comments from him about the re-location of industry. I am assured that factories will be located on the Arsenal site which have come from other parts of south-east London. We have one or two factories in Woolwich itself which may be re-located. May we have an assurance that they will be re-located on the Arsenal site?

Are some of the older factories in places like Lambeth and Southwark to be relegated further down the river, perhaps in Woolwich? What we are concerned with is that the thousands of people who come to live in Woolwich shall not have to be commuters. We do not want to see the already overloaded transport of south-east London loaded still more with the 50,000 or so people who live there trying to struggle out of the borough in order to work somewhere else. These are matters which I hope will be in the mind of my hon. Friend.

The project which is being embarked upon here is one of the most exciting projects in the history of London. We have an opportunity here of recreating a modern 20th century town in an old area—something which has not been done anywhere else—a new town built from the grass roots up which will embrace a very old-established borough.

I said earlier that we are now part of the Greater London Borough of Greenwich. It is nice to recall that a gentleman who graced this Chamber for many years was once the Member of Parliament for Greenwich. I refer, of course, to William Gladstone. He was one of the outstanding representatives of Greenwich. Those of us who come from Woolwich feel no hardship at having the new borough christened Greenwich because in those days Woolwich was, in fact, represented by William Ewart Gladstone as part of Greenwich, and there is no heart-burning on that score.

We hope that in this new project the new borough will be written down in history as a magnificent planning achievement, and I hope that in listening to my hon. Friend I will recapture some of the excitement which is felt in our locality at this prospect.

4.17 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Robert Mellish)

My hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling) has been a Member of this House for only about five months, but already in that short time he has made his mark. I should like to say to him, speaking as a fellow Londoner, that I think he is a very worthy representative of this extremely well-known area of London. I thought it was inevitable that he would be raising very shortly with me the question of this enormous development which is going to take place in the part of Woolwich which he represents.

The availability of this great windfall site within London presents an unprecedented opportunity and one unlikely ever to recur. I know that the Greater London Council looks forward to the opportunity of an exciting new develop- ment on the scale of a new town within London itself. Taking into account land which the Council inherits from the London County Council on Erith Marshes and elsewhere, it will have available for development about 1,340 acres. After providing for all the necessary services which such a great community will need, the Greater London Council estimates that it can provide homes for some 65,000 people. The present intention is that this land should be used as far as possible for rehousing people from clearance and redevelopment areas in South and South-East London; although, in view of the general housing need in London, the Greater London Council may find it necessary to take in a wider catchment area.

The Greater London Council's officers and those of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Defence are already in negotiation about the transfer of land from Government ownership to the G.L.C. I am pleased to be able to tell the House that good progress is being made with these negotiations, and the G.L.C. does not at present see any prospect of difficulty in agreeing a phased programme for the release of the land to fit in with the stages of its own development.

This development cannot be merely an overgrown housing estate. The aim is to prepare a comprehensive scheme providing a balanced form of development with shops, social facilities and an appropriate amount of local employment.

There are many interlinking problems which such a comprehensive scheme must raise. In particular, the redevelopment of such a large area obviously raises important problems of employment and communications. I understand from the G.L.C. that its first estimate is that, when this area is fully developed, 30,000 of the 65,000 residents would be in employment. As a broad generalisation, it might be assumed that about one-third of these would work in the Woolwich area, and perhaps another one-third in neighbouring centres. Experience in other parts of London suggests that a considerable number of the remainder would travel to work in central London unless ways could be found of preventing this.

The G.L.C. is discussing with Government Departments the possibility of moving industry from central London without increasing the total level of employment in Greater London, and also whether any special case could be made for offices in this area.

My right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade is responsible for trying to restrain employment in the south-east and to encourage firms to set up in the development districts where there is an over-riding need for greater opportunities for employment. But my right hon. Friend does not reject out of hand the possibility of allowing some industrial development at Woolwich. He will continue to approve there a limited number of suitable projects with a tie to the locality or where London firms have been planned out of their present sites; provided he is fully satisfied, on the stricter tests now being applied by the Government in the congested areas, that these projects cannot go to a development district. As regards offices, the control will have to be applied stringently in the G.L.C. area if it is to achieve its object of relieving congestion in London, but it will still be possible to make out a case to my right hon. Friend for office development in this area.

The balance between housing and employment at Woolwich must be related to the nature and extent of the new demands on transport facilities. The G.L.C., British Rail, London Transport and my right hon Friend the Minister of Transport are all fully aware of the immense problems involved. British Rail and London Transport have already been brought into discussions with the G.L.C. and further detailed talks will start as soon as possible as to the effect on their services—both on the local services from the needs for local traffic of such a large development and also from the need of additional travel to Central London.

Within a wider framework, the Passenger Transport Planning Committee for London set up by British Railways and London Transport is considering plans for the co-ordinated development of public passenger services as a whole in the London area. This will take account of the proposed developments in Woolwich. For the long-term, an intensive study is being made in the London Transportation Study of the overall transport problems in the London conurbation. The object of this study is to develop long-term comprehensive proposals for meeting the future demand for transport in London in the most practical and economic way. Again, this study will take into account the effects of possible developments such as those at Woolwich Arsenal.

As regards the layout of the new development itself, the G.L.C. has set up a special planning team. This has been working on an overall plan for the development to achieve an outstanding example of post-Buchanan urban development. The plan will include provision for a continuous system of pedestrian routes separate from the main road system and linking all the main community facilities. Another important objective—and my hon. Friend will be delighted to hear this—will be to provide for maximum public use of the long river frontage, including riverside walks and parks which could be of great value to the people of London generally.

To ensure a properly balanced community, the G.L.C. envisages that not all the houses should be provided by the local authorities. As a first instalment, and because of the urgency of the housing needs of London's housing, development on Stage I of about 1,000 dwellings can be started in the near future. Work is now in hand on the detailed plans for this.

I have spoken so far of the Greater London Council.

I understand that the G.L.C. is already in informal contact with the new Greater London Boroughs of Greenwich and Bexley and is bringing these boroughs into the discussions. The Greater London Council assures me that it will be maintaining close co-operation with the two boroughs, and I understand that it will begin talks with them as soon as possible on the problems involved, on the best means of co-operation, on the allocation of housing, and on the relationship of the new township to their new town centres. The Greater London Council will also be co-operating with the education authorities regarding schools and all the organisations concerned with the medical and social services.

With a development on this scale which raises so many interlinked problems, co-operation is the key word for success. To facilitate this co-operation and to try to iron out the problems as they arise there is already a liaison group of officials representing all the main Government Departments concerned—Defence, Economic Affairs, Trade, Labour, Transport, Public Building and Works—under the chairmanship of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. This liaison group of officials has already met the officers of the Greater London Council, of British Railways and of London Transport to discuss common problems. They will continue to meet as necessary to ensure that the different aspects of development, housing, employment, transport, and so on, are kept in step. No doubt, they will also keep in touch with the boroughs concerned, which have important responsibilities especially in education, health and welfare for the new development.

My hon. Friend asked me a specific question about industrialised building, variety, colour and so on. A great deal of research has already been done by the National Building Agency. I am certain that there will be industrialised building on this site. How much, and of exactly what sort, I cannot say today, but I should regard this as a wonderful opportunity for system building, and I can only say, whatever my hon. Friend's opinion may be, that it is my judgment that some of the industrialised building which I have seen is as good as, if not better than, much traditional building. Already, about 380 systems of industrialised building have been broken down to about 20 systems, which, I should imagine, will be considered when we start to build on the Woolwich site itself.

A word now about the town development of Woolwich, because I know how concerned Woolwich is. The fear of both Woolwich and Erith is that a big shopping and commercial town centre will be built in the middle of the new development which will compete unfairly with their town centres at the western and eastern extremities of the new development. I know that Woolwich has big plans for redeveloping its town centre, including offices, and Erith has town centre proposals which have recently been the subject of a public local inquiry. I cannot say anything about the public local inquiry. The report will come to my Ministry, and, of course, we all go very judicial on matters of this kind. We must wait and see what proposals the Greater London Council makes in its own plan, but it is likely, I think, that it will not seek to build up a great town centre of the kind which Woolwich and Erith fear. It might be much more sensible to provide the estate with a series of local neighbourhood centres, while building on what already exists in Woolwich and Erith, both of which badly need an injection of fresh life.

Finally, on the question of land being retained in public ownership, about 150 acres are being retained in two enclaves for Government purposes; about 58 acres of this are centred around the R.O.F. site at the western end, and about 84 acres are occupied by the Royal Armament Research and Development Establishment. There will also be a small area to be used by the Ministry of Public Building and Works. The majority of Government activities at the Arsenal, apart from the Royal Ordnance factory, cannot satisfactorily be removed elsewhere and will remain, though noisy activities, such as ranges and so on, will be moved to allow satisfactory residential development. Certain other Government establishments of the Ministries of Defence and of Public Building and Works will also be accommodated in the Arsenal. Concentrating these Government activities in the Arsenal will help to clear Kidbrooke for housing, and will later enable other sites—Red Barracks and Woolwich Dockyard—to be released for housing.

I share with my hon. Friend the hope that this scheme at Woolwich, which is probably the last chance we shall ever have to build on a site of this kind inside London, will be pressed to its full advantage. I am convinced, as a result of my contacts with all those with whom I have spoken in the Greater London Council and among the officers of my own Department, that the chance will not be missed. I echo what my hon. Friend said. We must make sure that future generations will be able to say that, whatever else was done in this century, this development at Woolwich was very well done.

4.30 p.m.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

I am sure that the House is very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his explanation of this exciting and imaginative scheme. It was difficult to grasp the figures as he gave them, but I believe that he mentioned a figure of 65,000 people to be accommodated there. I suppose that means about 25,000 dwellings.

Looking at the acreage, this seems a rather low density. Can the hon. Gentleman state the area which is to be devoted to dwellings and the sort of density to which they will be erected? We want to make the greatest use of the land for housing purposes, and I hope that not too much will be set aside for industrial and commercial purposes, because the Greater London Council area requires housing so very much. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has the density figures with him, or perhaps even the figure of the number of dwellings to be provided.

Mr. Mellish

Off the cuff, I think that the number of dwellings will be about 30,000. I cannot give an idea of the densities. The area will be planned, I believe, with various house-types. I have previously said that I do not want a sea of council flats. I want to see a very diversified form of experiment. I do not think that the plan is at the stage when densities can come into the argument. The 1,000 houses which we are to begin with will be at the Erith end. When we start building them, it will not interfere with the major plan, which is now being designed.

The hon. Member can be assured that, as I said, what we see here is a chance to build really well, to build for the future. We all know, none better than I, the tremendous demand for housing in London. That is the whole purpose of trying to get this site. But we have to bear in mind the balance. Social amenities are important; and the industrial content is important too. However, I give an assurance that when it comes to densities we shall not ignore the fact that London is crying out for land and that people are crying out for homes. At the end of the day, this is what it is all about.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes to Five o'clock.