HC Deb 27 November 1967 vol 755 cc171-97

10.1 p.m.

Sir Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Peterborough New Town (Designation) Order 1967, a copy of which was laid before this House on 27th July, in the last Session of Parliament, be annulled. I can assure the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government at the outset that we shall not press this Prayer to a vote. Even if we did so, I would not expect my hon. Friends to give support, for their general view—as it is mine—on matters of this sort is that if local authorities are satisfied, it is not for Parliament to try to override the local will. In this case, both Peterborough City Council and the Huntingdon and Peterborough County Council have formally approved the terms set out in the Peterborough New Town (Designation) Order, 1967.

However, there are very good reasons why the Parliamentary record should contain both the history of this plan to extend Peterborough under the new towns procedure and some of the apprehensions arising from the problems which have to be settled when from now on the proposals begin to be implemented on the ground. I want this done so that neither the Minister nor the proposed development corporation can say in future that they were not aware of these matters when the inevitable struggle as to who will pay eventually takes place, and most assuredly that struggle will take place. Let us have it clear at the outset that it is Peterborough which is giving the favour.

The Leader of the House, when he was Minister of Housing and Local Government, conscious of the overcrowded conditions in London and looking for areas to take London's overspill, requested Peterborough voluntarily to become a receiving area for that purpose. He announced that if Peterborough agreed he would implement his proposals under the new towns procedure. He made it quite clear that this would be something quite unique for it would mean setting up a development corporation with powers and authority which would infringe the powers previously retained by the local authority. Never before has a local authority as traditional and well established as the ancient City of Peterborough been subjected to such an overriding authority from outside when its area was developing and extending.

It was quite clear that the inference behind this unique approach has always been that under this procedure the Government would be able to be more generous in financing the expansion than could have been the case under any other procedure. I have no doubt at all that the local authorities agreed to this truncation of their powers because of this extra generous treatment which the Minister, speaking for the Government, had implied would be forthcoming. Let us have it quite clear that if the Minister had not chosen Peterborough for London's overspill Peterborough would have expanded in the normal way and at some speed.

During the last quarter of a century I doubt whether any township of this type has grown at a greater rate than Peterborough. It has grown from an agricultural marketing centre to a thriving specialist engineering hub which is of some significance in this country. All that would have been wanted was for the Government to have granted industrial development certificates for the area, and to have given normal subsidy arrangements for houses and other facilities, for Peterborough to have grown naturally; and, in growing naturally, it would have retained all of its own local government powers. This is what many people would have preferred. Therefore, the only reason for the new towns procedure is that the expansion should be especially speedy and that the Government are prepared to pay the extra expense that this speed will entail. This can be the only reason for bringing in this unique procedure.

The first question I want to put to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary is this, and I should like him to give as frank an answer as he possibly can. Have devaluation and the consequential slowing down of local authority development materially affected what the Government had in mind in terms of the contribution they intended to make for Peterborough's expansion? I would like the hon. Gentleman's answer to that tonight.

My second question is this. As the whole o' this procedure was to make it especially speedy, what is the plan for phasing the development? How long do the Government intend the full development to take, and what are the dates for the various sections of it? Will the hon. Gentleman give an assurance that any phasing plan will be such as to ensure that each phase is self-contained so that in the event of the expansion being called off or slowed down we shall not have ugly unfinished schemes dotted around the area?

It may be wondered why I laid so much emphasis on the fact that it is Peterborough which is giving the favour. I do this because in some mysterious way which so often happens when dealing with Governments the whole thing is now presented as though Peterborough was receiving the favour. According to the notes taken by a city deputation which on 18th July, 1966 met the then Minister of Housing and Local Government, who was accompanied by the Parliamentary Secretary who is to reply to the debate; the Minister then countered a very reasonable request for enlightenment with a statement such as: It was no intention of his to impose a scheme of expansion on a reluctant population and unless in broad terms his scheme was accepted then the areas could go without the advantages which would be derived from the scheme. Note the word "advantages", for when the deputation asked for more specific information on what financial help would be forthcoming, it was again advised that if they, the city council and the county council, did not feel they could accept the general scheme by the end of that month then he, the Minister, for his part may not proceed and instead, as he said, would go ahead in one of the other areas only too ready to take advantage of what was offered.

It will be noted that the offer was all in generalities, for when pressed a little further on the financial implications the Minister said that he could not advance a detailed plan and calculations to give a categorical assurance, so in the end the city council did accept the plan to proceed under this new towns procedure with many of the financial questions unanswered.

It is at this point that I have to say that I have never hidden the fact that I personally thought it unwise for the city council precipitately to accept the mere generalisations. I would have liked to have seen some of the smaller print explained, and I have always felt that the then Labour-controlled council accepted with too much enthusiasm and open-armed approval, before probing the details further.

In addition, I know that it is sometimes frowned upon to be even marginally critical of officials. I would have liked to have seen the city officials less overtly enthusiastic, and giving advice which might have made the council tougher in wanting details before it agreed. As the Press also claims to be, and indeed is, one of the watchdogs of the general public interest, I would have liked to have seen one of them a little less sycophantic when presenting the case to the electorate. The fact is that this was agreed without many of the questions being answered at a stage when they should have been answered.

Perhaps the main reason why I wanted this matter to be debated before it left Parliament was because the city council gave its implicit trust to the Minister and because this should not, in the end, prove to be to the council's disadvantage. I hope that it does not because it places on to the Government a special responsibility not to whittle away any of the advantages they implied in order to obtain the city council's approval. I hope that this will be borne in mind by the Parliamentary Secretary and will be passed on to the development corporation when it is eventually set up. Since the city council was generous, good neighbourly and accepted the general picture as put out by the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary, I hope, that, as a result of the trust which it placed in them, it will not be let down.

The county council rightly took a more realistic line. It refused to so speedily give its blank cheque approval. Indeed, the county council withdrew its formal objection to the designation Order only six days ago, on 21st November. In the meantime, the county council insisted on knowing where it was going and, as a result, it has negotiated a formula covering roads, amenities and special contributions. In congratulating the county council on taking this firm line—what I regard as a proper line—I can only say that I am puzzled that the Ministry could be categorical with the county council when the Department had said previously that it could not be so precise with the city council—when the Department was asked to do precisely the same at the deputation meeting some time before.

I gather that there is a feeling in some quarters that the county council formula is not all that good a bargain. I do not know sufficient about the details of it to comment. At any rate, the county council has limited its liability to known proportions when expansion takes place. To those who say that it has not been a very good bargain, I suggest that if the Government have been unfairly tough in their eagerness to get county approval for the expansion scheme, I tremble to think what their attitude might be when they negotiate with the city council, which has no such sanction.

This brings me to my third question. Will the Minister give an undertaking that, as far as the problems are applicable, he will not ask the city council to accept terms which are less generous than those contained in the formula negotiated with the county council?

The Minister made his announcement choosing Peterborough for the overspill in 1965. This, naturally, had to be followed by the appointment of a consultant and the preparation of a master plan. This has meant that the normal development schemes which would have taken place in the city—schemes which had been approved as well as others which normally would have been approved—have been held up. This has meant the loss of a rateable value running into thousands of pounds to the City of Peterborough.

This brings me to my fourth question. Will either the Government or the development corporation reimburse the city coffers with the rate income which has been lost as a consequence of this delay, which was inevitable? If they do not do this, that is a penalty upon Peterborough ratepayers and rent payers, and it will be a poor reward for their good-neighbourliness in agreeing to take the overspill.

Similarly, the developers themselves, because they were not allowed to pro ceed with their developments. As a result of the delay that that brought about it has meant that they have been brought within the scope of the Land Commission levy which, if they could have carried on, they would not have done. Many would have had their schemes on the way before the 6th April, but, because of the delay of getting the expansion on the move, they have been brought within the scope of the levy, which will cost them thousands of pounds. I set out all the circumstances in an Adjournment debate in this House on 15th March, 1967, so I will not weary the Parliamentary Secretary with it again. I have no doubt that it is still well in his mind.

This prompts my fifth question, of which I have no doubt the Parliamentary Secretary would like to make a note: in the absence of the Minister being prepared to rectify this unfair anomaly under Section 63 of the Land Commission Act—which he could—will he give finance to the new town development corporation to enable it to mitigate the loss to the developers occasioned by the levy?

Those are the general points. In addition, I have had fears expressed to me in relation to hospital and health services. The County of Huntingdon and Peterborough has the lowest number of general medical practitioners per 100,000 patients in the country. This fact prompts my sixth question, of which I have no doubt the Parliamentary Secretary would like to make a note: what has been done in this expansion explosion in anticipation of the position of patients getting worse? The same question applies to dentists, the numbers of which are well below the national average, and it certainly applies to the hospital situation, which is causing the gravest possible concern in that area. The waiting list at the Peterborough Memorial Hospital stands at over 2,000 patients, and I am told that it is increasing every day.

That brings me to my seventh question, of which I have no doubt the Parliamentary Secretary would like to make a note: will the Minister give the public his assurance that a second new hospital will be forthcoming in time to cope with the planned expansion which will be very substantial?

May I have a similar assurance on water? I will read an extract from a letter that I received only this week: During the 40 years that I have lived here, the water supply has quite often caused concern. Even now, in some villages near to the city, two neighbours cannot get a full supply from their taps at the same time. I do not think that this can be fobbed off as a mere sectional problem, because in the Fist South-East Report, pages 106 to 108, emphasis is laid on the difficulty and expense of getting water to Peterborough for any considerable expansion.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. I have let him go fairly wide, but we cannot rehearse the whole home and foreign policy on this Order.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

I do not think, Mr. Speaker, that you could have been following, because this really does flow from this Order. Parliament is giving its final sanction to this Order, which will affect the City of Peterborough. It has given up many privileges and rights and there is a risk of great expense, and I am detailing the items of expense which may be thrown on the ratepayers and citizens of Peterborough.

It is within the power of the Government, before asking us to accept the Order, to see to it that the development corporation, which will be spending the money, has the money to deal with these problems. I believe that it is my right to detail these matters to the Government. I do not think that the development corporation or the Government should take any further step without knowing that these are the problems which the local people had in mind when, through their city council, they gave permission for this expansion. When one sees the reports of deputations which have gone on in the past, it would seem that the Treasury Bench is not aware of these things. It has given no indication so far. That is why I have asked the Parliamentary Secretary to make notes of my questions, because I think that they should be answered before this spirit of good-neighbourliness is thrown back in a way which will add too much expense to the people living in the City of Peterborough.

I go from water to agriculture. Despite the improved compensation terms which are contemplated when it is necessary to take over agricultural land—I know that has come out recently—I do feel that there are special circumstances surrounding this Peterborough expansion which calls for even more sympathetic treatment. Compensation for tenant farmers will still be totally inadequate under the present system. I hope that the development corporation will be empowered to face this fact.

Industry is now being encouraged to go to development areas by being offered special inducements. It will be allowed to reclaim S.E.T. Will similar inducements be available in the case of Peterborough? Can the hon. Gentleman give details of these inducements? Without a properly phased industrial development running alongside housing and other amenities the expansion cannot be the success that we would wish. We may enter into a great deal of expense in preparation for this expansion which, if industry does not come, will be wasted.

Bearing in mind that apart from the formula agreed with the county council, which is definite, the Minister has been given power completely to alter the character of the ancient City of Peterborough without his being committed to anything more than such general statements as, "No undue burden will be placed upon the local citizens." That is as far as he is committed. Will the Government ensure that any settlement made with the city will be no worse than the formula he has agreed with the county council?

Will the Government repay the trust that the city council has placed in them, in accepting such loose undertakings, by being truly generous in their interpretation of the original statement made by the then Minister of Housing—the present Leader of the House? The city council has responded generously and as good neighbours, but it has nothing in writing and it does not know where it stands. It is relying on the good will of the Government, and we know how difficult it can be for Governments—not only this one—to fulfil the general impressions that they have given.

My plea to the Government is that both in the spirit and in the letter of the original statement in which they asked Peterborough to expand they will be generous in their interpretation.

10.23 p.m.

Sir David Renton (Huntingdonshire)

I am very glad to be able to support my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Sir Harmar Nicholls) on this, as on other occasions. My hon. Friend would have been failing in his duty if he had not moved this Prayer. When he put it down the county council had not withdrawn its objection, and did so only last week. I hope that those people who failed to understand my hon. Friend's reasons for moving the Prayer will, when they read the report of the debate, have the grace to acknowledge that he was right to do so.

The Order affects my constituency because the area designated includes about four-fifths of the rateable value and less than that amount of the area of the Old Fletton Urban District Council, and about half the rateable value and a relatively smaller part of the area of the Norman Cross Rural District Council, which is a very low-rated area.

I am not opposed to the expansion of Peterborough, as such; I regard it as a regrettable necessity. If the whole of the area designated by the Order is eventually included in the boundary of the City of Peterborough the Old Fletton Urban District Council would lose its separate status, which it would regret, as I would, and the Norman Cross Rural District Council would lose half its rateable value, would become unviable, and would presumably have to be merged with another district.

The extension of the city's boundary in that way would also mean that I would eventually lose many good constituents and would have the sadness of parting from them. Instead of voting for me, as many of them do, they would have the pleasure of voting for my hon. Friend and the great advantage of being represented by him. But if the Minister refused to foster the ambitions of the city fathers in that way all would be well.

Of course, the Norman Cross Rural District Council, with its small rateable value, could face tremendous financial commitments in connection with the expansion, especially in regard to water supply and sewerage, and those commitments would have to be faced before its rateable value was increased by more people coming to live in the district. Therefore, I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to tell us what financial help will be given to the Norman Cross Rural District Council with regard to the early provision of water supplies and sewerage to tide it over that initial difficult period.

There seem to have been plenty of useful negotiations between the Minister and the county council and the Minister and the city, but I know of no negotiations having taken place between the Minister and the district councils. So I look forward to removal of doubt by receiving an assurance from the Parliamentary Secretary that the rural districts, especially the Norman Cross rural district, will be helped.

I should like to elaborate upon the point raised by my hon. Friend when he asked what effect the present economic conditions would have upon the timing and phasing of the expansion. In any event, I should be glad if we could be given some idea of the aim with regard to this expansion, to what size of population it is intended to expand Peterborough, and by what date. The figure of 100,000 has been mentioned in various contexts. It was the South-East Study which indicated that, to be economical and logistically viable, an expansion of this kind needed to be of about 100,000 or at least to bring the population up to 100,000. Are we, therefore, to assume that it is to be at least 100,000, or is an even larger figure envisaged, and within what period?

In any event, it will be a very large increase in a relatively short time. But it will be a fleabite compared with the large number of expansion schemes that there will have to be if, as the Registrar-General predicts, the population of the United Kingdom is to increase by 18 million by the end of the century. That increase would mean 180 schemes of 100,000 each or 18 schemes of 1 million each, and so on. We therefore need to realise that we are breaking new ground here tonight. We are at least starting to prepare for a large predicted increase in the population, and I think that we should take stock of the way in which it is proposed to be done, because this Order will be the precursor of many others.

I must confess that I think it gives rise to an administrative oddity because, surely, it is rather strange to find that an already fairly large and very ancient city, with a proud civic tradition going back 1,000 years, should have a new town development corporation imposed upon it. If the new corporation were to be wholly responsible for the development, it might, in some ways, be regrettable but it would be understandable. But, of course, what will happen is that responsibility will be divided between the city council, the county council, four district councils and the development corporation. That is why I say that it seems to be an administrative oddity.

One could almost say that it is a case of "too many cooks spoiling the broth". I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be good enough to clear the air by saying who will have the responsibility for decision when there is a conflict between the development corporation and any of the local authorities when the local authorities are exercising their statutory duties. Who will have the last word? Will it be the Minister acting as a sort of arbitrator? Will it be the development corporation in the exercise of its statutory powers. It is very important to get this cleared up before the work begins.

Mr. Tom Hancock, who has all along been advising the local authorities in this matter, has been so kind as to keep my hon. Friend and myself fully informed in detail of his plans. Whether one agrees with the expansion or not, we are fortunate in having a man with his skill and imagination to advise and to plan this development.

Having studied his proposals carefully, I find them impressive on paper. They involve the development of a very delightful part of the River Nene Valley, one side of which is in my hon. Friend's constituency and the other side in mine, and one only hopes that the careful landscaping Mr. Hancock has proposed, so that the fullest advantage can be taken of the beauties of the Nene Valley, will not disappear when the area has been laid down in bricks and mortar.

Having seen various parts of the country which I knew and loved de veloped rather rapidly in recent years—and I think particularly of North Kent, of which I am a native—it is really very sad to see some of the opportunities which have been missed. There is a subtopian provision of services, including enormous lamp standards which creep in whenever there is development, and I only hope that this new development of Peterborough, under Mr. Hancock's painstaking advice, will not only break new ground in the physical sense but also in the historical sense by proving to be an example which provides good landscaping in a beautiful area.

In conclusion, I want to point to some dangers to be avoided. I would not wish to tread on anyone's toes in my constituency in doing so, but we have the town development scheme at Huntingdon, which has undoubtedly run into some difficulty and we now have over 100 houses standing empty. They were built by the G.L.C. for occupation by people coming from London, but they are still empty because employment has not been provided for those people.

I give this warning—and I hope that all concerned, including the Government, will bear it in mind—that it is absolutely vital if public money is not to be wasted and great opportunities missed, that the provision of employment should go hand in hand with the building of houses and vice versa. I was very glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough referred to the need for expanding hospital facilities as the population expanded under these special schemes, because, there again, in Huntingdon we have had the misfortune of having hospital facilities remain almost static while expansion has proceeded apace.

I said that I regarded this development as a regrettable necessity, regrettable because it is not a natural expansion, regrettable because it means taking good farm land and because it involves developing, although we dare to hope that it will not be spoiling, beautiful country.

This Peterborough scheme may be the forerunner of many. If this scheme fails, then the hope of the country accommodating 18 million more people with any degree of comfort by the end of the century must fail also. That is why tonight's debate is very important and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for having given us the opportunity to consider the Order.

10.37 p.m.

Sir Harry Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)

I join with my two constituency neighbours, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) and my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Sir Harmar Nicholls), in taking this opportunity to say a few words about the impact of this Order upon my constituency.

Hon. Members will see that the map on the back of the Order mentions Whittlesey urban district and Thorney rural district, both in my constituency. The only geographical effect of the Order upon them is to bring 362 acres of the Thorney rural district into the development area. I cannot help feeling that the territorial change is insignificant compared with what may possibly be the sociological effects of the change which the Order will bring about.

I have studied with the greatest care the whole of the draft Peterborough New Town Designation Order Report, published in March, this year, and kindly sent to me by courtesy of the Ministry, and I have also seen the letter, dated 23rd May, this year, from the Ministry, and I recognise that the Minister has at least appreciated the fact that Peterborough lies in the middle of a very highly fertile agricultural belt of Britain, and my constituency is a continuation of that belt.

We are very conscious of the fact that in the whole of the South-East Study only one paragraph referred to agricultural land. It occurred on page 68, paragraph 21: AGRICULTURAL LAND. The South East has an unusually large proportion of good agricultural land. Some of the best of it, e.g. Fenland soils, does not offer particularly attractive sites for urban expansion; but in many parts of the region the areas most desirable for development are those of particularly high agricultural quality. Apart from another little bit in that paragraph, that was all there was about agricultural land, which is extraordinary bearing in mind the extremely high pro ductivity of the soil of a great deal of East Anglia.

There is something more than agricultural land involved here. Those of us who have seen, not only in East Anglia, but in other parts of the country, the consequences of big urban expansion, are becoming increasingly concerned at the effect that this sort of expansion has upon the villages on the fringes of such development.

The more I go about the country the more horrified I am at the way in which a big urban or industrial development seems to be taking place, utterly regardless of the effect upon the villages. Some of them have been swallowed up altogether, others are being greatly expanded and as a result of this, where there was one community, with very long and deep-rooted traditions, one sees now developing two villages, although both have the same address, and never the twain shall meet.

This is rather a sad thing to me, because I see the breakdown of the old community spirit in villages, which was a very important part of the fabric of this country. I hope that the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, in particular, although this concerns all Government Departments involved in this sort of exercise, will pay very great attention to the sociological consequences of these developments.

I am not in any way seeking to suggest that there is not a great need for Peterborough to expand, but my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough was absolutely right to draw attention to the fact that Peterborough would anyway have expanded, and that the sensible issue of industrial development certificates could have brought about, by comparatively natural means, the sort of expansion that is desirable.

Many of my constituents go to work in Peterborough daily, about 400 to 500 of them from the northern part of the Isle of Ely. I am already conscious of the appalling disparity between the remuneration that those people bring in compared to that which the agricultural worker receives. I am conscious also of the fact that both may be living side by side in council houses, yet one is earning one-third of the other's income. This is no way to bring town and country together. I have always, over the years, tried to propound the theory that we want the townsman to understand better what the countryman's problems are. These things do not help. With the development of a vastly increased population, and industrial activity, in a city such as Peterborough, set as it is in the middle of one of the most productive agricultural areas in Britain, I can see a lot of troubles on this front unless we think clearly and try to forestall problems.

How this is to be done I do not know. The development corporations of new towns ought to be brought into very close contact at a very early stage indeed with the authorities, not only of the area for which it is becoming responsible, but also of the fringe areas around it, so that there is from the very start an opportunity for real co-operation, and when, gradually, the development reaches completion, everyone can feel that this is part of a general exercise in which they are interested.

I do not like this idea of seeing a great industrial development taking place on the fringe of this highly agricultural area, without any long-term relationship being established from the very beginning. I am absolutely certain, from what I know of the citizens of Peterborough, that they are very conscious of this. We are considering the injection of a very large population to whom this area will be utterly new.

I am no great lover of large cities. Many of the evils which we are now enduring, particularly the whole problem of drugs and their effects upon youths, is partly due to the fact that some of our cities have been made too large. I accept the fact that there are great problems arising for this nation. No hon. Member has paid more attention to this than my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire, in his correspondence with the Prime Minister on this matter. Many hon. Members are deeply disturbed about the trends.

I hope that we shall get out of our central thinking the idea that the only thing that matters is to solve London's problems. I want every area, region and county, every district council, county council and county borough, to think out what is best for itself and then to decide how best it can fit that in with the national need.

The whole of the South East Study is loaded heavily on the side of trying to prevent London getting completely out of control. To me, that is not the right way to tackle the problem. I would like to see much more thought given to relating the individual desires of the various smaller towns to the general national problem and getting it into context instead of allowing the London overspill problem to dominate the scene outside.

How I wish that we could find a better word than "overspill". It is such an unattractive term. It drips. If only we could somehow make this human. It really is a question of finding homes for those for whom there is not room. Whether we can find a better term to condense that into one word, I do not know, but I cannot believe that the English language is incapable of thinking of something better than "overspill", which is a horrible metaphysical term the meaning of which nobody really knows.

I ask the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, in particular, to take the initiative with the other Government Departments concerned, the Ministry of Labour, in particular, and the Board of Trade and the Ministry of Agriculture, and to see whether we cannot form a new body—I suggest that it should not be solely Government or even majority Government—to try to work out a better means than we have so far found of studying the fringe problems which arise from the development of these new towns and expanded towns.

I wish Peterborough well in its expansion. I am convinced that there are some very dedicated people who are determined to make a success in Peterborough, but I hope that the Minister will honour the commitment, which was given in the course of the various inquiries and exchanges which have taken place, that the corporation will not be the sole employer of direct labour to do all the work. The more that the Ministry can encourage the development corporation to give every possible opportunity to the local builders and the various other tradesmen to co-operate in this exercise, the better will be the good will in the long term.

There is genuine anxiety about this matter. I read the Peterborough Citizen and Advertiser every week and, therefore, I am fairly well aware of the thinking of some of the leading citizens of Peterborough. I believe that the spirit is there if only the Ministry will give it the chance to operate. I hope, therefore, that there will be the minimum dictation and the maximum of co-operation. Although I recognise the anxiety of my right hon. and learned Friend about too many cooks spoiling the broth, sometimes many hands can make light work. Let us hope that it goes that way this time.

10.48 p.m.

Mr. Michael Hamilton (Salisbury)

I must put in a brief word of support for my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Sir Harmar Nicholls), because for five years I represented a constituency in Northamptonshire and the same River Nene flowed through my constituency. Therefore, I know Peterborough fairly well. Today, like my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough, I also represent a cathedral city, similar in many respects to his own. Both are a similar distance from London. They do not differ greatly in size. Both have a 13th century cathedral.

I can only say that if this small debate tonight centred on my own city, I should be deeply troubled, not simply for the sake of the city, but also for the villages surrounding it which, in the case of Peterborough, are to be swallowed up.

In my view, there is an optimum size for a provincial city. It should be large enough to have its own theatre; it should be large enough to have its own library; large enough to have its own operatic society; large enough to have its own local paper. I am no enemy of the multiple stores. I believe that our constituents like them. I think that the city should be large enough to attract Boots and W. H. Smith and Marks and Spencer. I believe, however, that the process can be over done, and that there are pitfalls here. A city should not be so large that its sense of community, of which my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke) has just spoken, is swamped. That is what has, in fact, happened in many of the larger conurbations today. A city should not be so large that its sense of neighbourliness, its intimacy, the recognition of faces in the street, are swept away.

Yet this, I fear, is precisely the choice that Peterborough is making. Always there is this clamour for size. Retailers imagine that if the population is doubled their trade also will double, whereas, in practice, this is such a fallacy. If the population is doubled the retail outlets also double and the size of the individual slice of cake remains the same. Indeed, the small man is likely to be driven into the back streets, if not out of business altogether.

To summarise, a city cannot have everything. If Peterborough chooses to be like Corby or Slough—well, that is her choice; she will become one of many, and may she enjoy it—but I myself believe that the charm and the attraction and the soul of this ancient city will be sacrificed in the process.

10.52 p.m.

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

I am very glad we have had this debate, because it gives the House an opportunity to look at some of the very interesting and fascinating problems which arise from something which I certainly do not regard as a desperate and despairing plunge into some frightful abyss of horror. I regard it as an opportunity for a great, thriving, self-confident city to advance as other new towns have advanced into being one of the wonders of the world. I think the privilege which attaches to it means that the House should have a look at some of the problems, and I am very happy to try to deal with them.

I do not want to fish in troubled waters; it is not my business to do that; but the hon. baronet the Member for Peterborough (Sir Harmar Nicholls) told us about the fear and the distrust in Peterborough at these proposals, and he criticised the officials of the council for having been feeble in the advice which they had given the local authority and—I thought this was a little beneath him, because he tried to bring party politics into this—he even said that it was the fault of the Labour council which had not read the small print.

The hon. Member might have gone on—and the hon. Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke) told us that he reads the local Press—to tell us that, since it was rumoured that there was to be this Prayer, there was an outcry in the local Press, a protest against the hon. Baronet for having raised the matter at all. Among the people who particularly voiced that protest was the deputy leader of the council who, owing to an unfortunate electoral incident last May, is now a Conservative. It was only the hon. Baronet's subtle skill which enabled him to some extent to extricate himself from the difficulties with his own friends on the Peterborough Council. I do not mention that to cause trouble, but merely because of the picture which was given us of the fear, distrust and alarm to be found in Peterborough and Huntingdonshire.

In fact, the county council has been negotiating with a good deal of vigour with our Department for some time, and last week it reached an agreement about the matter. I will quote from a letter from the Clerk to a member of the Department. The Chairman of the Council, in moving the adoption of the report, paid public tribute to the helpful and understanding approach to these difficult negotiations which had been adopted by the Ministry officers. I mention that to show that this was a negotiation among honourable men out to do what was best for the public and who put their case from their own point of view with considerable firmness.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

That was the county council.

Mr. MacColl


Sir D. Renton

No one has suggested that it has been otherwise.

Mr. MacColl

There was a suggestion that we were the kind of people with whom it is always wise to look at the small print.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

I made it clear that I always look at the small print when dealing with a Government whatever their political complexion. It may well be that another Government will have to implement the arrangements which are being made.

Mr. MacColl

I felt justified in quoting that view from the county council and its officers. The agreement which has been reached is an entirely honourable agreement on all sides.

The main features are that the corporation—that is, on behalf of the Government—will make such contributions to the main road costs that the county council will be expected to bear only 15 per cent. of those costs. In addition, the county council will receive a substantial special contribution from the corporation in recognition of its exceptional financial difficulties, this contribution being related to the capital expenditure on education provision for the new town. This will reduce the road construction costs from about £6.5 million to £2.3 million and, in addition, it will produce a special contribution from the Development Corporation for the period of planned build-up totalling about £2.3 million.

That is a substantial bite into the expenditure. The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Allason), who knows the problems in an expanding town, will appreciate that it is directed specifically to places where there is a good deal of difficulty. It is a fair and reasonable settlement. It recognises the special difficulties of a county council with limited financial resources and faced with a very large and rapid increase in the population as a result of the expansion. The financial negotiations have been tough but amicable, and I think they auger well for the future.

As for the district councils and the city, the position is not so easy to define. There has been a general agreement on both sides that it is a different problem from that of the county. It is not so easy to find a quick formula. The view taken by the City Council is that rather than spend a great deal of time haggling about detail at this stage, they prefer to accept the Minister's undertaking that he will make a generous agreement with them. That is the stage that has been reached at present.

I want now to look at some of the detailed points that have been raised. Devaluation should not affect our intentions with regard to financial assistance, because housing is one thing to which we give very high priority indeed.

Hon. Members talked as though Peterborough was doing all the giving, and giving all the favours. That is a very short-sighted view to take of an arrangement that has benefits on both sides. It is certainly a benefit, and no one should hide the fact, for people who may be in difficult housing and environmental conditions in the great conurbations—in this case, London—to be able to find jobs and homes together in a city outside that conurbation. That is undoubtedly a benefit.

But the city benefits also from the fact that it is getting Government investment and support in its development. This is the vitally important and interesting thing about Peterborough. The right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) said that it was an oddity that a town of this size should come under the arrangements of the New Towns Acts—

Sir D. Renton

But the oddity I described was that a county council, a city council, four district councils and a development corporation should have to divide responsibility between them.

Mr. MacColl

That is even more the case where one has what one might call a "green field" new town—one starting from scratch—with just a few parishes. There is then an even more complicated local government arrangement. In this case, we have one or two substantial towns. Around them there is some country area, but, basically, the development will be centred on Peterborough. The reason for this is precisely because there is otherwise a feeling that a town of size does not get any benefit from new town development.

My right hon. Friend, now the Lord President of the Council, made a very notable departure in the whole philosophy of new towns by introducing the idea of using new town machinery for an existing town, and thereby getting not only the advantage of increased population but of the money spent on the development of the old town to which the people would inevitably go. So both the old and the new benefit. That principle is to be found in the proposal put forward in the case of Northampton, Ipswich and Warrington. There has not been a decision in those cases, but discussions are going on.

But Peterborough has the great honour of being in the forefront of this pioneering experiment in the use of new town machinery, and Peterborough and my right hon. Friend agree and recognise that this calls on both sides for a great deal of imagination and wisdom in working out how it is to be done. It undoubtedly means that Peterborough and the county council should have, from the very beginning, a much closer partnership with the corporation than one would get in the case of a green field development. Peterborough Council will undoubtedly have members on the corporation, and may well share staff. This is the kind of way in which people will try to work out the best way of achieving a joint operation.

The hon. Baronet asked whether the phasing would be self-contained. The reason that that has not yet been deployed in any of the documents is that it depends on the next stage in the operation. After we get our designation Order tonight—if we get it—the next stage is that the consultants prepare for the corporation a draft basic plan. That basic plan will form the source from which the phasing, the size of the population, and the order in which places will be developed, will emanate. I am quite certain that the consultant will bear in mind what the hon. Member said and will see what can be done in this way.

Those are the main points affecting the city. There was a point about whether there could be direct compensation for loss of rateable value. Not a direct compensation, although of course the partnership will affect the value of the rate fund, but one has to remember that Peterborough will have a great increase in rateable value very quickly. A more direct subsidy would not be the answer to the problem.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

Am I to take it that there will be some recognition of loss of rateable value although it is not a direct subsidy?

Mr. MacColl

There will be partnership arrangements made which will include financial arrangements. That undoubtedly will be one of the factors to be considered. A developing town like this is getting rateable value the whole time and, therefore, it will have great advantages. I should think a mere subsidy based on loss over a particular period would not be a fair way of doing this, but I would not be making the arrangements.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

Could the Parliamentary Secretary explain that a little more? Earlier he spoke about arrangements made for a contribution, for example, to the rates for the city council. He then got to the stage of saying that the arrangements with the city council had not been completed. When we pass this Order, if we do tonight, it surely is the end of the negotiations between the city council and the Ministry, is it not? The development corporation then steps in and carries on the negotiations. Could the hon. Gentleman make the position a little clearer?

Mr. MacColl

The position is as the hon. Member says, that the development corporation and the city council negotiate. The fact that we have not yet completed negotiations with the city council does not mean that we have ignored Dr neglected it in any way, but is simply due to the difficulties of working out an adequate formula. It is a different situation from that affecting the city council. I do not think the city council would like to have a carbon copy, as it were, of the formula. We shall have to take account of the financial circumstances, which no doubt will include loss of rateable value in the early stages and increase of rateable value in the later stages.

The hon. Member asked about development charges. I think he already knows the answer, because he was given it by my right hon. Friend. There will be no possibility of getting those back. He raised questions about hospitals and water supply. The proposal to designate a new town would not be proceeded with if there had not been good grounds for believing that these services could be made available, but the details of getting them available will depend on the development corporation. It will be its job to prod the Minister of Health and to prod us to do our part in securing them.

The hon. Member asked about industrial incentives. Peterborough does not become a development area; therefore it does not get the privileges of a development area, but after the development areas new towns will have the first priority in getting industrial development certificates.

Mr. James Allason (Hemel Hempstead)

Could the hon. Gentleman take matters a little further? It is not much good inducing industry to go to a new town and then, after a period when it wants to expand, to tell industry that it cannot do so there and if it wants to expand it must set up a new factory in a development area. Will inducements include a long-term guarantee of further development?

Mr. MacColl

I believe that the arrangements which have worked, on the whole adequately, in other new towns will continue to work in this case. Peterborough is growing naturally and should prove to be an area in which it is reasonably easy to develop industry. As long as there is a population requiring jobs, jobs will, no doubt, be available and I.D.C.s will be available as required. That is the advantage of an area having a high priority—being high in the list of priorities next to the development areas.

The right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire asked about the future of Old Fletton. It has been made clear that no immediate changes in local government areas will take place. If, between them, the county and the city make voluntary arrangements about local government reorganisation, then that is something which my right hon. Friend can entertain and consider. It is clear, however, that there is no automatic proposal for reorganisation.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman then asked about financial assistance to Norman Cross. As in the case of other districts which are providing sewerage facilities and various other environmental health services, a development corporation has considerable powers, either to help with the cost or, alternatively, to take over the provision of some of the services, as development corporations have done, on behalf of the town. That is not a take-over bid but something to be agreed as a result of discussion between the local authority and those concerned.

Paragraph 39 of the inspector's report contains a statement about the population of the area in terms of what is proposed. It is considered that newcomers to the town will number 70,000 by 1981. The total population, including the old and the new—with the natural increase in population—should reach 172,000 by the 1980s and it is thought, although this is speculation, that it will reach about 220,000 by the end of the century.

The hon. Member for the Isle of Ely raised an important point about sociological development and spoke of the importance of looking at these matters in human terms. I agree. These are human problems and we must not look at them as exclusively engineering problems. That is true of new towns generally and that has been the way in which we have considered new towns, certainly since the publication of the Reith Report. The development corporations have these matters much in mind. In this case there will be co-operation from a mature and experienced local authority in the area. Although, superficially, the problem in this case would appear to be more difficult, with more possibility of friction, this will basically make things much better and it will be interesting to see how the experiment works.

The hon. Member for the Isle of Ely said that London's problems were not all that mattered. That is also true and, as I have done my best to explain, this is a partnership. It is not a take-over bid by cockneys coming into East Anglia to run the show. This is an experiment in living together by two different groups of people, and both will gain substantially from the experiment. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the development corporation should co-operate with the local people. They are always encouraged to do just that. In this case the development corporation will have to co-operate with a town that exists, in addition to issuing building contracts and so on. It will be in close consultation with the local authorities. Certainly it will want to use to the full the resources that are available to make this new town.

I gather that the hon. Gentleman is not proposing to take this to a Division. It is right that it should go through. This is a very important stage in a very great and historic experiment, and I personally would congratulate the people of the area on the opportunity that they have to show to the world what a mature and historic city like this can do.

11.16 p.m.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

I do not want to delay the House in coming to a decision on this Order, but I would like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Sir Harmar Nicholls) on having raised this debate, which has brought forward some very important points on a new experiment, because this is a new experiment in new towns.

My hon. Friend and my right hon and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) raised many important questions, but I am left with the impression that the questions cannot yet be answered. To that extent, the preparation for this important scheme is inadequate. I hope that that impression will not be proved right over the next few months, but, as I understood the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to say, in answer to an intervention of mine, the Ministry will not have very much to do with the negotiations from now on. It will depend upon negotiations particularly between the city council and the development corporation. Yet the city council has put itself in this position by trust in the Ministry and in the undertakings given by the Minister in the early stages of negotiations.

Mr. MacColl

I tried to phrase this carefully. We are not resigning from our responsibilities to the city council. Any decision in any dispute of this sort will no doubt find its way into the room of my right hon. Friend. Naturally we will have a corporation, the sole job of which is to look after the interests of the new towns. Having appointed it—and we hope it will be good—we want it to take the initiative and to make the arrangements.

Mr. Page

I would not wish the Minister to be breathing down the neck of the development corporation all the time. I am glad that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary has intervened, because I think there is a heavy obligation on the Ministry in this case to try to help solve the problems so that the local population are not hurt by this experiment being imposed upon them, I hope, to their benefit. It can be to their benefit, and I think that it will be, if the Minister is prepared to abide by the undertakings which he gave in the early stages. I hope, therefore, that the experiment will be a real success, but I think that it will be only if the Minister realises that he cannot wash his hands of any responsibility which he has taken up to the present.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion. In doing so, I want to say that my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) has summed up the whole position. The whole purpose of praying against this Order on this occasion was to ask the Minister to face up to the special obligation that he has, because this is the first of its kind. There will be many teething troubles. The ones which will come after will benefit from those teething troubles. I do not want my constituents to suffer from them. I want the Minister to keep an eye on the situation and to honour the general undertaking that he has given to see that no undue burdens are placed upon them. The purpose of the debate was to obtain that opportunity, and I hope later on that he will put into effect the spirit as well as the letter of those words.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

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