HC Deb 01 February 1968 vol 757 cc1703-12

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

10.25 p.m.

Mr. Edward Milne (Blyth)

It is my pleasure to raise the question of the future of Cramlington New Town. This is the third occasion on which I have been privileged to raise the question of Cramlington on an Adjournment debate. The first occasion was 13th December, 1962, following the then Government decision to schedule the area as a development district in the previous year. All concerned were awaiting the announcement of the siting of the first advance factory in the new town against the same background of extensive pit closures in South-East Northumberland that we are facing today.

It is pleasing to record that the firm of Wilkinson Sword, which subsequently occupied the advance factory, is now firmly established in the new town. It has extended into a factory of its own and now employs over 600 people, with the prospect of further expansion in the future.

Replying to the Adjournment debate at that time the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade pointed out that Cramlington New Town was a happy partnership between the local authorities and private enterprise builders and that it should become the focal point for economic and social growth in South-East Northumberland.

The second occasion when this matter was raised on an Adjournment debate by myself was on 10th June, 1964, when I pointed out to my hon. Friend's predecessor at the Ministry of Housing and Local Government that the local authorities in South-East Northumberland were engaged in the battle to attract industry while the then Government were still making up their minds whether the problem existed or not.

Because of its background history and development Cramlington is limited in the legislation that can be used to assist it. Great progress has been made, but tremendous difficulties lie ahead in the path of those who see the new town as the centre of activity to create full employment in the area and to introduce the social climate and amenities that go with it.

Part of the plan for the new town has been made necessary by the decline in the old basic industries. The potential of the area for future growth has been recognised for a long time. There is no need to stress the adaptable manpower, the excellent communications and all the other services and amenities that go to make for a thriving industrial community.

There are three main ways in which the Government can assist at present. There is, first, the New Towns Act. But this has already been rejected in the past and, quite frankly, there is little hope of operation now. However, something between this Act and the present situation would need to be operated by the present Government to deal with the difficulties that lie in front of us. There is also the Town Development Act and the Industrial Development Act. We have been greatly hampered by lack of understanding in Whitehall about the nature of the new towns project and the problems which confront us. If one was to ask the main way in which Government assistance could be given, it would be summed up in three words—more substantial grants—because lack of finance lies at the root of our problems.

To give my hon. Friend an illustration, the Northumberland County Council has 12 officials employed on building up Cramlington, and they are doing an excellent job under difficult circumstances. But, as he knows from his own experience in the Department, something like 250 officials are employed on similar tasks in Scottish new towns of comparable size. There is a lack of arrangements for comprehensive assistance from the Government under the Acts which we have mentioned. Possibly following tonight's debate my hon. Friend could prevail upon his right hon. Friend the Minister responsible for the region to devote some of his time to this exercise.

Under the 1962 Agreement between Northumberland County Council and William Leech (Holdings) Ltd., the private developer agreed to pay the County Council a contribution of about £150 per acre for land owned and developed by the developers. I should like to see the Minister of Housing and Local Government carry out a full investigation into the cost of land at Cramlington, including the sale price and the resale p-ice, and I say that advisedly, because on record there are a number of instances of land having been sold and resold during the development of the town and the activities surrounding it.

The advantages to the County Council of having the assistance of private developers at a time when the Government were unwilling to recognise their existence under the New Towns Act can, of course, be recognised. There was little alternative facing the local authority at that time. But it is useful to observe that al the moment the selling price of houses in Cramlington New Town area is £250 more than that of similar houses in parts of the district around Cramlington. Whether this is a matter for the National Board for Prices and Incomes or for my hon. Friend's Ministry I would not care to say at this stage, but it certainly must be looked into.

In the brief time at my disposal I should like to give the House an idea of the immensity of the task facing the local authorities. Nothing at all in the way of grant has been paid on any of the local authority expenditure on roads, drainage and associated services, and the preliminary development costs of the industrial estates within the new town which the County Council have to meet amount to well over £4 million. The County Council's commitments for services, including schools, in the new town complex is about £7½ million.

Seaton Valley Urban District Council, a small council, whose officials and councillors have performed a Herculean task in tackling the problems created by the new town within their boundaries, has had to build an abnormal number of new houses in relation to the size of the authority and certainly well in excess of its own needs as an urban district council housing authority. It was a courageous decision on its part—in keeping with the Council's recent actions—to be possibly the first authority in Britain to implement the findings of the Maud Committee and to reorganise its departmental and committee structure, a factor which has been of immense assistance in the development of Cramlington. The Council's premises have had to be ex- tended to accommodate increased staff. In addition to all these matters and to the associated commitments, they are faced with an increase of 25 per cent. in the rents of post-war houses in the area and a cost of about £2 million to modernise their pre-war housing in order to bring it into line with other developments around it. As my hon. Friend can readily appreciate, we cannot build a new town —not to present-day standards—without bringing the rest of the area around it into line with the development that is taking place.

Further, in recent weeks, arising from the Government's announcements on the Coal Industry Act, and the further contraction of the mining industry, steps are being taken to bring Cramlington into a special development area. This is to be welcomed. The Board of Trade is to acquire a substantial part of the Nelson industrial estate, something which I believe ought to have been done in the mid-fifties or the early 'sixties at the latest, and so time is not on our side.

The decision to acquire has been taken, and decisions are now in the course of being taken to secure the transfer of the land. The difficulties encountered since the new town first emerged were never seriously tackled because of the complicated nature of the present arrangements, and the lack of decision on the question of the legislative power and the Government grant can well delay to a dangerous extent the progress of this ambitious project.

Linked with the past difficulties of Cramlington New Town, is the rôle that it has to play in tackling the new problems of the years between now and 1970. In this Adjournment debate I am asking for Government action now. There is an urgent need to accelerate the development of Cramlington. The financial burden on the local authority is tending to retard its growth, and the need for immediate and continuing substantial financial support from the Government is overwhelming.

Industrially, the town is well on its way to success, despite the hard roads that undoubtedly lie ahead, but the town centre developments and amenities have not kept pace with this development. The Postmaster-General, who knows the area well, has promised to look into the needed improvements in the Post Office and telephone services, and we look forward to results in this field in the near future. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the interest that has been shown in this aspect of the development.

The relationship between the industrialists who have occupied factories on the site in the new town, and the local authorities and other bodies concerned, has been a very hapy one. An Industrial Services Committee, under the chairmanship of the Clerk of the Seaton Valley Urban District Council has done an excellent job in co-ordinating the needs of industrialists who have moved in, and of assessing the needs 'and demands of those who are considering moving to Cramlington.

I should like to see the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and other Ministries concerned playing a stronger and more influential part in the committees dealing with various developments in and around the new town. I would suggest a co-ordinating committee of the various Government Departments.

I want to pay tribute to the Government Department on the site in the region for the excellent way in which it is tackling the problems confronting the town. The Board of Trade officials and others are doing an excellent job. More is still required to be done. The coordinating committee that we have suggested would be made up of the Department of Economic Affairs, the Board of Trade, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, the County Council and the Seaton Valley Urban District Council, the neighbouring local authorities of Blyth, Bedlington and Longbenton, as well as others, with support from the Regional Economic Planning Council and the North-East Development Council.

If this were tackled vigorously and early, we would be well on the way to turning Cramlington into the success it deserves to be and would bring to this part of Northumberland the security of employment to which its past industrial endeavours entitle it. We ask this not just because we think that the new town's success is essential for the Northern Region and Britain's economic future but because we believe that the Government's policies are on trial here and that on the success of our efforts will depend their success throughout the country.

10.41 p.m.

Dame Irene Ward (Tynemouth)

I associate myself with the remarks of the hon. Member for Blyth (Mr. Milne) about the problems of Cramlington. They have for a long time caused great anxiety to all of us who wish our part of the world and Cramlington a successful future. The time has come for us to be told what assistance can be given. The trouble with Adjournment debates is that, after the case has been excellently put, the Ministers reply, and although they are as helpful as possible, there is little opportunity for a progress report. The hon. Member said that this was the third time he had raised the matter on the Adjournment, which proves that, in view of the reform of Government machinery which is in the air, it would be helpful to know when we could have a proper progress report.

I should have thought that the Minister with special responsibilities for the North could have been here to hear the hon. Gentleman's speech. As the Chairman of the Regional Economic Planning Council occasionally says that he is frustrated—meaning either that he has not enough to do or does not get the response to what he does he could move forward on this issue. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will not just develop the smaller point but will assure us that, before long, the appropriate Minister will give us a detailed account of how, in regard to Cramlington, which is associated with my constituency and particularly with Whitley Bay, we can continue the good work done by so many people over the past few years.

10.44 p.m.

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

Everyone would agree that Cramlington is an interesting experiment of enormous value to the North-East which everyone wants to see advance from success to success, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth (Mr. Milne) very fairly said, it is, as it started, a happy partnership between local authorities and private enterprise.

It is not the Government's responsibility, and it is not for the Government to make a report about its progress. If we tried to do that, the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) would be the first to complain about fussy bureaucrats from Whitehall interfering. We are anxious to do all we can to help, but the local authority would be the first to say that it is its responsibility, and it is certainly not likely to be backward in pushing ahead with requests and pressing us on matters which worry it. We in the Department have been in regular touch with them about progress, so I assure my hon. Friend that there is no failure of communication.

One element of complication in this interesting partnership between the local authorities and private enterprise is shown in the case of the town centre, which is supposed to be financed by the private developers. It is, therefore, they who must take the main initiative in going ahead with it. The other interesting, but confusing, aspect is that Cramlington is partly an overspill arrangement to meet the overspill from the conurbation of Tyneside, but partly also a growth area—as my hon. Friend put it, a special development area for the development of industry to help to meet some of the stains on the economy of the area and to help to provide employment. My hon. Friend rightly attaches importance to this and it is fair to say that already the Government have been doing quite a lot and that this is working well.

My hon. Friend mentioned the fortunate and happy history of Wilkinson's. This has been a tremendous asset to the area. The Board of Trade is taking over an industrial site, although my hon. Friend scolded the Government for not having done that in the 'fifties and early 'sixties. I was not, governmentally, about then. However, since my right hon. Friend has been responsible, we have taken steps to move in and already about 2,500 jobs have been provided by I.D.C.s and a further 5,000 jobs have been approved by the granting of I.D.Cs. That is a comforting side to the really important industrial foundations of the town.

The confusion between these two sides —the overspill and the growth area—comes in in almost every respect on this financial question. That is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to assess quickly what help can be given. On the straightforward housing side, we have now got far and away the biggest and most flexible subsidy for housing that has ever been available from the central Government to a local authority. It is geared to the rate of interest and adaptable to increases in costs. It is far greater than the block subsidy—the fixed payment—which was available before the passage of the 1967 Act.

In addition, there is for overspill families an Exchequer contribution of £12 for 10 years, accompanied by matching contributions from the sending authorities designated under Section 9 of the Act. The difficulty is to know how many of the people going in are overspill, and that must be watched.

My hon. Friend referred to sewerage. A 50 per cent. grant is available under the Town Development Act and a grant is available under the Local Employment Act, 1960. But those depend on the size of the overspill and how far the expenditure is directly linked with industry. That, too, must be watched.

I appreciate my hon. Friend's anxiety about roads. This is a difficult problem. The county has a great responsibility in this direction and I appreciate how it is financially stretched. There are, however, grants. There is still the specific grant of 75 per cent. for principal roads. and estate roads are likely to count for grant under the Local Employment Act. In a Bill which had a Second Reading only yesterday there is a proposal for a small but useful contribution. Exchequer contributions can be made to district councils doing town development schemes towards providing buildings for social, cultural or recreational purposes. There is also the possibility of a grant for town centre redevelopment under the Local Government Act, 1966. Out of this patchwork there emerges a fairly consistent system for helping in these ways. I agree that the position needs to be watched. My right hon. Friend will be anxious to know of the problems and will not close his mind to what can be done. This is not the best time to press for increased grants, but this matter will be borne in mind.

My hon. Friend enumerated the people who would have to be considered in regard to a co-ordinating committee for the administration of the town. This showed the complication of the operations, but it is a matter for the local authority to make up its mind about any addition to its responsibility. He also referred to the very distinguished Clerk of the Urban District Council, whom I know well. He has made great contributions to his field of local government. He is perfectly capable of taking initiative and advising the Council.

Mr. Milne

While tributes have rightly been paid to the Clerk of the Council, his efforts need Government backing if they are to have the success they deserve.

Mr. MacColl

I am sure he will not be backward in coming forward. If necessary, he will come to us with specific proposals. No doubt the local authorities which have undertaken this historic experiment, which is something we watch with care, must be worried. They have great financial burdens and are worried about the future. On the other hand, they have resources and the skill of men to do a very good job in the North-East towards providing growth and new life for a new community of enormous value.

I do not think it likely that we can apply new towns procedure because the new towns programme is already fixed. Town development arrangements are available and I have enumerated examples of the kind of assistance that can be given. The answer to this problem is a continuation of the very close friendly co-operation between my Department and the local authorities under the vigorous supervision of my hon. Friend who is so fervent in carrying out his duties.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes to Eleven o'clock.