HC Deb 03 February 1971 vol 810 cc1675-82
The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Peter Walker)

With permission, I will make a statement.

As the House knows, the previous Government designated the site for a new town in Central Lancashire. I have reviewed fully the case for this project and have concluded that it is right to proceed with the development of this area under the New Towns Act. There will be no question of imposing some theoretical or arbitrary pattern of development such as a long linear city. I shall be asking the development corporation in due course to see that the new development is primarily based on the existing towns in the area. I expect the private sector to play a much larger part than it has done in new towns built hitherto; and I look to this project to make an important contribution towards the improved infrastructure which the north west region needs. I shall accordingly now proceed with establishing a development corporation under the Act.

Mr. John Silkin

May I thank the Secretary of State for his commendably short statement? He will know, of course, that the Labour Government's decision was dependent on proper safeguards being given to the towns of northeast Lancashire. May I ask him whether, in continuing our decision, he will also continue our undertaking that the growth of those towns will be helped and not impeded? I am referring, of course, in particular, to the question of intermediate status, dealing with derelict land, and the commitment to press ahead urgently with the Calder Valley Road. In that connection, can he tell us when phase 2 is due to start? Secondly, he will be as aware as I am that in planning the new town it is necessary that amenities also shall be properly planned. What one wants is a proper new town and not a large housing estate. Will he give us his assurance that those amenities will be planned right from the start?

Mr. Walker

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I will certainly give assurances on both the matters he raised. I will certainly see that action does not handicap other towns in north-east Lancashire. As for the Calder Valley Road scheme, I have decided to speed up phase 1 by at least 12 months—I hope more—and I am in urgent discussions with the local authorities concerned on the priorities we can give to phase 2 and phase 3. As for derelict land, I hope that expenditure generally on derelict land will in the next financial year be treble that of the financial year before last.

I hope that the north-east towns will designate far more improvement areas and take advantage of all the facilities available. On amenities, I am very anxious that the members of the board of the new town will have particular skills and talents in the provision of amenities and will work with other people with like skills.

Mr. Fletcher-Cooke

Will my right hon. Friend tell us whether the new town itself will have development area status or intermediate status?

Mr. Walker

No, Sir.

Mr. Alfred Morris

Of course the right hon. Gentleman is right to proceed with the new town, not least because of the grievous shortage of houses to rent in Lancashire. In view of his apparent sympathy for this viewpoint now, will he say to the local authorities throughout Lancashire that they should stop disposing of their existing houses to rent by selling council houses?

Mr. Walker

No. I shall continue to encourage them to sell council houses.

Mr. Green

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the fact that this decision is extremely welcome not only within the designated area but outside it, because a lot of uncertainty is now removed? Is he also aware that, from my point of view, the terms of what he has said are very welcome indeed?

Mr. Walker

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. I did, before deciding to go ahead with this, get the latest information and statistics available for the needs of the area, and I am satisfied that this new town will be a success.

Mr. Dan Jones

Is the Secretary of State aware that all responsible opinion in north-east Lancashire, including that of members of his own party, will welcome this decision only if the benefits of intermediate area status are preserved and if the environmental needs of the area are added to, and if, in addition, the needs for communication are attended to, albeit belatedly, in line with the information given by him? With respect to him, I should like him to confirm this point without any ambiguity at all.

Mr. Walker

Yes. Certainly I can. Before coming to this decision I particularly studied the problem of the northeast towns. On the four points: the new town will not have intermediate development status, whereas the other towns do; communications will be speeded up; the derelict land project will be speeded up; I will do all I can to encourage the maximum use of improvement grants.

Mr. Waddington

Is my right hon. Friend aware that we have always said in north-east Lancashire that it was most important to improve communications between the M6 and the north-east Lancashire towns? Will my right hon. Friend, therefore, recognise that we in north-east Lancashire are very pleased to hear that there is to be a speeding up of the commencement of the building of the Calder Valley highway, but will he do his best to see that the third phase, which involves the construction of a new road from Burnley to Colne, will also start as soon as possible?

Mr. Walker

All I can say on that is that I am discussing with all local authorities concerned to see that the correct phasing of the priorities is given to this particular work.

Mr. J. T. Price

Speaking as a Lancashire Member whose constituency is closely related to the site of the proposed new town, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he is aware that the important statement he has just made will be received with mixed feelings in my native county, that many of the authorities neighbouring that site have already expressed grave anxieties about the industrial and cultural repercussions, and that, whatever view may be taken in the long term about this project, the merits of which I cannot discuss in a supplementary question, those of us who know Lancashire from end to end and are native-born Lancastrians look on the spectacle of Skelmersdale new town where grave errors have been made—in unsatisfactory housing, in using factory building methods to put people into great structures like Bastilles—and that we hope that this error will never be repeated by any Government of any colour? We give a warning to him and his successors never to commit this kind of error again.

Mr. Walker

I am well aware of the fears and doubts of many people in Lancashire about the nature of the project. I will do everything in my power to see that the project improves the quality of life and environment in Lancashire as a whole.

Mrs. Monks

Will my right hon. Friend see that there is the fullest cooperation between the development corporation and the eight local authorities concerned and bear in mind the recommendations of the Skeffington Committee?

Mr. Walker

Yes, certainly. I am anxious to see that there is the closest co-operation between the existing local authorities and the new town corporation. I will bear in mind the report mentioned by my hon. Friend.

Mr. Denis Howell

Will the Minister help us with two matters arising from his statement which might cause concern? The statement contained a sentence which suggests that he will be asking the development corporation to ensure that the new development is primarily based on existing new towns in the area. What exactly does that mean? What practical effect will it have, for example, on the planning of the new town as a whole? Will he assure us that it will not inhibit the master plan?

Secondly, he said that he expects the private sector to play a much larger part than hitherto. The Minister will know that the previous policy has been that there should be a 50–50 arrangement between local government housing and private housing. In view of the answer which he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Alfred Morris), this sentence is a matter of considerable concern to us.

Mr. Walker

In reply to the first point, the situation here is that, unlike almost every other new town, there is already a population of 250,000 people within the designated area. On looking at this and the schemes which have been mentioned previously, I considered that it was in the interests of those 250,000 people that the development should take place in conjunction with what exists there already, rather than by the imposition of some architect's theory of a major linear new town across 30 miles of Lancashire. Therefore, I have expressed that view. On the second point, as the hon. Gentleman knows, there is no new town with a 50–50 ratio. Most of the new towns were started with a 100 per cent. ratio of rented accommodation, and both sides of the House have come to the conclusion that that has disadvantages. Therefore, this new town will have a far higher proportion of private enterprise houses for owner-occupation.

Miss Holt

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his announcement will be warmly greeted by all right thinking people in the Preston/Leyland/Chorley area, where a massive injection of capital is very much needed? May I remind my right hon. Friend not to repeat the mistake of his predecessor in trying to give an imaginary name to the new town. The name Redrose was greeted with the utmost scorn and derision in Lancashire, the inhabitants of which are quite capable of providing their own postal address.

Mr. Walker

I have no intention of providing a red rose for this area, and I do not consider that it would be a good idea to pursue that name. On the question of the project being welcomed by the people of Preston, I hope that this will be a public investment which will affect and benefit the whole of Lancashire. A total investment of £500 million, public and private, will come into the area, and this will be of benefit to the whole economy of Lancashire.

Mr. Meacher

I would like to raise the problem of south-east Lancashire. As the advantages of this proposal, such as there are, are likely to be postponed for 10 years or more whilst the impact of the disadvantages is likely to be immediate in areas like south-east Lancashire, will the Minister say what specific interim relief he intends to apply to areas like south-east Lancashire whose economies are already precarious?

Mr. Walker

In south-east Lancashire communications are going ahead and ambitious schemes for derelict land, house improvements and improvement areas will help to raise the standard of activity in those areas. There is already a great deal that can be done.

Mr. Bray

I thank my right hon. Friend for clarifying the somewhat distorted picture left behind by the previous Administration. I also welcome the improvements in the infrastructure which is so vitally important to north-east Lancashire, particularly road communications, but we must not overlook the needs of the railways with regard to solid and liquid fuels. All these factors should receive urgent consideration. Will he give an assurance that our intermediate towns will have at least the same priority as that afforded to the new town project?

Mr. Walker

Intermediate towns will certainly have priority over new towns, and the new town will not get intermediate status. There will be a study of the transportation problems.

Mr. Arthur Davidson

Is the Minister aware that his statement will not be greeted with universal enthusiasm in Lancashire, particularly in north-east Lancashire? No one will envy him having to come to the decision which he has reached. Will the Minister assure the House that he has every intention of continuing intermediate area status at the very least for the industrial towns of north-east Lancashire? Is the Minister aware that, if he were to advance that status, perhaps for a limited period, to full development area status this would go a long way towards allaying the fears in north-east Lancashire that industry will be attracted to the new town instead of to the old industrial towns?

Mr. Walker

As I have said, regional policy is not a matter for me but for the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. It would be wrong for me to commit him for all time on exactly what the scheme will be. In conjunction with him I have made the decision that the new town should not have equivalent status to that enjoyed at present by the northeast towns for the very reason which the hon. Member has in mind.

Mr. Laurance Reed

What guarantee can the Minister give that a future Secretary for the Environment will not break his welcome assurance that the new town will not be given special financial incentives to attract industry?

Mr. Walker

I cannot commit all future Ministers and Secretaries of State for the Environment. I think that both sides of the House will agree that this is the sensible answer in the present situation. It would obviously be wrong to accept such a commitment.

Mr. Blenkinsop

Will the Minister give an assurance that he does not intend in any way to weaken the authority of the proposed development corporation when he says that there will be a greater use of private enterprise?

Mr. Walker

No, the new town corporation will have the authority and will put up the scheme. I know the hon. Gentleman has a special interest in new towns, and I think he will agree that all opinion on new towns is that in future these should be a much bigger participation by free enterprise.

Mrs. Kellett

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the massive injection of capital referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North (Miss Holt) does not mean that Lancashire towns which do not enjoy intermediate area status will be inhibited in the growth of house building and in their urgent search for jobs?

Mr. Walker

There is no intention of putting inhibitions of that type on any towns in Lancashire.

Mr. Freeson

The Minister referred to the need to extend the improvement area policy in north-east Lancashire. Will he bear in mind that many towns and local authorities in this area are short of resources and have difficulty in establishing the right kind of organisation for this purpose? Will he, therefore, consider extending the work of the consultancy team sponsored by his predecessor for studies in the area in support of local authorities?

Mr. Walker

This is a valid point. Since taking office, I have used the National Building Agency to advise half a dozen authorities on how to go about setting up an area and administering it. From these experiments, I hope that we shall obtain expertise which we can apply to various towns. I agree that this is an important facet.

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