HC Deb 15 June 1972 vol 838 cc1987-96

4.9 a.m.

Mr. Charles Fletcher-Cooke (Darwen)

I have one point to make, and at four o'clock in the morning I shall make it very shortly.

The old towns of North-East Lancashire have always viewed with suspicion, if not hostility, the proposal for a central Lancashire new town. I will not go into the reasons for that hostility and suspicion, except to say that they fear deeply, and always have, that the new town would act as a magnet, sucking off into the new town activity which might otherwise come to Blackburn, Darwen, Accrington, Burnley, and the other established towns of North-East Lancashire.

However, when this Government decided to go ahead with the central Lancashire new town they managed to curb our hostility and to allay some of our suspicions by certain statements that were made relating to the relative preference between the proposed new town and the old towns of North-East Lancashire. On 3rd February, 1971, I asked my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment this question: Will my right hon. Friend tell us whether the new town itself will have development area status or intermediate status? My right hon. Friend replied: "No, Sir." Later, in answer to the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Dan Jones), my right hon. Friend said this: '…the new town will not have intermediate development status, whereas the other towns do… Finally, in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale (Mr. Bray) my right hon. Friend said: Intermediate towns "— that is, the towns of North-East Lancashire— will certainly have priority over new towns, and the new town will not get intermediate status."—[Official Report, 3rd February, 1971; Vol. 810. c. 1677–81.] One can see why the hostility and suspicion were much allayed, because we in North-East Lancashire were to have an important differential over the proposed new town.

Not much more than 15 months later that differential has been erased and removed entirely, in spite of those undertakings upon the basis of which the hostility and suspicion and activity of North-East Lancashire were curbed. I understand why the differential has been erased, because many areas in the North-West have now got intermediate status which never had it before.

What I want to do tonight is to ask the Government how they propose to restore that differential, if they do propose to restore it; and, if not, what excuse they have for removing unilaterally what was in those three quotations and in some others something of a solemn assurance.

The North-East Lancashire Development Council wishes North-East Lancashire to be promoted to full development area status, thus preserving something of the differential. Much as I support that, I think that it is unrealistic to expect the Government to do that so soon after they have already been changing the various gradations and areas of the special grants.

My purpose tonight is simply to ask: if that is not possible, what proposals have the Government got to repair a very considerable hole which they have by their own action torn in the delicate balance between North-East Lancashire and the central Lancashire new town. That is the sole purpose of my raising this debate. I shall sit down now, because I know that my hon. Friends whose constituencies are within the boundaries of the proposed central Lancashire new town wish to say a few words. They may be words contrary to the tenor of my remarks, but I shall understand that. I hope that the Minister will give North-East Lancashire some hope. I hope that he will indicate that the Government realise what has happened, that they and they alone have upset the balance, and that he will say what sort of steps they propose to take to restore it.

Miss Mary Holt (Preston, North)

I do not understand what my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Darwen (Mr. Fletcher-Cooke) is talking about when he refers to "repairing the hole". As I understand it, the new proposals and the change to intermediate status for an extensive area—indeed, for the whole of the North-West—under the new proposals, are part of a national strategy by the Government which is designed, first to produce sustained economic growth, which has been lacking throughout the country, and, secondly, to enable the oportunities offered, by entry into the European Economic Community to be taken.

It seems that the Preston-Chorley-Leyland new town area should be able to take advantage of those opportunities just as the rest of the country has, and should have the same sort of encouragement as other backward areas have had. In fact, the Preston-Chorley-Leyland new town area is like the industrial towns of North-East Lancashire; that is to say, it has lagged behind. It has suffered from depopulation, derelict land problems and old factories.

My own constituency of Preston, North, although prominent in the aviation industry, in which it is probably a world-beating constituency, has attracted virtually no new industries in the last 20 years, although there have been extensive developments with new commercial ventures in the area.

The new town will never get off the ground unless it has equal opportunities with the surrounding areas. I and other hon. Members from this area have been concerned and, indeed, apprehensive, ever since the new town was introduced, that if it did not get equal development status with the surrounding areas we should never attract the industries, and the new town would become nothing more than a dormitory town. Why did the Salmesbury Brewery come to the edge of the new town instead of coming into it? The reason was because the brewery could get almost £3 million in grant because of being just outside the boundary of the new town as against establishing itself within the new town area, which would have been a better site for it from every point of view.

If the new town gets fresh industries it will prove beneficial to the whole of the economy of North-West Lancashire. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Darwen does not take account of the effect that new industries will have. My hon. and learned Friend talks about magnets one way, but they will act as magnets in another direction because new industries require supplies. The aviation industry requires component suppliers. If there is a large population in the new town it will create demand in the same area in every way. Its massive injection of new capital should prove beneficial to the whole area if it can get off the ground.

However, it will never get off the ground unless it has equal development status with the surrounding areas. It is a fallacy to imagine that the Preston area cannot be brought up to the same level. If it is brought up to the same level it will not in any way prove dangerous or harmful to the rest of Lancashire. Infact, the two parts together are complementary. If we are to get the North-West off the ground, I suggest that the Preston-Chorley-Leyland new town area requires equal development status. I welcome the changes which have been made as does everybody in my constituency.

4.20 a.m.

Mrs. Connie Monks (Chorley)

I remind the House that it is seven years since the Central Lancashire area was designated a new town. Yet it is not enjoying even normal development. Far from gaining advantage from this designation, the whole area has been stultified for seven years.

An increased use of electricity is usually an indication of normal development; but the amount of electricity used is about 8 per cent. down. To give the area intermediate status was the least the Government could do to make up for these seven years of stagnation. We have had no wish to compete with East Lancashire, but should like to see both areas prosper together.

4.21 a.m.

Mr. John Roper (Farnworth)

I felt for a moment a little earlier that I had stumbled on a family quarrel; but I do not think it need be a quarrel among those of us in the North-West, because we are all united in wanting to see rejuvenation of the region which has suffered in many ways in recent years and has many common problems.

I was glad that the hon. and learned Member for Darwen (Mr. Fletcher-Cooke) did not oppose the development of the new town because, as the North-West Economic Planning Council has said, the new town can be the cornerstone of the redevelopment of our region. However, it is vitally important that we should have proper and selective measures dealing with the specific needs of different parts of Lancashire so that we can have both redevelopment of the old towns, such as Farnworth and Kearsley in my constituency and those of North-East Lancashire, and at the same time, as a centre for self-sustaining growth and to restructure the industrial base of Lancashire, the imaginative concept of the new town.

4.22 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Reginald Eyre)

I welcome the choice of subject for this debate by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Darwen (Mr. Fletcher-Cooke). It has given hon. Members the opportunity to explain their views on this important project and, in particular, to ventilate some of their worries. It has given me a clearer understanding of what these worries are about; and I am glad to take this opportunity to reply. I will answer hon. Members' points so far as I can tonight, but if a point raised by an hon. Member in the debate seems to need further reply, I will gladly write to that hon. Member about it later.

My aim is to remove as many misconceptions as possible about this Central Lancashire new town project. It would not be useful to take up too much time tonight in repeating the well-tried and well-ventilated arguments which led my right hon. Friend in 1971 to make a start with the Central Lancashire new town project; but it is worth taking a very little time to remind the House of several very basic facts.

The overall case for the new town is certainly no less valid today, and my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Minister for Housing and Construction, in answer to Questions in the House on 16th February and 24th May this year, have both made abundantly clear their continued support for it.

The North-West is still the most densely populated region in the country and the future quality of life there depends upon a properly planned approach to the use of land. Even with downward revisions in the light of the latest data, the population of the North-West region can be expected to grow by about 175,000 to 200,000 over this decade and we cannot afford to assume that growth thereafter will not be of a similar order of magnitude, even with a substantial migration right out of the region.

To put the proposal into perspective, the present population in the North-West region is 6.7 million and that of the North-East sub-region is 475,000. The designated area of the new town should by the end of the century—I stress as far ahead as the end of the century-contain about 430,000 of whom 230,000 are in the area already.

Without proper provision for the relief of pressure for new housing from this increasing population, the quality of life in the most densely populated parts of the region is bound to suffer. The location of the Central Lancashire new town meets this requirement admirably. It was not chosen without very detailed studies but there are obvious salient features.

For example, from the regional point of view, the most outstanding characteristic of the new town is its central position and its remarkable accessibility. This is a site with road links of motorway standard with Glasgow to the north, Huddersfield to the east, Bristol in the southwest and, of course, through the Midlands to London. It also lies on the main London—Glasgow railway, soon to be electrified throughout.

The new town must be seen as a point of focus and stimulus to attract into the whole of this region, with its very high standards of communication and with new investment of an order which could not be expected to come to the region at all without the planned stimulus of the new town. I very much agree with the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North (Miss Holt).

So the need for the new town remains clear: but there are other major issues more pertinent in many ways to the points raised by hon. Members tonight. First, there is the question of timing. I should make it very clear that we are talking about a project the main impact of which will not come until the 1980s. Our hope is that, long before then, a number of the problems in neighbouring areas will be looking very different.

Because the new town is still very young, we cannot deal with the project in detail tonight because, quite simply, the details do not exist. The members of the corporation were appointed about a year ago; the general manager six months ago; his chief officers took their posts three months ago. Their first main task is to make a strategic plan of action and to submit it for my right hon. Friend's approval.

There have of course been extensive and detailed preliminary studies by consultants, commissioned in advance by my right hon. Friend and our predecessors, which are now at the disposal of the corporation. But the corporation will also consult and collaborate with the appropriate local authorities and statutory undertakers, taking full account of the latest planning data and forecasts; and, as the strategic plan emerges, there will be publicity and a chance for the public's reaction to be tested—I know that this will please my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mrs. Monks)—and opinions considered.

All this means that there will be ample opportunity for discussion of the eventual plan and the forecasts on which it will be based; and, indeed, for the corporation to take account of points raised here by hon. Members: but it is already possible to see the guidelines which the corporation is developing for itself.

The corporation's primary function will be to draw up the strategic plan and to provide for the assembly and marketing of the land and basic services necessary to ensure rapid and co-ordinated development. Beyond these stages the emphasis will be on bringing in the private sector to the greatest practicable extent, with the bulk of the new housing in the shape of private development making the fullest use of the corporation's special facilities and overall co-ordination and of the know-how of private enterprise.

In advance of this master plan, the corporation hopes to be promoting certain interim schemes for housing, employment and shopping, to help the area to keep pace with immediate requirements. But these will not be the major development. That, as I have already said, will be realised in the 1980s. I hope that that helps to reassure my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Darwen.

I turn now to some of the special points raised, possibly by implication, by hon. Members. One of the serious ones concerned employment. The North-West has an unemployment level above the national average and both Central and North-East Lancashire have an over-narrow industrial base. It will be a major function of the new town to put this right by providing a point of attraction for new and diversified sources of employment which otherwise would not have come to the region at all, and to do this in a location away from the congested Mersey belt. I have a great deal of sympathy with the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North. I thought she developed powerful arguments in support of Government policy and I also appreciated the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley.

The Government look upon a new town as a source of benefit to the older towns rather than the reverse. It is not true that the impact of the new towns was not properly studied. The previous Government commissioned detailed studies of the impact of the new town, particularly in North-East Lancashire and the issue was fully considered by the Government before the decision to go ahead. The Government are satisfied that the general effect of the inflow of investment to the new town—some £500 million by the end of the century from the public and private sectors—will be beneficial to the region as a whole and it will also be beneficial to the people of North-East Lancashire. In particular, the new town is expected to stimulate during the 1980s those parts of North-East Lancashire which will have started on the road to recovery during the 1970s.

The phasing and routing of the Calder Valley fast route have been reviewed with this in mind. Schemes are already in the pipeline which are aimed at providing the "fast route" Calder Valley road from the new town at the M6/M1 interchange, through south Blackburn, Burnley and on towards Colne. The route as far as Burnley should be completed by 1978 and the rest as soon as possible thereafter.

There is already evidence of movement northwards from the heavily congested Mersey and Manchester industrial belt in search of a better environment. It is essential that any consequential build-up of development in mid-Lancashire should be comprehensively planned so as to protect the very environment the newcomers are seeking. A new town is a powerful instrument of protection whilst at the same time efficiently satisfying the demand. The all-too-familiar alternative would be suburban sprawl around the existing towns which could neither satisfactorily meet the demand nor be good for those towns themselves.

It will be for the corporation to assess the likely incidence of commuting between the new town and the neighbouring older towns and cities and to cater for it where it means greater and more diverse job opportunities and is otherwise consistent with good planning principles. Communications in the area are good and will be better, so people may well be ready to undertake longer journeys to work, either to or from the new town. Central Lancashire already has good motorway and trunk road connections with Liverpool and Manchester, and the new Calder Valley road improvements will open up the old industrial towns of North-East Lancashire.

The Government are determined to promote and sustain faster economic growth to attack the serious problems of continuing regional imbalance. We expect Central Lancashire and its surrounding areas to benefit fully from the measures announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on 21st March. When the new town was set up it had no assisted area status. But with the extension of that status to the whole of the North-West, in order to meet a changed general situation, it would have been clearly inappropriate to have excluded the 250,000 people already living in the new town area from these benefits.

My hon. and learned Friend will understand that the points he raised about development area status in North-East Lancashire are for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and I cannot answer them tonight. Both North-East and Central Lancashire have inherited from the decline of the textile industry a legacy of old, worn-out premises. The new building grants we have announced will provide a unique opportunity for industrial renovation in both areas.

To sum up, there is an unanswerable general case for the Central Lancashire new town as a nucleus for planned future housing development in a crowded region—and as a magnet for much investment which would otherwise be lost to that region. The exact pattern of the town, the major assumptions and forecasts, the infrastructure, the relationship of houses and jobs and the social facilities have all yet to be crystallised. They will be open to public comment and consideration of opinions before decisions are reached on the major implications or the special effect on this or that individual locality. There can be no doubt that this project, which is likely to bring an injection of about £500 million of public and private capital into Lancashire, will be of overall long-term benefit to the general economy of the county and a stimulus to the surrounding areas.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to Five o'clock a.m