HC Deb 04 July 1974 vol 876 cc789-98

12.43 a.m.

Mr. Stan Thorne (Preston, South)

Having listened to the previous debate, I become more convinced that law is for the lawyers. Happily, we are now to concern ourselves with a subject that to many people in Central Lancashire is of extreme importance.

I am one of those who believe that democracy is of considerable importance in Britain. There was an argument many years ago about democracy in regard to the ancient Greek States. Plato attacked democracy severely on the ground that it was inefficient. He suggested that we should be better served by accepting that there were within society philosopher kings and guardians who were able to think and suggest ideas which would need only to be followed to create the good life.

I mention that deliberately because today some people describe the philosopher kings as planners. It seems when we consider what is produced by the Central Lancashire Development Cor- poration and when we become involved in the discussions that arise from the outline plan, we are very much in the situation that what is being said is "We know best, and as long as you accept the sense of what we say we will achieve what is right".

The background to the Central Lancashire development is fairly well known. The North-West is more densely populated than any other part of the country. It is precisely because of this that land is of vital importance, that its use should be planned and that the basic issue with which the Government should be concerned in relation to those plans is people. Arising from people's needs, the questions of housing, jobs, communications, transport and the rest naturally flow.

We are talking of an area of about 35,000 acres including Preston, Chorley, Fulwood and Leyland. I hope, Mr. Speaker, that you will be able to give opportunity for my hon. Friends the Members for Preston, North (Mr. Atkins) and for Chorley (Mr. Rodgers) to participate in the debate. I shall try to ensure that time is allowed for them to do so, and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will reply favourably to what is suggested to him.

There is a population of a quarter of a million in the area I am describing. I took the trouble to look up some of the original documents, and I got this quotation from the former Under-Secretary of State for the Environment in June 1972: Ample opportunity will be given to the public for discussion of the eventual plan. It is precisely the question of democracy, participation and consultation with which I am vitally concerned in this debate.

The unemployment problems in the North-West are fairly well known. The need for new industry which stems therefrom presents certain problems when one considers the congested character of the Mersey belt. The need, therefore, to spread out within North-East and North-West Lancashire is fairly obvious.

I am quite sure I am speaking on behalf of my colleagues who are present when I say that we are in no way suggesting that the new town development is not something that can bring prosperity and a better way of life to the people of the area. What we are saying is that against that background there are certain things that should be done in a democracy to ensure that anything of value that is produced should be what people need and what they consider to be of value.

To obtain a consensus within a very large area about what is of value, it seems to me that a whole range of organisations and institutions must be consulted. I am fairly certain that the Central Lancashire Development Corporation has sought consultation with the chamber of commerce in Preston, in Chorley and so on. Other organisations, too, will have been embraced in the consultation. But the list that one could present of organisations that have certainly not been consulted is immense.

The trade unions within the whole of this area, for example, have not been consulted by the development corporation. Neither have the trades councils, the voluntary organisations, residents' associations, ratepayers' associations, women's voluntary services, the family service unit and others. All these are organisations that are vitally concerned with the social and economic structure that exists in the area and is likely to exist with the sort of changes that are envisaged in a development of this character.

Housing in the new town is a central issue. The present Government should already have a policy on the statements made by the Conservative Government about the problem of private and public housing development. The predecessor of the Minister for Planning and Local Government made the categorical statement that he expected the private sector to play a much larger part than it had played previously in new towns. I sought by a Parliamentary Question recently to get the Secretary of State's attitude to that Statement. His reply was unhelpful in that it told me nothing about whether he considered the originally suggested proportion of private to public housing in the area was valid. I am primarily concerned about consultation with the people on the nature of the housing developments.

Roads have already presented immense problems to the community. Although the concept of this new town goes back to 1969, and the board was set up in 1972, the consultation that has taken place is minimal. In Ashton, which is an area that will be affected by the Western Primary, a park that is highly valued by the community will be cut across by the new road, and housing that is valued by the community will be destroyed. A public meeting which was organised by the development corporation after the publication of the outline plan was attended by 350 people. That meeting reflected the immediate concern expressed by people once they know the facts. That concern is exacerbated because the people have not been consulted about the changes. The public rightly ask whether roads are the only means of public transport that the development corporation consider to be viable. Have not the Government a responsibility in guiding the development corporation to consider alternatives, such as light railways, loop lines, and a general improvement in public transport?

Speaking on 3rd February 1971, the Minister for Planning and Local Government said that in planning the new town it was necessary that amenities also should be properly planned. What does "properly" mean? What does "planning" mean? Does it mean that the public will be able to participate? The Labour Government could answer that question only with a firm "Yes." The Labour Party spent much time on disseminating propaganda throughout Britain to explain the value of the Skeffington Report. The recommendations of that report are highly relevant, and the Department of the Environment confirms that it rates them highly even in a new town of this description. One recommendation is that the people should be kept informed throughout the preparation of a plan, and that representations should be considered continuously while the plans are being prepared.

Meetings will be convened to set up community forums. Where there are natural organisations in existence Skeffington draws attention to the need for development organisations to establish community officers whose job it will be to go within the community to get the people interested in the development that is likely to take place; in other words, to encourage and invite them to partici[...]pate in the preparation of those plans.

Unhappily, those recommendations have not been implemented in the Central Lancashire New Town area. An organisation known as Planwatch has appealed time and time again to the Development Corporation for the opportunity to participate in the preparation of plans. Each time it has been fobbed off with the idea that when the outline plan is complete it will then put it to the public for their consideration. The public should be told what the other recommendation says.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. George Thomas)

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Member, but I thought he had invited two of his hon. Friends to speak as well. The Minister has to reply. We have now reached half way.

Mr. Thorne

I was under the impression that I had spoken for about 15 minutes.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The debate will last half an hour.

Mr. Thorne

In that case I will bring my remarks to a close.

With regard to the material issued by the Central Lancashire Development Corporation, the basis of much of its plan is the concept of economic growth. It is essential for the following questions to be put: For whom is this economic growth? For what? In what way will this economic growth improve the quality of life of this area? In what way will the community be able to participate? They are relevant questions.

I am faced at present with considerable pressure precisely because of the inadequacy of consultation. The pressure now concerns the date for the inquiry which is set for 17th September, a date that gives inadequate time for the people of Preston to make their objections to a plan in the preparation of which they had no opportunity to participate.

12.58 a.m.

Mr. Ronald Atkins (Preston, North)

Planners have great powers to shape the urban environment. The majority work conscientiously but their decisions need to be questioned closely and changed when necessary especially after realistic consultations with people who live in the area and whose lives can be made miserable by planning mistakes.

Mistakes have certainly been made, because planning is not an exact science—far from it—based as it is on forecasts that are frequently wrong and on subjective assessments. Planners seem to acknowledge this weakness in the frequency of their changes of view on what constitutes good planning.

When the Central Lancashire New Town was first planned, the fashion in planning was to build towns for the motor car and the Central Lancashire New Town planners worked on those lines. Today planners believe more sensibly that towns are for living in as comfortably and as conveniently as possible, that public transport should be encouraged and that private cars should be discouraged from town centres. That is the view of this House—it was expressed for example, in the 1973 White Paper on urban transport—and of local authorities, including the Preston council.

The Central Lancashire New Town Corporation has made some minor concessions to that point of view, but its urban road plan belongs essentially to the early 1960s whereas it is plans for the twenty-first century that are required in the Preston new town. One example will have to suffice, and that is the Eastern Primary, the building of which, together with its link with the Western Primary, will mean the demolition of many hundreds of badly needed houses in my constituency and the deterioration of hundreds more.

The Eastern Primary is planned to serve a new settlement of thousands of people at Grimsargh. Grimsargh is one mile or less east of the eastern bulge of the M6 motorway where it bypasses Preston. A constituent of mine, questioning the need for this road, asked whether traffic from Grimsargh to Manchester would not be routed via the M6 which is on Grimsargh's doorstep, and the M61 which joins it. He was told that it would not and that traffic would be taken into and then across Preston before it reached the motorway, covering additional mileage, using more fuel and causing additional pollution and congestion in Preston.

The same officer said on Granada Television that, although he personally found it convenient to use the M6 for local journeys, local traffic must be kept off the motorway. This is an extraordinary decision in view of the fact that when the new town plan was conceived it was for a linear town based on the motorway among other means of communications. Obviously a few years ago the use of the motorway by new town traffic was accepted and was one of the factors in choosing this site.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will use his considerable experience and fine intellect to study the plans, insist that they conform to the views of this House on urban roads, on energy and on land conservation, and break through the thick crust of bureaucracy which separates him from my constituents.

1.2 a.m.

Mr. George Rodgers (Chorley)

I am grateful to have been given an opportunity to say a few words in this debate. As a token of my appreciation, my remarks will be very brief.

It is my view that the Central Lancashire New Town is an exciting and bold concept. It is not simply a concentration of concrete or a suburban sprawl. It contains vision. It will expand and enhance the qualities which already exist in the area. I am a proud advocate of the new town. I believe that it can generate prosperity and halt the sad decline which has been occurring in Lancashire over a long period.

It would be nonsense to voice the virtues of the prospects which lie ahead when we are fortunate enough to have the Minister here to respond to the debate. However, I ought briefly to outline my concerns about the new development.

My initial concern is that the existing local authorities have to meet the provision of a great deal of the initial amenities of the new town. I speak of libraries, clinics and so on. They need a cash inflow to make it possible. Only subsequently will the financial support come, which will be helpful, but in the early stages it is essential that loan sanction should be freely available.

There is a desperate need to generate good will among the people already living in the district, and there must be genuine consultation. The officers of the new town board must have the courage and common sense to concede that they can sometimes be wrong. All the information available to the new town board should also be available to the public at large in order that they may give evidence at the inquiry in September, which I think is being held very early in the day and does not allow people to accumulate and give evidence by that date.

Our attitude to public transport must be changed in view of the changed circumstances since the outline plan was drawn up. Obviously the fact that the cost of oil has increased enormously must influence us in this direction.

There must be changes in the board membership. It must be expanded and we must recruit people from local government.

There is a multitude of plans for the North-West, the latest being the North-West Strategic Plan. There must be a blending, not a blurring, of people's ideas so that we get a distinctive approach to the selection of the Central Lancashire New Town for area development. We must not be confused by plans which have emerged in recent months. There must be direct involvement by elected members. They must be told to consult the Minister at reasonable intervals. This facility has not been available in the past.

Finally I call on the Minister to utilise the charm and cunning that he no doubt acquired as Chief Whip to persuade the Treasury to look on the area as one ripe for investment, to persuade industry to go there, to persuade civil servants to honour the Hardman Report and generally to persuade people that civilisation does not end at Watford Junction.

1.6 a.m.

The Minister for Planning and Local Government (Mr. John Silkin)

I realise that in many ways I am racing the clock, but I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Preston South (Mr. Thorne), Preston, North (Mr. Atkins) and Chorley (Mr. Rodgers) for the interesting points they have raised on the Central Lancashire New Town.

I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, South thought I had not spoken very clearly on housing. I obviously did not speak clearly enough to him, but I think that others have heard my voice. My strong preference and policy is in favour of rented housing, certainly at present, as against housing for sale. I should be an unworthy son of my father if I did not hold the ideal of the new town very sacred indeed. I will certainly do my best to try to get, to preserve and, in due course, to increase the funds that need to be available to new towns. However, we face a tough economic situation. Therefore, while I may plead, it may not be possible, at any rate at the moment, to get what I want for the Central Lancashire New Town and, indeed, for other new towns.

I strongly believe in the democratic growth of new towns so that eventually they may be handed over to the people who live in their areas. But this is a development stage—in the meantime we must have the development corporation—though, as I see it, it is always a growing matter which is constantly changing until the final result.

I am grateful to my hon. Friends for agreeing on the concept and potential value of this new town which has been mooted since 1958. It has taken a long time in being born, but it is right that it has been born.

The key to the kind of new town we are to have, its rate of development and all that is concerned with it lies in the outline plan. Therefore, I think it would be valuable for me to give the history of the situation.

The draft outline plan was circulated to local authorities and others in November 1973; the road appraisal reports were published in March 1974. The final version of the plan was published on 31st May 1974 and it was formally submitted to the Secretary of State on 3rd June. Although there is no statutory require- ment, a public inquiry will be held. That has been arranged for 17th September 1974. I know that there is some concern, particularly about the roads mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North. It always is so when one deals with the appraisal of roads, and it is especially so following the Skeffington proposals, because they offer a large number of alternatives.

I now propose to say something about the question of roads, the matter of public participation and, finally, the length of time for the public inquiry. The normal time for an inquiry of this sort has been exceeded by six weeks in this case. Normally the inquiry would have taken place sometime at the end of July, but it will take place on 17th September. There has, therefore, been rather longer than usual, but I make a promise to my hon. Friends.

I am not thinking in terms of deferring the date, but in view of the representations that have been made by my hon. Friends I shall consider this during the next week and take into account all the points that have been made. If I come to the conclusion that there is a case for deferring the inquiry, I shall do so. I am not promising that I shall defer the inquiry, but I am promising that I shall consider the representations that have been made by my hon. Friends. I hope that they will be reasonably satisfied with that.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes past One o'clock.