HC Deb 23 December 1976 vol 923 cc942-56

1.24 p.m.

Mr. George Rodgers (Chorley)

I am grateful that Mr. Speaker has enabled this debate on the future of the Central Lancashire New Town to take place.

The new towns of post-war Britain have been amongst the most effective developments of their kind anywhere in the world. Our nation has successfully pioneered a positive approach to land planning and land assembly which has proved highly attractive to industrial and commercial developers. New town project have provided a better life for many thousands of people who previously lived in overcrowded areas. Thriving new communities have been established, and the programme is highly praised not only in this country but by a constant flow of visitors from abroad. Good standard accommodation which now houses three-quarters of a million people has been constructed in new towns. Some 18,000 firms have set up enterprises and brought over 160,000 jobs.

In short, the new town concept has demonstrated that the vision and boldness shown by the Labour Ministers in the Government of 1945 was rooted in sound common sense as well as political principle. The late Lewis Silkin, his successors, and disciples have influenced events and enriched lives in our community. In my view insufficient tribute has been paid to their achievements, though it is fair to add that others with differing political allegiances have contributed to the continuing success of the new town story.

My brief this afternoon is to focus attention on the Central Lancashire New Town, though I hope that before too long we shall decide on a more attractive and appropriate title for the development. My purpose is to dispel any doubts, hesitations or misunderstandings that might be associated with its future. At present, we await a decision by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment on the outline plan. The decision is long overdue. Indeed, it was expected that it would have been made about 12 months ago.

Perhaps I should make it clear that the situation is not that there has been an inquiry into whether there should be a new town or not. In fact, Central Lancashire received new town designation on 26th March 1970. The outline plan is about land assembly and land usage, but the delay in the outline plan decision is beginning to affect not just the activities of the Development Corporation but the natural momentum of development in the area.

The Central Lancashire area has proved remarkably resilient. Unemployment is consistently below the average for England and Wales and the North-West Region. Despite the recession, the Development Corporation has let virtually all the factories that it has built, and many under construction are pre-let. The British Aircraft Corporation's factories are flourishing, as are those of firms such as BTR and GEC. British Leyland truck and bus division has major plans for expansion in the pipeline, but the lack of a proper land use framework, which endorsement of the outline plan would provide, is beginning to inhibit a number of development proposals.

The paradoxical situation developing is that natural growth is being stifled in an area designated for accelerated growth. We just cannot afford, in the present economic situation and at a time when investment in new manufacturing industry is of the highest national importance, to allow delay over land use decisions to prevent vital new investment.

Another worrying effect of the delay is blight. The Development Corporation, in accordance with current practice, suggested a number of alternative routes for various roads. Inevitably, that kind of exercise creates a lot of uncertainty. It is likely to cause distress to individuals and create difficulties in house sales and purchases. There is evidence that, with the long delay, the consequences of this uncertainty are becoming more serious and may well lead to very heavy financial claims on the Corporation. All this could be avoided by a decision on the plan. A decision on the plan is not, I believe, likely to create new public expenditure, but rather to reduce it.

Another area where uncertainty is creating problems is in relation to agriculture. The Development Corporation has a large land bank and some hundreds of farmers farm land owned by the Corporation. Until the land use pattern is established, the Corporation can give them only annual licences. Once it is known which land will not be required in the near future, these can be converted into tenancies giving the farmers more security. Approval of the outline plan will allow the Corporation to consider a programme of farm improvements.

Regrettably, I think that there has been a great deal of confusion over the nature of the outline plan. Too many people think that it was an inquiry into whether there should be a new town or not and that the Minister's endorsement will somehow create new expenditure commitments. This is just not the case. The Department has complete control over the resources that it allocates to development corporations whether they have approved outline plans or not.

The case for the Central Lancashire New Town is overwhelming. Household formation continues and whatever policy changes are made, the drift of population from the conurbations will continue and the chronic unemployment problems of areas such as Merseyside, which must be remedied, will not change overnight. We are living in a very hard world and it would be criminal folly to inhibit the development of prosperous areas such as those around Preston containing industries whose export performance is vital for national survival.

The Central Lancashire New Town can spearhead a revitalisation of the whole region as well as catering for spontaneous growth in the central area.

Of course, the Central Lancashire development offers a bonus over the green field sites which were the starting points for the earlier generation of new towns as the scheme does not have to start from scratch. Thus advantage can be taken of the social capital that already exists in parts of the older towns. I have in mind particularly that older Chorley and Preston can be renewed as the new town areas are being developed.

Some steps towards urban renewal in the Chorley district are taking place, but a closer partnership between local authorities in the designated areas and the New Town Development Corporation must be created. One formula worthy of consideration is the introduction of joint staff working between borough and county councils and development boards. Progress has been made by an addition to the number serving on new town boards in order that members of local authorities can be accommodated. However, to some extent the formula is bedevilled by electoral changes and the fact that the nominees from the councils to the new town board do not directly represent the elected authorities. It should not be beyond our wit to devise an acceptable and democratic pattern of board membership.

There is a need, too, for a financial arrangment that will enable local authorities to meet the additional expense brought about by the new town undertakings. All the layers of local government welcome the impact of prosperity that will come from the advent of the CLNT. But it must be recognised that a development designed to superimpose a substantial new population on an existing community numbering 235,000 and living in an area covering 55 square miles, or 35,000 acres, will require good will, skill and financial ingenuity. Nevertheless, the fiscal consequences are trivial compared with the enormity of public spending that will be absorbed in tackling the problems of the inner cities. The new town programme can relieve many of these problems.

I should like to comment on the speech made in Manchester by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment on 17th September 1976. It was a first-class speech which presented the problems of the inner areas in lucid and decisive terms. Not surprisingly, sections of the Press misinterpreted it completely.

The Minister pointed out that most of those who have moved from the inner cities have gone to existing towns. Only 11—4 per cent. of the 140,000 who left the conurbation of Merseyside between 1966 and 1971 moved to new towns elsewhere in the region. The figure for Greater Manchester was even smaller. Nor has there been a massive loss of jobs in the inner areas because firms have moved out. The greatest cause of job loss and industrial decline in the inner areas has been the contraction of firms, their extinction, through loss of markets, or an inability to sell their goods in current economic circumstances.

In any case, it is the policy of Government to back winners, and all industries and firms will make their location decisions according to which is likely to produce the best return. It would be incredible folly to obstruct successful industrial advance and investment in one area because of unrelated problems in another. The Secretary of State has never advocated such a hazardous policy, and the record should be put straight. Of course, there are massive difficulties in resolving the problems of inner city decay, and my right hon. Friend expressed his determination to tackle the grim situation. The strategy being applied to the London Dockland is an indication of his concern and urgency of approach. There must be no conflict between the new towns and the inner urban areas, both of which are aspects of overall industrial and economic policy.

It is reasonable to ask how I justify my absolute faith in the success of the Central Lancashire New Town. I am confident that the developments and benefits which have already been brought to Lancashire and which would not otherwise have taken place will convince those who have doubts that the nation has in-indeed backed a winner by launching this exciting venture in the North-West.

The Development Corporation's advance factory programme so far consists of 18 factories let and occupied, totalling 140,000 sq ft; a further eight factories completed, totalling 102,000 sq ft, of which three are let, but not yet occupied; an additional 11 factories under construction, of which, already three are agreed to be let; and 22 factory units totalling 137,000 sq ft in the planning and design pipelines—to ensure vital continuity of factory availability.

Factories constructed privately on Development Corporation land comprise 80,000 sq ft under construction, and 6,000 sq ft already built, with 3,000 sq ft extensions now planned.

The first of the Development Corporation's advance factories became available only some 10 months ago, and the Corporation has plans for a regular annual programme of factory building of at least 150,000 sq ft a year.

Companies which are already in occupation of new Corporation factories, or new factories on Corporation land, and those which have agreed leases but not yet occupied property, have an initial programme to provide 450 jobs. The companies estimate that expansion already foreseen will take that total to at least 600.

Of the factory jobs already created, over 400 come not simply from outside the new town area but either from outside the whole of the North-West Region, or, alternatively, represent brand new business ventures. This must represent one of the most valuable economic benefits which the new town can bring to the North-West. It is interesting to note that up-to-date figures contradict the theory that the CLNT is drawing and draining population from Merseyside. In fact, only 3.1 per cent. of the applications for housing emerge from Merseyside, while 7.1 per cent. are from the South-East Region.

In addition to factory jobs, the housing and civil engineering contracts generated by the Corporation are estimated to provide in excess of 1,000 jobs for construction trades workers, and with the Corporation's own staff and the indirect generation of new jobs caused by the additional wage and salary inputs, there can be no doubt that the Corporation's activities have already led to the creation of at least 2,000 additional jobs in the area. The Corporation has announced that its current level of industrial inquiries is running at a rate almost three times as high as that experienced in 1975.

The Corporation is making a general contribution to the prosperity of not only the designated area but the county as a whole. There is plenty of evidence of beneficial spin-off in the surrounding towns. While movement of industry and people within the county cannot be prevented, the Corporation's primary concern is with new growth. Lancashire must compete with other regions and, indeed, countries for new industrial growth. It cannot afford not to maximise the attractions of the best strategic areas.

Before assembling the material for this debate, I spoke to trade union officers and members. I held conversations with local authority officials in the designated area and with leading local industrialists. I exchanged views with the editor of the Chorley Guardian and representatives of the Lancashire Evening Post. So far as was possible in the limited time available, I endeavoured to secure the views of a wide section of the concerned community. Without exception there was approval and enthusiasm for the new town. Naturally some suggested that the programme could be spread over a longer period. One or two proposed that the Runshaw district, on an attractive undulating feature, should be preserved. Indeed, the editor of the Chorley Guardian is conducting a campaign to secure allies to preserve that area of land. But all preferred a planned and co-ordinated development, rather than the squalid sprawl that has scarred so many towns in Lancashire.

It is vitally important that the bus and truck division of British Leyland—the prosperous end of the enterprise—should receive the go-ahead for its extension programme, which will include an assembly hall, a foundry, research facilities, new test beds, and new jobs for some 2,000 workers. This programme is dependent on the provision of essential road links to the motorway system as shown in the outline plan.

I quote a letter that I have received from the Chief Executive Officer of the South Ribble Borough Council, which demonstrates the anxiety felt in the area of the delay in announcing a decision. The problems for South Ribble because of the delay in the Secretary of State's decision, are far more acute in my view than anywhere else within the designated area, because of the Truck and Bus Division of British Leyland's proposals to invest a further £35 million in new facilities for Research and Development assembly etc., for the launching of a new truck early in the 1980s to compete with the world market. Critically linked to this development is the construction of the Farington Link Road to provide improved access facilities to the new assembly hall etc. In addition the future development of existing 'white area' land could be inhibited in connection with this development, also because of the delay by the Secretary of State. It is also true to say that other significant developments may well be adversely affected because of the then lengthier planning proceedures and the absence of the Outline Plan, involving Public Inquiries. Other significant developments that could well be affected in the centre of Leyland for the first and second phases of the Town Centre development not only to serve existing population but on possible projected development. Other urban redevelopments by large private investors are also critically linked to the Secretary of State's decision on the Outline Plan". I received that letter only last Friday.

The BTR company has demolished existing buildings to facilitate the construction, but the new development which would provide industrial opportunities, employment prospects and housing construction hinges on the long-awaited decision on the outline plan. There is considerable expense involved in the conduct of public inquires, which have become necessary only because of the long delay. Many of the inquiries are in fact a repetition of inquiries which took place when the outline plan was originally submitted.

Around the perimeter of the new town boundary there is an area of planning blight between two and five miles wide. Activity in this zone is stultified as all proposed development must be referred to the new town corporation which cannot respond adequately in the absence of a firm decision by the Minister.

It is appreciated that economic circumstances might mean a change in the pace of the programme and in the scale of development. However, it appears that there are no powers to wind up a development corporation before it has substantially completed its task. That would require an Act of Parliament. The confirmation of the order would be enormously helpful. Certainly the announcement will stimulate investment, industrial activity, and job opportunities.

In view of the importance of an early and favourable decision to the economic wellbeing of the whole of the North-Western Region, I look to my hon. Friend who will answer the debate to enlighten the House on the Government's intentions. His recent visit to Central Lancashire did much to encourage the enthusiastic but somewhat bewildered staff at the new town headquarters. A positive response will also have the effect of dissolving doubts and suspicions amongst the many who are eager to see a generating of prosperity in a region that has more than its share of environmental and industrial problems.

1.42 p.m.

Mr. Edward Gardner (South Fylde)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Rodgers) on his selection of subject for this Adjournment debate and I am pleased to have the opportunity of taking part in it.

The hon. Member said that the staff of the Central Lancashire New Town were bewildered by the delays that we are now suffering. The people who live within and just outside the boundaries, as they are likely to be, are also bewildered. I hope that the Minister fully understands that the delay in this case of making known the decisions on the future of the new town, in the view of those suffering from the delay, is unreasonable and intolerable.

Their anxiety is the anxiety of people who want to know what will happen to their individual futures and to the future of this area, which is vital to Lancashire and to the whole country. By Written Question, I asked when the Minister would make up his mind. He was good enough to give me a reply on Monday of this week, saying that I would have a reply on the decision as soon as possible. Why can we not have an answer today? Why can we not know today the future of the new town? That would be a Christmas message to cheer us up. These people are distressed. They are suffering from blight on their land and from an inability to make their personal and vital plans for the future.

I am sure that most hon. Members will share the great respect and admiration—and, indeed, friendship—that I feel for the Chairman of the Central Lancashire New Town Corporation, Sir Frank Pearson. However, after some reflection and experience, I would say responsibly that I do not think that he is always well served by those officials with the duty of meeting and negotiating with members of the public.

When I came to the constituency and fought the 1970 General Election I found many people who, if not enthusiastic, were not openly hostile to the concept of the new town. Now, in places like Penwortham, Grimsargh and Haighton, I find hardly a friend of the Central Lancashire New Town. If there are people there who support it, I have the greatest difficulty in finding them.

The Corporation, like all others, is an unelected and undemocratic body which, provided that it stays within the strict but wide limits of the law, can behave as autocratically as it likes. It therefore has a particular duty to be sensitive to the aspirations and ambitions of those who live within its boundaries. Instead, my constituents complain, with a frequency which is becoming extraordinary, about what they call the ham-fisted approach of officials.

Reflecting my constituents' views, as I am seeking to do, I would say that in Penwortham, where the Corporation is putting up houses of a character that they do not like, and in Grimsargh and Haighton, where people believe—I think rightly—that the land should be left for agriculture, they are depressed by the thought that they can no longer rely on the Corporation to act on their wishes. They must therefore look to the Government to see that, for example, development in Penwortham is restricted and ultimately brought to a stop and that Grimsargh and Haighton are not left within the boundaries of the new town.

1.49 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Guy Barnett)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Rodgers) for raising this subject and for the interesting speech he made about the Central Lancashire New Town. I am also grateful for the contribution made by the hon. and learned Member for South Fylde (Mr. Gardner). Many of the points made have a bearing upon the Development Corporation's outline plan, which is, of course, formally before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for his decision. As hon. Members will appreciate, in these circumstances I must refrain from commenting on the merits of any of the arguments put forward that reflect upon features of the outline plan.

I understand the points made by my hon. Friend and the hon. and learned Gentleman about the consequences of delay, and I assure them that I have taken careful note of everything that has been said in the debate. I shall consider each individual point, although I hope it is understood that I cannot comment on many of them now.

I can well understand the frustration arising from the delay in an announcement about the future of the new town—frustration felt not only by industrialists who want to expand in the area but also by people who might be affected by the various development proposals in the outline plan and by the Development Corporation's as yet unconfirmed compulsory purchase orders.

In the light of what has been said, I should explain the reasons for that delay. The outline plan necessarily has to be considered in the context of future policy for new towns as a whole. Following the speech about inner cities made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment in Manchester on 17th September, a reappraisal of the rôle of new towns is taking place as part of a review of the policies which, since the war, have favoured dispersal of population from the inner areas of our conurbations. I am sure my hon. Friend and the hon. and learned Gentleman will agree that such a reappraisal is timely. It is a recognition of the country's changing needs and in particular of the special problems facing inner cities. This review is being undertaken with all possible speed, but by its very nature the subject is extremely complex and wide in its scope—particularly as it is necessary to include a look at the factors that have led to the voluntary and unplanned exodus, which accounts for more than 90 per cent. of those leaving the conurbations, as well as the remaining part of it which has been planned to go to our new and expanding towns.

This is a complex subject and it will inevitably take a considerable time to examine and consider properly the range of options which are available for the future. Thereafter interlocking decisions will have to be made, and it will therefore not be possible to make any announcement before the new year.

As my hon. Friend will recall—because we met there—I visited Central Lancashire New Town in the autumn and was able to see for myself the excellent results that the Development Corporation was already achieving. In addition to the dwellings already completed, there are about 1,600 for rent under construction, with a sizeable number also being built for sale on the Corporation's land. I was struck by the great care with which these new housing developments have been planned and by the thought that has gone into landscaping and tree planting and by the pleasing designs of the individual dwellings. I visited one estate which enormously impressed me, and I feel sure that the people moving into that estate will be very pleased with the houses they inhabit.

I was particularly impressed with the rapid progress that is being made on the Development Corporation's first employment area at Walton Summit, where 26 advance factories have been let and others are under construction. There is a distinct air of success suffusing the entire development. The firms that had taken the factories were clearly being given every possible assistance by way of well-designed premises in a thoughtfully-planned environment, close to good-quality housing for the people who work in them.

I strongly believe that this style of development gives industrial firms the best possible chance to succeed, which is crucial at a time when industrial performance and regeneration are so vitally important in reducing unemployment and securing our economic growth.

Incidentally, some local authorities have also demonstrated what can be achieved by good planning that pays attention to economic and industrial needs. I have no doubt that the experience and expertise in this area of the new town movement will be of great value to the country in the future.

My hon. Friend mentioned the expansion plans of British Leyland within the new town. The Government are, of course, fully aware of what is proposed and, indeed, I discussed the matter with the personnel director of Leyland's Bus and Truck Division during my visit. I appreciate the importance to the company of an early decision on the outline plan in order to facilitate consideration of the necessary applications for planning consent which it will be making. Its personnel director also impressed upon me the contribution that the Development Corporation could make by providing the necessary infrastructure for the expansion and the housing for the extra workers that the company will need to take on in due course. These points are being borne in mind.

During my visit I also saw the older parts of the designated area of the new town—mainly those in Preston and Chorley—and heard about pilot schemes for urban renewal being drawn up jointly by the Development Corporation and the local authorities. I was very interested in these, particularly as I had not previously seen for myself the degree to which the new town has its own problems bequeathed from its past industrial history.

I cannot say to what extent the Development Corporation might be able to help with implementing such schemes, but the preparatory work has clearly been most fruitful in producing some imaginative plans—which, I might add, provide a good example of what can be achieved by local authorities and a development corporation working together harmoniously.

As my hon. Friend and the hon. and learned Gentleman know, I met members and officers of the Lancashire County Council and Chorley, Leyland and South Ribble Borough Councils. While they might have differences of emphasis, I was struck by the fact that the four local authorities spoke with one voice in commending the Development Corporation's activities.

The hon. and learned Member for South Fylde paid tribute to Sir Frank Pearson, and I echo his remarks. I noted that the hon. and learned Gentleman was critical of certain aspects of the staff and the Corporation's work. If he wishes to bring to my attention by correspondence any special points, I shall of course go into them, but I hope that he will also bring those matters to the notice of Sir Frank or of the general manager.

I recognise that there are difficulties. A new town development corporation by its very nature has to be authoritarian; that has always been a problem. I like to describe the relationship between district councils and development corporations as a possible situation for creative tension. Inevitably there are differences of emphasis, but I was struck by the commendation received by the Development Corporation from the representatives of the various councils whom I met. I was impressed by their unity and strength of feeling, and their views have certainly been taken on board.

My hon. Friend referred to the need for better representation on the board of members of local authorities. I discussed this matter with representatives of the local authorities during my visit to Central Lancashire in October. I am sympathetic to many of the views that they expressed—which my hon. Friend has echoed—and will bear them in mind when reviewing the membership of the board once the decision on the outline plan has been announced. The passing of the New Towns (Amendment) Act a few weeks ago provides powers to increase membership of the board if necessary and, therefore, it will be possible for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to appoint more local authority members if he so decides.

The central position of the new town and its good accessibility should make the area extremely attractive to industry. The North-West new towns have had a good record of attracting into the area firms which otherwise might have gone elsewhere. Sixty per cent. of firms in the North-West new towns have been brought in from outside the region, yet all their development, which has taken place in a relatively short space of time, has been comprehensively planned so as to protect the very environment the newcomers are seeking.

These achievements by the North-West new towns mirror those of the other new towns in this country. I was glad that my hon. Friend paid tribute to the new town movement and to the memory of the late Lewis Silkin. Many people see the new towns, as I do, as one of the outstanding British success stories in the planning field since the war. They have provided wide opportunities to plan on an imaginative and comprehensive basis, and the various development corporations have done an excellent job.

I do not pretend that mistakes have not been made. Some of the design concepts have not proved popular. But over 1 million people now live in our new towns and the vast majority of them are well contented with their new way of life. I need hardly remind hon. Members, however, that planning must be flexible, and flexibility can be achieved only if adequate steps are taken to measure or monitor the changing scene, so that adjustments can be made as soon as it becomes apparent that the framework is no longer fully adequate.

While the Government continue to recognise the value of new towns as an instrument of wider social, housing, employment and regional policies, it is surely right to see them in the context of the development of the regions in which they are set and to see them in thier relationship to the changing problems of the major cities on which those regions are centred. These are the reasons why we have set in hand the reviews mentioned earlier. Each new town's programme will be carefully re-examined to take account of the changes in circumstances, including the latest demographic forecasts, estimates of future local housing demand and trends in the supply of mobile employment. But I emphasise that there will be no abrupt reversal of plans and certainly no decision to close a new town without the fullest consultation with all the local authorities directly concerned.

To sum up, the Central Lanacshire Development Corporation has already made a significant contribution and is doing excellent work in developing the new town. I cannot give hon. Members a firm date for a decision on the outline plan as this is now being considered within the context of new towns policy as a whole. I can, however, give an assurance that the progress towards that decision is being pursued with the maximum of speed so as to enable an announcement to be made as soon as possible.