HC Deb 17 July 1979 vol 970 cc1449-73

Order for Second Reading read.

10.25 p.m.

Dr. M. S. Miller (East Kilbride)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I preface my remarks by indicating that notwithstanding the purport and purposes of this Bill, I have nothing but respect and admiration for the work of East Kilbride Development Corporation. The corporation, over the years, has done a sterling job of work for the people of East Kilbride in particular and for the people of Scotland in general.

This Bill is a follow-up in Scotland to the New Towns (Amendment) Act 1976, but is applicable only to one town, a Scottish new town, East Kilbride. It is a Private Bill, promoted by the district council. Its main object is to provide for the transfer to the district council of the housing and related assets of the East Kilbride Development Corporation.

The district council has found it necessary to introduce a Private Bill because the 1976 Act applies only to England and Wales. The new towns originally were set up under the New Towns Act 1946 and that general legislation is still similar in Scotland.

There are five new towns in Scotland—relatively few—and they are at varying stages of development. The Government of 1976 thought that it was premature to extend the general Act to Scotland since East Kilbride alone among the Scottish new towns had a development corporation which was coming to the end of its life.

On the Second Reading of the 1976 Act the Minister for Planning and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Deptford (Mr. Silkin), said that he regarded the Bill as a return to one of the great principles of the 1946 Act. He said: For there was never any doubt in the minds of those who introduced that Act … that at the end of the day … its assets should go to the local authority … So it was understood from the beginning that the life of new town development corporations should have an end and that, in the fullness of time, the houses provided by them should be transferred to the local authority. There was no real opposition to the principle of the 1976 Act from the then Conservative Opposition. There was a Division on an amendment moved by the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison), but it was because of a specific point, which has been overtaken by events, namely, that the Bill did not provide any right for new town tenants to purchase their homes.

Nevertheless the hon. Member for Aylesbury said: I support the principle behind the Bill … I believe that the first principle of the Bill is right. I do not believe that we should have permanently a clutch of Government-controlled towns which is essentially what new towns are. They should be normalised, with the normal provision for local government.… There may be difficulties, but I am confident that local government is capable of doing the job of running new towns, and in particular, new town housing. Local democracy rather than Government-appointed corporations is the right vehicle for that, and the Bill is a definite step in that direcion. During the same debate a view was expressed for the Liberal Party by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross). He said: My party greatly welcomes the Bill. Anything which returns control to democratically elected bodies is to be commended."—[Official Report, 23 March 1976; Vol. 908, cc. 212–257.] I have a letter written by Teddy Taylor, who then represented Glasgow, Cathcart. It indicated that Conservative Members in Scotland also supported the move towards the democratisation of housing in new towns.

There seems to have been a unanimous opinion in 1976 that the principle of transferring the housing assets of new towns in England and Wales to the local housing authorities was right. That principle is still right. In Scotland the new towns are that much older, and East Kilbride has gone well beyond the stage when the housing asset should have been transferred to the district council as a logical step towards the development corporation being wound up.

A natural impatience with this position has led East Kilbride district council to promote the Bill. Ministers have apparently said that they intend to look at the general position of new towns in Scotland and to consider the policy that they will adopt towards new towns that develop their target populations. However, of all the Scottish new towns only East Kilbride is near reaching its target population.

As the 1976 Act refers to 15 years as being the starting point for the transfer, other new towns in Scotland are approaching the position that East Kilbride has been in for a considerable time.

The ultimate destination of housing assets is surely the local authority, consisting as it does of the people who are elected to do the job. District councils are the local housing authorities in Scotland, and there can surely be no thought of transferring new town housing assets to non-democratically elected bodies or, worse still, setting up a new non-democratically elected body specifically for this purpose.

In the debate in 1976 reservations were expressed about the extent of the public sector housing in new towns, and the proportion that it bore to the total housing stock. The point has always concerned the district council in East Kilbride and its predecessor, the East Kilbride town council. Both these bodies have adopted what I believe to be a reasonable outlook on the sale of municipal houses.

It is felt in East Kilbride that 25 per cent. of the houses owned by the development corporation should be available for sale. The only reservation that the district council has expressed on the subject —and it is a reasonable one—is that these sales should be spread as evenly as possible throughout the town and should not be confined to specific areas, because that would almost create the kind of ghettoes that one finds in some of the larger English and Scottish cities.

Anyone who visited the new town of East Kilbride could not fail to be impressed by the fact that there are no rundown areas, no slums, and no houses that give the appearance of being run down or neglected. It is an evenly developed town. If there has to be owner-occupation, the council wants to see it spread evenly.

East Kilbride is not the only part of the district council's domain; there is also the landward district and the town of Strathaven, where 66 per cent. of the houses are privately owned. The district council in East Kilbride and in the landward area has a stock of about 1,700 houses. Almost 20,000 houses are under the control of the development corporation.

I can assure the House that there will be no problem about the capacity of East Kilbride to administer efficiently and effectively, as well as democratically—which is the important point—the housing assets which it is felt should be transferred to it under the Bill.

At present there are extremely close relations between the council and the development corporation in housing, with the housing manager of the corporation acting as one of the chief advisers to the council on the operation of the housing undertaking. There would be no problem at all if these assets were transferred.

There would also be taken into the employment of the council all other sections of individuals working with the development corporation. Thus, apart from inheriting the highly experienced and efficient housing department of the development corporation, the district council would have its own team of officials who are concerned with all aspects of the district council's administration, including its present housing undertaking, all of whom are highly qualified and experienced. In fact, they are as highly qualified and experienced a body of local authority officials as are likely to be found working for any district council in Scotland.

Before coming to East Kilbride, all the chief officials worked for large burghs or other authorities with substantial housing undertakings and responsibilities. So there can be no question of a reduction of the quality of administration when the transfer takes place.

The council at present comprises all shades of political opinion. Over the years, since the burgh of East Kilbride was formed in 1963, the council has proved itself to be highly responsible as a local authority. If one visits East Kilbride, what one sees can readily be taken as a tribute to the present district council and the previous town council. In fact, East Kilbride is a highly desirable place in which to live.

Not so long ago in local government terms, namely, in 1967, the former East Kilbride town council made a similar plea, and my hon. Friends will recall what then happened. The House, through a Private Bill, and exceptionally in Scotland, allowed East Kilbride to achieve large burgh status, and in that case also the town council, in the light of the development and evolution of the town, sought to take over additional responsibilities in the county of Lanark. If the Minister feels that this is not the way in which business should be conducted, I commend to him the situation that existed when the House conferred on East Kilbride large burgh status.

At that time the town council was faced not with opposition to the principle but with questions of timing. Perhaps we shall be told the same tonight—that it is a question of timing. A Royal Commission had been set up to report on local government reorganisation in Scotland. Was it right to make the change in East Kilbride at that time? Would it not prejudice eventual reorganisation? Would it not be a waste of time at that juncture? In the event, Parliament thought otherwise and large burgh status was conferred upon East Kilbride.

The town council had the additional functions in its charge from 1968 to 1975, a period of seven years, during which time, it is no exaggeration to say, gigantic strides were made in the new town in developing services that had fallen behind in the general development of the town.

In drafting the Bill, the district council has closely followed the provisions of the 1976 Act. I shall not go through the clauses in detail, but I shall outline what they do. Clause 3 provides that a transfer scheme may be made providing for the transfer from the development corporation to the district council of its interest in any dwellings of the new town and any of its associated property, rights, liabilities and obligations; and it defines related assets. As well as housing these include other assets such as neighbourhood shopping centres but not industrial or major commercial centres.

Clause 4 provides that within three months of the commencement of the Bill the development corporation and the council shall enter into consultation with the Secretary of State and with each other with a view to the transfer scheme being worked out.

Clause 5 sets out the statutory ingredients of the transfer scheme. Clause 6 requires the development corporation and the district council to inform Strathclyde regional council of the land proposed to be transferred.

Clause 7 provides that when an application for a transfer scheme is made to the Secretary of State he may, with the consent of the Treasury, approve the scheme with or without modifications, or he may reject it.

Clause 8 provides that the transfer scheme, when approved, will provide a good title to the property without the necessity of conveyancing.

Clause 9 contains provisions with respect to the nominating of tenants by the development corporation under a transfer scheme, and provides that the right shall be exercisable during a period between the date when the transferred dwellings are vested in the district council and the date when the Secretary of State makes an order for the winding up and dissolution of the development corporation. Clause 10 deals with financial arrangements.

Clause 11 makes provision for the council to qualify for a grant if, as a result of the financial arrangements provided for in clause 10, a financial burden is placed on the council and the ratepayers.

Clause 12 places a duty upon the development corporation to give notice to the occupiers of buildings and other land of the proposed transfer scheme and the likely effect of it upon them.

Clause 13 provides for disputes and a mechanism should disputes arise. Clause 14 contains basic provisions for the protection of employees.

The council has circulated a statement that sets out clearly the case for the Bill as it sees it. It explains by reference to target population and state of development that East Kilbride as a new town is nearing the stage when the winding up of the development corporation will in any event have to be considered. The council is not proposing that it be wound up now, but it feels that when it comes to the winding up there may be a number of difficult matters to consider, especially the destination of the industrial and major commercial assets and the redeployment of staff generally. If the difficulties, especially those concerning staff, are to be kept to a minimum, it will be necessary for some form of programme for steps towards the winding up to be planned and announced well in advance of a final winding up date.

We must be realistic and appreciate that all development corporations, by their very nature, have a vested interest in prolonging their lives. That is not a factor to be taken lightly. If development corporations are given their own way, they will be content to go on in perpetuity. They must be given a final, firm target date and not merely a target population to which to work.

If the Bill is given a Second Reading, there will be a necessary financial resolution relating to the clauses in italics. I hope that if the House expresses itself in favour of the Bill the Government will ensure that the resolution is moved. The financial effect is merely to assure ratepayers in East Kilbride of the normal housing subsidies in respect of the houses transferred.

If a Private Bill of this sort receives a Second Reading, it still requires to go to a Select Committee of hon. Members where the case for it has to be established. As distinct from a Public Bill, the House is not committed, even in principle, to pass the Bill. However, the district council, as the promoter, is given a chance to state its case.

The Bill is merely a continuation of the process of democratisation to which I think we are all committed. Nothing could be more in the mould of what we consider to be the democracy of our people than that they should control not only their political destinies but the assets that have been built up over a number of years by the ratepayers and taxpayers in general. It is a sine qua non of the democratic process that the elected representatives of our towns, districts and constituents should have controlling authority.

There is no more blatant example—not wittingly, but certainly by implication —of that right of people being usurped than the continuation of a development corporation which is not democratically elected and answerable to the people. It is a quango. There is no question about it. I hope that it will be the last quango in East Kilbride.

I do not think that I am asking too much when I state the case for the necessity for this transfer to happen first in East Kilbride. The corporation has been on the go for 33 years. It is no longer a baby or a teenager. It has moved from the era of post-war jazz into the new pop era. It is now a mature adult.

10.51 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Alexander Fletcher)

I wish to make a short intervention to indicate the Government's opposition to this Bill. I appreciate many of the points just made by the hon. Member for East Kilbride (Dr. Miller). I appreciate his very deep interest in this whole business, being the Member of Parliament for East Kilbride. I realise that this must have been quite a talking point in some circles, at least in the new town.

I admire the East Kilbride development corporation. I admire the town and all that it has achieved over the years. I imply no disrespect or criticism of the district council.

The Bill raises questions of importance not just to the new town of East Kilbride but in relation to all the Scottish new towns. That is one of the main reasons why I speak against the hon. Gentleman's proposal.

The Bill provides, in short, for the transfer of the housing assets of East Kilbride development corporation to East Kilbride district council before the completion of East Kilbride new town. As the hon. Gentleman suggested, it purports to be based upon legislation applicable in England and Wales providing for such transfers between development corporations and local authorities, but in fact it goes somewhat further in restricting the Secretary of State's discretion to determine the timing of transfers.

The policy objective itself was rejected by Scottish Ministers in the previous Administration. In the consultative document issued by the previous Administration entitled " The Scottish New Towns ", which was published in January 1975, they stated explicitly that The Government do not see advantage in providing for the transfer of property to local authorities during the period of development of the new town save where this is agreed by the corporation and the local authorities to be in their mutual interest. I do not suggest that there is anything wrong with that. One significant factor that does arise is that the East Kilbride development corporation does not so agree.

The reason given by the previous Administration therefore weighs with me, namely, that experience shows that the overriding need to promote growth in the Scottish interest can be pursued to good effect by a development corporation in full control of the assets it has created. East Kilbride new town is about 6,500 people short of its target population and will not be complete until at least six more years have passed. The Government believe that it is wrong to provide against the corporation's wishes for transfers of housing to the local authority during that period of continued development.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to bear in mind that the Government will have to consider, therefore, the policy that they wish to adopt towards new towns where development to their target population has been completed. This is a matter to which we shall be turning our attention, but we need time in which to consider the issues fully and to reach conclusions.

Given that no Scottish new town is likely to reach completion in under six years, there is no practical reason why we should be forced to hurried decisions.

Mr. Barry Henderson (Fife, East)

While accepting my hon. Friends' point may I take it that in considering these matters he is not precluding the possibility that there will not necessarily have to be a completed target population before some decisions of this kind may go ahead?

Mr. Fletcher

Yes, of course, there are other factors to be taken into account, but it would seem, in our opinion, to be rather unwise to cut off the development—and the organisation that has created the development—just because of what might be termed a rush of impatience, when there is still a target to be completed and an important few years are left before the town has fully reached the target set for it.

Mr. Norman Buchan (Renfrewshire, West)

Will the hon. Gentleman tell us why the Tory Party in this House a few months ago, when the deputation first came down from East Kilbride, gave enthusiastic support for its proposals? Why did the six years not weigh with it then— including, of course, the Front Bench of the Tory Opposition at that time?

Mr. Fletcher

I can only tell the hon. Gentleman I did not take part myself. I did not know that the deputation was here. If some of my colleagues greeted the deputation warmly and enthusiastically, that is what I would expect Conservative Members to do to any delegation from Scotland. I would expect them to listen to its case sympathetically. I am sure that is what my hon. Friends did on the occasion to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

In forming our policy towards the development and completion of new towns, we shall not necessarily be bound by provisions in existing Scottish legislation, introduced over 30 years ago when completion of a new town was no more than a distant prospect, or by decisions of the previous Administration legislated for England and Wales or announced as intentions for Scotland.

East Kilbride district council's Private Bill assumes that the Government will be so bound and would, if it were to succeed in Parliament, pre-empt the consideration of policy which the Government wish to undertake.

Dr. M. S. Miller

I have been looking very hard to see where the hon. Gentleman gets the figure of at least six years. Will he indicate where it comes from? It is my information that East Kilbride will be substantially finished long before six years have passed. Indeed, even if the Bill were given a Second Reading and went through, it would probably be about three years before the assets were transferred, and that would be about hitting the time when East Kilbride would be substantially finished.

Mr. Fletcher

As far as the corporation and the Department can estimate, the time before it reaches its target population will be six years, and not the three years to which the hon. Gentleman refers. But there are other considerations, for the Bill takes no account of the new dimension that has been introduced by this Government's insistence, which is central to their policies, that there must be a major shift from the public to the private sector in Great Britain.

What is at issue now is not simply a matter of transfers within the public sector, as the Private Bill presupposes, but rather how best to achieve the Government's objective of transferring assets into private sector hands. We do not believe that this objective would be furthered in any way by transferring new town assets in an intermediate stage to other public sector agencies. On the contrary, such action could only introduce irrelevant delay.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (West Stirlingshire)

Does the Minister not accept that, irrespective of the argument about public ownership versus private ownership, what is publicly owned should be publicly accountable?

Is it not sheer hypocrisy for the Prime Minister to declare that it is the Government's policy to abolish quangos while the Minister is defending one of the biggest quangos in Scotland, under which the Prime Minister's placemen rather than democratically elected representatives decide matters such as housing policy, which affects many people in East Kilbride? Is it not time that patronage was replaced by a bit of democracy?

Mr. Fletcher

If I am defending a quango, it is at least a profitable quango —though I suppose that that makes it even worse in the hon. Gentleman's eyes.

It will be evident from what I have said that the issues arising on the policy to be adopted when a new town is completed are of general import and should be covered by general legislation, as has been the case hitherto.

The hon. Member for East Kilbride referred to the Private Bill to make the town a large burgh, but that was specific to East Kilbride. Policy generally towards new towns will require general legislation, because new towns other than East Kilbride will be affected. We are speaking, after all, about assets worth, at a rough estimate, £400 million at East Kilbride and £1,000 million in the Scottish new towns generally. These issues, and such sums, are wholly unsuitable for private legislation as proposed by East Kilbride district council. To the extent that clauses of the Bill impose a charge on public funds, a financial resolution tabled by the Government is required. It is not our intention to take such action.

For the reasons that I have given, the Government urge that the House does not approve the principle of the Bill. We undertake, however, to give early consideration to the policy that we shall wish to adopt towards completed new towns, including East Kilbride, and to make an announcement as soon as conclusions have been reached.

11.2 p.m.

Mr. Norman Buchan (Renfrewshire, West)

I am glad of the opportunity to speak on the Bill, for a number of reasons. My hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride (Dr. Miller) described the new town as a baby blossoming into a child, an adolescent, and finally an adult. I can claim to be present at the foetal stage because I was involved in the initial planning of East Kilbride in 1947 and 1948 and I have therefore always had a paternal interest in its development.

When representatives from East Kilbride came to the House in February last year I set out to them the view of the Scottish group of Labour Members that new town decisions should be made by the Scottish Assembly, which was proposed at that time. I said that we should wait and allow the Assembly to take the important decisions on the future of new towns generally and of East Kilbride in particular. I had great pleasure in doing that because the deputation was led by the Scottish National Party, which wanted to precipitate a decision before the Assembly, which it claimed to support, was in being.

The Assembly is no longer under consideration and we therefore revert to the general democratic position that what is publicly owned or built should become democratically accountable as rapidly as possible.

I wish to remind the Minister of what was said by the Opposition spokesman, Teddy Taylor, writing on behalf of the Conservative Party, in 1978. In a letter to the district council, he said: Dear Mr. McNay, It was a very great pleasure to meet you and the members of the District Council in the House of Commons and I very much enjoyed our discussion. That was the point that the hon. Gentleman made when he said that Tory Members are always nice to people when they come and meet them. Teddy Taylor went on to say: I have had a chat with colleagues and can give the assurance that in the event of your District Council promoting a Bill to transfer the housing assets to the District Council we would not oppose it in principle …assuming that it is in the normal form, following the usual precedents, I can give the assurance "— he is speaking not only officially but almost ex cathedra— that such a measure would enjoy the support of Conservative MPs from Scotland. Yours sincerely, Teddy Taylor.

Dr. M. S. Miller

He was a shadow not a substance.

Mr. Buchan

Let us examine the position. We are not likely, over the next three or four years, to have an Assembly under this Government, and the proposition on that major decision affecting the planning of Scotland—with five new towns involved and one specifically—will not be handled by the Assembly. It therefore comes under the view and economic development concepts of the Tory Government.

When the Under-Secretary says that there will be a six-year gap, I do not understand that unless it means that the Tory Party and the Tory Government in Scotland are not intending to develop house building. If the Under-Secretary is saying that it will take six years before the target is reached, that suggests a very small measure of support for the building of new houses in Scotland—and even that is not totally accurate.

The East Kilbride development corporation does not at present have a single house under construction. The Government are waiting six years for the build-up of the population and the housing target figures, but in fact no houses are being built. The prediction is that even if that aspect were to be proceeded with, unlikely as that is under this Government because of the change in birth rate as well as the current fall-back in house building, it is possible that the population may fall by the early 1980s. If that is what we are waiting for in order to build up the target figure as against the position of either a standstill in house building or a fall back in population, we shall wait for ever—the Greek Kalends—before that position is reached. The Government are not being honest, and should give us better answers.

Mr. Alexander Fletcher

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman does not labour the point about the period of six years before the town reaches its target population. It is an important factor, but I hope that he will agree that a more important consideration is the fact that there is a general policy affecting all the Scottish new towns. Surely it is illogical to decide general policy in such a way that a Private Bill is put forward in respect of one new town, but the policy consideration to which I have referred will affect all the Scottish new towns.

Mr. Buchan

We have been given no indication of such economic policy planning and potential decisions to bear that out. It certainly did not weigh with the Conservative Party when it was making promises to the East Kilbride council in February 1978. I can give the assurance that such a measure would enjoy the support of the Conservative MPs from Scotland. There is nothing there about economic planning or the five new towns in existence. That, with respect, was the proposition that was put forward by the Labour group in this House, but we are now in opposition and therefore do not have the power.

Given the lack of economic planning and the failure to establish an Assembly that could take the matter under its wing, the position is now clear. After 33 years, when we have reached if not the target figure but the optimum figure as far as can be predicted, the time has now come to put the houses under the democratic control of the elected representatives of the people in East Kilbride. That is plain, and should be supported. Unless the Government can come forward with a better reason than they have so far given I cannot see any reason for their opposition.

What we are deciding tonight is whether the Bill should go before the appropriate Bill Committee in order that the case can be then made. No doubt the Government in their evidence will be bringing forward these great plans of theirs for economic planning in relation to the five towns, but they are preventing the opportunity to precipitate and crystallise these marvellous economic planning affairs. The Government have not put the case and the Bill should be supported.

11.10 p.m.

Mr. David Lambie (Central Ayrshire)

I support the case put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride (Dr. Miller). I represent the newest of our new towns in Scotland—Irvine—and I see this Bill as a precedent for other Scottish new towns. I do not think that we need to wait until the corporations have reached their population targets before we hand over housing assets to the democratically elected district council.

I feel quite sorry for the Under-Secretary tonight. He has had to come here and do a political U-turn, putting forward policies in government that he did not accept while he was in opposition. He stated that he was not party to the deputation and the previous Conservative group which met East Kilbride district council. I accept that, but we cannot challenge the former Member for Glasgow, Cathcart, Mr. Edward Taylor, because he is not here. The Glasgow people found him out. He had too often given these categorical assurances, quite honestly and sincerely, on behalf of the Conservative Party when in opposition, but he had no desire to carry them out when in government. I see that the Scottish Whip—the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James DouglasHamilton)—is here tonight. He was party to these negotiations. Where is the Secretary of State for Scotland? He was also party to the negotiations. Perhaps he is away celebrating the fact that every area in his constituency is now a special development area. Where is the other Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Mr. Fairgrieve), who was also a member of that group and who gave assurances? It is strange that the only person who did not meet the deputation from East Kilbride was the Minister who is opposing the Bill tonight.

I do not kid myself that if the Labour Party had won the general election a Labour Under-Secretary with responsibility for new towns would not have been at the Dispatch Box reading the same speech, written by the same civil servants. I believe that that would have been the policy of a Labour Government. But I say this to the bright, new young Tories who have come here for Scottish seats since the general election—[HON. MEMBERS: " Where are they? "]—Well at least I can see the hon. Member for Galloway (Mr. Lang). He fought me in the 1970 election, and I trained him so well that he is here now, having knocked out an SNP Member. Had a Labour Government won the election we would still have opposed their policy on this matter tonight. I appeal to the new Tory Members to oppose Tory policy tonight also and support the case that has been put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride.

In my new town the majority of the houses are controlled by the Cunninghame district council. Another sector of housing is controlled by the Scottish Special Housing Association. That is yet another quango of the worst type. It controls a large area of public sector housing in Irvine new town. We also have houses under the control of the Irvine development corporation. Thus, there are houses controlled by the democratically-elected Cunninghame district council and two other sectors of housing controlled by quangos.

I do not mind the SSHA and the development corporation acting as building agencies. Let them build all the houses they want. But once those houses are built they should be handed over to the district councils, which have special responsibilities and statutory rights for housing.

That is why I support East Kilbride district council's case. This is a precedent. If we can get this Bill through we can do the same for the other new towns and can thereby carry out not my policy alone but that of the Scottish Council of the Labour Party, which is clear that the SSHA should be a building authority but that once the houses are built they should be handed over to the local authorities to be factored and controlled. The same policy applies to the new town corporations.

We go further still. We believe that the new town corporations, instead of being quangos appointed by the Secretary of State, should be merged into the local authorities, either the district or regional councils or both. That would give democratic control of those organisations.

Dr. M. S. Miller

Is it not a disgrace that the New Towns (Amendment) Act 1976 applies to England and Wales and provides exactly the same situation as we want to apply to Scotland but which the Government will not permit us to do?

Mr. Lambie

I support the point of view that what is good for England and Wales should be good for Scotland—indeed, for Northern Ireland as well, because Northern Ireland also has a housing corporation that is not democratically controlled. Let us have a United Kingdom policy on this matter. Do not let us have one policy for England and Wales and another for Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Mr. John Mackay (Argyll)

If the hon. gentleman carries that argument further, it is equally wrong to put forward a Bill solely for East Kilbride and not for the other new towns.

Mr. Lambie

I am sure that the East Kilbride district council would withdraw the Bill if we got an assurance that a Government Bill would be introduced to cover not only East Kilbride but the other new towns in Scotland. It would receive unanimous support not only from England, Wales and Scotland but, I am sure, from Northern Ireland.

I support this Bill on general principle, but also because I object to having to spend so much of my time, as a Member for a new town, dealing with housing cases which should really be dealt with by the democratically elected district council. Instead of my being able to refer to their local councillors people with local housing cases, the local councillors have to refer them to me, saying " These are Government houses and it is your job as a Member of Parliament to look after them." I want to be able to tell the people who come to me " Go to your local councillors. Take it up with Cunninghame district council, and it will deal democratically with the policies and with the housing complaints."

That is why I support my hon. Friend, and hope that we shall have the unanimous support of the bright young Tories who have come here since the general election. Let them for the first time live up to their promises and vote according to their consciences and not according to the dictates of a Tory Whip who, a year ago, gave assurances opposed to the principles of the Bill. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) is an old aristocrat, but tonight he is acting like that nouveau riche, the former Member for Glasgow, Cathcart, Mr. Taylor, who always represented the working class one day and the rich people the next.

I hope that the Government will listen to my hon. Friend's pleas and support the Bill.

11.21 p.m.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

May we clear our minds on certain issues of fact? First, what is the objection to at least allowing discussion of the issue? I understand that tonight we are deciding not the merits of the issue but one matter and one matter only—whether it should be properly discussed. It certainly is the opposite of open government not to allow it to be properly discussed in Committee upstairs. I quietly and gently ask the Under-Secretary at least to reconsider his decision from the following point of view.

Surely there is enough meat here to have a sensible discussion upstairs. Then the Bill would return to the Floor of the House, and if after the discussion the Government stuck to their view I should have far more respect for it than if no discussion had been allowed.

Secondly, my own locus in the matter, without which I would not have interfered, is that I represent one-third of the new town of Livingston. If East Kilbride is to be tied to the coat tails of Livingston. there will be no advance in relation to East Kilbride until the year 2000, because Livingston will not be completed for at least 20 years, and probably a good deal longer.

Are we really saying that there should be no transfer in East Kilbride until all the Scottish new towns are completed? If so, we might as well say " Goodbye " to it for 20 years. Let the Government comment on that.

Thirdly, I do not agree with the Conservatives, but from their point of view it may be that a development corporation rather than a district council is likely to give over assets into private hands. But if that is the argument, let us again come clean. Are the Government saying " In that case, we believe that assets should never be given over, because they are less likely to be given into private hands "? One cannot have this argument both ways; it is one or the other.

If the idea of the policy is that new town houses should to as great an extent as possible be handed over into private hands, let this be said, and let the Government then say " We do not believe, on this account, in handing them over to district councils at all."

I wish to offer the Government my experience as a constituency Member for Livingston. I think that that experience is shared by my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie), who represents two-thirds of the existing new town. We find that proportionately we receive infinitely more housing complaints about the new town corporation than the council.

My hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Lambie) has exactly the same experience. I hold no brief for West Lothian district council or Midlothian district council at the present time, but if councillors are under pressure, things tend to be done more urgently. Livingston corporation has many virtues. The way in which it allocates houses is not one of them. In Knightsbridge Four, unlike East Kilbride, there is something of a slump because the corporation has been tardy and lackadaisical about the letting of houses. There has been an endless number of empty houses. Vandalism has taken place, because houses have been left empty for weeks and months in a way that would never have happened in a council where councillors were under pressure at least to fill the houses.

I am not persuaded that development corporations are the best people to handle the allocation of houses. I would add a personal postscript. In the 1960s, I was Parliamentary Private Secretary to the then Minister of Housing, who took a special interest in English new town housing. There was endless pressure for certain changes to take place in England. These changes have been granted. What my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride (Dr. Miller) seeks is little different from what a number of the old traditional English new towns have achieved. Why should this step be denied to East Kilbride?

I am not asking immediately, although it happens to be the policy of West Lothian constituency Labour Party, properly thought out by serious people, that assets should be handed over. I have no intention of damaging my hon. Friend's case. But we in Livingston are entitled to say that we look for a certain pioneering effort from East Kilbride to see how events work out and eventually to follow.

Heaven help East Kilbride if it is tied to the coattails of Livingston, which takes a long time to reach its full objectives. I hope that an opportunity will be given for serious discussion of these matters upstairs. That is the only immediate issue tonight. To say that they should not be discussed is a travesty of open government.

11.28 p.m.

Mr. Hugh D. Brown (Glasgow, Provan)

I feel under no obligation tonight to defend the previous Government. I intend to enjoy the freedom that I now possess. It should be put on the record that East Kilbride is a very political council. Fortunately, it is changing from a Scottish National Party-controlled council and will undoubtedly be Labour-controlled after May next year. There are still, however, undertones of the SNP. But it is no wonder that the SNP did not do well, and will not do well, in Scotland when neither of its representatives has taken the trouble to attend this debate.

An important point of principle is involved in the Bill. I have a strong feeling of disappointment in the performance of the Government in merely saying that they will give early consideration. I have made some queer Ministerial statements—

Mr. Canavan

Hear, hear.

Mr. Brown

All I would say to my hon Friend is that he should not overdo the idea of all district councils being democratic, because he will be needing our support tomorrow night. It is totally depressing that the Government cannot come clean on a general principle. There is no doubt in the minds of Members on the Opposition Benches that we shall ultimately want to transfer new town resources to the democratically elected local authorities. We know the reasons why the Government cannot come clean. They want to sell off every public asset that they think will bring a return. Is that not right?

Mr. Alexander Fletcher

Of course.

Mr. Brown

Then what is the difficulty? Why cannot the Minister say that they will not transfer these housing assets? The Government are not having a good week. When they have announced cuts in regional aid of £230 million, it is totally irresponsible for a Minister to promise only " early consideration " of a fundamental principle that we have discussed for years.

England and Wales are different from Scotland. I have every respect for East Kilbride district council, but it wants to make the best case, and it is not too worried about accuracy in comparisons with England and Wales. It was the SNP on the council which produced this general argument.

Dr. M. S. Miller

My hon. Friend is not doing us justice.

Mr. Brown

I shall support the Bill.

Dr. Miller

I know, but does not my hon. Friend realise that I acknowledge that there was a difference? The implication of his remarks is that we should have the halfway house of a commission. Why do we need it in Scotland? It was established for England, and the situation has changed; we should benefit from that experience.

Mr. Brown

I am not arguing for a commission; I am saying that the circumstances that led to the legislation are slightly different, and that the new towns in the two countries are different. I never looked on the English experience as a precedent for Scotland.

Six years is not a long time in local government. The Government have been less than forthcoming about their intentions for East Kilbride. Of course this debate is about the sale of private assets. It might have been recognised that the key is the discretion that the Government give local authorities in selling houses. The previous Government had a target of 25 per cent. of houses for sale in new towns. I bet that the present Government will not accept that as a reasonable target.

That is another reason why the Government are not coming clean They do not want to commit themselves to allowing this discretion in new towns, never mind in local authorities. They will have to bring forward those proposals in a few months. That is why they have reneged on another promise

We all know Teddy Taylor. We know what he is. But not one of his friends is here tonight, except for the Minister and one silent Whip. No other Tory Member here tonight knows anything about him. Yet that is the promise that he gave on behalf of the Conservative Party in Scotland. This is our first opportunity to point out that all these broken promises will come home to roost. The Tory Party in Scotland has been discredited, and this is one more piece of evidence—

Mr. Henderson rose

Mr. Brown

I do not even know who you are.

Mr. Henderson

I do not know who you are, either.

Mr. Brown

That is the hon. Gentleman's misfortune. Even since the general election, public opinion polls have shown a decline in Tory support in Scotland. After a performance such as tonight's, it is no wonder.

Mr. Henderson

Before the hon. Gentleman sits down, perhaps I may put a point to him. It seems to me that one reason why the problems are not as simple as the hon. Gentleman suggests is that when his Government were in power they did not set in train the kind of thinking that was necessary to ensure an orderly transition from, as the hon. Gentleman rightly called it, an undemocratic system to control by the local authorities in the long term. I believe that this is something that has to be done, but I suspect that it was not put in train when the hon Gentleman was in office. It is something that ought to be done on a general basis for all the new towns.

Mr. Brown

Actually, I had sat down, and I shall conclude by dealing with this matter.

I did not want to bring in the devolution argument, but it was a tenable and justifiable proposition for the Government to say " This is a purely domestic housing matter that will be the responsibility of the Assembly in Scotland ". That was accepted in good faith in February of last year by the East Kilbride district council. The Tory Party does not have even that justification for pleading for delay. I repeat that I did not want to raise that argument, but again on that score the Conservative Party in Scotland is totally discredited.

I hope that there will be support for the Bill. I would not press it, but in the light of the poor statement that we have had from the Government I do not think that we have any option but to vote on this matter tonight.

11.37 p.m.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Antrim, South)

From a purely selfish point of view it would not be in the interests of those who come from Northern Ireland to prolong this debate, bearing in mind that there are four Northern Ireland orders, with a potential time of one and a half hours each, to follow this debate.

I intervene briefly to support the Bill. First, I do not accept what the Minister said about the relevance of the completion date of the building of the new town of East Kilbride, because in Northern Ireland we had two almost similar corporations, one controlling the development of a city called Craigavon and the other controlling a smaller town called Antrim. The development commission in Craigavon was cut off and abolished when it was in full flight and had completed about half its allotted task. In the case of Antrim, not more than one-third of its target had been achieved when the commission was abolished. Unfortunately, the powers of those two quangoes were not returned, as they ought to have been, to local government, because by that time local government had itself been abolished. The powers were taken under the wing of the Department represented by the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office—the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi).

We sympathise very much with what our Scottish colleagues have said tonight.

We welcome the growing realisation in the House of the plight into which we who come from Northern Ireland have been plunged and in which we have remained for five or six years. By the abolition of local government we have, as the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Lambie) said, the monstrosity of a housing body about which the Minister will hear more next Monday night, and I invite hon. Members from every party to join us on that occasion, when we shall enlighten them a little further. I shall not trespass on the patience of the Chair by going into that tonight.

We know just what hon. Members who represent new towns are enduring in the way of frustration and in not being able to bring to bear any influence to redress the grievances of their constituents, because constituents do not realise the fine boundary lines between the responsibilities of district councils and new town corporations and the functions of Members of Parliament. In the end the unfortunate Member gets the stick for the failures of all three elements.

We have no wish to make any further comment, but we do not want to encourage the Government to allow our Scottish colleagues to endure the present position. For that reason, I take the liberty of advising my right hon. and hon. Friends to support the Bill and the principle behind it.

Mr. Dalyell

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Certain specific questions were asked of the Minister to which he may wish to reply. In particular he may wish to comment on the request for an opportunity to discuss these issues.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 47, Noes 98.

Division No. 64[...] AYES [...]11.40 p.m.
Beith, A. J. Cunningham, George (Islington S) Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen North)
Bennett, Andrew (Stockport N) Dalyell, Tam Lamond, James
Bradford, Rev. R. Davis, Terry (B'rm'ham, Stechford) McCartney, Hugh
Bray, Dr Jeremy Douglas-Mann, Bruce McKelvey, William
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan) Dubs, Alfred McNamara, Kevin
Buchan, Norman Duffy, A.E. P. Marshall, David (Gl'sgow.Shettles'n)
Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P) Dunlop, John Marshall, Jim (Leicester South)
Canavan, Dennis Eastham, Ken Martin, Michael (Gl'gow, Springb'rn)
Carmichael, Neil Evans, John (Newton) Molyneaux, James
Cocks, Rt Hon Michael (Bristol S) Grant, George (Morpeth) O'Halloran, Michael
Cohen, Stanley Harrison, Rt Hon Walter O'Neill, Martin
Cowans, Harry Homewood, William Parry, Robert
Cryer, Bob Howells, Geraint Powell, Rt Hon J. Enoch (S Down)
Robinson, Peter (Belfast East) Skinner, Dennis TELLERS FOR THE AYES
Ross, Ernest (Dundee West) Stewart, Rt Hon Donald (W Isles) Dr. M. S. Miller and
Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight) Stott, Roger Mr. David Lambie.
Ross, Win. (Londonderry) Strang, Gavin
Aspinwall, Jack Hannam, John Rhodes James, Robert
Berry, Hon Anthony Hawkins, Paul Roberts, Michael (Cardiff NW)
Best, Keith Hawksley, Warren Roberts, Wyn (Conway)
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Heddle, John Rossi, Hugh
Boscawen, Hon Robert Hicks, Robert Sainsbury, Hon Timothy
Bright, Graham Hooson, Tom Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)
Brinton, Timothy Jopling, Rt Hon Michael Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Brooke, Hon Peter Kilfedder, James A. Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge-Br'hills)
Brotherton, Michael Kitson, Sir Timothy Shersby, Michael
Buck, Antony Knight, Mrs Jill Sims, Roger
Butcher, John Lang,Ian Skeet, T. H. H.
Carlisle, John (Luton West) Lawrence, Ivan Speller, Tony
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark Squire, Robin
Carlisle, Rt Hon Mark (Runcorn) Lester, Jim (Beeston) Stanbrook, Ivor
Chapman, Sydney Lloyd, Peter (Fareham) Stevens, Martin
Clark, Hon Alan (Plymouth, Sutton) Lyell, Nicholas Stradling Thomas, J.
Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe) MacGregor, John Temple-Morris, Peter
Colvin, Michael McNair-Wilson, Michael (Newbury) Thatcher, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret
Cops, John Major, John Thompson, Donald
Cranborne, Viscount Mather, Carol Thorne, Neil (llford South)
Dodsworth, Geoffrey Mayhew, Patrick Trippier, David
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Morris, Michael (Northampton, Sth) Waddlngton, David
Dunn, Robert (Dartford) Morrison, Hon Peter (City of Chester) Wakeham, John
Emery, Peter Myles, David Ward, John
Faith, Mrs Sneila Nelson, Anthony Watson, John
Fenner, Mrs Peggy Newton, Tony Wheeler, John
Fisher, Sir Nigel Page, John (Harrow, West) Wickenden, Keith
Fletcher, Alexander (Edinburgh N) Page, Rt Hon R. Graham (Crosby) Williams, Delwyn (Montgomery)
Fox, Marcus Patten, Christopher (Bath) Winterton, Nicholas
Fraser, Peter (South Angus) Patten, John (Oxford) Younger, Rt Hon George
Gorst, John Pawsey, James
Gow, Ian Pollock, Alexander TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Gower, Sir Raymond Proctor, K. Harvey Mr. Barry Henderson and
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N) Renton, Tim Mr. John Mackay.

Question accordingly negatived.