HC Deb 04 February 1981 vol 998 cc291-6

The following questions stood upon the Order Paper:

53. Mr. Warren Hawksley (The Wrekin)

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, if he will now make a statement on the future of the third-generation new towns.

57. Mr. Den Dover (Chorley)

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, when he now expects to be in a position to make a statement on his policy towards the third-generation new towns.

58. Dr. Brian Mawhinney (Peterborough)

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, if he will now make a statement on his policy for the third-generation new towns.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Michael Heseltine)

I have now completed my examination of the third-generation new towns. In all six new towns the development corporations will be expected to rely substantially on private sector investment. Public sector funding will be restricted to the minimum needed to support further growth.

In the cases of Northampton and Central Lancashire new towns, the Government consider that the aim should be to wind up the development corporations on 31 December 1984 and 31 December 1985 respectively. By these dates the population of Northampton should be of the order of 170,000 and that of the designated area of Central Lancashire new town about 270,000. I shall be consulting the local authorities concerned about the implications for them of these target dates.

The development corporations of the other four new towns should be wound up in the late 1980s. By this time the population of Milton Keynes is likely to be of the order of 150,000; that of Peterborough 150,000; that of Telford 130,000; and that of Warrington 160,000.

All these figures should not, however, be considered as targets. The rate of population growth will depend essentially on the rate of demand for private house building and the willingness of the private sector to invest.

Mr. Hawksley

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I hope, in particular, that it will reassure local authorities who have been perturbed and have suffered a loss of morale because of the delay. Has the Secretary of State any proposal to smooth over and to prepare for the eventual changeover to local authority responsibility of those services which are run, at the moment, by the new towns, particularly in Telford, where the life of the new town is being extended? One hopes that what my right hon. Friend said confirms that the figures will remain the same.

Mr. Heseltine

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support. I have no reason to suppose that there will be any difficulties. There is a perfectly well precedented, mechanical process by which all this is brought about. If, however, I felt that it was not working as I would hope, I would be prepared to enter into discussions with the appropriate bodies to see what it was necessary to do.

Mr. Dover

Will the Secretary of State accept that the people of central Lancashire greatly welcome the announcement of a date for the winding up of the Central Lancashire new town? They will also welcome the move towards private housing, rather than having so much rented housing. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that he will allow only natural population growth and not induced population growth?

Mr. Heseltine

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It is our intention to rely on natural population growth and natural investment from the private sector. I have tried to set the figures bearing in mind what is likely to emerge in the course of the years that lie ahead.

Dr. Mawhinney

I also welcome the statement made by my right hon. Friend. I should like to put two questions relating to Peterborough new town. My right hon. friend said that there would be a reduction in the amount of private investment. Will he give an assurance that this relates only to population movement and that investment necessary to provide factories and employment will be maintained at the current level?

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that because health care provision was not included in the New Towns Act, all the third-generation new towns have suffered health care provision inadequacies? Will he undertake to consult his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services to make clear to him that nothing in this statement should jeopardise the building of the second district hospital in Peterborough, which is not only overdue but is badly needed?

Mr. Heseltine

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He will appreciate that his second question is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services. I shall ensure that my right hon. Friend is made aware of the concern that my hon. Friend expressed.

In his first question, if I understood him correctly, my hon. Friend was talking of the consequences of the reduction in public investment. It is my view that there will be a reduction in public investment. It will be set at a point that is sufficient to provide the basic infrastructure and to maintain the growth along the levels that I have indicated but not at a higher level.

Mr. Stanley Newens (Harlow)

Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that the district councils will be faced by all sorts of problems that they have neither the resources nor the powers to tackle? What will he do to avoid the same pattern of procrastination in dealing with the problems faced by these district councils that has characterised his dealings with the district councils in the first-generation new towns, where section 10 grant claims are still not settled despite the period that has elapsed since the handover of the houses?

Mr. Heseltine

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, who has a deep concern in these matters, will realise that we have had to take over what we inherited from the Government whom we replaced. I do not think that he would want to draw too many conclusions about the state of affairs that we found. It would be my intention to proceed in what is the normal way in the transfer of assets from one public sector body to another by discussion and negotiation. I have no reason to suppose that we cannot resolve the difficulty to which the hon. Gentleman draws our attention.

Mr. Michael Morris (Northampton, South)

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that the terminal date for Northampton will be greatly welcomed? Will he ensure that any surplus land assets are monitored by his Department to make sure that they are automatically transferred to either county or district councils? Will he ensure that if there are any abnormal costs arising out of some of the infrastructure, care will be taken to ensure that the whole burden does not fall upon local ratepayers?

Mr. Heseltine

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Abnormal costs and non-recurring costs are issues that we must discuss when we decide the precise mechanics of the transfer. On the question of land, I hope that before we reach the point at which these transfers take place, particularly in the Northamptonshire case that my hon. Friend mentions, we will have moved a long way in dealing with public sector land holdings on a comprehensive basis and not just within the new towns. We have already designated 33 land register areas where all public sector land that is under-used has to be registered if it is over 1 acre. I am now working on proposals whereby the existence of all under-used local authority land over a certain acreage is made known to those people living in each community. We shall therefore have a far greater awareness of land holdings in the public sector long before Northampton is transferred.

Mr. John Evans (Newton)

Is the Secretary of State aware that the part of the announcement that I welcome is the fact that Warrington new town will not be wound up until the late 1980s, by which time we shall have got rid of this Government? Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the reason for the tremendous success of Warrington new town has been the excellent balance between private investment and public investment? The fact that he is cutting back heavily on public investment jeopardises the future of Warrington new town.

Now that the right hon. Gentleman has announced the amalgamation of Runcorn with Warrington new town, will his announcement affect the Runcorn aspect of Warrington new town?

Mr. Heseltine

The hon. Gentleman asked me three questions. The Runcorn situation is not affected by what I have said. The position is as it was before I made my announcement.

I accept that the new towns represent a balance between the public and the private sectors. All that I am doing in the policies that I am pursuing is to switch the balance to a greater reliance on private investment as opposed to public investment. One recognises that there is a balance to be struck.

I cannot disagree with the hon. Gentleman that the Government will not be in power when the transfer takes place in the late 1980s. It will, of course, be replaced by the next Conservative Administration.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call the hon. Members who have been rising, because I believe that they have constituency interests. However, I point out that this is an extension of Question Time.

Mr. Robert Atkins (Preston, North)

Will my right hon. Friend accept that although we welcome the curtailment of the development of green field sites and the resale of the land back to agricultural use, there will be concern in Preston about the effect of the curtailment of the new town on the rehabilitation of the older parts of Preston and the development of the former Courtaulds and Preston dock sites? Can he assure us that every assistance will continue to be given in those important areas?

Mr. Heseltine

I share my hon. Friend's concern. I want to be sure that our policies will enable the right and proper work to continue. Indeed, in my statement I said that I would consult the local authorities concerned about the implications of the target dates. The points that my hon. Friend makes will doubtless be put to me by them.

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)

Notwithstanding the Secretary of State's statement about the third-generation new towns, will he review his decision to terminate the Aycliffe development corporation by 1985? With unemployment in the surrounding areas running at about 15 per cent., does he accept that it represents the one chance of attracting new jobs to South-West Durham? Will he refrain from dissipating the industrial development expertise that has been gathered over the years?

Mr. Heseltine

I am afraid that I cannot reconsider. The announcements have been made about the first- and second-generation decisions. Unemployment is much more a matter for the central economic thrust of the Government's policies, and not for specific considerations when we wind up one or other of the new towns.

Mr. Christopher Murphy (Welwyn and Hatfield)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the remaining public expenditure in the new towns will be concentrated on infrastructure and employment opportunities, leaving private investment to deal with housing?

Mr. Heseltine

That is very much in line with what I am proposing. Public expenditure will be used to create the infrastructure that will make possible programmes that can broadly follow from private sector house building and industrial investment.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis (Rutland and Stamford)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that 3,000 acres of land was taken in my constituency to provide a massive reservoir to provide water for the Peterborough and Northampton new towns? Does he accept that as the expansion is not now to take place much of that water will be unnecessary? Will he therefore refund to the Anglian water authority some of the money spent, so that my constituents can have their water rate reduced? Will he also endeavour to make sure that over-provision of water does not occur again?

Mr. Heseltine

My hon. Friend's question does not immediately relate to whether we wind up the new towns on a given date, but we are sympathetic to such matters. If he wishes, we shall be happy to discuss them with him.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Leeds, North-West)

As the planned development of Milton Keynes new town is to be wound up well below the stage originally announced, have not the residents, businesses and industrialists been attracted there under false pretences? In view of the right hon. Gentleman's answers to the hon. Members for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney) and for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mr. Murphy), is it not clear that it is the Government's intention that the taxpayer should provide an infrastructure, through public investment, for a rip-off by property speculators?

Mr. Heseltine

It is fascinating to listen to the way in which the right hon. Gentleman describes policies pursued by his Government. Any idea that residents in new towns are clamouring for new housing estates to be built alongside their houses does not accord with my experience. I am doing for the third-generation new towns what his right hon. Friend did for the first and second generation. We are marching along a road well precedented by the Labour Government. There is no reason to suppose that it will be any different for us than it was for them.

Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, Central)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. No doubt your attention will have been directed to the fact that the Secretary of State's statement is based on three inspired questions couched in identical terms from hon. Members on the Government Benches. It was followed by three supplementary questions from the Government Benches. That smacks to me of sharp practice. The practice is likely to increase if it is not stopped in its tracks. For instance, had there been six questions couched in identical terms, and had the Minister been allowed to make his statement in the way that he has today, would the six hon. Members asking the questions have been called one after the other? On the face of it, it is an abuse of the rules of the House. I ask you to make inquiries, Mr. Speaker, and if the practice turns out to be an abuse, to stop it.

Mr. Speaker

I considered the matter carefully before I came into the Chamber. The procedure has been very near to the making of a statement. However, the House can feel comforted by the fact that every hon. Member who wished to ask a question was called.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The House is anxious to hear a statement from Mr. Secretary Carlisle.

Mr. Skinner

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recall that several years ago, during the term of office of the previous Tory Government, when the Department of Environment was headed by the fellow who is sometimes now in Europe, there had to be an inquiry about planted questions to establish what had taken place. This Tory Government do not appear to have learnt from past mistakes. It is high time that we had another inquiry. We need to teach these people a lesson.

Mr. Speaker

I do not remember what happened in that Administration. I was busy looking after Welsh affairs, and did not concern myself with English matters.

Dr. Mawhinney

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I ask for the protection of the Chair against the insinuations of the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton). The record will show that I have assiduously pursued the interests of my constituents. The Government's records will show that I have been pressing for a statement since last September. I resent and repudiate the hon. Gentleman's charges.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (Newham, North-West)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I ask the hon. Gentleman to be as helpful as he can.

Mr. Lewis

I always am helpful, Mr. Speaker. We know that Governments of both parties sponsor questions. Questions are planted. May I suggest that when a Department does so it lets you know, so that you can decide whether it is being done unfairly or properly, and whether you will call one, two, three, four or six hon. Members, or whether one from either side will be sufficient? The Department is supposed to be politically unbiased. If the Department wants to plant a question I cannot understand why it does not give one question to each side of the House, to make it fair.

Mr. Speaker

I am deeply grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his help.