HC Deb 17 January 1984 vol 52 cc277-91 11.27 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir George Young)

I beg to move, That the New Towns (Limit on Borrowing) Order 1983, dated 12th December 1983, a copy of which was laid before this House on 20th December, be approved. The House will recall that in early 1982 Parliament debated and passed the New Towns Act 1982. That allowed new town corporations in England, Scotland and Wales to continue borrowing from the national loans fund to finance their programmes, up to an aggregate figure of principal outstanding of £4,500 million or such larger sum, not exceeding £5,000 million, as the House of Commons should by order specify.

The towns are now collectively approaching the £4,500 million limit, and without this order they would probably reach the limit in March. The order is therefore necessary now to allow them to complete their development programme without interruption. As has been the practice on previous occasions, it will take up the whole of the extra £500 million available under the 1982 Act. We expect this further £500 million to last until early 1986.

When the borrowing powers were extended in 1982 we expected that the whole £1,000 million would last only a couple of years. In fact, as we see, the first £500 million has itself lasted two years—and the second £500 million will probably last another two. This is because of the towns' excellent performance in achieving industrial, commercial and housing receipts. Since 1979 the English towns alone have sold £600 million worth. The Government have also succeeded in reducing interest rates substantially, which means that towns have had to borrow less than expected to roll over existing debt.

The House will wish to know how the further £500 million will be spent. The new towns programme is, of course, moving towards its conclusion. But there still remains important work to be done, to round off the towns and ensure that they are complete and viable communities. So the money will go, for example, on completing the infrastructure for Milton Keynes' city centre, on essential road schemes such as central Lancashire's western primary road, on shared ownership and other low-cost home ownership initiatives on which the new towns have led the way, and on the basic infrastructure needed to encourage the private sector to continue with the factories, offices and houses necessary for a successful new town. In addition, under the present new town financial regime, some will be used to finance the interim revenue deficits of the development corporations.

I should like to take this opportunity to say a little bit more about what we are achieving under each of these heads.

First, on housing, I think that hon. Members on both sides will agree that the achievements by new towns on shared ownership, starter homes and similar low cost initiatives have been outstanding. They have developed excellent relationships with private developers, to produce the houses people want, at prices they can afford. By 31 March 1984 the new towns in England will have promoted over 4,000 sales on a shared ownership basis; and over 5,000 houses a year are being built by private developers under licence on new town land, many for starter homes.

Nor must we overlook the biggest single element in our home ownership drive—sales to sitting tenants. Again, new towns have set the pace. By 30 September they had sold more than 15,000 houses to their tenants, so almost one in five new town tenants now own their homes. A further 3,000 sales are in the pipeline. This has had a dramatic effect, for the better, in all towns.

In the past, new town development has relied too much on rented housing, but the demand for home ownership was there. As recent surveys have shown, for most people their ambition is to own their home. This demand was not being met. Now, prompted by the Government and implemented efficiently by the new towns, it is. My visits to new towns have shown me the new interest in the area which has been generated by the spread of home ownership.

Opposition Members may try to argue that that has been at the expense of rented housing and that there is a need for such accommodation. The answer is that there remains, even after sales, a substantial stock of rented property available to meet all those needs. What corporations are doing now, through sales, development and provision of sites to the private sector, is what is necessary to achieve and maintain the right balance of private and publicly owned property in the new towns.

I should like to move on from that to transfer of housing and of community-related assets. First, we have sorted out the problems associated with defects in the housing transferred last time round: appropriate grants are now being made to the local authorities concerned, although one authority is still challenging the position. Secondly, we are making good progress with further transfers. Corporations are doing all that they can to ensure that the housing stock is in good condition and ready for transfer.

We have produced financial arrangements which, broadly speaking, allow the local authority concerned to inherit the subsidy that the new town corporation would have received had it retained the houses. This ensures that transfers will not put a financial burden upon the recipient authority. Indeed, the prospects of raising further capital receipts from the transferred stock should make transfer a good bargain. Directions have now been issued at Redditch and Skelmersdale, and I hope that they will soon be issued at Basildon, Northampton and Washington, with a view to transfer on 1 April 1985.

We have reached agreed arrangements for the transfer to the district council of community-related assets in four new towns. Discussions are now under way at a further 10 new towns on such a transfer. Again, we have been able to agree financial terms which are broadly neutral in their effect. As with housing transfer, this is an important milestone in the life of a new town, marking the point at which the local authority can appropriately inherit these assets and the associated responsibilities.

I will return shortly to other matters relating to the winding up of new towns, but I should like to pay tribute to the continuing achievement of the new towns in creating employment. Over the past few years they have sustained the remarkable performance of creating 20,000 or so new jobs a year—a vital contribution to the welfare of their own communities and, indeed, to their regions. Examples that come to mind are the Hitachi-Maxell, Ricoh and Unimation developments at Telford—generating over 500 jobs—and the Motorola expansion at East Kilbride—a £60 million investment generating 800 jobs. As with housing, this is being achieved through a fruitful partnership between corporations and the private sector. Typically, the corporation provides the basic infrastructure, including the actual site; and the private firm which will occupy it then puts up its own building and fits it out, or the corporation works in partnership with a financial institution, through a lease and lease-back arrangement.

A good example is Basildon's £50 million town centre development, mentioned earlier today in a significant maiden speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess). That development is being done in partnership with Norwich Union. In these ways we achieve so much more, for a given input of public money, than we could if, as Opposition Members sometimes suggest, corporations had to build everything with public money.

I should like to turn now to a specifically financial matter, which I know is of interest to hon. Members on both sides. Hon. Members will recall that, we have been reviewing the method by which the English new towns finance their programmes, in the light of the large deficits now being run by the second and third generation towns. That problem built up in England throughout the 1970s, and a wide range of factors were responsible.

Among those factors were high levels of interest rates in the 1970s, the new financial system for building roads following the introduction of the transport supplementary grant in 1975, the system of undue burden payments introduced in 1976, the change in the property market that resulted in developers retaining a smaller surplus, and the less favourable location of many of the second and third generation new towns.

We decided that the best approach was, first, to stabilise the position. That we have done by suspending £1,185 million of outstanding national loans fund debt. The power to do that was contained in section 45 of the Finance Act 1983. The order, detailing the individual loans to be suspended, was made on 12 September 1983. Though suspended, the loans continue to count against the borrowing limit, so they are included within the £4,500 million total.

That suspension lasts until 1 October 1986, so it gives us the necessary breathing space. But we are not, of course, letting matters rest there. As we have indicated to the House, we intend to produce a permanent solution as part of the measures we will need to take to deal with the final winding up of towns. We will keep the House fully informed of the progress we make on that.

That leads back to the important issue of winding up. I have already referred to the progress we are making both on housing and on the transfer of community-related assets. The new towns have reduced their staff by 30 per cent. since 1979—an excellent achievement. We have taken an important step forward in our decision, which I announced last July in reply to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Mr. Murphy), to wind up the eight development corporations with target dates in 1984 and 1985, using the Commission for the New Towns.

That has given all those towns a degree of certainty about their future, enabling them, and the local authorities concerned, to plan their winding up smoothly and efficiently. That is obviously in everyone's interest. The actual date for dissolution cannot, of course, be settled until the statutory processes have been gone through. However, I hope that it will be possible broadly to adhere to the target dates we have announced.

Certainly I can assure hon. Members that we have no intention of keeping development corporations in existence any longer than they are necessary. We have now started the formal processes in the cases of Redditch and Skelmersdale, and I expect soon to see the same step taken elsewhere.

I should mention a matter that I know is of concern to the hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Dormand) and to other hon. Members representing the north-east—the question of the future of the north-east new towns. When we last debated that matter I promised the hon. Member for Easington that we would review the position of those towns. I can confirm tonight that the review is under way. We will, of course, take full account of what all three towns have achieved in the way of creating new jobs, their role as serving as regional growth points, and what their future role—or that of the commission, as legal successor—should be.

My hon. Friends will no doubt ask me about the future of the commission itself. Under existing legislation, the commission is a permanent body—there are no powers to wind it up. We are currently considering the future of the commission, along with the matters that arise from the winding up of the existing corporations. Our conclusions will be reflected in the measures we will put before the House, to deal both with winding up and the revisions to the financial regime that I mentioned earlier. I cannot say today exactly when those measures will be—hon. Members will be aware of the pressures on legislative time—but it will be as soon as we can manage. Meanwhile the commission, under the leadership of Sir Neil Shields, has plenty to do consolidating its achievements at Corby, continuing its highly successful programme of disengagement—more than £150 million of commercial and industrial assets sales since 1979—and now, of course, preparing to take over the eight towns with target dates in 1984 and 1985.

This is a short debate and, with the leave of the House, I would like to speak again at the end to deal with any points raised. I shall, therefore, not take up any more time now, except to say, on behalf of hon. Members on both sides, how much we all appreciate the efforts and dedication of the boards and staff of the new towns as they take their towns towards completion. This extra £500 million of borrowing approval is a crucial element in achieving that task.

11.40 pm
Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

The order proposes an increase in the borrowing level for the new towns of £500 million for essential services. The Opposition will not divide the House against the order.

New towns are of great concern and interest to all hon. Members, especially to the Opposition as the Labour party —[Interruption.] The alliance is showing its customary interest in all matters in the House, and on that we can always agree.

The 1945–51 Labour Government established the new towns, and the Labour party has always looked upon them benignly as would any parents on their successful children. I have always had a special interest in the new towns from the time that I was associated with and worked for my right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) as an adviser at the Department of the Environment on the review that took place on the new towns, which led to changes in their population targets because of changes in the overall population growth. Although some of the decisions made by my right hon. Friend were regarded as controversial, and especially the decisions about the central Lancashire new town, those that he made about their overall growth and structure have well stood the test of time.

The new towns were a uniquely successful experiment and involved unique co-operation between public and private enterprise. The Town and Country Planning Association's evidence to the Nuffield Foundation inquiry on the planning system, said: The new towns have unbeaten records in innovative economic development, imaginative social development, and cultural animation. The special government agencies that created them have succeeded in attracting and harnessing the talent of their time, and demonstrated that public investment in such projects was not only worthwhile in itself, but a genuine investment even if measured in simple economic terms. Given the current Conservative party obsession about selling off anything marked "public", it is important for Conservative Members to consider the record of the new towns and to bear in mind that public agencies can frequently help and stimulate jobs in the private sector. The Under-Secretary said that 20,000 new jobs have been generated by the new towns in recent times.

Given the importance of the new towns and the development corporations as agencies for job creation, I hope that the Government will not show any undue haste in winding up the existing development corporations. We all understand that they are bound to have a finite life. No one is arguing that they should go on for ever and a day. I detected a suggestion by the Under-Secretary that an arbitrary target has once again been imposed. This is yet another way of removing civil and public servants from the books. I hope that he resists that approach. I am aware of his concern for the new towns.

Sir George Young

If the hon. Member looks further into history, he will realise that the dates that the Government suggested are those proposed by a Labour Administration.

Mr. Jack Dormand (Easington)

The Minister knows that they were realistic.

Mr. Straw

Indeed. I thought that the Minister was suggesting that he would bring forward the dates. I am relieved to hear that that is not the Government's intention.

11.45 pm
Mr. Michael Fallon (Darlington)

It appears that the order is as timely as it is generous. It gives us an opportunity to consider the progress of Government policy towards the development corporations.

I hope that the hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Dormand) will allow me to join a cause and campaign that he has made very much his own. Many of my constituents work at Aycliffe and many of them have jobs only because of the success of the corporation in attracting inward investment. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will accept that there is some concern among the Conservative northern Members' group about the future of the corporations in the north. The concern is twofold. First, the corporations in the north would appear to be different animals from those in the south. They are now essentially job-seeking organisations, having divested themselves of other functions. Secondly, if they disappear at the end of next year, they should not do so without Ministers giving further thought to the gap that will be created in attracting fresh investment to the north-east.

It is appropriate that the consideration that is now being given to the review letter, to which my hon. Friend referred, follows shortly after publication of the regional policy White Paper. I hope that he will consult closely his colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry. Abolition is easy to accomplish, but in an area of high unemployment we should be careful to ensure that what we end up with is at least as good as, if not better than, that which existed hitherto.

11.47 pm
Mr. Jack Dormand (Easington)

We have had a complacent speech from the Under-Secretary of State, which was rather untypical of him. I have always regarded him as being very much a realist, and to that extent I have enjoyed listening to him. But one would have thought that everything was well in the new towns after hearing him. He knows that some of the current problems are greater than those that preceded them. I understood him to say that there is adequate housing for rent. What area was he talking about? He certainly was not talking about the area that, in part, I represent.

Mr. Norman Hogg (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth)

Nor Scotland.

Mr. Dormand

The Minister made a rather peculiar statement. He then referred to the reduction in new town staff as if there was some intrinsic merit in that. I ask him to accept that that is not so. I almost regret that I promised to make a short speech, because I could have made an entire speech in response to the Minister's contribution.

The Minister properly mentioned the sort of projects that are necessary and for which we are voting moneys. But we know that the assets will be sold off at the earliest possible moment by the Government. That which is happening in the new towns is yet another demonstration of the Government's dogmatism on privatisation. The new towns are a success in spite of the many difficulties that they have had to face. There has been no greater problem than the uncertainty caused to the development corporations by the Government. That uncertainty will be shown in my short contribution.

The Minister knows that I could justifiably repeat the case for more money to meet the massive bill for repairs to houses in Peterlee in my constituency. He was realistic enough to visit Peterlee last year, and he saw for himself the terrible state of some of the houses, affecting many thousands of my constituents. I have raised the matter on many occasions and I hope that what he has said tonight, and previously, will not be his last word. It has a tremendous effect on the people of my constituency. He admitted perhaps two years ago that the state of the housing in Peterlee new town was the worst of any housing in the country.

I make no apology for returning yet again to the winding up of Peterlee development corporation. The hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Fallon) referred to it and to Aycliffe. He will be aware that although legally they are two separate bodies they are composed of the same people. The proposal is that the corporation be abolished on 31 December 1985, so, in effect, we are talking about a period of considerably less than two years because the corporation's work will obviously have to be run down some months before that date.

It is impossible to follow the Government's thinking in this matter. My constituency, with Durham county and the northern region, has the highest unemployment rate in the country outside Northern Ireland. That is one side of the coin. The other side shows, without argument or doubt, that Peterlee development corporation is one of the most successful job-finding agencies not only in the north but in the country.

There is a simple question to be asked: in such circumstances, will there be a need for such an agency after December 1985? The answer is self-evident to everybody except the Government. Everyone in my area, including the local authority of my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster), is at a loss to understand why such a proposal should even be contemplated.

I shall not go into detail on the successes achieved by the corporation although I am sorely tempted to do so, particularly as the Under-Secretary did not refer to the achievements of Peterlee when he was talking about some of the other new town corporations. I have all the figures here. Suffice it to mention, wanting to be as up to date as possible, that in the three months from September to November 1983 Peterlee reduced unemployment in percentage terms more successfully than any other new town apart from Redditch. Given the state of the economy, considering the competition, and given the obstinacy of the Government in economic policies, that is no mean achievement.

In a letter to me dated 28 July 1982 the Under-Secretary said: The new towns' success at industrial promotion will be a major factor to be considered when we come to review their target dissolution dates, and we do not rule out the possibility of a further extension of the Corporations' life at that stage. The record of Peterlee development corporation in industrial promotion has always been first class, but it so happens that in the period since the letter was written outstanding successes have been achieved by the corporation. The Minister is aware of the names of some international firms that have been attracted to the area. In spite of what the Under-Secretary said tonight, I am sure no other corporation has a better record.

In answer to a parliamentary question from me on 23 November last year, the Minister stated that he had begun a review of the target dates for the winding up of the corporation and that he would aim to issue a consultation paper shortly. He said: Our intention is to complete the review by 31 March 1984 at the latest."—[Official Report, 23 November 1983; Vol. 49, c. 221.] Of course, he had some comment on that in his remarks tonight. I am concerned about how much time will be allowed for the consultation he mentioned in his answer. He has said that he will speak again if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Perhaps he will say when he replies what stage the review has reached. We all know from experience how long it takes to go through the normal machinery before it finally reaches the corporation and the local authorities. There is a suspicion, which I share, that precious little time will be given for consultation. If it turns out to be short period, many of us will feel that the consultation is a sham, that the Government's mind was already made up and that they are merely going through the motions of consultation. If I see the Minister shaking his head, I can only say that the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. Perhaps we shall be able to return to the subject nearer 31 March.

Easington district council has recently decided to initiate talks with Peterlee development corporation and Sedgefield district council, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland, as the Aycliffe development corporation is in the Sedgefield area and will be similarly affected. They are as worried as I am. It would only be common justice for every authority to be given the maximum time for consultations.

The Minister knows that I have raised this matter many times. In my 13½ years as a Member of Parliament there has been no issue of greater importance to my area. That shows my strength of feeling on the matter. In the desperate circumstances of today, the expertise and dedication of the corporation are the lifeblood of my constituency and the sub-region that the new town serves.

It would be little short of criminal to implement the Government's proposal. I remind the Minister that we are discussing the future of thousands of people, many of them young, who depend, and will continue to depend, fully on what the corporation can do. The need for a job-finding agency will remain for a long time after 31 December 1985. I fervently ask the Government to think again on this matter.

11.56 pm
Mr. Den Dover (Chorley)

I shall not continue the line of argument pursued by the hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Dormand). I should like the central Lancashire development corporation to be well and truly wound up at the end of 1985. I have no hestitation in recommending that my hon. Friend the Minister gives me that assurance today or in writing soon. He mentioned the reduction in staff since 1979. However, central Lancashire is still increasing its staff when it should be cutting down and preparing for the winding up.

I was disappointed that my hon. Friend did not mention the transfer of housing ownership to local authorities or to a housing association. Perhaps he could say how far the discussions have progressed, as there seems to be a massive split of opinion between local authorities and other local interested parties.

The purpose of the development corporation in central Lancashire has been fulfilled. I am delighted that the statement by the then Secretary of State for the Environment on 4 February 1981 has been closely followed by the Government in the past three years. I refer to the complete switch to private ownership of housing rather than a continuation of the earlier too massive rented housing programme, the fact that private developers have been allowed in to open up new areas for industrial development, the fact that the sale of new town houses has been allowed and the fact that the private sector has been able to buy assets.

I have nothing but admiration for the determined way in which Ministers in the Department of the Environment have continued the task in the past three years. I ask them only to ensure that central Lancashire winds up at the end of next year as local people are anxious for that to happen.

11.58 pm
Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)

My hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Dormand) mentioned the Opposition's greater affection for the new town movement. For many of us it represents an excellent example of Socialist planning. It is an excellent example of how public expenditure can encourage and even underpin private investment. Indeed, without the initial public expenditure the private investment would not have taken place.

For those reasons we welcome the new town developments and very strongly urge that the Government take a new look at their new town policy. I live in, although I do not represent it, the new town of Washington. I represent the new town of Aycliffe. Washington broke new ground in the design of factories and taught the north-east that it was perfectly possible for factories to exist cheek by jowl with residential development without there being any inconvenience or amenity detriment to the people who lived close by the factory. That was something new for the north-east, after our bad experience with heavy industry, which is often dirty and dangerous.

Secondly, Washington broke new ground in landscaping, which was important for the whole of the north-east. We were taught salutary lessons about how people could be attracted to the north-east because the quality of our inner urban environment was as good as the quality of our rural environment, which is second to none, as you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will be only too ready to recognise, with your constituency.

Thirdly, Washington broke new ground in social development. I am proud to have been associated with that. Most local authorities have learned healthy lessons on those three counts. However, I shall dwell on the job-hunting function of the north-east new towns.

It is arguable that the need for the job-hunting function to be retained is greater now than when the new towns were first instituted in the north-east. Our suffering under the present recession has been horrific. As my hon. Friend the Member for Easington reminded the House, there is a great need for further investment in the north-east so that we have a chance of prosperity. There are huge numbers of young people leaving school for whom there is no hope. The Government believe that new jobs will come in three major areas—small business development, service sector industries and advanced technology. It is arguable that my region is unfavourably placed for all three of those developments. If we are to leave it to market forces, the north-east will be in an even worse position in 10 years' time vis-à-vis the other regions than it is now. Therefore, it is even more important that a successful job-hunting agency should be retained. If one wishes to replace it, one had better be absolutely sure that what one replaces it with, as the hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Fallon) said, is at least as successful as the new towns.

The new towns have taught a lesson to most of the local authorities in the north-east and the rest of the country. Most of them are in the job-hunting business, largely as a result of the Government's devastating policies. The whole country is being made into a development area and needs to win new jobs. Most of the lessons originated in the new towns. The nursery factory development was pioneered in the new towns.

I dearly want to say to the Minister, "Before you replace the successful agency in Aycliffe—I am certain that Washington and Peterlee would make the same argument—you must be convinced that you will replace it with something just as successful and streamlined, in which the expertise is as professional and the marketing can be deployed with the same effect." Although I am a passionate local government man, I am deeply suspicious that the local authorities are unable to take over the role with the same effectiveness. I wish that I could say otherwise, but my long experience as an ex-chairman of the North of England Development Council and of the economic development committee in a metropolitan county council, trying to win new jobs for the north-east, has taught me that it is difficult for a local authority to be as effective as the new towns. I am worried that if we lose the Aycliffe and Peterlee development corporation, nothing as effective will be put in its place. If that happens, this Government, irrespective of who made the first decision or when the first date was suggested, will bear a heavy responsibility. We see no new jobs coming from any of the policies that have been suggested. We therefore need to retain the effective job agencies that we have.

12.5 am

Mr. Derek Conway (Shrewsbury and Atcham)

I shall begin my short speech tonight by paying tribute to the Washington development corporation. I was privileged to serve on the board of that corporation before I was elected to this House. I joined the corporation as a cynic, but I became a convert as a result of my experience there. My political opinions were very different from those of some of the members of the board, but there was a concerted effort by all those involved to improve the lot of the people who lived in the area, and certainly to improve job generation, which I shall come to later.

Despite that fact, and despite the great affection that I have for the work of the Washington development corporation, I am of the opinion that development corporations are the products of a different time, that in the main they have now outlived their usefulness, and that the winding-up dates should be met as soon as possible by the Government—and, better still, in the case of some development corporations, accelerated.

I refer, in particular, to the development corporation that adjoins my constituency of Shrewsbury and Atcham in Shropshire—the Telford development corporation. At present, it has a longer life expectancy than that of the Washington development corporation and some others, and I hope that its winding-up date will be accelerated. In saying that, I appreciate that winding-up dates have a bad effect on development corporations — not only on the board members, in terms of their impetus and enthusiasm for leadership, but particularly on the morale of the staff. I tend to come down on the side that believes in pulling people out of their misery.

The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) and my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Fallon) made valid points about the regional job generation side of development corporations. I share their concern that the Government should not rush in there too quickly, and that any liaison with the Department of Trade and Industry must be a proper liaison and not produced under pressure. However, I urge them to consider why the development corporations have been so successful. In my opinion, it is because they have not been subject to the pressures that there are on local government, where so many people have fingers in the pie.

The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland was a distinguished chairman of the North of England Development Council, of which I, too, was a member. There is a suggestion that bodies such as the Washington development corporation and Peterlee and Aycliffe should come within the auspices of that organisation. If that happened, it would be a disaster. The impetus and the time for reaction that those development corporations have given to industrial inquiries and to promoting the job generation aspect of their responsibilities would be hampered by substantial local government involvement. The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland and I have sat too many times at lengthy meetings of the North of England Development Council, with members going on and on and never reaching decisions. That is not the way ahead, once development corporations are wound up.

We should look closely at the role of the regional promotional bodies, not least that of the Investment in Britain Bureau within the Department of Trade and Industry, an organisation about which we in this House know far too little. The time is long overdue, especially because of the pressure of such bodies as the Scottish Development Agency and, bordering on my constituency, the Welsh Development Agency, for an English national agency. That would give wider support not only to such development corporations as Telford but to those of us who represent seats that are not within the promotional aegis of development corporations or the Department of Trade and Industry. Jobs are now needed all over the country, and not in any particular area, as the old policy had it. The proposals for the revision of job generation responsibilities within development corporations are not looking too good. I hope that all the signs that are coming from the two Departments concerned are misleading and that the proposals that will be put before us will be more effective than those being suggested at the moment.

12.10 am
Mr. Christopher Murphy (Welwyn Hatfield)

In supporting the order, I do so in the belief that it will help ensure that the cry, "The end is nigh" at last becomes a reality for the new towns programme. It is essential that an end date is provided for every new town development corporation, so that a limit on public financing is clear to all taxpayers. It is also essential that an end date is provided for the Commission for the New Towns and for its withdrawal from each town, such as Hatfield and Welwyn Garden City, so that a limit on this Government-funded quango is evident to all concerned.

There can be no doubt that since 1979 the present Administration have taken a far more responsible view of new town development and have rightly sought to restrict its continuation and bring about a realistic completion. It should also be emphasised that the Government, by switching attention away from the development of green field sites to the inner cities, have been correctly attempting to redress an imbalance that threatens realistic conservation.

The order, applying as it does to the respective new town administrations, will restrain but not impede them in completing their tasks. It is far better that the Government concentrate their support on the urban needs of our community to promote economic and physical regeneration of inner city derelict land.

The order, by virtue of its limiting powers on finance, shows to the corporations and the commission the need to finalise their activities and to ensure a rapid transfer of public assets to the private sector. On the former point, it is to be hoped that this will be done with the maximum use of non-governmental investment, and on the latter that this will be achieved with minimum delay and with particular advantage given to local tenants.

It must be correct that where public financing is employed — that should always be a matter for circumspection—it should be used to the best advantage of our citizens, who, after all, provide the finance in the first instance. That is why to concentrate action on urban development grants, enterprise zones, urban development bodies and land registers is likely to yield more favourable results by revitalising the inner cities after years of neglect.

No doubt there will be a continuation of the cries of, "Woe is me" and similar lamentations from those who seek to perpetrate the bureaucracy of new town development and who have sought to use the new towns as an extension of the corporate state. The real woe will come for the residents of the new towns if the winding up of the commission and of the corporations is long delayed. The real woe will also come for the taxpayers without such a winding up because of a failure to ensure the completion of the new town programme.

12.14 am
Mr. Kenneth Hind (Lancashire, West)

I welcome the comments of my hon. Friend the Minister on the transfer of the assets of Skelmersdale to the west Lancashire district council. I also welcome the increase of £500 million in the borrowing order before the House. I welcome the winding up of the development corporations. Perhaps it is significant that the number of people who today have been arguing forcefully about local authority councillors having the right to determine their funding have gone home by the time we talk about transferring housing and community assets to district councils and giving those representatives control over their towns. It must be remembered that the local democratic representatives in areas with development corporations have little say in the running of their towns. The Government, by supporting the return of those towns to local councils, are returning local democratic accountability to the people who live in those towns. For that reason, I welcome that development, especially in Skelmersdale, as I am sure do the people of that town.

Mr. Norman Hogg

On the question of the relationship of democracy in new towns and the democracy of local authorities, will the hon. Gentleman join me in a campaign which I have pursued since becoming a Member of Parliament to allow the press and public to attend meetings of development corporations so that, just like local authorities, the population of those towns are aware of what is going on in their name?

Mr. Hind

I support the hon. Gentleman in that respect. One of the disadvantages faced by those in development corporation officialdom is that they have not had behind them an elected representative who is answerable to his constituents. That will be altered when the development corporations are wound up.

The people who have worked hard to create new towns must be congratulated, but their time is now over. Their era has ended and the towns must be returned to the district councils. There are those of us who will not be quite as congratulatory as the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) about the planning of the new towns. I echo the words of the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) that they are a fine example of Socialist planning. I hope that the 5,000 people living in Skelmersdale who do not have a job feel the same way about that wonderful Socialist planning, but I do not believe that they will feel quite as happy about it. Perhaps the Opposition have much to answer for in the problems of Skelmersdale.

I hope that the Under-Secretary will look carefully at the future industrial development of the new towns. I echo some of the thoughts of other hon. Members who have said that when the development corporations disappear on the industrial side something must be put in their place, particularly in Skelmersdale, with its high level of unemployment. Encouragement must be dynamic. It must bring in new firms and jobs. We must bear in mind especially that some of these towns are special development areas; they need assistance. We must continue to increase industrial development and provide new jobs.

Contrary to what has been said by the Opposition, the 108 schemes for small firms now in operation will help to produce new jobs. They are often laughed at by the Opposition, and their importance is underestimated. This policy is followed dynamically by the Government, and I am sure that it will provide jobs in the new towns. We must bear in mind that we cannot take—as we have done in Lancashire—some green field of England and plant on it a new town. We need to hand the area back to the people, as the Government are doing. A chamber of trade, Rotary club or local council—the dynamic elements of any society — must develop. By continuing with the corporations, the position is simple: we are holding back the development of the new towns as a community. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and hope that he will continue with his efforts.

12.19 am
Sir George Young

As always when we discuss the new towns, we have had a stimulating and wide-ranging debate on a matter in which I know that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, have an interest.

The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) indulged in a bit of philosophy and a bit of history. Perhaps I may indulge in a debating point with him. He described the new town corporations as great public agencies—Socialism in action. Had he been here this time yesterday when we were defending our decision to put more money into the dockland development corporations, which are in effect new town corporations except that they happen to be in the inner cities, he would have heard a barrage of criticism from his right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) to the effect that, far from putting more money into the corporations, we should be giving all the responsibility back to local government. At some point the Labour party will have to decide whether these are sinister capitalist plots or Socialism in action but implemented by the Conservative party.

Mr. Straw

That is a silly point.

Sir George Young

It is not silly at all. It is an example of the hypocrisy in which the Labour party occasionally indulges. However, it is just a debating point and I shall not tease the hon. Gentleman with it any further.

My hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Fallon) made a valid point, echoed by several other hon. Members, about employment in the north-east. The hon. Members for Easington (Mr. Dormand) and for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) also took this up, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Conway), who served with distinction on the Washington corporation.

With regard to the new towns in the north-east, we are engaged in a genuine review about the winding-up date. It is an open-minded review with no preconceived decisions on the part of the Government. We wish genuinely to consult the local authorities. The Act indeed requires us to consult the county and district councils directly concerned before reaching a decision, and we hope to be in a position to do so in the near future. The aim will be to give the local authorities two months in which to reply to the consultation document. The questions that we pose are not novel. The local authorities know exactly what the issues are and will be well aware of the arguments that they wish to deploy.

The hon. Member for Easington accused me of complacency. I take pride in what the new towns have achieved, as I am sure he does. There is nothing complacent in outlining the achievements of the corporations in the past few years with the resources voted to them by Parliament.

With regard to housing, the special problems of Easington and Sedgefield were recognised by giving them a 50 per cent. rather than a 40 per cent. grant. I understand that the local authority has now accepted that as a satisfactory solution to the problem described by the hon. Gentleman.

As for a promotional agency for the north-east, the theme that emerged was that it was not so much the development role of the corporation that was needed as the promotion and job-finding role. That raises the slightly different question whether this should be confined to the narrow areas covered by the new towns or whether it should be a broader role of promoting the north-east in general. Again, I have an open mind about how to carry forward the valuable work done by the corporations in generating new jobs for the north-east.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Dover) asked about housing. We are awaiting the formal views of the three district councils. We had an informal meeting with them on 20 December last year and we are now awaiting their formal reaction. I confirm that the target date for the transfer of housing is 1 April 1985 and the target date for winding-up is 31 December 1985.

The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland made a very sensible speech. I do not dissent from any of the views that he expressed, which were endorsed to some extent by my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham. The winding-up date for Telford is currently the late 1980s but we shall, of course, liaise with the Department of Trade and Industry, which clearly has an interest in the role of promotion and industrial recruitment in that area.

My hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Mr. Murphy) asked about the winding-up of the commission. It is our proposal to take powers to wind up the commission the moment a legislative window appears in a rather congested programme. I take note of what he said.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Hind) made the very good point that there is no reason to perpetuate an unusually large public sector presence in the new towns simply because they happened to be new towns at the beginning. The aspects that make the new towns attractive to industry and commerce — their location, their communications, the facilities and the environmental quality — all remain after the corporation is wound up. There is a strong argument, which my hon. Friend deployed, for handing over to local people the assets that have been generated by the new town corporations.

The debate last night demonstrated the Government's commitment to the inner cities and the debate tonight demonstrates our commitment to the new towns. For the inner cities the task is regeneration after years of neglect, to be carried out in partnership with the private sector. For the new towns, again in partnership with the private sector, it is the completion of their development so that they can take their place among the ranks of the successful thriving old towns. The money we are putting into both tasks is needed to achieve those aims. The private sector is already responding to that task, and I know that it will continue to do so.

I mentioned earlier how much we appreciate the work put in by the boards and the staff of the new towns who have over the past 37 years risen to all the challenges of initial planning and the development of growth, with excellent results that hon. Members on both sides have mentioned, results that have made the British new towns world leaders in town planning and development. We have supported the new towns in their development and will continue to do so as they move towards completion. I know that the boards and the staff will rise to this challenge of completing the towns, just as they have to all the earlier tasks.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the New Towns (Limit on Borrowing) Order 1983, dated 12th December 1983, a copy of which was laid before this House on 20th December, be approved.