HC Deb 09 April 1986 vol 95 cc316-24

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Garel-Jones.]

2.22 am
Mr. David Amess (Basildon)

The fact that I am able confidently to make the statement that Basildon is not only the most sucessful new town in the United Kingdom but the most dynamic is largely due to the success and endeavours of the development corporation. On 31 March the development corporation was wound up, having been in existence since the year when I was born. Its passing was a significant moment for my constituents and constituency. It marked the end of Basildon being described, in any real sense, as a new town—we have come of age. My hon. Friend the Minister will recognise that I judge that to have happened just a little too quickly. I very much wanted the life and work of the development corporation to be extended a little longer, so that it could complete a number of important tasks.

As for the role of the corporation in the development of the town, I sometimes wonder how widely the extent to which the Government have encouraged or invested money through that body is appreciated or understood. Vast sums have been spent wisely to make Basildon what it is today—the finest town in the United Kingdom. I pay tribute to all the staff of the development corporation, its general manager, Mr. Douglas Galloway, and above all the chairman, Dame Elizabeth Coker. Those people have all worked tirelessly in their efforts to create a town of which we can all be proud, and they have certainly succeeded in that aim.

I would not support everything that the corporation has done. For instance, I can well appreciate the resentment felt in some quarters at the manner in which it has compulsorily purchased land or properties, and indeed about the design of some of the housing estates. Nevertheless, credits should be given for the many successful initiatives that the corporation has undertaken. Its task of attracting new business to the area has been one of the main contributing factors to the reduction of unemployment in Basildon over the past year—a reduction of 5.8 per cent.

Thanks to the Government and the corporation, my constituency has grown in stature as a strategic centre for business and industry. That point has ably been seized by Essex county council, which will be holding a substantial business and industry exhibition in Basildon on 14 April. The M25, the expansion of Stansted and the building of the Channel tunnel will all enhance the attractiveness of the town for trade and industry, as can be testified by visits recently from Department of Trade and Industry Ministers.

Thanks to rate capping and the Government's proposals to set business rates centrally, the damaging effects of the Socialist councils' high rating policies have been successfully counteracted. The development corporation has given active support to many local organisations and charities. Two projects which I know are grateful for the support given are the centre recently opened in Vange for the visually handicapped, and St. Luke's hospice for cancer patients. Both facilities meet important needs in the community, but they might not have got off the ground if it had not been for the encouragement and assistance given by the development corporation.

The jewel in the crown of the corporation must be the new shopping centre, the largest covered shopping centre in Europe, which I trust will enjoy an official opening later this year. There can be no rival facility in the United Kingdom to that of the East Gate mall in Basildon, which successfully heralds the concept of shopping in the 21st century. Merchandise of every conceivable description can be purchased within attractive and comfortable surroundings. This showpiece has given the ultimate dimension to the town's slogan, "Basildon means business."

The demise of the development corporation begs many questions in the minds of my constituents. They rightly ask: what next? They have been told that that which they have known for so long, the development corporation, has gone, and has been replaced by the Commission for the New Towns. They are anxious to know precisely what that means, particularly what the powers and responsibilities of the commission are. The 15,500 former corporation tenants are anxious to know what will happen to the management of their dwellings, whether programmes of repairs and improvements will continue, and whether there will be the same spirit of co-operation should they wish to purchase their property. It is well known that the Basildon development corporation was a pioneer in that area, achieving record sales. Further anxiety has been expressed that if agreement is eventually reached on the handing over of housing stock to the local authority, Socialist opposition—by which I mean the Labour party, the Social Democratic party and the Liberal party—might somehow frustrate people's plans to purchase their own property.

Constituents have asked what the future is for the tasks and projects started by the corporation, such as road systems, and whether it is the intention of the Commission for the New Towns to complete them. On Monday I had a meeting with the chairman of the commission and the chief executive, Sir Neil Shields and Mr. Woodhall. Because of our discussions, I am reassured that Basildon will go forward into a new and exciting future, and I trust that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to confirm that when he replies to the debate.

There are specific anxieties which constituents have raised and which I wish to bring to the attention of the House. The first concerns a potentially serious problem which affects over 1,000 properties in the Vange area of Basildon.

I have been inundated with letters from the owners of Lindsay Parkinson High Speed System Build properties. There are approximately 600 houses and 200 flats. Over half of the properties have been purchased from the development corporation, but some from the local authority. As a result of people's homes developing defects and the difficulties they have encountered in trying to sell such properties, an action group has been formed. The problems with the properties are due to carbonation—porous concrete; spaling—the cracking and corrosion of concrete beams caused by rust in the metal strengthening rods; and calcium concrete, when calcium carbonate has been used as a drying agent in the construction of the beams.

Some of the letters I have received described cracks appearing in the properties. Others described the distressing cricumstances of being unable to sell and prospective purchasers pulling out at the last moment because of the difficulty of obtaining support from building societies.

The action group has asked for help in a number of respects. It strongly urges for a clean bill of health for all the sound properties. To achieve that, tests will have to be a carried out on all the dwellings. The action group wants the Commission for the New Towns to buy back the properties which cannot be sold at the full market price. The group feels that the commission should seek funds from the Government to carry out essential repairs. It feels that the commission should indemnify the owners against future defects in construction and should seek ways to extend the life of the properties through the use, for example, of mastic sealing on the defective points.

The builders have gone into liquidation. Some of my constituents make the point that there was an irresponsible use of the chemical compound, calcium chloride, by the contractors who manufactured the components. The local authority contractor neglectfully accepted the components without a quality assurance certificate. The corporation's site representative should have seen such documents.

My constituents enthusiastically purchased their properties, taking full advantage of the right-to-buy legislation. Now that the problems with these properties have emerged, I have every confidence that the commission and the Government will act quickly to assist my constituents. I shall not rest until these matters have been dealt with satisfactorily.

The commission should also try to resolve the problems which have been highlighted by the Felmores Heating Action Group. Four weeks ago that group met my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction in Basildon. The group, which represents a considerable number of tenants, maintains that the district heating system provided for the Felmores estate is inefficient and expensive. Nearly a thousand tenants are served by this system. Some are in stressful circumstances—unemployed or single parents.

I have toured the estate and talked to many of the residents. I have seen countless heating bills which seem to be consistently high, especially when one bears in mind the size of the dwellings. The estate was designed in 1974 and built by ABK, based on the findings of Ore Arun and Partners, prompted by the 1973 energy crisis. The company studied the cost effectiveness of various energy saving measures in yardstick housing. The coal-fired district heating system is run for the corporation by Associated Heating Services. It provides domestic hot water as well as space heating, and it is in operation all the year.

Tenants pay a small standing charge, together with an amount based on their estimated consumption. There is a weekly charge throughout the year, which is paid with the rent. The heat meters are read annually, and rebates or supplementary bills are given. Integral meters calculate the kilowatt hours consumed from the flow rate and the temperature difference between incoming and outgoing water. Thermostats with time switches can be used by tenants to regulate the system. A realistic assessment of running costs for the Felmores average house is considered to be £250 per annum using an individual low thermal content, wall mounted, balanced flue boiler with programmer control for domestic hot water and space heating and thermostatic radiator valves. The average charge levied for heating the average house on the Felmores estate with its district heating system is 56 per cent. higher than the cost of running an individually fitted gas boiler heating system in each dwelling.

I should add that similar problems are being experienced at the other end of Basildon in the Langdon Hills area. So I would ask that assistance be given immediately to relieve the distress of my constituents and that individual gas-fired central heating be provided. The case for that is overwhelming.

Recently, an action group has been formed of residents opposed to a bus link between the town centre through Ghyllgrove to Cranes Farm road and the industrial areas. I have received counties representations, both written and personnel, opposing the bus link. If the proposal were to go ahead there would be 26 buses per hour through the peak times. Residents feel that that would change a beautiful, safe, quiet residential area into a dangerous, noisy petrol or diesel-polluted highway. The bus link is also opposed by the governing body of the local school, Ghyllgrave, and by the Basildon industrial group. In fact, I am struggling to find anybody who supports the bus route. It is argued that there would be severe traffic congestion at the southern end of Ghyllgrove caused by buses as they give way to the main bus route in Whitmore Way. Particular concerns have been raised about increased dangers to schoolchildren, youngsters and pensioners crossing the roads. I very much hope that that project will not go ahead and that the alternative proposals of residents and the Basildon industrial group will be acted upon.

The final concern that I want to deal with tonight is that of residents in the Eversley area of Pitsea. They bought properties in a development promoted by the corporaion as a quiet residential area. One can well imagine their horror when they learnt of a proposal for a bus route to run right through the estate. Residents have been further alarmed by suggestions that the local Socialist authority intends further developments to surrounding areas. Those people ask only that they be left to enjoy the peace and tranquility which originally attracted them to that area.

The winding up of the developmet corporation and the arrival of the New Towns Commission is a critical moment for Basildon. There is a point in the life of a town when development has to stop. My constituents do not want the town to become over-developed and for the crowded conditions of London, from where many of them originally came, to be duplicated. I have every confidence that the New Towns Commission will act on my constituents' wishes to help improve the quality of life and respect our precious countryside.

2.39 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Richard Tracey)

My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) has been a strong advocate of Basildon new town and has always represented his constituents in a clear and forceful manner. Tonight has been no exception to the excellent service that he gives to his constituents. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend will be aware that a target date for the windup of the Basildon Development corporation has been publicly on the agenda since 1978, when a wind-up date of 31 December 1983 was announced. Since that time, wind-up has been postponed on two separate occasions, primarily to complete the land assembly programme and to achieve housing transfer, which was originally envisaged, as elsewhere, to the district council. I take on board what my hon. Friend said, and hope that he will listen to a few remarks about that. The land assembly programme has been a complex and difficult task, and one that Basildon has now completed. To appreciate the achievement, I should like to take the House back to the situation that led to Basildon's designation as a new town.

The main purpose in designating Basildon new town was to provide housing and jobs and to relieve the housing problems in the aftermath of the second world war. This was in line with other new towns around London. However, Basildon has a secondary and very special task to achieve, arising from the unususal local history. As my hon. Friend will know better than I, as far back as 1901, land at Basildon had been divided into small plots and sold to Londoners at what was known as 'champagne sales." This usually meant that the potential buyers' judgment had been impaired by the generous hospitality of the commercial company selling the land. This process continued until the second world war. The land was not of good farming quality, and many farmers sold of their holdings piecemeal, in competition with estate companies. Unfortunately, no thought was given to future development by the land speculators, and consequently no roads or sewers were ever constructed.

Development was sporadic, with many plots remaining as untouched as they were when first purchased. In addition, much of the building was of a temporary nature or of a very poor standard. When Basildon new town was designated in 1949, the corporation was given the task of buying up all these plots in order to sort out this difficult legacy. The corporation embarked on this task in 1951, which involved the purchase of some 30,000 plots of land, many in unknown ownership. Only recently has the corporation completed the acquisition of all outstanding interests required for future development—a task that nobody foresaw would take quite as long as it did. During the 35 years that it has taken to assemble all the necessary land, Basildon's population has risen from 25,000 to 100,000. The recent completion of 37 sheltered dwellings for the elderly, at Felmore, brought to an end the corporation's direct involvement in house building. This has resulted in the construction of 24,839 houses, bungalows and flats, of which 10,000 have been sold to tenants.

The market for private housing for sale has always been strong in Basildon, and the development corporation has played a significant role in ensuring that a wide range of housing is on offer—from one-bedroom flats to five-bedroom houses. The corporation has placed particular emphasis on the availability of housing for young, first-time buyers, and for the elderly through sheltered housing schemes. The corporation has also given a lead to developers in the private housing sector, promoting the provision of good quality housing at all price levels, with high environmental standards. By entering into partnership arrangements, the expertise of many years has been applied, whereby the private builder is now prepared to build a wider range of homes.

My hon. Friend referred to housing transfer. I referred earlier to the transfer of corporation housing to the council and to the fact that in the past wind-up had been delayed to facilitate this. The traditional practice when new towns are wound up has certainly been to transfer rented housing stock to the relevant district council. Indeed, this course has always been followed in England, except in the case of central Lancashire where the housing passed to four housing associations. But we do not want the district council option to be the only one considered in future, including at Basildon. My hon. Friend may have seen a written answer that I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Hawksley) just before Easter. I said that the Government are keen to see pursued the options of transfers to private sector trusts or housing associations. In this context, Thamesmead should be an incentive. The Commission for the New Towns, which has now taken responsibility for the development corporation's housing stock in Basildon, has the same powers as the corporation with regard to negotiating transfer arrangements, and I expect the commission to discuss with my officials how best to pursue the options. I am sure that my hon. Friend will find a ready ear in Sir Neil Shields, the chairman of the commission, in his future talks with him on this point.

The corporation's achievements at Basildon have not been limited to land assembly and housing provision. Some 850,000 sq m of factory space have been provided, along with 75,000 sq m of office space. This has resulted in the creation of new jobs in the office and service industry sectors. The corporation has played an important role in encouraging and assisting smaller starter firms. The institution funds, which have provided so much building capital in recent years, are often reluctant to accept starter firms as tenants, and the firms themselves often prefer to limit their outgoings on accommodation.

One way in which the corporation decided to meet these needs was by the conversion of an old vacant factory into small industrial units. This scheme, known as the Laindon enterprise centre, has been such a success that the remainder of the old factory has been converted to provide further units. Initiatives such as this have provided Basildon development corporation with a notable record for creating job opportunities.

The Commission for the New Towns has now inherited the task of continuing to promote the town and to attract investment, and it will see to completion the many schemes put in hand by the corporation and under construction, which will offer many more permanent jobs in the future.

My hon. Friend rightly mentioned that one of the most noticeable improvements in Basildon in recent years has been the changing face of the town centre. Retail and office developments, imaginative in design, have dominated the commercial scene in Basildon since the opening of a 15,000 sq m Savacentre store and associated shopping mall in 1980. This scheme, known as Phase 1, heralded a new era in the history of Basildon town centre. Phase 1 was designed, constructed and let by the development corporation, and it was the start of a process that planned to provide Basildon with the most advanced regional shopping centre complex in Essex.

Phase 2 commenced in 1981, in the Eastgate area of the town centre. This development, on a six-acre site, is right in the heart of the existing town centre, and was designed with flair and imagination to provide an airy and pleasant covered environment for shoppers. The development consists of a 19,000 sq m development store and 75 shop units. Two shopping levels have been linked to tiered galleries above, servicing four levels of car parking for approximately 1,000 vehicles. The whole scheme is one of the most advanced of its kind in the country, and certainly has no comparison in the south-east. It is an outstanding memorial to the enterprise and innovation shown by the development corporation during its lifetime.

Further proposals by the corporation, which have recently received planning approval, involve the roofing-in of those areas of the old town centre that lie between Phase 1 and Phase 2, and extending this cover beyond Phase 2 to the existing town square. This scheme is exciting in its concept, and if a way can be found to allow it to proceed, it should provide the necessary boost to the older areas of the town centre, in order that they can effectively compete with the surrounding high-quality, environmentally controlled new developments.

My hon. Friend has rightly mentioned several points which are bothering his constituents. Perhaps I can now deal specifically with those points. First, he mentioned the Felmore district heating scheme. I understand the points that he made about the adequacy of this district heating system. I can tell him that my officials are currently appraising the financial implications of improving the existing system against a total replacement programme. A decision on this will be made as soon as possible.

My hon. Friend then turned to the Ghyllgrove busway. That was one of the corporation's last planning applications under section 7(1) of the New Towns Act 1981. It was for the construction of a bus-only link between Cranes Farm road and Ghyllgrove, which was, I understand, to permit the rationalisation of bus routes serving the industrial areas in the northern area of Basildon.

The application came rather late and, as my hon. Friend said, it attracted unanimous opposition from local residents. Many of the points raised required further investigation by the Department, but, as there was insufficient time to pursue the matter before the corporation was wound up, it was not possible to approve the application under the appropriate section of the New Towns Act 1981. It will be open to the commission to reopen the application, but, before deciding whether to do so, I am sure the commission will consider the points that have been raised by my hon. Friend and his constituents.

I note what my hon. Friend said about the development at Eversley, and in particular the proposed bus route through the area. The points that he has made will be considered carefully and, where necessary, will be referred to my colleagues in the Department of Transport.

My hon. Friend referred to the Vange area housing. My officials are examining that closely. We hope to come back with conclusions as soon as possible. We may have some hope for my hon. Friend on that.

The success of Basildon owes much to the time and effort given by the chairman and general manager of the development corporation. They have been successful in completing much worthwhile development and in combining the needs of the town with the requirements of the individual inhabitants. This may be recognised as a classic pattern of action-centred leadership. The corporation has shown that a dynamic town such as Basildon can only be developed from within by being sensitive to representations, market forces and the wishes of the people. I am sure, therefore, that my hon. Friend will join me in thanking Dame Elizabeth Coker and Mr. Galloway, the manager of the corporation, for their hard work. My hon. Friend has already mentioned that. On behalf of the Government, I thank those two hard-working people for the work they have done.

The assets and liabilities of Basildon development corporation have now been transferred to the Commission for the New Towns. The commission has set up a local committee to manage Basildon's rented housing stock. I hope my hon. Friend has noted the points that I have made about housing.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to put on record the appreciation of myself and the Government for all that the development corporation has achieved. Within the next three months, before the corporation is dissolved, I hope to visit Basildon and to convey those thanks to the good people of my hon. Friend's town.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes to Three o'clock.

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