HC Deb 11 April 1989 vol 150 cc882-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. John M. Taylor.]

1.21 am
Mr. Derek Fatchett (Leeds, Central)

When the Government first announced their intention to establish a series of urban development corporations throughout the country, the main reason given was that the areas to be covered by the UDCs would, at that stage, be suffering from a lack of investment and development. That was never the case in Leeds. If there was an argument for a UDC in the Government's own terms in other cities, that has never been and is not now the case for Leeds, which is enjoying probably the most substantial growth of any city outside the south-east. There are those who claim that Leeds, under its Labour-controlled authority, has now become the country's second city, and there are many people in Leeds who would regard it as the first rather than the second city.

When establishing the UDCs, one of the Governmen t's suggestions was that they perceived some animosity between the local authority and the private sector. That has never been the case in Leeds, which is a success city as a result of the partnership which has developed between the Labour-controlled city council and the private sector. That success and partnership have enabled the city council to attract investment and to bring about the rebirth and renaissance of the city centre and much of my constituency.

My first point, which is not necessarily central to this debate but needs to go on record, is that if there was ever any justification for a UDC, it could not be justified in Leeds. Under the previous council leader, councillor Mudie, and now under councillor Tricket, Leeds city council has enjoyed much success, taking it beyond the necessity of establishing a UDC.

The Government's motives and their objectives for the UDC were far more sinister, manipulative and political. The Tories in Leeds know that they have no chance of ever gaining control, but it is essential for Tory patronage, influence and organisation to have some quangos appointed by Government and made up of placemen appointed by Government. That is why a proposal was made for a housing action trust, why we have the task force and why the urban development corporation came about—as part of a much larger agenda to subvert the city council and local democracy. It was a recognition by the Minister of his party's failure to attract votes in local elections in Leeds. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Dr. Hampson) may find that amusing, but he will not want to make any bets with me about the date when the Conservatives take control of Leeds city council as it will he a long time before that happens.

There was no need for a UDC, but we now have one in Leeds, and we recognise that it has a potential contribution to make. We hope that it will behave in a socially responsible way, and part of its social responsibility is to consult local business and residents and to be part of the city's government in partnership rather than opposition.

The UDC should ensure that its decisions are open to public scrutiny and subject to the maximum involvement of local community organisations and local business. That is crucial because people and business in Leeds have a right to know what is happening.

We are discussing major issues that will affect the future of Leeds and its residents for many years. An example of the importance of its decisions is the possible development by Triple Five, a Canadian organisation that has already held talks with the city council and the UDC. According to a UDC press release, the scheme could be worth more than £3 billion. It is a major investment of such significance that it could change the shape of the south central area of Leeds for many years to come. I am not making a judgment on the scheme, but I am asking that the UDC's involvement in it be open so that the public know what is likely to happen and can comment on the way in which it develops.

Another example is the road scheme for the Richmond hill area of my constituency, which is important for local residents and business. It is important that when the UDC, as the planning authority for the area, puts forward proposals for the development of the road scheme it recognises the legitimate interests of local residents, who have a right to know what the UDC intends. Nobody in the area affected by the UDC's proposals is yet aware of them. I am aware of them because information has begun to be leaked that the UDC is thinking of building a road down East street—on stilts at points—which is probably the worst environmental scheme that could be conceived for the area. There has been no consultation or discussion with local residents. That is not the way in which the Minister would go about his business; it is not the way that the UDC should go about its business.

Dr. Keith Hampson (Leeds, North-West)

If one considers the Kirkstall valley scheme, there is no evidence that the UDC is trying to bypass local community views. Its strategy and proposals are well known to the community and council, and two councillors serve on it. The hon. Gentleman has not shown why, apart from the overall strategy, which should be public knowledge, its detailed scrutiny of often confidential matters should be in the goldfish bowl of public debate.

Mr. Fatchett

I have already shown that there are important schemes, substantial investment, and substantial local interest involved. I am not saying, and never have, that sensitive commercial interests should be made public. Nobody is saying that, but everybody who has been involved in local government—and I presume that the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West knows the nature of the rules in local government—will recognise that there is secrecy in commercial interest. I recognise that; I am not asking for that.

In relation to the road scheme, there has been no discussion whatsoever with local residents. There is no commercial interest that stops that discussion, and it is that degree of participation and openness that I am asking for, a basic minimum. The hon. Gentleman, by his reaction, understands the point I am making. There is a potential degree of consensus there, and I hope that the Minister recognises that.

There is, besides the right to know, a need for openness on the part of the UDC. If it is not open, given the scale of the projects with which it is dealing, there is always an argument that there is some lack of legitimacy attributed to the decisions taken by it. Openness gives legitimacy, as does consultation. I would not for a moment suggest that corruption surrounds the UDC. That is not the nature of my accusation. However, if the UDC is open and allows consultation, there is never any question of corruption because we know what is going on. If there is secrecy, it builds up a suspicion that there may be corruption around the organisation. In the UDC's own interest, there is a need for openness. So there are two reasons suggesting that the UDC should change its current practices: the right to know, and the need for openness.

The UDC makes a number of points in its own defence, but one defence it cannot use is that it is the planning authority; if the planning decisions were taken by local government, Leeds city council, these decisions would be subject to the Local Government (Access to Information Act) 1985. It is a strange paradox that, if there is a major or minor planning decision to be taken by the Leeds city council, that would be open as per the normal practices of local government. If there is a major or minor planning decision to be taken by the UDC, it will be taken behind closed doors. I see no justification whatsoever for that.

The Minister may say that the legislation does not provide for that access or openness in relation to the UDC. I recognise that, but I also say that the London Docklands UDC already allows openness; it allows journalists to be present at certain meetings, and it allows the public to be present. The Sheffield UDC is moving in exactly the same direction. I hope that the Minister will use his influence and powers to ensure that the Leeds UDC moves further in that direction.

A further argument made by the UDC is that openness —what the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West called "the goldfish bowl"—leads to inefficiency, but the fact that emerges from the evidence which has come into my possession is that the UDC is itself inefficient. Its secrecy does not breed efficiency; I suspect that its secrecy compounds inefficiency.

Let me give one or two examples. A firm called South Leeds Builders Merchants Ltd. received a letter from the UDC saying, without consultation or discussion, that that business would be subject to compulsory purchase. That is neither efficient nor the way in which the UDC should behave. The company secretary wrote to his own solicitor and kindly sent me a copy of his letter. I quote from Mr. Foster's letter: To say I am astounded would be an understatement, as you would have thought that someone at The Leeds Development Corporation would have had the decency to forewarn, explain or indeed just discuss the plans affecting our premises and livelihood. That inefficiency was recognised by Mr. Martin Eagland, the chief executive of Leeds urban development corporation. He replied on 21 March 1989 to Mr. Foster, the company secretary of South Leeds Builders Merchants Ltd., and made the following point: I do apologise for the fact that you received no prior warning of the Development Corporation's intention to compulsorily acquire the freehold interest in the … site". The Leeds urban development corporation ought to have talked to a company that it was about to make the subject of a compulsory purchase order.

Another example is Chapman Springs, a well-established engineering firm in south Leeds. It is now the subject of a compulsory purchase order without consultation, participation and information. From time to time a number of hon. Members find it convenient to criticise the Post Office or British Telecom. They may feel that that was the reason why the Leeds urban development corporation was unable to talk to either South Leeds Builders Merchants Ltd. or Chapman Springs. Both firms are sited within 100 yd of the UDC's offices. I suspect that Mr. Peter Hartley, the chairman, and Mr. Martin Eagland, the chief executive, pass both firms on their way to and from the UDC's offices. A simple courtesy would have been to talk to the two firms. Jobs in two local businesses are at stake. One of the firms wrote to me and said that the Conservative Government pride themselves on their interest in small businesses, so it is difficult to understand how they can allow one of their organisations—the UDC —to behave in such a way.

Secrecy in the UDC has not bred efficiency. All the evidence suggests that secrecy has bred inefficiency. So far, the UDC's record is a catalogue of inefficiency and secrecy. For the sake of what I believe is important—the continuing development of Leeds—and for the most constructive relationship that is possible between local business. local residents and the city council, I ask the Minister to use his influence with the UDC to ensure that it conducts its business openly and does not continue with its current hole-in-the-wall approach. Such an approach will damage the work of the UDC and local business in Leeds. It is important that openness should be one of the UDC's characteristics. I hope that the Minister will join me in that campaign.

1.37 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. David Trippier)

I welcome the interest of the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) in the subject. I congratulate him sincerely on securing this Adjournment debate. I welcome the valuable contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Dr. Hampson) to which I shall return later.

The hon. Member for Leeds, Central has already tabled a number of written questions about the UDC's responsibility for planning. I have been pleased to inform him about the very satisfactory progress being made in Leeds. I thought that his summary of the reasons for establishing the Leeds urban development corporation stretched credulity to breaking point.

If the hon. Gentleman wants to know precisely why the Government established an urban development corporation in Leeds, he could do no better than to read a pamphlet called "New Life for Inner Cities" which I wrote and which has recently been released. Unfortunately, I cannot give a copy to the hon. Gentleman. It costs £2.50, which I consider to be good value for money. That money will go to the Conservative party. We are always grateful for any contributions that we can get—certainly from Labour Members of Parliament.

The best illustration that I can give of why the Government set up an urban development corporation in Leeds relates to a meeting that I had with the former leader of Leeds city council, whom I have always liked, councillor George Mudie. He told me of the progress that had been made over the Leeds development company, with which the hon. Gentleman will be familiar. That is the longest gestation period known to man. It had been talked about for four years, and it had been in formation for three years. I asked councillor Mudie when he would appoint a chief executive and he said, "Soon". It is crass stupidity for the hon. Gentleman to describe to me and to the House anything to do with the UDC as a catalogue of inefficiency when we have such an example.

The Government believed that things should move a little more speedily than they have in the urban regeneration for the centre of Leeds. As the hon. Member knows, I visited the development corporation only last month. I was impressed by the way the corporation has started to implement the proposals contained in the strategic plan which it published last October. Land is being brought forward for development in partnership with the other agencies; environmental improvements are under way, and I know the corporation has the needs of both new and existing businesses uppermost in its mind. Those are no mean achievements for a corporation which has been in existence for only nine months. If not now, I hope that at some time in the future the hon. Gentleman will become as enthusiastic about what is being achieved on the ground in his home city as he seems to be about the procedures required to bring that about.

Before I reply to the more specific points which the hon. Gentleman has raised, the House may find it helpful ill say something about how the UDCs operate and relate that to what the hon. Gentleman has said.

UDCs have been set up by the Government as single-minded bodies. Their remit is to regenerate rundown urban areas by bringing land and buildings back into use and creating new businesses, jobs, an improved environment, new homes, recreation and leisure facilities. Already they are doing that, and in my view they are doing it very well. But UDCs are not local authorities, and they are not funded through the rating system. The arrangements established to ensure that local authorities are accountable to the local electorate are not therefore applicable. UDCs are funded largely by the Exchequer and they are accountable to Parliament through my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. They are subject to a fairly formidable array of procedures, which includes the Select Committee and Public Accounts Committee systems, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, and the Local Government Act 1988 which brought UDCs' planning activities within the ambit of the Commissioner for Local Administration—the local ombudsman. Each UDC produces an annual report, including a copy of its audited statement of accounts, which is laid before both Houses. Hon. Members will appreciate that those are just some of the arrangements which exist to safeguard accountability to Parliament, but it might help if I explain that when carrying out their development control functions all UDCs are required to operate in the same way as any other planning authority That includes an obligation to carry out consultations and determine applications as laid down in the Town and Country Planning General Development Order 1988. The list of possible consultees, on any application, can be lengthy. It can include, for example, a local authority, the highway authority, the water authority, and the waste disposal authority.

Most UDCs have established agency arrangements whereby local authority staff receive and process planning applications. That hardly equates with charges of operating in secret, and perhaps more than anything else shows that, behind the rhetoric, co-operative and mutually beneficial working arrangements can and do exist between UDCs and local authorities, and I welcome that. Councillor George Mudie persuaded me that in this context the Leeds city council should act as a planning agency for the UDCs. Apart from that, as the hon. Gentleman knows, at the time I was convinced that it was quite fair and proper that there should be a number of Labour party councillors appointed to the board.

Mr. Fatchett

The Minister talks in detail about the development control procedures, but one or two of my examples concern broader planning and development matters. I talked about the road scheme and about Chapman Springs in relation to the development of a business park. Those schemes are not covered by the development controls. They are the schemes that should be the subject of much greater consultation and much greater public scrutiny. If the Minister is prepared to persuade his colleagues in the UDC to move in that direction, we are beginning to move towards a consensus, but in relation to the road scheme, for instance, that involves the UDC recognising that my constituents, at a very early stage, have a legitimate voice.

Mr. Trippier

I should say two things to the hon. Gentleman. First, the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West was very relevant to this case, though I do not think there could be any possible criticism of the consultation that took place. Time permitting, I shall refer to that matter again. Certainly I want to see urban development corporations consulting local people. That is very important if we are to see this form of urban regeneration in that area. If the people themselves do not recognise that that form of urban regeneration is an improvement and that it will benefit them and the area as a whole, clearly the whole policy will have failed. On that matter there is a meeting of minds.

I do not know specifically about the case of the road network. Obviously I am not directly responsible for the Department of Transport. However, in an effort to be helpful, I shall look at the matter. I am anxious to convince the hon. Member that the UDC is very keen to consult, as are all UDCs. There may have been mistakes, particularly in the case of what I call the first-generation UDCs. One hopes that one can learn from mistakes, and that there will be improvements. But in the case of the second and third-generation UDCs it is perfectly clear that it is a necessary prerequisite for successful urban regeneration that they should carry the local communities with them.

Of course, circumstances vary from area to area. No two areas are the same, and no two UDCs are the same. It is therefore right that they should have discretion to organise themselves in the best way to achieve positive results. I must stress that all UDCs are well seized of the importance of carrying local opinion with them. Many UDC chairmen and chief executives spend a considerable amount of their time addressing public meetings up and down the urban development areas. I have indicated that I do not for a moment suggest that they have got everything absolutely right; I am not that stupid. It is always easy to find fault from the sidelines, as the hon. Gentleman has sought to do. It would be wrong of the Government to be too prescriptive about the way in which the UDCs carry out their business, as the hon. Member and certainly the Campaign for Freedom of Information would suggest. I believe that that is a matter for the UDCs to decide, with the overall arrangements that I have already described.

Mr. Fatchett

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Trippier

I want to make a final point because we are running out of time.

A number of decisions will have to be made by the UDCs—decisions that certainly would be commercially confidential. As the hon. Gentleman made a number of political points—and I realise that he might have felt obliged to do so—may I make one important political point from my party's point of view? I find it a bit difficult to take it when any member of the Labour party talks about secrecy or about excluding the press from meetings. My experience in local government—which, I am glad to say, is pretty long—is that the Labour party is the first to exclude the press from meetings of this kind. I am sure that that experience is shared by my hon. Friends.

Mr. Fatchett

The Minister might be reassured to know that Leeds city council won an award for its willingness to open up and to disclose information. So, in this respect, it is a model authority. The Minister argues that he does not want to be prescriptive. He knows the position taken by the docklands corporation, and he knows the position that Sheffield is likely to take. Will he give the Leeds UDC some indication that it would make sense to move in the same direction as its sister UDCs in docklands and in Sheffield?

Mr. Trippier

The Leeds city council has won an award for openness. I only wish that it had won an award for speed of inner city regeneration through the Leeds Development Company. I accept that a number of urban development corporations provide the type of access that the hon. Gentleman seeks for the Leeds UDC, and the London Docklands UDC is undoubtedly one. Certainly I shall be very happy to draw to the attention of the chairman and the board of the Leeds UDC the matters that the hon. Gentleman has raised this evening, but I repeat that the Department does not wish in any way to be prescriptive in this regard. It is entirely a matter for the UDC. I personally feel that in practice there can be little or no difficulty, in view of the representation on the board not only from the hon. Gentleman's party but from the private sector, which he was quick to mention.

I emphasise the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West that there will be quite a number of interested parties in Leeds whose best interests might not be served by knowing too much about the confidential matters that are discussed before the board. That is a matter of judgment, principally for the board.

I hope that in future the hon. Member for Leeds, Central will find himself able to support the Leeds UDC and the work that it does to regenerate that vitally important city.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes to Two o'clock.