§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Willetts.]2.30 pm
§ Mr. David Amess (Basildon)
Let me say at the outset that I have a considerable amount of ground to cover, and I do not expect my hon. Friend the Minister to be able to respond to all the points that I raise this afternoon. However, may I tell him in a very warm sense that I would be delighted to hear from him quickly if he can assist me positively on all my points, but if he is going to disappoint me in respect of some of them, it might be better if I did not hear from his Department. Perhaps I will not be disappointed on any of the issues that I raise.
I welcome the opportunity of this debate, because it allows me to pay a wholesome tribute to Sir Neil Shields, the chairman of the Commission for the New Towns. I was very sad to hear that he is to retire, although I obviously wish his successor all the luck in the world in his new job.
Sir Neil Shields has been a very good friend to me, and above all else, to Basildon. He has given the Commission for the New Towns superb leadership, and he has been ably assisted by his deputy, Lord Finsberg. Basildon would be a poorer place had it not been for the contribution of Sir Neil Shields and others.
I do not forget the predecessor of Sir Neil Shields, the late Dame Elizabeth Coker, who was chairman of the development corporation. She was a magnificent leader for the local community and she achieved so much on behalf of my constituents. She was served splendidly by two officers—Mr. Douglas Galloway and Mr. Harry Bacon. I and others owe them a great debt of gratitude.
For so many Members of Parliament, housing tends to be among the biggest issues, so I wish to draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister to that problem first. Thanks to the good offices of the Commission for the New Towns, the excellent Conservative-controlled Basildon district council and the Basildon housing association, the transfer of the housing stock has been achieved at long last.
During my time in this place, I have dealt with 11 Ministers responsible for new towns. It does not seem to be a responsibility that is always eagerly accepted; whether that is because I tend to raise matters, I do not know.
The socialists so often sabotage housing transfers. I recall that, when I took a deputation to meet Lord Skelmersdale, it transpired that one of the people in the deputation was a socialist activist. When I asked the Minister to play a video which was supposed to promote the transfer, the person who had accompanied me in the deputation to assist in the transfer, appeared on the video quite clearly working against us. Because of the socialists' reluctance to reach an agreement with the Department of the Environment and the Commission for the New Towns, the town of Basildon was damaged financially.
My criticism, if there is a criticism of the transfer, is that, unfortunately, a number of loose ends were not tidied up before the properties were transferred. It would have been preferable if all outstanding matters were settled, rather than the superb Conservative-controlled Basildon district council being left to try to sort out all the loose ends.
428 I have become increasingly annoyed at the number of complaints from my constituents about the standard of work of contractors employed by the CNT. It makes me so wild, when I consider how difficult it is for businesses to obtain building work, that, when they win contracts, they are often poorly supervised. Let there be no doubt about it. Public money is being spent on that work. Frankly, the mickey is being taken out of the system. If contractors who are engaged do not come up to standard, they should not be given another opportunity. The CNT knows only too well the contractors I am talking about. I hope that they will quickly put their house in order.
I now refer to the Five Links project, which is very important for my constituents. It is a major housing redevelopment scheme that the board of the CNT has approved in principle. Last summer, we toured the estate with the then Housing Minister, my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, the right hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young). That scheme is essential. I want it to go ahead, and I will not rest until it goes ahead, but, for that to happen, a contribution is needed from the Commission for the New Towns.
First, it needs to release the council from the clawback provisions relating to the Five Links estate. Secondly, it needs to waive any covenant on the use of land at Markham's Chase. Thirdly, it needs to enable a transfer at nil cost, either freehold or under licence, the land comprising the alleyways and vehicle access routes to the adjacent individual dwellings within Five Links.
Fourthly, it needs to transfer at nil cost two of the small parcels of land at the fringes of the Five Links estate. Fifthly—perhaps this is the, most controversial point; the Treasury is concerned about it—it needs to provide additional land to the approximate value of £5 million. On that point, the lost benefit to the Exchequer is much less than it may seem at first. Much of the land has no real planning value.
If my hon. Friend the Minister cannot respond this afternoon, I hope that he will write to me, but I want to know whether he supports the Five Links scheme, whether the Department of the Environment 'supports it, and whether the Commission for the New Towns supports the regeneration of the Five Links estate. If the answer is yes, will the Commission for the New Towns provide sufficient resources to make the scheme work well? Again, if the answer is yes, may I, as the local Member of Parliament for Basildon, go back to my constituents and announce that the scheme will actually go ahead?
Work on the Siporex estate is about to begin. Basildon housing association is doing all that it possibly can to ensure that the project runs smoothly. To that end, any assistance that the Commission for the New Towns could give would be greatly appreciated. I would also appreciate it if, at some stage, I could have either from the Department or from the CNT a comprehensive breakdown of the outstanding plots of land which are to be disposed of.
I believe that, with 12 years experience in Basildon, I have some sensible suggestions to make. If I had been listened to on a number of points, perhaps some of the ridiculous development proposals would have been avoided.
One which absolutely incenses me is the proposed development of a beautiful part of Basildon, in which nestles the 13th-century St. Nicholas church. This beautiful silver birch forest is being proposed by the 429 CNT—which wants to get in as much money as it can to give back to the Exchequer—as a site for a business park. That is not acceptable to me, to local councillor Terry Fleet or to my constituents.
There are many other areas of scrubland in Basildon which could be used, and there are also vacant dwellings which would be warmly welcomed new businesses. It would be an absolute disgrace if that beautiful parcel of land was developed into a business park. Councillor Fleet is leading the campaign to stop the development, and I shall back him to the hilt.
Everyone in Basildon realises that, before the CNT is wound up in 1998, it has a duty to obtain the best price it can for the taxpayer via the sale of its remaining landholdings in the district. That does not mean that the process should not be conducted without a healthy dose of common sense. In recent months, the CNT has unfortunately become somewhat over-zealous in its desire to dispose of land.
For instance, the CNT organised a major exhibition of land for sale in Basildon last November, at which a number of sites suitable for residential land were advertised, despite the fact that some were in existing or proposed green belt areas.
One of the major housing estates transferred to Basildon council by the CNT was the Langdon Hills estate, adjacent to Laindon high road. The CNT recently finished three years of disruptive remedial works against water damage to foundations which needed to be underpinned. The CNT's contractors are now going through a snagging period to ensure that all work has been completed to a high standard. However, I have toured the estate several times, and many residents have been rightly dissatisfied by the way in which the work was carried out. For example, a large part of a retaining wall on the estate collapsed while being repaired.
The CNT has bequeathed the estate and its residents the last collective heating system in Basildon, which was installed by Ove Arup and is now 20 years old. It is expensive to maintain, and very unreliable. The estimated cost of installing individual gas central heating would be between £1 million and £2 million, and the council has taken steps to initiate a technical report specifically on the issue in response to residents' requests. Given all the problems which residents have suffered, it would be equitable if CNT was prepared to finance all or part of the new heating system, and that is what I am asking for.
The CNT has been carrying out major structural repairs to houses on the Vange II estate in Basildon since November 1993. The estate comprises 133 houses and bungalows arranged in 19 terraces. The work on the contract, which involves families having to leave their homes while they are being dealt with, has been painstakingly slow. By November last year, only two of the terrace blocks had been completed. That is ridiculous.
The CNT has now suspended its original contractor, and the work is not now due to start until November this year. That really is not good enough. The work has been disruptive and noisy, and residents are rightly disillusioned about the standard of work which has not been satisfactory. The four-month hiatus until April only compounds that. For the people living on the Vange II estate, it is becoming intolerable.
430 Several people have suggested that the £3 million or so which is being spent on the works would be better devoted to completely rebuild of the properties. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Mr. Patten), the former Secretary of State for Education, had the responsibilities of my hon. Friend the Minister who will reply to the debate today, he toured the estate and experienced at first hand the difficulties of the structure of the properties.
If it is the intention of the CNT to rebuild, some additional funding will be required, but at least a clear way forward might have been established. It is certain that the CNT's performance on that scheme is below par.
Alongside the CNT housing transfer in 1994, several other community assets such as community centres and playing fields were transferred to the council. They were accompanied by a number of balancing assets such as CNT-owned shops to pay for the upkeep of the transferred sites. A smaller but nonetheless significant number of sites were excluded from the original transfer. Their future is now being dealt with via a community-related assets mark III package.
The council is anxious to take those assets, such as the public open space at Dunton Wills and Steeple View, under its wing for recreational purposes, but it cannot do so until the Commission for the New Towns has provided some method of financing their future maintenance, as it did in the CRA mark I package. The council is eager to see those negotiations completed satisfactorily.
Throughout my time as Member of Parliament for Basildon, I have done my best to promote all the positive attributes of the town. I know that the Commission for the New Towns has done its very best to attract new business and investment into the town. I urge it to have in its mind the level of rents, some of which clearly do not reflect the effects of the downturn in the economy and are extremely unrealistic.
I can relate many instances in which compassion should have been shown to traders of long standing who acted responsibly, did much to attract employment opportunities when they were needed, and were not given help when they suffered in the economic downturn. I refer in particular to many of the smaller parades of shops.
There is also the issue of the sale of Pitsea market. I accept the commission's response to the traders' complaints about the time gap before they received the necessary information, and the commission's recent response to me that it had been even-handed. However, my gut feeling is that it is a tragedy that a situation was not created in which the local traders, who—I do not wish to be patronising—are in every sense the salt of the earth, could purchase Pitsea market.
I am particularly keen to attract Japanese investment into Basildon. As the media never tire of showing us when they depict Basildon on the television, the Fodderwick site in the heart of the town just looks awful. It needs to be knocked down and sold for development. It really is a dreadful eyesore.
I am not asking much from the CNT. We have emptied the building. Two voluntary organisations are stuck in dreadful Nissen huts. I have praised the chairman of the CNT. IF he wants to go out in even greater a blaze of glory, he should do just a little more for Basildon and provide alternative accommodation for those two voluntary organisations.
431 When I first became the Member of Parliament for Basildon, I embarked on a campaign to promote the town. We started the "I love Basildon" campaign. I especially wanted to promote its shopping facilities. Because of changed retailing patterns, there is universal agreement that changes need to be made to the town centre.
British Land, the new owner, under the excellent chairmanship of Mr. Ritblatt, is doing a magnificent job of running the Eastgate centre. I am delighted that it is going ahead with the refurbishment programme. Its job would be made much easier if changes were made to the town centre management committee, which was set up by the CNT—its income is derived from the car parks, market and bus station.
I congratulate Mr. Ritblatt and Mr. Everard Goodman, the chairman of Tops, on their efforts to make the town centre management company work, but they need and deserve a significant amount of capital from the CNT before they wind up their interest in Basildon. British Land believes that the town centre could he improved by better signage.
Finally, Tops put in a plan for roofing part of the town centre. The local authority sensibly consulted local people, and I am sorry to say that the design did not find favour and the plans were rejected. Our excellent Conservative-controlled Basildon district council and the team at Tops are united in their common interest to see the town centre flourish. I hope that both sides can be brought together.
Basildon is rightly the beacon of the south—indeed, the beacon of the country; if I could get a tiny bit more support from the CNT, the whole world would realise that.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir Paul Beresford)
As my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) pointed out, I may not have time to do more than touch on one or two of the two or three dozen matters that he raised. I must respond on paper about the others—I have already done so on one.
I congratulate my hon. Friend. It would be fair to say, and it would be accepted on both sides of the House, that Basildon gets an especially good innings here, almost weekly. I think that it is down to the excellent Basildon-Amess partnership, which continues to bat regularly and is doing so again.
I was going to use some of the time available to sing the praises of the Commission for the New Towns and the development corporation. To some degree, that has already been done and, given the amount of time left, I ought to leave it to the ensuing correspondence, and try to touch on some of the issues that my hon. Friend raised.
Since my hon. Friend mentioned the easing out of the CNT, it is worth stating one or two facts, however. He mentioned the shopping centre and the changes. Between 1986 and 1991, the CNT spent about £11.5 million on Basildon's roads. It is working in partnership with Essex county council to provide a new urban traffic control system for the town. That was not mentioned, but it is a key factor and one that is worth reiterating.
I must try to deal with some of the two dozen or so issues that my hon. Friend raised. First, he mentioned 432 housing, repairs, maintenance and so forth. Both he and others have made the CNT well aware of the problems.. It is aware and it is reacting to it, and I anticipate that action is being taken, even as we speak, to minimise the additional problems that the tenants have suffered.
My hon. Friend also mentioned Vange II. I have noted that and we will look into it. Structural repairs costing about £11 million have been, and are being, undertaken in that area.
Siporex housing has been a success, and I think that my hon. Friend accepts that. I am pleased that there appears to be a happy ending to that problem. As he is well aware, that system-built housing on the Bluehouse estate was transferred to the Basildon community housing association with a complex agreement that involved the CNT in financing £33 million, or 70 per cent., of the redevelopment costs. The scheme will provide about 707 replacement houses during the next six or seven years, which is a sign of the effort that the CNT has put in in that area, and in Basildon generally.
My hon. Friend mentioned the Five Links housing estate. He said that he wants only positive answers and that, if I had negative ones, I should keep them to myself. Here is one that is in between: we must look at the whole system. We are aware of the adventurous approach that is being taken in the scheme.
My hon. Friend listed five points; obviously, he does not expect an answer to all five here and now. It is important, however, that he reflects on the fact that the scheme involves £6 million worth of public land to go to a chosen private firm to build houses for sale at market prices. Part of the profit will go towards the refurbishment of Five Links, but I remind my hon. Friend that the transfer of the Five Links estate to the council reflected the state of the estate. It was accepted that the properties were dilapidated and needed work done on them, which was reflected in their transfer price.
My hon. Friend mentioned land for affordable housing. If he reflects, he will remember that the CNT had already given considerable land for that purpose.
On the proposed business park next door to St. Nicholas church, although my hon. Friend would like a magic wand and would like me to turn back the clock, there is some difficulty. I realise why he is concerned, and can only reiterate that, as he is aware, there is no provision for revoking the planning consent for the development of that site. I am pleased to report, however, that I understand that the CNT is taking considerable steps to ensure that any development is suitably screened and ample landscaping ensures that topography, vegetation and views of the nearby church continue to dominate the appearance of that area.
My hon. Friend said that the centre of town needed support from the CNT. Its importance is accepted as Basildon's retail centre, as has been shown by the CNT's activities. The CNT has continued to support the environment of the town centre in a number of ways.
One small but obvious example is that, during the past year, it has financed the restoration of the original town centrepiece—the "Mother and Child" fountain. It has made significant contributions towards improvements in 433 the lighting and seating within Sothernhay, and has also made considerable contributions towards replacing seating and other street furniture in the town square. It has provided land in support of the council's proposals to create a new town square and has contributed towards installing an integrated urban traffic control and signing system. All that will help to improve the town's retail centre.
My hon. Friend briefly mentioned Pitsea market. I understand that the site's new owners are fully committed to ensuring that the market survives and thrives. They have already begun discussing with the traders how they might work together towards that end.
Despite the fact that the CNT is moving towards its wind-down, it is committed to Basildon and is promoting its efforts there. Compared to other areas, a disproportionate amount of the capital expenditure goes into Basildon. I am sure that my hon. Friend will make absolutely certain that there will be no lack of interest in Basildon.
434 My hon. Friend is right to be proud of Basildon's success. He is also right to aim to secure its success in the future. The CNT is proving that it wishes to bring investment to the town to provide additional employment opportunities and increase the town's prosperity. As I said, Basildon benefited from receiving a considerably higher proportion of the CNT's capital expenditure in 1993–94 than any other southern regional town.
Furthermore, the CNT continues to promote Basildon through public exhibitions and special marketing days. For instance, it has included in that promotion the Basildon '94 exhibition, which promoted Basildon as a place to live and work, and attracted many visitors.
Basildon is now a much better place in which to live and work than it was in 1949. We are all well aware that my hon. Friend will do his utmost to ensure that that continues, and that the Government, the CNT, the council, the private sector, and anyone he can get hold of, will continue to help Basildon in the future. Long may the Basildon-Amess partnership keep batting.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Three o'clock.