HL Deb 27 May 1952 vol 176 cc1454-60

2.47 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, the New Towns Bill, to which I now ask your Lordships to give a Second Reading, has two chief merits: it is brief, and, I believe, is non-controversial. But these two facts do not in the least diminish its importance, since it is primarily concerned with one of the most important of the social services—the provision of new houses, in healthy and good surroundings, for the people of this country. Your Lordships will remember that the New Towns Act of 1946 set out to create machinery for the establishment and development of new towns, and that it provided a sum of £50,000,000 for advances to development corporations to enable them to meet expenditure chargeable to capital account. This sum is now approaching exhaustion and that is the reason for the present Bill which, in its two clauses, seeks the consent of Parliament to the advance of a further £50,000,000 for the development of these new towns. Your Lordships will be familiar with the action that has been taken under the Act of 1946—and none more so than the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, who is to follow me in this debate. Nevertheless, I think it proper that I should give some slight progress report, some survey of the stages we have reached in the development of these new towns.

During the past five years, fourteen areas have been designated as new town sites. Of these fourteen, eleven are in England, one is in Wales, and two are in Scotland; and they are expected to provide accommodation for just under 500,000 people. Eight of the English new towns are intended to serve the Greater London area. Thirteen development corporations have been set up, one of which serves the two areas designated at Welwyn and at Hatfield. Twenty-six million pounds—that is, about half the £50,000,000 provided for in the 1946 Act—has already been advanced to these corporations; and, in addition, schemes costing over £20,000,000 have been approved. Thus, the total commitments against the Consolidated Fund now stand at some £46,000,000; and at the present rate of development the whole of the £50,000,000 will be committed by July of this year.

Upwards of 90 per cent. of the expenditure approved is for housing and for main services such as sewerage and water. The remaining 10 per cent. is for industry, including the provision of the site works necessary to open up the new industrial areas which are essential for the balanced development of these new towns. Inevitably, any corporation set up to undertake a major task needs a period for planning and preparation before major construction work is undertaken in any quantity. Your Lordships will be glad to know, however, that most of this preliminary work has now been completed, and the corporations' programme is gaining momentum and making a small but useful contribution to the housing programme.

At the end of April of this year, 5,179 houses had been completed and 7,144 were under construction. The total number of houses in contracts then current was about 13,200. By the end of October of this year, it is estimated that about 9,000 houses will have been completed, and the contracts that will be current at that time will be for something in the neighbourhood of 19,000 houses. Every effort is being made to induce or entice industries into the new towns in order to provide employment for the increasing number of people taking up residence there, and already in the new towns around London—and I think this represents satisfactory progress—thirty-four factories have been completed, while nineteen others are under construction. It is hoped that industrialists with suitable industries will take full advantage of the facilities which are about to be provided for them. Meanwhile, it is essential to maintain, and indeed to accelerate, the progress that is at present being made in the fourteen areas already designated under the New Towns Act. The authority of Parliament is therefore sought for a further expenditure of £50,000,000. It is expected that this sum will be spent within the next two years, and that in 1954 it will be necessary to seek authority for a further sum to enable the programme to be continued.

The total cost to the Exchequer of the new towns cannot be forecast with any certainty, since much depends upon the extent to which local authorities and private developers take part, as well as, of course, the other problem of what is going to happen to prices. It has, however, been estimated that the cost to the Exchequer will be somewhere between £225,000,000 and £250,000,000 spread over a period of at least twenty years. The money is repayable under terms which have been fixed by the Treasury in accordance with the provisions of the 1946 Act. I hope that I have said enough to commend this Bill to your Lordships. I beg to move that it be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a—(Lord Woolton.)

2.53 p.m.


My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that no impediment will be placed in the way of the speedy passage of this Bill. Indeed, as the proud father of a very large progeny, I regard this Bill as setting the seal upon what is a very valuable and most important social movement in this country. The new Towns Act of 1946 was an innovation, and I am proud of the fact that it was welcomed both in this House and in another place. The Bill went through without a Division. I am delighted also to find that this has become, broadly speaking, a non-controversial activity and that both sides are determined to do their best to further the cause of new towns. By this Bill, the Government are firmly committing themselves to the policy of going forward with the new towns. At some time I should welcome a discussion in this House of the working of the Act, just as we are to have later in the afternoon a discussion on the working of the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947. I believe that the New Towns Act has been working smoothly, but I should be the last to say that it is not capable of some improvement, either from the point of view of further statutory requirements or from the point of view of administration. I think it would be helpful if at some time in the near future we could have a debate of that kind. If no other noble Lord takes the initiative, I may take the initiative myself in putting down a Motion.

The noble Lord who introduced this Bill was quite right in his catalogue of the different types of new towns that have so far been set up. Eight of them have been established to deal with the dispersal of population from London. Of the others, one in Scotland is for the same purpose so far as Glasgow is concerned. The remaining new towns are all being created for the purpose of providing homes for workers in existing industrial areas where at present the workers have to travel long distances to and from their work, In the term "industry," I include coalmining, because two of the new towns are particularly devoted to housing people engaged in coal mining, so that the new towns that exist have a diversity of purposes.

In creating the new towns, one had in mind particularly those concerned with dispersal, and they served a dual purpose. They were set up not only to provide accommodation in the best possible conditions for a number of people who were living in overcrowded conditions in the large towns, but also to help in the redevelopment of those towns by thinning out the existing population. It was the intention in 1946, at the time of the introduction of the New Towns Bill, that these processes should go side by side; that the housing of people in the new towns and the redevelopment of the old towns should be synchronised. Unfortunately, owing to the great housing need, it has not been possible to synchronise these processes, and the provision of houses in the new towns has assumed a somewhat different character from what was originally intended, in that, to a certain extent, we are all looking to new towns for the provision of houses, regardless of the redevelopment of the existing towns. That is unfortunate but, nevertheless, if care is taken to ensure that housing and industry go from the existing towns to the new towns, so that the new towns do not become, in effect, dormitory towns, they will still, to a certain extent, be serving a useful purpose.

I would emphasise here, however, that these new towns were intended to be a very small part of the great movement which we regarded as necessary in the next half century or so of rebuilding the existing towns which grew up at the time of the Industrial Revolution and which were badly in need of renovation. Whereas, as the noble Lord said, possibly half a million people will eventually be housed in the new towns, it is nevertheless necessary to provide new accommodation for the millions of people in the old towns. We have always regarded the new towns as constituting something of a laboratory and an opportunity for experimenting in a new way of living, so that they would be of assistance when the time came for redeveloping the existing towns. That requires a certain amount of courage. We are all politicians. Noble Lords know that when an experiment is successful, well and good; but when, for any reason, an experiment is not successful, it becomes the cockpit of Party politics. I would ask that we accept a self-denying ordinance as regards the new towns, and allow them a certain amount of free play to try out for themselves new designs and new ways of living. Such experiments will be of value, and possibly, in the long run, be an economy to us when we come to redevelop on a much bigger scale in the existing large towns. But that means a good deal of restraint on the part of both politicians and the Treasury.

If I have one criticism to make of the administration of the new towns, it is that they have been kept too much on leading strings, that they have been too much interfered with, both by the Ministry and by the Treasury. They have not been allowed to develop as freely as I should like, or to try out new ideas, even though some of us may not always have liked those ideas. In saying this I am not being critical of noble: Lords opposite. In this respect I feel that both Parties are tarred with the same brush. We have appointed people of all types to serve on development corporations, but we have not been prepared sufficiently to trust them. I hope that in the future development of the new towns the corporations will be given considerably more freedom. I do not suggest complete freedom, of course, but considerably more freedom to try out different ways of arranging their towns, different types of construction and different types of building. I am sure that out of all that—out of this "laboratory," as I have described it—we shall find something well worth while. At the present time, there is a great danger that in the new towns we are merely creating housing estates on a large scale. I say, quite frankly, that if that is all we are doing, then the new towns movement is not worth while. They justify themselves only by this much greater freedom that we can give them to develop along new, modern and up-to-date lines.

I fear that at the present time there is a danger that we are looking to the new towns solely as a means of providing houses, and as nothing more. I want to pay my tribute to the present Minister of Housing and Local Government. He appears to be greatly interested in the new towns. I understand that he has visited a large number of them, and that his visits have been greatly appreciated. I understand that he has even met the chairmen of the corporations and discussed with them the progress of their towns, and that he has held himself out as being willing at all times to be approached by them when necessary. All that is to the good. But if we are to stress and overstress housing alone, then we shall not get the kind of new towns that we want. These new towns must be complete entities. They must be places where people live, work and enjoy their recreation, and we cannot afford to neglect any side.

The noble Lord, Lord Woolton, referred to industry, and to inducing industry to come to the new towns. I speak with some knowledge of the matter, and I can assure him that industry requires no encouragement to come to the new towns; industry would gladly come to them. Industrialists in London and other over-crowded places realise the great advantages which the new towns have to offer. They are eager to come. The difficulty is the policy of the Board of Trade, which I can well understand. Quite naturally, the Board of Trade have a bias in favour of the development areas. This is an inheritance from the days when there was vast unemployment in the development areas and it was necessary to steer industry towards these places. But it is possible to overdo that attitude. It is possible to direct or to steer industry to those places where industry cannot possibly be so efficient as if it were situated in a new town; and there has been a feeling that the Board of Trade have perhaps not been as enthusiastic as they might have been in assisting industry to go to the new towns. If the noble Lord will look into this question and see that industrialists who can play a part in the development of the new towns are freely allowed to go there, I think he will be helping considerably. I could say a good many more things about the new towns, but I think perhaps it would be more appropriate if we were to spread ourselves on this question on another occasion. Therefore, I content myself with saying that we on this side welcome this Bill very much, and noble Lords opposite can be assured that no difficulty will be placed in the way of its very speedy passage.

On Question, Bill read 2a: Committee negatived.