HL Deb 29 June 1976 vol 372 cc746-66

6.34 p.m.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I beg to move that the New Towns (Amendment) Bill be now read a second time. Perhaps at the outset I should declare an interest. I had the honour to be a member of the Peterborough Development Corporation, which city, as noble Lords might know, is being developed as a partnership new town. This means that there is, from the beginning, a very clear involvement by the local authority in a number of aspects of the town's development. I can assure your Lordships that it was an interesting and satisfying experience which I saw as an extension of what I might call my local government career. I am sure the noble Baroness, Lady Young, will forgive me if I say that perhaps in this one respect I am one up on her, but I look forward to our discussions because I must also recognise that the noble Baroness, Lady Young, is one, if not one and a half, up on me because of her experience as a Government Minister and as a spokesman from both the Front Benches in this House, in addition to her long and distinguished career in local government. She also has my sympathy in having to carry on with this Bill tonight, having borne the heat and burden of the day in the previous three or four hours.

With your Lordships' great sense of history, I think we would not be exaggerating if we look upon this Bill before us as an important historic step in the evolution of planning legislation in this country. But it is historic in more senses than one. The New Towns Act of 1946 and the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947 are monuments to the memory of a former Member of both Houses of Parliament. There are many Members of your Lordships' House who will recall the contributions which the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, made to the debates in this House. It is both fascinating and perhaps remarkable that some 30 years later his son, my right honourable friend, the Minister for Planning and Local Government, Mr. John Silkin, should have the opportunity to continue his father's great work in legislating in a similar field. Noble Lords will know that the Bill before us today was piloted through another place by him.

My Lords, if I have read correctly the debates on this Bill in another place, I do not think there is any very great difference of principle between us today. The Bill for the transfer of new town housing assets to local authorities is indeed a return to one of the principles of the original 1946 Act. Development corporations would be set up to do a particular job of work over a finite period of time; then, when that job was done, they would be wound-up. There was never any doubt that the houses provided for rent would pass into the ownership of local authorities.

There was what I might politely call a hiccough in that philosophy when the Party opposite created the Commission for the New Towns. We, on this side of the House, at the time did not welcome it. But perhaps our attitude can be said to have mellowed, because, as my right honourable friend explained in another place, we now see a significant ongoing role for the Commission in the management of the industrial and commercial assets which have been and are being created in our new towns. What we have to recognise now is that the taxpayer has made a massive investment in the new communities we have created. It is necessary, therefore, to devise some way in which the return on that investment can be shared between all concerned with the development of the new town. But that, my Lords, will be the next step in the evolutionary process.

What we are concerned with today is perhaps the first real attempt to normalise our new towns. Housing has long been a statutory responsibility of our district councils. It is sensible that, in meeting that responsibility to provide for the housing needs of the people of the whole district, the ownership of houses in the public sector which are required for rent should, so far as is shown to be necessary—and this will differ from place to place—rest with the democratically controlled local authority. That authority will, of course, want to take decisions as to the management of the rented housing stock, and that management role will not exclude the opportunity to diversify tenure either by the encouragement of housing associations and tenants co-operatives or by some sales of houses to sitting tenants.

My Lords, let me turn now to the detailed provisions of the Bill. It is essentially an enabling measure, depending in large part on the co-operation and agreement of the parties concerned locally. Each new town has its own particular pace of development and its own peculiar characteristics. The transfer legislation must, therefore, be sufficiently flexible to deal with a number of differing situations over quite a lengthy period of years—perhaps up until the 1990s.

Clause 1 provides that transfer schemes may be made and defines the related assets which may be transferred along with the rented housing. These associated assets including garaging, play spaces and other small areas of amenity open space, local shops and undeveloped " infill " sites for housing. However, the definitions, as noble Lords will have noticed, are drafted in broad enabling terms so as to allow detailed decisions on the associated assets to be taken locally by the new town corporations and the district council in accordance with the individual circumstances of the new town.

Clause 2 sets out the circumstances and procedures for consultations about the possibility of transfer in the case of any particular town. Once 15 years have passed from the designation of a new town, if the Secretary of State does not himself initiate consultations, then either the new town corporation or the district council concerned locally may themselves do so. And if after such consultations the Secretary of State decides not to direct the preparation of a transfer scheme, then Clause 8 of the Bill ensures that the situation is kept under regular review. Either of the authorities concerned locally may at three yearly intervals request renewed consultations to take place.

Clause 2 provides for other conditions than the 15-year one when consultations may be initiated about the possibility of transfer. However the 15-year point would normally be at about the time when we envisage the parties concerned beginning to think about transfer. The 15-year point would enable consultations to begin in the Commission for the New Towns and the first generation towns. Consultations about transfer before the 15-year condition is satisfied can only be initiated by the Secretary of State and then only after consultation with the new town corporation of the town concerned.

Clause 3 deals with the contents of the transfer schemes which the Secretary of State may, if satisfactory consultations have been concluded, direct the corporation and council to make. The schemes must give the details of the dwellings and of other property to be transferred, of the arrangements made for the retention of tenancy nomination rights by the new town corporation, of the financial arrangements between the parties to the scheme and last, but by no means least, information about the arrangements for staff.

My Lords, transfer schemes will usually contain a provision for the management by the district council of some of the corporation dwellings which are not being transferred by the scheme. This is an important provision because in most cases the new town corporations will be left with a small residual housebuilding programme to complete after the actual transfer. By using the interim device of management arrangements, cross-subsidisation of rents across the whole rented housing stock can be ensured; without such arrangements the corporation would have to charge very high rents for their new houses since they would no longer be able to " cushion " them with those of the older housing transferred to the district council.

We have provided under Clause 4 for the county councils to be informed about the contents of transfer schemes because they may have an interest in some of the housing related assets which arc eligible for transfer. I may say that the introduction of this provision at the Report stage in another place was welcomed by the Party opposite whose own Amendment in the Standing Committee to achieve a similar purpose was withdrawn after discussion.

Clause 5 sets out the procedure to he followed in preparing, submitting and approving transfer schemes, and Clause 6 ensures that once a scheme is approved by the Secretary of State and comes into operation the scheme itself is sufficient to give the district council good title to the property being transferred. Individual conveyancing of the property is not, therefore, required. Clause 6 also specifies the procedures and circumstances for varying schemes and defines the extent of the district council's powers over property which it manages but does not own. The usual arrangements for public deposit of the relevant parts of schemes are also made under this clause.

I have already mentioned that transfer schemes will include details of tenancy nomination rights to be retained by corporations. Clause 7 specifies the period over which they are to be secured. Transitional nomination rights are essential if the satisfactory completion of the development of the new towns is not to be jeopardised. It is important, for example, to ensure that the key workers needed by firms in new towns can be housed; that the needs of " exporting " local authorities and, increasingly of the disadvantaged, continue to be taken into account. Our intention is, therefore, that active development corporations should exercise tenancy nomination rights until they are wound up, and thereafter the Commission for the New Towns should be able to exercise them for a period of up to five years.

One of the most important aspects of the transfer of housing is the financial basis to be adopted. It has been generally agreed that the appropriate terms are outstanding loan debt as proposed by the Government, and the rather complex Clause 9 provides for this as well as for the payment of Exchequer housing subsidies to the district council instead of to the new town corporation after transfer. Here I should mention that we are considering proposals which have been put to us which might simplify the arrangements for payments by the district council under Clause 9(2), and if these are adopted the Government may wish to propose Amendments to Clause 9 in Committee. There is also provision, in Clause 10, for my right honourable friend, with the consent of the Treasury, to pay a transitional grant to district councils where he considers that the transfer would impose a financial burden which could otherwise only be met by excessive increases in rents or rates.

The Government have accepted from the outset that it is important that the occupiers of houses and other properties affected should be kept informed both at the time of preparation of a scheme and when it is approved. The Bill has been strengthened in this respect since its introduction in another place, again as a result of arguments put forward by the Party opposite, to provide for public advertisement of the existence of a transfer scheme.

My Lords, I said earlier that the Bill is an enabling measure depending in large part on the co-operation and agreement of the parties concerned locally. We must have faith that the necessary good will and co-operation will be forthcoming, but, of course, there may be disputes and Clause 12 provides the Secretary of State with the necessary power to resolve them.

We attach the greatest importance to safeguarding the interests of staff involved in the transfer process. This is why Clause 14 of the Bill establishes the New Towns Staff Commission. Indeed, as noble Lords may know, an Advisory Committee has already been appointed under the chairmanship of Sir Richard Hayward. My noble friend Lady Fisher and Mr. Philip Vine are the other members. The Advisory Committee will be established as the New Towns Staff Commission if this Bill is given the Royal Assent. The Staff Commission's role will be to advise the Secretary of State on the arrangements and regulations needed for the protection of staff—on, for example, such matters as staff recruitment procedures during the transfer period.

We are considering strengthening the provisions of the staff protection clauses still further by bringing forward an Amendment in Committee to enable the Secretary of State to issue directions to the parties preparing a transfer scheme requiring them to implement the advice given by the New Towns Staff Commission, although we have still to settle the precise details. Staff protection regulations will be made under Clause 13 of the Bill which also provides for compensation regulations to be made under Section 24 of the Superannuation Act 1972. Compensation rules will be based on the tried and tested principles which are now accepted practice for public sector reorganisations. Noble Lords may be familiar with the " Crombie Code " for compensation. It is this code which will be followed for staff to be compensated as a result of housing transfers.

It is not enough to pay lip service to the importance of safeguarding the interests of the staff involved in the transfer process. Actions will speak louder than words and, although some redundancies may be inevitable, we will expect the parties to a scheme, perhaps working through some kind of joint committee, to ensure that the problems of individuals are minimised and are handled with great care. As my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State said in another place, our objective must be to restrict redundancies in development corporations to the minimum, and in this local government generally could have a part to play in addition to the more detailed provisions which will operate between parties to a transfer scheme.

Clause 15 permits an increase in the maximum number of members which my honourable friend may appoint to the boards of development corporations. At present the maximum is seven, excluding the chairman and deputy chairman. We seek to increase this figure from seven to 11. There is no doubt that our horizons have greatly widened since the 1946 Act set the limit on the number of members. Then, we were thinking of new towns with population targets of up to 60,000, but in our second and third generation towns we are planning for ultimate populations way beyond even the revised targets for the first generation towns. Milton Keynes, for example, is planning towards an ultimate target of 250,000 population, Telford to 220,000 and Central Lancashire New Town to 400,000. The changing scale of new town development in itself should lead us to look critically at provisions dating from 1946.

The Government take the view that in a few cases the present limitation frustrates a sensible balance between the need for a variety of professional expertise and the need to increase the number of members who are also elected members of local authorities. In looking at the choice of the new maximum of 11 members excluding the chairman and deputy chairman, we might particularly bear in mind the Central Lancashire New Town; not only the ultimate size of the new town but also the fact that there are four local authorities vitally concerned with its successful development. There are three district councils which, as the local planning and housing authorities and the providers of a number of environmental services, clearly need to be associated with the work of the corporation. But, as in all new towns, the role of the county council, particularly having regard to the distribution of local government functions under the Local Government Act 1972, is also important. It is an interesting fact that, even with the present membership limits, my right honourable friend has increased the numbers of elected members of county councils serving on development corporation boards by 50 per cent. since he became responsible for these appointments in March 1974.

My Lords, I am sure that we will have an interesting and constructive debate on this Bill. As I said earlier, I do not think that there is any difference between us on the principle of transfer of new town housing assets. There was a clear difference of view between the Government and the Opposition in another place as to whether the orderly transfer of houses by means of a very detailed transfer scheme should be interrupted by the exercise of a statutory right for tenants of new town rented dwellings to buy their houses. But my right honourable friend explained in another place that he will be meeting the new town chairmen on 12th July to consider how the decision whether to sell rented housing in certain new towns should be reached in accordance with, and with proper regard for, certain social conditions which will vary from town to town. I am sure that in this House we will have regard to the endorsement of the Government's views in another place and will recognise the importance of involving the democratically elected local authority in decisions relating to the sale of rented dwellings, particularly in those towns which are substantially completed and where transfer is imminent. My Lords, I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be read 2a.—(Baroness Stedman.)

6.55 p.m.

Baroness YOUNG

My Lords, I wish at the outset to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, for introducing the Bill and for so clearly explaining its purpose. It is, as she said, not a particularly long Bill but it is very important. I am delighted that she personally should be moving it because she has had experience in a new town, and I am grateful for her kind remarks about myself. Indeed, I would not quarrel with any of the main provisions of the Bill, nor indeed with its main purpose, namely, the transfer of the stock of housing and related assets from new town development corporations and from the Commission for New Towns to the appropriate district councils.

These proposals are based on the Consultation Document of 1975. As there are 23 new towns in England and Wales, we are today discussing not only places where a great number of people live and work, but places which have come to play an important role in the life of our country. I particularly welcome the general principle, as I have always been a firm believer in local democracy which works through the representative institutions of local government. Although I am aware that local government has not an altogether unblemished record in housing matters, nevertheless, like democracy itself, it is better than any of the alternatives. It is, I believe, right that all tenants in new towns should have the same right of access to a local councillor who represents them. I believe that the chances of confusion in the minds of the public are lessened if there is only one authority responsible for housing and one which is therefore intelligible to the public. Furthermore, if people are dissatisfied with their council, they know that they can choose another one at the time of an election.

That said, there are a number of general points that I wish to make about the Bill. The first concerns the future of new town development. It is easy to appreciate the reasons behind new towns—the need to rehouse at the end of the war large numbers of people, the need to find places for new industry and to find the key workers to work in those industries. I am one who sees new towns as a very interesting development in the whole history of cities and urban development in the country today. However, at the same time it is reasonable to question whether the reasons that made us embark on new towns are as valid today as they were originally, for surely the problem of major towns today is the decline of the city population, and one need only look at London to see what is happening in the inner boroughs, and look at the long delay on the development of, for example, the docklands area, to see that perhaps there is a lesson here for us all.

The noble Baroness referred to the huge development in Central Lancashire, and I wonder whether its projected size is., in fact, too large. Is not the real problem of Lancashire the decline of the big cities of Manchester and Liverpool, and would not the money which is to be spent on the new towns perhaps be better spent revitalising those old towns? These are questions which need to be asked at a time of great demographic changes, the startling decline in the birthrate and the great increase in the numbers of elderly persons.

I turn to more detailed matters. The Bill proposes that all housing should be transferred to local authorities and I was very pleased to hear the noble Baroness say that the Government have considered more flexible arrangements than simply transferring all the houses to a local authority and that they are prepared to consider both housing associations and tenants associations. It is, after all, not so long ago since we in this House had a major debate on the family, and one of the most important points to emerge was the need to help young families and grandparents keep together.

It seemed to me that, in the course of these transfer arrangements, it might be possible to bring in housing associations particularly interested in the elderly and so help to keep families together and in a positive way to promote family life, for there are very many difficulties confronting young couples with children in new towns where there are relatively few older people. There is therefore every argument for enabling grandparents to be near at hand. I fully appreciate that transferring all the housing stock to the local authority may indeed help this situation, for I believe it to be true that there have been cases where the development corporation has had a surplus of houses on its waiting list while the local authority has had a long waiting list and has had to build houses. A rationalisation of the management of the two groups of houses ought not only to help young couples on the waiting list but enable the local authority to help the extended family remain together. Nevertheless, I hope that my positive suggestion on what I believe to be the very important issue of the right balance of the population in new towns will be considered.

That brings me to my main point about which we on this side of the House feel very strongly; namely, the right of tenants in new towns to own their own houses. I was very pleased to hear what the noble Baroness had to say on this matter because we have been round this course many times before. I was glad to detect a softening of the Government's attitude to this matter. It was the Conservative Government, in their new town circular in 1970, which gave new town development corporations powers to offer for sale virtually all rented homes at 20 per cent. below current market value and with vacant possession. As a result, a great many houses were ere sold—2,700 in 1971, 15,500 in 1972 and 7,200 in 1973. But, in September 1974, the noble Baroness's right honourable friend, Mr. Silkin, banned the sale of such houses by development corporations. However, I believe that he has now said that he will reconsider that decision and I was very pleased to hear from the noble Baroness that a meeting is to be held on this matter in July. lf, in the course of the meeting, either she or her right honourable friend should need further argument as to why they should consider making it possible for all new town rented houses to be sold to the sitting tenant, I refer her to the report in today's Times of a report from the Southwark Community Development Project. No doubt she has seen it, but it seems worth quoting part of it. It says:

Although most council tenants would like to own their own homes, few are interested in buying a typical council flat ". Of course, that does not apply to new towns, but the article goes on to say that it has frequently been pointed out that, while new houses with gardens on suburban estates or in new towns are wanted by buyers, it is difficult to attract ready buyers for flats in inner city areas.

The main reason for preferring home ownership was found to be a desire for a house with a garden. Other reasons given were, in order: a wider choice of where to live; control of one's own home without tenancy conditions, absolute security of tenure, the likely increase in the value of the property; and, finally, income tax relief on mortgage interest ". I believe that no one could have put the case for owning one's home better and it seems to me that, coming from this development project in Southwark, it may encourage the Government to take the plunge and allow all tenants to buy their own house if they wish. I believe that, in a democracy it is the job of the Government to enable people to do the kind of things they would like to do, provided that they are not breaking the law or seriously affecting other people.

I hope, too, that consideration will be given to the sale of shops, where practicable. I recognise that, in many instances, a shop will have a flat above it and that the owner of the shop may not live in the flat. Nevertheless, I believe that, where it is practicable, it would be desirable to sell the shop and also pubs and other small assets of this nature to the owners.

Turning to the matter of finance, I realise that this is a complicated field in which the interests of the taxpayer as well as those of the ratepayer must be considered and that, in trying to do so, there are really two conflicting interests. Nevertheless, I believe that local authorities are right to ask whether they will be worse off financially under this Bill. Some authorities—notably those which will have transferred to them the houses from the four New Town commissions—will inherit houses built cheaply and at a low interest rate. Other authorities will not be so fortunate for they will have transferred to them recently built houses which are more expensive and which carry a much higher rate of interest. As the whole object of a new town has been to build houses far more rapidly than any local authority could do, they have frequently incurred an enormous burden of debt. It would be wrong that that situation should be transferred to the ratepayers and the fact is that the rate burden might be considerably more than a district council would expect to make as a contribution to housing from the rates.

I should like to conclude with two smaller points. The first is to say how very glad I was that at Report stage in another place the Government accepted my honourable friend's Amendment on consultation with county councils and other interested bodies. I am sure that this will make the transfer arrangements work more smoothly because, clearly, there are a number of interlocked problems on infrastructure and matters like education and the social services which will need to be considered. I am sure that this will benefit everybody.

On the other hand, I was disappointed that the Government were not prepared to accept my right honourable friend's Amendment on Clause 15. It seems strange, at any rate to me, that, at a time when the responsibilities of development corporations are being diminished, the numbers on the board should be increased. I realise that this is only a permissive power and that there is no need for there to be 11 members of the board. Nevertheless, it is a rather expensive 11. I looked up the salaries which these positions carry and, at a time when we are trying to cut down on Government expenditure, I should have thought that this would be difficult to justify. In the case of the new town being developed in Central Lancashire, I believe that the point about local authority representation could be met within nine rather than 11 members. This is a relatively small point, but I find it difficult to justify to the public increasing the numbers nominated to boards at a time when the responsibilities are being diminished. I hope that I have said enought to indicate that we on this side of the House fully support the principle behind the Bill but that we believe that there are a number of matters to which we shall want to return at a later stage because, although we support the principle, we feel that there is room for improvement.

7.8 p.m.


My Lords, I shall make a brief intervention at this stage for I have found that Ministers prefer to have some idea of Amendments that may be moved at a later stage of a Bill. I shall not discuss the principle of the new towns though I have had the pleasure, as have many of your Lordships, of working in them. However, I am chairman of a small sub-committee of the Snowden Working Party on the integration into society of the disabled. I should like particularly to say that I shall be moving an Amendment in relation to housing for the disabled.

This is a sector which the Government had under their direct control as regards the new towns. It is sad that they have fallen badly behind in the provisions for the disabled. In Hansard of 14th April, col. 575, the Minister gave the figures for housing proposals, for starts and completions by the end of 1975, of new towns and local authorities. On 24th May, he gave the new town figures separately, and, of 1,177 completions of wheelchair housing up to the end of 1975, by local authorities and new towns, only 53 had taken place in new towns—12 in Basildon, 33 in Stevenage and 8 in Washington. One wonders whether this is the price paid for relying on a Departmental directive rather than Parliamentary legislation.

My purpose in moving the Amendment will be to make it clear that the requirement for new towns to provide sufficient accommodation for disabled groups is at least as good as in the case of local authorities. The Amendment will deal with the two types of special housing. These types have been spelt out many times as a concept of the wheelchair housing and the mobility housing. These have all been explained in many occasional papers, and so I need not go over them now. The distinction is important, and the Department includes it in its request for annual returns from local authorities; so it has accepted the distinction. I hope that the Amendment will require the Secretary of State to consult various local authorities and determine the proportions of housing for disabled people.

I hope that the Secretary of State will give an annual report to Parliament of the proposals, the starts and the completions. The past requirement to find employment before obtaining a house in a new town—which, happily, has now disappeared—has discriminated against disabled people. Indeed, it is always much more difficult for disabled individuals, or families with disabled members, to move from one place to another. They need more support in everything that is involved in moving into a new town.

We are also to suggest that the Secretary of State be required to list the number of dwellings that are proposed, started and completed each year for disabled persons. It has been suggested that I should do this by reference to another Act; but I always feel that to be a bad method of legislation, and so I shall now turn my attention to some way in which I can latch this new clause on to the Bill. While its terms do not immediately commend themselves to me, I feel certain that whatever I say the Government will respond by saying that it is a badly drafted clause; so I might as well put one down and hope for the best.

7.12 p.m.


My Lords, I should like very briefly to support what my noble friend Baroness Young said about the Bill this evening. My main concern is that these new towns should contain a complete cross-section of society; a cross-section in age group as well as in everything else. I am delighted to hear that housing associations and tenants' associations will be welcome. The noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, has just spoken about one section of our society, the disabled. There are many others who need housing but cannot afford it, and it might well not come within the prerogative of the local authority to provide housing for certain sections of the community. Therefore I am delighted to learn that housing associations w ill play a part in the new towns and in their development.

My second reason for this brief intervention is concerned with the family. I cannot emphasise enough the fact that in every new town there should be the three-tier family who should own their own house, or at least be able to do so. Again, I am delighted to hear from the Government that they will be willing to let people of any age group buy their own houses. In several suburban areas the problem has been that families have been split up, and now the third tier—in other words, the older generation—is left behind in suburbia and the younger people are moving out to the new towns. So there is a complete lack of family togetherness, and people are separated from one another far more than they should be.

I am very pleased to hear that at all levels the local authorities will be able to let people buy their own homes. We all know that the majority of those who are concerned in this matter are the younger people. Some of us in this House, when we were young, wanted to move to a place where we could work, settle down, bring up our families and own our own homes; and that should be the hope of all the people in the new towns. I hope that the Government will, through the Bill, encourage people to own their own homes.

7.15 p.m.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, this has been a very short discussion but a very interesting one, and I welcome the points which have been raised. I shall do my best to deal with those which concern the philosophy and the principles of the Bill, and I shall deal in so far as I can with those concerned with individual towns. Other points have been made which perhaps are more appropriate for dealing with in more detail at Committee stage, and with your Lordships' agreement I shall not go into those points in any detail now. I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Phillips for the notice she has given of her Amendment, and I suggest to her that we might meet between now and the Committee stage and perhaps between us we can overcome the drafting problems which we seem to have in this House from time to time, and so make sure that her point can be included within the terms of the Bill.

The noble Baroness, Lady Young, made several very cogent points on the question of the Central Lancashire town, which is the town which is only just beginning. In terms of this Bill we are talking in terms of towns nearing completion and which are almost ready for being handed over to the local authorities. The Central Lancashire town is a completely new one and one which we are having to look at. I must confess that this is the new town which gave us the most cause for suggesting that we should have the increased number of board members. I can assure the noble Baroness, Lady Young, that I and my fellow Ministers, serving the whole gamut of local government, are extremely conscious of the cost restrictions these days and the stringencies which are being urged on local authorities. I am quite sure that my right honourable friend will not be making appointments to all the boards up to the total number, if the number is agreed at 11. But I am sure that he will use his very wide fund of common sense to see that where it is necessary to have adequate local representation on the boards, the numbers will be increased where they can be contained within the same number, or slightly less than the proposed number. I am quite sure that we shall have no problems about that.

The problems of Central Lancashire arise particularly because it covers such a wide area and so many authorities. But I hope that the noble Baroness will accept that in the Department we are extremely cost conscious, and we shall certainly not be appointing merely for the sake of appointing.

The point was also raised about the flow of migrants from London to the new and expanding towns. The flow from London into the new and the expanding towns is less than 10 per cent. of the total out-migration in London. 1 must confess that that figure rather staggered me when it was given to me. The interim report on the strategic plan for the South-East shows that the manufacturing firms which have moved out of London accounted for only 27 per cent. of the total decline in the manufacturing employment in London between 1966 and 1974. This included only 7 per cent. who went to the London overspill towns. The largest single component in the loss of manufacturing employment was the closure of firms which did not open up anywhere else. We arc very conscious of the problems which we could leave behind within cities such as London where the numbers are being taken out.

On the question of the sales of rented houses, I should like to deal first with the sales to sitting tenants of rented houses in new towns, which has already been lengthily and somewhat exhaustively discussed during each stage of the passage of the Bill in another place. My right honourable friend has made it clear on several occasions that the Government are not against the concept of increased owner occupation. We accept that it is the very natural desire of many people to own their own homes, and the sale of rented housing to new town corporation tenants may bring that desire within the reach of a substantial group of people who could not afford to buy otherwise. But the first priority in public sector housing must be the needs of those who cannot afford to buy, and it was because those needs were clearly not being met that the ban on sales of rented housing in new towns was imposed in 1974.

As I mentioned earlier, the position is now improved, and my right honourable friend has already announced that it is possible to contemplate a selective resumption of sales in towns where it can be shown that the average waiting period for rented housing is no longer than, say, three months; and, as I said, my right honourable friend is to meet the chairmen of the nevi' towns on the 12th July to discuss this and other current issues. We have made it clear that the resumption in any new town will depend on the supply and demand position in relation to rented housing, and it is the criteria and conditions for such sales which my right honourable friend will be discussing with new towns chairmen at the forthcoming meeting.

The Party opposite have suggested, though not necessarily tonight, that this Bill might be used to establish a statutory right for new town tenants to buy their houses. I should like to make it quite clear, my Lords, that we could not contemplate such a provision. In the first place, a statutory right to buy does not allow for a distinction between towns according to the rented housing situation. Secondly, in the situation where housing is to he transferred to the district council, it could pre-empt the decision of that council as to whether or not it wishes to sell. Thirdly, a statutory provision could be far too rigid because without further statutory provision it would not be possible for sales to be stopped if the rented housing situation deteriorated, or if there proved to be a particular need for more emphasis on rented housing in a particular town. The Government are convinced that the best way to deal with this subject is, as my right honourable friend intends, pragmatically, town by town, according to the balance of supply and demand. The new towns chairmen are clearly in an ideal position to advise us on the particular circumstances of their individual towns, and the next step must therefore be to hold the discussions which are now timed for the 12th July. I ask noble Lords to accept that this is the correct course of action, rather than to attempt to give a blanket statutory right to all new town tenants everywhere to purchase the houses which they rent.

The noble Baroness, Lady Macleod of Borve, raised the question of the needs of the disabled. This House always shows —very rightly, in my view—a very real concern about the needs and problems of the disabled, and I share the noble Baroness's desire to ensure that adequate provision is made in the new towns for them. So, while this is somewhat outside the scope of the present Bill, which is concerned with the transfer of housing from new town corporations to local authorities, I think it would be worth while to spend a few minutes on the role of the new towns as we see it in relation to the needs of, particularly, those who are physically handicapped.


My Lords, I wonder whether I could interrupt the noble Baroness. It was the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, who is on that particular committee, who raised this question. I had various other organisations in mind, but I left her to deal with the disabled. It was she who made the point, not me.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I beg the noble Baroness's pardon. The Government recognised in their Consultation Paper on new towns in England and Wales, which they issued in December 1974, that the existing priorities for housing in new towns, with a very high degree of emphasis on employment within the new town, might prevent our new towns from making the maximum contribution to alleviating the conditions in the inner city areas, and that paper proposed that new towns serving the cities should in the future provide a proportion of their houses for the disabled, for the single-parent families, for the older relatives of people already there and so on. Following this general approach, and in line with my right honourable friend's drive on housing for the disabled, the development corporations have already been advised that all new building schemes should contain adequate provision for the physically handicapped; and new tenancy allocation guidelines for the London new towns have placed handicapped people from London among the groups to be given the highest priority for housing. A special annex to the paper deals specifically with the housing needs of the disabled, and within the Department we are now proceeding on similar guidelines for the other new towns in England.

There have been suggestions that a statutory duty might be imposed on the new towns on the same lines as that imposed on local authorities, perhaps by using the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act. I can understand the reasons behind these suggestions which are coming up, but my right honourable friend has very wide powers in relation to the activities of development corporations—powers which are certainly wide enough to ensure that adequate housing and other provisions (and it is not just a question of housing for these less fortunate people) are made for those who are handicapped. We are aware of the problem and we are taking steps to meet it. What is more, we are going to be monitoring the outcome in each of our new towns, and I am sure that by this means we can secure our objective without resorting to unnecessary statutory provisions.

We have had a most interesting debate tonight, and I am grateful to those who have taken part in it. I have always been very proud of my association with one of the new towns; and our new towns, in the way we have created them, have attracted very wide international interest and admiration. The way in which we turn our new towns into normal towns will no doubt also be attracting interest, and I hope, as I am sure do all Members of this House, that at the end of the day the way in which we do it will also attract admiration.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.