§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ernest G. Perry.]
§ 4.10 p.m.
§ Mr. Christopher Mayhew (Woolwich, East)
I am glad to have this opportunity to draw attention to certain problems connected with Thamesmead. As the House knows, this is a major construction project amounting in effect to a new town, the bulk of which will fall in my constituency of Woolwich, East. Over 15 years, Thamesmead will provide for 17,000 dwellings and about 60,000 residents. The first occupants moved in a week or two ago and are delighted by their accommodation and their prospects. The whole project receives the strongest support from Londoners and is wholeheartedly backed by all parties on the Greater London Council and by the Greenwich Borough Council.
The project was master-minded by the Labour administration on the G.L.C. and is now being vigorously carried forward by the G.L.C. under its Conservative leadership, including the Thamesmead Committee under its chairman Councillor Seaton Forbes Cockell.
The project is of vast importance to Londoners. It offers London's major prospect for new housing in the years ahead, easily the biggest construction project of its kind in the County of London. I am glad to know—I need not raise this with the Minister—that now, after an uncertain start, applications are coming in from industrialists who wish to move to the 170 acres of land allocated for industrial purposes in Thamesmead. I understand that 11 firm applications have been received. Far more are needed, but it is not a bad start in all the circumstances. I only wish that the industrial development in Thamesmead could take place soon enough and on a large enough scale to make a contribution towards solving the problem created by the sudden closure of the great A.E.I, factory which formerly employed 5,500 workers.
My purpose this afternoon is to raise a decision of the Ministry relating to the amount of shopping area to be provided in Thamesmead. As a result of building new towns and expanded towns over 1935 many years, we have great experience of how much shopping area is required for a given population. The amount varies according to the different circumstances of a new town, an expanded town or a magnificent great project like Thamesmead, but in general it can be said that the proper allocation, the normal routine allocation, of shopping area for a place the size of Thamesmead would be about 350,000 sq. ft. Nevertheless, when the plan came to be made by the G.L.C., bearing in mind the proximity of Thamesmead to Woolwich and to Erith, much less than that was scheduled in the plans-only 200,000 sq. ft. for a shopping centre and 40,000 sq. ft. for neighbourhood shopping. This at the time was a controversial decision, only 200,000 sq. ft. I had worries as to whether it would be enough, but now the position is that the Minister has amended the plan and actually halved the proposed allocation, and now imposes a ceiling, to last until 1978 at least, of only 100,000 sq. ft. This is a strange decision.
I recall the building of a large G.L.C. housing estate just south of the Thamesmead site, at Eynsham. I remember that the G.L.C. provided insufficient shopping facilities, and my constituents in Eynsham were constantly coming to me and criticising, quite rightly, the lack of provision for shopping in the G.L.C. estate. Now it seems that the Ministry will insist on a similar mistake being made on a far greater and more serious scale in Thamesmead.
Why is this? It is an extraordinary story. Some years ago, when Erith was an urban district council, there was a danger, partly because of its geographical location, of it becoming a backwater and the shoppers going off to Bexley. Erith decided to build a grand new shopping centre covering 210,000 sq. ft, with the idea of attracting back its own shoppers from Bexley. The St. Martins Property Company was given the job of planning and progressing this development. Later, the urban district council disappeared, it was merged with Bexley, and the head of steam went out of the project, and there was a serious danger of this vast shopping centre becoming a white elephant.
Fortunately, the G.L.C. put forward its great project for Thamesmead, a project 1936 involving 60,000 residents with a spending power of £10.8 million, of which it is estimated that £5 million will go to Woolwich and Erith. No matter how many shops Thamesmead had, the establishment of Thamesmead would still be a gain to the traders of Erith. There would still be more Thamesmead shoppers going to Erith than Erith shoppers going to Thamesmead. Nevertheless, obviously, the fewer shops there are in Thamesmead the greater the gain to Erith and the greater possibility of salvaging the Erith scheme. The Bexley Council began to exert strong pressure to deprive future Thamesmead citizens of their proper allocation of shopping facilities. What is surprising is that the Minister should have yielded and should have amended the plan to the ceiling of 100,000 sq. ft. only by 1978. That is two-thirds of the shopping area of Selfridge's store in Oxford Street, and that is for the whole of Thamesmead.
By 1978 there will already be 40,000 residents in Thamesmead. There will be too few shops for them, the shops will be too crowded and the matter has now been made uncertain by the Ministry. What happens after 1978? The Minister may say there should be more shops. How do we know? How does the developer know that he will be allowed to develop after 1978, and of course the big people want to go there with the prospect of expansion if they are sucessful. But the Minister has deprived them of this prospect of expansion.
§ Mr. James Wellbeloved (Erith and Crayford)
I hestitate to interrupt my hon. Friend, but he has used the word "deprived". I take it that he is aware that there was a three-week public inquiry into this scheme at which Greater London Council took the opportunity to present its case, and the Minister's proposed modifications are based on the outcome of that inquiry.
§ Mr. Mayhew
Certainly there was a public inquiry and, if the Minister does not alter his decision, there will be another, and I hope, as a result, this unfortunate decision will be reversed. But the effect is to deprive Thamesmead of its shopping, and that is what worries me.
However, I must be careful not to become entangled with my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved), and I must not encroach on 1937 his responsibilities. I am speaking, I hope, as the future hon. Member for Thamesmead.
§ Mr. Mayhew
Part of it, yes, and that is why I am speaking today.
If the Minister's plan is persisted in and survives a public inquiry, it will mean that the 60,000 inhabitants of Thamesmead get 100,000 sq. ft. of shopping space, and the 70,000 inhabitants of Erith get 210,000 sq. ft.
We should not try to solve this problem of the Erith shopping centre at the expense of Thamesmead. I do not want to say harsh things about Bexley. The inhabitants of Bexley are our neighbours and friends, but I feel obliged to say on (he subject of Thamesmead that I think that the Conservative leadership in Bexley has shewn itself to be extremely narrow-minded and short-sighted.
If Thamesmead people want to shop in Erith, that is well and good. But it would be monstrous to coerce them into doing so by depriving them of proper shopping facilities of their own. That would create strong and well-justified resentment in Thamesmead against Bexley Council which I know that Bexley people do not want. What is more, it is distressing to see some Conservatives in Bexley broadening an attack on Thamesmead's shopping facilities into an attack on the project itself. I have seen it described as a juggernaut. I have seen accusations about extravagant council house building. I implore them to cease their campaign of sniping and obstruction and co-operate with the overwhelming majority of local people, Tory, Labour, Liberal and non-party, who understand London's housing needs and want Thamesmead to succeed.
I hope that the Minister will reconsider this. I understand that his mind is not closed, and this is evidenced by the fact that he has invited discussions from G.L.C. officials with his own officials. In any case, if he persists in this decision, there will be a public inquiry, and I think that none of those who have the welfare of Thamesmead at heart intend to let the matter rest.
There is a second worry which I wish to put to the Minister. There is the delay in his approval of the next 1938 stage of house building. A formal submission for the next stage involving 1,600 houses was made in January. There have been endless meetings since, but there has been no answer from the Ministry. I should like to ask why everything so far has been delay. The carefully phased construction plan has had to be put back because the Minister has not given his approval.
London's housing problem is an urgent one. Thamesmead is London's great opportunity to make an inroad into its housing lists, yet, instead of spurring on the G.L.C, the Ministry is holding it back. I should like to know the reason.
I would point out to the Minister that we have now a large industrial building factory in full operation. If it cannot erect the houses because the Ministry's Approval continues to be delayed, a serious crisis could arise in the whole construction plan.
A final problem which worries the supporters of Thamesmead is that the whole scheme was planned round the provision of a tunnel underneath the Thames. Now strong suggestions are being made that it would be cheaper and therefore better to build a bridge instead of a tunnel. The bridge would disrupt the whole Thamesmead plan. It would take hundreds of acres of building land. It would cut the principal residential area in two. It would ruin the main park planned for Thamesmead, dividing it in two, and it would overshadow hundreds of houses. It would create a noise nuisance for thousands of residents and it would seriously spoil the entire appearance of Thamesmead. If the Government were to use their financial powers to insist on a change from a tunnel to a bridge at this stage, it would be an outrageous act of bureaucracy and Philistinism.
§ Mr. Mayhew
I am glad to have my hon. Friend's support.
I urge the Government to remember that we are here building for future generations, for people whose aspirations and living standards will be far above those of today. Let us therefore build a town at Thamesmead of which not only this generation but future generations may be proud.
§ 4.26 p.m.
§ The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. James MacColl)
I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew) has taken this opportunity of drawing attention to some of the problems and some of the great potentialities which lie in Thamesmead. As everybody agrees, it is a remarkable undertaking for which everyone will wish the best possible future. I was glad to hear my hon. Friend record that the first people are now moving into the first stage of housing, that they are enjoying it and that the project is off to a good start. I shall therefore not waste the time of the House by saying anything about the points of agreement. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that in general my right hon. Friend is anxious to see Thamesmead go on and wishes it well and wants to do all he can to help.
I shall direct my attention to the three matters on which there are differences of opinion, and the first of these is the shopping area. It is perfectly true that after a long and exhaustive inquiry—and this is the democratic method of sorting out these disputes—into the proposal to amend the development plan, the inspector made recommendations and the decision letter proposed to limit the shopping centre to 100,000 instead of 200,000 sq. ft. My hon. Friend's argument was impeccable up to that point. However, he rather glossed over another important matter when he said that there was no certainty about what would happen in 1978, but that what it amounted to was that the amount of land for the shopping centre was to be halved.
The point is that our proposal is not that the overall area should be halved, but only that in the immediate development we should start with a smaller area and go on with the larger area after 1978. It would be wrong for the House to get the impression, as my hon. Friend rather graphically implied, that this was all the shopping area which there was to be for this great population. We are talking about the shopping centre and there is no reason why neighbourhood shopping should not go on, the little shop at the corner, and all the other essential provisions which the Greater London Council, with its great experience 1940 in council house development, will ensure. That is not affected by the proposal for the provision of shopping areas to meet the immediate needs of the population. What is under argument is the rate of development of the shopping centre.
It is true that this is our present view and that it is up to others to put forward counter proposals, all to be thrashed out, if necessary, at a public inquiry. No final decision has been taken. There are two reasons why one has to think about this matter rather carefully, and one of them is the trend in other areas, such as Erith. It is not enough just to say, "Erith got themselves a white elephant, so let them go on with it—we will grab all the shopping." It will not work like that. With wise planning, we have tried to control shopping. Otherwise, one gets lack of development and lack of investing capital because each neutralises the other. One therefore has to look at the total position.
I do not think that it at all follows that because the Erith development has not gone with the momentum that was hoped for, it is due to incompetence; that, perhaps to mix my metaphors, Erith somehow got sold a pup. What has happened is that there has been generally in London and in the rest of the country a change in outlook on the commercial prospects of town centre development. There was a halcyon period of tremendous development, with developers going round anxious to get almost any site that they could develop. Now, the draught is being felt and there is much less certainty that these schemes will not cut into each other. It is, therefore, good economics, good finance and good planning to be cautious, and to watch the rate at which one gets development. That is why we are sounding this note of caution about the proposals, but we have not said in our decision letter that we want to cut down completely.
§ Mr. Wellbeloved
I am rather worried lest my hon. Friend may inadvertently have given the impression that something was not quite right with the Erith town centre development. I would remind him that the Erith town centre development is itself unique, with the local authorities and the developer working together and the ratepayers sharing any surplus from the equity.
1941 Would my hon. Friend also bear in mind that the present council of the London Borough of Bexley fully continues the policy pursued by the previous council of supporting wholeheartedly the Minister's modifications at Thamesmead?
§ Mr. MacColl
I am sorry. I thought that I was supporting Erith and Crayford in saying that it was not its fault, but now I am being scolded for having apparently suggested that it was not a well planned scheme. I was not implying that. I was only implying that the economic climate has changed and that we have to condition ourselves to it. If the ratepayers may have a share in the equity we should watch all the more carefully to see that there is not a tug of war with nothing happening because all the resources are being utilised. We want to ensure that there is adequate shopping available where it is needed at the rate at which the population requires it.
I want to explain the position in respect of stage 2 housing. Stage I has been approved, and people are already moving in. That is so because that stage was designed and the whole layout done before any question of applying the cost yardstick arose. That is commonly agreed, and that stage has gone through. Similarly, there is common agreement that stage 3 and further stages should come under the normal tests of the cost yardstick.
Stage 2 is in a sort of no-man's-land where the rigidity of the cost yardstick does not apply, but it is still very necessary that my right hon. Friend should give careful scrutiny to the cost—not just to apply the yardstick in a sort of routine and blind way but in the general public interest, both from the point of view of the amount of subsidy involved and the total of the very limited amount of capital available for house building in the public sector, and making quite certain that all possible safeguards are being observed and that costs are being kept down.
To some extent it is true that there have been endless meetings and journeyings between the Greater London Council and my Department. We have not lost this proposal, or stuck it in a pigeon hole just to annoy my hon. Friend. Ever 1942 since the proposal first came in we have had a vigorous exchange of ideas about it and my right hon. Friend is hoping to be able to come to a conclusion about it quickly. But it would not help for a quick decision if I went into detail and explained some of the points at issue. The problem arises not over our desire to be difficult but because of our overwhelming responsibility to see that public money is spent wisely. In these days, above all, the public sector has to be kept carefully under financial control. We cannot afford to waste money doing something which will not provide full value for the expenditure of our resources.
I appreciate my hon. Friend's point about the factory for industrialised buildings. We shall watch this carefully and make certain that we phase it in in such a way that it is fully occupied. We have a responsibility for maintaining the momentum.
As for the crossing of the river, the tunnel is much more expensive than the bridge. I gather that that is a hard fact. The Greater London Council— whose responsibility this is—is looking carefully into the problem of what is in the public interest and what it would be best to provide. In the last three days information has come in from the Greater London Council, which is providing us with particulars which will enable us, together with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport and the Council itself, to come to a decision. We all want something which is economical and, at the same time, worthy of Thames-mead.
§ Mr. Mayhew
Will my hon. Friend take a personal interest in this tunnel and bridge decision? I know that he has considerable interest in subjects of amenity as well as all the other factors that go into this decision.
§ Mr. MacColl
I assure my hon. Friend that as a general busybody I take a personal interest in these matters. I am aware of what is going on. My right hon. Friend is also aware of the point and will be discussing it with the Minister of Transport. It is a question of finding what is the best form of crossing.
I hope that I shall not sound complacent and pompous if I say that 1943 Thamesmead is a wonderful scheme, tremendously worth having, but that it will not benefit all the people living there, it will not benefit the people who have to pay rents and rates, it will not benefit my hon. Friend's future constituents, if it is extravagantly planned, without adequate scrutiny of the implications of all 1944 that is being done. Everybody in the partnership must treat it realistically and make certain that we get good value for money.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes to Five o'clock.