HC Deb 08 August 1980 vol 990 cc1039-47

1 pm

Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South)

The saga of the redevelopment of Ilford town centre began soon after the war, when it was realised that a strategic shopping centre and a major traffic route on the line of the London-Colchester Roman road were incompatible.

The first reaction was to widen the road and make it into a dual carriageway, but it was soon realised that that would be environmentally unacceptable, so alternative schemes were considered. In 1961 plans for a relief road were prepared. They were approved by the Ilford borough council six months later but were rejected by the Essex county council, which requested a more extensive proposal.

In March 1963 a comprehensive plan was prepared, and after two years' discussion it was referred to the then Ministry of Housing and Local Government in 1965, but it was withdrawn in 1967, after the formation of the new local authorities and the creation of the London borough of Redbridge. In November 1968 amended proposals were passed to the Ministry by the Greater London Council, and in 1970 a public inquiry was held into the amendments required to the initial development plans and the compulsory purchase order required for properties needed for the relief road.

In 1971 an adverse decision was given, which resulted in the setting up of a consultative body, on which representatives of many and various local interests were invited to serve, before a really wide public consultation exercise was held. The various possible solutions were evaluated, and three possibilities were subjected to detailed consideration. They comprised a north town centre route, a south town centre route and the possibility, again, of a road-widening proposal.

In the summer of 1977 the GLC agreed a new route, and it was put on public exhibition in February and March 1978, when 8,000 people visited the display and considered the benefits of a relief road that would enable the provision of a traffic-free shopping precinct with safer shopping and a more pleasant environment while providing a better traffic flow. Ninety per cent. of those who responded to the invitation to comment were in favour of the proposals. Modifications of the original scheme have been carried out in an effort to meet the 10 per cent. of objections, which included requests for more pedestrian crossings, increased car parking, more housing and more social facilities.

Naturally, over such a protracted period many properties have been blighted. Most of those residential properties have been purchased by agreement and demolished for car parking or landscaping or let on three-year leases, at peppercorn rents, to housing associations for short-life use.

The main proposals and objectives of the town centre scheme are broadly defined as being to provide a pedestrianised area in the High Road and to safeguard the opportunity for providing similar facilities in Cranbrook Road and safer movement generally; to provide an acceptable alternative route to the existing A118 for through traffic; to provide convenient bus routing and stopping places through the town centre; to provide adequate off-street parking facilities to meet the demands of the short-term parker and to restrain the demand for long-term parking; to provide convenient access to the town centre for service traffic; to minimise the effects of noise, fumes and visual intrusion on the town centre and adjoining areas; and to provide a full interchange connection between the High Road—A118—and the proposed South Woodford to Barking relief road.

It is quite intolerable that the interests of my constituents should be so badly affected by the inadequacies of the road system and the appalling shopping conditions. People run the risk of being pushed off the pavement and into the path of passing raffle during peak shopping periods. As a result, visitors are discouraged from coming to what should be one of London's strategic shopping centres. That, in turn, affects the level of employment and the contribution made by commercial ratepayers to reducing the level of rates which have to be paid by the domestic occupiers.

I understand that an official inquiry is to be carried out in October by an inspector from the Department of the Environment. It will be the culmination of many years of effort by all those concerned in the local authority, the GLC and the Department of the Environment. When a decision is reached as a result of the inquiry, will the Minister please ensure that it will be issued as soon as proper consideraton allows, and preferably before the end of this calendar year? I wish to ensure that my constituents know at an early date what action they can expect.

For a long time my constituents have been uncertain about the future. The situation has an effect not only on the properties that are required for part of the scheme but also on adjoining properties. Indeed, the adjoining properties are affected to a considerable extent by the dereliction and demolition of properties that have been acquired. In turn, that affects the value of all the other adjoining properties in the area. When the owners move, for reasons of their own—often not connected with the town centre scheme—they cannot find ready purchasers for their properties. That is a serious handicap, which they find intolerable.

Often, small business men, too, do not know what the future will hold. They feel inhibited about spending considerable sums of money on refurbishing their premises. Again, that has a deleterious effect on parts of the town centre. The present regulations, which enable blight notices to be served by those in residen- tial properties affected, do not apply equally to business users. They are, therefore, in a more serious position. If a business man wishes to extend and improve his property, his proposals are likely to be rejected at the planning stage, particularly if any major financial considerations are involved. His only alternative is to get the best price possible for the premises and to get out. That leads to a sad and declining situation for all concerned.

Vandalism tends to increase, and people who come to the vicinity then tend only to pass through it as quickly as possible. Squatters are often attracted to the area, and that has a generally bad effect. If the inquiry produces a successful result, I hope that the Government will be able to give their full backing to the execution of the scheme, in the interests of the local ratepayers and of local employment, which are both very important issues. The town centre provides considerable employment not only for my constituents but also for those from the surrounding area. Many people are employed in the offices and shops and in the other aspects of town centre life. Therefore, the scheme is important, because at present people are discouraged from carrying out any improvements. Moreover, the rejuvenation of an important part of London is likely to suffer seriously. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to use his powers in the best interests of my constituents.

1.11 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg)

I appreciate the concern which my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) has expressed, and I welcome the opportunity to assure him that matters relating to Ilford town centre redevelopment which come before the Department will be carried forward with all possible speed. I should, however, explain that, as my hon. Friend knows, the preparation and implementation of the action area plan which embodies the proposals is primarily the responsibility of the London borough of Redbridge as the local planning authority.

It is an important principle of the development plan system that local plans shall be decided in the main by local planning authorities themselves. The Secretary of State may make an objection to a local plan. He may make a direction halting progress on the plan if he considers that there has been insufficient opportunity for public participation, or, in exceptional circumstances, he may call in the plan. In the case of the Ilford town centre action area plan, the Secretary of State decided that none of these actions was justified, and there was, therefore, no delay in the process of the plan to adoption.

The following progress of the plan may be of help, if I explain it in a little more detail. The Greater London development plan, which the Secretary of State approved on 9 July 1976, identified the Ilford central area as an action area, and on 1 February 1978 the necessary direction by the Secretary of State that it should be treated as such was issued.

The draft Ilford town centre action area plan was approved in July 1978 by Redbridge borough council for the purposes of publication, and it was placed on deposit for public inspection from 18 September 1978. The Secretary of State was satisfied that the council had conducted a satisfactory exercise in public consultation and the Department did not object to the content of the plan.

A public local inquiry into objections to the plan was held between 24 April and 8 June 1979.

Following receipt of the inspector's report of the inquiry, the council decided on 14 November 1979 to modify the plan. The Department was satisfied that in the main the proposed modifications met the inspector's requirements and that there was no justification for the Secretary of State calling in the plan. The council decided to adopt it as modified on 17 April 1980. The next step is for the Department to revoke the initial development plan for Greater London in so far as it relates to the area of the adopted local plan for Ilford town centre action area. However, this matter may be affected by a challenge in the High Court to the adopted local plan.

The London borough of Redbridge, as local planning authority, and the GLC, as the highway authority for the southern relief road, which forms a major element in the local plan, have, however, made compulsory purchase orders, side road orders and road closure orders as a preliminary to implementing the plan. These will be for decision by my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Minister of Transport, and my hon. Friend will appreciate that I cannot therefore comment on the outcome.

A late problem has arisen as the London borough of Redbridge has now decided that the road proposals represent a substantial departure—within the terms of the Greater London direction 1978—from the initial development plan, which has not yet been revoked. The applications for planning permission which will provide the backing for the compulsory purchase orders have therefore been referred to the Secretary of State to give him an opportunity of deciding whether to call them in for his own decision or whether they may be left to the local planning authority to decide.

The Department is dealing with these urgently, and I am now able to say that I expect the inquiry to open on 7 October. I also assure my hon. Friend that I will do my utmost to see that the inspector's report is with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State not later than the end of January.

I realise that this very necessary redevelopment of a major shopping, business and social centre serving North-East London has been on the stocks for a very long time. I would not blame my hon. Friend if he used the words "a disgracefully long time". In fact, as he knows, various proposals have been put forward over the past 20 years.

The 1950s saw an increasing traffic problem in Ilford High Road and the need for a plan to overcome it. In a peak hour some 2,400 vehicles, including 200 buses, now make their way through the High Road, while during the day some of the borough's 231,000 residents and countless thousands from surrounding areas try to shop on crowded pavements or weave their way to get to work. In 1959, a developer proposed a partial redevelopment of the central area, including a new civic centre, but this was found to be impracticable.

In 1961 plans for a relief road to the High Road and Cranbrook Road were prepared and proposals for a new civic centre, a shopping precinct and car parking were given the go-ahead. These plans were approved in principle a year later and the area was considered to be ready for comprehensive redevelopment. But it was decided that a scheme should be prepared for redevelopment of the central area as a whole. In March 1963 a comprehensive scheme was put to the county council, and a year later the plan was forwaded to the Department.

At about the same time, Redbridge and the GLC came into being and the latter assumed responsibility for the proposals as an amendment to the Greater London initial development plan. Two years later the amendment put to the Ministry was withdrawn. In November 1968, amended proposals for the improvement of Ilford town centre, including the building of the partial ring road to relieve the traffic and other problems, were passed by the GLC to the then Minister of Housing and Local Government but were modified in 1969. In 1970, the two issues put to a public inquiry were the amendment to the initial development plan and the compulsory purchase order for the properties needed for the relief road to the south of the High Road. These were turned down in June 1971.

A town centre committee was immediately set up with a consultative body, on which representatives of many and various local interests were invited to serve, to reappraise the position and to submit new proposals, following wide public consultation. A number of solutions were examined, together with the serious traffic and environmental problems arising from the worsening situation and what would happen if it were allowed to continue.

Three schemes were selected for detailed appraisal and public comment early in 1973. One proposed a northern relief road, another a "closer-in" southern relief road, and the third used existing road alignments but with the traffic flow altered from two way to one way—this circulating in a clockwise direction around the town centre.

The northern relief road was decided upon and approved in principle by the GLC. But financial restrictions brought a halt to the design work at the beginning of 1976 as the then estimated cost of £23 million was considered unacceptably high for a town centre scheme. The three basic concepts, an interim traffic management scheme to give temporary and partial relief to traffic conditions and a scheme to widen the High Road put forward by the Ilford Town Centre Residents' Association were looked at in detail. The interim traffic management scheme was found to be impracticable on both traffic management and financial grounds. Detailed assessment of the other schemes brought forth the southern relief road as the preferred option.

In the summer of 1977, the GLC's north area planning committee agreed a new route for the diversion of Ilford High Road—a relief road to the south of the High Road. This road forms part of the action areas plan which Redbridge, the GLC and, I assure my hon. Friend, not least my Department are anxious to get under way.

I hope that my hon. Friend will appreciate that I fully understand the anxiety that he has rightly expressed on behalf of his constituents that the redevelopment of the Ilford town centre should proceed without further delay. He has quoted his local example, and I know what can happen to an area that is blighted by planning proposals. It can start to go down, shops become empty, the rate base begins to shrink, vandalism occurs—which makes it less desirable for people to shop there—more shops close and one gets a cancer at the heart of what was a thriving area.

I hope that I have been able to reassure my hon. Friend that we shall make as sure as possible that once the inspector's report is in the Department a swift answer will be forthcoming. Obviously, I cannot say what the answer will be, because the inquiry has not yet opened. One of our primary aims since we took offce has been to make reductions in the time taken to reach decisions on various inquiries. We have made substantial progress, and I hope that we shall be able to translate that general progress into the case that my hon. Friend has raised.

I shall ensure that the aspects of concern to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport are drawn to his attention. My Department will take on board the other issues, and I hope that the timetable that I have suggested will work satisfactorily and that a decision will be reached so that the blight on this important area of London, which is fortunate to have my hon. Friend as its representative, will be lifted.

Sitting suspended at 1.21 pm.

On resuming