HC Deb 15 July 1980 vol 988 cc1254-90 4.19 pm
Mr. Guy Barnett (Greenwich)

I beg to move amendment No. 190, in page 84, line 29, leave out clause 110.

When tabled on the policy of selling new town assets, Government spokesmen are apt to say in reply to almost any Opposition criticism that what they are doing is in accordance with their philosophy; or they will remark that there is a philosophical divide between the two sides of the House. The implication is that the Labour Party is against all sales of new town assets. The Government should be clear from the start that the Opposition are not opposed to the sale of new town assets per se. Nor are we against the investment of private capital in new towns.

In 1978–79, 22 per cent. of the new towns programme of industrial and commercial investment was privately financed. We expected that this figure would rise to about 50 per cent. in 1979–80. However, I believe that there is a divide between us about the Government's present policy on the sale of assets, and I shall return to that later in my speech. That policy is facilitated by this clause, and the amendment seeks to delete the whole clause, which is designed to facilitate the sale of new town industrial and commercial assets by corporations.

First, I want to examine the policy. The more that one looks at it the more one finds that it is a piece of financial lunacy. Secondly, it is of doubtful legality, as sales are occurring now. Thirdly, I shall attempt to show that it is highly damaging to the new towns. Lastly, it is ill-thought-out and, as a result, has become administratively confused.

I shall deal first with the financial aspect. Even if one believes that new town commercial and industrial assets should be sold, it is surely little short of madness to do so now. The property market is in a depressed state, and the current high cost of borrowing means that potential investors will only offer, and in many cases can only afford, low prices. The advice of property experts is not to sell now but to wait for at least two years, when the situation may have improved. I should have thought that this Government, with their hopes for their economic policy, would give precisely the same advice. However, they propose to sell off assets at relatively low prices. Experience in one or two new towns indicates that that is unwise.

The Minister for Local Government and Environmental Services attempted to reassure the Committee when we raised the wisdom of selling off assets in that way. He said: It is interesting that the sales which have been made have tended to be made above the valuations which have been put upon the properties."—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 29 April 1980; c. 618.] For a moment many of us were persuaded by that remark, but the more one thinks about it the odder one finds it.

Who put those valuations on the properties? Whoever made those valuations must have seriously underestimated the values. [Interruption.] I do not know why Government Members are laughing. Anyone who has any knowledge of the property market knows that the only way to be absolutely sure of the marketable value of a property is to put a sample on the market and see what it fetches. The Minister's remark in Committee is in no way reassuring. The valuation of the properties was almost certainly too low, even taking into account the depressed state of the market. Property values can be finally worked out only once the market has been tested.

The Minister tried to reassure us that the total value of the properties proposed to be sold was a relatively small part of the disposals. However, we should put the matter in context. It is the Government's policy to encourage the sale not only of assets held by new town development corporations but of surplus property held by local Authorities and public corporations, but of surplus property held by the local authorities and public corporations. The nounced the disposal of £00 million of industrial and Commercial assets. Only yesterday, the Minister of Transport told us that British Railways intend to dispose of hotels and other property. We are also told that Government Departments have been advised to look at the property that they hold with a view to disposing of that which they no longer require.

The Government may argue that they take good care to see that the properties are put on the market in a controlled way to ensure that the policy will not depress values to such a degree that the taxpayer gets a poor bargain. However, any confidence that I may have had in that hope was shaken by an article in The Guardian on 15 May, which read: Minister's unfinished office gamble. Mr. Michael Heseltine, the Environment Secretary, faces the prospect of losing up to £400,000 of taxpayers' money by putting up for sale an unfinished Government office block on Merseyside. I am told that the authority for that comes from Messrs. Debenham, Tewson and Chinnocks. That firm's spokesman is quoted in the same article as saying: We do not expect the Government to make a profit on the deal. In fact, if we received an offer for about £600,000—£400,000 below the cash spent—it would be seriously considered. If that sort of policy is being pursued by the Department of the Environment and the Property Services Agency, which is advising other Government Departments about the disposal of public assets, the House should be seriously concerned about approving a clause which will allow the Secretary of State to permit almost wholesale disposal of new town assets.

The second aspect of the sales policy that continues to disturb me, despite the Minister's assurances, is the doubtful legality of the sales taking place under present law. Section 18(1) of the New Towns Act 1965 states that new town development corporations may dispose of assets as they consider expedient for securing the development of the new town in accordance with proposals approved by the Minister … or for purposes connected with the development of the new town I do not believe that those conditions have been tested in the courts, but they throw considerable doubt on the legality of selling for purposes stated by a Department of the Environment spokesman, who was quoted in The Guardian on 26 March as saying that the Secretary of State asked the new town"— in this case, Stevenage— to undertake some further sales to reduce the public sector borrowing requirement and to reduce the role of the public sector in the new towns"— That cannot be said to be purposes connected with the development of the new town". My interpretation of those words suggests that the current sales are of doubtful legality. Admittedly, the spokesman said that that was a "request" by the Department of the Environment to development corporations. However, I suggest that any development corporation that responded to such a request would be outside the law.

Mr. Martin Stevens (Fulham)

If land held by a development corporation was disposed of, fresh funds would then become available to the corporation, which would enable it to do things that it would otherwise not be able to do. Such action would, therefore, be legal.

Mr. Barnett

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Had he listened carefully to the earlier part of my speech, he would have heard me say that new town development corporations, with the consent of both sides of the House, have been disposing of assets in order to encourage development in the town. I would encourage the roll-over of assets. However, I am now talking about demands made by the Secretary of State in order to reduce the public sector borrowing requirement, which has little or nothing to do with the benefit of new towns.

Unfortunately, some new town development corporations have gone ahead with sales on the grounds that the request from the Department of the Environment to sell assets is sufficient proof for potential buyers, as one development corporation spokesman said. The Department of the Environment may indeed possess authority, but it would be hazardous to mistake that for prudence or legal sanctity.

4.30 pm

It is bad enough that the legal position has not been thoroughly checked, as is evident from what has happened so far, but there is also a good deal of evidence coming forward that if the Department were given full authority to pursue the powers in the clause it would continue the sort of administrative muddle that has arisen from the ill-thought-out proposals that have come from Ministers at the head of the Department.

For example, I gather that a considerable problem has arisen over the renegotiation of leases of sitting tenants with the prospective purchasers of the freehold. That may have been sorted out in some cases, but the Minister ought to explain what the difficulties were and why sales that he wanted to see carried through were seriously delayed. It indicates a lack of foresight in respect of the transfer of leases to new purchasers and the conditions of the leases continuing [...] be observed.

I gather that another problem was never foreseen. I can only assume that the Secretary of State knew little or nothing about new towns if he failed to foresee the problem that would arise in connection with the large shopping centres in many new towns. Such centres—one is the Kingfisher shopping centre in Redditch, which is one of the places where the problem arose—are covered and include large alleyways, escalators and other public facilities that are part of the centre and within the freehold ownership of the new town.

If assets are sold one by one, who will repair the escalator when it breaks down? Who will sweep, keep clean and maintain the premises when they have been split into various bits and pieces? If the House is to pass the clause the Minister must tell us whether his Department has worked out proposals for proper management schemes after the legislation becomes law.

It is evident that Ministers have paid little or no attention to the staffing implications of the transfer. It will lead to a large number of redundancies among loyal servants of the new town development corporations who had every reason to foresee the prospect of jobs for some years to come as a consequence of the build-up of the assets for which they were responsible to a great degree.

That is why in earlier debates on the Bill I raised the whole issue of the "Crombie" code. I was interested to note from The Guardian today that the trade union involved, NALGO, is considering the possibility of suing the Department on behalf of the officials concerned. There seems to be no doubt that, whatever the legalities of the situation, Ministers have behaved shabbily towards officials who have, in many cases, given a lifetime's service to the management of assets and whose service is being interrupted as a consequence of the statutory intervention contained in the Bill.

The proposals are also damaging to the new towns. If the assets are sold during the process of development, the new town development corporations will be divesting themselves of the opportunity to benefit from the future growth that they are creating. The older new towns have done that. Stevenage, Harlow and others have immensely valuable assets, which it is proposed to place on the market. It will be impossible for the newer new towns to create such assets and to benefit fully from the growth in their value that arises as a consequence of other development in the town.

I understand that Basildon has developed aggressive marketing and management policies, maintaining high rents to enable an advance factory programme to be sustained. The break-up of the industrial holdings of Basildon may result in undermining values through the corporation's resulting ignorance of overall market conditions. The high rent policy is vital in providing the wherewithal for Basildon to continue the development that it wants to carry out in order to extend and develop the commercial and industrial aspects of the town. Take away some of the assets and lower the rents and the consequence will be a serious interference with the possibility of that new town, and possibly many others, being able to complete its development satisfactorily.

However, there are even worse possible consequences. The private sector may lose confidence in a development corporation that has no assets—and presumably that will be the final result of the sales policy—but has to rely on Government finance to underwrite any failure in new development.

It is claimed with some justification that there is a philosophical divide on this issue between the two sides of the House. As far as I can make out from speeches by Government spokesmen and others, the Conservative Party sees no role for the public ownership of land. I pass over the issue that we have raised many times, namely, the inevitable consequence of that in terms of the land and property speculation that arises when potentially valuable assets fall into private hands, particularly when the market is as seriously depressed as it is at present.

There is another issue of prime importance that is deeply felt in many new towns, not only by the residents and the development corporations but often by the industrial and commercial firms that are lessees of the corporations. They expect and get from the development corporations a standard of estate management that is almost unrivalled throughout the country. That is the strongest argument for retaining a large share of public involvement in the ownership of the freehold of these properties. We argued the issue at length in Committee, and I do not propose to detain the House, but it is an issue of fundamental importance which some of my hon. Friends may wish to develop.

If the clause is passed, new towns will not just be the sale of the century on their own but will be part of an enormous sale of the century to private interests. The first consequence will be a further depression in the property market, which is already seriously depressed. From start to finish, the whole scheme is ill-thought-out and ill-planned. It serves the illusory objective of lowering the public sector borrowing requirement, though no one has yet been able to explain to me the relevance of a transfer of such assets from one pocket to another. It is highly damaging to the new towns and destructive of the taxpayer's interests—and we are talking about assets owned by the taxpayer.

The Government are inclined to assume from time to time that the taxpayer wants his money back. Speaking as a taxpayer, I want to see my money invested in a first class investment—and that investment is to be found in our new towns.

Mr. J. Grimond (Orkney and Shetland)

As one who has tried to follow the Committee proceedings of the Bill from the written words and who has attended a certain number of debates in the House and even read Hansard resulting from them, I find myself in a greater and greater muddle. I understand that the Government are in favour of local authorities being allowed greater freedom. Many of their policies do not seem to achieve that object, but I assume that it is the Government's aim to provide greater freedom, coupled apparently with the belief that they should naturally exercise some control over the expenditure of public money from the central Exchequer. We must look at all aspects of the Bill with these two matters in mind.

This clause refers back to clause 101, which refers back to schedule 19. I hope that the drafting of Bills can be slightly improved for the benefit of people such as myself who find it difficult to follow. Part V of schedule 19 says Section 74A of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 (no local authority in Scotland to dispose of certain interests in land without the Secretary of State's consent) shall cease to have effect. This will apparently enable local authorities in Scotland, in an indirect way, to have more control over the disposal of land than before. I understand that the clause applies not only to new towns but to local authorities and commissions and corporations. I suspect that many commissions and corporations, as well as new towns and local authorities, hold land. I am in favour of giving local authorities power to dispose of land if they no longer have any use for it. One notices, going around the country, that the railways, for instance, still hold immense pockets of land that they are not developing.

All hon. Members, I presume, would be in favour of the railways disposing of land. Will the clause allow that to happen? I understand that it increases the power of local authorities, quite apart from corporations or commissions, to dispose of land. It appears that under the clause they can do so—subject to directions by the Secretary of Sate. If so, what sort of directions does the Secretary of State think will be given? If it is a good idea to dispose of land that is no longer wanted, the question arises of whether this matter is connected with the public service borrowing requirement. I endorse the remarks of the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Barnett), who moved the amendment. It seems that the Gov ernment constantly confuse revenue and capital as though selling off capital assets will enable them to show better results on the annual outturn of the PSBR. This is economic nonsense. I see the Minister nodding his head.

4.45 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Marcus Fox)

I am mystified purely because I think that the right hon. Gentleman is using the old Bill and not the amended Bill. He has quoted a clause that is not relevant to the debate.

Mr. Grimond

That is probably so, but I should be interested to hear some explanation of what we are doing. I confess that I am somewhat confused. It appears to me that we are perpetrating what used to be known as a long-term fraud—selling off assets and counting that as revenue.

Why does clause 110(3) state The power shall not be exercised so as to dispose of land by way of mortgage (or in Scotland, standard security) or charge"?

Mr. Fox

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman. He has pointed out an error on page 84. Clause 110 mentions section 101. It should be section 109.

Mr. Ian Mikardo (Bethnal Green and Bow)

The right hon. Gentleman knows the Bill better than the Government.

Mr. Grimond

I would not go so far as to say that. Anyone who understands this Bill must be a senior wrangler of the first water.

The Government owe the House some explanation about why they should interfere, if they believe in greater freedom for commissions and local authorities, in the handling of their land and why they should insist upon giving directions if there is an intention to get rid of the land.

Local authorities are now probably getting into all sorts of areas that are not really their business. One of these issues may be the ownership of land. In my reference to local authorities, I include commissions for new towns, and so forth. It would be much better if the Government were to lay down what are the functions of local authorities and leave them to get on with their own business.

The main fault of the Bill is that it leaves local authorities in a great grey area, with the Government saying that they intend to interfere here, there and everywhere. That is not the right way to deal with commissions, new towns and local authorities. I would much prefer the Government to inform the local authorities of the sphere of authority within which they can do as they like and dispose of land, or keep it, as they choose. Once outside that area, it would be the Government's sphere. I fear that the Bill is a confusion between the two.

It is not a good way of running the government of the country for the Government to attempt to involve local authorities in the management of major economic policy. They believe that if local authorities sell off bits of land, this will make some difference to the public sector borrowing requirement. That is a wrong motive. I hope that the Government will explain why they are pursuing that policy. If it is not their policy, I hope they will repudiate it.

Mr. John Evans (Newton)

I support what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Barnett) in moving amendment No. 190. I take this opportunity of paying tribute to my hon. Friend for his splendid work for new towns while he was in Government. He was recognised throughout the country, especially in the new towns movement, as a man of tremendous integrity who had the best interests of the new towns at heart and who worked well with the new town corporations. That is certainly true of the new town corporation in my constituency, Warrington.

It is generally accepted in the House and among the political parties that the Bill is an obnoxious and unnecessary attack on local democracy. It is obvious that the Government Front Bench have little experience of local government, otherwise they would not have attempted to put this sort of Bill through the House. My view is that there is a strong hope on the Government Benches, even among Ministers and Cabinet Ministers, that with good fortune and careful planning the Bill will fail through lack of parliamentary time and disappear into the oblivion that it deserves. It is a dictatorial Bill.

I agree with the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond). It is odd that Whitehall should attempt to dictate to local government what it should or should not do, without trying to lay down precisely in what areas local government should operate. It would be to the benefit of local government if, for the next five or 10 years there could be a hiatus in legislation relating to local authorities, to allow them to get on with their work. Increasingly, local authorities make a better job of running their affairs than Tory Governments make of running the affairs of the country.

In this part of the Bill we are back to the rip-off principle. As in so many areas since they took office, the Government are determined to flog off public assets for the benefit of their political, industrial and commercial friends and to raise money to give substantial tax cuts to the group of gentlemen to whom they intend to flog off the assets. If we did not have such a politically prostituted press there would be banner headlines explaining to the people the almighty rip-off that is taking place under this Government as they get their money-grubbing hands on the benefits that have been built up over the years.

Warrington new town is one of the most successful new towns in the country. It is a third-generation new town, and it is growing apace. As my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich said, there is no dogmatism about how assets should be controlled and managed. Warrington new town has a successful and well planned mixture of excellent private and public housing. It has had considerable success in building industrial estates and leisure facilities. In the last three or four years the new town has attracted a considerable number of jobs to the area. It is no exaggeration to say that it was the fastest-growing area in the North-West. Unfortunately, like the rest of the North-West and the rest of the country under the Conservative Government, it is coming to a dead stop. Little industry is now being attracted to it, although, fortunately, development of the housing and industrial sectors is continuing. That means that construction workers are being offered work.

Vast areas of the new town have been landscaped at public expense. Whatever other virtues the Warrington area has—and it has many—it is rather flat and featureless, and considerable expenditure is required. I went round my constituency on Saturday, visiting three surgeries in different parts of the new town. I was impressed by the landscaping, which has a beneficial effect on the beauty of the place and on the well-being of the inhabitants.

Unfortunately, the new town is approaching a difficult period. The new town corporation does not have a dogmatic approach to the way in which it finances industrial development. It made land available to many firms so that they could build their own units and factories. The corporation also built units, which it let to firms. Much private capital has been used, in conjunction with new town finances, to build factory units. The corporation has been happy to sell the units to firms that decide to establish their future in Warrington. The money has been used for further development. The roll-over principle is well established in Warrington new town.

The corporation is so undogmatic in its approach that when it built New Town House it promptly sold the freehold to an insurance company, leased it back and used the capital to develop further. That is an illustration of the undogmatic approach of new towns in general, and Warrington new town in particular. Unfortunately, that dogmatic approach will be scrapped by the Bill because the Secretary of State insists that assets are to be sold without regard to the well-being of the new towns. Assets are to be sold whether or not the new town corporations believe that that is in the interests of the new towns and their people.

The Warrington borough council has a stake in the issue. Eventually, the new town will be folded up and the assets will be passed to the borough council. The borough council has also put a substantial amount into the development of the new town. The residents had to put up with considerable inconvenience while major building work took place. The benefits will be reaped by the Secretary of State, who is ordering that assets be flogged for the benefit of the wealthy, who will receive further tax cuts.

One criticism that is levelled at Warrington new town is that it has built more warehouses than manufacturing units. That is understandable, because the new town is ideally situated at the junction of the M6 and the M62. Warehousing industry is naturally attracted to the area. It is not fair to say that the new town corporation has excluded manufacturing industry—it has not. When it received firm offers from the distributive industry to create jobs it took up the offers. At the same time, the corporation ensured that there was a balance of jobs.

That will be the last consideration under the Bill. The land will be flogged to the first bidder. If that firm wants to build only vast warehouses, using acres of valuable land and employing only a handful of people, that will be it. The attitude will be that it is the money that counts. That is not in accordance with the spirit of new town development. The idea is that people should be attracted to an area, schools and social facilities should be provided and jobs created. I suspect that with the Government's approach fewer jobs will be created.

The Chairman of the new town, Mr. Jim Mason, has done a splendid job in the last three or four years. He is worried. He accepts that if the Government force him to sell off land it will have to go, but he is worried about who will accept the responsibility for the maintenance of the landscaping programme. Landscaping is not cheap. The Minister should consider that.

I refer the Minister to the scheme at the Birchwood science park. It is one of the most imaginative schemes in the country. The local authority has taken a large area of land close to the headquarters of the Atomic Energy Authority and the premises of British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. and used it to attract science-based industries. A large area has been landscaped to attract American, Swedish, German, Japanese and British companies to the site. The firms have agreed that the new town corporation should maintain the landscaping and that they will pay half of the cost of maintenance.

That scheme is imaginative and worth while, but one suspects that if individual companies are flogged off, the last thing that they will wish to concern themselves with is the overall excellence of the landscaping scheme. They will let it go. In this context we have the right to ask the Minister who will take on that responsibility and who will pay.

The Government consistently try to get across the legend that they are concerned about small businesses. They are anything but concerned about small businesses. In this area the new town corporations have played a valiant role in building many small units to enable new and small businesses to be set up. How on earth can small business men—in some instances accepting units as small as a garage in Warrington—if the Government's philosophy carries the day, be helped under this clause by the new town corporations, which will be charged with flogging off the assets as quickly as possible for the benefit of the Secretary of State?

5 pm

The Minister had better give us an answer. How will the Government square their proclaimed assistance to small businesses with their taking steps to drive the new town corporations—an important element in the industrial scheme of things—out of this market altogether? This is a bad Bill and I hope that it will disappear, but if it does not the Minister has a duty to put right the wrongs in the Bill, if not in this House, certainly with amendments in another place.

Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)

I was slow to rise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I hoped that this might be one of the rare parts of the Bill to inspire a defence by a Conservative Back Bencher. We have been through clause after clause without a word of support for the Bill coming from hon. Members below the Gangway or behind the Treasury Bench. There are no coherent words of support from the Treasury Bench itself. I had hoped that this provision for the selling off of public assets to private individuals would inspire a little enthusiasm on the Government Back Benches. If even this part of the Bill cannot enthuse hon. Gentlemen from the shires and the City the Bill is in extremely bad case.

It deserves to be, not because of the matters that we discussed last week and the week before that but because of the issues that we are discussing today. My Hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Barnett) moved, in his normally lucid and careful way, an amendment to secure the deletion of clause 110. It is necessary to make quite clear that the view of the Opposition that clause 110 should be deleted is related in part to the provisions of clause 109, which, because of the selec tion, we have not been able to debate. I mention that in passing in order to remain within the rules of order.

You will recall, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as will the House, that clause 109 is one of the enabling clauses that characterises the Bill. It allows the Secretary of State of the day to do what he likes, when he likes and how he likes. It allows him in this specific particular to: direct a development corporation or the Commission to pay to him … such sum as is so specified. Constitutional lawyers among Conservative Members—if such animals exist—will regard that as a rather wide power to give to a Secretary of State. That power gives him the right, as he wants and when he wants, to oblige new town development corporations or the commission to provide him with money.

Clause 110, which my hon. Friend seeks to delete, is simply and necessarily a way in which the new towns can provide money which, if clause 109 passes into law, they will be required to pay to the Secretary of State. Of course, when the Secretary of State makes his exacting demands the only way in which the new towns will be able to meet them is by selling off their assets, and in particular by selling off their land.

I make it absolutely clear, without any equivocation or doubt, that the Opposition are completely opposed to the disposal of new town assets and new town land in that way. We are opposed, in part, because we echo the views of the Town and Country Planning Association. That is a non-party organisation whose letter to me this morning included the name of a distinguished ex-Conservative Member of Parliament who is the Association's treasurer.

That organisation holds the view that to oblige new towns to dispose of land in this way is contrary to the interests of the new towns. It believes that it is contrary to the spirit and meaning of the New Towns Act and it regards it as an improvement and foolish use of national resources. To those of us more particularly who believe in the concept of new towns and think that they have things to offer the country, this provision prejudices the argument and discussion that must continue about how new town assets are to be used and disposed of.

The Bill enables those things to happen for reasons that the most objective observer—indeed, any objective observer—will regard as short-term and shortsighted. Before I turn to the Government's reasons I wish to say a word about something that has already happened, namely, the instruction of the Secretary of State—for it was no less—that the new towns should find £120 million for him during this financial year. I hope that the Under-Secretary, unlike some of his departmental colleagues, will give us precise answers about that instruction.

There is no doubt that the chairmen of the new town corporations believed that the Secretary of State was telling them that he had the power to require them to provide that £120 million. That was the impression that he gave. Whether it was malice or incompetence the Under-Secretary can tell us when he replies, but that was certainly what the Secretary of State implied when he met the new towns chairmen.

When those chairmen discussed the matter with their legal advisers they discovered that the Secretary of State did not have any such power. I raised this issue in the House in what we shall call the "Stevenage debate" on 26 March when another Under-Secretary, uniquely in my experience during discussion of a Bill dealing with new town finance, said that if I wanted an answer I had better put down a question and he would then tell me the powers under which the Secretary of State was operating.

When I raised that matter in Committee I received a letter from the Minister for Housing and Construction which at best could be described as ambiguous, describing the powers under which the Secretary of State was operating. I think that the Secretary of State would do us a favour if the Under-Secretary were allowed to say that there are no powers which oblige the Secretary of State to raise £120 million this year. The Secretary of State can huff and puff, but he cannot require that money to be spent. If he gave the impression that it was within his power to require that, it was a mistaken impression and until this Bill passes into law there is no obligation upon new towns to sell assets which they believe it is against their interests to sell.

The present law requires the new towns to operate in a way which they believe to be in their own interests. If they did not believe that it was in their interests to sell their assets they would be behaving illegally if they were to sell them irrespective of what the Secretary of State might do, what he might threaten, and no matter the extent of his bullying.

The first thing that the Under-Secretary must do is to make the position clear about the sale of assets this year. Of course, I accept that if the Bill passes into law with clauses 109 and 110 in it the Secretary of State has the right to require new towns to provide him with money. Clause 110 offers the new towns an opportunity to realise assets which will allow them to spend money in a way required by the Secretary of State.

I also accept, in the sense that I acknowledge it as a fact, that the Secretary of State has already made it clear that next year he wishes the new towns to provide him with£200 million. I hope that the Under-Secretary will spare us the embarrassment of telling us that that has to be done as a sacrifice to the public sector borrowing requirement. The rules today do not allow us to pursue in any detail the particular shibboleth of the PSBR which the Government intone on every occasion as if it were an excuse for every policy no matter how damaging or disastrous. But on this specific point it is clear that if all that the Government wish is the realisation of assets in order to reduce the PSRB, what I call the "Stevenage solution" would have done that exactly. The Stevenage solution was that assets could have been disposed of by a holding company. That would have provided the funds which the Secretary of State wanted to enable him to make notional—for that is all that it would have amounted to—adjustments to the PSBR, and the PSBR requirement would have been met. However, the Government resisted and rejected that solution.

We are driven to the conclusion that the Government wish to dispose of these assets for the simple, primitive and dogmatic reason that they believe that land in the new towns should be held by private individuals and corporations rather than by the new towns themselves. Let me make my view on that absolutely clear. We are absolutely opposed to the realisation of £200 million worth of new town assets next year, for a variety of reasons. The first relates to a point made by my hon. Friend when introducing the amendment, which seemed to cause some amusement among the Government Benches. I am glad that the Minister for Local Government and Environmental Services, who was the principal purveyor of counterfeited mirth on that occasion, has now returned. There was some amusement when my hon. Friend said that if the corporations were to sell in this way they would be selling in disadvantageous circumstances.

I do not know how Ministers can argue with that simple contention. If it is known that the new towns must sell £200 million worth of their assets, because that is the penalty, pain and payment which the Secretary of State exacts from them, the potential buyers must know that they are operating in a buyer's market. It is not a free market, a free sale and a free purchase, but rather a market in which the new towns, like it or not, must sell at the best price they can because they must raise the money which the Secretary of State requires. In those circumstances, they will, of course, sell disadvantageously to themselves, their citizens and to those on whose behalf those assets ought to be sold. We are, therefore, opposed to sales in those circumstances, because the new towns will be required to sell their assets at a time when they could not realise their proper value.

Secondly, if the new towns are to be used as an area from which money can be obtained to reduce the PSBR, public expenditure or the public holding of land whenever the Secretary of State of the day has the will to do so, and if the sum is to be £200 million a year—let alone accelerate at a speed represented by £120 million one year and £200 million the next—the new towns will be denuded completely of their land holdings, as a result of which land which should be in their possession for development will pass into private hands.

Thirdly, the principle of selling is in total opposition to all that the new towns stand for and all which in the past has been the bipartisan attitude to new towns and new town assets. Let me give two simple examples. The 1946 Act—the foundation Act—was precise in saying that on the maturity of the new towns, new town assets should be transferred to local authorities. The 1959 Act, passed by a Conservative Government, established the Commission for the New Towns, but was specific in saying that the duty of the commission in holding assets and land was to cater for the convenience, welfare and well-being of people residing, working and carrying on business in the new towns. The new town assets in which the State, the community and the people have made substantial investment have for 30 years been thought of by both parties as assets held in trust for the people of the new towns. Now, for the first time, the Government are changing their minds and are saying that these assets must be used in some other way.

Relying on my experience in Committee, I say that it may be that the Minister will say "But selling these assets might just turn out to be in the interests of the people of the new towns". My hon. Friend dealt with that argument precisely and exactly and I simply echo his words. We are not saying that when a new town corporation wants to sell land to roll over, to produce some money or to provide an asset which in its judgment can help the new towns, it should be prevented from doing so. Our complaint is that the new town corporations should be required to cash these land assets and to pay the money to the Government without any thought as to whether it is in the interests of the new towns. There is no question but that such sales could be made if they were in the interests of the new towns. However, the sales are to be made first, and the consequences for the new towns discovered afterwards. It is that to which we particularly object.

If the Minister persists in supporting clause 110, we shall vote against it. But before we do so, I hope that he will answer some specific questions about how he envisages that the sales of these new town assets will turn out.

5.15 pm

I think that it was the Minister for Local Government and Environmental Services who on one occasion described in terms which I am sure are moving to all local Conservative parties the groups of small business men who were coming together to acquire these assets in order to keep their ownership within the new towns. I notice that the hon. Member for Hertford and Stevenage (Mr. Wells), speaking during the debate on the Stevenage Development Authority Bill, said something quite different— The problem in Stevenage is that we have been trying to dispose of large lumps of terrace shops or terrace factories …The leaseholders of those shops were not able, or found it difficult, to bid for the whole block."—[Official Report, 26 March 1980; Vol. 980, c. 1556.] As a result of that, the hon. Gentleman went on to say, the blocks which the Government were requiring to be sold off were being bought by developers and speculators who were then making a profit as they sold the shops, factories and plots of land to the burghers of the new towns.

I hope that the Minister will tell us all that he can about the sort of people who in these days of high interest rates, shortage of funds and low industrial activity can buy these new town assets or can come forward with offers to buy. My suspicion is that they are not residents of the area coming together in some sort of co-operative but, rather, developers who hope to make a second profit. If that is the case, that compounds the disgrace.

I want to say something else which Ministers and the developers should understand. There is a possibility that £120 million worth of assets this year, £200 million next year and heaven knows how much the year after will be sold to those who are willing to put up the money and that they will hold on to the land until 1983–84. There is the possibility that that land will still be in their possession at that time, even though it will be needed for socially important developments by the new towns or their local authorities. Those developers had better not expect that they can then sell back the land to a new town, its local authority or to the Government at a massive profit. At least, they had better not expect that they will be able to do so when a Labour Government are elected—[HON. MEMBERS: "When will that be?"] If ésprit de corps, élan and all the other things which are supposed to hold parties together are taken into consideration, it will be very soon indeed.

I return to my original point, and I shall be unusually provocative in the hope that we shall get one Conservative Back Bencher to break the routine which has endured during the entire proceed ings on the Bill and say a word of approval, at least about this part of it. We are unanimous that the assets which have been brought together under the aegis of the new towns were brought together for the benefit of the community. That means that their value ought to extend and accrue in community ownership. The idea that they are to be sold in this way is more than short-sighted. It has absolutely no economic or legitimate financial justification. It is a demonstration of the strange belief on the Conservative Benches that in any circumstances it is better for an asset to be in private hands than in public hands. I understate my position by saying that that is not a view that I share. If the Under-Secretary persists in his view, we shall divide the House against him.

Mr. Stanley Newens (Harlow)

I support the amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Barnett). As my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Spark-brook (Mr. Hattersley) said, it is significant that not one Conservative Back Bencher has sought to justify the clause.

As has been pointed out on many occasions, a number of those who represent new towns are aware of some of the criticisms that have been made—some of which have been voiced by the hon. Member for Hertford and Stevenage (Mr. Wells), who is not in his place today. The Government are so hell-bent on their doctrinaire commitment to reviving the principle of private ownership of commercial and industrial properties in general that they are not prepared to consider any of the arguments or to consider the damage that will be done when the assets are sold.

Several months ago, when I introduced the Stevenage Development Authority Bill, we heard Ministers rejecting out of hand the principle of local authority purchase of commercial and industrial assets. That represented a considerable shift of opinion from that which prevailed when the Letchworth Garden City Corporation Bill was introduced in 1962. Although I recognise that there has been a considerable shift to the right on the Conservative Benches, it is extremely important that we, on the Labour side of the House, should once again place on record our utter condemnation of the misguided policy of selling new town assets.

A number of my hon. Friends have pointed out that the original concept of the New Towns Act 1946 was that assets should be transferred to local authorities on the completion of the towns. There were good reasons for that, and those reasons remain. It is only right that the inhabitants of a new town should be able to benefit by the increase in value of the assets sited in their town. I set out that argument at length when I introduced the Stevenage Development Authority Bill. It was never the intention of those who sought to formulate Labour Party policy on new towns—and I have been associated with that issue for more than 20 years—that the assets should be taken over locally without any return to the national Exchequer. It was never suggested that the taxpayer should be made to subsidise those fortunate enough to reside within the new towns when they came of age. The argument that I anticipate may be advanced from the Conservative Front Bench falls on ground that is not contested.

There was never any intention by those who helped to formulate Labour Party policy on new towns to take a doctrinaire stand against all sales, in any circumstances whatever. It is important that I make that point. This is a completely different matter from facilitating, as this clause facilitates—and as the Secretary of State's statement last year indicated it was his intention to facilitate—the sale of new town assets en masse, carried out without in any way being in the interests of new town inhabitants or the new town programme as a whole, but to reduce the public sector borrowing requirement. Such a policy is wrong. Not only is it misconceived for those who live in new towns, but it is equally misconceived for the taxpayers as a whole.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich pointed out, it is clear that such sales in the depressed state of the market are likely to take place at depressed values. In the face of continuing inflation the inevitable increase in the monetary value of the assets will be greater That increase will be transferred to organisations that have not contributed to the growth of the new town.

The clause is a licence for asset stripping and for the transfer of wealth to those who speculate, rather than to those who seek to create the wealth. Sales of assets, especially in those towns that have, until recently, been in the ownership of the development corporations, have been extremely limited. They would have been limited even if the corporations in Harlow and Stevenage had not suspended them. In Harlow, apart from a block of small factory units, few sales have taken place. There appears to be no real interest in the blocks in the town centre. From my inquiries I have found that a similar state of affairs prevails in a number of other new towns. Therefore, I conclude that prices will be depressed and the assets may be sold below their true economic value.

Even so, such prices may not be within the reach of the occupiers, many of whom have expressed considerable concern because they are industrialists who are feeling the full effects of the present economic depression. Many of them have expressed concern that their properties may be sold over their heads—and it is the intention that they should be, if necessary. That concern has been expressed especially by small business men, whose premises frequently form part of a block that it is policy to put up for sale as a single unit.

On a number of occasions Government spokesmen have suggested that small business men should form a consortium to buy a block of units. I put that suggestion to a number of tenants in Harlow when they came to see me. They discovered that not all of the other tenants were prepared to buy. Even if they had been prepared to buy, and even if they had been credit-worthy and been able to raise the necessary finance to put in a bid, there was no certainty that it would be accepted. It is important to say that sales are not necessarily to the owner-occupiers, but to the highest bidder.

In some of the sales that have already taken place assets have been disposed of over the heads of the people who occupy the premises. The possibility that premises will be sold over the heads of occupiers concerns not only small business men but larger tenants, who in many cases are industrialists employing a large number of workers. Therefore, the policy of sale is of concern not only to those tenants, but to their employees. Many people in the new towns have already expressed their worries to their Members of Parliament, not only to me in my new town, but to Conservative hon. Members, who could have told us about that if only they had been in their places to take part in the debate.

That illustrates the basic point that I am seeking to make—that these sales may be, and frequently will be, in direct contradiction to the public interest in the new towns. This is certainly the case where a property is sold regardless of the effect on employment, and where employment opportunities are destroyed.

In my own town, the Harlow development corporation has always considered, before it has let an industrial property, what the effect would be on employment within the town. That will not be a matter of consideration in sales that are enforced under the clause. It will not be a consideration that will be taken into account by those who buy and later seek to sell those properties. We should recognise, therefore, that what the Government are doing is directly against the interests of the people in the new towns. It represents a very serious blow to their future.

5.30 pm

In a number of other ways the decision represents something about which all new town residents must be concerned. The clause will deprive the local authority of the possibility of using the return from profitable assets to offset the losses on other assets, which presumably will eventually be left in the ownership of the local authority.

I hope that the Minister will not dodge the question that I am about to put to him. What is to happen to the assets that are not sold? The Government have announced that they intend to wind up the New Towns Commission, so the assets cannot remain with that body. In those circumstances, is it proposed to foist loss-making assets, such as car parks, on to the local authorities? If that is the position, we should have it clearly stated so that local authorities may know what they are expected to face.

Some local authorities in the new towns have already experienced problems with houses that have been transferred to them—houses which in many cases require substantial repairs, and on which discussion of the settlement is still outstanding. I do not believe that local authorities representing new towns will be prepared to accept on the rates responsibility for loss-making assets. Accordingly, something must be said on this subject.

By facilitating the sale of these assets the Government will leave a legacy of headaches for future local authorities and future Governments. The attitude of the new towns is clear, and I believe that the attitude of the taxpayer as a whole ought to be clear. The clause is net in the interests either of the new towns or of the tax-paying public as a whole. I hope, therefore, that it will be rejected.

I have, of course, no power whatever to say anything about what a future Labour Government will do, but many of us who are concerned with these matters believe that prospective buyers of properties should recognise that a future Government may have to take steps to give local authorities in new towns the opportunity to acquire some of those assets which the present Government are seeking to sell off. In making their purchases, people ought to bear that very much in mind.

The clause is utterly opposed to the original aims of the new town movement, and therefore I entirely and wholeheartedly support the amendment, which is designed to delete the clause.

Mr. Giles Radice (Chester-le-Street)

I support my hon. Friends in their amendment. I have in my constituency the new town of Washington, which was designated by a Conservative Government in 1964 and developed under a Labour Government. It has been a great success. In that period, 15,000 new jobs have been created and a similar number of new houses, together with a completely new environment. Those who, like my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Barnett), have been to Washington, know what a success it has been. That achievement was recently recognised by the Government, when they extended the life of Washington new town until 1985.

But it is Washington new town and the community as a whole that are now being penalised for their success and their achievements by the Government's policy of selling off assets. Washington new town was forced last year to sell off assets to the value of £2½ million at the request of the Secretary of State, and I understand that the figure for this year is £5 million. So far, it has sold off factories on the Wear estate and the Crowther estate. This year, it is selling further factories on the Parsons estate. It is also selling office sites in the new town centre.

An interesting point about these sales is that buyers have wanted a share of the profits, but they have not wanted the freehold. The reason for that is that they have not wanted to manage the properties, because they know very well that the new towns are the experts at managing industrial sites and town centres. That is why these buyers have not wanted anything more than a share of the proceeds.

If it is possible—but highly damaging—to sell off assets on the scale so far without destroying the fabric of a new town, it is certainly not possible to go any further. What is so worrying for those who represent new towns, live in new towns or work for new towns, is that they know very well that this is only the beginning and that the position will get very much worse. The Government's policy will be at the expense of new town development—development which has been promised for Washington by the Government. It will be at the expense of new town inhabitants, and it will be at the expense of the community as a whole.

It is a highly doctrinaire step, which is wrong in principle and will be highly damaging in practice. I shall be delighted to join my hon. Friends in voting for the amendment and against the principle of selling off assets.

Mr. Fox

I have listened with great interest to Labour Members on the subject of new towns. One could be led to believe that, since their inception in the 1940s, somehow nothing has changed, and that this concept of new towns is one that we have to live with for ever more.

The first generation of new towns met a post-war need, with particular attention to the congestion in London. The second generation of new towns, as well as doing that, concentrated on growth centres for industry in development areas. The third generation of new towns was more concerned with the stimulation of economic growth in the context of regional strategies.

In the Bill, we are introducing a new dimension to the concept of new towns. We make no apology for doing that. We made no apology for it in Committee. [Interruption.] The fact that the changes may not be to the liking of Labour Members does not necessarily make them bad. Indeed, Conservative Members may think that that is something in their favour.

The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) asked me about the Secretary of State's instruction to sell. My right hon. Friend made it clear that it was necessary to reduce net public expenditure. This could be done either by reducing the level of expenditure on new capital investment or by the new towns selling assets and thus raising the necessary finance.

The development corporations agreed to follow the second course. Any sales by a development corporation have to be for purposes which the corporation regards as being expedient for the development of the town. The development corporations are not as naive as the right hon. Gentleman would have us believe. All the general consents for sales issued by the Department of the Environment have stressed the need for development corporations to satisfy themselves as to their powers. In Committee I said that there were certain doubts in some people's minds. I accept what the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Barnett) said about limitations in terms of the 1965 Act. Of course there are limitations on what development corporations and the commission can do. We are introducing this clause in order to extend their powers.

Mr. Newens

The Under-Secretary of State said that everything was done to stress to local authorites that they should act within their powers. What stress was placed on the matter by the Secretary of State for the Environment when he made his original statement to the new town chairmen? As I understand, no stress was placed at that stage. It was not until the matter was raised by Stevenage, Harlow and other new towns that any steps were taken. The Under-Secretary of State even asked my right hon. Friend to table a parliamentary question because he did not know the answer.

Mr. Fox

The hon. Gentleman should listen more carefully. I repeated what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said at that time. I shall not repeat it again. He did not go any further than the powers that are contained in the 1965 Act. The powers that we are now taking will remove those limitations.

The right hon. Member for Spark-brook put forward the Stevenage solution as being the ideal and as meeting the Government's requirements. But he does not recognise that borrowing by local government is as much a part of the public sector borrowing requirement as borrowing by central Government. The Stevenage Development Authority Bill would not have done anything to reduce the PSBR.

Mr. Guy Barnett

So what?

Mr. Fox

The hon. Gentleman says "So what?"

I shall turn now to our policy. Government policy is applicable, in terms of new towns, as it is applicable in other matters. The funding by the Exchequer to the national loans fund is of importance in our overall strategy. No one can say that the new towns have not received a fair share of money over the last 34 years. The new towns borrowed a total of £3,204 million, and a clause in this Bill was removed and made into another Bill to lift the limit on their borrowing. That is evidence that the Government envisage the continuation of new towns as an important factor in the life of this country. I make no apology for emphasising that the Government's policy of reducing the role of the public sector in the development of new towns is a vital factor, and hence, under this clause, our extension of the powers available to new town development corporations and the commission to fund part of their new development.

Soon after our return to power in May 1979 we inaugurated a general consent enabling new town tenants to buy their own homes.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Ardwick)

A fat lot of good.

5.45 pm
Mr. Fox

The right hon. Gentleman says "A fat lot of good". I understand his views about the sale of council houses, and he understands our views. But 8,000 council houses have been sold, or are in the process of being sold, and he should perhaps eat his words. There are 8,000 owners in new towns who are happy with our proposals. There is a divide between the parties on this issue that we do not deny. We want the private sector to increase its involvement, and we believe that it will provide an impetus and a new enthusiasm. It will also result in a better use of assets. They will not be locked away as they have been, and they will be used for other purposes. I am sure that that is not acceptable to Labour Members. In the long term, they may not always be used within the new town areas.

I repeat that the national interest is a factor. When the population projections showed a reduction, the previous Government made a major reappraisal of the new towns programme between 1976 and 1977. We are now doing that as a financial reappraisal. As the hon. Member for Greenwich suggested, there can be no question but that we are doing so during a period when prices are depressed. We cannot accept that we are putting these properties on to the market at a time when we shall not be getting the best possible price. In Committee, we made it clear that, even if we took the most optimistic view, only one-tenth of the property market would be accounted for by new town sales.

Mr. W. Benyon (Buckingham)

Will my hog. Friend give an assurance that, particularly in the case of third-generation new towns, the corporations will not be forced to sell against the best commercial advice—that is, before reasonable maturity has been reached?

Mr. Fox

Yes, I can give that assurance. The decision as to which properties are sold rests with the individual development corporations. The Bill gives specific powers to the Secretary of State to take action if he finds that, because of the amount of property being put on the market, prices are depressed. It is right that he should have that power.

Mr. Hattersley

May I ask the Under-Secretary of State to consider clause 109 as well as clause 110? If the Government are so determined to raise money in this way, and if, therefore, the Secretary of State stipulates, under clause 109, that a specific new town must provide £5 million, £6 million or £10 million, what will the Secretary of State do if it is discovered that a new town cannot provide that money without selling land against the best commercial interests?

Mr. Fox

Contrary to the views of some Labour Members, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is a sensible, responsible Minister. I am certain that, if what the right hon. Gentleman postulates were to be the case, we would consider carefully whether those figures should be adhered to. The right hon. Member for Sparkbrook is always giving his views and opinions. I gave him an answer, but I am intrigued by his quoting from the debate on the Stevenage Development Authority Bill. He should be careful. I read it deliberately before this debate. He said: it is our clear conviction that that surplus should be held for the benefit of the people of the area."—[Official Report, 26 March 1980; Vol. 980, c. 1557.] That is where the difference between the Government and the Opposition lies. We disagree with his conclusion. The Government believe that these assets belong to the nation as a whole—to the people who put in the money in the first place. The assets thus built up belong to the community, and not to the individual local authority or the people who live in the area.

Mr. Mikardo

We get the money.

Mr. Fox

In his time, the hon. Gentleman has been a good entrepeneur. He understands the workings of the market, what money is, and how by investment it can create more wealth.

Mr. Mikardo

That statement is as untrue as the statement made previously by the Minister. I have never been an entrepreneur.

Mr. Fox

In that case, I withdraw what I said and simply say that the hon. Gentleman has had business involvements.

The hon. Member for Greenwich talked about repayment. As I made clear in the debate on new clause 20, the Government do not believe that the need for the Crombie code is as great today as it was in the past, since good management terms are now available for most groups of employees.

I understand that the provision relating to the Land Authority for Wales, about which the hon. Gentleman asked me in our previous debate, is necessary to remove doubts as to whether there is any legal power to pay compensation to the staff of the authority, should that be necessary. The taking of this power does not commit Ministers to the form that such compensation should take. This would be considered as and when it became necessary. The Government's view is that there is no such deficiency in the powers relating to new town staff because, as I said previously, management terms are already available. The Greater London Housing Compensation Regulations 1980, which follow the Crombie code, were made in the light of a specific commitment by the previous Labour Government and were accepted by this Government when they came into office. I repeat that we do not believe that our proposals will mean redundancies of the kind that have been mentioned. The hon. Member for Greenwich inquired about the public sector borrowing requirement. This comes into the same category as my answer to the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook.

The hon. Gentleman asked about town centres and who would look after them. The hon. Member for Newton (Mr. Evans) also referred to this point and talked about landscaping and trees. The Government have always been aware of the need to provide for the management of the common properties in town centres. I include parks, roads and car parks. The arrangements will need to be considered town by town. This will involve discussion with the local authorities concerned. I assure Opposition Members that that is what we shall do. We shall find satisfactory arrangements. The hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Newens) mentioned the point as well.

There was a certain amount of confusion—it was not restricted to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) because I, too, got confused—about the relevant clause of the Bill. The confusion is between local authorities and development corporations. Development corporations are agencies of the central Government. They have always been subject to ministerial direction. Development corporations borrow from the Government for capital investment. The power to require payments from new town corporations is taken so that resources can be realised.

The hon. Member for Newton also asked about warehousing rather than manufacturing units being built at Warrington in particular. There is a substantial amount of warehousing there. However, I should have thought that the hon. Member would realise that the distributive industries are employing as many people per acre as are manufacturing industries. Distribution and all that that implies in ancillary activities in servicing is an important facet of our objectives in this area.

In this, as in so many other areas, the Government's basic economic strategy is to reduce the public sector borrowing requirement. The Opposition do not agree. Hence, the amendment to negate Government policy on the disposal of new town assets to the private sector. We believe that our proposals can benefit the new towns and the nation. Even after the disposals, there will be a net investment, contrary to what the hon. Member for Harlow said. Certainly that will be the case this year. Our belief in the new town concept can be measured by the fact that in many cases we have taken that as a pattern for modelling the urban development corporations which we are to debate at a later stage.

We believe that the commercial and industrial assets concerned can be more effectively managed in private ownership. We are keen to reduce the unusually high involvement of the public sector in the new towns, many of which are now completed. We believe that it is time for the balance to be rectified. Nothing in what we are doing should be seen as an attack on the new towns. I invite my right hon. and hon. Friends to oppose the amendment.

Mr. Guy Barnett

While listening to the Under-Secretary of State's speech I thought that, as on one or two previous occasions, the House was to receive a

non-reply to the debate, but in the middle of his speech he made a commitment on behalf of the Government which I think all hon. Members will want to consider. Certainly the chairmen of development corporations will be extremely interested in the Minister's assurance that a new town corporation will not be forced to sell assets against the best commercial advice. Presumably, if a development corporation with an allocation of, say, £5 million worth of assets to sell finds that it cannot sell certain assets because the best independent commercial advice is against it, it will be let off the hook and will not have to sell them. I emphasise that I do not mean the commercial advice available from the Department of the Environment after the Southport case which I quoted, where the Property Services Agency made such a vast loss on the taxpayer's property.

I should like to turn to two other points which the Minister failed to answer. First, my hon. Friend the Member for Newton (Mr. Evans) raised the important issue of landscaping. Nothing was said by the Minister about what is to happen to those assets, who will have them and who will be prepared to manage them.

Secondly, nothing was said about the vital issue of small firms. In many new towns there is an important ladder principle which enables the small business man to grow into a big business man because the new town provides for those needs. I see those needs being seriously interfered with, if not destroyed, in consequence of this sales policy.

In general, because the Minister's replies to our arguments were unsatisfactory, I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will vote for the deletion of this clause from the Bill.

Question put, That the amendment be made—

The House divided: Ayes 236, Noes 277.

Division No. 400] AYES [6 pm
Abse, Leo Barnett, Rt Hon Joel (Heywood) Brown, Robert C. (Newcastle W)
Adams, Allen Bennett, Andrew (Stockport N) Brown, Ronald W. (Hackney S)
Allaun, Frank Bidwell, Sydney Brown, Ron (Edinburgh, Leith)
Alton, David Booth, Rt Hon Albert Buchan, Norman
Ashley, Rt Hon Jack Boothroyd, Miss Betty Callaghan, Rt Hon J. (Cardiff SE)
Ashton, Joe Bottomley, Rt Hon Arthur (M'brough) Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P)
Atkinson, Norman (H'gey, Tott'ham) Bradley, Tom Campbell, Ian
Bagier, Gordon A. T. Bray, Dr Jeremy Campbell-Savours, Dale
Barnett, Guy (Greenwich) Brown, Hugh D. (Provan) Canavan, Dennis
Cant, R. B. Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy Pendry, Tom
Carmichael, Neil Haynes, Frank Penhaligon, David
Carter-Jones, Lewis Heffer, Eric S. Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)
Cartwright, John Hogg, Norman (E Dunbartonshire) Prescott, John
Clark, Dr. David (South Shields) Holland, Stuart (L'beth, Vauxhall) Price, Christopher (Lewisham West)
Cocks, Rt Hon Michael (Bristol S) Home Robertson, John Race, Reg
Cohen, Stanley Homewood, William Radice, Giles
Coleman, Donald Hooley, Frank Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn (Leeds South)
Concannon, Rt Hon J. D. Horam, John Richardson, Jo
Conlan, Bernard Howell, Rt Hon Denis (B'ham, Sm H) Roberts, Albert (Normanton)
Cook, Robin F. Howells, Geraint Roberts, Allan (Bootle)
Cowans, Harry Huckfield, Les Roberts, Ernest (Hackney North)
Cox, Tom (Wandsworth, Tooting) Hughes, Mark (Durham) Roberts, Gwilym (Cannock)
Crowther, J. S. Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen North) Robertson, George
Cryer, Bob Janner, Hon Greville Robinson, Geoffrey (Coventry NW)
Cunliffe, Lawrence Jay, Rt Hon Douglas Rodgers, Rt Hon William
Cunningham, George (Islington S) John, Brynmor Rooker, J. W.
Cunningham, Dr John (Whitehaven) Johnson, James (Hull West) Ross, Ernest (Dundee West)
Dalyell, Tam Jones, Barry (East Flint) Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Davidson, Arthur Jones, Dan (Burnley) Rowlands, Ted
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Ryman, John
Davies, Ifor (Gower) Kerr, Russell Sever, John
Davis, Clinton (Hackney Central) Kilroy-Silk, Robert Sheerman, Barry
Davis, Terry (B'rm'ham, Stechford) Kinnock, Neil Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert (A'ton-u-L)
Deakins, Eric Lamb[...]e, David Shore, Rt Hon Peter (Step and Pop)
Dean, Joseph (Leeds West) Lamond, James Silkin, Rt Hon John (Deptford)
Dempsey, James Lester, Miss Joan (Eton & Slough) Silkin, Rt Hon S. C. (Dulwich)
Dewar, Donald Lewis, Arthur (Newham North West) Skinner, Dennis
Dixon, Donald Lewis, Ron (Carlisle) Smith, Cyril (Rochdale)
Dobson, Frank Litherland, Robert Smith, Rt Hon J. (North Lanarkshire)
Dormand, Jack Lofthouse, Geoffrey Snape, Peter
Douglas, Dick Lyon, Alexander (York) Soley, Clive
Douglas-Mann, Bruce Lyons, Edward (Bradford West) Spearing, Nigel
Dubs, Alfred McCartney, Hugh Spriggs, Leslie
Duffy, A. E. P. McDonald, Dr Oonagh Stallard, A. W.
Dunn, James A. (Liverpool, Kirkdale) McElhone, Frank Steel, Rt Hon David
Dunnell, Jack McKay, Allen (Penistone) Stoddart, David
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth McKelvey, William Stott, Roger
Eastham, Ken MacKenzie, Rt Hon Gregor Strang, Gavin
Edwards, Robert (Wolv SE) McNally, Thomas Straw, Jack
Ellis, Raymond (NE Derbyshire) McNamara, Kevin Summerskill, Hon Dr Shirley
Ellis, Tom (Wrexham) McTaggart, Robert Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton West)
English, Michael McWilliam, John Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)
Ennals, Rt Hon David Magee, Bryan Thomas, Jeffrey (Abertillery)
Evans, Ioan (Aberdare) Marshall, David (Gl'sgow, Shettles'n) Thomas, Mike (Newcastle East)
Evans, John (Newton) Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole) Thomas, Dr Roger (Carmarthen)
Faulds, Andrew Marshall, Jim (Leicester South) Thorne, Stan (Preston South)
Field, Frank Martin, Michael (Gl'gow, Springb'rn) Tilley, John
Fitch, Alan Mason, Rt Hon Roy Torney, Tom
Flannery, Martin Maynard, Miss Joan Urwin, Rt Hon Tom
Fletcher, L. R. (Ilkeston) Meacher, Michael Varley, Rt Hon Eric G.
Fletcher, Ted (Darlington) Mellish, Rt Hon Robert Wainwright, Richard (Colne Valley)
Foot, Rt Hon Michael Mikardo, Ian Walker, Rt Hon Harold (Doncaster)
Ford, Ben Millan, Rt Hon Bruce Watkins, David
Forrester, John Miller, Dr M. S. (East Kilbride) Weetch, Ken
Foster, Derek Mitchell, Austin (Grimsby) Welsh, Michael
Foulkes, George Mitchell, R. C. (Soton, Itchen) White, Frank R. (Bury & Radcliffe)
Fraser, John (Lambeth, Norwood) Morris, Rt Hon Alfred (Wythenshawe) Whitlock, William
Garrett, John (Norwich S) Morris, Rt Hon Charles (Openshaw) Wigley, Dafydd
Garrett, W. E. (Wallsend) Morris, Rt Hon John (Aberavon) Willey, Rt Hon Frederick
George, Bruce Morton, George Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John Moyle, Rt Hon Roland Williams, Sir Thomas (Warrington)
Ginsburg, David Newens, Stanley Winnick, David
Gourlay, Harry Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon Woodall, Alec
Graham, Ted Ogden, Eric Woolmer, Kenneth
Grant, George (Morpeth) O'Halloran, Michael Wrigglesworth, Ian
Grant, John (Islington C) Orme, Rt Hon Stanley Young, David (Bolton East)
Grimond, Rt Hon J. Owen, Rt Hon Dr David
Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife) Parker, John TELLERS FOR THE AYES
Hardy, Peter Parry, Robert Mr. James Hamilton and
Harrison, Rt Hon Walter Pavitt, Laurie Mr. James Tim.
Adley, Robert Beaumont-Dark, Anthony Body, Richard
Aitken, Jonathan Bendall, Vivian Bonsor, Sir Nicholas
Alexander, Richard Bennett, Sir Frederic (Torbay) Boscawen, Hon Robert
Amery, Rt Hon Julian Benyon, Thomas (Abingdon) Bottomley, Peter (Woolwich West)
Arnold, Tom Benyon, W. (Buckingham) Bowden, Andrew
Atkins, Rt Hon H. (Spelthorne) Berry, Hon Anthony Boyson, Dr. Rhodes
Atkins, Robert (Preston North) Best, Keith Braine, Sir Bernard
Atkinson, David (B'mouth, East) Bevan, David Gilroy Bright, Graham
Baker, Kenneth (St. Marylebone) Biffen, Rt Hon John Brinton, Tim
Baker, Nicholas (North Dorset) Biggs-Davison, John Brittan, Leon
Banks, Robert Blackburn, John Brooke, Hon Peter
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Sc'thorpe) Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael Pawsey, James
Browne, John (Wincheser) Hicks, Robert Pink, R. Bonner
Bruce-Gardyne, John Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L. Pollock, Alexander
Bryan, Sir Paul Hogg, Hon Douglas (Grantham) Prentice, Rt Hon Reg
Buchanan-Smith, Hon Alick Porter, George Price, David (Eastleigh)
Buck, Antony Holland, Philip (Carlton) Prior, Rt Hon James
Budgen, Nick Hooson, Tom Proctor, K. Harvey
Bulmer, Esmond Hordern, Peter Pym, Rt Hon Francis
Burden, F A. Howell, Rt Hon David (Guildford) Raison, Timothy
Butcher, John Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk) Rathbone, Tim
Butler, Hon Adam Hunt, David (Wirral) Rees-Davies, W. R.
Carlisle, John (Luton West) Hunt, John (Ravensbourne) Renton, Tim
Chalker, Mrs. Lynda Irving, Charles (Cheltenham) Rhodes James, Robert
Charron, Paul Jenkin, Rt Hon Patrick Ridley, Hon Nicholas
Chapman, Sydney Johnson Smith, Geoffrey Ridsdale, Julian
Clark, Hon Alan (Plymouth, Sutton) Jopling, Rt Hon Michael Rifkind, Malcolm
Clark, Sir William (Croydon South) Kershaw, Anthony Rippon, Rt Hon Geoffrey
Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Kimball, Marcus Roberts, Michael (Cardiff NW)
Clegg, Sir Walter King, Rt Hon Tom Roberts, Wyn (Conway)
Colvin, Michael Kitson, Sir Timothy Royle, Sir Anthony
Cope, John Knight, Mrs Jill Sainsbury, Hon Timothy
Cormack, Patrick Knox, David St John-Stevas, Rt Hon Norman
Corrie, John Lamont, Norman Scott, Nicholas
Costain, A. P. Lang, Ian Shaw, Michael (Scarborough)
Cranborne, Viscount Langford-Holt, Sir John Shelton, William (Streatham)
Critchley, Julian Latham, Michael Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Crouch David Lawson, Nigel Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge-Br'hills)
Dean, Paul (North Somerset) Lee, John Shersby, Michael
Dickens Geoffrey Le Marchant, Spencer Silvester, Fred
Dorrell, Stephen Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark Sims, Roger
Dover, Densho[...] Lester, Jim (Beeston) Speed, Keith
du Cann, Rt Hon Edward Lewis, Kenneth (Rutland) Spence, John
Dunn, Robert (Dartford) Lloyd Peter (Fareham) Spicer, Jim (West Dorset)
Durant, Tony Loveridge, John Spicer, Michael (S Worcestershire)
Eden, Rt Hon Sir John Luce, Richard Sproat, Iain
Edwards, Rt Hon N. (Pembroke) Macfarlane, Neil Squire, Robin
Eggar, Timothy MacGregor, John Stainton, Keith
Elliott, Sir William MacKay, John (Argyll) Stanbrook, Ivor
Emery, Peter McNair-Wilson, Michael (Newbury) Stanley, John
Eyre, Reginald McNair-Wilson, Patrick (New Forest) Steen, Anthony
Fairbairn, Nicholas Major, John Stevens, Martin
Fairgrieve, Russell Marland, Paul Stewart, Ian (Hitchin)
Faith, Mrs Sheila Marshall, Michael (Arundel) Stewart, John (East Renfrewshire)
Farr, John Marten, Neil (Banbury) Stokes, John
Fell, Anthony Mates, Michael Stradling Thomas, J.
Fenner, Mrs Peggy Mather, Carol Tapsell, Peter
Finsberg, Geoffrey Maude, Rt Hon Angus Taylor, Robert (Croydon NW)
Fisher, Sir Nigel Mawby, Ray Taylor, Teddy (Southend East)
Fletcher, Alexander (Edinburgh N) Mawhinney, Dr Brian Tebbit, Norman
Fookes, Miss Janet Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin Temple-Morris, Peter
Forman, Nigel Mayhew, Patrick Thomas, Rt Hon. Peter (Hendon S)
Fowler, Rt Hon Norman Meyer, Sir Anthony Thornton, Malcolm
Fox, Marcus Mills, Iain (Meriden) Townsend, Cyril D. (Bexleyheath)
Fraser, Rt Hon H. (Stafford & St) Mills, Peter (West Devon) Trippier, David
Fraser, Peter (South Angus) Miscampbell, Norman Trotter, Neville
Fry, Peter Moate, Roger van-Straubenzee, W. R.
Galbraith, Hon T. G. D. Monro, Hector Vaughan, Dr Gerard
Gardiner, George (Reigate) Montgomery, Fergus Viggers, Peter
Gardner, Edward (South Fylde) Moore, John Waddington, David
Garel-Jones, Tristan Morris, Michael (Northampton, Sth) Waldegrave, Hon William
Glyn, Dr Alan Morrison, Hon Charles (Devizes) Walker, Bill (Perth & E Perthshire)
Goodhart, Philip Morrison, Hon Peter (City of Chester) Walker-Smith, Rt Hon Sir Derek
Goodlad, Alastair Mudd, David Wall, Patrick
Gow, Ian Murphy, Christopher Waller, Gary
Grant, Anthony (Harrow C) Myles, David Walters, Dennis
Gray, Hamish Neale, Gerrard Ward, John
Greenway, Harry Needham, Richard Warren, Kenneth
Griffiths, Eldon (Bury St Edmunds) Nelson, Anthony Wells, John (Maidstone)
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N) Neubert, Michael Wells, Bowen (Hert'rd & Stev'nage)
Grist, Ian Newton, Tony Wheeler, John
Grylls, Michael Normanton, Tom Whitelaw, Rt Hon William
Gummer, John Selwyn Nott, Rt Hon John Whitney, Raymond
Hamilton, Hon Archie (Eps'm & Ew'll) Onslow, Cranley Wickenden, Keith
Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury) Oppenheim, Rt Hon Mrs Sally Wiggin, Jerry
Hampson, Dr Keith Osborn, John Wilkinson, John
Hannam, John Page, John (Harrow, West) Williams, Delwyn (Montgomery)
Haselhurst, Alan Page, Rt Hon Sir R. Graham Wolfson, Mark
Hastings, Stephen Page, Richard (SW Hertfordshire) Young, Sir George (Acton)
Hawkins, Paul Parkinson, Cecil
Hawksley Warren Parris, Matthew TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Hayhoe, Barney Patten, Christopher (Bath) Mr. John Wakeham and
Heddle, John Patten, John (Oxford) Lord James Douglas-Hamilton.
Henderson, Barry Pattie, Geoffrey

Question accordingly negatived.

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