HC Deb 27 February 2003 vol 400 cc143-84WH

[Relevant documents: Nineteenth Report from the Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee, Session 2001–02, HC 603-I, and the Government's response Cm 5685.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Sutcliffe.]

2.30 pm
Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

I am grateful for the opportunity to debate the Select Committee's report. I want to put on record my gratitude to all those people who submitted evidence to the inquiry. Select Committees are very dependent on the quality of the evidence that they receive if they are to produce valuable reports. The report contains excellent evidence. As well as collecting evidence, we asked a series of questions about the new towns. There is a great deal of valuable information in volumes II and III of the report.

I also appreciate the hospitality of those people who arranged our visits to Telford, Corby and Hemel Hempstead. No, it was not Hemel Hempstead but Harlow—my memory is slipping. I should have made a note not to make that mistake. I thank them for the information that I gathered during my visit.

Finally, I want to record my appreciation of Brendan Nevin, the adviser to the Select Committee, and to David Harrison, the Clerk of the Select Committee for this Parliament and the previous one. David Harrison has now moved on, but the Select Committee appreciated his hard work.

The new towns were created after Lord Reith's inquiry into housing problems following the second world war and out of the need to replace a huge amount of slum housing and bomb-damaged housing, especially in areas such as London. The three key proposals that the inquiry made were that the new towns should be created in open countryside, that they should have a maximum population of about 60,000 and that the housing should be low density. We must remember that there was great concern in that era about diseases such as tuberculosis, which were associated with high-density housing.

New towns and the way in which they were created were an important part of the nation's history. In some ways, we need to keep a record of that. The attempts of Robert Owen, the Levers and Cadburys to create new housing remain: we have New Lanark, Port Sunlight and Bournville. It would be nice to think that some of the new towns will exist in the future, so that people can view them as a record. Most of the early new towns were the creation of a set of town planners who were very important in the middle half of the last century. They created something that was relevant for the time, rather than something that would develop easily into housing that suits modern life. It is important to achieve a balance between keeping the historic record and having somewhere attractive for people to live.

We must also note that the new towns were served badly by successive Governments. The Treasury can tell us that a lot of money was put into the new towns at the beginning, but rather than allowing the money to stay with them to help them evolve and develop, the Treasury quickly started to demand that the new towns pay the money back. In many cases, the towns paid it back time after time, which is how the new towns got a rotten deal. When the Commission for New Towns was wound up, it handed over its assets to English Partnerships, which was continually under pressure from the Treasury to get the money back. Many hon. Members in the Chamber represent new towns, and they would all agree that if the money had stayed in their communities rather than going back to the Treasury, their communities could have evolved.

Some communities had a certain amount of money set aside for future activities. For example, in Milton Keynes, we were told firmly that the money to look after the parkways was still available, but such endowment is the exception rather than the rule for the new towns.

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)

Towns such as Swindon were not classified as new towns but went through similar experiences without the extensive powers or direct grant that came from the Government. Does my hon. Friend feel that in considering the issues of extra and continuing support for towns, the grant that was invested initially should be considered, to ensure that infrastructures keep up with the needs of communities?

Andrew Bennett

It is important that money is available to keep the infrastructure developing and to take into account the special problems that were created, which I will comment on later. Some of the transport systems and lower-density housing schemes brought problems, which have got worse, and the Government have a duty to come up with the money to solve the specific problems created for the new towns by the concept of the development.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

Further to my hon. Friend's observations about Governments' attitude to new towns, was he surprised to receive a memorandum from the ex-chief executive of the Commission for the New Towns, John Walker. He said that from the 1980s to the mid-1990s, the Government took it as an opportunity to turn its back on new towns, and regard them primarily as a source of income from asset sales. Does my hon. Friend think that the current Government have brought about a big change in that policy?

Andrew Bennett

I hope that the change has been made, but I shall come to that later.

I was starting to talk about how English Partnerships had taken a lot of the money away from new towns. Sadly. until 12 months ago, it could have been said that English Partnerships deserved to be wound up. I understand the argument that English Partnerships is a useful vehicle for the Government. I hope that, instead of being a moribund institution that should have been wiped away, it will be much more successful in its second coming. I have heard all the public relations material. Its representatives appeared before the Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee, and everything looked promising. However, we want to see delivery on the ground before we are convinced that English Partnerships can do the job that the Government are planning for it.

Rosemary McKenna (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth)

Is my hon. Friend aware that the situation is different in Scotland? New town developments have already been wound up, and there is no residual body or Scottish Partnerships, but all the problems noted by the Select Committee are identifiable in the Scottish new towns. Has he been in touch with any of his counterparts in the Scottish Parliament, in view of the fact that the new towns are now an issue for the Scottish Parliament, and does he think that there are lessons to be learned jointly in examining the issue?

Andrew Bennett

I certainly think that there are joint issues to be examined. My hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe) was on the Committee, and he pushed urban issues very strongly. It seemed to me that there was a common theme, and that what needed to be done for the English and Welsh new towns also needed to be done for the Scottish ones. I do not know enough about the Scottish situation to know the mechanisms, but I fully accept that something needs to be done to solve the problems of the new towns there.

I shall now enumerate some of the problems. The original promise was that the housing would be low density. In the 1950s and early 1960s low-density housing might have been what people wanted. On occasions, imaginative ways of dealing with low-density housing might have been devised, but they are no longer relevant. In Runcorn, for example, an imaginative bus way was put in, which, at that particular time, served the low-density communities well. However, that bus way is now a nightmare, because, particularly in the evening, people are left standing at bus stops with no cars or other traffic going past, and do not have the feeling of security that they need in low-density housing areas. We must recognise that low-density housing, as created in most of the new towns, is not suitable.

There is also the question of critical mass, and what size the new towns should be. The aim for the original towns was 60,000 people. It may be true that, when they were built, 60,000 gave the critical mass to provide—I will not say the butcher, the baker and the candlestickmaker—the things needed to make a complete community. It is increasingly evident that the new towns that stuck at 60,000 or smaller are too small to maintain all the critical facilities that they need. That raises the question whether extra housing can be spread out into some of the green spaces in those new towns, to give them greater capacity without losing the original vision.

There are, therefore, some important issues to be addressed with regard to increasing housing density, developing viable communities, and establishing facilities such as good transport links.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge)

I am interested in the fact that the hon. Gentleman makes the case for increased density not out of necessity—we all understand the need for high-density housing—but on the basis that people prefer to live in a higher-density environment. That is not my experience, from the comments that I receive in my constituency whenever intensification of development is proposed. Does he have any evidence to suggest that people want greater density, rather than recognising that they will have to have it?

Andrew Bennett

There is quite a bit of evidence that people like to be in bigger communities. They may not want the field at the bottom of their garden to be built on, but they would like another field nearby to be built on. All sorts of things, such as shops and other facilities, are not viable unless there are enough people. I believe that people recognise that a critical mass is needed to make things work. I have talked to people in some of the new towns—not specifically the ones that the Committee visited—and they say that there are not enough people with the same sort of interests to make a particular society or group of activities work.

David Wright (Telford)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the critical issue is quality design? In many new towns there needs to be clearance of unpopular housing and quality redesign that will resolve some of the issues related, for example, to the Radburn lay-out, which many consider to have been a disaster in the new towns.

Andrew Bennett

I do not want to go through everything that is in the report, but I was about to address the Radburn lay-out. First, however, I want to deal with town centres.

Every member of the Committee who went to Corby was shocked and appalled by the state of the town centre. There was a feeling that we were in a third world country rather than the United Kingdom. I have every sympathy with the people of Corby. They have a town centre in which they can take no pride. A large number of them go out of Corby to do their shopping and they would like to make the town centre an effective shopping area again. That is true of most of the new towns; the way in which the shopping centres were designed is not effective today. They need redesigning, but that will not be possible without a greater number of people to make those shopping centres viable.

Barbara Follett (Stevenage)

There is a particular problem with crime in these town centres because they are deserted after 6 pm. There is no residential/work mix. We have to get that right if we want to bring crime down.

Andrew Bennett

Yes. It is worth remembering that the concept of the new towns was a planning one. People were supposed to live in one place, work in another and shop in another. Everything was separated. There were good reasons for that in 1950; most industry was not pleasant and people did not want to live close to it. Industry has changed and the Government have been working hard on the idea that town centres should become places where people can live, work, shop and participate in leisure activities.

Putting all that back together is one of the key tasks in the new towns. We want the new town centres to be redesigned so that they are places where people can live, shop and go for entertainment. That is a significant task that will involve Government, the new towns and the private sector. To do it, we need the critical mass.

Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire)

Will my hon. Friend clarify a point? He seems to be talking about the population of the town. Skelmersdale's population is 42,000. He may be saying that if it were 80,000 the town centre might be more feasible. That is not the same as low-density housing. In Skelmersdale and other new towns the housing on the estates is high density and people are on top of one another. Those are two different issues.

Andrew Bennett

I am happy to take interventions, but if all hon. Members are to have a turn there needs to be a little restraint.

I accept that there are two different issues. All new towns are not the same. There are places where the housing was spaced out with large areas of parkland in between. In some cases, there are not now the resources to maintain that parkland to a standard that would make it an asset rather than a disadvantage to local people. From my brief visit to Skelmersdale, I do not think there is the same problem there as in some of the southern new towns.

Some of the housing is brilliant and has stood the test of time. The difficulty with most of the new towns is that they started off with a high standard of housing and then, with all the pressure to build extra housing—especially in the 1960s—some cheap designs were brought in. Some were system-built. There was also the Radburn design, which was revolutionary at the time. It had walkways to the front door but the garages were located at the rear and all other services were supposed to come to the back door. In some places the design still works effectively, but in most places it does not work. The front accesses have become places where crime almost flourishes and the backs look unsatisfactory.

A great deal of money needs to be spent to remove some of those dwellings and put new dwellings in their place. Certainly, some of the housing that we saw in Telford should have been knocked down a long time ago, but of course that costs money. There is the question of money to replace much of the worn-out housing, and the question of jobs. Some new towns were very successful at attracting jobs and a balance of jobs. Places such as Skelmersdale, however, were far too dependent on one employer, so when that employer got into difficulties, so did the whole town. Again, that is a lesson for the new towns. A multitude of employers are needed, rather than just particular ones.

Neighbourhood renewal money has gone into an awful lot of urban communities, but most of the new towns do not qualify for it. The people who represent new towns have a justified whinge that they cannot gain access to some of the money that other communities have been able to get. There is a question about planning permission and whether it has been transferred. English Partnerships still has quite a lot of outstanding planning permissions to deal with, and the local community should have a say in that. The problem of clawback also needs to be dealt with.

I think that we produced a fairly balanced report. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has said nice things to me about the report on several occasions, but the polite way of describing the official response is that it simply says, "Get lost." In one way, that can be disheartening. A Select Committee can do its work, take evidence and produce a report, but then the Government do not show much enthusiasm. I have to admit, however, that some of the Government responses that are least encouraging on the surface produce the best results over time. I shall therefore listen with considerable hope to the reply from my hon. Friend the Minister. I hope that he will address many of the problems that we have identified and that, in a couple of years, it will be the action taken, rather than the Government response, that is remembered.

I say firmly to the Minister that I hope that, today and in the actions taken by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, he will talk about a rebirth of the new towns, so that they can build on their successes and remedy many of their problems. I hope that he will ensure that the new developments in the Thames Gateway and Ashford, whether they are called new towns or not, avoid the pitfalls that the new towns have encountered and learn from the many considerable successes that people in the new towns have experienced. I commend the report to the House.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Nicholas Winterton)

Order. I inform those hon. Members who wish to speak that the Chairman of the Committee, who has just spoken, indicated that if he had given way much more often, perhaps not all of them would be able to speak. A majority of those seeking to catch my eye represent new towns, and I hope that all hon. Members who want to will be able to speak, to enable the Front Benchers to wind up the debate at the normal time.

2.53 pm
Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Committee and those who worked on the report. When it was published, there was an extraordinary sense of elation in the community that I represent, because after decades of neglect, it was not simply people who represented new towns who were responding to what those of us who represent such communities see as a crisis. There was a sense that someone out there really understood the problem, and I am immensely grateful to my hon. Friend, first, for having initiated the inquiry and, secondly, for having made a series of recommendations, each of which hit the button. I say that as someone who has been disappointed by many people who are supposed to have been doing something to address the problems of these communities. Finally, it looked as if there was some understanding of what they faced.

It was therefore with something approaching horror that I received the Government's response to this extremely intelligent and thoughtful report. In almost every particular, the recommendations are rebuffed and there is a failure to understand. Those who advised Ministers in the 1980s and 1990s were the kind of people who led even the ex-chief executive of the Commission for the New Towns to say that the Government had turned their back on new towns and that their attitude was that of a detached landlord with no apparent policy interest in the long-term success of these communities.

Those civil servants or advisers still seem to be ruling the roost, to judge by the Government's response. Time after time it shows a lack of understanding of the recommendations being proposed. For instance, there are repeated references to substantial amounts of money being made available for housing under this year's allocations from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. However, very little of it is coming to my constituency: indeed, there is a haemorrhaging of resources away from the community, because the Government have decided that negative subsidy and the asset base of the community that I represent are such that substantial resources should be removed. The Government regard themselves as having given substantial resources not just to my constituency but to new towns in general.

Yet the ex-chief executive of the Commission for the New Towns said on page 79 of the evidence: The New Towns Programme was the only urban programme (to the best of my knowledge) which relied almost entirely on loan (rather than grant) finance from government. Moreover, it has repaid the loans to government, with interest, nearly 40 years before they were due, leaving residual assets in government ownership worth well over £1 billion. He goes on to talk about the difficulties of maintaining the assets that had been put forward: There is … a common sense and a moral argument that says the local communities ought to benefit more directly from value released by the further development and sale of the remaining assets, which vary tremendously in scale and value between the various new towns. Government policy under Nicholas Ridley was not what we were expecting when we were elected to represent new towns in 1997. I welcome some of the substantial changes made by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, especially in the remit governing English Partnerships. The recent change of attitude since the report was published has been manifest in some of its work to see itself as an agency for regeneration and cooperation rather than an agency for Treasury deprivation of assets of local communities.

I welcome much of that. However, that thinking is not reflected in the Government's document, which takes the attitude, "You think you've got problems, but other communities have as well". There is something in that, but we have a series of problems that are coming to a head at the same time. The Government talk about design and infrastructure and say that that is not a problem that is specific to the new towns. No it is not, but we have it in spades and other communities have it sporadically.

I represent a new town that has a library at its centre. The library is the usual small, leaking, crumbling structure that one would associate with a new town with 70,000 inhabitants. It was built on the assumption that those people would not need books. The college in the centre of Hemel Hempstead is falling apart. It has a flat roof and is of a dreadful design. Its principal would like to see it razed to the ground. The only venue for any form of public entertainment such as concerts and pantomimes in Hemel Hempstead was recently levelled by the local authority, leaving a large pile of rubble. Everything is falling apart at the same time. As with Corby, people who want to go shopping find department stores in other towns, not in Hemel Hempstead.

When, in response to a series of important recommendations about the inadequacy of standard spending assessments as a way of remedying the difficulties of new towns, the Government say that that is a problem that others have too, we need them to get real. Standard spending assessments are not helping us and the most recent effects of the local government finance settlement have exacerbated these problems.

I do not want to take up more time than I should, but the fact is that whenever the Government are offered something in this document that would really help, they say no. For instance, paragraph 52 of their response states: The Government is not prepared to give up clawback or sales receipts in the New Towns as a general principle. We want the Government to understand that new towns were financed in a way that involved them in repaying their debt to the wider community. They have repaid it and repaid it and repaid it. Now they are crumbling and they need something back. In his submission, John Walker, the chief executive of the Commission for the New Towns, said: Examination of government accounts show that a large portion of their expenditure on 'inner city' programmes has been funded from new town receipts. That milch cow ought now to be seen as itself in need of a little tender loving care.

If the Government rip up their initial response to this report and follow some of the things that have been flowing from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in advice to English Partnerships and on prospects for regeneration of our communities, we can begin to address the problems with which the system has left us. I am asking for another handout, for more money, for regeneration and investment, but I am also saying that new towns have the capacity to solve some of the problems that are firmly on the Government's agenda.

Affordable housing in Hertfordshire is at a premium. The site owned by English Partnerships in Hemel Hempstead the so-called Lucas Aerospace site—will be ideal for such a development initiative, and will solve the problem of vacancies in the local health service, which are at a higher level than in any other community in the United Kingdom. Some 8.6 per cent. of nurses' jobs are unfilled. An active housing programme, affordable housing and new towns can help to solve such difficulties.

We must bring solutions to the table. We need an active process of urban regeneration that involves English Partnerships and its current asset base. Where it does not have an asset base, it should use its expertise to develop one. I welcome any approach, but we have real problems. We need major investment, which may address many other issues on the Government's agenda.

3.6 pm

David Wright (Telford)

It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter), and I agree with so much of what he had to say. I do not intend to delay the Chamber for too long, and I begin by welcoming the Select Committee report and praising the commitment of the Chairman of the Committee during its construction.

The Committee visited Telford, and councillors and local authority officers found that visit extremely useful. The report allowed people to believe that new towns are back on the agenda, having been off it for so long—some 20 years, in fact. It also leads us to believe that someone is starting to listen on some of the issues and problems that new towns encounter, although I am disappointed by the Government's response. I will return to that.

My first point relates to the unique nature of new towns, which the Government's response does not accept. New towns are largely a construct of the postwar era, but there are many examples of new communities that were created by the philanthropists of the 19th and early 20th centuries, when people came together to try to improve the housing and social conditions of their communities. The post-war new towns policy was an echo of that. It was incredibly positive, and a message, which was pushed largely by left-of-centre Governments in the post-war era, that lives and communities could be better and that we could do more for our people. The new towns stand as a unique testament of how Government intervention can be positive for ordinary people.

As Members know, Telford was called Dawley new town in 1963 and renamed in 1968. It is one of the larger and, I would argue, more successful new towns. It is also my home town, and it is a great privilege to represent it, but Telford is not new any more, as it is over 30 years old. In some ways, the title "new town" is a problem for us. When new towns were constructed, there was a massive investment in the infrastructure all at the same time, but infrastructure wears out. New towns were developed in a fairly short time, and that infrastructure looks tired and worn. We have had substantial new investment and good partnerships with the private sector that have brought resources into new towns, but we need a major injection of public and private sector resources to deal with some of those infrastructure problems. I will turn to one of them in relation to a point that I wish to make about the Select Committee report and the Government's response.

Much of the housing stock in new towns is past its useful life. We have already heard about issues involving the Radburn layout of estates. A number of estates in my town in south Telford, such as Woodside, Brookside, Sutton Hill and Malinslee, were developed using the Radburn layout, which was well described by the Chair of the Select Committee. Access to the front of a property is gained from a pedestrian area, and parking and vehicular access are to the rear.

In many of those estates there are areas of overgrown former environmental improvement patches and large swathes of poorly defined land with no indication of where people's property starts or ends. That causes great problems with antisocial behaviour and nuisance. We need to redesign and restructure those estates radically and turn some of those properties around. We need to consider street design and renewal.

Many shopping centres on those estates can be described only as bunkers. We must clear them and consider better quality design that would open them out and make them more attractive. The people of Telford deserve the best—I am sure that all Members believe the same about their constituents. They measure their perception of what Government and local government think of them from the facilities we provide for them. To be honest, we have let them down over the past 20 years and it is time for change.

I am pleased to say that English Partnerships is assisting us locally on Woodside. It is doing a tremendous job, and I refer in particular to people such as Peter Murray, who heads the team and to whom I pay tribute. We are seeing greater partnership between the agencies, particularly English Partnerships, which needs to go on the record. A potential multi-million pound scheme is emerging for the regeneration of Woodside, and I thank the Minister for his interest over recent months. Some positive things are coming out of the change in attitude and process.

The difficulty is, however, that that scheme will tackle only one of a number of estates that I mentioned, although those problems exist on many others. Once we have dealt with Woodside, we must try to deal with some of the other estates too, which will be resource intensive. It would be helpful if the Minister commented on how we can draw together a rolling programme of housing stock improvement and investment in new town areas. I shall touch further on that point in my conclusion.

The role of English Partnerships has been extremely important over the years. The attitude employed by its predecessor, the Commission for the New Towns, during the 1980s and 1990s was appalling. It pursued a policy of what are known as "fire sales" of accommodation on new town estates, which created enormous problems with mixed ownership and tenure. In terms of redevelopment, mixed tenure can be good, but the way in which the disposal strategy was handled during the 1980s and 1990s and the fact that people have been unclear about who owns which assets and strips of land that are left seemingly in no one's ownership have caused great management problems in many new town estates. We need to re-examine that issue and get it right.

I repeat that the role of English Partnerships is central to what we are trying to achieve in new towns, and I appreciate the changes at the top level in the management of its role. If it can emerge as the new regeneration agency that can help us to deal with some of the issues in new towns, I will welcome that. When I make my concluding proposals, I shall return to some issues that I would like English Partnerships to pick up.

One of the major issues in Telford is transport. The town was designed around the car in the late 1960s. There is a fantastic road network—the large estates are surrounded by roads and have fantastic vehicular access—but our public transport infrastructure is weak. We have excellent new bus programmes, but we need more resources to assist us in our transport plan. Indeed, I do not believe that the existing transport budget can cope with the infrastructure and investment that Telford needs. If the town were built now, high-quality rapid transit systems—running north-south and east-west—would be put in. We could see that development in future years. We certainly need significant investment in our bus transport strategy and I want that to be a key theme in the regeneration of the new town.

Matthew Green (Ludlow)

The hon. Gentleman is aware that his constituency has a portion of railway line that is not used for public passenger transport. Roughly speaking, it runs south from the centre of Telford down to the Ironbridge power station. It has often struck me that it could be developed into a useful commuter route, which would shuttle people from largely residential areas in the south towards the centre of Telford. Does he agree that that should be considered?

David Wright

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for promoting that idea. I recently received a proposal from the Telford steam railway trust relating to opening that line up again. However, delivering the project would involve an investment of about £4 million. The scale of the necessary infrastructure and investment means that the project cannot be achieved by a small organisation. We would need to put together a public-private partnership. I welcome his interest, however. Perhaps we could have a discussion and consider how the investment could work. He represents a neighbouring constituency, and the project could have a positive impact on his communities as well.

High-quality cultural investment is one of the key issues on which we need to focus. My hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead has already mentioned the fact that he struggles in terms of the scope and scale of the cultural investment in his town centre and community. Telford has an excellent town centre and a superb shopping centre, but, as I said in evidence to the Select Committee, it is an out-of-town centre right in the middle of the town. It makes very little connection with many of the communities around it.

We need to develop public-private partnerships to secure investment in a cultural quarter in Telford. I am pleased to say that English Partnerships has acknowledged that and has supported the local authority in developing a master plan. We need support and pump-priming investment to ensure that we can deliver that. We also need to bring in the private sector, but we may well need further assistance and support through public sector pump-priming to bring forward sites under the cultural investment strategy. That will help us to ensure that our town centre is the life of the town, and that it does not close down at 5.30 or 6 o'clock at night and become a desert environment.

I finish with a plea on promoting better quality design, which is integral to the future of our new towns. When our new towns were first put together, many of the architects who worked on them were committed to trying to achieve the best communities. Unfortunately, a lot of the work done then has not stood the test of time. I hope that we do not repeat those mistakes when redesigning many of our residential areas and town centres over the coming years.

We need to lift the quality of the design and infrastructure that we offer to local people, who judge their town by the environment around them. They deserve the very best, and we need to invest heavily in design competitions and processes that will bring the best architects into the new towns. Why should the best architects look only at the large cities in our country and across Europe? Why do the best architects look only at Manchester, London and Leeds? We need to translate their activity down and attract them to redesign our new towns. They could bring their skills and talents to give us some of the best quality buildings for the future.

Andrew Bennett

One of the interesting things about the new towns is that when they were initially constructed they attracted some of the best people in their field as chief planners. They got their prestige out of working for a new town. Getting such people back is important.

David Wright

My hon. Friend is quite right and I broadly agree with him. I want to recreate that environment, so that people see new towns as being at the cutting edge of design and quality and the best designers are brought back to regenerate our new towns.

Mr. Hammond

There seems to be great enthusiasm for master planning among Members who have spoken. Is not one lesson to be learned from some of the problems with our new towns that the monolithic approach to planning, rather than a more organic approach to the development of communities, can be a root cause of future problems?

David Wright

As one who represents a new town, I think that one of our biggest problems is the laissez-faire planning approach of the 1980s, when many of the structure plans for new towns were torn up, small retail parks sprang up all over the place and the shopping hierarchy was destroyed. We need to integrate our planning framework more effectively. I am a supporter of master planning, and if that makes me an old-fashioned Stalinist, I am sorry, because I do not intend to be. I want public sector agencies to examine the overall approach to new towns, bring in the best designers in the private sector and encourage flexibility around a master plan. Both angles can be achieved.

I am conscious that other Members wish to speak, so I shall sum up. I want to raise four issues, which I hope the Minister addresses, and to explain what we need for future new town development. First, we need access to neighbourhood renewal fund resources because of our new town status. There is a problem in many new towns because we do not qualify for those resources. We have significant pockets of deprivation, but they are often outweighed by areas of relative prosperity. That means that local authorities such as mine do not receive regeneration resources. They are often unable to plan what goes into those pockets of deprivation or to use such resources to match investment from English Partnerships, the Housing Corporation, other agencies and the private sector. We need a greater commitment to neighbourhood renewal in new towns because they are new towns.

Secondly, I want the Minister to consider new towns as a priority for any future housing market renewal investment round. It would be helpful if new towns could be considered as special cases in that context. Local authorities in my area are doing significant work with the black country boroughs to examine how the housing market in the west midlands operates. Many wards in my constituency would be investment priorities if they were in the black country, so if there is to be a second round of the housing market renewal fund and housing market renewal investment, I hope that the Government consider new towns.

Thirdly, I would like more waiving of clawback arrangements. English Partnerships has done a lot in response to queries from a number of Members, including me, who have been fairly annoying and persistent questioners on the strategy that it employs.

Fourthly, I want to ensure that we do not return to the situation of the 1980s and 1990s when, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead said, places such as Telford were seen as a cash cow for the Treasury. That must stop. New towns have paid their dues and it is time that they were regenerated effectively in a partnership between communities and those who represent them.

3.23 pm
Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Cunninghame, South)

I welcome this opportunity to speak in the debate, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) for giving me the opportunity to serve on the Committee that considered the new towns. I thank all who were involved in putting together a very good report, which I commend to the Minister, but I am rather disappointed at the Government's response.

Hon. Members will know that I do not represent an English constituency, and I feel almost divorced in making this statement, but it is important to demonstrate my experience of new towns. I have lived, almost from birth, in an area where a new town was created, and I saw the birth of that town in the 1960s and its demise in the 1990s. I want to share with the House some experiences of that period. There were five new towns in Scotland, which were all wound up at the same time. The town that I represent, in which I have lived for most of my life, is the Irvine new town, which is unique in that it is the only new town created by the sea. There are those who say that it should have been shoved into the sea after the planners walked out. I represent it, however, and I am proud to do so. Its people are the best that there are, and I call it God's country.

I have seen some of the effects of new towns and have heard about those from other hon. Members this afternoon. The Committee was able to expose some of those effects, especially in Corby. Having been to Corby with the Committee, I have to say that I came away thinking that I had been to hell and back. I have relatives there, and after my visit I telephoned them to say that I had been. They said, "You didn't come and look at Corby did you? It's the pits". It really is. Having then gone back to the Irvine new town and taken a wander around, I can say that it is like a palace compared with Corby. However, we also went to Harlow, which is a completely different experience. There has been good investment there, and much creative thinking.

Irvine was wound up in the mid-90s and has suffered since because it no longer receives the £11.5 million per annum that was injected by the development corporation. One plus of being a new town was that those funds brought industry into the area—lots of industry—which created lots of jobs. Those were at the leading edge, and they were of high value to the area. They injected enormous resources into it which would not otherwise have existed. The leisure facilities, such as the Magnum leisure centre in the main part of the town, were magnificent, and there was nothing better than seeing those made available to people for the first time. The creation of golf courses, football fields and all sorts of recreational facilities has transformed the area and is to be commended.

My hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright) mentioned transport. I have a theory that when the planners—who I think are worse than lawyers, which is saying something—came to design the new town, they opened up an old Ordnance Survey map of the area and then decided to have a tea break. Where the tea cups left stains, they became the roundabouts. They decided to join them up, and that became the roads. Irvine, and every other new town, is a wee bit like that. Having represented a trade union covering the five new towns in Scotland, I appealed to my employer for a special allowance for tyres because I wore out so many going round all the roundabouts. I understand that the taxi drivers in East Kilbride get 2p extra a mile on their rate because they wear out so many tyres going round all the roundabouts.

Transport more broadly is a disaster. The planners did not look outside the new towns. They spent all the money on the new towns, but the roads go nowhere. There are roundabouts with blocked-up exits all over my town. Roads do not go anywhere other than the new town itself. Many years ago, I saw the Grand Prix in France where it is held in the streets and thought about making an application to have the Grand Prix up in Irvine, where there would be a fantastic network of roads to choose from, instead of in Silverstone.

I return to the subject of planners. Having been in a town of 19,000 people, where there was great heritage and culture, I would argue that the planners from the development corporation destroyed the centres of those communities; they ripped them down. They took away the bridge, which I regret to this day, and they created a shopping centre that I call the biggest WC in Europe because it is white-sided and white-tiled, and it looks absolutely appalling. I do not know if they were planners with a great future ahead of them. My God, I would not have given them much of a future if what they created then was an example of how they went about their business. It was a demonstration of what was wrong with the new towns.

Having always been involved with the politics of the town, I can say that there was a democratic deficit in the boards of the new towns. That had plusses but a lot of minuses. The planners would never have got away with what they did to the town if they had been subject to the democratic ticket. They would not have been re-elected if they had been democratically elected in the first place.

The other element of the problems is the loss of industry. At the start of my remarks, I made a point of the plusses and mentioned the good industry in the area. Today, most of that industry has gone away; none of the companies that were brought to us in the 1960s are still there. Not one company created at the same time as the development corporation is in the town now. That has a major impact: my constituency has the highest unemployment in Scotland. The rate is 3 per cent. above the national average because the jobs that were brought in are no longer there.

There are no public sector jobs either. Because the new town was not completed—it was wound up early—it does not have the infrastructure to support itself for any length of time. I remember talking, in the days leading up to its demise, to the chief executive, who bemoaned the fact that he was going to be out of a job, but he also saw his baby being thrown out with the bathwater. A house was being created, but the early wind-up in the mid-1990s meant that the house was never given a roof. That affected the whole infrastructure, and it is still badly affected.

The worst example is the town centre. My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish mentioned town centres and the experience in Corby. The town centre in Irvine was destroyed by the planners. It is now ageing, and there are no resources to improve its position. We see that as the legacy of the new towns process.

If I were to summarise, having lived through the whole period of the new town, I would say that it has been a bad experience overall. However, I have come out the other side of that process; I have spent a tremendous amount of time encouraging people; and I have seen the small communities coming alive. There are two main towns, and the smaller of the two, Kilwinning, is coming alive. It is starting to see its own identity return, and the whole area is being lifted up. It is obvious that it will never be able to do that on its own because it requires more attention than can be given by any Government agency. I would suggest that any new town in the United Kingdom is in exactly the same situation.

The momentum of what was being developed—latterly the developments were good—has been completely lost. We are not seeing what I wanted: a town of some 70,000 people, which would have been big enough to allow Marks & Spencer, for instance, to come to it. Nothing like that could happen in Irvine. That problem must be looked at seriously in every new town.

The Chairman of the Committee mentioned the need for rebirth. There is no doubt that the position of new towns needs to be rethought. They are unique; they have been unique throughout their existence; and their legacy must be addressed. They need more resources and more investment. I look forward to hearing the Minister say that the Government will proceed on the basis that the new towns are unique.

3.35 pm
Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire)

I am fascinated by my hon. Friend's account of the way in which his roundabouts came into being. Skelmersdale in my constituency is similarly covered with roundabouts, which came about in a slightly more enterprising way. The new town was built on an old mining area, so the roundabouts were put on the top of the old pit shafts. The whole of Westminster could fit into some of the roundabouts. They have wonderful flooded pits in the middle of them, which kids fish in. They are the closest thing to leisure centres that any of them have seen. When kids moan, "There's nothing to do in Skem," I say, "Go and fish in the roundabout," and they do.

Mr. McWalter

Is my hon. Friend saying that there is nothing else to do in Skelmersdale?

Mr. Pickthall

Not after dark.

Mr. Donohoe

I forgot to say that one of our roundabouts is so big that the local sheep farmer has the grazing rights.

Mr. Pickthall

It is one way of keeping green spaces.

I am a fully paid-up member of the new town whingers group. If one has something to whinge about, one whinges. As well as having some positive things to say about our new towns, we have a lot to complain about as well. Therefore, I was delighted when the Select Committee decided to do a study on the new towns, and even more pleased when I read its report, because it hit all the right notes. I shall come back to that in a moment.

The gap between the Select Committee's recommendations in its report in July last year and the Government's response in November is unusually great. The Government's response is largely dismissive and does not even bother to be polite or to explain some of its conclusions in detail. That may be the result of changes in the structure of Departments and ministerial changes. Attitudes are bound to change. However, before the report was printed, Lord Falconer and my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble), who were the Ministers responsible for these issues before the changes were made, openly and clearly supported most of the main recommendations that the Committee eventually made. Several of us had meetings with them on the subject. Indeed, in a debate in this Chamber we put forward our views and received a positive response from my hon. Friend.

Therefore, the brusque rejections in the Government's reply came as a shock—literally. I was astonished when I read it. The recommendations included, for example, the removal of the clawback rights. One can smell in that the controlling hand of the Treasury, because it would have had to forgo some projected income if clawback and asset sales were forgone.

I congratulate the Select Committee on its report, which was generous in spirit. That needs to be said, because most of the hon. Members involved in its construction—perhaps all of them bar one—did not represent new towns. Therefore, they were looking at the problem from outside and objectively. They were asking the right questions and then making the right recommendations. What they recommended would have made a significant difference to Skelmersdale in my constituency of West Lancashire.

I do not deny that the Government are injecting regeneration funds into Skelmersdale through the methods briefly outlined in the response document, but two points need to be made on that. First, at the same time as the Government, through the regional development agency facilitators in the Government office for the north-west, are putting regeneration funds into Skelmersdale, they are removing assets and potential assets through sell-off and clawback. It seems absurd that one arm of government should recognise a problem—in my town as well as many others—and say, "Right, we'll put a pile of money in," while another arm takes out a tranche of money that the town has generated for itself.

Secondly, the Select Committee made it clear that new towns had special problems—lots of towns have problems—consequent on their being new towns. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright) that "new towns" is now the wrong title. The said that Skelmersdale traditionally did not get the regeneration support received by other new towns because of its proximity to larger areas of deprivation, and it said the same about Telford. That is self-evident. However, it is also true that the attention of successive Governments seeking to tackle socioeconomic deprivation has, over decades, concentrated on the larger areas that are perhaps easier to identify and have inner-city problems, such as Liverpool in my part of the world and, to a lesser extent but still a problem, Manchester.

To some extent that identified disadvantage for Skelmersdale has been addressed in recent months. It would be churlish of me not to welcome that, because the money that has come from the Government through the RDA will do a great deal of good. Skelmersdale has 42,000 people and, like other towns that have been mentioned, its growth was stopped in the 1970s. I believe that it was stopped deliberately so that Skelmersdale did not qualify for further help to build its town centre or its hospital. Land is still set aside for a hospital. The town will never get it, but the entire population of Skelmersdale believes that I will deliver the hospital at some point in the future. They will probably get rid of me if I do not. I certainly have no chance of doing it.

In smaller urban areas such as Skelmersdale deprivation is not as extensive. The numbers are not as large, but the situation is as serious as in Liverpool, Manchester or any of our cities with problems. Skelmersdale is a second-generation new town, built in the 1960s to accommodate mainly overspill population from Liverpool. Those who moved to Skelmersdale in its first years and are still around—there are quite a lot—say that it was fabulous: it was a great place and they thought that they had come to paradise. They could look out of the windows and see green fields, and some of them had nice little gardens. It is about 15 miles from Liverpool and 30 miles from Manchester, but it is immediately surrounded by a large and relatively well-to-do rural area.

Skelmersdale has no rail link, although railway lines pass close to it. It has lousy bus services, especially into the big estates around the town. It has the sort of town centre that my hon. Friend the Member for Telford described in the report, a description that he has repeated this afternoon: it is rather like an out-of-town mall dumped into the middle of the town, with no civic centre characteristics at all. There is no cinema. There was a small theatre, under county council provision, but it is about to be shut. There are sports centres but there is no community life in Skelmersdale centre after 6 o'clock in the evening. Several of my hon. Friends have made the same point about their towns. That makes towns of such size very difficult places to live in.

The changes to the planning regulations that the Select Committee proposed would have considerably helped West Lancashire district council to develop a proper town centre for Skelmersdale, something that it is seeking to do. Plans for that are being put together. The Government's response to the proposed changes to the planning arrangements, on page 14, is in my view pretty woolly. It says: We would, therefore, expect planning arrangements under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 to increasingly become the norm. Does that mean that that will happen in 100 years' time, or that it will happen once this year and twice in ten years' time? It is, frankly, not very helpful.

I shall mention the jobs situation briefly, because it is very similar to what my hon. Friends have already described, and I do not want to bore the Minister by repeating the same points. In the late 1970s, four huge factories in Skelmersdale, including Courtaulds and Dunlop, closed down within weeks of one another when the grants and the rate relief ran out. Some 4,000 jobs were lost overnight. That was a crippling blow in a town of that size. I am delighted to say that unemployment in Skelmersdale is now much lower, which is very positive, but over the years those factories have been replaced with firms with no roots in the area. They come in and are there for a few years. If they flourish, they stay a little longer, but if they flourish a great deal, they are taken over by another firm, which tends these days to be an American parent firm, and moved to Romania. That has happened to several firms recently. The jobs available in Skelmersdale are always very shaky. There is always uncertainty among the people over whether their jobs will still be there the next year.

The Government have brushed aside underlying arguments clearly put forward by the Select Committee. There is a serious democratic deficit in the new towns, where substantial resources continue to rest in the hands of English Partnerships, a quango with which the elected local council may or may not have a close working relationship. I am pleased, and want to put on record, that my council tells me that in the past few months those relationships have become much better and more positive. It is happy about that. The Government say that English Partnerships will be a "key player". They state: We are not now proposing to divest English Partnerships of its non-strategic assets to local authorities, but rather for EP to ensure that their value in achieving the Government's objective is realised to the full. That sounds pretty fine, but I am not sure what it amounts to in reality. It is safe to say that a good, sympathetic, positive and forward-looking quango is better than one that is not. Such a change has taken place, and I welcome it.

I recognise that the Government are enjoined to work with each new town's local authority, which is now happening. I also understand—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—that English Partnerships can now acquire land and be involved in developments outside the new town. If so, the Government have not only rejected the proposal to transfer controlled assets from a quango to democratic local authorities—as my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) told us his Committee recommended—but are presiding over an expansion of quango powers beyond the remit of the Commission for the New Towns into and around my local authority areas.

Finally, I want to express my dismay at the general tenor of the Government response. It seeks to refute the argument of new town MPs and the Select Committee that new towns are special and require particular attention. One obvious example is that new town estates were often built rapidly over a limited period and are therefore decaying at the same time.

It may not be true of other new towns, but mine has a parallel problem with the population. Large families moved in and bred rapidly, but the size of families is now much smaller and the number of young people in the town has collapsed over the past few years. Projections suggest that that will continue for some time. All of a sudden, we have a problem with schools that we no longer need. This year we shall have to decide which schools to close. Such problems are peculiar to new towns, because of their manufactured, non-organic history.

In Skelmersdale, we have tried every experimental building method known to man—and even some that are not. Some proved catastrophic. It is not so bad now because the worst houses have been pulled down. If I had wanted to, I could have shown members of the Select Committee houses in which they could have put their hands through the corner of a room into the garden and picked a flower. Those houses were built on metal frames with concrete slabs, but many of the frames rusted and twisted. We still face the legacy of such experiments. In the 1960s, such houses might have seemed all right, but they left a dramatic legacy.

Mr. McWalter

Does my hon. Friend agree that part of that legacy was the vast use of asbestos, as a result of which even pulling buildings down is extremely hazardous and difficult?

Mr. Pickthall

Indeed, it posed many complications. On one fairly large estate, the council has removed asbestos over the past couple of years, but only from those houses that are still rented. People who bought their houses unaware of the asbestos in them have to sort it all out themselves, at a cost of several thousand pounds, and many are elderly people who do not have the resources to do so. That is certainly a damaging legacy. No one living now is to blame for it, but the problem is still with us.

The introduction to the Government response refers to the desire of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister for new towns to be "normalised". I am glad that they put the word in inverted commas. It sounds rather sinister. It sounds like the sort of thing that the Americans did in Vietnam: "We'll normalise this piece of territory." The Government go on to talk about ensuring parity of treatment with other local authorities". That is fair enough and it is encouraging, but a major part of that normalisation must be to seek to ameliorate the problems created by the Radburn design. I shall not go into that, because my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish has described it more than adequately. Paragraph 3 of the introduction describes it as militating against sustainable living communities. That is one point in the Government response with which I absolutely agree. The rest of the paragraph, which addresses what we shall do about the Radburn principle and the design flaws, is well-meaning waffle. It does not mean anything.

The enormous effort and cost involved in correcting the problems that the Radburn design has created must be acknowledged. I maintain that the assets in the control of the CNT and English Partnerships should be used—perhaps they are being used now, as things are being handled more sensibly—by the local authority in that work. The local authority is the best body to organise that, and I speak as someone who for the last 12 months has had a Conservative-controlled local authority. However, it is democratically elected, concerned about the future of the new town and anxious to do its best for it.

Skelmersdale is helping, whether consciously or not, the Government's programme for affordable housing and better housing, because all round the edge of it huge new private estates are being built. The houses are very nice. If they were in the south-east of England, they would be worth £250,000 apiece, but in that area they are relatively low-cost houses. They are improving the town and avoid the mistakes that were made in the building of the existing new town. There are many thousands of them. However, we could end up with quite a nice dormitory area all round the edge of Skem, like a big doughnut, with a rotting core of the old new town, without a town centre. That prospect does not cheer me up at all.

Mr. McWalter

Does my hon. Friend draw any comfort from the claims made repeatedly in the Government response that the standard spending assessment system is being abolished and replaced with a new local government settlement, and that that is the way in which these matters will be dealt with?

Mr. Pickthall

As my efforts over many years to understand the standard spending assessment have absolutely failed, the answer is no, that does not give me any comfort, although it does remind me to place on the record the fact that my area has also had its support for housing chopped back in the last year. That is causing us considerable problems.

It must be remembered that new towns such as Skelmersdale represent work still in progress. They are not a finished job; they have never been capped off. Debts are paid off, but cash from assets is still being taken out by the Treasury. I still maintain, despite the reports and the nice things that I have said about English Partnerships, that those assets should be used to help to finish off the new towns—in the nicest possible way. They should be used to make them the living communities that the Government say that they are anxious to construct. That enormous task will be very difficult, but many people out there are willing to take it on, and most of them are elected.

3.59 pm
Matthew Green (Ludlow)

I welcome the debate, and in particular the Select Committee report, which examines the problems of the so-called new towns in some detail. The report, and the Government's unsatisfactory response to it, revolve around whether one accepts that the new towns have a unique case compared with other areas. In summary, the Government's response is that the problems of new towns can be dealt with in the same way as those of other areas. One could have some sympathy with that view, if it were not for one major difference between the new towns and other areas: a substantial amount of land in new towns is owned by a Government quango, English Partnerships, and the controlling interest that that quango has over the planning and development of the new towns does not exist anywhere else.

The Government may have strong arguments for saying that, with the new formula spending share, which has replaced the standard spending assessment, unique cases could be made for towns throughout the country. I, for one, would argue that the Government have not taken enough account of rural areas, and that new towns adjoining rural areas, such as Telford, get a better settlement than the rural districts. However, the important issue with new towns is that the land and the assets are in the hands of a quango, and cannot be used to the full extent in helping their regeneration—or in some cases their required rebirth.

We should also bear it in mind that the new towns are not all the same. We have just heard about Skelmersdale, where the polite word that might be used about the core of the town is stagnation. However, other new towns, such as Telford, are expanding and thriving. Moreover, Milton Keynes, where the Government are planning to build a lot more housing, will continue to be a "new" town because of the rapid development that is planned for it.

I shall add a little historical perspective to the debate. Hon. Members will probably not know that my degree is in mediaeval studies. I know that new towns are nothing new. Ludlow is a formally laid out mediaeval new town. I would not have described the Mortimers, who planned the town in the 12th century, as Stalinist. Formal planning does not have to be viewed as a centralised approach. Ludlow is a very successful new town from the 12th century. Our biggest problem is that in the 12th century they did not realise that the motor car would be invented, so there are no parking spaces. Many of Ludlow's problems are a result of its success.

There are also new towns that were built in the 12th and 13th centuries that no longer exist. There is a place in Shropshire called Caus, which is now a field, but was once a planned, formally laid out town. In the past, towns have been successful or not, and we must take a historical view of that. There will be nothing really new. There may soon be new "new towns", although they might not be called that, at Ashford and Thames gateway.

To return to the report, as I am sure that hon. Members would prefer me to do, there are several areas that should be examined, the first of which is planning. There is a particular problem where a large amount of land is owned by a quango and that quango has rights with no equivalent elsewhere. That prevents local authorities from developing proactive local planning strategies. The capacity to use section 106 agreements to get planning gain is also limited compared with other areas. As a by-product, the local authority also has a reduced fee income from the administration of the planning system, because so much of the land is owned by English Partnerships. The Government cannot ignore that, and pretend that new towns are like the rest of the country, because that ownership does not exist in other areas.

There is also the financial aspect. With both the 2 per cent. clawback and the fact that only 20 per cent. of the asset is put back into the area, there are some situations in which the areas are still seen as milch cows that keep the Treasury happy. We have heard about the crazy case of Skelmersdale, which is attracting regeneration money into one hand and seeing money disappearing off to Government from the other. If we tried to explain that to local taxpayers, they would be more than baffled.

The financial aspects need to be reviewed. More importantly, we need to learn some lessons, because in the future we will need to develop the equivalent of new towns, and to develop and redevelop the existing new towns. There was an exchange about low or high density, but the real problem with new town development was the separation of the new towns into different zones in which people live, work and shop. Successful towns throughout the centuries have merged those activities in one site. People live above shops and are in thriving centres at all times of the day, because they either live there or are visiting for entertainment. That is lost with the modular approach, which is also designed around the motor car.

Mr. Hammond

Is not the essence of traditional towns that different parts of them get redeveloped at different stages, so no single fad or design concept of the moment is imposed across them all? That is what gives them their vibrancy and character, which are so often lacking in some of our new towns.

Matthew Green

The hon. Gentleman has a point, but it goes only so far. Historic towns that have been developed piecemeal have been in existence for much longer, and the 30-year-old new towns will develop piecemeal from now on. He has a point, as the infrastructure problems stem from the fact that they were all built at the same time, but I would not stretch it too far.

David Wright

The point is that there are pockets of problems, deprivation and poor design surrounded by other areas and communities that are successful. We do not want to affect the successful communities; we want to tackle the problems. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we could use a different design approach in each area while retaining the character of the successful elements of new town communities?

Matthew Green

The hon. Gentleman is spot on with that approach. That does not involve ignoring strategic planning, as good strategic planning would ensure different designs, feels and characteristics for different parts. I know Telford well, as I was born and bred in Shropshire, which Telford is still formally part of. Many people in Telford will still say that they come from Wellington or Ironbridge, referring to the old communities. Some of those are successful, but we have also heard about the problem estates, especially those built on the Radburn design. It is not an easy decision for local authorities or the Government to consider, but I suspect that we may reach the stage of having to demolish the Radburn estates, rather than trying to fiddle with them.

Andrew Bennett

Some Radburn estates many need to be pulled down, but we must remember how the tenure has developed on them. There is owner-occupation, because people have bought their homes, and a significant amount of rented accommodation, because private landlords have moved in, particularly in places such as Telford. Sadly, they are some of the worst private landlords, and I hope that the Housing (Overcrowding) Bill will start to deal with that problem. Putting the different interests together in one package is complicated, and the process is further complicated by the fact that ownership of some of the land is unknown.

Matthew Green

The hon. Gentleman has hit the point. The problem is not always that land ownership is unknown. Some strips of land have, in effect, become ransom strips for any future development. There are many problems. Central Government legislation may be needed to provide more radical ways of dealing with the problem of the complexity of ownership of sites.

Mr. Hammond

It may be inconvenient to anyone who wants to take a redevelopment approach that the new towns are not necessarily under single ownership. However, surely that simply repeats the pattern that exists in every other community and town in every other part of the country? There are various tenures, and various owners, good and bad, co-operative and uncooperative.

Matthew Green

Yes, in a sense, but I invite the hon. Gentleman to walk around some of the estates in Telford, although the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) might not be too keen. He will see that the problem is much more systematic than would arise from a more organic process of the past.

Mr. McWalter

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that many of those ransom strips are now being actively conveyed to the local authority following some of the recent changes to English Partnerships? That is certainly happening in my area. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome that, and ask the Minister to consolidate that move.

Matthew Green

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I do not disagree that some of the recent changes to English Partnerships have been for the better. Frankly, the worst days for new towns were in the 1980s and 1990s when there was a laissez-faire approach, as it was described, and distant landlords. I welcome some of the changes, but problems remain that the Government have yet to accept. That emerges from their response; they do not accept that the problems exist. Members of the Select Committee and most other people accept that the problems are very real.

Another major point to make about the new towns is that they were built around the car. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, the car was not seen as the environmental problem that it is now. That had several effects. We heard about the roundabouts, which create great problems. Telford, which is on my doorstep, and Redditch, which is not that far away, share the characteristic of hundreds of roundabouts.

Moats were another effect that the very effective road system created. They prevent people from travelling on foot from one part of the town to another. Telford town centre, which I know well, is like a large shopping mall that could be anywhere. It could be Merry Hill, which is an out-of-town shopping mall, but it is not: it is in the centre of Telford. Hardly anyone would ever walk there or take public transport. Everyone drives there. Office blocks and successful businesses surround it, but each one of them is a small island surrounded by car parking spaces. At 6 o'clock, they are dead and distant. It is a long way for anyone to walk into the town centre from any of the housing areas.

Mr. McWalter

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing us to add to points that we made in the main debate. Is he aware that the cars were also separated from the houses? A row of houses was built, followed by a garage block, the assumption being that all these proud car owners would put their cars into the garages at night. That does not happen now. Hardly any of the garages are used to house cars, but are the centres for drug trafficking and a variety of other antisocial uses such that one of our needs is for many of those garage blocks to be entirely demolished.

Matthew Green

That is a fair point. One of the longterm routes out of this is that when areas of new towns are redeveloped, as they will have to be, rather than a residential area just being redeveloped as a residential area we should look more closely at live-work schemes. We should perhaps try to make the communities work on that site, rather than have this continual divorcing of different parts in different places. I would like to see a bit more support from the Government for live-work schemes. The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill is currently going through Parliament. There is quite a bit of concern about developers' mixed use schemes. The reduction in planning consents down to three years may be welcome in straight housing sites but could be a serious problem in mixed use developments. Perhaps the Minister could give us an assurance that he will look into that.

We have a well thought out and cogent Select Committee report and a Government response that at best imitates the action of an ostrich with its head firmly in the sand. They are pretending that the problem is not there. These problems will not go away. There is the decline in the infrastructure, the problems of all the buildings becoming old at the same time and the fact that the Government are taking the lion's share of the finance sitting in the land. That finance could be used to redevelop those areas. That has to be addressed at some point. If it is not, it will keep coming back year after year, until finally this or another Government concede the point and allow the money to go back.

The Minister may not be able to persuade the Chancellor. It may be a difficult task, but he needs to start trying. At some point in the next few years some of that money must be invested back into these towns. It is only fair that it should be. Future sites such as Thames gateway, Ashford and Milton Keynes are coming on. We owe it to them to learn the lessons of what has worked and what has failed in the new towns. We must work to solve the problems that have been created and ensure that those problems are not created for the new generation of settlements.

4.17 pm
Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) on his presentation of the Select Committee report. As a former member of that Committee, albeit for a rather brief period, I find it a particular pleasure to take part in this debate. It has been characterised by a great deal of expertise. That is hardly surprising, as almost all the hon. Members who have spoken represent new towns. I cannot claim to represent one myself, but I grew up in Essex and anyone who grows up there has a passing acquaintance with new towns.

The debate is timely because the Government are proposing new settlements. It is an appropriate moment to look at some of the inherited problems from the last wave of new settlement buildings before plunging into the new wave. It is also interesting that a number of hon. Members referred to the problems that have arisen from what were regarded at the time as novel, modern and innovative building techniques. Houses were built quickly using the kind of techniques that the Deputy Prime Minister advocates to address the affordable housing crisis in the south-east.

I hope that the Government will think carefully about the lesson of the new towns in relation to unconventional building techniques. I am sure that when Skelmersdale was built, experts advised that those techniques were perfectly sound and well researched and would not present problems in the future. I hope that the Minister can reassure us that the construction techniques that the Deputy Prime Minister advocates for this new wave are less susceptible to such dangers.

The report is good and worthwhile, although I do not agree with all its recommendations. I do not share the rose-tinted affection of the Chairman of the Committee for the designers of the new towns. Hon. Members had mixed views about whether brickbats or bouquets should be awarded to the architects and town planners of the 1950s and 1960s.

There is some Labour party grief to be worked through; every Labour Member who spoke expressed disappointment and dismay and emphasised the gap between the Select Committee's recommendations and the Government's response, to which the Minister will reply in due course.

I identify two conflicts between the report and the Government's response. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish suggested that the Government's response was basically, "Get lost". More specifically, the Select Committee has emphasised the need for special treatment of the new towns, and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has emphasised the desire of the new towns for normalcy, and to be treated as part of the general community.

In rather extraordinary language for a Government response, it is suggested in paragraph 34 that the best way to benefit areas in greatest need is "bending mainstream programmes". I am not sure what that means, but it is not what one expects civil servants writing a response to suggest. There seem to be some unresolved differences between the Committee's recommendations and the Government's response.

The second clear area of conflict is that the Select Committee's overall thrust is to recommend giving local authorities greater autonomy and allowing them to retain capital receipts in order to deal with problems at local level, using local people and democratically elected local forums. It recommends specifically the transfer of the assets of English Partnerships to the relevant local authorities.

The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish was gentle on the Government over their response to the Select Committee recommendation, which the Government comprehensively rejected. They prefer to control the agenda from the centre through English Partnerships and the Regional Development Agencies. The Government intend to retain clawback and prefer to have the money available for disposal from the centre so that they can determine where regeneration will take place, rather than allowing locally generated receipts to fuel local redevelopment. That is the antithesis of local government.

The pooling of capital receipts, which the Government propose in clause 11 of the Local Government Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, is a further step in the wrong direction. It is a step away from local autonomy and towards enabling the Government to direct investment according to their agenda and in a way that is not subject to scrutiny and control by democratically elected local authorities.

David Wright

I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman has to say, but I want to know why, in 18 years in government, the Conservative Administration did not make any of the changes or work with new towns on the basis that the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Mr. Hammond

During the past 20 years, the situation has been evolving. I am not here to make a party political point; the Select Committee report made various recommendations and suggested certain actions, some of which the Government have rejected. The debate this afternoon is between those hon. Members who support the Select Committee's recommendations and the Minister defending the Government's response.

Matthew Green

The hon. Gentleman says that he is not here to score party political points, but is he saying that a Conservative Government would allow clawback and give control of the funds back to the councils? Is that now Conservative party policy?

Mr. Hammond

I shall not make policy on the hoof. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of recent debates on the Local Government Bill, so he should know that we greatly resisted the Government's proposal for the pooling of capital receipts, which is a parallel example. He should be able to deduce that it would be inconsistent to reject the pooling of local authority capital receipts and at the same time advocate continuation of the clawback of receipts to English Partnerships. I shall return to the point in a few moments.

The Select Committee and the Government agree that not all new towns have the same characteristics and needs. Some are in areas where low demand aggravates the physical problems. Others, particularly in the southeast and around London, are areas of high demand, facing the problem of the lack of affordable housing, though there might he potential for brownfield redevelopment of higher densities than currently apply.

David Wright

I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's comments, and I am not attacking him, but does he acknowledge that the high and low demand equation often occurs within the towns? Some estates in Telford are pockets of deprivation where demand for property is low, but in others two miles down the road the demand for housing is high. It is not simply a north-south divide; the market dynamics are far more complex.

Mr. Hammond

The hon. Gentleman is right. It is certainly not just a north-south issue, as hotspots exist all around the country. It is incontrovertible, however, that in the south-east, where the pressure for more affordable housing is greatest, the new towns—perhaps including some of their more depressed parts—provide more potential for redevelopment as higher density communities. That could prove a solution to the affordable housing crisis from which London and the south-east suffer.

All the new towns are affected by problems such as poor sustainability, car dependence, and inadequate infrastructure and housing stock—often as a result of building methods. Another problem that new towns often share is coming into obsolescence at the same time. It is the coincidence of obsolescence that underpins many of the issues raised by new town Members here today.

I should like to focus on the report and the Government's response, and put some specific points to the Minister. Recommendation (a) deals with the licensing of landlords, which the Select Committee clearly linked to the receipt of housing benefit. It is unclear from their response, however, whether the Government make that link. They refer to making it a criminal offence for a private landlord who is not licensed to let a property, yet in the next sentence talk about no housing benefit being payable.

It is wholly appropriate and legitimate for the Government to consider introducing a system of licensing landlords who are to be beneficiaries of housing benefit. However, it is equally clear that requiring landlords to have a licence to let—with the corollary that if they do not have a licence they will be committing a criminal offence by letting, not necessarily to someone in receipt of housing benefit but to anyone—represents a significant erosion of the rights of private property, with potentially significant implications for human rights. I shall be grateful if the Minister will clarify the Government's intentions on that point.

Andrew Bennett

We are looking forward to the draft housing Bill that will deal with that matter. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there are two separate problems? In many parts of the country private landlords do not cause any problems. However, particularly in some areas of low demand in the north and the new towns, some landlords appear to put tenants into a property with a view to making the property next door almost unsellable. In that case, it is a question not just of whether those people receive benefit or not but of the behaviour of the landlord.

I hope that the Government will consider enabling local authorities to take action against all landlords whether they are in receipt of benefit or not. In other places, it will be necessary only when they are in receipt of benefit.

Mr. Hammond

I look forward to having that discussion with the hon. Gentleman when the draft housing Bill is published, but the issue of compensation will arise. Local authorities can compulsorily purchase properties, but the compulsory letting of properties suggested in the communities plan is not compulsory purchase but the state's requiring a landlord to take an action that he might not otherwise take. That is a significant step.

There will be issues relating to compensation. I do not know whether the Government intend to allow landlords who are not licensed and cannot let their property to require the local authority to purchase it. It would be interesting to learn that, but it might be more appropriate to discuss it when the draft housing Bill is published.

Recommendation (b) draws attention to the problems of low density, and the Government's response cites the Greenwich millennium village, which on the face of it looks like an interesting example of a new high-density sustainable development of 80 dwellings per hectare. Hon. Members will know that the proposed developers of the millennium dome site held an exhibition in the House a couple of weeks ago. I had the opportunity to talk to them about the Greenwich millennium village and discovered that very few of the occupants of those dwellings were families. They were mainly single people and young couples.

Of course, the population is increasingly composed of single-person households. We must recognise that, but I maintain that an essential part of the glue of our social fabric is the family. Families have an ownership of communities that single people do not. We all had the experience when we were younger of living in areas mainly composed of single person households, in which people arrive in their cars and leave in their cars. There is not the same sense of community that there is when families are present. I am concerned that no one has yet come up with a model for high-density urban living that will be attractive to families with children as opposed to professional couples and single households.

Andrew Bennett

The attractive feature of the Greenwich millennium village is that it already has a functioning school—I assume that there must be children for the school to function—and a family health centre. It is not as balanced a community as the hon. Gentleman would like, but it is fairly balanced, and the key thing is that the facilities are put in place at the same time as the new housing is developed.

Mr. Hammond

I take the hon. Gentleman's point and it is an interesting experiment. However, it seems to me that the jury is out, and 10 or 20 years down the line, the absence of a mix of population in that development may be an issue. Perhaps we should all watch it with great interest.

Mr. McWalter

Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that his Government left a report to the effect that some 4.4 million homes were needed in the south-east of England, and we were left to deal with it? That report identified the huge growth in single-person households as the main driver of that housing need. Clearly, a programme that dealt with that need and gave single people a reasonable chance of getting accommodation in the near future would be extremely welcome.

Mr. Hammond

The hon. Gentleman is obviously right. There is going to be great interest in the need for accommodation for single people. It would not be beneficial for our cities and urban areas to be redeveloped as high-rise, high-density, single-person accommodation, while the suburbs became the places where people moved when they wanted to have families. That would be a bad model, and I am sure that the Government would not want that kind of social apartheid. I am simply pointing out an area of concern. The jury is out and we all need to watch with interest—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I have been listening to the debate extremely carefully and it appears to be wandering into other areas. We are debating the Select Committee's report and recommendations and the Government's response to them. I suggest that I have shown discretion and that we should deal with the report and the Government's response.

Mr. Hammond

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for that valuable guidance.

Recommendation (e) of the Select Committee's report deals with neighbourhood management problems. The Select Committee thinks that part of the blame lies with the fragmented ownership that has arisen out of the right to buy. One or two hon. Members have clarified some of the issues. I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm that it is still the Government's view that mixed tenure communities are likely to be successful and that mixed tenure is a positive thing. I am sure that neither I nor the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish want the Select Committee's report to be interpreted as suggesting that the introduction of different forms of tenure into an area is a negative thing.

I want to ask the Minister about business improvement districts, which we have been discussing in the context of the Local Government Bill. There is much reference to local authority-led initiatives in relation to town centres in new towns, but the Government's response contains absolutely no reference to BIDs. Will the Government confirm that they regard BIDs as an appropriate potential solution and a tool for use in new town centres?

As I have already said, new towns in the London area need more affordable housing. Instead of addressing that need for more affordable housing in the new towns, the Government refer in paragraph 32 of their response to the announced new focus points in the south-east—the Thames gateway, Ashford and the Cambridge-Stansted corridor. However, in paragraph 13 they suggest that the intensification of development within the existing new towns can be an important route to the delivery of affordable housing. Will the Minister confirm that the Government see the new towns in the south-east as a significant source of land for affordable housing? Will he confirm that paragraph 57, which refers to English Partnerships' land being a source of affordable housing, means that English Partnerships will cease to dispose of land for market housing? If that is so, what are the implications for mixed communities and mixed tenure development?

Recommendations (j), (k), (o) and (p) deal specifically with the role of English Partnerships, and the Government's response is the exact opposite of what the Select Committee recommended. The Select Committee suggested that English Partnerships should become a consultancy, having divested itself of its assets to local authorities. Local authorities would call English Partnerships in as a consultant where appropriate and the RDAs would get involved only in genuinely strategic sites. The Government have decided that English Partnerships is to drive the whole process. Paragraph 40 of the Government's response states: English Partnerships will work closely with the Housing Corporation, and with other key agencies including the RDAs". The paragraph makes no mention of local authorities.

We also have to consider something that hon. Members have not mentioned. I hope that they are aware of the Government's proposal to sequester 75 per cent. of all capital receipts, rather than capital receipts only in the new towns. A pattern is emerging of local authorities being emasculated by a Government who have decided that the regeneration and redevelopment of urban areas, including the new towns, will not be led by elected community representatives and will effectively be in the hands of their agencies.

All hon. Members who have spoken have touched on the need for investment in redevelopment or refurbishment of obsolete or nearly obsolete stock. What is the Government's assessment of the scale of that problem? There will clearly be a time after which the housing stock and infrastructure of the new towns will come to the end of their useful lives. The Government response tells us that £4.7 billion, which includes money spent on the planning system, will be available by 2005–06. Can the Minister say how much of that money will go to the new towns? Can he put that in the context of the Government's assessment of the need for the renewal of obsolete infrastructure and stock in the new towns?

Recommendation (m) is that clawback from right-to-buy sales should be abolished. That was the major theme of the Select Committee report, but the Government have rejected the recommendation outright, while referring to their protection of public investment in the new towns, although, as several Members have commented, the debts have been paid off. The Select Committee's concern was to put the new towns on a similar basis to that of other local authorities. I must say to the Chairman of the Select Committee that the Government have done that by a rather different route. They have sequestered 75 per cent, of the capital receipts of all local authorities, in effect extending clawback to all local authorities and all right-to-buy sales, which is a huge centralising measure that will give the Government, not local authorities and local people, control over the regeneration and redevelopment agenda.

Paragraph 48 of the Government response says that English Partnerships has the power to waive clawback or to transfer it to a local authority. Local authorities are being subjected to the sequestration of 75 per cent. of capital receipts. Can the Minister explain how the power to waive or transfer clawback will operate? Is that still a valid statement in view of clause 11 of the Local Government Bill? A local authority has raised that specific question with me.

Recommendation (v) relates to the evaluation of the experiment at a time when the Government propose to move forward with more new settlements. The recommendation seems sensible, and, although the Government have not rejected it, their response, which discusses thematic studies, is unclear. Will the Minister clarify what the Government are doing to learn the lessons of the new town experiment in a formalised way, particularly in terms of innovative building methods? How do the Government intend to learn from those experiences in developing the new communities of the future?

The Government have rejected the Select Committee's central proposals and have chosen to take a Treasury-led centralising approach with the central allocation of funding for redevelopment and renewal. They have chosen to reject any explicit recognition of the special problems arising from the coincidence over a short time of many routine renewal requirements in the new towns. That approach is repeated in the Local Government Bill and the new local government funding formula, which the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead mentioned. It seems that the Government have rejected the opportunity provided by the Select Committee report to address the liabilities that will accrue from the housing stock and infrastructure of the new towns if they are not tackled immediately.

4.44 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Tony McNulty)

This has been a good debate and I am pleased to have so much time to respond. We need to understand the context. The Select Committee report was published in July, at almost the same time as the Deputy Prime Minister's first statement of intent, following the comprehensive spending review, on 18 July and almost at the same time as the quinquennial review of English Partnerships and all that that entailed. It was responded to in November 2002 and, as someone said earlier, it is clearly a work in progress if ever there was one.

We have almost completed the jigsaw with the announcement of the sustainable communities document in February 2003. If the Select Committee's report was timely, much has happened since, and Members need to understand the wider context and all that has prevailed since its publication. Their characterisation of the report has done a disservice to the new towns that they represent and to the response to that report. It is not a dismissive document. With all that has happened since, I would have thought it unnecessary to make such remarks, some of which I shall return to.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) was right about one matter in his entirely non-partisan conclusion—not. It is no accident that barely one new town is represented by a Conservative—most of the rest fell away in 1997— but he is right that the response is not, "Get lost." We are not well served by selective quotations that anyone could make from the report. There are elements unique to some new towns, but not to others. There are elements of social fabric unique to some of our new towns, but not to them all.

If I were being flippant, which I am not, because this is a serious subject, I would say that Harrow could be characterised as a new town, certainly as much as Ludlow, given that about three-quarters of its housing stock was built in the 1930s. Happily for Harrow—I do not know about Ludlow—it was slightly better built with a greater concern for high quality and design than much of the housing stock in the new towns, although I will not make special pleadings for 1930s Nash-built pairs of semis that might reach the end of their natural life in 30 or 40 years. Happily, the houses were built to last and were worthy of 100 years or more.

That is not to belittle the perhaps five types of difficulty in our new towns, but to say that either the Government's response or all that the Government have outlined since the report's publication fails to respond to them is not useful. Many of the points made about employment and reliance on single employers are a feature of the flawed aspects of the social engineering that went into some new towns. Sadly, when travelling the country, I see similar factors in communities that have sprung up since, and indeed long before, the new towns were built, as well as communities that have sought to reinvent themselves and been clobbered by what might be called reliance on a mono-industry culture.

I think in particular of Torbay, whose 1920s elegance is faded to say the least. It relies wholly on tourism and has a wonderful Edwardian facade that makes it look very posh and rich, but it is 89th in our list of most deprived areas and has significant pockets of poverty. The area has sought to reverse the decline in tourism by relying more and more on mobile phones and telecommunications. That was fine when there was a taker for them—it led to a little boom in Torbay's economy for some time—but then there was a shut down, with all the commensurate difficulties that Corby has encountered with steel and that many other new towns and other areas have encountered. To say that many difficulties of the new towns are not unique is not to dismiss or belittle them—it is to be realistic. Very serious points have been made, however, and I want to deal with them.

No one has said that the Government response somehow implies that the new towns are not relevant. Some 10 sit squarely in the huge tri-regional growth area of London, the south-east and the east, where we are following the communities plan and putting in significant amounts of money. The notion that those 10 new towns will not be part of the growth areas and housing growth in those regions is complete nonsense. We must learn from mistakes in the new town movement when we move on with those growth areas, which is why the debate and the report have been useful. However, I am certain that those 10 new towns will be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

It is right and proper that the sustainable communities plan dwelt on the four growth areas in London, the south-east and the east, but people will know if they look at the housing numbers that, even if we achieve every single housing aspiration in those growth areas, that represents but 50 per cent. of the commonly agreed growth targets that we need to meet for those regions. To say that other new towns will not have a role is not appropriate.

I can understand that expectations were raised by the Select Committee report, which I fully accept is extremely good. I can also understand the elation after decades of neglect, not least by the Conservative party, which had a judgment meted out to it in 1997 and subsequently. However, I do not understand the horror that has been referred to at the Government response and at what the Government have done since. In the context of the response, I do not accept that every recommendation was entirely rebuffed. Let me say this in the gentlest terms: the notion that there is no longterm interest in the viability of those communities at the core of the Government response is not accurate.

To say that some civil servants still rule the roost is an unnecessary attack on officials. If hon. Friends do not like the Government response or what I say as a Minister, they should attack me, not the officials who stand behind me. They have no recourse to a response. If people have a problem with the policies of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, what I have said or what the Government response says, they should attack the Department or the relevant Minister. They should not characterise things as indifference by officials who are with us now or who were with us previously. It is not appropriate to do that in any way, shape or form.

Mr. McWalter

As my hon. Friend gave evidence to the Select Committee when he had been in post for only four weeks, it was inevitable that a significant contribution to his response would be made by those who briefed him.

Mr. McNulty

That is as may be—I am sure that it is as factual as the sun coming up tomorrow—but that does not alter the fact that it is inappropriate for elected politicians to hide behind their position to attack officials in any way, shape or form. If people do not like what the Government do, they should attack the Government. If they do not like what I say, they should attack me. They should not tell me that there is a horrible number of civil servants behind me who were indifferent to what new towns were about in the 1970s and 1980s and who are indifferent now. People should not say that those civil servants put words in my mouth and that that is why I am indifferent. Frankly, that does not serve anyone's purpose, nor does the notion that since 1977 in respect of new towns we have had government by diktat a la Nicholas Ridley. Equally, that is not true. It is not why people got elected in 1997.

I have been up and down the country, and I have seen examples of crumbling libraries, colleges with flat roofs and so on in new towns and outside them, which my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) described. That is not to belittle the experience of new towns, but we do not serve them by suggesting that their problems with crumbling public infrastructure, whether libraries or colleges, are unique. I have crumbling libraries in my constituency. All significant urban areas have crumbling libraries and badly built and designed public buildings of poor quality—of course they do.

Mr. Donohoe

Surely my hon. Friend the Minister accepts that the quick build that occurred during the period that we are talking about, which is mainly the 1960s, resulted in poor architecture. That is why, some 30 years later, we are experiencing problems and the new towns are taking a big hit. No other towns have comparable problems. I challenge him to give an example from any part of the country of a town built in the 1960s that is not a new town.

Mr. McNulty

That is not the point. The comments about the quantity and obsolescence of an array of housing stock are well made—I am not trying to belittle the difficulties—but I can say the same about the mill towns of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There is seriously low demand in pockets of the north, which is not to do with the fabric, but with social engineering.

Sadly for us all, much that was built in urban areas, especially in the 1960s, has crumbled. The school that I went to was very good, but I spent half my time in mobile units in the playground—the building was condemned because not enough concrete was used to build it. Yes, there are problems in urban areas and in some parts of, perhaps, every new town, but they are not crumbling, decaying wrecks from top to bottom in quite the way that some people would have it.

Mr. McWalter

Most Members accept that every community has major difficulties with renovation of infrastructure, but in any given decade most communities need perhaps 20 per cent. of their infrastructure to receive such renovation. It is unusual for a community to have to deal with a percentage much greater than that. Does my hon. Friend the Minister accept that the extraction of money from local authorities—£10 million from mine—through negative subsidy alone creates special problems and deprives areas of the resources to effect very necessary renovations?

Mr. McNulty

I recognise that there are special problems, not least in terms of volume and the fact that much decaying stock is coming on stream at the same time, but it is indicative that most new towns do not have the significant problems of low demand and abandonment that exist in some areas. I shall return to that when I deal with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright).

I do not mean to over-egg the pudding. It is not appropriate to undermine very real problems, but when we talk about new towns moving to normality, there is nothing sinister in it—that is exactly what they must do. When we talk about the democratic deficit and moving towards the framework of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, people ask, "What does that mean?" Precisely, it means overcoming the democratic deficit that people accept exists in other dimensions. I shall return to that issue.

Of course infrastructure is wearing out. The Radburn layout scheme was a complete travesty, and it was certainly not designed for its durability or on any notion of sustainability. This has been pointed out, and I shall return to it in a moment: The Government is not prepared to give up clawback or sales receipts in the New Towns as a general principle. Fine. Members can refer to that if they want, but please will they quote it in the context of the next two sentences? They are: We need to be sure that the investment the Government has made in the new towns is protected. As we explained … in some circumstances, and with the agreement of the Treasury, English Partnerships might waive clawback or transfer the right to receive clawback to the relevant local authority. If the whole piece is quoted, it makes sense as a response, whether one agrees with it or not. If one simply quotes the first part, one cannot sustain an argument that it is dismissive.

Mr. Hammond

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. McNulty

No, because I shall deal with what the hon. Gentleman was going to ask me in a moment. He will understand that when we get to it.

I am not downplaying some of the new towns' problems, nor the variety between and within new towns, but we could have a similar debate about seaside towns, market towns or the 88 inner-city ward areas. Those places have different problems of different magnitudes, but they are specialised and unique problems none the less.

The point has been made, which is fair in part, that, overwhelmingly, new towns do not receive neighbourhood renewal funding. One response to that is that if they are not in the 88 top wards, why should they receive such funding? The mechanism for distributing those funds uses the condition that an area has to have one of the 88 most deprived wards in the country, and if it does not, it does not get anything. I have significant pockets of deprivation in my constituency, but we do not get neighbourhood renewal money for the same reason—there is a quantum when compared with the overall borough authority.

However, a serious matter underlies that point, as my hon. Friend the Member for Telford said. Although the mechanisms and data did not necessarily exist for smaller-area remuneration districts the last time the index of multiple deprivation was looked at, the neighbourhood renewal unit has now engaged academics and researchers from Oxford university to review that situation. We are about halfway through that review, in which we are trying to capture an area beyond the ward—sub-ward and small-area level. That is problematic, and we are committed to addressing it. That could increase the availability of neighbourhood renewal funding for some new towns and other areas where there are distinct, but very deep, pockets of poverty which are not captured by the wider mechanism.

On setting up market renewal areas in the new towns, I suspect that I have no substantial good news. The pathfinders are quite deliberately focused on the most acute areas of widespread market failure, and, with the best will in the world, we cannot say that that is a significant feature of new towns. I know that Telford has the worst examples and manifestations of the problems affecting the new towns but, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) said, it is nothing like the east Lancashire pathfinder area, where housing problems, in all their forms, are writ large. The new towns do not have the emerging problems of Oldham and Rochdale, where I was on Tuesday, or some parts of Merseyside and South Yorkshire, where there are problems of low demand, abandonment and other complexities.

We will, however, be able to translate to the new towns, and other areas, the significant lessons that we learn from tackling the issues of low demand and abandonment in the nine pathfinder areas. That process happens in a range of our other programmes. We need to learn the lessons of new build in the 1960s in general, and of the new towns in particular, not least in terms of quality, design and density, and the problems with transport that have been mentioned. We should not repeat the mistakes in the growth areas.

Andrew Bennett

Does my hon. Friend accept that in some pathfinder areas where problems are pretty desperate, it may be necessary to put in nine stitches to turn the area round, but in places such as Telford, where market weakness is just starting, we may need to put in only one stitch to achieve that? We should make some effort now in places that are starting to suffer market weakness, rather than waiting until they are in the worst state.

Mr. McNulty

That is exactly what English Partnerships is doing in Woodside and the four other strategic sites that it will retain in Telford. We have made it clear that what is needed is good quality and design, not tinkering and the built-in obsolescence that resulted from a decade of bad design. EP has a positive and productive relationship with its colleagues in the three sites in Hemel Hempstead which will stay on the list of 34 strategic sites. Those good principles will also be followed in Skelmersdale town centre. I spent three years in Liverpool and had the pleasure of going to Skelmersdale once. I will say no more.

I say to my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire that English Partnerships has not, in its new role, acquired the power to buy land outside the new town areas. It has always had that power but it is now incorporated in its plans for new towns. My hon. Friend said that new towns needed to be finished off in the nicest way, but every community and town is a work in progress; it is never finished. The Mortimers did not foresee 12th-century Ludlow as a finished project; 21st-century Ludlow is ever so slightly different but it is still a work in progress. An end game was never intended for these communities. They may have come to the end of their useful life as representatives of the glorious new town movement, but they have moved on and are now substantial communities in their own right. They have moved to different phases and have to address their own problems.

As part of the process of restoring the democratic deficit, we have given the new town authorities and others significant funding to revitalise their planning functions. The planning delivery grant gave authorities such as Telford and Stevenage at least £75,000 for the coming year to improve their planning departments; Milton Keynes got £340,000, Hemel Hempstead £229,000, Harlow £181,000 and Basildon £208,000. We want to get the planning process up to speed, and we are putting our money where our mouth is.

We expect planning arrangements under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 to become the norm, and we expect to move away from the anti-democratic elements in English Partnerships and the Commission for the New Towns. There is nothing sinister about that; we want to restore the democratic planning process in those areas, and rightly so.

Having responded to hon. Members, I will start my speech. I suspect that there will be no monument to me in a new town. Lewis Silkin, the post-war Minister for Town and Country Planning, shares one side of a monument in Stevenage because people were so happy about what was done.

David Wright

Telford has a Silkin way.

Mr. McNulty

I am pleased to hear it. When Lewis Silkin visited Stevenage before it was expanded, people repainted a sign at the railway station to read "Silkingrad". That was not a 13th-century Stalinist, but there was an allusion to Stalin, none the less.

Andrew Bennett

Does my hon. Friend accept that there is a chance that 17 new town shopping centres will be named after him if he comes up with the money?

Mr. McNulty

I am not sure that I want that to be my epitaph—not yet, anyway.

Fifty years after the start of the process, the challenge is for new towns to move into the next phase of the work in progress. The report is useful, and I urge hon. Members to take our response and all that has happened since its publication as a comprehensive reply. We need to heal the parts of some new towns that are showing their age and, when appropriate, find ways of ensuring that new towns play their part in meeting today's housing needs through sustainable growth.

As we tackle both issues, we must keep at the forefront of our minds the fact that sustainable communities are about more than just rebuilding the fabric of housing. As hon. Members have commented, communities need strong economies full of opportunities, jobs with a long-term future, and good schools, hospitals and public transport. I accept the point made about transport in some communities, and many authorities have submitted their transport plans and are already starting to redesign local transport schemes with an eye on the 21st century rather than the 1960s. Communities also need a safe and healthy local environment, well-designed neighbourhoods, more sustainable construction and much more.

There are specific difficulties with our new towns, but many themes are common to all our communities. Our policies for new towns must be seen in the context of our overall action plan for sustainable communities, which is flexible according to the needs of local areas and regions but comprehensive enough to deal with the big issues that confront us today. Although we are alive to the needs and opportunities facing the new towns, we need to deal with those challenges within the approach outlined in our sustainable communities plan.

Putting new towns in a policy isolation tent will not help them. It is much better to integrate them into mainstream housing regeneration and planning, so that they can benefit from our comprehensive approach and other communities can more readily learn the lessons of new towns. As some hon. Members have said, we may be talking about newer new towns for the Thames gateway, but serious thought needs to be given to how that growth area and others will expand to meet the needs of the south-east.

I want to mention the key aspect of the Government's approach which was not fully developed when we made our response to the report; I refer to the role of English Partnerships. Other hon. Members have mentioned that, for which I am grateful. EP is a key player in delivering the Deputy Prime Minister's new agenda, and it has a significant and pro-active role to play in coordinating the delivery of plans for key-worker and affordable housing.

English Partnerships is not only about housing; it is at the core of our work to create balanced communities. We can point to the Telford and Milton Keynes millennium communities, the Telford sustainable extension at Lawley and the Northampton south-west district. I have no time to go into them, but they represent progress made by EP and many new towns since the quinquennial review of 24 July. I am grateful to every hon. Member who has said that the relationship with EP before and since the review has been productive and positive, because that is what has been fed back to me.

We have an excellent new dynamic team at English Partnerships which, under Margaret Ford's chairmanship, works with new town authorities on an individual basis to ensure proper dialogue. People can still throw rocks and call it a quango, but it is working effectively with the democratic leadership in each area. I make no excuse for telling EP to focus on 42 strategic sites and projects as the key to its role. As hon. Members will know, 34 of those are in new towns, and a variety of schemes are included to enhance the vitality and sustainability of the new towns. They include work on Skelmersdale town centre, a range of schemes in Milton Keynes, Spencers park, Paradise fields, Brakespear in Hemel Hempstead, and the town centre, Woodside, Lightmoor, East Ketley millennium community and Lawley in Telford.

Equally important is EP's role in improving the quality of ageing housing estates, such as Woodside in Telford, Five Links in Basildon and Castlefields in Runcorn. Those are all under the auspices and tutelage of EP and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

Mr. Mike Hall (Weaver Vale)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. McNulty

I shall give way briefly, although the request is cheeky, as my hon. Friend has only just arrived.

Mr. Hall

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. He just mentioned Castlefields, in my constituency, and that is why I got to my feet. We are delighted with the co-operation that we have with English Partnerships in redeveloping the Castlefields site, and we look forward to wonderful things taking place there. However, to ensure that the site is properly regenerated, we might need to discuss clawback with the Department so that we can reinvest the money in the Castlefields area.

Mr. McNulty

I look forward to those discussions, and to visiting Weaver Vale, as I have been promising to do for the past three months. I shall still visit, despite my hon. Friend's contribution to the debate.

English Partnerships has held very constructive discussions with the new town local authorities. It knows from that experience that each new town is different, and that the package of non-strategic assets and liabilities varies from town to town. Consequently, today I am pleased to announce that English Partnerships has been given discretion by the Deputy Prime Minister to transfer balanced packages of non-strategic landholdings and assets to the local authorities.

We shall, in some cases, have to take some of the financial issues to the Treasury, and we will also need to ensure that such transfers will cause no detriment to the delivery of our plans for sustainable communities. However, I am assured by English Partnerships that we will get more than merely words, and it will actively seek to waive clawback and transfer the right to receive clawback to the relevant local authority. Those matters are being examined in some detail.

Mr. Hammond


Mr. McNulty

Now the hon. Gentleman will ask me about clause 11 of the Local Government Bill, which is why I would not give way to him earlier.

Mr. Hammond

I shall let the Minister answer the question about the interaction of transfer of clawback rights to local authorities or waiver of clawback and clause 11 of the Local Government Bill.

Mr. McNulty

The simple answer to that, which is not intended to be facetious, is that I will not comment on legislation that is currently under consideration, albeit from my Department. I do not want to pre-empt the democratic process and what Parliament will have done with the Bill by the time it emerges from that process.

I am assured that the discussions with the Treasury are taking place in the context of clause 11, and that the ability to waive clawback remains. Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I do not live or die by the daily events and proceedings on the Local Government Bill, so if that proves not to he the case, I will write to him to let him know. However, I am fairly sure that the ability to waive clawback and to pass on the receipts to a local authority rather than to English Partnerships remains outwith clause 11. If that is not the case, I will get back to him.

Mr. Hammond

I am sure that the Minister is right that that is outwith the provisions of clause 11, which deal with local authority sales and the Secretary of State's right to take 75 per cent, of those right-to-buy receipts. However, it seems odd that, on the one hand, the Government say that all local authorities must pass to the Secretary of State 75 per cent. of what they receive, and on the other hand, the Minister is saying that English Partnerships may be empowered to waive that right with respect to certain new town authorities. However, I am grateful to him for offering to write to me.

Mr. McNulty

On that point, as the hon. Gentleman has suggested, there was the unique position of a significant public sector quango—the Commission on the New Towns as was, and English Partnerships as is—having significant landholdings. The quinquennial review said that there are 42 strategic sites—town centres and others—that are crucial to what the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister wants to achieve in its policy framework and the detail of the sustainable communities plan. There is a range of other non-strategic balanced packages of sites that we will—now that the Deputy Prime Minister has signed that off—co-operate with the new town authorities to put back where they should be, with those authorities. I am not, of course, saying that the Deputy Prime Minister has signed a bit of paper and overnight all those assets will revert to the new town authorities, because there must be significant negotiations to unpick all the complexities of ownership that colleagues talked about earlier.

It is a Welsh example, but in Cwmbran, where work to identify all non-strategic assets and liabilities is virtually complete, English Partnerships has no interests suitable for development. The clawback and covenants in relation to community buildings, highway subsoil and miscellaneous open space come to 120 hectares in 20 different sets of legal documents. The local authority sees clawback as an impediment to local regeneration and for 10 years next to nothing has happened. Our proposals would transfer responsibility for all that to the local authority, enabling it to get on with regenerating key areas of the town. The distinction is between receipts for local authorities that are cash windfalls, where 75 per cent. may go back to central Government, and new town clawback, where the receipts will be for reinvestment in new town regeneration. That is part of the answer, but I will still write to the hon. Gentleman with the full answer.

New towns will sit in the vision and strategy that is outlined in the document "Sustainable Communities: Building for the Future". They have a strong role to play in achieving those numbers for growth in London, the south-east and the east. As the Government response says, and as my hon. Friends have mentioned, despite the poor quality of design in some areas and the degradation of some of the public infrastructure and the transport difficulties—issues that are recognised and are being resolved in one form or other—there is still scope to add to many of the new towns in London, the southeast and the east. There is serious need in those communities and beyond for affordable housing and key worker housing.

We are currently a year or so into the starter home initiative, which partly addresses the issues of key workers. Our target is 10,000 starter homes, which we will achieve, and we have reached 2,000 so far. Some 400 of those are in the southern new towns: 400 key workers are now housed because of the starter home initiative. As I said about pathfinder areas, there must be lessons that we can learn from the low demand in those key areas at their worst. People may describe Corby town centre as third world. I have just come back from Delhi, and if it was anything like Delhi I would go there. I loved Delhi. I thought that it was wonderful. The urban regeneration company just launched in Corby has shown wisdom and has an enormously creative and imaginative vision for Corby's future. It has elaborate plans to double the size of the community over the next 30 years. I know that that is what all the new towns will want for their future.

Andrew Bennett

Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that the Select Committee had an impressive presentation from people in Corby about what they would like to do? All they want is a bit of railway from Corby to the mainline so that they can attract people from the rest of the south-east to increase the critical mass of Corby. If he could say yes to that he would be a hero in Corby—

Mr. Donohoe

And he would get a statue.

Mr. McNulty

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I will resist that temptation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Phil Hope) is the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Deputy Prime Minister, I know Corby. I know that those concerns are there. It is also part of one of our growth areas in that key south midlands corridor. The urban development corporation's vision and how that fits in with the overall growth area is quite lively and creative stuff. Whether Corby gets its railway line is a matter for others with far more power than I have.

There are strong examples across the piece of the new towns coming to terms with the next phase of their existence. Yes, with help and support, but with help and support through our main programmes. Their problems are recognised—some are shared or similar and some are unique. What we have done with English Partnerships and the way in which it has come up to speed so soon after the outcome of the review is a tribute to Margaret Ford and her leadership. All the reports stress a professional commitment to creativity and imagination by the new town authorities and by English Partnerships to get to grips with the serious issues that hon. Members have outlined. I repeat that the new towns have been well served by the Committee and its report. I was very pleased, not least because I was only four weeks into my new job, to appear before the Committee. It was enormous fun. I do not know whether enjoying an hour before a Select Committee makes me a sick person, but it was an education.

As I said to hon. Members in my opening statement, one cannot be a Harrow boy without knowing in some detail all the new towns, and especially those in Hertfordshire, dotted around Watford. Those northern towns, as I used to think of them, are part and parcel of the fun and creativity of growing up in north-west London. I accept now that Welwyn, Stevenage and Hemel Hempstead are not northern towns in the generally accepted sense. New towns are at the heart of our approach. Everything that we do in the sustainable communities document will benefit the new towns.

If I let hon. Members go at 5.28 they will not be saying, "That rotten person kept us here until 5.30."

I am also, among other things, the design champion for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. I am responsible for parks and green spaces and other aspects of the public realm that are crucial to the sustainability of our communities. Whether in growth areas, low-demand areas or in reconfiguring and revitalising our new towns, we must learn that the spaces between buildings are important. The public realm in the widest sense is important. These are lessons that the designers of new towns did not take into account. When designing a new town, we must plan out crime not plan it in. We must appreciate that people must live in these towns and walk around them.

Grass verges and public parks are not fripperies: they are central to the vitality of our communities. That is why it is such a pleasure to know that the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment is working closely with Telford on Woodside. We can revitalise all our communities, not least our new towns, by learning the lessons of the past and by insisting that, whether it is dealing with greater numbers in the south or reconfiguring some of our low-demand communities in the north, high quality and good design are not add-ons. We should not adopt an attitude of "Build 'em cheap and build 'em high," so that buildings collapse in 10 or 20 years' time. They must be rooted at the core of everything that we do—public sector, social sector and private sector.

Design and high quality permeate the sustainable communities document, and rightly so, as does the notion that the public realm is vital in those areas.

Mr. McWalter

Will my hon. Friend accept the point made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright) that the top design teams simply do not make themselves available to towns as they do to cities?

Mr. McNulty

I accept my hon. Friend's point. That is why I am so pleased that CABE is working with Telford in Woodside, and I encourage that elsewhere. I want to see good, high-quality designers helping us to reconfigure and refocus our low-demand areas. It is quite wrong to characterise our approach to low-demand areas as one of bulldozing empty houses. If that were all that low-demand areas offered, their plans would not be accepted. Plans must accept fully that good design and good quality in the public realm and in public open spaces are crucial. We must ensure that designers are attracted to low-demand areas as well as to growth areas and to new towns. That is fundamental.

We should celebrate the new towns. We are not finishing them off, but they have perhaps come to the end of one phase. We must ensure that, with all other urban communities, they march into the next phase in the context of the sustainable communities document. They must have their needs served as readily and as comprehensively as all other communities.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Five o' clock.

Back to