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Orders of the Day — New Towns Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 28th November 1957.

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Photo of Mr Willie Hamilton Mr Willie Hamilton , Fife West 12:00 am, 28th November 1957

There seems to be substantial agreement in the House on the desirability of helping the new towns in the form suggested in the Bill. It was not always so. Recently I had occasion to read the Report of the debate on the Second Reading of the New Towns Bill on 8th May, 1946 It was introduced by the now Lord Silkin as what is now generally recognised to be an imaginative and creative attempt to solve one of the most important social problems facing industrial communities all over the world, namely, the excessive concentration of population in big cities and towns.

The Opposition of that day, now sitting on the benches opposite, to say the least of it, was exceedingly pessimistic. It is true that the Opposition did not divide the House, but my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mrs. Mann) mentioned Mr. Speaker, who opened the debate for the Opposition. In the course of what I can only describe as a slightly doubting and disparaging speech, he said that of course all these new towns were still in Utopia.

That was the theme running through nearly every speech made by the Conservative Opposition at that time. The most extravagant language, naturally I suppose, came from the noble Lord the Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Hinchingbrooke), who said: My approach…is one of alarm and despondency…the Bill…is frankly totalitarian in form. He went on to say that the Ministry had resorted to monstrous powers and a very great degree of ruthless direction, and said finally: The right hon. Gentleman's policy will be on the scrap heap before very long."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th May, 1946; Vol. 422, c. 1154 and 1156.] Eleven years have passed since then. How silly it all seems now. We can only commend the Government on their conversion, and if they lag only one generation behind Labour Party thought, then we will not complain unduly. From every point of view—from the social, from the aesthetic, from the economic point of view—the extension of the idea of new towns is eminently desirable. I agree with 90 per cent. of what was said by the hon. Gentleman the Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Thornton-Kemsley). It is not often I can say that, so I take this opportunity of doing so.

Here we get the fantastic position repeatedly taken by the Government. They say, "This has had wonderful results, it is a wonderful experiment, therefore we will stop it." The Government have taken up that position repeatedly. Today the Minister in his opening speech went out of his way to say what a wonderful thing this was and that we were getting near the end of the journey. Of course, the hon. Gentleman qualified that somewhat because he represents a marginal seat in Scotland and, therefore, said that Scotland might get another new town soon. Well, we will not say how soon. Certainly it will not be before the next General Election, although it will probably be one of the carrots dangled before the marginal constituencies.

We have made halting steps only in dealing with overspill. Figures have been quoted about the extent of the problem in the big cities—in London. Manchester, Birmingham. Liverpool and, not least, Glasgow. I can see no alternative but the establishment of further new towns, as indicated in the New Towns Bill which we are now discussing.

I want to refer in particular to the new town of Glenrothes in my constituency. It is different from most of the new towns in that it is to provide a new community connected with the planned expansion of the coalmining industry in East Fife. We have had a late start compared with other new towns, having begun in 1948. It was envisaged from the outset that there would be one miner in eight or nine of the population. I lived for many years in a mining village, in long rows where one's neighbours on either side and right down the street were miners. There one lived and talked of the pits and breathed the dust from them. When I compare that with what has been achieved at Glenrothes, it is almost breath-taking in its imaginativeness.

The originally contemplated population of 30,000 is not envisaged immediately. I think it will eventually be exceeded. The present population of 9,000 has its difficulties, as all the new towns have, such as the need for social amenities. The need for the Government to look ahead is of paramount importance. As to the Government's financial policy, I was interested in what the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Viscountess Davidson) said. Of course she wants more schools. Everybody wants more schools. Everybody wants more houses. Consequently, the Government say, "They are very desirable, and therefore we are stopping them." That is precisely what is happening in Glenrothes.

As to the housing problem in Glenrothes, a new colliery will be starting the production of coal this year. In passing, I would mention that the sinking of that colliery has taken 10 years. The first sod was cut in 1946. More than £10 million has been spent on the project, and it is only now producing coal. Right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite should ponder the fact that the nationalised industry has spent £10 million in order to provide coal for future generations. Let them not underestimate the difficulties experienced by the mining industry and the efforts of the Government to ensure balanced communities developing alongside the mines, including the deliberate planning of migration of miners from West Scotland to East Scotland which has gone on with remarkably little friction.

The housing outlook is not as good as it ought to be. It is estimated that 240 houses will be built in 1958. That falls short of the number of houses needed to accommodate transferred miners and balance the population at the appropriate dilution figure. According to the corporation's estimate, the shortfall is 125 houses or more than 33 per cent. Not only is there a shortfall in numbers, but there is a reduction in the standard of housing as a result of deliberate Government policy. The Scottish Housing Handbook was issued in mid-1956, and the Grenrothes Development Corporation studied it, liked some of its recommendations and wished to carry them out, but it was not allowed to do so by the Department of Health.

This is another instance of someone wishing to do something which is good and of the Government preventing it. The corporation has been informed by the Department of Health that the control of costs for future contracts will be tightened. The Department of Health—I should like a specific statement on this matter—also seems, for purely financial reasons, to have scotched the idea of a clinic in Glenrothes, although the original suggestion that there should be a clinic came from the Department of Health.

A statement has been made by the Government about the ultimate control of the new towns. Speaking entirely for myself, I do not like it. In the new towns we have young, virile populations—the Joint Under-Secretary said that it is of no immediate importance in Scotland, but it is of immediate importance in England, and so the principle applies—which want control of their own towns. One of the complaints of the Glenrothes population is that it has no control over the corporation. I appreciate that the corporation tries to meet the community as far as it can, but there is no redress of grievances. In such a situation, where there is no democratic control over one's development corporation, one tends to get, perhaps unconsciously, dictatorial and cavalier treatment of the townspeople.

When the economic development of the new towns is complete—it is imminent in England and Wales—a new body will be set up by the Government to handle the assets of the new towns. In another place the Government explained that the situation would be exactly the same as in old towns and other urban communities throughout the country where certain property was owned in respect of which the local authorities had certain functions.

That may well be, but the assets of the new towns have been developed as a public investment. I certainly do not want—I hope my party does not want—those assets to be handed over at, maybe, knock-down prices to private enterprise. Nothing that has been built up by public investment should be handed over at knock-down prices by persons who have perhaps been appointed on a basis of patronage. In the years 1945 to 1951 the Labour Party had to face the gibe of "jobs for the boys". The feeling in the new towns is that the Government are now angling to create more "jobs for the boys" in the organisation which will eventually be set up. The Labour Party will certainly watch the legislation with very great care.

I join with almost every hon. Member who has spoken in urging the Government to reconsider their determination not to pursue a policy which has been so eminently successful for eleven years. If the new towns have been a roaring success—there is every indication that they have; Ministers admit it—the Government should carry on with the good work. The Government have had so many failures that they can ill afford to cast away one success even though it was originated by the Labour Party.