The order marks another signpost on the route towards the fulfilment of the Government's welcome commitment to bring about a successful conclusion to the new towns programme. The Department's policy has rightly concentrated on the maximum possible involvement of the private sector and a disengagement which leaves self-sufficient communities able to generate their own growth without special assistance from the public sector. The new towns specifically mentioned in the order are taken further towards the achievement of those goals, but the measure arouses concern in terms of both the present and the future situation. The word "accountability" perhaps sums up that concern.
This extinguishment of liabilities gives no indication of how public money has been spent by the quango development corporations and whether it has been spent wisely. In due course, presumably, the new towns will find themselves under yet another quango authority, as the two that I represent in mid-Hertfordshire have found themselves, the corporations being transmuted into one New Towns Commission with a modus operandi that is equally hard to scrutinise.
The extinguishment of liabilities — this time to the taxpayer — will be taken on by the New Towns Commission in terms of realising the assets of the towns in its care. The success or otherwise of that operation is highly relevant to today's debate. Questions of wisdom again might well be raised, as current actions show marked contrasts; for example, Welwyn Garden City and Hatfield had only £6·5 million and £2 million of their assets sold in the last 12 months, compared with £20 million for Hemel Hempstead, a town of similar size in the same county.
With the passing of this order, the need for legislation enabling the New Towns Commission and the development corporations to be the subject of inquiries by the ombudsman becomes the more acute. At present, constituents experiencing difficulties related to the management or purchase of remaining assets are denied recourse to the ombudsman. The Government's intentions in this regard are welcome, but the necessary legislation would be even more welcome
It is to be hoped that the order, despite the problems of accountability that it raises, will assist in bringing the remaining new towns closer to the normality of being simply towns, as the winding up of the New Town Commission legislation correctly envisages. The Government can then concentrate their efforts on inner city regeneration rather then greenfield development, with the success of the London Docklands Development Corporation as the new waymark.
I am glad to follow my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Hawksley), with one interruption from the Conservative Benches, because the figures that are involved in his new town are almost precisely the same as in mine.
I shall endeavour to put to the House a rather different appreciation of how we see matters in Milton Keynes. However, I sincerely welcome the order. It is long overdue. We were forced to borrow long when we should have been borrowing short, and the order puts us back on the right financial footing. I hope to be able to show that the Government have achieved fantastic value for their investment.
I was adopted as a candidate for the then constituency of Buckingham in 1967, the year that Milton Keynes was designated. It started building in earnest in 1973, some 13 years ago. In those days, we were a music hall joke. We were the place to which one sent one's mother-in-law, and that attitude gathered weight when we had our concrete cows.
Now, 13 years later, we have 128,000—not 122,000—inhabitants, 60,000 new jobs and a first-class infrastructure which is the envy of many other part of the country — a very good communications service with a new railway station, new roads, and all the rest of the infrastructure that is needed for a modern city. We have a flourishing commercial and retail centre, and recreational and cultural activities to go with it. We also have an energy park, which is just about to open its first development.
We have been innovative in housing design and tenure. There is more shared ownership in Milton Keynes than anywhere else in the country. We have 3,000 houses in shared ownership. In short, it is the most successful, the fastest growing community in the United Kingdom.
How has that been achieved with the money that we are now proposing to write off in the order? First and foremost, it has been achieved by a development corporation, well backed by local authorities which have put the needs of industry and commerce above everything else. As a result, over £1 billion of private investment has been attracted since Milton Keynes started. That has resulted in the success of this city. Without the jobs and the wealth creation that goes with them, that sort of growth would have been impossible.
The important thing, however, is the gearing between public expenditure on the one hand, which is what we are talking about with this order, and private investment. In Milton Keynes it is 1:4.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding me of that additional investment. That is all part of the same picture. It makes the place more attractive. It makes firms want to go there, and it creates the sort of environment in which people want to live.
People sometimes complain to me that some of the investment that has been made has resulted in too few directly employed people, but they fail to realise the enormous spin-off in the service industries that comes from these investments. That is often forgotten.
The process which culminates in this order has coloured my view of the role of the state in a modern capitalist society. I see that as a pump-priming and innovative role, where the state starts things moving and then gets out. I was one of those who attended the meeting referred to by the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) of representatives of local authorities in whose areas new towns are situated. I was horrified that they seemed to be interested only in retaining assets in their own control and ownership. That is not the way forward for the future.
What we have managed to do in Milton Keynes and other new towns is an example that must be followed elsewhere.
My hon. Friend says that that example must be followed elsewhere, but, I recall that when I was a member of the Greater London council we were in the process of reversing our policy of encouraging London overspill and the movement of industry out of London to the new towns on the ground that it was denuding central London of resources which London needed to survive. Therefore, does my hon. Friend, with his great experience of these matters, feel that the process should be continued?
I have obviously not explained myself well enough. I was going on to say that the example of Milton Keynes should be followed in urban centres. It has already been followed by the urban development corporation— very successfully in the docklands and fairly successfully in Merseyside, although, obviously, the difficulties there are far greater. That example needs to be followed far more widely than by just the urban development corporations.
This sort of operation should cover the depressed urban areas of England. I suppose that what I am really asking for is an English Development Board, on the lines of the Scottish and Welsh equivalents. The order shows the way forward. I am suggesting an organisation with a finite life of, say, 20 years, with the planning powers that exist at present in urban development corporations and new town corporations and—this is essential in urban areas—it should be the only source of housing finance in those areas. Therefore, it should be able to override, if necessary, the programmes of local authorities.
How should that be funded? It should be funded initially, as were these four new towns, by the Government — the taxpayer. That is an essential characteristic. I noticed from the speech of the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) that the Opposition have missed the point that the Government provide all the finance for the new towns. Therefore, they are the sole shareholder in a substantial property investment.
I am suggesting that the Government should be the shareholder in this new development agency and should also take over the assets of the new towns commission and be the repository of assets on the winding-up of new towns, so that there is a roll-over of finance. That is what I have always wanted for Britain's housing regeneration. I want an organisation which will roll over funds and will not go anywhere near the Treasury. The proceeds of what is sold should not go to the Treasury, but should be rolled over into further development in these depressed urban areas and improve them.
Local authorities are not fitted to undertake that task, and most of them admit it. Over the past year or so we have been faced with the difficulty of the winding up date for the Milton Keynes corporation. We have now been given a date of 1992. I make no secret of the fact that I should have preferred it to be later, and a future Government when it comes to consider the matter again in the 1990s will probably have to decide to go on a bit longer.
The point is that from every political party, local authority, business, trade union, and so on, the message to the Government was the same—"Look, this is a good thing. This is not something that the local authorities can take on. They do not want to do it, they do not have the resources and they want the development corporation to continue."
We are talking about a commercial operation. That is the key to the success of the new towns. It requires special skills. Most new towns are nearing completion and have a great reserve of staff with the necessary expertise. We should draw on that expertise and add to it from industry and the property world. It is a most exciting prospect. We should draw on experience in the United States of America, where enormous strides in urban renovation have been taken. The United States has been particularly successful in dealing with the problems in ethnic minority communities.
If such investment could be coupled with a new look at housing finance on the lines of the report by the Duke of Edinburgh's committee which inquired into British housing, we would be on the verge of a major breakthrough in the inner cities. The regeneration of our inner cities is by far the greatest challenge that faces the country. We should meet that challenge with all the vigour and expertise at our command.
It is a sign of the enormous importance of this debate that the Minister responsible for sport is seated on the Treasury Bench and not watching a game of cricket. It is a matter of never-ending debate whether my hon. Friend the Minister is better seated on the Treasury Bench or employed encouraging our sportsmen. There is little doubt that our sportsmen are in need of encouragement. At a time of the one-day test matches against New Zealand — which has not yet withdrawn from the Commonwealth games—I wish to pay a particular tribute to the Minister responsible for sport, even though I do not wish to judge whether he might be better employed giving instruction to the English cricket team.
You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, have had the good fortune, as I have, to listen to the whole debate. It is a matter of misfortune for Mr. speaker that he did not have the opportuniy to listen to my hon. Friend the Minister responsible for sport. However, mercifully, due to the Official Report, Mr. Speaker will be able to read, study and even commit to memory the Minister's introductory speech.
I must remind you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, even though you were in the Chair at the time, that the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) criticised my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Hawksley). That is within the recollection of all hon. Members. It was suggested that my hon. Friend was trying to prolong the debate. But what do I find? I find that my hon. Friend the Minister responsible for sport, tearing himself away from the test match, addressed the House for 19 minutes. I find that my hon. Friend the Member for Wrekin, even though he gave way with his customary courtesy to those of his hon. Friends who sought to intervene — however relevant or irrelevant those interventions were — spoke for 31 minutes. For how long did the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington delay the House? He detained the House for 34 minutes.
Since it was in order for the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington to comment on the length of the speeches by two of my hon. Friends, it is surely in order for me, so that Mr. Speaker can read my response in the Official Report, to say that the official Opposition spokesman addressed the House for three minutes longer than my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin.
Does my hon. Friend recall that the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) was unable to give way to interventions? Does my hon. Friend agree that, if any of my hon. Friends catch Mr. Deputy Speaker's eye, we may have to make our remarks more elaborate to provide the answers which the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington did not give us.
In the second part of my preamble I want to address myself to an issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin. He referred to the chairman of the Telford development corporation who appropriately, is known not only as the noble Lord Lord Northfield but as the noble Lord Lord Northfield of Telford. I am sure that my hon. Friend did not wish to give the wrong impression. I am sure that he did not wish to give the impression that he had anything other than total confidence in the noble Lord who is the chairman of the development corporation. I hope that my hon. Friend can confirm that assumption.
I turn from those preliminary points to the order. All my hon. Friends will share my deep regret that no Treasury Minister is seated on the Treasury Bench. My hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert), who is listening attentively to the debate, is not yet a Lords Commissioner, but perhaps I am wrong.
I apologise. I asked the question because I was not certain. We do not ask questions to which we know the answers. I am, of course, pleased that a Lords Commissioner is sitting on the Treasury Bench. He is not alone because, mercifully, sitting beside him is the Treasurer to Her Majesty's Household, my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Mr. Cope).
Order. I say seriously to the hon. Gentleman that I do not want to have to ask him to resume his seat. He must come to the matter that is before the House. The discussion so far has been wide of the order which is before the House.
I wish to comment upon the order, which was presented by the Minister with responsibility for sport. He commended the order to the House. In my opinion, there should have been present on the Government Front Bench a Treasury Minister. My hon. Friend the Member for Romford, though a Lords Commissioner, was not upon the Treasury Bench when my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for sport was moving the order.
That was an accident, and an unfortunate one. I am sorry that I was wrong in the first place. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that it is entirely appropriate that our hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for sport should be present? One of the great shames of the new towns has been experienced recently in my constituency, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will have a great deal of sympathy with it. Land formerly owned by the Commission for the New Towns that was used to provide playing fields has been sold for development, thereby taking away land on which competitive games could be played. The use of the land for that purpose has ended and instead it will be used for the provision of supermarkets. Surely it is not inappropriate that my hon. Friend the Minister is here to take account of the punishment that we shall have to give him later on for that.
I have already paid tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for sport. I was trying to pay him an eloquent tribute, and it was certainly intended to be so. My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames) — his constituency used to be Horsham and Crawley—has made quite an important point because within some of the development corporation areas we have both playing fields and houses. It is interesting that my hon. Friend the Minister—we hope that he will have responsibility for sport for many, many years to come—is a member of the ministerial team of the Department of the Environment, which has responsibility for some aspects of housing, which you may think, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am qualified to judge.
Surely my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames) was making an extremely interesting intervention with regard to my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for sport. He talked about competitive spirit. Local Labour parties are in a controlling position in some of the new towns and I fear that they may soon be adopting the position of the Labour group on ILEA. I do not know whether my hon. Friend read the interesting letter that appeared in The Times from a master at the Oratory school. Apparently that school, which once excelled at cricket—
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I regret having to raise another point of order. This debate involves a considerable sum of public money. It is being spent on new towns. Much of it has been spent on the establishment of schools at taxpayers' expense, at the people's expense. How these schools are operated within new towns is surely germane to the expenditure of this public money. I should be grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if you would reconsider your ruling in response to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh).
I was confirming to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I am sure to your significant relief, that I shall not be led astray by any of my hon. Friends.
I wish to direct your attention, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to page 19 of the order, the order having been moved by my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for sport. The notes to the order do not form part of the order. I want to make that clear to my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes (Mr. Benyon). I am referring to an explanatory note, and I think that the learned Clerk will confirm that we are able to refer to the explanatory note in the debate. This matter was not mentioned even in the excellent speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes. Apparently, he could not make time enough to refer to it and so I want to put right his omission. I do not want to criticise my hon. Friend's speech, but I think that he is guilty of an omission.
We are invited in the order, with the presence of only my hon. Friend the Member for Romford, a Lords Commissioner, and my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for sport, to agree to "extinguish"—you may think that that is an interesting word, Mr. Deputy Speaker—£1,687,686,405·98. Some of my hon. Friends who are chartered accountants may wonder how 98p found its way into a sum that is close to the limit that was laid down in the New Towns and Urban Development Corporations Act 1985.
It so happens that in an earlier incarnation I was responsible for putting what was then the Bill upon the statute book. We note the serried ranks of the Liberal party, which has taken such a keen interest in our affairs. We find that in the order we are almost up to the limit which is laid down in the Act. It is that which is causing such deep concern to my hon. Friends. It is something that 1 expected would excite the interest of my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes. I want to refer to my hon. Friends—I cannot refer the Opposition Front Bench to this because it is empty—and especially my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley, who I see is leaving his place —I hope that he is not going too far, but if he leaves the Chamber perhaps he will find out what the cricket score is in the test match and come back to tell my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for sport, who may be interested—to section 8(2), which refers to the
aggregate amount of liabilities extinguished by order under this section shall not exceed £1,750 million.
But what do we find? We find that in the first order to be made under the Act, which reached the statute book only last year, on 11 March—it is now 18 July, so barely a year has passed — the Minister with responsibility for sport, not the the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury or even my hon. Friend the Minster of State, Treasury, has invited the House to write off nearly the full amount that is set out in the order. It is my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for sport who has done that. I mean no discourtesy to my hon. Friend—how can I?—when I say that we need not only my hon. Friend the Member for Romford, the Lords Commissioner, who was not present at the start of the debate, but my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Boscawen).
My hon. Friend is right. He is clearly well informed on these matters.
I can confirm that my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome is the Vice-Chamberlain to Her Majesty's Household, and that he does not have specific responsibilities for Treasury matters, however. I am glad to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Sir J. Biggs-Davison) has entered the Chamber. He told me that he had a particular interest in new town development corporations, but it is not only that interest which is so pertinent to these proceedings. I see also that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Ryder) is in his place. My hon. Friend used to be the PPS to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. He has referred to my interest in new towns. It so happens that the constituency of Epping Forest abuts upon Harlow, the centre of a new town of great beauty. I wish I could say that all of the inhabitants live up to the beauty of that environment. There is a serious matter between Epping Forest and Harlow, and the House may be aware that Harlow is endeavouring to extend its boundaries and to build houses in the green belt.
I shall not give way, even to my hon. Friend. I shall do so later. I want to make progress. We do not wish the debate to be protracted because the Minister wants to watch the test match. He is not the only one. I would much rather be watching it than making a speech.
It is only just over a year since the New Towns and Urban Development Corporations Act 1985—perhaps I can call it the parent Act — reached the statute book. Yet the Minister with responsibility for sport has used up almost all the authority contained in the parent Act. We are allowed to extinguish only £1,750 million worth of debt. I was surprised that my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes did not address that issue. We have almost exhausted the total authority conferred in the parent Act.
I wish to make progress. I mean no discourtesy to my hon. Friend.
I invite my hon. Friends to study the order. I have been a Member only for a short time — possibly an even shorter time than my hon. Friend the Minister. I find it impossible to relate the many figures in the order to specific items. The figures must relate to specific items, otherwise they would not be listed separately. If they do not relate to individual items, why not keep them all together and total them up?
My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley has an acute financial brain. I have just seen him studying the order with great care. He has studied with particular care the advances made to the Warrington and Runcorn development corporation. I refer my hon. Friend to page 18 of the order. I shall try to take my hon. Friends through it I invite them to turn to page 18 of the order for my seminar. You might like to join in, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The penultimate line relates to No. WA397. Can my hon. Friend see the figure of £1 million?
I wonder whether my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) can see it. the figure in the next column is £999,899·38. I ask the Minister what has happened to the £100·62. Am I right in saying that the difference between the two figures is £100·62? If I have got that wrong, I shall give way to any of my hon. Friends who wishes to put me right.
I refer to the debate on 20 November 1984. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow), the then Minister for Housing and Construction, moved the Second Reading of the Bill. He referred to clause 8 — it is now section 8 — under which the powers are obtained. He said that the clause gave power to his right hon. Friend, his then senior Minister,
to suspend sufficient of their debt to enable them to break even."—(Official Report, 20 November 1984; Vol.68, col. 166.]
I fail to understand how he, as the person who created the Bill, can say that there are discrepancies on the figures.
I think that the surname of my hon. Friend shows why he is able so readily to comment on the two figures. I am responsible for the debate only in the sense that I was in charge of the Bill before it was enacted. I cannot assume the responsibility, which rests on the broad shoulders of the Minister with responsibility with sport, for the order. I am happy to take criticisms from any of my hon. Friends. I shall plead guilty to almost every charge levelled at me, but I shall not plead guilty to drawing up the order because I did not do so.
I shall not give way. I wish to make progress. I ask the Minister what happened to that £100·62? That is the difference between the amount of the advance and the principal outstanding on 31 August 1986. The Minister is not saying that that is the amount outstanding on 18 July. He is saying something quite different. He is saying that on 31 August the amount outstanding will be £999,899·38. I find it difficult to see how the amount under WA397 could have been £1 million precisely when the advance was made. By 31 August all the test matches will have been completed and the Minister will be able to direct more of his time to important financial matters. How does he hit on that figure? I have studied the matter with the same keen interest as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Ryder). I refer the Minister to page 7 of the order. I shall take my hon. Friends through it again. Is my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley with me?
It is not a frigate. My hon. Friend is the vice-chairman of the Conservative defence committee. We are discussing new towns, not frigates. It is quite difficult to distinguish between the two. The numbers chosen by my hon. Friend may have been chosen to confuse my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest. That is why we are happy to have the chance to explain the matters. No. T57 shows a figure of £70,000. The next column shows that the principal outstanding on 31 August 1986 is £69,423·15. I ask the Minister what has happened to the £576·85. I am doing the figures in my head. Is that the difference?
I am trying to make progress.
What has happened to that £576·85? On which date was it repaid? What rate of interest was charged between the date when the advance was made and when it was repaid? What happened to the public sector borrowing requirement between those dates? Those are all questions to which the House will require answers from my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for sport.
That will be a matter of great hope for all of my hon. Friends. My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley may catch your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have no doubt that, if my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for sport, who is one of the most courteous, well-informed and diligent of Ministers, cannot deal with all the points raised, he will write to each of my hon. Friends whose questions remain unanswered.
I wish to move from the relevant point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley. One is often tempted to refer to his constituency as Horsham and Crawley, but that temptation must be resisted, as others should be. I shall now consider the principle of this matter. The speech by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State — which you were lucky enough to hear, Mr. Deputy Speaker—did not show that he had discharged the duty which each of us has to our constituents when we are discussing public funds. The words "public funds" should never be used in the House because we are not talking about public money. We are talking about other people's money of which we are trustees. Each of us had a duty, which was not discharged by my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for sport, to ensure that we take much greater care of other people's money than of our own.
The motion was not moved in a manner that led me to believe that my hon. Friend the Minister is totally committed at all times in all circumstances to taking greater care of other people's money than of our own. The order asks us to write off a debt by development corporations to the Treasury. It is not really a debt to the Treasury; it is a debt owed to the British people. Hon. Members are invited not by a Treasury Minister but by a sports Minister to write off the debt owed to the British people.
Perhaps, to my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for sport, a sum of just under £1·75 billion is not significant, but it is a large sum to his hon. Friends. The "extinguishment", to use the words of the order, of a sum of that magnitude required a speech by a Minister other than the Minister with responsibility for sport. I mean no discourtesy to my hon. Friend. It is just a question whether the House has its priorities right and whether it should insist that, in considering so large a sum, a Treasury Minister who can explain these grave matters should be present.
My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes who is on earlier incomation represented Buckingham, made on excellent and important speech. No hon. Member is better informed about new towns than my hon. Friend. From the gestation of planning to growth of his town, my hon. Friend has watched one of the most remarkable success stories of this century. When 1 was responsible for these maters, I had the privilege of being taken by my hon.
Friend around his new town. I endorse everything that he has said. I believe that my hon. Friend is a member of the Centre Forward group.—Is that what it is called?
I think that my hon. Friend is a member—do not know whether you are a member, Mr. Deputy Speaker—of what is called the Centre Forward group. It is well known that I have received no invitation to join that group, although I criticise no one for that.
The point which I am making to—
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I realise that, as a distinguished Deputy Speaker, you are in some difficulty with the speech of the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow). We all find it sad when a distinguished former Minister has to perform in the way he has today, but that reflects what is perhaps happening to the Conservative party. The hon. Gentleman is abusing the privileges of the House. I should like you to rule whether his remarks about political grouping—revealing the splits in the Conservative party—are relevant to the order and are in order. I rise with great reluctance to raise this point of order.
Further to the point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is not the intervention by the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) intolerable in view of the lack of support on the Labour Benches and the fact that there is no representative of the Social Democratic party or of the Liberal party present?
My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes is not always regarded as occupying precisely the same place in the political spectrum as me; yet I have found myself in warm and enthusiastic agreement with every word he uttered. I pay tribute to his knowldege, deep understanding and concern on this issue. I hope that it will not be too long before my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes is sitting, not on the fourth Bench below the Gangway but on the Treasury Bench. Before long, we will be invited to vote on this order. There may not be a vote—
Well, it would not surprise me if there is a vote because the duty of protecting the public purse, the money of the people, is one of the highest duties conferred upon hon. Members. If my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley should decide to vote against this order—I will not be in the Lobby with him because, despite the reservations I have expressed, I intend to support it—I would find it perfectly in accordance with the honour and reputation for financial probity enjoyed by my hon. Friend. Therefore, I will understand if he decides to lead some of my hon. Friends into the Opposition Lobby, but I am sure that my hon. Friends would understand that I would regret it. In so far as I may have any influence with my hon. Friends, and in so far as my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley may value my advice, my advice is that they should support the Government, despite the reservations I have expressed.
There can be few of us present this morning who have not been much seized by what my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) has had to say on this important matter. I am sure that all those who have listened to what he has had to say will have to reconsider their position on this matter. It is unfortunate that my hon. Friend was not allowed 10 pursue the line that he used to take with Dr. Johannes Witteveen in the early 1970s. When I was not a member of the House, I remember reading avidly in Hansard and in the newspapers about the many opportunities that my hon. Friend had to use that correspondence in the House to devastating effect and to the great encouragement of those of us outside the House. It is a shame that we did not have a chance to develop that argument. I shall not develop it, because I want to make some serious points about the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne.
The spending of public funds, of other people's money, as my hon. Friend rightly said, is like marriage. It is not something to be entered into lightly or wantonly. My hon. Friend the Minister, without meaning to do so, but because of his many responsibilities over an enormous area in the Department of the Environment, which my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne knows well, was almost obliged to discuss this matter in a light and wanton way. We are talking about vast sums of taxpayers' money being written off under this order. There is a lack of equity in this order and I should like my hon. Friend the Minister to address himself to that.
My constituency was one of the first generation of new towns. It profited and grew enormously in the 1950s and 1960s. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne wishes to see the second generation new towns repaying their debt to the British people. My constituency, I am proud to say, is repaying its debt in a major way. In some respects, it is being asked to do too much. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minster will consider the almost rapacious attitude of the Commission for the New Towns when disposing of these properties, which it is rightly charged to do by Her Majesty's Treasury.
There is an obligation laid upon the commission by the House to discharge its duties in what is called the rationalisation of these properties. I do not quarrel with the way that it does that, because it does it very efficiently, but one of the side effects in my constituency is that the small trader—an important part of the economy, the backbone of the recreation of the enormous number of new jobs for which the Government have been responsible —is being driven from his property by the Commission for the New Towns because of the enormous values being placed on these properties in the open market. I do not quarrel with that. Dr. Witteveen would not have quarrelled with that. The fact is that Crawley is repaying its debt in a significant way.
The principles, which were laid down by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, now the shadow Foreign Secretary, are being put at risk, because it was the International Monetary Fund which insisted on the Labour party pursuing a policy of relative financial rectitude. What we are concerned about is whether in the order we may be slightly slipping from the path of total financial rectitude. I am glad that my hon. Friend mentioned Dr. Witteveen. I think that he is still alive, and I hope that he will have a very long life.
We in the House owe a great debt to Dr. Witteveen. Indeed, the Conservative Opposition in the late 1970s owed a particular debt to him. I have no doubt that he would have been grateful and proud of the fact that the mouthpiece of his opinion in the Chamber should have been my hon. Friend.
I return to the order. My hon. Friend is right to drag us relentlessly back to the grind of argument and the rapier thrust in the debate, which is how we are to deal with the extinguishment of these liabilities. You were not here. Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the earlier part of the debate, which has not been marred in any way by the clash of alternative views on the Conservative Benches as to the best way to handle the matter.
The order gives effect to a financial reconstruction of four new town development corporations — Milton Keynes, Peterborough, Telford and Warrington and Runcorn. I should like to say a word about Milton Keynes and my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes (Mr. Benyon). I represent a new town seat. It has been my privilege to learn a great deal about the new towns movement from my hon. Friend, to whom a warm and right tribute was paid by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne.
My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes knows a great deal about these matters and I would be guided in the debate to a great extent by the points that he makes, but there is some inequity, with which I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will deal. I wonder why my constituency should be penalised in the most extraordinary way in the disposal of the assets imposed on it by the present shadow Foreign Secretary in his terrible and desperate attempts to pull this country's economy round after he had half bankrupted it. Why should my constituents be penalised to pay for Telford, Warrington and Runcorn and Peterborough?
That is an important point. My constituents will not easily understand why a town such as Milton Keynes, where I know an enormous amount of money had to be spent on the infrastructure, the development of the roads, and so on, and which is a successful town, should be able to have its liabilities discharged on an enormous scale, when many of them are paying hand over fist to try to secure commercial properties. Extraordinary sums of money are involved.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne will know the reason for that, because he is a learned and distinguished man. He knows my constituency and my part of the world. He will know that my constituency has the lowest unemployment rate in the United Kingdom. I discussed it only the other day with the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes). I grieve with him over the problems that he has compared with the benefits of full employment that 1 have in my constituency. I wish that he could have the same in his constituency.
One of the penalties of success for my constituency has been the extraordinary value that has been attached to commercial properties. I come back to the lack of equity in the order. I wonder why these millions of pounds should be written off overnight when my constituents are carrying the can for Warrington and Runcorn, Telford, Peterborough and Milton Keynes.
I come to the burden of what I have to say. We are told that the financial reconstruction proposals embodied in the order have been formulated by reference to projections of income and expenditure over the next 20 years. What expressions of confidence will My hon. Friend the Minister make to the House today about the reliability of those forecasts? What expressions of confidence were made in the House 20 years ago about the forecasts for Warrington and Runcorn, Telford and Peterborough?
With the greatest respect to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker — and of course my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne will abide by your judgment—forecasting is crucial. I remind you that you were in the Chair on one occasion when I had a difficult debate with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport about the forecasting of traffic on the M25 and where that had got us—
Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the business before us concerns the financing and liabilities of the new towns named in the order. I hope that he will return to that matter.
It might help my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames) if I inform the House that the figures forecast for Telford 20 years ago were double the current figures. The estimation was out by more than 100 per cent.
My hon. Friend, as always, shows a perspicacity and sagacity for which he is well known in the House. It is a matter of regret to many of my hon. Friends that Government forecasting is so lamentably bad.
That is true. Government forecasting is a matter of some concern.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to settle the mind of the House on this matter. I hope that he can say that his confidence reposes in the figures for financial reconstruction embodied in the order, formulated by projection of income and expenditure over the next 20 years.
We are now told that this exercise has been carried out with the co-operation of the corporations and that the results have been analysed by consultants commissioned by the Department of the Environment. I have to say, with great regret, that it was consultants commissioned by the Department of Transport who made such an awful mess of the figures for the M25. What confidence can my hon. Friend the Minister have in figures for the new towns put forward by consultants? Is he satisfied that there will not be another order in the House in 20 years' time — I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne is concerned about this—asking for another huge sum of money to write off these forecasts, especially when, as my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Hawksley) said, previously they have been 100 per cent. wrong?
It is alleged that these measures will provide a sound financial basis for the corporations during their remaining lives. How often have we heard the expression "sound financial basis" in this House? How many industries, enterprises and businesses controlled or administered by the state or its organisations have we been told would provide a sound financial basis? We were told that about De Lorean, Rolls-Royce in the bad old days, British Shipbuilders and British Leyland. Yet who but the taxpayers living in our constituencies has had to keep shelling out money time after time?
I am sure, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you did not hear that. The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), who is also my friend, might like to discuss that with me later. Indeed, I know that he is a beady-eyed steward keeping a careful watch on every penny of public money that is spent. He is responsible for the scrutiny of that money in this House. I am sure he will agree that it has been said many times in this House, and claimed by Ministers of all Governments, that certain organisations and enterprises provided a sound financial basis for the corporations during their remaining lives.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In my opening preamble I said that I had asked for the debate to be taken on the Floor of the House and hoped that Conservative Members would not abuse that decision. It is now absolutely clear that my request is being wholly ignored and that the debate is being reduced to an unacceptable level. Conservative Members for reasons only known to themselves—
I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. To tell you the truth, I had rather forgotten the thread of my argument. I was in the middle of a major disquisition on the stewardship of public funds when suddenly there jumped up from the Opposition Front Bench an objector. I do not regard lightly the writing off of £1,750 billion of taxpayers' money. The hon. Gentleman rightly insisted that the matter should be debated on the Floor of the House because it is important. If he thinks that it is being treated with levity, he is wanting both in judgment and in the quality of his observations.
It was always envisaged that the corporations' revenue deficits would continue for the early years of development, but that in due course they could achieve break even and be able to redeem their borrowing. As my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin rightly pointed out in the case of Telford, those forecasts were more than 100 per cent. inaccurate. What confidence does my hon. Friend the Minister repose in the figures implied in the order? The House will demand a proper answer. By the time the order returns, my hon. Friend will be in the Cabinet, but I hope that whoever fills his job in 10 years' time will not have to stand at the Dispatch Box and take the same stick on this matter from, God willing, my lion. Friend the Member for Eastbourne, myself and other hon. Friends here assembled this morning.
Other hon. Members wish to participate. The new towns and the Commission for the New Towns have been a remarkable success. Nothing that we say about the financial side of the order should in any way alter the debt of gratitude that the country owes to those who with vision set up the new towns, bringing immense prosperity and a force for good into the United Kingdom. In these islands there are many towns which could greatly benefit from the Commission for the New Towns coming with overarching authority to sweep aside all the useless objections raised by reactionary, revisionist local authorities against any form of development or expansion and to build, develop and expand—with all the verve and vigour of south; and with enthusiasm and desire — a bright new Jerusalem in our inner cities. There could be no finer body to do that than the new towns movement, but it is not for the House, the steward and guardian of public funds, to allow the write-off of £1,750 billion in the flicker of an eyelid or with a snap of the fingers. The taxpayer will be done out of more than £1 billion.
I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me this opportunity, as a Member of Parliament for a new town, to speak in the debate. My constituency is very fortunate, and we are grateful for the benefits that were conferred upon us. However, my constituents will not be pleased if today we approve an order which means that they will have to pay heavy debts for the hard work, enterprise and drive that they have put into developing Crawley, while Warrington and Runcorn, Peterborough, Telford and Milton Keynes will have their liabilities written off. What would Dr. Johannes Witteveen have said had he been here?
It is appropriate that I should follow in the footsteps of my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames), because I wish to echo some of the points that he made and expand on some of his thoughts. We are all aware—especially those of us who have the honour to represent constituencies with new towns—of the enormous contribution made by the new towns since the war. I hesitate to use the term used earlier by the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) when he spoke about the new town movement. There is a tendency to attribute the word "movement" to anything, certainly on the Left of politics. One might say, "If it moves, call it a movement."
The development of new towns since the war has been remarkable. They have made a remarkable contribution to the social and economic life and to the development of a new form of social existence. When my hon. Friend the Minister opened the debate, he mentioned the financial reconstruction that the order involves. That has rightly caused much anxiety among my hon. Friends as to the aim and purpose of the reconstruction and what might lie behind it.
I do not propose to go too far down that road, but I shall illustrate by reference to Redditch in Worcestershire the fact that we are somewhat uneasy about the development of new towns in the future. Some of us wish to know whether the new towns will continue indefinitely, or whether it may be more realistic —my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley was moving in this direction in his eloquent remarks— to say that the new towns have fulfilled their purpose and that it is time for a rapid end to them.
If I had the power to sustain a speech for as long as and in such depth I know that my hon. Friend can, I would have developed my argument along his lines. We must develop a hybrid between the Commission for the New Towns, the new towns corporations and the London Docklands development corporation, which has proved so outstandingly successful. These attitudes and skills—
Indeed not, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, my hon. Friend has, as usual, put his finger on a key point.
Redditch represents the transition from development corporation to the role of the commission. We want to know what the Minister has in mind for the development of new towns. Although the development corporations have played a magnificent role in the past, and made a wonderful contribution, the transition to the rule of the commission may not bring the sort of development that we want, because it does not contain the commercial element which my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley implied in the remarks which I shall not repeat.
Redditch is a classic case. Like all the new towns referred to in the order, it started with the kernel of an established community. One can trace back the origins of Redditch many centuries, and the town has a worldwide reputation for its needle industry. After being set up in the 1960s, the new town moved rapidly from being a sleepy midlands town with a population of 20,000 to a centre with a population of 75,000. There was a remarkable development of housing, landscaping and infrastructure and the new town is a fine example of the genre.
That issue is not strictly relevant, as I shall explain. The relevant point is the transition of the new town and whether it should go into the hands of the Commission for the New Towns or, as some of us would prefer, move to full privatisation. I use that term without blushing. The Opposition have said many times today that there is a deep, dark secret and a sinister plot to privatise new towns. There is nothing of the sort. I hope that the Minister will confirm that privatisation is precisely what we have in mind. Surely that would be the culmination of the development of the new towns.
Far be it from me to attempt to advise such a constitutional expert as my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow), but I suggest that it is unlikely that the European Commission will have to be involved. I hope that recent constitutional developments will not lead us down that path, and I am fairly confident that what has happened in this House will not take us in that direction.
We should pause to consider why the new towns have been so successful. There has been much speculation, but I believe that, based on the experience of Redditch, I can give the House the answer. The first reason was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley, who covered so many points in his eloquent contribution, though, as he said, he was forced, in the interests of brevity, to curtail his remarks and was not able to explore some matters as fully as he wished.
I pick up a theme that my hon. Friend initiated and suggest that one reason for the success of the new towns was the powers vested in them from the outset. They were able to proceed with great speed in developing housing, infrastructures and roads, without resort to the usual planning procedures.
In considering the order and the winding up of liabilities, does my hon. Friend agree that the spirit of enterprise that the new towns brought could and should be applied with ease to other parts of the United Kingdom?
Yes, but I must sound a note of caution as my hon. Friend's enthusiasm that all should share the benefits conferred by the new towns involves an underlying danger. It is relevant to the debate because in moving towards the winding up of the new towns and considering the future we must examine the balance to be struck between the democratic accountability of our current planning regulations and the way in which the new towns have been allowed to develop without strict democratic accountability. The benefits in terms of speedy decision making and determination by those with a vision of what they want to develop are achieved at the cost of a lack of the accountability and democratic control that we expect in our normal planning procedures.
Does my hon. Friend recall that not long ago Redditch development corporation, in his constituency, attempted to sell 20 per cent. of its total area—to Tarmac, I believe—but the proposal was turned down by the Department of the Environment? Has my hon. Friend any comment to make about that in relation to the extinguishment of debt covered by the order?
My hon. Friend has a remarkable grasp and knowledge of these matters even when they are in my constituency rather than his. He has raised a relevant point. I regretted the Department's decision because the development corporation seemed to me to be seeking at one leap to achieve a remarkable development in the privatisation of the new town but was frustrated by the Department of the Environment. I shall not go further into that as it would embarrass the Government as well as my hon. Friend and myself to say too much about it in public, but I agree with the sense of my hon. Friend's question.
The second reason for the remarkable success of the new towns has been the amount of funding available. Members have expressed understandable concern at the amounts involved and the opaqueness of the order. I hope that when my hon. Friend the Minister winds up the debate he will be able to throw much more light on what lies behind the very large sums contained but not explained in the proposal. The key to the success of the new towns has been that large sums of public money have been made available without the accountability that we would normally expect from public bodies dispensing public funds, and I am grateful for the benefits that this has brought to Redditch.
I welcome any hon. Member who wishes to come and see the town. It is beautifully laid out, the roads are well planned and landscaping has been carried out at no expense—2 million trees have been planted since the town began to develop — not to mention the infrastructure implications, to which I shall return. It is easy to achieve developments of that kind if there is no direct accountability for the expenditure of large sums of public money. The new towns have shown the facility to channel enormous sums of public money without accountability or visibility to produce a desired result, but whether we wish to go that way in the future is a much bigger question and germane to today's debate. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will tell the House what the Government have in mind for the future of the new towns.
The third element in identifying the reasons for the success of the new towns is what I would call representation without democracy. I will explain what I mean by that. On all the development corporations of the new towns we have appointed representatives, boards with paid or part-time members, and appointed representatives from the local community in the time-honoured way to which we in Britain are all accumstomed. But one thing that those people were not, excellent though they were and excellent though their record of public service was, and representative in a sense though they may have been, were democratically elected members.
That immediately draws a distinction between the role of the new towns and their commissions and corporations, on the one hand, and local government and local authorities, as we have understood them for many centuries, on the other. Again, one must draw the paradoxical distinction between the effectiveness and efficiency of undemocratic but representative bodies and democratically accountable local authorities.
Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying a long way from the substance of the order. We are discussing not the political structure of local government but the liabilities of certain new towns.
I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for reminding me that in my enthusiasn I must not get carried too far from the point. However, I was making my point in the context of the future that lies beyond the order when it is approved by the House. We are all hoping that my hon. Friend the Minister will give us guidance on that matter when he replies.
I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall not be further tempted.
We have seen the remarkable record of success of the new towns. My hon. Friend the Minister has today asked us for a financial reconstruction so that the new towns named in the order may proceed with their development. We are willing to give him our support today, but he must understand from what I and many of my hon. Friends have said that there is some reservation in our support for the measure. We wish to be satisfied about the direction in which the Government wish to take the new towns and the extent to which they are aware of the need for strict accountability in the use of public money in the further development of the new towns.
It is on that thought and that issue that I wish to conclude my remarks in the hope that we shall be given all the assurances that we require from my hon. Friend today with regard to what he intends for the future, the extent to which he believes there will be accountability in the future and in the strictness with which I hope he and his Department will be looking at the matter as it unfolds and develops.
My constituency of Stafford is close to Telford, which is the subject of one of the provisions in the order. As a member of the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments I had the responsibility to consider this statutory instrument a short time ago. I was somewhat surprised to see the liabilities which were being extinguished, amounting, as we know, to £1,687 million in round figures.
The problem is simply that a huge new town with an enterprise zone attached to it, with an accumulated debt on the scale that has developed over the years since the incorporation of the new town, has areas adjacent to it that are, as it were, in a vacuum and they feel a significant draught if the financing of the new town is in any way artificial.
If liabilities, on the scale that is set out in the order, are extinguished, as they will be, I ask the Minister to bear in mind that those of us who live in towns which are more self-financing than, for example, towns which have not significantly increased their rates — other then the precept from the county council, another and very sad tale — should be given all the protection that the Department of the Environment can give so that the order does not bear heavily on a place such as Stafford. The problems in new towns are well documented. Some of my constituents work in Telford. I praise the staff and the chairman of the development corporation although some criticisms have been voiced today. They have conducted themselves in the interests of the local people.
I am deeply suspicious of social engineering. Many of the people in Telford come from Birmingham. Large sums were required to support the movement of the population from Birmingham to Telford. That expenditure and movement was necessary because of the deep-rooted inner urban problems caused by degeneration and decay. Those problems could be sorted out only by the visionary arrangements activated in the 1940s which enabled people to have a decent standard of living. The idea was to make available homes near jobs. That is directly related to the sums that are now to be written off and it is one of the crucial factors that underpins the new towns. We must be responsible in the way in which we debate the subject.
Some serious questions arise from the order. The allegation is that there is a conspiracy by the wicked Tories to pull the rug from under the feet of the new towns, to dismantle and to throw to the winds the good work that has been done. The extinguishment of the liabilities in the order, remembering the reservations I have expressed, provides an opportunity for people who are moving into a new enterprise era to take a stake in the new town.
The opportunity should be taken, when a new town is reaching fulfilment, to disengage from social engineering, which might have had a valid beginning. I recognise the social needs that made social engineering necessary. Bournville is a good example. It has created a mixture of enterprise and philanthropy, the hallmark of the Quaker tradition which I have mentioned in other speeches. It was one of the great developments of the 19th century.
I am vice-chairman of the Conservative Small Business Bureau so I take an interest in the development of enterprise and small businesses. We must try to provide people with jobs and small businesses, with homes nearby. We should now be able to disengage from social engineering and enable people to buy their own homes and to set up small businesses. If the extinguishment of the debts will enable the Telford development corporation to balance the books so that those twin objectives can be achieved the spirit of enterprise will be enhanced and there will be more opportunities for job creation, particularly jobs for young people in the Telford area.
I should refer briefly to the Ironbridge Gorge Musuem trust. The issue of debt and liability impinges upon the trust, which is a national museum. I hope that the Minister will pay some tribute to it and give some sign of his Department's thinking on the subject. I happen to be a member for the board of the charity, and I had been in that position for many years before I became a Member for this place. It has a status that requires recognition.
Many of the discussions that have been taking place relate directly to the provisions that are set out in the order. I do not know which T item it refers to, but I am convinced that there are aspects of the Ironbridge museum that are related directly to one of the enumerated Ts in the order.
A coincidence that has just occurred to me is that Abraham Darby and the Quakers did not rely on public funds. Instead, they relied upon their own endeavours and enterprise. They created the industrial revolution, which the museum represents. The extinguishment of the public debts which is represented by the order is related directly and historically to the beginnings of private enterprise in that vicinity. As we disengage from and wind up the new towns, especially Telford, I hope that we shall have regard to the origins of the area itself. If we wish to develop new jobs, small businesses and a sense of enterprise with people able to live in the countryside reasonably near to their place of work, the extinguishment of the debt will, without doubt, enable these objectives to be achieved.
I hope, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you will allow me to refer to my visit to Naples yesterday as a member of the Select Committee on European legislation. This is not part of a filibuster or anything of that sort. The evidence that we have of the extinguishment of liability in Italy provides something from which we can learn in relation to the order.
The reason for the disengagement from and extinguishing of the liabilities is related directly to the fact that in the 1950s and 1960s we had peculiar boom conditions. They were boom conditions of a rather artificial kind because much of the money involved was borrowed from abroad. Money was made available, however, on a significant scale and a significant amount of debt was accumulated. The first and second generations of new towns were able to be more or less self-financing and were wound up without accumulated liabilities which they could not repay. That is not the position of the third generation, of which Telford happens to be one.
I said earlier when my hon. Friend the Minister was speaking that it would be misleading to say that the whole of the Telford area is one of dereliction. I am sure that my hon. Friend did not intend to give that impression. The opposite is true and Telford is a beautiful part of the country. The problems with which it was faced in the Dawley area were significant. They were underestimated by a number of people, including, I regret to say, a book that I would recommend to those interested in new towns. The book by Meryl Aldridge, is entitled, "The British New Towns—A programme without a policy". It stated that Mr. Richard Crossman said of Dawley, in his diaries:
Money could have been no object in mind"—
he quoted Evelyn Sharp's mind—
since it will cost a fortune to turn this into a modern urban area".
That appears at page 307 of the 1975 diaries. The book continued:
an observation which has particular piquancy in view of Lady Sharp's own insistence that new towns should be chosen in the light of their potential for economic success".
Richard Crossman identified, no doubt accurately, the fact that when the new towns were developed serious problems were inherent in Dawley and Telford which are intrinsic to the order. He predicted, quite accurately, which apparently Evelyn Sharp did not, that a vast amount of money was tied up in the proposal and that it would cause no end of difficulty. As a result, we must extinguish debts that were accumulated on a massive scale.
Evelyn Sharp was extremely concerned about the use of money in a number of new towns. She had a rather motherly attitude towards them. I have the greatest admiration for Evelyn Sharp as an extremely distinguished civil servant. She cared deeply about new towns. I was PPS to Dick Crossman. He cared very much about democracy in new towns. That was a real problem.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I understand that he did not make the point in a critical way but wished to put it on the record. I agree entirely with what he said. It is difficult to calculate the amount of money needed for what I believe was an important objective and to ensure that the money was properly funded from the beginning.
I think that the accountancy arrangements, the investigation by the Comptroller and Auditor General's Department and the provisions of the 1985 Act on accountancy will be critical when the new towns are wound up. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) was the Minister—I regret that he is not in the House to take note of the point—who introduced the Bill. I see a serious problem in the present Act regarding the final accountancy arrangements for winding up the new towns. A wide discretion is given as to the manner in which the calculations will be made and the auditing will he done when the towns wind up their financial arrangements. If the towns get that wrong—there have been many criticisms of the order and the lack of information available—it will be deeply regretted. We must operate our public expenditure on the basis of sound financial expenditure.
This has been a long debate. As at least one of my hon. Friends wishes to speak, I shall confine my remarks and make them shorter than I had intended. I listened with great interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes (Mr. Benyon). He has great experience in such matters. He spoke in glowing terms about the achievements of Milton Keynes. He seemed to welcome the order. I wish to take issue with his speech and the tenor of his remarks.
The new town concept is the product of the "brave new world" vision of the original Fabians, but they could never have foreseen some of the debt problems which would arise and which we are debating. As my hon. Friends the Members for Crawley (Mr. Soames) and for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) reminded the House, we are talking about a serious issue. Although this is a Friday and the House is thinly attended, we are talking about the extinguishment of £1·7 billion of public money.
My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley, who represents a first generation new town, rightly said that his constituents were being disadvantaged by the order. Although they had repaid their debt on time, the second generation of new towns had not. He spoke movingly of the problems that would arise for his constituents.
The explanatory notes with the order told us of the difficulties that the second generation of new towns have met, which explains the need for the order. My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Hawksley), who represents Telford is in his seat. He told us of some of the problems caused because the population projections had proved inaccurate. The explanatory notes told us also that, although the first generation of new towns grew up in the boom years of the 1960s, the second generation faced many more problems in the depression years of the 1970s and, therefore, the task facing second and third generation new towns was in many respects much more onerous. I accept all that and the reasons why the order is before us, but that experience of Milton Keynes and the second generation new towns should be a bitter warning and should guide Ministers, especially my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for sport, in directing public policies.
Because of the lessons of the 1960s, when we perhaps did not take adequate steps to guard against unforeseen events, the Government have to provide a realistic debt structure for the new towns. The order will enable the Government to give a coherent, measured corporate planning structure.
My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes talked in glowing terms of what Milton Keynes had achieved. He seemed to think that the order would give the Government and the nation an opportunity to think in terms of widening the spirit of the new towns away from the Fabian concept of moving the population from the overcrowded inner cities to greenfield sites. My hon. Friend felt that the order could be a precursor to setting up development boards along the lines of the London Docklands Development Corporation, to regenerate our inner cities.
Of course, this is an attractive prospect. There are large derelict areas in many regions, especially in the north in our industrial cities. When I was a member of the Greater London council, I was involved in London overspill schemes. I now represent a town—Gainsborough—which was a London overspill town. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, we had to pick up the pieces from the planning policies of the late 1940s and early 1950s. We had to pick up the pieces of a great city like London which, to a certain extent, had been denuded of resources in terms of people and industry. Industry had gone to the new towns of, for example, Harlow, Welwyn Garden City and Milton Keynes. There is no doubt that that is why the new town concept has gone out of fashion. In looking carefully at the order and to the future and in considering the extinguishment of £1·7 billion of public money, we should pause to draw breath. We should remember the lesson of the past.
I must get on. Rather than talking glibly of the taxpayer coming to the rescue of the new towns we should be looking at ways in which, in directing our policy for the future, we can think not in terms of financing the towns with rented housing but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth) said, looking ahead at privatisation and using private money so that, in 10 or 15 years, we are not left with the problem we are debating today.
I am grateful to the Opposition for giving us the opportunity to have this debate. It has been an instructive morning listening to my hon. Friends seeking answers from our own Front Bench. I will not say as much as I had hoped because I want to ensure that my hon. Friend the Minister has sufficient time to answer the questions that have been put.
Last night I took the draft statutory instrument home with me so that I could look at it. I thought that it would make interesting reading before bedtime. As is my custom, I went to bed with my reading and I put aside my new Jeffrey Archer book and read the order instead. I was bitterly disappointed. It was not the good read that I had hoped. However, it does have some similarities with the novels of Jeffrey Archer. The figures involved are as astronomical. In fact, the figures involved are almost as large as those Mr. Archer earns from his books. It is important that we get some answers today about what the figures represent.
If these figures represent paying for public infrastructure—roads, hospitals and schools—it is reasonable that they should be met from public funds and that we should be able to write them off. It could be argued that the taxpayer would have received good value for money. However, if the figures represent money for building shopping centres and housing which will be sold or transferred to the local authority, we should know about it. If that is the case, the money should be going back to the Treasury and not being written off. It is important for the good name of the new towns movement in this country.
The new towns movement is the envy of the world. I speak as someone who, before I came here, taught town planning, for my sins. Visitors from around the world are singularly impressed by Britain's achievement in moving the population, en masse, from what were slums at the end of the second world war into good, new housing with all the social facilities that went with it.
Representing Stevenage as I do and having been involved with Bracknell in the past, I should like to draw my hon. Friend's attention to the fact that there are some new towns that have been able to generate a substantial return for the Government. Therefore, in financial terms, some new towns have done very well. Not only has one had the social advantage of the new towns and the employment prospects, but there has been a financial return from some new towns.
My hon. Friend is quite right. The first generation of new towns worked very well. In fact, what we call the first generation, which were built from public funds after the second world war, are really the second generation. The first generation rose from private enterprise. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Minister will be tempting us to go down that line in the future with more private enterprise. The Ebenezer Howard idea of private capital being invested in new towns is a masterly idea. The idea of pouring vast sums of public money into new towns was a good idea in the post-war years because we had to reconstruct. We also had low interest rates, which helped the first generation of new towns make a return on their capital.
The third generation of new towns came along after the oil crisis and it was then that the problems really started. They had to borrow over long periods at high interest rates and they got into a terrible muddle, not knowing whether they were starting to get a return. They carried on borrowing. In the end, knowing that they were not getting anywhere near breaking even, the Government found it necessary to intervene. Along with other of my hon. Friends, I welcome the Government's action. It is important that we put the finances of the new towns on a firm footing, so that we can go forward. We do not want to stop the progress of the new towns. We want the idea of the new towns and the development corporations to roll on, develop, and to continue meeting the needs of our country. To fossilise it and let them carry on with a debt burden that they are unable to service would have been irresponsible. Therefore, I congratulate the Government on their action.
I have my personal doubts about the success of the new towns, in a sense. I represent an outer London area— Edmonton—which has been the victim of the magnetic attraction of the new towns. They have drawn away the population. They drew away the young, skilled, mobile work force from my constituency, and with it went the jobs. They were tempted, or bribed, to the new towns around London. My constituency has suffered from the new town policy. I do not object to that because it was in the long-term interest of this country as a whole. Of course, that is what we must be concerned with in the House.
Before I sit down and let my hon. Friend answer the points that have been raised in the debate, I should like to make a plea for more openness of information from the new towns. There has been a singular lack of openness from the Government today on the draft statutory instrument. I shall not labour the point; other of my hon. Friends have made it. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will want to reply to the points that have been made.
The new towns have been a byword for secrecy. There is now a movement for local government—we have to include the new towns as a variety of localised government —to throw open its doors and provide information for the citizens in the area. I hope that my hon. Friend, while keeping in order, will talk about openness in the new towns.
I welcome today's debate. It has been a valuable debate, perhaps more valuable and useful than my hon. Friend had intended. Nevertheless, I hope that, on reflection, he will think that this morning has been well worth while. We look forward eagerly to his reply.
I listened with great care to the debate, which has lasted more than four hours. However, I am concerned about the flippancy with which an order with such strong political undertones has been treated by some Conservative Members. Some have abused the privilege of the opportunity to debate the order on the Floor of the House. This morning we have been talking about writing off almost 1·7 billion. The matter deserves the utmost seriousness from all hon. Members. The flippancy of Conservative Members suggests to some Opposition Members that they simply do not care.
I should like to ask some specific questions. If the Minister is unable to answer all of them immediately, I shall be happy to receive answers in writing in due course. Is he aware of any other orders in the pipeline that will extinguish the liabilities of any other new towns? Will he produce more details about the sums of money referred to in the order, as requested in a written question tabled by the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Hawksley) earlier this week?
With regard to the winding up of the development corporation and the transfer of housing and community-related assets, previous transfers have taken place with no loss and no gain for either side.
Where surveys have shown that there are undue deficiencies in the condition of the housing, will they be put right before any transfer of assets from the new towns? Will local authorities be given resources so that they can continue to attract tenants to buildings that have been vacated by industrialists when the development corporations are wound up? As the Minister and those of us who live in and represent the new towns are aware, there is a large scale turnover of industrial buildings in many new towns.
Many development corporations run social development offices. Will funds be made available by district councils, county councils or other appropriate local authorities to allow that initiative to continue?
Finally, where local authorities have taken over housing stock from district councils, they are finding that the promised adjustments in HIP allocation have not been made—indeed, some are receiving a lower allocation of HIP. I hope that the Minister will look at that matter. I accept that the Minister may not be able to answer all my points, so I should be grateful if he would reply in writing.
It is well known that new town measures have a reputation for producing an interesting, wide-ranging debate. Today's debate has certainly been no exception. It has been wide-ranging and some interesting questions have been asked.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow), in good spirit, pulled my leg about my better known responsibilities for sport. Of course, as he knows well, I am here today as the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment with responsibility, together with my noble Friend the Minister of State, for new towns. On the sporting angle, today's debate has at times felt a little like an orienteering exercise as it has weaved around. At times I thought I might be taking part in the Fastnet race.
As you have reminded us, Mr. Deputy Speaker, our concern today is somewhat narrowly focused on the financial reconstruction of the four new town development corporations with substantial development tasks ahead of them — Milton Keynes, Peterborough, Telford, and Warrington and Runcorn. Perhaps I should reiterate what I said in my opening remarks—that during the debate on the 1985 Act it was recognised that this sort of restructuring should continue. Hon. Members on both sides of the House thought that an extremely sensible exercise.
During the debate hon. Members have raised a number of points related to the order, and some of my hon. Friends made more general points. I shall try to respond to some of them, but if I cannot do so because of time constraints or because of lack of detailed answers I shall reply in writing.
The current financial regime needs explanation. I thought that I had explained it during my opening remarks, but it appears that some of my hon. Friends did not think so. The new towns' principal source of finance has been borrowing from the Treasury. That has meant that not only the new investment requirements of the development corporations but revenue deficits have had to be financed by borrowing. It is in the nature of this regime, rather than out of any desire to obscure the issues, that I say that it is not possible to identify individual advances as having been made to finance specific activities. That point was raised forcefully by my hon. Friends the Members for The Wrekin (Mr. Hawksley) and for Eastbourne. On reflection, they probably know that the development corporations' borrowing represents their corporate financing requirement, not a series of specific investment decisions. I hope that that explains why both in the details of the order and in the Department's answer to my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin we could not give details on the specific advances. We can give the times at which advances have been made to finance the corporate requirements of particular new towns, and in the case of my hon. Friend that is Telford.
Another point discussed at great length by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne was the difference between the first and second columns of the order. Column 1 shows the amount of money advanced to the corporations when they asked for it and column 2—my hon. Friend had fun with this—shows the sum remaining to be repaid at 31 August 1986. The simplest explanation is to say that, rather like a mortgage, little principal is repaid in the first years when the advance is outstanding. These are all loans for 60 years, which is much longer than the period of the average mortgage. I hope that that explains the simple difference between the two columns.
Can my hon. Friend say on what basis the interest charges are calculated? Surely they are not fixed for 60 years. When changes are made to the interest charges, are they authorised on the Floor of the House?
The interest charges on a particular advance are fixed. That was another point made in my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin about a week ago.
There has been some criticism of the position. It appears that with almost 1·7 billion of debt the new towns have got into a mess. There are various reasons for the apparent financial problems, the most important of which is the sheer financial burden of providing infrastructure and amenities, especially in the later new towns. The Government were, understandably, determined to provide a high standard to avoid the feeling of what might be called new town blues. A further important factor is location. It was reasonably easy to make something of a surplus in a town near London with pre-existing good communications during a period of steady economic growth. The later new towns on green field sites needed a great deal of infrastructure, which did not already exist, and by the time that was created economic growth had been slower.
With hindsight, we can see that the original new town financial model was somewhat over-optimistic. The important thing now is to put matters right and to get them on to a sound financial footing which will serve for the remaining period.
The hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) said that the Government had sinister intentions that might lead to privatisation. We make no bones about the fact that we wish to see the greatest possible amount of private investment in the new towns. What would the hon. Gentleman have done in these circumstances? Would he have allowed the towns to obtain this vast amount of debt? I had thought that the Opposition were fairly agreeable when the idea of restructuring was mooted.
My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin complained that he was unable to obtain sufficient information from Telford new town. He may have some cause for complaint, but he recently met my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and discussed the matter at great length. My right hon. Friend has undertaken to write to him about several points. Perhaps he should await the reply. His point about the Nedge hill area of Telford would be better dealt with in my right hon. Friend's letter. I should have thought that my hon. Friend could have obtained much of the general information, including investment and development in Telford, from a close examination of the new town's report and accounts.
My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin also mentioned the chairman of Telford new town corporation, Lord Northfield. My hon. Friend was worried about the fact that Lord Northfield is also chairman of Consortium Development. At the beginning of the year, we considered the potential conflict of interest and we concluded that, as Consortium Development operates in the south-east, and Lord Northfield is not personally involved in land negotiations at Telford, no conflict of interest arises. I record the fact that my hon. Friend has raised the point again, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend will answer it in his letter.
My hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Mr. Murphy) asked about the accountability of the development corporations. Like the Commission for the New Towns, they are fully accountable. The accounts in the annual reports are audited by external auditors appointed by the Secretary of State and they are reported on by the auditors. That is clear from the reports of the new towns. The Government examine closely those reports and the projects placed before us before deciding that annual budgets of the corporations. As my hon. Friend will know, we are also considering extending the competence of the ombudsman to examine new town affairs. I am sure that my hon. Friend welcomes that development.
My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames) paid tribute in a typically robust and well-argued speech to the contributions of the new towns, but sounded sad when he suggested that Crawley had been treated unfairly compared with the four new towns mentioned in the order. I refer him to what I said about the greater ease with which Crawley had been able to develop a surplus and repay its debts. I pay tribute to what has been done in Crawley. I know that my hon. Friend is a force in encouraging the greatest possible efficiency and development of enterprise in the town.
My hon. Friend asked me about the forecasts for the four new towns and others. Our forecasts were prepared by the development corporations, but they were analysed by highly professional consultants appointed by the Government, so we have subjected the forecasts to careful scrutiny and analysed their sensitivity to a range of assumptions about rental income, investment levels, and so on. As my hon. Friend said, forecasting is not an exact science, but I am satisfied that we have the best possible forecasts.
A number of hon. Members mentioned specific places within the new towns. My hon. Friends the Members for The Wrekin and for Stafford (Mr. Cash) asked about the future of the Ironbridge Gorge museum after 1991. The future of the museum is under consideration and my noble Friend the Minister responsible for planning visited it early in July when discussions took place. The Department's officials have had further discussions with the officers of the museum trust and there will be more discussions. We intend to find a way to safeguard the future of this excellent museum which records so well the development of our industrial heritage.
My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin also asked me about the Telford ice rink. The development corporation provided for a rink in the town centre and it was understood at the time that, on completion, ownership of the ice rink would be transferred to The Wrekin district council and that the corporation would make no contribution to remaining costs, including any revenue deficit. As the Minister responsible for sport, I think that the provision of an ice rink, as a major public amenity in Telford, is a good thing and I am sure that it has been welcomed by the people of the town.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne asked about the Texas Homecare store in Milton Keynes. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes (Mr. Benyon) mentioned the £1 billion of private investment in that excellent new town, and the Texas store is part of that. The development corporation made provision for infrastructure, such as the roads and the mains services around the store. I hope that that satisfies my hon. Friend.
My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin, who raised the subject of housing transfer in Telford, will know from my answer to a question from him in March that the Government are determined to seek alternatives to direct transfer to local authorities. At present, we are engaged in close consultation in Telford and other new towns on this very point. My hon. Friend may rest assured that we shall continue discussions to find the best possible way forward.
I think that I have dealt with all the points raised, but I will write to any hon. Member whose question has not been answered. The new towns programme is now nearing completion, but there are still important tasks to be completed. I believe that the financial reconstruction will help to take us forward in the best and most businesslike way. I commend the order to the House.