On 1 April 1986 the new town assets of Basildon were transferred from the development corporation to the Commission for the New Towns. This was the thirteenth such transfer of a new town's assets and I believe that it will be lucky for my constituents and for my constituency. The town lies just 30 miles from the heart of London and is probably one of the best located towns in Britain, a feature which helps to explain its success in attracting more than 400 industrial and commercial organisations from Britain, Europe, north America and elsewhere.
By road, rail, air and sea, Basildon's access to its national and international markets shows clearly why it was selected for designation as a new town in the immediate post-war period. Thirty minutes from Fenchurch street station, it is also within a few minutes of London's orbital M25 motorway. This important new high-speed route puts the town within easy reach of the capital's three international airports at Stansted, Gatwick and Heathrow, as well as linking it to the rest of Britain's motorway network and thence to the channel ports. First-class roads connect the town's new industrial areas to one of the world's largest container ports at Tilbury docks and the increasingly important continental ports at Harwich and Felixstowe.
It is hardly surprising, then, that so much has happened at Basildon. As hundreds of companies have already discovered, Basildon offers a major opportunity for growth in one of the most strategic locations in the southeast, as well as all the social and environmental advantages of a well planned and carefully designed community.
The impact of recent developments in the national communications network means that for this town the future is just beginning. I pay tribute to the chairman of the Commission for the New Towns, Sir Neil Shields; his deputy, a former Member of this House, Mr. Arthur Jones; Sir Gordon Roberts; all the board members; the chief executive, Mr. David Woodhall; the executive manager, Mr. Douglas Galloway, and all the local commission staff. All these people have worked and will continue to work, towards firmly establishing Basildon's position as the finest new town in Britain. I and my constituents are extremely grateful for that. We are also grateful for all the help and encouragement given to us by my hon. Friend the Minister and the noble Lord Skelmersdale.
Just before Christmas my hon. Friend opened an extremely successful exhibition in the House. That exhibition was entitled, "Basildon means business—Basildon, a town of opportunity." My hon. Friend was also instrumental in arranging the "purchase back" agreement for defective properties in Vange. Spurred on by this, I shall now ask him for some further help for my constituency. He will be aware of the problems encountered by tenants using the district heating systems in Felmores and Langdon Hills. Indeed, when he visited my constituency he met leaders of the Felmores heating action group. The case for an alternative system of heating has been made and I hope that individual gas-fired heating systems can be installed in those properties as soon as possible.
A substantial number of building programmes are under way in Basildon and many fine houses are being built and quickly sold. However, as a matter of urgency, I ask the Minister to urge that much of the remaining land be zoned for housing for shared ownership schemes to help young married couples and for schemes for small units for single people. There is a real need for such homes and I ask my hon. Friend to look closely at the options that I have mentioned.
I shall now turn to the main issue that I wish to bring to the Minister's attention—the future of Basildon's shopping centre. There is no doubt that the new Eastgate international shopping and business centre is the jewel in Basildon's crown. Yesterday we had the splendid news that TOPS, the company purchasing the town square, has agreed to put a roof over the adjoining centre, thus ensuring that we will have the largest shopping centre in Europe. The stage is set for a grand opening of the centre and the prospect of increasing prosperity for Basildon.
A shadow has been cast over all this by a proposal to site a regional shopping centre in West Thurrock, a short distance away. The centre would be just 12 miles, or a 20-minute drive away. A vast array of individuals and organisations have expressed objections to this proposal. The only bodies in favour are the company which wants to build the rival centre, Thurrock borough council arid Essex county council. I met and addressed a gathering of local traders and I can tell the Minister that feelings are running extremely high. At the moment a public inquiry is being held so that all views can be heard before the Secretary of State makes his decision.
The Commission for the New Towns supports the recommendation of refusal made by its predecessor, the Development Corporation. The grounds for this objection are that the proposed development is contrary to the provisions of the approved Essex structure plan, notably those policies to concentrate retail development in sub-regional and district centres and, conversely, not to permit such development outside the built-up areas or settlements. This is a classic example of shifting the goalposts. Given that the proposed development is contrary to the approved Essex structure plan the scheme, if allowed, would affect the retail trading structure throughout the region, as no supporting residential development is proposed. In those circumstances the scheme would have a serious adverse effect on the existing sub-regional and district centres in south Essex and north Kent.
The need for further shops can be met adequately and more satisfactorily in existing centres. In that respect, attention is drawn to the Eastgate Mall, which will provide an additional 500,000 sq ft of retail space in Basildon town centre. The proposed development would most certainly undermine the social and economic investment in neighbouring town centres, including Basildon.
Norwich Union has invested £50 million in our town centre, and would have been reluctant to do so had plans for another shopping centre so close by been known. Norwich Union and Allders proceeded on the undertaking that there would not be another major centre similar to Eastgate nearby that would compete in the same population catchment area.
Allders, as the anchor store, is one of the most important traders in the Eastgate shopping centre, and thus is important to the community of Basildon. The original feasibility studies showed that Allders would be successful. However, as a new store it would be five years or so before it began to be successful, as was proven by its store in Chatham. Thus, in 1991—which is when Allders expected to begin to do well—the Lakeside centre would open, diverting, at Thurrock's own estimate, £2,180,000 from Allders or £9·9 million from Basildon as a whole. That would affect shops and jobs at Allders department store and in the retail outlets throughout the town centre.
I must tell the Minister that if Thurrock affects Basildon to the extent projected by both sides—for and against—the investment in Basildon may be so seriously affected that Allders, the anchor tenant, may consider closing its business and disposing of its interest.
The philosophy of Norwich Union is to support the social fabric of the communities from which its policy holders come. It is concerned about out-of-town shopping centres since, although experience of these in the United Kingdom is limited, the American experience has been such that it is strongly convinced of the need to retain the major retailing functions within town centres. The removal of trade from the centre of the community dissipates the well-being of the community by depriving it of its life source. Once shops become run down or boarded up for lack of business, this sets the tone and the neighbourhood can rapidly deteriorate.
It is clear that there would be a knock-on effect from Allders department store suffering a downturn in its trade. Small retail outlets may have to close quickly.
There may be a reluctance from investors to invest in town centre and refurbishment schemes because of the danger of investment being whittled away by out-of-town centres such as Lakeside. That may be a serious consequence if a precedent is set by allowing this development to go ahead.
I am proud to represent Basildon, a town with what should be an extremely bright future. If the Thurrock development is allowed to go ahead, it will strangle at birth Basildon's shopping centre—a monstrous act. The jewel in our crown can be preserved. Basildon's future would be assured by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment throwing out this planning application, and that is what I ask him to do.
It may seem unusual for someone from the north in the so-called north-south divide to take part in a debate on Basildon, but there is a connection because I sponsored the exhibition which the Commission for the New Towns put on in the Upper Waiting Hall in December. I had originally arranged the exhibition for Hyndburn borough council, to demonstrate how it uses the various Government grants and aid that it receives, and to promote the borough generally. I believe that it would have been good for the borough; much work had been done to prepare it, and it may have brought much needed jobs to our area. Sadly, at the last minute, Hyndburn's Labour-controlled council decided that it no longer wanted to be involved.
I want to congratulate the Commission for the New Towns on picking up the vacancy which then occurred. It seized the opportunity that had been created and, despite the short notice that it had to prepare it, mounted an impressive exhibition that my hon. Friend the Minister opened.
I congratulate the Commission on its achievement that week and on what it has done for Basildon. My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) is fortunate to have such a hard-working body of people working with him for the benefit of Basildon and I am envious of him. There is no doubt that if they continue to work as they have and to grasp the opportunities which they did in mounting the exhibition at short notice, they will continue to bring great benefit to Basildon and I wish them every success.
My hon. Friend is right in saying that to allow the planning application to build a regional shopping centre so near to Basildon will not only destroy the new town shopping centre but will seriously jeopardise Basildon's future and undermine the excellent work of the Commission for the New Towns.
This is turning into a lively debate at 2.40 am. I am glad to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Hargreaves) making his own voice heard and the important issues that we are discussing relating to Basildon which have been raised so forcefully by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess).
Hyndburn's loss was Basildon's gain. I can remember being asked, and I did so with great pleasure, to open the Basildon Means Business exhibition in the Upper Waiting Hall. My hon. Friend and his constituents were extremely fortunate to have that exhibition which was due to the deplorable short-sightedness of the Hyndburn council which did it and its constituents some damage.
None the less, the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn is support of our hon. Friend the Member for Basildon in his aim to see a successful shopping centre in Basildon are well taken. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon would support a change of heart, albeit a last minute one, on the part of Hyndburn council if it chose to come again to promote Hyndburn in the Palace of Westminster.
My hon. Friend has always represented his constituents in a clear and forceful manner. I spend a certain amount of my time dealing with matters Basildon. A post-mortem examination would probably find the word "Basildon" engraved deep on my heart, if there is such an organ in my or any other Minister's body. I have answered a good many debates and questions, visited Basildon with my hon. Friend and seen delegations, all of which have given me great pleasure because the way in which my hon. Friend has represented his constituents has been a model of the way in which any hon. Member should try to represent his constituency, particularly booming Basildon. He has demonstrated again tonight his commitment to securing the future of Basildon new town.
Let me start with an aside, although it is an important aside to the people in Felmore, about their district heating system for fear that time in this lively debate will run out before I have a chance to deal with the issue. I can remember on my last visit to Basildon in the company of my hon. Friend meeting some of the leaders of the association which was concerned about the district heating system at Felmore. I was given a warm reception and we had a useful discussion. I was struck with the responsible attitude towards this difficult problem so often associated with district heating systems. "Design and build in haste and repent at leisure" is the motto of so much modern architecture and associated district heating systems.
I understand that the leaders of the association are in the process of laying out the financial implications of carrying out certain improvements to the system against the costs associated with a replacement programme. Of course, my hon. Friend has in the past made representations about the adequacy of the heating system. We have taken those well, including most recently during oral questioning of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy on 26 January. No Secretary of State is safe, except perhaps the Secretary of State for Defence and possibly the Secretaries of State for Scotland and for Wales, from penetrating questions about Basildon and its problems. When my officials receive the commission's appraisal we shall make a decision as soon as possible. Needless to say, my hon. Friend will be the first to know. With that aside—a very important one to the people who live there and are so ably represented by my hon. Friend—I turn to the major part of my hon. Friend's speech, which was about Basildon and its shopping centre, an importance that was stressed by my hon. Friend from Hyndburn.
I announced last December, just before Christmas, our policy for the rapid wind-up of the remaining new towns. We have three main aims. The first is to realise a substantial amount of public assets. The second is to help the advance of Government housing policy by diversifying the ownership and tenure of homes in these new towns. About 60,000 homes are involved in the wind-up of the new towns, including some 16,000 in Basildon. I take my hon. Friend's point about share ownership very much to heart.
Our third policy aim, as I announced before Christmas, is to allow us to concentrate on the major task for the 1990s of tackling the regeneration of our older towns that are in difficulties. Good heavens above-Hyndburn! If only there were more co-operative local authorities in some of these towns we could do more.
Any assets remaining at wind-up are transferred to the Commission for the New Towns which has the remit of disposing of those assets as soon as it considers it expedient to do so.
In the 24 years to April 1987, the commission is expected to have disposed of some £500 million worth of assets and to have built up considerable experience in the process. Basildon is very lucky because it now has the benefit of the commission's long experience of these issues. The task of attracting investors can be a complex one, especially when trying to secure the best possible return for taxpayers' investment in the new towns programme. However, the recent completion of the M25 orbital route has significantly enhanced Basildon's road links as my hon. Friend has said. The commission rightly sees this as a major contribution to its task of asset disposal. The commission is also ensuring that sufficient opportunity is being given to international investment in the town through its property centre at Metro house, and exhibitions such as the one last December which we have already discussed. I join my hon. Friend in paying a warm tribute to Sir Neil Shields, the chairman of the commission, his board and his officers, for the style, the zip, the vim and the vigour with which they are carrying out the duties laid upon them.
It is the town centre in Basildon, as I have seen myself in the company of my hon. Friend, which has undergone such considerable change in recent years. The retail and office developments here are imaginative in design and they have provided Basildon with the most advanced regional shopping centre in Essex. The Eastgate centre especially is an outstanding monument to the enterprise and innovation shown by a former development corporation and to its willingnes to work with institutional investors. Oh that there were more councils up and down the land—including Hyndburn under its new regime— ready to show such willingness!
In realising the town centre assets the Commission for the New Towns is fully aware of the important contribution that this complex will make to the region's retail facilities. It also wishes to encourage scope for future development so that Basildon remains the most advanced shopping complex in the region.
My hon. Friend will be pleased to note therefore that the commission's recent sale to TOPS Estates includes assurances that the town square will be roofed over, as he said. That is splendid news. As my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Surbiton (M r. Tracey), then responsible for new towns, said in an Adjournment debate on 9 April 1986, we are and have been anxious that the roofing scheme should go ahead. Given the commissioner's track record on disposals I have no doubts that its marketing strategy would in any way threaten the implementation of this scheme.
I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon is to meet my noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State tomorrow to discuss the disposal of Basildon town centre in some detail. He will have a few hours sleep between this Adjournment debate and his first meeting on Basildon's future in the Department of the Environment tomorrow morning.
I am sure that any concerns that my hon. Friend may still have after this debate will be allayed at that meeting. I know that my noble Friend Lord Skelmersdale is greatly looking forward to the meeting. His only regret is that, because he is in another place, he cannot be here tonight to reply to the debate. There is nothing that he would have liked more than to have been here at this time tonight, and there is nothing that I would have liked more than for him to have been here doing just that.
The Commission for the New Towns will continue to pursue its agreed strategy for the remainder of the town centre. It has agreed a marketing plan that should mean that disposal can be achieved by 1988. By then, the commission's only remaining interest in the town centre may well be in relation to those sites at the western end which involve the district council's interest. Those sites have been excluded from a disposal plan so that the commission can discuss a brief with the council.
I am aware of a number of proposals for development close to Basildon, at Thurrock. It is understandable that one of those proposals, for a shopping centre development, should concern my hon. Friend with regard to Basildon's continued role as a leading retail outlet. My hon. Friend will appreciate, of course, that I cannot comment in this place on the Thurrock proposal at this time as it is currently the subject of a public inquiry. However, regardless of the outcome, one of Basildon's strengths has always been to make itself heard, and to forge ahead in the face of adversity.
I should not like my hon. Friend to think that my right hon. Friend and his ministerial colleagues are not interested in retail developments. Government policy on major retail developments was set out by the then Secretary of State for the Environment, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin), in reply to a parliamentary question in July 1985. Local planning authorities have recently been reminded of that policy through the issue on 18 December 1986 of departmental circular 21/86. That circular also covered a direction that requires local planning authorities to consult my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State before granting planning permission for developments with gross retail floor space exceeding 250,000 sq ft—something of which I am sure my hon. Friend and his constituents are aware.
Basildon is reaching the time for it to grow and develop on its own. It has enormous potential, and that is a major factor in attracting investment to the town. It should not be for Basildon to worry too much about competition; rather, it should continue to let competitors worry about Basildon.