New Towns

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:17 pm on 27th February 2003.

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Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) 4:17 pm, 27th February 2003

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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