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New Towns

10.59 am

Peter Bradley (The Wrekin): I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this important debate and to join a chorus from the new towns and elsewhere calling for the radical reform of English Partnerships' remit.

I take it to be a good sign of the Government's intentions that the current, timely review, which was launched in October, was brought forward by two years. The new towns are maturing rapidly; the development corporations have done their job and the new towns are mostly well established as centres of population and economic growth. Their local authorities, including my own—Telford and Wrekin—are keenly aware of what needs to be done to secure their future but far from being helped they are more often hampered and thwarted by English Partnerships.

Telford and the other new towns of the 1960s and 1970s are at a crossroads. Economically, the momentum of their development as major sub-regional centres needs to be renewed. Socially, estates that were designed to accommodate overspill from London or, as in Telford's case, from Birmingham and the black country, were often flung up and jerry-built in the 1960s and are in urgent need of regeneration, as my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright) will make clear if he has the opportunity to contribute to the debate.

Tower blocks were not the only mistakes planners made in the 1960s and 1970s. Sprawling residential estates in the new towns are isolated from employment zones, dependent on the car, with inadequate district centres and poor public services. There is a pressing need to attend to their needs.

New towns such as Telford often lack the cultural and recreational qualities that they need if they are to mature and to generate the sense of civic identity that improves the quality of life and adds to the attraction for inward investors. Telford continues to be a new town success story, but the price we pay for our low unemployment has traditionally been a low-skilled, low-wage economy; three wards in Telford are among the 10 per cent. most deprived in the country. More than 3,000 people live on Telford Development Corporation housing estates, which were regarded in the 1960s as experimental, but 30 years on are regarded as experiments that failed. The town centre is little more than a covered shopping centre, albeit a good one, surrounded by car parks and ring roads.

We urgently need to address all those problems and we have a right to expect that English Partnerships has a key role in solving them. In a letter to Telford and Wrekin council in December last year, the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions outlined what he thinks English Partnerships is, or should be, doing for the new towns. He said:

But that is not what English Partnerships is doing in Telford. It takes its cue not so much from the Government's commitment to urban regeneration and social inclusion as from the edict issued by the previous Government that it should serve as a residuary body

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disposing of land as efficiently as possible and with the maximum return to the Treasury. That is Telford's current experience. English Partnerships holds all the assets; Telford and Wrekin council is lumbered with the liabilities.

As of September last year, English Partnerships controlled 5,700 hectares of land nationwide, and 820 hectares—14 per cent., its largest holding—was in Telford. More to the point, English Partnerships holds 80 per cent. of all developable land in Telford. While EP has 144 hectares set aside for housing, and 148 hectares for employment purposes, Telford and Wrekin has just 6.5 hectares of developable land and even 4.5 hectares of that is subject to clawback: if it were to develop that land it would have to pay English Partnerships up to 100 per cent. of its new, developed value.

Like most local authorities, for better or worse, Telford and Wrekin council has a vision statement, which talks about building

Unfortunately, the council is too often in conflict with English Partnerships' remit, which is to realise asset values. Too often, English Partnerships does not help to fulfil the ambitions of the Government and local authorities for economic development, urban regeneration, social inclusion and democratic accountability; it actively frustrates them.

Most local authorities have land banks, but Telford and Wrekin has almost none. Most local authorities have a degree of control over strategic and master planning, but because of English Partnerships' section 7.1 planning exemptions, Telford and Wrekin and its community have precious little influence or control over much of the development that takes place in and around the town. Most local authorities can secure important social infrastructure through the development process, but because of those exemptions, Telford and Wrekin cannot negotiate section 106 agreements and the community benefits that they often bring. As I said, it is subject to a clawback on land that it has inherited, even in providing social housing.

Most local authorities are at least compensated for the contributions that their planning departments make to the development process, but to cap it all, even though Telford and Wrekin has to dedicate resources to English Partnerships' development ambitions, it cannot claim the standard planning fees that every other local authority collects. The council estimates that, over the lifetime of the development of land left with English Partnerships in Telford, it will forgo £1.5 million in planning fees—a substantial amount. Indeed, the estimate that the council gave me just this morning is that, if it were not for the exemptions that English Partnerships enjoys on planning fees alone, it could cut the increase in its council tax by 1 per cent. a year. That may not sound like much money, but it will mean a great deal to council tax payers. In addition, that calculation does not take into account the value of land that the council can neither use for the provision of public services, nor dispose of so that the capital receipts can be invested in those services.

Ironically, despite the need for social and economic regeneration, Telford and Wrekin is a net contributor in meeting the needs of others. Assets realised in Telford

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are recycled through English Partnerships' other functions—not least that of the Urban Regeneration Agency, from which it took over some years ago—into regeneration activity in just about every corner of the country except Telford and the other new towns.

Telford and Wrekin council has a policy to establish 32 per cent. of housing development as social housing, but in the first two years of its existence as a unitary authority, English Partnerships' contribution was just 91 units of social housing. It has a major role to play and huge potential, given the land that it owns, but it makes a very modest contribution to the local authority's legitimate aims. On top of that, the council does not have access to the same regeneration funds—those are much needed on the estates that I mentioned—as other urban authorities.

The problem is not only what the presence of English Partnerships in Telford withholds from the council, but the additional burdens that it imposes. The population of Telford and Wrekin has grown by 8 per cent. since 1991 and is set to continue at roughly the same rate. Some 13,500 houses are being built over 10 to 15 years. The electorate in my constituency increased by 5,500 between 1997 and 2001—9 per cent. in four years. Incidentally, the considerable population growth is happening so rapidly that it is too often unrecognised by the Office for National Statistics and, consequently, in our standard spending assessments.

The new communities that are springing up on land disposed of for residential development by English Partnerships place a huge and growing strain on our social infrastructure and public services, to which English Partnerships contributes little. English Partnerships is at the heart of the problems faced by Telford and Wrekin council. However, it does not regard itself as part of the solution. The most obvious example relates to school provision. The Secretary of State's letter to the council stated that

However, that has not been Telford's experience. I referred to the considerable growth of Telford's population, which has given rise to the need not only for primary schools, but for a secondary school. There is plenty of land on which to build that secondary school, but none is forthcoming from English Partnerships.

In February 2000, Christine Davies, corporate director of education and training at Telford and Wrekin council, wrote to me that despite the pressing needs of increasing residential populations, unfortunately English Partnerships'

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As Christine Davies pointed out, the problem has not been the lack of sites. In her letter, she said:

In July 2000, I took up the case with the Minister's predecessor, who is now the Chief Whip. She accepted the argument and said that the Government agreed that

That was a welcome change of policy, but it puzzled me. I wrote to the Minister seeking clarification, as she specifically identified primary but not secondary schools. That is nonsense. Families who move to English Partnerships estates bring not only four-year-olds but 11-year-olds. Pupils at the primary schools that English Partnerships can build have a habit of becoming the secondary school students in schools that English Partnerships cannot provide. I heard in August that the Minister was awaiting advice from English Partnerships, and she may be able to cast some light on the issue today.

Our children cannot wait. Telford and Wrekin council recently announced plans for a new secondary school in my constituency that were widely welcomed. However, the funding will be a huge burden on the LEA, which looks as if it will go for a private finance initiative scheme—not from choice but because it has little option despite huge tracts of land and a cash-rich agency on its doorstep. There are other examples of English Partnerships' inability to contribute to the strategic planning of Telford's future.

I do not want to denigrate English Partnerships, which has made, and continues to make, a considerable contribution to Telford's growth. I have had good experiences in my dealings with the organisation and its officers in Telford. The problem is the constraints under which it works and which I hope will be radically reformed as a result of the current review. English Partnerships belatedly co-operated with the council in producing a master plan for the town centre, but it cannot, or will not be able to, contribute to its implementation. We have a fine plan that would immeasurably enhance the quality of life of Telford's people, improve the town's standing and image, and boost the value of English Partnerships' assets, yet there is currently little prospect of delivering it.

The council has to work around English Partnerships to achieve its strategic objectives, but when it comes to the accountability of the planning system to the community, English Partnerships too often works around the community. It is a constant source of frustration and grievance to councillors and communities alike. Any hon. Member representing a new town will know about that from their postbags.

What can be done? I am confident that other hon. Members in the debate will bear me out when I say that the status quo is no longer tenable. New towns have achieved critical mass and largely outgrown the development corporation-led push for growth. They are

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fully fledged communities with the same needs as other urban centres for regeneration, sustainability and economic growth, all of which demand solutions and require choices. These strategic decisions must be taken by elected local authorities with a popular mandate and accountability to the communities that they represent and serve. The narrowness of English Partnerships' remit frustrates not only local authorities and local democracy but the Government's commitment to devolved decision taking, economic regeneration and social inclusion.

Various models have been put forward for consideration during consultation. I suggest a fairly modest five-point plan. All problems demand a five-point plan, and this is mine: first, an end to section 7.1 consents and the restoration to local authorities of planning powers, the right to charge fees and to negotiate section 106 agreements; secondly, a requirement for genuine partnerships between local authorities and English Partnerships in both developing and implementing strategic local plans; thirdly, the cancellation of clawbacks and covenants that prevent local authorities from developing their own land for community benefit; fourthly, an obligation for English Partnerships to provide social and public service infrastructure to support commercial development on its own land; fifthly, the recycling of receipts—it already occurs in coalfield new towns—to support local regeneration.

Other hon. Members may have other solutions, perhaps involving regional development agencies or the passing of sites from English Partnerships to local authorities. Such counter-arguments may have their merits, but those five points could form the basis of a more constructive relationship between English Partnerships and local authorities.

New towns are unfinished business. It could be argued that old development corporations, the Commission for the New Towns and the English Partnerships' involvement was necessary in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, to make those towns come out of the ground. Now that they have, we need a new approach that acknowledges the rights and needs of the people who live there, that affords new towns the same status as other towns, that no longer discriminates against them on the basis of their age and that balances the interests of the Treasury with those of other Departments, including the Minister's.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): My hon. Friend has said that new towns need the same status as other towns. Does he agree that because the infrastructure ages at approximately the same rate, new towns have additional needs over and above those of other towns?

Peter Bradley : My hon. Friend makes an important point. I referred at the outset to the problems visited on local authorities by the deterioration of estates that are considered young by most standards, but because of inherent design faults, have pressing needs that cannot be solved solely through access to urban regeneration funding. That is a fair point, but my argument is that we should examine the claims of local authorities and their communities on the basis of need, irrespective of whether communities are based in new towns, old towns or in the middle of nowhere.

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I am glad that that important point has been made. I am arguing for a rebalancing of the Treasury's interests with those of other Departments. I am not denying that English Partnerships represents a good income stream to the Treasury that is capable of being used wisely. I am not saying that the Treasury should be denied that income source. I am simply arguing for its duties and responsibilities to be rebalanced to represent the interests of other Departments too. That is why I look forward to hearing how the Minister will respond to the consensus that I believe will emerge among hon. Members today.

11.20 am

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): I apologise through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to the Minister for the fact that I have escaped from a Select Committee meeting this morning to participate briefly in this debate, so I hope that she will forgive me if I cannot hear her remarks at the end of the debate.

This is an important issue and I am grateful to the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley) for securing the debate. He has provided an opportunity to highlight a number of issues that have become apparent to me during my work with the Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions and its Urban Affairs Sub-Committee over the past six months or so.

The hon. Gentleman has introduced the debate at a time of unprecedented pressure on many communities, many of which are the original new towns. I speak from direct experience. I was involved politically in Warrington during the mid-1990s when English Partnerships was still the Commission for the New Towns and there was already pressure of growth on land around Warrington, partly for the reasons highlighted by the hon. Gentleman and partly as a result of the Government's admirable desire to bring derelict land back into commercial, residential or other use. I have felt strongly since then that the role of what is now English Partnerships needs to be looked at thoughtfully and carefully, particularly in the context of the impact that the development of those towns is having and has had on nearby communities.

That became starkly clear to me when the Select Committee visited the north-west last autumn to examine the issue of empty housing. The hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh), whom I see in the Chamber, was also on that visit. We went to Liverpool and Bootle, as well as to Burnley and parts of Manchester, but it was Liverpool and Bootle that brought home to me the need to balance the expansion of new towns with protecting much longer-standing communities.

In Liverpool we visited an area of considerable dereliction in what was once an attractive Victorian, middle-class area with substantial properties. In many parts of the north-west empty homes are in the classic terraces, with back yards and alleyways leading between two rows of houses, but that is not the case in Liverpool. If the derelict houses in that part of Liverpool were in Greater London, they would fetch many hundreds of thousands of pounds on the open market.

We also learned that there is considerable business activity in Liverpool and a significant flow of commuters into the commercial centre from places such

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as Warrington that have grown over the past 20 years. The growth of Warrington has been startling. At the time of the famous by-election in the early 1980s, when Lord Jenkins, as he is now, was the candidate for the Social Democratic party, Warrington had one parliamentary seat. Today it has two, and even with two, the boundaries are beginning to burst at the seams in the way that the hon. Member for The Wrekin described. It has grown and grown so much that it is unrecognisable from the town it was 20 or 30 years ago.

The consequence of that growth is only too visible in the rundown and derelict areas of Liverpool. We must realise that encouraging the continued growth of the new towns can have a significant adverse effect on older communities. We must think about that issue carefully when we address the future planning policies and role of English Partnerships. We must take dramatic steps to curtail the relentless growth of development into green spaces, open fields and the green belt. We need to focus on bringing people back into derelict inner-city areas, which should be attractive places to live. They are close to the places in which people work and better for public transport, given today's congested roads.

David Wright (Telford): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the issue concerns not only new development for new towns, but ensuring that existing communities in new towns are sustainable? My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley) made the point that much investment in new towns is 30 or 40 years old. We must revisit large urban estates in new towns to ensure that they are sustainable. It is not only about pressure for new housing development.

Chris Grayling : I listened with interest to the hon. Gentleman's remarks. He is undoubtedly correct. Milton Keynes plans to expand dramatically in the next 20 years. Will the existing infrastructure be able to withstand such a dramatic development? We must be careful before we expand an area for the sake of disposing of land, which is often green countryside. With some new towns, sites were derelict and have been brought into use but in many cases there is pressure to continue developing on green, open-space farmland that has been acquired by English Partnerships. If such development were to proceed at a relentless pace there would be a loss to the amenity of the countryside around those towns.

The past two generations' focus on new towns involved the creation of new communities at Skelmersdale in the 1960s and at Milton Keynes, Warrington, Telford and others. English Partnerships and other agencies have built up considerable expertise in bringing land into use to secure the development of property. I should like more of that expertise to be brought into our inner cities because there are some good precedents.

The Hulme estate in Manchester, which we also visited, is a startling example of how to turn a rundown council estate into a mixed development that has genuine attractions, adequate affordable housing for those who need it and an environment that will bring professionals back into the city centre. It provides an interesting example of the steps that we must take to bring life back into inner-city areas.

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East Manchester has set out a programme that it describes as an east Manchester new town. It is perfectly plausible to approach the construction of a new town in an existing city area in the same way as we approached creating places such as Milton Keynes on greenfield sites and green belt areas. Radical surgery to an inner-city area such as east Manchester that has become run down may mean taking painful decisions. Several individual housing estates were supported over 20 years but the money achieved nothing because it was poured into a sieve. We may need to take painful decisions about demolishing and reconstructing communities, creating diverse types of housing and bringing the things that take people out to Warrington new town into east Manchester.

Dr. John Pugh (Southport): The thrust of the hon. Gentleman's remarks may be encapsulated in the statement that we want a coherent outlook from English Partnerships. The English Partnerships that is taking over greenfield sites in Warrington is bolted on to regeneration through Liverpool Vision. We are collectively searching for a proper coherence of outlook, stretching not just to one town but across the whole region.

Chris Grayling : I thank the hon. Gentleman for that comment. He is right. My view is that English Partnerships has a wealth of expertise, built up during a good many years, but although it has a presence in some areas that need regeneration, more of its expertise could be brought to bear in places such as Liverpool, east Manchester and other parts of Manchester to try to bring life back to those urban communities.

Our society must not develop almost like a doughnut, so that it has a vacuum in the centre where our traditional cities are, and dozens and dozens of new communities, new developments and new towns further out, which creates some of the problems that the hon. Member for The Wrekin highlighted. That threatens to destroy out traditional cities. We must be careful about that.

That is my contribution to the debate and my message to the Minister. English Partnerships has done an important job over the years in bringing back into use derelict sites with potential for economic development. The hon. Member for The Wrekin has made important points about the need for English Partnerships to be more community focused. In one or two cases in Warrington, I would have liked to see the Commission for the New Towns, as it was then, do more within the local community and be more thoughtful about what it was creating. There are lessons to be learnt.

I want the expertise of English Partnerships to help to bring about a new generation of new towns in existing cities. I would like to see real radical thinking in Government, in the agencies that work with Government and in Britain as a whole about how to breathe life back into our inner cities. The lessons of our new towns and of organisations such as English Partnerships can be brought to bear to achieve that.

11.31 am

David Wright (Telford): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley) on securing the debate.

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I would like to dwell on the context. As the Member representing Telford, I have a significant interest in the role that English Partnerships has played over the years and in the activities of its predecessors in my area, the Telford Development Corporation and the Commission for the New Towns. Telford was created in the late 1960s and designated in 1968. It drew together a range of towns on the old east Shropshire coalfield, including Oakengates, Dawley and Madeley. It also picked up, as my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin said, a large influx of people from the west midlands and the black country. Communities from the west midlands conurbation largely populated some of the large estates placed between old towns and communities that the Telford Development Corporation built. It has taken a long time for some of those estates to integrate with the wider framework of the Telford area.

We must accept that the rapid expansion of the town in the 1960s and 1970s created a number of serious problems. The town's main shopping centre, as my hon. Friend has already pointed out, was intended to be a short-term building to be replaced in about 10 years, but it is still there. It has very little architectural merit. One of my friends describes it as a nuclear power station in the middle of the town. Short-term decisions and rapid investment decisions were made to try to provide retail facilities for a community arriving from the west midlands.

One of the biggest problems was the design and layout of some of the estates in south Telford, such as Woodside, Sutton Hill, Stirchley, Brookside and Malinslee. They were built very quickly, often using rapid manufacturing techniques, on what is classically called a Radburn layout, in which the structure of properties is not good for the maintenance of social order. The design is such that people gain access to their properties at the front and park vehicles at the back. There are large areas of unkempt open space, which creates problems on those estates.

When we consider new towns, it is important to remember the positive legacy of organisations such as the Telford Development Corporation and the Commission for the New Towns, which did a tremendous job. Telford was one of the biggest land reclamation projects ever undertaken in western Europe. It is a fantastic and vibrant town, but it is 30 years old and no longer a new town. That is part of the problem with using that title for such communities. They are new towns that are not new any more. Because they were built in one phase of development during a 10-year period from the late 1960s onwards, a lot of the initial investment has come to the end of its useful life. Communities living in large housing estates, or using services and facilities in the town are commenting on how tired parts of the town look. People are not racing into my surgery every fortnight and raising the issue of whether English Partnerships could do more in Telford. However, many communities involved in regeneration projects are beginning to realise the role that English Partnerships should play.

My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin covered the issues relating to English Partnerships that we need to tackle in Telford. I would like to focus on three specific areas: first, housing regeneration, secondly, the sustainability of the wider urban environment, and thirdly, ensuring that Telford is the economic engine for

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the future of the west midlands. It has been in the past, and we need to ensure that it is in the future. Before doing so, I return to the issue of English Partnerships' landholdings.

Telford is not a traditional town in the sense that many other towns are. Many local authorities are able to deploy land resources and assets to facilitate regeneration activity. They assemble wide-scale partnership schemes, using land assets accumulated throughout many decades, to lever investment into local communities. That is my experience of working on housing regeneration activity in the west midlands. We do not have that luxury in Telford, because we do not have the same level of land supply available for deployment by the local authority in a strategic context. I would like to quote from the submission of Telford and Wrekin council to the part 1 EP review process:

Unlike other cities, Telford is hampered by the fact that land is largely held, controlled and disposed of by English Partnerships, whose remit is not to be strategic, but to secure maximum income for the Treasury from the disposal of sites in the town.

On the issue of housing-led regeneration, many 1960s estates, often on the Radburn layout, hold communities together through strange road patterns and pedestrian networks, with large areas of unkempt open space. They have their own local centres, which were developed at the time. Housing was often poorly designed and running into disrepair, and many estates experienced housing abandonment and the decline of retail premises.

Woodside estate in the south of my constituency was developed using Radburn principles. At its centre are several walk-up flats that are experiencing severe levels of abandonment. Communities in those areas are starting to recognise, through the engagement of the council with community organisations, that English Partnerships needs to play a role in the redevelopment of their areas. The disposal processes and policies employed by Telford Development Corporation have made large parts of those estates fairly unmanageable.

In the last few years of the TDC, there was a significant push to dispose of social housing. The Shropshire Star carried advertisements saying, "Buy your house at a knock-down price before the end of the month, or the price will go up and you'll have to pay more." A very aggressive disposal strategy was pursued during the 1980s. Of course, that fitted into the ideology of the Government of the time. That strategy led to the desperate problem of dispersed land ownership. On many estates, people do not know who is responsible for their maintenance, and many small-scale private landlords do not manage and maintain their property. That problem was compounded by the transfer of the council's housing stock to a new registered social landlord. Essentially, I supported that move because it brought new investment into the town, but it has created a problem on estates such as Woodside, which has a range of property owners with little co-ordinated activity.

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Over the years, Government policy created many of the problems that we see on our estates in south Telford. English Partnerships does not acknowledge its role in dealing with the mistakes that were made. After all, its prime duty is to dispose of land effectively to generate receipts. If we are to sustain, redevelop and regenerate the large estates in south Telford, English Partnerships must begin to engage strategically in the process.

Because Telford is called a new town, it tends not to figure in debates about the urban renaissance, but there is a significant opportunity for us to engage in that debate and to facilitate large-scale investment in many estates in south Telford. We should be radical and use the best principles of quality design to help to alleviate some of the mistakes that were made at the end of the 1960s. That requires the promotion of genuine partnerships.

English Partnerships, its successor organisation or, as my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin suggested, the local authority, will need to engage with the Housing Corporation, local communities and developers to deploy assets collectively across south Telford. Part of the problem is that English Partnerships does not have a significant interest in estates such as Woodside—it divested itself of that interest through the policies of its predecessors—but it does hold some of the best sites around south Telford. Those resources must be drawn together into an approachable housing market renewal strategy across south Telford, which could be piloted with the use of English Partnerships' current assets.

As a minimum, we require the recycling of receipts from disposals by English Partnerships into local communities. That happens in coalfield communities, and I do not see why it cannot happen more generally in new town communities. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer would be pleased to hear that this is a spend-save principle. If we do not deal with the problem now we shall have to return to it in 10 or 20 years' time, when the bill will be much bigger and the problem much more complex. We can either decide to invest strategically now, using land resources and assets to create sustainable communities, or walk away, only to have to return to the problem later and spend more money to alleviate problems that we are encountering now and will in future.

That leads me on to sustainability, which should be at the core of any proposal to develop a new town. The principle of sustainability was not comprehensive and was perhaps too advanced for some of the planners in the late 1960s. Much of the development in Telford was short term and its urban environment is uninspiring in places. We should knit English Partnerships' landholding more closely into the strategic framework and deploy its assets more effectively. Its landholdings are dominated by 7.1 consents and its disposals tend to be project-specific and not strategic. It is time for that framework to disappear.

I used to be a member of the local authority in Telford and 7.1 consents were sometimes convenient because, when a difficult planning decision was required, we did not have to make it. That was a luxury, but did not help because we were not properly engaged in the strategy for the future of our town. We have reached the point at

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which 7.1 consents in a mature community of 30 years are no longer acceptable. Local communities should be given the right and the power to take control of the destiny of their towns.EP disposes of its assets on a one-off basis far too often and should integrate its approach with that of the local authority and other players.

I welcome some of the investment that EP has committed to Telford recently. I have met the staff and, as my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin said, they are co-operative and positive but are held back by EP's general principles and rules, which must be modified. I have met the chief executive of EP, who is committed to seeing Telford grow, but her hands are tied by the remit laid down by central Government. I should like some of the skills in the organisation to be deployed more effectively in Telford.

EP has recently funded feasibility studies into redevelopment of the shopping centre to which I referred, and it has put resources into development of a master plan for the area. That positive move was welcomed by the community, but no resources will be made available to implement the plan. We have some fantastic proposals, but no contribution from EP to implement them. They should be implemented.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): I want to probe the hon. Gentleman's thinking. Does he envisage that all regeneration schemes in Telford will be entirely publicly funded, or does he anticipate new regimes levering in private sector finance to help to make the development projects more economically sustainable?

David Wright : I thank the hon. Gentleman for his helpful intervention. I envisage the involvement of private sector finance through the regeneration vehicles. It is clear that public funding cannot alone deal with the issues that arise on housing estates in south Telford and the shopping centre. Private finance will be at the core of regenerating the south of the town. That is why I referred to a housing market renewal area not just focusing on social housing but deploying private sector resources to diversify and change the housing market to make it more sustainable and effective in the long term. I envisage private finance playing a major and probably leading role in terms of the percentage of resources drawn into the town for regeneration. That does not clash with the broad principles of English Partnerships, which are to lever in private sector investment. At the moment it is not doing so strategically enough for the needs of the wider community.

My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin said that in terms of promoting sustainability, we should consider transferring planning powers, particularly to allow the use of section 106 agreements. That is a major problem for the town in promoting sustainability. In many areas, local authorities use section 106 agreements to secure myriad advantages and opportunities for local communities through the planning process. At the moment we do not have that luxury in Telford. A large proportion of the land supply is disposed of and little community gain is drawn back through such arrangements. We could secure significant improvements for local communities on their estates if we were able to deploy those powers.

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Some hon. Members mentioned that the regional development agency—in our case Advantage West Midlands—could get involved in the future of English Partnerships' assets in Telford. I would be somewhat concerned by such a development. I can the see the logic, but Advantage West Midlands is committed to drawing significant resources into regenerating the conurbation. That is important, but I do not want resources from Telford that go into the wider Exchequer pot to go into the black country conurbation. We need a different role and perspective in which local authorities take the lead.

My next point concerns Telford's role as an economic engine. It was a growth point and must be again. We must ensure that investment is made across the whole regeneration agenda, not just through site-by-site disposals or asset realisation. English Partnerships is good at devoloping industrial sites, and we should praise it for that. It provides a range of opportunities for economic growth in the town, but should fit into the wider strategic framework.

Finally, how do we move forward? I support the quality five-point plan of my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin. I like such things, and it was excellent. We must examine the possibility of local strategic partnerships leading on new town regeneration using EP assets. Perhaps local authorities should not have a dominant role; perhaps the system should be more widespread. I have said already that there could be opportunities to use structures such as housing market renewal areas or company structures to deliver change. I would prefer English Partnerships' assets to be in the local authority's control. We must see the recycling of receipts into the new towns and allow Telford and other towns access to the asset base that traditional communities have for the regeneration of their areas. As a minimum, we want a stronger strategic commitment to the new towns from English Partnerships. I look forward to the Minister's response.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Edward O'Hara) : It may be helpful for hon. Members to know that the winding-up speeches will start not later than 12 o'clock, with a 10-minute allocation to each Front Bencher.

11.52 am

Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is a great pleasure both to call a fellow north-west MP Mr. Deputy Speaker and to participate in the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley) on securing the debate, as will every other Member who represents a new town. I agree with my hon. Friend's five-point plan—eerily, it reminds me of five-year plans. He and my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright) allow me to be brief because they covered most of the major points.

I represent Skelmersdale, which was built in the 1960s and 1970s on the Radburn principle of design layout that my hon. Friend the Member for Telford described. Indeed, in describing his estates, he described mine in Skelmersdale. The town was designed largely for the Liverpool overspill population and to separate vehicles from pedestrians with a system of courtyard layouts and cul-de-sacs emerging off spine streets. That leads to hugely disproportionate costs in street cleaning, refuse

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collection, ground and street furniture maintenance and, particularly, policing. It was built on an old coalfield that was exhausted long before Skelmersdale new town was started, which leads to an enormous need for ground remediation and rehabilitation for any development that takes place. It was built around a series of cloughs—in Cumbria they are called gills—which are deep clefts in the moorside that go down into the middle of the town. They are a great environmental asset but are extremely costly, as they disrupt transport systems and so on.

Skelmersdale was built using every innovative and experimental building technique known to man and a few that were not. Some of them were catastrophic and need expensive remedies. For example, many houses were built with central heating outlets in the ceiling. The fact that heat rises seemed to be ignored, so the bedrooms were heated moderately well but not the downstairs rooms. Even now, hon. Members could put their hands through the wall and pick flowers from the garden because the houses' metal frames are corroded and the concrete slabs have collapsed.

Skelmersdale was handed over to West Lancashire district council in the late 1980s incomplete, especially the town centre, but already in desperate need of refurbishment. There are about 42,000 people in Skelmersdale with no cinema, hospital, town hall, or civic assembly rooms. Despite its palpable needs, the council is unable to secure access to assets to help to remedy problems and to regenerate the town and the sub-region. The assets, formerly in the hands of the Commission for the New Towns, are now in the hands of English Partnerships.

Fifteen years ago, I organised a series of all-party petitions and attacks on the Secretary of State who was then responsible for the matter, Michael Heseltine. The reply every time was that over the years Governments had spent a lot of money building the new towns and wanted as much of that money back as possible.

Our experience in West Lancashire is that English Partnerships must realise its land assets in isolation, even if that queers the pitch for strategic development. It is a major problem in my town. Much of the available land asset is subject to clawback, depriving the local authority of the use of assets from the area for necessary regeneration.

At present, the district council holds 10 hectares of land, seven of which are affected by clawback; English Partnership currently has 62 hectares of land in the town, which will give hon. Members some idea of the disparity in power in the area. Furthermore, as a good council following the Government's edicts, West Lancashire has set up a local strategic partnership, which I chair for my sins. It is limited in its capacity to regenerate Skelmersdale because of the complex circumstances relating to land holdings in the town.

Skelmersdale's problems need sorting out. First, the democratically elected council requires overall planning powers and the power to realise public assets to allow it effectively to regenerate the town and especially to put together a strategic plan for the area surrounding the town centre—I, too, recognise the description of the nuclear power station. The land is owned by several different interests, including two councils and, substantially, English Partnerships. Secondly, coherent

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planning is impossible when English Partnerships has a separate planning remit. A national organisation such as English Partnerships cannot sensibly be aware of, and party to, the detailed planning and regeneration needs of a community such as Skelmersdale. Such plans should be subject to democratic local scrutiny and control.

English Partnerships has not absorbed Skelmersdale's special needs or those of other new towns. It lacks focus; it has many disparate responsibilities and its expertise lies more and more in inner-city regeneration. West Lancashire council is working with the original development agency, which has a grasp of the implications of land assets in the town for the regeneration of West Lancashire and the sub-region.

English Partnerships in Skelmersdale, with the best will in the world, is out of step, undemocratic and sometimes obstructive. That is not a criticism of individual staff with whom I have had to work, who have been excellent.

Like most new towns, Skelmersdale was built in a hurry, so all its problems arose simultaneously; housing, layout and infrastructure difficulties bring many social problems in their wake. We need every possible asset and inch of planning gain to fund developments and to turn the problems around. I strongly support the recent case that was made by the new town local authorities that the land assets of English Partnerships in new towns should go to the relevant LEAs without the powers of clawback.

12 noon

Dr. John Pugh (Southport): I congratulate the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley) on securing the debate. I apologise for not being able to rival his expertise in the subject, or that of other hon. Members who have spoken. The hon. Gentleman raised an important subject, to which the Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions will turn soon. I largely accept his argument that new towns are peculiarly disadvantaged.

The debate is timely because the Government are reviewing the role of English Partnerships. The hon. Gentleman is right: this state of affairs has not been scheduled, as it were, or thought out. It is not part of a plan of one particular Government. The situation evolved, beginning with the Commission for the New Towns. The urban regeneration companies and authorities were then set up, followed by the regional development agencies. The template is more a patchwork than anything else.

Importantly, some of the objectives of English Partnerships coincide with those of the regional development agencies. I recently came across a copy of the old Buchanan report, which was published in 1962, priced 10s 6d, in which the notion of the regional development agency was first mooted. It was modelled on the Commission for the New Towns.

I feel sorry for any authority operating in the new towns because it is obliged by Government to implement a community plan and to work hard for service improvements of various sorts but handicapped

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in delivering the service improvements and changes. The hon. Member for The Wrekin and other hon. Members representing new towns have spoken about the peculiar transport problems of new towns, which were designed on the basis of Mr. Buchanan's ideas. Visitors to a new town have no difficulty getting into it but tremendous difficulty finding their way out ; that is particularly true of the town represented by the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall). In new towns, much of the industry is itinerant. It moves away rapidly, leading to high unemployment.

No one has argued that the new towns are assisted in the discharge of their duties by having on the scene a powerful player with sizeable assets that is able to impose sizeable burdens on the local authority, and that has appreciable and rather strange planning powers—the Government described them in their own review document as increasingly anachronistic. A natural conclusion may be that English Partnerships should relinquish its current role in the new towns and concentrate on other areas, as the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) said, such as regenerating the core of inner cities. One could argue that new towns have reached maturity, but do not forget that new towns and English Partnerships began as an aspect of Government, or national, planning policy. New towns are not organic creations. They are a planned entity and the policy imperatives that led to them still operate. English Partnerships conducts an appreciable amount of research and provides resources for regeneration. The regional development agencies appear to be set on the same mission.

On the review, we must bear it in mind that regional development agencies are precisely that: they are regional in scope. There will still be a residual role for an organisation that ensures that local regeneration aligns with national policy, and can act as a catalyst, partner and funder of forward-looking initiatives that dovetail happily with national imperatives. I draw attention to the good role that English Partnerships plays with Liverpool Vision. It adds extra impetus to that initiative, which is pan-regional in scope.

To agree with all that is not to conclude that new towns are in any way assisted by having a massive landowner with enormous planning authority on their doorstep. I sympathise with all hon. Members who represent new towns because, fundamentally, such communities are disempowered and disadvantaged. The hon. Member for West Lancashire referred to local strategic partnerships, but I do not understand how they can perform the same function for new towns as they do elsewhere. English Partnerships is left with all its power in place.

Eventually, new towns must become towns. There must be disengagement, and the Minister's thoughts would be best addressed to how that may take place. There is a fear , unmerited or merited, that there will be a land bonanza for new town local authorities and misuse of precious resources that could be used for development. The Government are on the horns of a dilemma. The discussion document states:

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The big problems have been highlighted today: a degree of planning anarchy in new towns that does not exist elsewhere; a serious democratic deficit, in which locally elected representatives cannot guarantee results for their community; and—this applies across the country, not just to new towns—a lack of joined-up government on regeneration while the role of English Partnerships is not defined. I support the thrust of what hon. Members have said.

12.7 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): I am grateful to you for allowing me to catch your eye, Mrs. Adams. Before I go any further, I should declare my registered interest as a chartered surveyor, although I do not think that I stand to gain any pecuniary advantage from the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley) on securing the debate. So far, there has been a lot of consensus. However, we may begin to differ when I propose some solutions.

The hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) outlined the genesis of English Partnerships. It is probably time that we reviewed its role to determine whether we can return to local authorities some of the control that it exercises. Regeneration schemes work best if local people are involved in the decision making, because they have a sense of ownership of such schemes. The 7.1 planning exemptions that have been mentioned so often seem like the dead hand of the state imposing control over new town corporations. That is an outdated concept that we should begin to dismantle. Therefore, I warmly welcome what has been said and agree that we should consider the future role of English Partnerships.

Having said that, we must consider the Government's role in urban regeneration. We should examine the recently published White Paper entitled "Our Towns and Cities: The Future—Delivering an Urban Renaissance", which was trumpeted by the Deputy Prime Minister recently. On the whole, it was a damp squib. For example, on 17 November 2000, The Independent said:

We all agree that there are significant problems, but the question is how to solve them.

In preparation for today's debate, I examined the number of quangos set up to deal with the problem of urban regeneration. It is worth reading their names out. I shall then invite the Minister to reflect on whether we might simplify the process. The more quangos are in operation, the less people understand what they do. The more bureaucracy is created, the less effective they are. Here is the list of quangos: regional development agencies, a neighbourhood renewal unit, the European regional development fund, the single regeneration budget, the neighbourhood renewal fund encompassing a national strategy action plan, local strategic partnerships, the new deal for communities, urban regeneration companies, the English cities fund and a

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host of tax incentives for regeneration. Since the present Government came to power, new quangos have further fragmented the process.

David Wright : That list is a mix of organisations delivering funding initiatives on the ground. They are not quangos in the context of the Housing Corporation, for example.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : Some are initiatives on the ground and some are quangos. Reading out the list illustrates how the entire system is too complicated and too bureaucratic.

Having to bid for public funding is another serious problem. Bidding raises the standard of preparation of individual projects. It is fine for the urban corporation or borough council whose bid is successful; it obtains the public money. For those bodies whose bids are not successful, however, considerable time is wasted by officialdom.

Peter Bradley : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clifton-Brown : I will give way—it is the hon. Gentleman's debate—but will he allow me to finish?

Failed bids involve much wasted time. If the Government want to move closer to a bidding system, they need a much more streamlined process. Those who are unlikely to succeed should be told earlier and given a chance to improve their bid and to reach a standard that may succeed. People's time should not be wasted preparing bids that will never succeed, which breeds a culture of disappointment and stops people bothering in future. We should encourage imaginative, well-designed schemes, not replicate the mistakes of the 1960s when both Governments vied with each other to produce the maximum number of houses without being sufficiently concerned about design and durability.

Peter Bradley : The hon. Gentleman has suggested how active the Government are in urban regeneration, but I am unsure what that has to do with the title of the debate. Is not his objection to competition an indictment of his own Government's activities during the 1980s and 1990s? Competition was the cornerstone of their efforts to introduce regeneration, and it was one of the key reasons why it failed.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : I am not going to be tempted down the path of history: I am interested in the future and how the present Government are operating. The planning system is a key part of urban regeneration, and we welcome a number of proposals, particularly on streamlining the system and on moving much more quickly.

Section 106 agreements have been mentioned several times. Hon. Members will be aware that the Government propose to move towards a tariff system, so that many larger developments are not delayed excessively by having to negotiate a 106 agreement. Now, a project receives planning permission but is often delayed for a year or more while that agreement is negotiated. In principle, we welcome the tariff proposals to simplify and streamline the planning system, but they must be defined more carefully.

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We called for responsibility for regeneration to be brought under a single Minister. Currently, several Departments play a role, notably the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, but also the Department of Trade and Industry and the Treasury. One Minister should be responsible. I thought that that was to be the Deputy Prime Minister, but sadly he seems to have relinquished the role.

We called for the establishment of local regeneration companies across England and Wales as flagships for urban renewal. Those powerful new bodies would lever in private finance and would be headed by people with significant private sector expertise. The local authority and the community would be involved.

In a Westminster Hall debate last week, I mentioned the concept of town centre management schemes. I wish the Government would seriously consider those schemes, which could be composed of local authorities, English Partnerships, the voluntary sector and, above all, businesses. All sectors need to be involved in urban regeneration if they want it to be a success.

We should like to see research based on enterprise zones, urban development corporations and the city challenge schemes of the 1980s and 1990s, which showed that local regeneration schemes create new investment and business growth in the long term and do not just divert resources from neighbouring areas. My former right hon. Friend Michael Heseltine was criticised, but he introduced development corporations that managed to cut much of the red tape that stifled regeneration in our cities for generations.

I caution the Minister that, if we relinquish the assets of English Partnerships to local authorities, we may return to the monolithic control of the 1960s. Indeed, many local authorities throughout the country are sitting on billions of pounds worth of assets that they are not using.

Finally, I shall suggest a source of money that I suspect the Government will now take up with alacrity. Some hon. Members have mentioned the transfer of local authority housing stock to housing associations through large-scale voluntary transfer schemes, which were initiated by the last Conservative Government. We welcome such schemes, although they could be improved, as could tenant participation in housing associations.

A substantial amount of new money could be levered in if the remaining council houses were transferred in that way. Between 1988 and 1999, 400,000 council houses were transferred, which resulted in proceeds of £5.9 billion of private investment being levered in—the equivalent in 1999 prices of £6.5 billion. If the remaining 3.3 million council houses in England received the same level of private investment as existing LSVT schemes have levered in—let us say £16,400 per dwelling in 1999 prices—in theory up to £54 billion of private new investment could be generated. There is a substantial pot out there, and if the Labour party is looking for a new way of levering funds into urban regeneration, that would be a major way of doing so.

David Wright : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Mr. Clifton-Brown : If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I will not give way, because I am in the last minute of my speech.

Suffice it to say that urban regeneration is a continuing problem. However, there have been some imaginative schemes, especially those proposed by Michael Heseltine. One has only to consider the imaginative schemes in Leeds and Glasgow city centres and in docklands to see what can be done when red tape is cut. I urge the Government to consider not only how much money they are investing in the schemes but what they are getting for that money and how effective it is in the regeneration of older and newer town centres.

12.20 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley) on securing the debate, and I assure him that I will address the issues of new towns and English Partnerships.

Many important matters were raised. I may not be able to deal with all the constituency issues, as I want to address issues that relate to the review, but I will respond to my hon. Friend's five points. I ask hon. Members to be tolerant if any constituency issues remain. I will deal with them in writing after the debate.

We must recognise that the creation of the new towns was one of the great achievements of the post-war Labour Government. They provided new residential areas and areas of economic growth for people to live and work in, and transformed the lives of people who made the journey from overcrowded inner cities. We should also recognise the pressures on housing, infrastructure and communities in the new towns, which all hon. Members considered in one way or another. My hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) raised some issues relating to the community and the wider service. What was a great vision of the Attlee Government is starting to show its age, and it is time to look at what is going on.

The Commission for the New Towns' role as a residuary body was not always helpful. Historically, the commission's principal objective was to liquidate its portfolio as quickly as possible, consistent with achieving value for money. Over 50 years, mistakes were made; that was bound to happen. There were mistakes in the handover, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright) referred, and in engaging with the community. Issues remain, and feelings are strong. However, English Partnerships has tried to change the approach by becoming an investor in, rather than a liquidator of, new towns, using its portfolio to underpin the economic development aspirations of local authorities, regional development agencies and local communities. At the same time, it aims to create value and achieve wider community benefits over the medium term, and to demonstrate the practical application of the Government's urban renaissance agenda. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Telford that it is important that the new towns are part of the Government's agenda for urban renaissance.

I could list the many ways in which English Partnerships has changed its methods of operation, but I will select only a few. In a previous debate, my hon.

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Friend the Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) raised the issue of town centre renewal, which is an essential component of the Government's approach to urban renaissance. English Partnerships recognises that many central areas of new towns require substantial reinvestment to create vibrant, mixed-use and competitive town centres. It is working with several local authorities on potential schemes in towns such as Bracknell, Harlow and Crawley. I will give my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire some more information about Skelmersdale, which has also been discussed.

English Partnerships and Milton Keynes have some ambitious proposals to transform the centre of Milton Keynes from a familiar low-density, car-dominated environment into a high-density, mixed-use city centre of regional significance. That clearly shows the shift in EP's approach.

I want to deal briefly with housing issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Telford spoke eloquently about some of the problems in his constituency. As he said, about 70 per cent. of the deck-access blocks in the central area of Telford are empty. Some difficulties have been created by the diversity of ownership; small-scale private speculators bought some of the housing at an early stage and they have not managed it well. English Partnerships and the local authority are considering how to deal with the problems, especially on the Woodside estate. There will have to be a development package to put the programme into place. The Bournville Trust is also considering providing a new type of housing in Lightmoor urban village, and is asking the local authority to look at planning consents. Sensitive matters have been raised.

Hon. Members asked whether English Partnerships could apply its expertise elsewhere; the hon. Member for Southport mentioned Liverpool. I flag up the involvement of English Partnerships in the millennium

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communities in Greenwich, for example, and its work in considering how to regenerate some of the appalling, rundown areas in the coalfield communities.

English Partnerships has changed the way it works. The review, which has been brought forward, will consider EP's role and functions in that context. The terms of reference are to consider its role in delivering the Government's policies and the future ownership of the Commission for the New Towns' assets and liabilities, to recommend any changes that may be necessary in the light of the review, and to examine EP's structure and processes to ensure effective delivery of its wide-ranging remit. We hoped to complete the first part of the review before Christmas, but that was not possible, partly because of the strong interest in it. However, we hope to be able to publish the review shortly.

I cannot prejudge the outcome of the review, but I can say that a number of the five points mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin will be dealt with. We are sympathetic to the restoration of planning rights. I hope that I have shown that English Partnerships is involved in genuine partnerships. The review will deal with substantial issues, including the cancellation of clawbacks and the recycling of receipts. There is already the obligation to provide public service infrastructure. I completely agree with my hon. Friend's points in that respect.

In the past two years, substantial progress has been made in shifting English Partnerships' agenda, taking account of some of the points made by hon. Members in the debate. I do not doubt the validity of the original vision of creating new towns to provide good homes and jobs for people from overcrowded inner cities. However, it is equally clear that mistakes have been made and that we must find a way forward. I believe that the review will enable us to consider those issues carefully, take the matter forward and provide a clear way of realising the Attlee Government's vision of decent homes and jobs for all.

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