Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)




  1. Can I welcome you to the Committee and could I ask you to identify yourselves for the record.
  (Ms Ford) My name is Margaret Ford and I am the Chairman of English Partnerships.

  (Ms Hay-Plumb) I am Paula Hay-Plumb, Chief Executive of English Partnerships.
  (Mr Hone) I am Dennis Hone and I am Director of Corporate Services for English Partnerships.
  (Dr Lane) I am Dr Pauleen Lane, a Board member for English Partnerships.

  2. Do you want to say anything by way of introduction or are you happy just to go straight to questions?
  (Ms Ford) If I might, Chairman, just have literally two minutes by way of introduction.

  3. A very short one, yes.
  (Ms Ford) People have already identified themselves, so can I say, first of all, thank you very much for the opportunity to participate today. This is an extremely important time for English Partnerships in terms of our changing relationships with local government and our colleagues in regional development agencies. We are right slap bang in the middle of Stage Two of our Fundamental Review and it gives us a huge opportunity to look afresh at the way in which we have done business and the ways in which we want to do business in the future, particularly with new town areas, so we very much welcome the opportunity to talk to you today. In terms of the different things we bring, Pauleen Lane is a non-executive Director of English Partnerships and brings a very valuable local authority perspective to our work. She is the Deputy Leader of Trafford. Dennis Hone has been for 10 years a Director for the Commission for New Towns and joined English Partnerships when the two organisations merged in 1999. Paula Hay-Plumb is the Chief Executive of English Partnerships and has led the organisation through the merger between the Urban Regeneration Agency and CNT and we would hope to be able to answer your questions bringing that breadth of expertise. I have been Chairman for just over two months of English Partnerships and I bring 20 years' work with housing and economic development. I started life in town planning in the new town areas in Scotland.

Mr Donohoe

  4. In Scotland where we do not have the same problem.
  (Ms Ford) Indeed, Mr Donohoe, when I started work.

  5. Indeed, yes. The new towns in England have repaid their loans to the Treasury earlier than was expected. To what extent has this unexpected financial surplus been a result of under-investment in their upkeep?
  (Mr Hone) The repayment of the loans, obviously it was a financial consequence, I think, of an improvement in housing prices over that period of time and in the price of development land. The expectation at the outset of the New Town Programme could not have been to know that all the loans would have been repaid. It would have depended on the economic circumstances that came forward in the future. In terms of the question about the maintenance, obviously in terms of the work CNT did, we were providing assets to meet the requirements of those developments at whatever cost was appropriate at the time, but there was no skimping, as it were, or under-investment in maintenance from the Commission's point of view in providing those assets.

  6. In a lot of the evidence that we have already gathered, it has very clearly been identified that there is a major problem in terms of buildings that are tired without the assets to be able to add to or renovate these buildings. Do you not think that it is your job to help the local authorities in England in finding solutions to deal with these problems?
  (Ms Ford) I think that point is very well made and since the merger between the Urban Regeneration Agency and the CNT in 1999, that is precisely the shift in policy that we have been trying to implement. Up until that time, CNT was a creature of statute and it was obliged as part of its key statutory duty to maximise the income from disposals. What we have been trying to do since 1999, supported by government, is to try and use our powers under the Urban Regeneration Agency side of our business to try and make sure that we start play into that, much more investment in regeneration, and that has only been a very recent thing because we have only been doing that for the last three years, but that is very much the approach we are trying to take, recognising the very point that you have made.

  7. But the evidence that we have got does not suggest that that is likely to happen on the basis of English Partnerships' involvement because of the differing timescales that there are and the bureaucracy there seems to be within the system.
  (Ms Ford) Could I then ask Paula to talk about just two or three of the practical examples of that by way of illustration because there are things happening there, but there is no doubt there is a tension still between the two sides of our business, but we are making quite a lot of progress which I do not think has come through in the submissions, but we might just take a minute or two to talk about a couple of those, if we may, just by way of illustration.
  (Ms Hay-Plumb) Over the last two or three years we have been working on a number of projects in a number of local authorities, but it does take time for these projects to work through the local consultation process and for the plans to be agreed. However, if I look at the work we have been doing in Northampton, for example, and the work that is emerging in Milton Keynes, Central Milton Keynes, and the work which I hope will emerge in some of the areas of Telford where we have been working with the local authority, as those projects come to fruition we will see a real partnership investment in those areas which will ensure sustainable, long-term growth for those areas. In Northampton, we have brought forward our land in conjunction with some neighbouring land, which is former NHS land, working totally with the local authority and with the community and have produced a whole plan for the south-west district of Northampton which looks at not just the land value itself, but looks at what is going to happen there, and it produces mixed uses, it produces community facilities, it looks at transportation and, working with the local authority there now over a period of time, we are going to see significant investment take place to provide a sustainable picture.


  8. You are claiming those three examples, but how far are you doing the same with all the new towns because they all have got problems, have they not?
  (Ms Hay-Plumb) We cannot be everywhere all of the time and it takes a lot of intensive work to bring these plans forward and we are clearly working with all of the various local authorities over a period of time. Our major assets around the country were in Telford, in Milton Keynes, in Warrington, and we have worked very carefully to make sure that we use those assets in a very positive way for the local authority and the local community, but our aim is to produce strategies with each and every one of the authorities where we have an interest.

Mr Donohoe

  9. Would it not be better, say, to hand the whole lot over, all your land, everything over to the local authority and put it at arm's length? You are already struggling to suggest that you are able to meet the timescales which are going to be able to augment the budget and to resolve the problems which have been created.
  (Ms Ford) I think the frustrations that have been evident in the submissions and I think what we are talking about are well recognised and in fact in Stage One of the Review that was announced just at the end of March by the then Minister of State, Lord Falconer, the Government has directed us to transfer all of our non-strategic land in the new town areas to the most appropriate body which in most cases is anticipated to be the local authority, so that covers between 60 and 80 per cent of our portfolio in the new towns, so that will happen. What we are doing at the moment in terms of the detail of Stage Two, which is yet to be finalised, but the directions which we are going by suggest that we will expedite that just as quickly and sensibly as we possibly can and it is our intention to parcel up the land and the assets, but there will be some liabilities as well which go with that, and transfer them just as quickly as possible at a pace at which the receiving organisations want to have those, and I think that will go some way to meeting—

  10. But looking at it in the opposite direction, why do you not just give everything back to the local authorities? What is the advantage to the new towns of having any retention of any of the assets in your hands?
  (Ms Ford) Well, that is a matter that we have been working through with the Government and essentially at the end of the day that has to be a matter for Ministers, but where we have got to at the moment in the Review is that the rationale for us retaining strategic sites, which is the remainder of the portfolio, is that because of the scale of these, the strategic nature of them or their contribution to national objectives, the Government believe that the National Regeneration Agency with the concentration of property development expertise is the right place to do that.

  11. If I can ask you a specific question then in terms of this, how do you propose to define strategic sites?
  (Ms Ford) We are working through the final definition of that and I would not want to preempt decisions Ministers would want to take at Stage Two, but certainly I can talk about where the working definition has got us to and what we are anticipating. Strategic sites essentially are those which contribute significantly to the delivery of government priorities, particularly pressure for growth and creation of housing and employment needs. Typically, we would expect strategic sites to have an impact beyond their individual location, in other words, there might be intra-regional links crossing two or three different borders, they might be sites that are key to unlocking other investment, particularly in deprived areas, or they might be strategic sites because of the scale of them. There are a number of definitions.

  12. Can I take you to an example. We actually visited Lawley in Telford. Is that a strategic one? What about Oakley Vale in Corby?
  (Ms Hay-Plumb) At the end of the day what is to be a strategic site has not been determined yet and actually it will be a matter for Ministers. In terms of Lawley, it is obviously a key site for Telford. If you think about what we have been doing in Telford with the local authority, we have been looking at the town centre, for example, with them. I think you visited Woodside, and the issues of the effect of the Woodside estate on the south of Telford we are now tackling through an area regeneration strategy with the Housing Corporation, local authority and the RDA. Now Lawley needs to be brought forward in a way which complements that for the benefit of Telford as a whole.


  13. Yes, but let's be clear. Are you saying that Ministers will make the final decision, but do you want it to be a strategic site or do you want it to be handed over to the local authority?
  (Ms Hay-Plumb) At the end of the day I think it is a matter for mutual agreement.

Mr Donohoe

  14. But what about the value of that? Where is the value going to end up, given that the added value to that strategic site will be quite significant? Is that value going to be remaining with you or is it going to be transferred over to the local authority?
  (Ms Hay-Plumb) It will depend on the local plan for Lawley because in order to bring Lawley forward, it is not simply a matter of selling the site to developers, we need to provide servicing and infrastructure into the site and make sure that it is integrated within the whole of the local authority plan.


  15. Would you perhaps answer the question. In English Partnerships' view, should Lawley be treated as a strategic site or should it be one of those which will transfer to the local authority?
  (Ms Hay-Plumb) We will be entirely happy to treat it as a strategic site, but totally recognise that that has got to fit with ministerial priorities.

  16. Do you think you have got the expertise to manage that site better than the local authority can?
  (Ms Hay-Plumb) I would not in any way suggest that, because if it were to stay with us, we would bring it forward with the local authority. The whole emphasis of each example I have used was that in bringing these sites forward, they are brought forward in partnership with the local authority, so that we combine the various resources and expertise and indeed that the benefits of so doing are then shared between the parties and that is the principle which should prevail.

Mr Donohoe

  17. You have mentioned Telford and Milton Keynes and I think you mentioned Warrington as well, but how many of these new towns will no longer have any presence of you in the future? How many are going to be free of this almost millstone around their necks?
  (Ms Hay-Plumb) I am not sure. It simply is not determined yet.
  (Mr Hone) If I can add to that, of the 21 new towns, there is a review going on, as you are aware, of strategic projects and we have put forward a list of some 38 projects which included Lawley, as you were mentioning earlier, and it will be for independent consultants actually to decide or give recommendations to the Department as to whether they should be strategic or not.

  18. It looks as though it will only be (?) which is going to be clear of English Partnerships, is it not, and all the rest are going to have properties remaining within your hands?
  (Mr Hone) We can provide a note on the actual list of 38 sites involved and, therefore, the new towns that would not be on that, but, as we said earlier, just because there is a submission of 38 subject to review, there is no guarantee as to how many of them will actually be determined a strategic site.


  19. So you are saying that you think that within the new towns there will be 38 sites which will remain strategic sites and all the rest of them that you at the moment hold in those new towns will be transferred over, but you cannot tell us how those 38 sites actually relate to the particular new towns?
  (Mr Hone) We can provide a note.


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