Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)
MS MARGARET FORD, MS PAULA HAY-PLUMB, MR DENNIS HONE AND DR PAULEEN LANE
WEDNESDAY 3 JULY 2002
20. You will provide a note for us, so we will then know which local authorities in which areas no longer have to negotiate with yourselves over the development, and does that just apply to the sites or does it also apply to things like the clawback?
(Ms Ford) Before we move on to that, can I just simply underline that we will provide that information, but at the end of the day it will be for Ministers to decide on the 38, so it is a work-in-progress at the moment.
21. Can I ask you about development on land in your ownership. Can you assure the Committee that developments are always in accordance with planning policies, like PPG3, because one of the accusations, if you like, against English Partnerships is that you act more like a commercial developer than someone who has the public interest at the centre of your policies?
(Ms Ford) Yes, that is criticism that I have heard on numerous occasions since I took up the post in April.
22. Is it justified?
(Ms Ford) Well, I want Dennis to answer that because I do not think it is justified.
(Mr Hone) We have to conform with all government policies, including PPG3. There is absolutely no doubt that we conform with that policy and other local planning policies.
23. Well, can I come back to Lawley because when the Committee visited Lawley I think one thing that struck us there was that it is not a mixed development site, nor is it a site that accords with the recommendations for higher density in PPG3, so how can you justify Lawley when there is no affordable housing included in that development?
(Mr Hone) At the moment at Lawley there are 800 existing dwellings. The whole area will accommodate something like 3,000. The approvals for the developments that have taken place at Lawley have obviously come through over a period of time, some of them predating PPG3, and the development there accorded with the planning policies at that time. If I could just go further, I would say that we are
24. So you are saying that if you submitted plans today, they would be different from what we saw in Lawley?
(Mr Hone) Indeed. In terms of Lawley, our proposal for Lawley is to master-plan the area in complete consultation with and in partnership with the local authority and to look at how Lawley can actually be integrated with the town centre developments that are proposed in that area. To go further, in terms of exercise of planning powers, we always consult the local authority on all planning applications and if the local authority were to object to any of the proposals coming forward for development, that has to be referred to the Government Office for determination, so there is absolutely no way that we can reasonably act outside the planning powers that apply to a local authority.
25. Well, how many affordable houses are going to be at Lawley?
(Mr Hone) At the moment the proposal and the master plan, and I have to make clear the caveat that these are all initial proposals, is that of the additional 2,500 houses which will be provided on the Lawley site, 500 houses will be affordable housing.
26. So can you give the Committee an assurance this morning that all future developments, residential developments, on English Partnerships-owned land will be mixed development and will contain affordable housing and will also be built to perhaps a higher density, more in accordance with PPG3?
(Mr Hone) Definitely. We have to look though at what is required in any individual area. To say that every single site would necessarily have a proportion of affordable housing may be a step too far at this stage, but we are working towards densities of 35 units per hectare and pushing to 40 at the moment and we are looking to integrate affordable housing as far as possible and it is very high on our future agenda.
27. You may or may not be surprised that when we went round and talked to people in the new towns, the words "English Partnerships" were not automatically followed by a profusion of great thanks for all that you do for them. When we went to Telford and looked at Woodside and other estates where there were virtually derelict properties, not merely blight themselves, but blighting surrounding areas as well, the comments we had back to us were, first of all, that English Partnerships were not generally interested in regeneration being a partnership area, but then you were not prepared to make a contribution towards the demolition of these properties until you got an absolutely certain solution to what is going to actually happen to the land afterwards. In most cases, authorities were in control of their own destinies and simply demolished properties and then looked at something to replace them. Why are you holding the process up?
(Ms Ford) I do not think we are holding the process up.
28. Well, that is what we were told.
(Ms Ford) Yes, but I will ask Dennis to come in on that particular one because we have actually put an incredible amount into that area and it is a pity that that is the feeling, but that is a feeling I know you have genuinely heard from them because I have had it given to me, but I would like to tell you what we think we are doing there.
(Mr Hone) Without a doubt, the central area of the Woodside Estate, The Courts, as it is known, is an area which requires intervention in terms of the problems with housing there, but what we wanted to do in partnership with the local authority was look at how any regeneration of the Woodside Estate would integrate into the entire south Telford area, so we commissioned a study of independent consultants to look at that and the recommendations have come back on that. We have been liaising with the housing corporation and the local authority as to how we can integrate Woodside as an estate into the surrounding areas and particularly into Madeley. The scheme that is coming forward is looking like a public sector investment of some £60 million being required to actually bring that to fruition and that would have to be shared out between the partners, and we are working on the final details of that. On a scheme of that nature and magnitude, which we think will have a lasting benefit to the community there, producing some 600 refurbished units and 1,500 for sale with new local centres and so forth, it does take some time to bring to fruition.
29. That was not the criticism. It was not that you were not now engaged in the process, looking at the future as to what the best new scheme would be, but in the meantime these derelict properties are sat there, blighting the whole area when the best thing would just be to demolish them at least as a start while you were still working up a solution, but you were not prepared to engage in that process and make a contribution there. That was the criticism.
(Ms Hay-Plumb) I have walked around the Woodside Estate and around The Courts with the local authority chief executive and it was very evident that things needed to be tackled there. At the end of the day what was essential was to make sure that we could get a comprehensive plan for the area. We have actually very limited assets ourselves in that area and simply dealing with our own little element and simply trying to deal with clawback issues was not actually necessarily going to solve the issues of the Woodside Estate and the surrounding area of south Telford. Now, by taking a comprehensive approach, by saying that the right way to tackle this is with the Housing Corporation, with the local authority and the RDA
30. Just stop there for a second. We actually had people from the fire brigade there who were telling us that there were people living in dwellings whose lives were at risk because of empty properties below them which the kids got into and other people got into and set alight. Now, I would have thought that any responsible public body should be doing something about that in a matter of days, not a matter of months and years.
(Ms Hay-Plumb) I would imagine that those discussions were actually very properly held with the local authority who are responsible for the Woodside Estate. It is not the Courts and
31. You do not see it as part of your role to get that estate demolished so you can get on then?
(Ms Hay-Plumb) I believe English Partnerships is very likely to make a very significant contribution. We have made a very significant contribution to the work so far and the long-term plan.
32. So demolition is when? Is it months away?
(Ms Hay-Plumb) That is a matter for the local authority.
33. They should be demolished tomorrow, those houses. Anyway, let's move on because clearly the speed at which you act is one of the things that we had raised with us. We went to Harlow and they said that they have built a new college there and part of the agreement for building it was to provide a footbridge over a very busy road. They have waited a year for English Partnerships to make a decision to allow the footbridge to be built on their land. Similarly, they have taken a year in their marketing strategy for the southern part of the town, the south side of the town centre. Again they seem very long periods of time to reflect the National Audit Office's criticism of you that 59 per cent of applications which come to you are not dealt with within your target period.
(Mr Hone) On the college issue, there was a difficult problem with the footbridge which affected NCP who are a tenant of English Partnerships on that site and literally they refused to agree all offers to enable the project to go forward and we went into very protracted negotiations to actually resolve that.
34. A year?
(Mr Hone) Yes, but I would agree with you that the timescale, from our point of view, was completely unsatisfactory, let alone the local authority's. In terms of the town centre proposal, this was brought forward and initially we talked to the local authority in 1997, but it was not until 2001 that the final brief for the scheme was agreed. That scheme, as you are probably aware, in addition to the shopping facilities in the town brings a new transport interchange and it brings a new civic centre for the local authority and, in terms of the receipt that would normally have been due to us from our landholdings on that site, we invested a significant proportion of that into making sure that the civic centre accommodation was provided.
35. But the feeling locally was that English Partnerships had actually been a drag on the scheme and they would have done it quicker without it.
(Mr Hone) Well, to make the scheme work from a funding point of view, we put money into it which normally would have come back to us. If they could have done that
36. If they had owned the site instead of you, they actually could have got on with it quicker?
(Mr Hone) Indeed. Well, if they had owned the site and they could have realised the money invested in it, but that would follow in any new town if they had complete freedom over re-investment of money raised from land sales.
37. What about your performance indicators? They are pretty grim, are they not?
(Ms Ford) I do not think they are pretty grim. Clearly they are not satisfactory though and I think what I would want to say as a new Chairman, and this will be of interest to Committee Members, is that coming into the organisation, I have a very clear brief. It is very evident that there is a lot of genuine frustration and aggravation amongst local authority colleagues at the way in which English Partnerships and CNT before that has carried out its business. Some of that, I imagine, is absolutely justified and some of it, I think, from what I know so far, is a bit unfair, but the fact of the matter is that it is a very widely held view and we have to deal with that and we have to deal with it quickly. I think it is a huge step forward that in terms of Stage One of our Review that up to 80 per cent of that land is going to the local authority, I personally think that is absolutely the right place for decisions to be made and I think that will speed up the process. However, if the Government decides that we are to retain strategic sites in our portfolio, I think it is absolutely imperative that this organisation takes a really, really hard look at how it does business with local authorities, at the speed of that, the nature of the relationships, and that we repair those just as quickly as we can because I am as seized as you are of the criticism there has been and we need to deal with that, and if I can communicate any one single thing to you, it is my absolute commitment and sincerity around that.
38. I did not actually, because of pressures of work at Westminster, go on the most recent visits, so I am talking essentially about my experience in Warrington four or five years ago. The perception I had was that English Partnerships was looking at substantial areas, as in Warrington, and is very bad at planning communities from the most local element of just ensuring that in the plans that go forward there is provision made for kids' playgrounds to the planning of open spaces where you have huge roads with wide, wide verges which do not classify at all as open space, but which are designated as part of the green spaces through to the absence in the developments of genuine local centres, and that seemed to me to be a very fundamental flaw and I wonder if you could talk about that. If you look at yourselves, do you feel that weakness is still there and, if it is not, what have you done about it and, if it is, what are you going to do about it?
(Dr Lane) Coming from Epsom and Ewell where I was born and brought up and having moved, I now see some of the opposite issues and I have very close experience of Warrington. I would actually agree with many of your criticisms. Some of this is about the capacity of people within the whole sector of planning and development to understand what makes a good community, and those of us who live in very different areas, and I live in the urban area of the core of Manchester, know that what makes a good community can be quite different in different circumstances. I would totally agree with some of your criticisms and comments and, as a Board member, I have had the opportunity to challenge some of the thinking behind developments. It was interesting that the point was made earlier about the way in which EP is adding different styles of development and some of that work that they are having to do now is actually playing catch-up on some of the poorer work that was done 20, 30 years ago when some of these things were actually developed. I think there are particular issues about understanding the role of walking and cycling and public transport in terms of blending communities together. On the other hand, I would also argue that actually Warrington is one of the better success stories where the local authority particularly has made a very good contribution to addressing some of that agenda.
39. Yes, the local authority has done it rather than English Partnerships. Now, is this not the crucial point, that really English Partnerships no longer have the resources and the skills to do it and it is much better to get as much land as possible transferred to the local authorities who do have the skills?
(Dr Lane) I think that is very interesting, but if, on the other hand, you have got, say, east Manchester where English Partnerships has been asked to come in as a partner in the Urban Regeneration Company, sometimes the scale of the challenge is beyond just the local authority. I, hands up, am very sympathetic to the role of local authorities, as you would expect me to be, and I am particularly sympathetic to the fact that new towns were districts, have become new unitaries or have become larger districts and are very aspirational about what they want to achieve, and that is absolutely right. On the other hand, it is also true that the scale of some problems, not just in new town communities, is such that it may be beyond the reach of even the largest councils to tackle on their own and it is about the partnership.