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



Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-99)

MR TONY MCNULTY, MR PAUL HOUSTON AND MR PETER ELLIS

WEDNESDAY 3 JULY 2002

  80. This is all part of this review?
  (Mr McNulty) I am not sure that is part of the review but beyond the review that is the sort of thing they should be looking at. Would subsoil come in the review?
  (Mr Ellis) Again, Paul is the expert on the review.
  (Mr Houston) Not specifically. I think that is one of the—
  (Mr McNulty) Again, the review is not the be all and end all.

  Mr Betts: You told us the timing of the review is at the end of the Recess, in that period at the end of the Recess can the issues on subsoil, ransom strips and covenants not be looked at as well so we get a clear communication at the end of it where we are looking?

Chairman

  81. Can we urge that you, as the Minister, look at subsoil, not necessarily to walk there and look at it but just look at it. It did seem to us crazy that when they wanted to alter the structure of one of the roads that because the subsoil belonged to English Partnerships they had to consult with English Partnerships about it.
  (Mr McNulty) I promise to take subsoil back. Whether it will be plugged into part two of the review, I do not know.

Mr Betts

  82. And ransom strips and covenants.
  (Mr McNulty) All those elements I shall take back and have further discussion with English Partnerships on. I suspect it will be post the second phase of the review, that is all I am saying, because one builds on the other very clearly, phase one, phase two.

Chairman

  83. Cwmbran: it is a bit of an anachronism for English Partnerships to control it. Do you have any views on Cwmbran?
  (Mr McNulty) At the moment I have absolutely no views on Cwmbran, positive or negative, but I will certainly look at it.

Mrs Ellman

  84. What is the case for a continuing role for a national body in new towns?
  (Mr McNulty) Again, there is this constant tension about uniqueness and wanting to just join the wider family of local authorities but, as I said in my opening statement, much of the reasoning behind the whole new town movement in its various ways prevails. I cannot remember what I said, but it was the point about one of the main drivers behind the new town movement was the need to deal with population growth and in particular to provide housing. This is clearly still an important issue today. We have the family of new towns, we have all of the issues around that in terms of English Partnerships and things like that, but can we honestly say in the most neutral and non-partisan way possible we have sorted out housing, population growth and all those drivers that were behind the new town movement in the first place? No, we have not. At the very least as part of the second stage of the Quinquennial Review it is worth saying are there strategic sites around the new towns in terms of EP's holdings that can and may contribute in the future to governmental objectives in that area, and at the very least the answer is maybe. I suspect very strongly it is yes, and a very strong yes, but at the very least it is maybe. I think if we said "no, it is not" and simply disposed of everything we would be doing the country a disservice in that sense.

  85. What does the Government plan to do to help Skelmersdale?
  (Mr McNulty) To help Skelmersdale specifically I do not know. Skelmersdale within the context of the review, we will have to see what the review says, what is strategic, what is not strategic and how EP, the Development Agency and everything else can work specifically with Skelmersdale. That prevails for all of the new towns. Not just in the context of new towns but more generally we will have to start to address—With the greatest respect it is the wrong question. What is the Government doing for the North West? If the trips that I have made just in the last two or three weeks show anything, they show that there is not a massive disparity North-South in terms of housing, population growth, population shifts, that it is really down to a micro sub-regional level. I can go literally either side of the motorway that separates Rochdale and Oldham and see very, very serious and worrying elements in terms of abandonment and other issues on the Oldham side and potentially at least the start of those problems on the Rochdale side which hopefully they are arresting now and recognising because they see what is going on on the other side of the motorway. There are these real, very interesting, sometimes dysfunctional, sometimes very effectively almost salami-style moves and shifts in a regional housing market. What can we do for Skelmersdale? Number one is treat it as part of the North-West. If we just treat it as Skelmersdale, or going down the other end and doing it with Warrington or Runcorn, we are not serving the North-West as a region. The importance and pre-eminence we are going to give to regional planning guidance, far more than in the past, must aid that process. The new towns have a role and, yes, it is important to keep that national dimension there. That is why the physical embodiment, if you like, of the national interest in solving national problems on a regional, super regional and sub-regional basis has to be English Partnerships and their history given their land holdings and everything else in the context of new towns. I know that is long but hopefully the answer was in there somewhere.

  86. Should the title "new towns" be dropped?
  (Mr McNulty) I think that is entirely up to the new towns. I think it is a very interesting historical, social, economic movement. I do not necessarily like the word "experiment". If the new towns want to keep it and recognise that as the roots of their history that is perfectly fine and if they want to drop it and move on I think that is perfectly fine too. Subsidiarity: let the new towns decide if they want to keep their names or not.

Chris Grayling

  87. Can I just challenge what you are were saying about the importance of the regional focus. Is not the real danger that if you take the North-West, which will inevitably be dominated both politically and organisationally by Manchester and Liverpool, that actually Skelmersdale and smaller centres become less of a priority rather than more of a priority?
  (Mr McNulty) If in a sense the drawing up the sort of spatial development strategy is the next step on rather than Regional Planning Guidance, that the entire focus of the SDS with the North-West is entirely dragged towards Manchester and Liverpool, then it is not a very good document and not a very robust document—we are talking about a document in the future—and one that is not serving its real purpose and I think Central Government might have something to say about that. I am fearful about that. I probably should not say this because it is very glorious. The East Manchester stuff is very good but I am just conscious of almost the ripple effect of what that does to the bit next door. It is almost the reverse, I think, of what you were saying yourself in the Adjournment Debate about Warrington and Liverpool and how meshing them together and marching forward together is more important than saying "This is what Warrington is doing, to hell with everyone else" and then all of a sudden you have got this real Gorgonzola cheese with flourishing areas here and even more abandonment and deprivation in other places. If the spatial development strategy and that kind of move forward is to really mean something it must mean a really robust look at how the region stands or falls together as one region and how it relates to next door and how it relates in the national context to it. I think that is right.

Mr Betts

  88. Is there a minimum size that makes a town, a new town, sustainable? I am raising the question because when we went to Corby in particular they were basically begging to have their community expanded so that they can make their shopping centre sustainable in the future because there are not enough people to get the development in and therefore their trade simply goes out of town. I understand there is a similar issue around Skelmersdale and Runcorn, that the town is not big enough to sustain lots of the development that makes them whole units.
  (Mr McNulty) I am not sure if there is a definitive blueprint that says the absolute quantum or critical mass for a new town to be successful or an urban area to be successful is X thousand. In a sense we need to turn that around, which I guess the review will do in part, we need in the more mid-term with the Regional Planning Guidance, Spatial Development Strategies and those sorts of things to ask on a town-by-town basis what is the optimum size that Corby needs to grow to to be an effective market hub, employment hub and all that sort of thing. I do not know the answer to that on a blow-by-blow process, we will have to look around each new town, but I think it is something as part of the review, the strategic and non-strategic sites, and subsequently English Partnerships and all other key agencies, the Development Agency and everything else, we must look to. The underlying point which I think is there is if there is going to be greater development in the areas that need it to satisfy increasing housing demand that currently is not being satisfied, that is going to happen—I think everyone is broadly agreed—on the urban fringe before it happens anywhere else, on brown field sites before it happens anywhere else, so it may well be what Corby is crying out for can be satisfied in the immediate future. I do not think it is for us in the ODPM to say Corby needs to grow by 20,000, it is a matter of real, real partnership stuff, including EP, at the local regional level to determine what is the optimum size in the current context for Corby to move forward.

Chairman

  89. But do you not think that in some of these new towns people were cheated because people were persuaded to move to Skelmersdale on the basis that it was going to be 80,000 and it has turned out to be just under half that and it is the same thing with Corby. It is a bit like saying to somebody "look, come for a meal" and you set out the tablecloth, put the knives and forks out but you do not put any food on the table. Are people not being cheated in some of those places because they were drawn in on the prospectus that these places were going to be substantially larger than they actually are?
  (Mr McNulty) As I have said, I think there are serious lessons that need to be learned from the past and that may well be one of them. If particular areas do not have sufficient critical mass to survive as a community that is something that broadly on a regional and governmental basis we do need to look at, I fully accept that.

Mr Betts

  90. You said that this was going to be something in partnership with English Partnerships but, in fact, English Partnerships has very few land holdings around Corby, so where is the partnership going to come from?
  (Mr McNulty) I think I said English Partnerships and all other agencies, the Development Agency and anyone else that is around.

  91. The Department is going to take a view on that as well?
  (Mr McNulty) There is the Urban Regeneration Company there as well. The drivers and the vehicles are not important, the fact that it happens through partnership, through development and in an agreed and consensual way forward, must be the most important thing. If people are going to spend another year or two years, whatever else, arguing about what Corby should grow to rather than getting on with it and trying to talk in terms of regeneration and developing a way forward in the future for the town then I do not think that is time best served.

Christine Russell

  92. Can I roll about four questions into one?
  (Mr McNulty) You can and I will try to answer them.

  93. The first is when the first new towns were designed 50 years ago they were based on planning principles that are totally contrary to those that we have today like low density, car dependency, green field development, so how are we going to meet that challenge in the future? The second one is one of the problems that we had evidence on, and saw with our own eyes especially again in Corby, was the difficulty of tackling or creating a really good urban renaissance in these wholly privately owned town city centres, so what is the answer to that? The third thing is, and again I am thinking mainly of Telford and you have heard a reference to that this morning, we saw plenty of evidence that the actual design of the properties there are probably leaving the residents very susceptible to anti-social behaviour and vandalism, how are we going to tackle that?
  (Mr McNulty) Back to your first question, or whether it was your first two or your first three questions rolled into the first question.

  94. Design principles.
  (Mr McNulty) It is about learning the lessons, is it not? If you take almost the cliché of Milton Keynes, it is laid out on a grid basis entirely for car-borne traffic like a mini Los Angeles, which in terms of sustainability, in terms of developing a real core around the centre because of low density and things like that, may have worked. What I would not do is reproduce them all entirely. The first wave worked and were broadly successes of their time. I think the successive wave was as well to an extent. You could argue at the very latter end about Corby and places, and you could have a fairly robust argument about it, but I would not knock their historical legacy because in their time many of them were very useful. Clearly any significant development along the lines of growing, if you like, critical mass of some of them or seeking to redevelop particular areas must be done in public-private partnership but must be done in the context of what we now take almost as read of a really sustainable urban development framework which means higher densities, which means more and more in terms of getting car-borne traffic either off the roads or certainly out of town centres, or at least boosting the public transport infrastructure. Here I pause and I say I am nothing to do with the Department for Transport so it might be that you have a little chat with them about getting sustainable transport infrastructures into some of the new towns. Seeking to develop further not just the town centres, whether privately owned or otherwise, but getting into some of them the notion in traditional suburbia, as in my seat, of this network of small local centres as well as your main centre, which many of them do not have, and seeking to improve public transport, as I said, that is part of the thing that will colour our work in terms of developing new towns in the next phase into the future. If what we are about is simply repeating because it is now the characteristic of, say, Milton Keynes, the existing grid-like traffic intense pace of development or style of development I do not think we are doing anyone much of a service. Any future development, whether EP led, Development Agency led, anyone, must be within the context of that clearly defined and sustainable development framework. It will be interesting to see how that is grafted on to the very different now historical legacies of each of the towns.

  95. What about planning out crime?
  (Mr McNulty) Exactly so. No examples spring into my head immediately but I think there are some good examples of that certainly outside of new towns where, to be perfectly honest, and I am not going to spend my first public appearance here knocking anybody, least of all the architectural profession that I need to work with in some capacity or other, some of these things that went up in the 1960s in new towns or otherwise almost had crime designed in. We have had guidance and everything else since which seeks to design crime out.

Chairman

  96. One particular design is the Ragburn design. Now, on designs like Ragburn have you any examples, and you do not need to give them now but in a note, of places where a good scheme has been done on the Ragburn design to reduce the problems of crime and to make those much more livable communities?
  (Mr McNulty) In terms of that specificity along that sort of design I do not have anything but if I do somewhere in the vast array of resources that stand behind me, I will write to the Committee.

  Chairman: Thank you very much.

Chris Grayling

  97. Can we turn to the issue of Housing Benefit and private landlords. One of the things that we saw during the Empty Homes Inquiry was the way in which the Housing Benefit system was actually contributing to some of the problems we saw in the run down areas of Manchester, the ability of landlords to effectively make a return in a very short period of time. Those Committee Members who went to Telford found similar distortions of the local markets being caused by the levels of Housing Benefit available. Can you tell us a little bit about the Government's plans to address this issue?
  (Mr McNulty) Specifically in terms of licensing selective landlords I will be perfectly honest and say our plans in that regard are far more focused on the far large scale and starker examples of abandonment, benefit farming and that sort of thing that are happening in a lot of specific areas in some northern and Midland cities. I am not wholly sure, and it would be wrong to mislead the Committee, that that specific element of legislation will be of any use in terms of specifically the new towns.

Chairman

  98. It would be specifically in parts of Telford. There is abandonment there and there are clearly people who are buying up properties in Telford for very low sums of money on the basis that they get back their outlay from Housing Benefit in three or four years and therefore they do not worry about either the capital value or maintaining the capital asset.
  (Mr McNulty) I will certainly take back the specific example of Woodside but I think the Committee will agree that specific legislative tool is targeted far, far more at more extensive examples of real and significant abandonment. That is not to undermine or underplay what is going on in Telford.

  99. Can I just stress that in quite a lot of new towns it was the fire sales, if you like, to sell off the property which encouraged even more people to exercise their right to buy which has now led to that problem. You have not told us when are we going to get these landlord registration schemes, whether they are relevant to the new towns or to abandonment and other things like that.
  (Mr McNulty) The short and extremely specific answer, which is in the lap of the Gods and Parliament, is if we are lucky we will get an element of them on Friday 19 July, but I suspect we will not, because there is a Private Member's Bill that has got some of that stuff attached to it. I would hope, and we will certainly push for, those sorts of schemes and some more of the wider housing multiple occupation stuff that is both a manifesto commitment and some elements that are included in that specific Bill will come on stream as soon as possible. I know the Department are very keen on it and will fight for it and if you want me to write as and when I can with further details on that, I shall do.

  Chairman: Thank you.

 


 
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