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


Memorandum by Halton Brook Residents Association (NT 38)

REVIEW OF RUNCORN NEW TOWN

1.  PREFACE

  This subject is long overdue for review since the New Town concept dates back over 50 years and we don't think a comprehensive overview has ever taken place.

  Many New Towns have been highly successful but many have failed to achieve what they set out to. New Towns were a logical follow on to post-war overspill developments, which had only partially tackled the chronic housing shortage. The basic concept was to build a New Town on the periphery of an existing community without the constraints of local interference and at a later defined time to merge the two into one hopefully thriving enlarged community, which would be self-sustaining.

  First generation New Towns mostly in the south of the UK had proved successful and Runcorn New Town was conceived as one of a batch of second generation.

  The following is our attempt to compare aspirations and objectives with what has actually materialised.

2.  HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

  Runcorn New Town was conceived in the early sixties and legislated for within the 1964 New Towns Act. Its planning architect was Professor Ling and comprehensive details are contained in his Master Plans One & Two. The area within its boundaries was almost entirely greenfield south of the existing town of Runcorn. Professor Ling conducted major research into the needs of the area and designed facilities to meet them. Basically they were two-fold:

    (a) to provide a dormitory for workers in the designated employment area. Now that Runcorn Bridge was built, this area included South Liverpool (the new Ford Halewood plant, Triumph Motors and the associated factory estates in Speke), Ellesmere Port to the west (Vauxhall Motors, Stanlow Refinery etc.) and as far south as Knutsford. This was termed the "Designated Employment Area". Workers who qualified would now be able to live in a pleasant country environment of a New Town where commuting facilities were well planned by public transport.

    (b) to provide industrial and commercial opportunities for new or relocated businesses to operate in pleasant, new greenfield factories with workers living in the New Town. There were to be 9,500 new houses for social renting plus up to 5,000 new properties for owner occupation as and when the demand developed. The first social houses were ready for occupation in late 1966 and, in fact, Halton Brook was the first estate to be completed on schedule. The last social housing was handed over in 1980. Private housing development kept pace with this progress and is still ongoing at a reduced level. The existing factories in the designated area were ongoing and expanding and the New Town factories were built and new industries established to keep pace with the influx of new population chiefly from Liverpool.

  Professor Ling made it very clear that for the aforementioned to work smoothly, a professional team of community development specialists would be needed. This was put in place from the commencement and headed by Miss Madge Collins OBE. They were highly successful, closely monitoring progress and adjusting if and when required. They established a comprehensive and workable lettings policy that was strictly adhered to. We will not enlarge on this aspect here but it was based on full employment for at least one in each household plus facilities for migration of parents of families and second generation at a later date. Alongside went the development of community facilities on each estate, churches, public houses, community centres, schools, ie a comprehensive package.

  By 1980, a few rough edges excepted, Runcorn New Town had developed into exactly what Professor Ling had set out to achieve.

  So what has gone wrong?

3.  THE PROBLEMS START

  Under our New Towns Act 1982, was the revised target date when the entire New Town should have been ceded to Halton Borough Council. In 1974 Widnes and Runcorn had merged into the new Halton under local government reform and a new political atmosphere had developed which made the merging of a New Town financially difficult and also bitterly opposed by the "Old Brigade" mostly from Widnes.

  Simultaneously the Thatcher/Ridley partnership had also developed an anti-local authority complex and despite several attempts to hand over the New Town they all ended in failure. Progress was made even more difficult when Thatcher decided that it could be solved by temporarily merging Warrington and Runcorn New Towns.

4.  THE SOLUTION

  The 1988 Housing Act and the emergence of the Housing Corporation as the principal provider, in the future, for social housing was to be the solution. In Runcorn a consortium of Housing Associations was formed, the New Town valued at a NIL VALUE and a dowry package, approximately £30 million, was provided, to carry out specific improvements identified in the Chesterton Report. This deal had never been offered to Halton Borough Council who, in hindsight have said they would have accepted if it had been offered.

  Simultaneously, the commercial and industrial properties were to be sold off separately. Leaseholders could buy freeholds, and the remainder were packaged and sold to two property companies. Seems straightforward until the implications are pointed out ie that under DEVCO control covenants relating to employment of local labour were strictly enforced. Now it was a free for all and slowly outside labour had taken over our jobs. At the same time Halton Borough Council were expected to take on board all of the community related assets with their associated costs. This was vigorously opposed because they were refused funding and any costs would have to come out of council tax.

5.  THE NEW SCENARIO

  Five housing associations divided up the social housing and divided up the dowry. They point blank ignored the need to provide a continuing support for community sustainability in its many forms which were already up and running. Apparently their policy did not have the funding, nor the expertise or the willingness to even recognise the need to do so. It was pointed out to them that their expertise in housing management of pepper potted units within established communities would not work in the entirely new world of estate management. They chose to ignore our advice.

  The most fundamental change was their lettings policy, the impact of which had not become apparent to the residents who had voted for them. Housing need was their only criteria which when put across, seemed a very laudable policy until you realise where it is leading and now where it has led, ie ghettoism. Alongside this you have the employment of local labour changes. Surveys have been taken of the influx of labour coming in over Runcorn Bridge and southern routes to fill jobs which had been created in the New Town and it is a startling statistic. Any employment which is available in the New Town is almost entirely in the low-income bracket and unemployment is also very high. As we write, 85 per cent of residents in Halton Brook are eligible for housing benefit and there is little prospect of improvement of this figure. An atmosphere of ghettoism exists which has slowly increased since the introduction of Housing Association Management in 1989.


6.  OUTSIDE FUNDING ASSISTANCE

  The criteria for SRB funding was based on 1995 statistics at which time the deterioration had not taken hold in Halton Brook. Today we have well entered the deprivation zone but the bureaucracy of Government Office built an impenetrable barrier and we have completely failed to get any response to our overtures for reconsideration of our most obvious qualifications.

7.  THE PICTURE TODAY

  Presently 60 perfectly sound three bedroom town houses are being demolished due to "low demand" or rather the fact that no one actually wants to live in Halton Brook if there is an alternative.

  There had been a glimpse of hope during the 1980s when Halton Brook had been the most popular New Town estate for Right to Buy. In fact 300 out of 850 units were sold under the scheme. Now even this has turned sour because the owners are locked in because a sale is almost impossible other than at a silly price. This has had two knock on effects. One, owners have attempted to let on uncontrolled tenancies, causing even worse problems. Two, they have given up hope of being able to move at all, no new families are arriving, no children and both our primary schools are less than half full. It is a bleak outlook.

8.  THE FUTURE

  The aforementioned is a brief explanation of the historical decline into deprivation and it has to be fully understood before you can even contemplate how to reverse it. Even halting it will be difficult but endless discussions will not help unless a sense of urgency is recognised now and adequate funding made available. Neighbourhood Renewal Funding will be totally inadequate.

  This deprivation can be clearly traced back to local employment travesty. What can now be done? We can only repeat, it is a serious local issue which cannot be solved by a Cabinet Think-Tank. Urgent action is the only way forward.

9.  FURTHER PROBLEMS

  The housing situation is considerably aggravated by peripheral problems and health is probably the worst. Halton tops the leagues tables on many benchmarks and these are clearly set out in many research papers. Pollution itself is a problem of mega proportions with emissions on our windward side being seven times heavier than the second worst area in the tables, viz. "Friends of the Earth Pollution Research Statistics". You might even ask: "Should Runcorn New Town have been developed here in the first place?" Debateable!

  We, of course, have the usual law and order problems. It would be unusual if we though that the policing was adequate. The irony is that both the Cheshire Constabulary and local MPs admit resources are not adequate. This problem must be addressed and remedied alongside other remedies if we are to progress and succeed.

10.  OUR LOCAL RESIDENT PARTICIPATION SCHEME

  Since handover to Housing Association management in 1989 we have had in place a strong arrangement of resident participation. The overall picture is that our Runcorn Residents Federation takes a comprehensive overview and each estate has its own Residents Association and this has worked comfortably during those years. There is an underlying problem however, because in every case we have to use a begging bowl, usually to the individual housing association, to get funding to enable us to exist. This inhibits strenuous debate, eliminates whistle blowing on the more serious issues of which lettings policies and rent restructuring have been but two. The overall cost of this operation must be relatively small and it would be very beneficial if funding could be completely divorced from the present landlord/resident begging bowl funding.


11.  COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT/SUSTAINABILITY

  Housing Associations made it very clear on handover that they did not have a responsibility in this area of management. Their basis for this was that their remit was simply to be a home provider. We challenged this because the DEVCO had always provided a very comprehensive package of both staff and funding. Housing Associations took over the estates in this ongoing format, charged exactly the same or higher rent levels. How did they explain this anomaly? They didn't and never have. In their response to the 2000 Green Paper they continue to insist that this is still their financial position and any funding for community work has to be levered in from outside agencies and grants or so they claim. There is, unfortunately, a problem which wont go away and that is on an estate such as Halton Brook with 500 social rented units and 300 right to buy owner occupiers how would you be able to provide heavily subsidised community facilities for the tenants only? It hasn't been solved. Housing Associations can and do use it as an excuse. This problem should have been remedied at handover but it wasn't. There is a solution, whether tenant or owner-occupier we all pay the same Council Tax. Place this responsibility clearly in the hands of the local council and if certain areas need special attention and funding to alleviate pockets of deprivation make adequate adjustments in the annual spending assessment from Central Government to cover this extra cost. It's not rocket science, just simple common sense.

  As a Residents' Association, we would much prefer to deal with local Councillors and a Local Authority who we know are adequately funded than with RSL because this leaves us in the invidious position of having to beg, persuade, justify, wait until they get a grant and end up having to say thank you for what we were entitled to in the first place. This is first year socio-economics and one problem which could be remedied quickly and forever.

12.  TO SUMMARISE

  The aforementioned is an effort by our group to highlight the salient points in their 40 year history of Runcorn New Town which has led us, in conjunction with Halton in general, to head league tables for the many benchmarks of deprivation levels. Failure of Government in the past to heed the messages, dogmatic remedies which lead us down the wrong routes plus the general decline in basic social values have all contributed and we know there is no magic instant solution.

  The part played by the Housing Corporation is questionable. They seemed to assume that their only role was as a provider of homes for people in need. In their early days this may have been so and regenerating property in small packages where a community already existed was a fairly straightforward housing management discipline and they were reasonably successful. Financing was also easy to handle because HAG was high and deficits, if any, were wiped clean annually. The deal that was engineered for the handover of Runcorn New Town was dubbed the Sale of the Century, very adequate financing to enable them to continue a status quo and a pledge that surplus HRA monies would be ring-fenced to finance added facilities. From a resident's point of view it seemed perfect. The break down seems to have two predominant causes exacerbated by many smaller ones. We emphasise these in 13 and 14 below.


13.  A LETTINGS POLICY

  Housing need can be interpreted in many ways. One way is to assume that it goes hand in hand with the qualification for housing benefit, ie if you need housing benefit you almost certainly have a housing need. This was a yardstick used right from day one in stark contrast to DEVCO's employment qualifications. Priorities for one parent families, no checking of previous background of applicants, no priority for second generation, allowing 50 per cent outside allocation to the local authority are just some of the flawed lettings policies which led to the drift to deprivation and ghettoism. It is only now that realism has taken over because sustainability is the only basis on which you can build and maintain a large community. This gospel had been preached for years by the Rowntree Foundation, David Page and many, many respected commentators and we as a group are on record advocating this to our landlord. They refused to listen, hoping that if they could increase the 85 per cent housing benefit to 100 per cent, they may even be able to dispense with rent collection but claw-back, rent arrears levels, low demand and the general decline into ghettoism are now serious issues. The fact, that no properties in Halton Brook will sell on the open market for more than £30,000 and that, at today's mortgage rates, this relates to about £180 per month, simply aggravates the low demand scenario and then they set a rent level of £56 per week and more. Who is not doing their sums? Yes, they will still get tenants who can claim housing benefit or can they? These tenants can now shop around and it won't make thing better. Time will tell but there isn't much time left. Is it an irreversible problem? Well on our Castlefields estate they seem to think so and decanting and demolition is the order of the day.

14.  LOCAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY

  Local employment is the other major issue. Is there a solution? This is above and beyond our comprehension. We are the sufferers. Experimenting with New Deal, training initiatives etc are only playing games with a major problem. Cut backs in industry, sell offs (eg ICI to Belgian based Ineos) mergers and the like are allowed to happen without thought of the impact. We lose out on many deployments to the south and so the story goes on. A trouble shooting team would need to employ some big guns from the DTI to put things in reverse gear. Until this happens, decline in Halton and Halton Brook will continue and remedies will become more and more drastic and costly.

15.  FINALLY TO ADDRESS THE POINTS IN YOUR PRESS RELEASE

  (a)  No, the original design (Master Plans One and Two) was completed in 1982, 20 years ago and it was successful because it was kept in focus by the New Town management team. It started to lose its way when Runcorn (second generation) was merged with Warrington (third generation). Warrington knew they were only caretakers until some permanent handover deal could be struck. They took their eye off the ball. The steady decline started in 1990 when the housing and employment of residents parted company. Car dependency has been a social trend everywhere. The difference in Runcorn would be the predominance of old bangers. Bus and rail privatisation has accelerated this trend everywhere.

  (b)  Relationships between old and New Town areas has always been cool at all levels and perhaps Professor Ling did not realise this would occur. The autonomy given to New Town management was resented at local authority level. The old town population resented the influx of mainly Liverpool people. The targets of the New Town had been met but the "them and us" complex has never gone away. Now after 10 years of decline in the New Town, with demolition being actively discussed, we frequently hear "I told you so". Property prices in the old town rise steadily and the complete opposite is happening with New Town properties to the point where estate agents advise letting rather than selling.

  (c)  (i)  Our land supply is, we think, controlled by the Commission for New Towns who have lost the plot as far as a joined up policy of local population and local employment is concerned.

  (ii)  Local authority did not take us over. The lack of cohesion between Housing Corporation and privatisation of industry has been disastrous.

  (iii)  If a residuary body had been put in place in 1990 with a co-ordinated sustainable policy we probably would not be writing this response today.

  (d)  We still seem to be developing commercial and industrial opportunities for non-residents of the New Town. This will continue until someone does something about it but who is that someone? Halton Borough Council proudly announces new development on cheap industrial land but its impact on employment for New Town residents is negligible and it is not part of the deal anyway.

  (e)  We have attempted to describe the present scenario accurately. We find it unacceptable but is anyone listening. So far not, but it would be short sighted to simply keep talking when ACTION should be the name of the game.

  (f)  This is a social/economic problem of enormous proportions. It needs treating as a one-off and not aggregated in the overall New Town scenario. It cannot be left to the mercy of the Local Authority. An approach similar to the Heseltine/Merseyside regeneration attempt in the early eighties may be a possible way forward but please, please press the urgent button.

  Runcorn New Town was planned and fine-tuned with expert skill by Professor Ling. It was put together over a period of 15 years by diligent, expert and dedicated staff. It should have been merged into the big wide world with the same skilled handling but it was not. It was a victim of Tory dogma, resentment at local level, unenlightened management by both the Housing Corporation and Housing Associations, treated as a poor relation by Cheshire County Council and as a newly formed unitary authority, Halton Borough Council is floundering and only tinkering with the edges of the problem.

  On behalf of the Halton Brook Residents Association

George Connor, Chair

  George is the present chair and has been so for the past seven years. He is also Divisional Board member for Riverside Housing, a director of Four Estates Ltd and sits as delegate on several local committees. He has lived on Halton Brook for 17 years.

  Working in partnership

  On Behalf of Halton Brook Community Development Ltd

Ron Hart, Company Secretary

  Ron Hart is Company Secretary of HBCD Ltd, a Company Ltd by Guarantee and a Registered Charity (Reg No 1090522). He is also a committee member of HBRA, delegate to Runcorn Residents' Federation and a school governor. Worked as a civil engineer on New Town infrastructure 1966-78, Runcorn Estates surveyor 1979-89, and self employed director of Site Management Consultants Ltd 1990. Resident of Halton Brook since 1971.


 
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