Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by Halton Borough Council (NT 07)


  1.1  Halton Borough comprises the towns of Runcorn and Widnes together with the nearby villages of Moore, Daresbury, Preston Brook and Hale. It was formed in 1974, 10 years after the formal designation of Runcorn New Town. Thus in a very real sense Runcorn New Town and Halton Borough have grown up and matured together.

  1.2  The maturing has not always been easy. The new Halton Borough was given an immensely difficult legacy—much social deprivation, environmental pollution and degradation, economic over-dependence on heavy industry, etc. In addressing all these problems, the Borough needed to mesh the very different communities of Widnes (South Lancashire) and Runcorn (North Cheshire) on opposite sides of the Mersey estuary, and at the same time handle the "old" and "new" divisions in Runcorn brought about by the induced development of the New Town.

  1.3  Runcorn New Town was one of the first new towns to be based around the expansion of a sizeable existing town. It was designated to provide for overspill population from Liverpool and North Merseyside and as such was largely based on public sector housing provision. The residential neighbourhoods included radical, highly assertive developments incorporating deck-access flats (Southgate and Castlefields). The Masterplan concept included the unique dedicated Busway network, serving the brand new Shopping City at its centre and key employment sites on the fringes.

  1.4  The operational history of the Development Corporation became closely entwined with that of the New Town in neighbouring Warrington, designated only four years later but with its raison d'e®tre being very different growth-led reclamation of largely redundant military sites, its housing elements based very largely on the concept of the provision of sites for the private market.

  1.5  The geographical links with Warrington led to the amalgamation of the two Development Corporations in 1981, with operations thereafter being led from Warrington. The results of this evolution can clearly be seen on the ground in Runcorn. The later stages of the New Town development (East Runcorn especially) are much more akin to the private development style in Warrington—and indeed many of these newer Runcorn residents tend to look to the Warrington area for key services including shopping and secondary schooling.

  1.6  Halton Borough Council is a member of the grouping of local authorities that include New Towns the Local Government Association's New Towns Special Interest Group. Through this connection Halton is contributing its comments and ideas to the current Quinquennial Review of English Partnerships. It is crucial that the English Partnerships review and the Select Committee Inquiry inform each other adequately.

  1.7  Key statistics on Runcorn New Town and map are attached at Appendix 1.


  The extent to which the original design of the New Towns is leading to concerns about their long-term sustainability, in particular the effect of their design on urban management, how car dependence might be reduced and the balance between new development and the regeneration of older parts of the towns.

  2.1  The radical design elements of Runcorn New Town have proved a mixed blessing. Four features deserve particular mention to illustrate this the Busway; Shopping City; residential neighbourhood layouts (with particular reference to Southgate and Castlefields); landscaping and open space.

    —  Busway The unique, dedicated Busway system was based on the idea that no location in the New Town would be more than five minutes walk to a bus stop giving fast and reliable service to all other parts of the town. The service was intended to be so good that it would be used in preference to the car, even given the equally elaborate Expressway road system. In practice, the Busway system has never fully lived up to expectation for a number of reasons—including issues of maintenance, security, and the various consequences of anti-social behaviour. Some of these matters are being addressed through the Local Transport Plan, but fundamental questions remain as to its future, including the question of links to East Runcorn, an area of the New Town which was never served by the original Busway system.

        At present, the Busway remains an incomplete system which does not link to the more recent employment developments—and consequently limits residents' ability to use the system to access employment opportunities particularly in outlying areas beyond the New Town, eg Daresbury and Widnes. Projects funded through the Single Regeneration Budget have attempted to deal with this, but with limited success. The physical limitations of the Busway coupled with reliance on transport operators who maintain a service of limited operating hours, particularly in evenings and at weekends, have had a major impact in reinforcing the social exclusion experienced by many of the New Town residents.

    —  Shopping City The designers of the New Town had to decide whether the main town centre should be based on a new site, or on an expansion of the existing Runcorn town centre. The new site argument won, with the established Runcorn centre effectively relegated to the role of a district centre. "Shopping City" was designed as a state-of-the-art covered centre, with separated pedestrian access via high-level walkways. It was planned to serve an ambitious, sub-regional role, with spending power to be attracted from well outside the New Town area. It was developed on this basis through a partnership between the Development Corporation and Grosvenor Estates as owner/developer.

        Not all the ambitions were fulfilled. The scale of the Shopping City ran ahead of the population growth needed to support it (the data at Appendix 1 show that the New Town development never secured its population target). The complicated road patterns, the "monolithic" concept of Shopping City itself and its associated multi-storey parking, all proved unattractive to sub-regional shoppers. The quality and range of the shopping "offer" was never as good as originally hoped, and the centre was eventually sold on to new owners. Latterly, the original plans for an extension at the same upper level were abandoned in favour of ground level shopping and adjacent parking, in the now-current style of retail park. The recent ground-level developments link reasonably well to the upper-level shopping and have helped to generate a healthier overall feel to Shopping City (re-named Halton Lea by the current owners). However, very difficult issues will arise in the coming years as the fabric of the original "monolith" comes up for renewal.

        The reduced shopping role actually achieved by Halton Lea gave a little more scope to the functioning of the "Old Town" centre, with the Borough Council acting as partner in a joint venture company with other developers. With the benefit of Single Regeneration Budget (SRB4) funding, a number of regeneration schemes are being implemented, including major new developments for further education, arts and leisure. Important retail elements of the regeneration have, however, been deterred by doubts over commercial viability. The balance of provision between Old Town and Halton Lea has undoubtedly been an issue here, allied to the ongoing "leakage" of retail expenditure to external centres, including Liverpool, Warrington and, more recently, Cheshire Oaks.

    —  Residential neighbourhoods The New Town was planned to provide a total of 10 new residential neighbourhoods, each to a different design to achieve distinctiveness but each to be provided with a good range of local facilities. Two of the estates, Southgate and Castlefields, incorporated high density deck-access flats built using innovative industrialised methods. Both estates have proved problematic, as briefly described in the notes below. None of the other neighbourhoods included a significant element of flats, but they did use "rationalised traditional" methods of construction. During the course of the construction programme, cutbacks in Development Corporation funding led to inferior materials being used, later necessitating very expensive refurbishment work in a number of the estates. Cutbacks in funding also led in a number of cases to a lesser provision of local community facilities than originally intended.

        Southgate was a residential neighbourhood of high-profile ultra-modern flats adjacent to Shopping City. The estate eventually proved unmanageable due to a number of physical drawbacks and to the growing concentration of social problems with which it became associated. In 1989, coinciding with the wind-up of the Warrington-Runcorn Development Corporation, the estate was demolished. It was replaced by conventional family housing managed by two of the Housing Associations who collectively had taken over the entire Development Corporation housing stock. In its new guise of Hallwood Park, the neighbourhood is now functioning very successfully around 550 houses in place of the 1,300 flats previously on the site.

        Castlefields is another residential neighbourhood of unconventional design a mixture of system-built deck access flats and bungalows built to Radburn principles on a sloping site, bisected by the busway. More recently than Southgate, the combination of physical and social problems necessitated a review of its future, leading to decisions by the Housing Associations to proceed with a phased programme of demolitions of some of the deck access blocks and their replacement, again with more conventional housing. The Housing Associations however are struggling to meet the abnormal costs arising from the demolitions and the topography.

        A range of urban management problems arose in Castlefields due to its unconventional layout, the highly unsociable nature of the deck access and corridor arrangements, the design and locational shortcomings of the covered Local Centre, and the physical barrier created by the Busway. In addition, the neighbourhood secondary school (Norton Priory) faced many operational problems and never reached its full design capacity. Recently, in the light of a Borough-wide review of secondary school places, the decision was taken to close this site following an amalgamation with another neighbourhood school.

        The combination of all these issues at Castlefields has necessitated the commissioning of a major "masterplanning" exercise to help settle its future. This covers the whole estate and involves the Housing Corporation and English Partnerships as well as the Housing Associations and the Borough Council.

    —  Landscaping and open space High quality landscaping is a notable feature throughout Runcorn New Town—but this has brought significant penalties in terms of maintenance costs, in particular landscaping within the residential layouts, and the planting associated both with the Busway and Expressway systems. Over-abundant vegetation growth has led to a number of actual or perceived problems—especially worries about personal safety and security at bus stops and on footpaths, and concerns over highway visibility on many parts of the Expressway system. The Local Transport Plan has had to include major expenditure items for landscape modification and maintenance, while the Council has been severely disadvantaged in resource terms by the exclusion of independent footpaths from the Standard Spending Assessment formulae.

         Runcorn Town Park is a very substantial feature, fulfilling the original concept of "bringing the country within the town." It provides a highly attractive and continuous swathe from north to south. However, coupled with the Expressway and Busway arrangements, Town Park also has the effect of substantially increasing the physical division between East Runcorn and other parts of the town. This separating effect was a contributory factor in the failure of Norton Priory school.

  Whether social exclusion in the New Towns is being exacerbated by the current Government approach to regeneration and neighbourhood renewal, in particular in relation to small pockets of deprivation.

  2.2  Issues of social exclusion are a significant concern in many of the Runcorn New Town neighbourhoods. In the national Index of Multiple Deprivation 2000, all the New Town wards fall within the top 10 per cent most deprived wards in England. Furthermore, four are in the top 5 per cent overall, five are in the top 5 per cent for income deprivation, and six are in the top 5 per cent for health deprivation and disability.

  Some of these problems are being tackled through SRB rounds 4 and 5 programmes, including "capacity building" projects of various kinds and schemes to improve residents' accessibility to local training and employment opportunities. The two programmes actively address the social exclusion issues inherent in the New Town Wards, and the mid-term review of the SRB4 programme "Realising the Benefits" demonstrates the effectiveness of the programme to date. However, the problems are so deep-seated and wide-ranging that action over a six or seven year period will never be enough.

  The SRB programmes have been developed in association with the Halton Partnership, out of which the new Local Strategic Partnership has evolved. Halton bid successfully for Neighbourhood Renewal funding and is confident that available resources can be used to good effect. However, it is too soon to judge how well the LSP and Community Strategy arrangements are going to work.—but if it can provide a framework of stability and continuity this will clearly be preferable to the past succession of seemingly ad hoc and short-lived funding initiatives.

  The Borough Council, in developing its regeneration programmes, has always had to take care to be even-handed between the needs of all its constituent communities, within and outside the New Town, and between Runcorn and Widnes. The Council's commitment to the further development of Area Forums throughout the Borough should help in this respect (the Area Forums involve groupings of neighbouring wards which pay no particular regard to New Town or non-New Town status).

  Issues in relation to the organisations and regulations operating in the New Towns, in particular:

    —  The consequences of English Partnerships' control of the land supply and its role in the planning system;

    —  The effect of the transfer of assets and liabilities to local authorities;

    —  The role of local authorities, residuary bodies and non-Departmental Public Bodies in promoting sustainable regeneration in the New Towns;

    —  The role of the New Towns in their regional economies, in both the industrial/commercial and housing markets and their effect on surrounding conurbations; and

    —  Whether the Government should change its policy in respect of design, regeneration and social inclusion in the New Towns.


  2.3  EP ownership interests are now confined to East Runcorn (Sandymoor and Manor Park) but in Borough terms these areas represent a strategic resource and have a key role to play in fulfilling the main objectives of the emerging Halton Unitary Development Plan, ie to reverse recent trends of net out-migration of population from the Borough.

  These areas are "greenfield" thus bringing their development into the national and regional greenfield/ brownfield debate. The Borough Council has made no secret of the fact that in recent years housing development on "brownfield" sites has averaged 23 per cent compared to the national target of 60 per cent of new homes on brownfield land by 2008. There are clear reasons for this, notably the extent of contamination of previously-used sites in the Borough related to chemical and allied industries. The draft UDP proposes a twin-track approach to future development needs a recognition that both greenfield and brownfield sites need to be allocated for future development, but with greenfield proposals expected to compensate for any loss of environmental capital through "planning gain" arrangements.

  English Partnerships clearly have an important potential role in such a "twin-track" approach—but it would require them to fully endorse the overall objectives of the UDP and to see themselves as active contributors to the goal of sustainable development, rather than being confined wholly or mainly to a revenue-maximising role.

  The Borough Council has good working relationships with English Partnerships on planning matters. The Council would, nevertheless, regard the current position of EP in the planning system (through the 7.1 and 7.2 procedures) as unjustifiably privileged and anomalous. The Council would support a reversion to the normal planning regime for all EP schemes.


  It is worth recording that we can point to a number of cases where, after the demise of the Development Corporation, an enlightened approach by the Commission for the New Towns enabled Halton to secure some very worthwhile facilities. Here are three examples in Runcorn, promoted under the general banner used collectively by the New Town local authorities in the early 1990s "Invest in Success":

    —  Rock Farm: This was a development of land in CNT's ownership adjacent to Town Park, not part of the original proposals. A successful, mixed tenure development was achieved through negotiation private, shared ownership and social housing.

    —  Sandymoor circuit: This was an overall scheme to encourage walking, cycling, leisure and amenity facilities in East Runcorn, at the same time as securing better links between the housing and employment areas and a suitable buffer zone for the nearby established village of Moore. The agreed package included the transfer of the Moore buffer land from CNT to Halton Borough.

    —  Trident Park: This is the most recent development at Halton Lea (Shopping City) where CNT's original ambitions to provide further retail development were translated into a significantly modified scheme incorporating important leisure elements (including the Borough's first multiplex cinema).


  2.4  Questions of asset transfer, balancing packages and "clawback" proved extremely complex. There are examples within the Borough to demonstrate where the system for balancing assets and liabilities worked reasonably well, and where it failed badly. On a more general point, however, it appears unjust that the accounting period for the assessment of assets to offset local authority liabilities should be limited to 30 years, while the period for "clawback" payments to EP should be 50 years.


  2.5  The New Town housing assets were transferred to a group of Housing Associations. As already mentioned, the design of the earlier estates has led to significant management problems. The "corporatist" nature of the estates has been distinctly out of tune with the more modern concepts of mixed tenure and diversity. In these circumstances the role and outlook of the Housing Associations is crucial. The approach developed at Castlefields has been helpful though still emerging a formal grouping of the Housing Corporation, Housing Associations and Borough Council for the purposes of "joint commissioning" of the regeneration programme.

  The concept of joint commissioning, ie formal collective commitment between different public bodies, would appear to have a wider application in helping to securing stronger partnerships in pursuit of the goal of sustainable regeneration. Joint Commissioning has clear relevance to the purposes of the Local Strategic Partnership and the Community Strategy.


  2.6  The role of Runcorn New Town in the regional and sub-regional economy is a complex story, entailing both gains and setbacks, and changing patterns of in- and out-commuting.

  At the start of the New Town, ICI was the major employer and already had a strong scientific and manufacturing presence in the chlor-chemicals sectors. Its scientific base was significantly strengthened during the New Town development years with the growth of R&D and HQ functions at The Heath—though not as a direct consequence of the New Town concept. In the early 1970s, Halton's scientific base received a significant further boost through the setting up of Daresbury Laboratory by the Science Research Council, in the location immediately to the east of the Designated Area.

  Somewhat in contrast to these successes, the earlier New Town industrial estates at Astmoor and Whitehouse were never developed at a rate to keep pace with the job needs of incoming residents, and the New Town neighbourhoods suffered large-scale unemployment and consequent social exclusion problems. Latterly, while Astmoor and Whitehouse tended to experience a range of problems in lettings and adaptations to modern requirements, the more recent Manor Park employment areas have generally been very successful in attracting good quality developments. These successes, coupled with the prestige associated with the strong scientific presence of Daresbury Laboratories, have given the required confidence to the private developers of the Daresbury Business Park, this site subsequently being included in the North West Development Agency's shortlist of strategic regional sites.

  In the sub-regional context, Runcorn New Town is centrally located in the "Mersey Belt". The NWDA has recently been studying contrasts in the Mersey Belt between the more buoyant "Southern Crescent" and less buoyant "Metropolitan Axis" areas. Runcorn sits at an important meeting point of these two zones and the New Town assets thereby play an unusually significant role in the sub-regional economy.

  In organisational terms, there is currently some confusion of roles between English Partnerships and the North West Development Agency. It could well be helpful to all those operating within the region for EP's New Town residuary role to be handled on a regional basis by the RDA. The broad development issues surrounding the future of the New Town holdings would then be handled as part of the Regional Strategy, with due links to Regional Planning Guidance and due observance to the requirements of sustainable development.


  2.7  Experience in Runcorn New Town clearly indicates that extensive housing schemes based on monolithic, single tenure provision are likely, sooner or later, to come to grief. For the future, housing provision, be it through major regeneration or new-build, should always focus on achieving mixed development, mixed tenure solutions. Funding regimes for social housing schemes should be designed to support these aims—and should always be flexible enough to allow community input at the design stages.

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