Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda


Memorandum by R J B Morris (NT 11)

1.  INTRODUCTION

  1.1  This submission is written in response to the personal invitation to submit a memorandum to the House of Commons Urban Affairs Sub-Committee. It is offered on a personal basis only and is not to be understood as necessarily representing the views of Northampton Borough Council or anyone else.

  1.2  The writer is a solicitor with 34 years' local government experience, over 20 of which have been as a Chief Executive at the City of Durham (1981-86) and at Northampton (since 1986). I was President of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives in 1995-96.

2.  BACKGROUND

  2.1  This submission is primarily concerned with the aftermath of new town development, and the consequences for a town like Northampton whose growth since the 1960s has been directed or greatly influenced by Government-directed new town investment.

  2.2  Northampton during the 1960s was a county borough with a municipal history going back to the 12th century and a steadily growing population of just over 100,000. There had been substantial investment under the Town Development Act 1952 around Daventry to accommodate Birmingham overspill, but formal new town designation of this kind was of course different altogether for the predominately rural county with a number of market towns. Along with Corby, where quite different economic circumstances applied centred on the steel works, Northampton became the focus for sustained and directed growth until the New Town Development Corporation was wound up in 1985.

  2.3  By this date the population was approximately 165,000, having been augmented by at least a third during 25 years of growth. The formal arrangements in Northampton had some unusual characteristics in that the Borough and the Development Corporation shared some key appointments in the legal and land development fields—something which no doubt would be unacceptable today, but which at the time gave valuable synergy and collaboration between the two public bodies (the area of the County Borough was substantially augmented in 1974 with the addition of the Northampton Rural District Council area, but this still amounted only to a total of just under 20,000 acres).

  2.4  Unusually also, the development of the existing town was largely carried out in two main areas, with the southern district comprising private housing and the eastern district public housing. In the last deal of its kind, 5,000 or so houses were transferred by the Northampton Development Corporation to the Borough Council's housing stock in 1985, and the Borough took over the debt involved.

  2.5  Large tracts of development land remained at this time, but they were largely not transferred to the Borough Council, being retained by central government through the medium of the Commission for the New Towns. Although possessed of considerable statutory powers, the CNT thereby became in effect another developer in the growth boom of the late 1980s. At the height of this, a new member was added to the town's population every two hours, and the population, together with jobs and business floor space similarly, grew rapidly.

  2.6  By this time the M1 had become the pressured national artery that we now recognise, while Northampton's central position was enhanced by the building of the A45 and the A14. In consequence the town continues to grow today and in round terms still has less than 20,000 acres but contains some 200,000 people, around a third of a million square feet of office space and over one and a third million square feet of factory space.

3.  CURRENT ISSUES

  3.1  The foregoing paragraphs have been set out to explain in brief how the essentially historic town of Northampton has come to be the way it is today—by a large margin the highest populated shire district council in England, with substantial continuing growth influenced but not dominated by the South East, and with a shortage of resources and degree of social and economic deprivation which surprises those familiar only with its leafier image.

  3.2  This degree of deprivation was recognised by Government when almost £10 million was granted under the first year of the Single Regeneration Budget in the mid 1990s for a series of land reclamation and social investment measures. After seven years, that SRB programme formally comes to an end on the 31 March 2002. The Borough similarly now wishes to be proactive in working with English Partnerships and others to regenerate other areas of the town similarly in need of investment and infrastructure—regeneration is one of the Council's highest priorities.

  3.3  In the 1980s when the Northampton Development Corporation assets were distributed, it was the underlying principle that the rising values and further development potential had, as successive governments had intended, been created by a mix of investment and the success of the town in general using its opportunities to grow and prosper. Over recent years, however, that growth has enured to the Commission and latterly to English Partnerships, with relatively little recycling to the direct benefit of the local economy. Although the motivation is not the same as for a private developer, in some respects English Partnerships, as the current public agency, is seen as one more developer taking extensive land sale profits and development benefits away from the town whose market circumstances (particularly now that it is 17 years since the New Town Development Corporation was wound up) they largely created.

  3.4  During the course of the last few years the Borough Council has been experiencing extensive problems with regard to the layout of former housing estates constructed by the Northampton Development Corporation in the 1970s, and has spent a considerable amount of money on certain estates in order to reduce the impact of crime and disorder. It is felt appropriate that in these particular instances English Partnerships could have a greater role to play in helping to regenerate and rejuvenate some of those older housing estates in partnership with the Borough Council.

  3.5  As the foregoing paragraphs have sought to explain, there was a significant partnership between the Borough Council and the Development Corporation in undertaking the expansion and as a result the Borough Council itself undertook many major capital projects during the period of expansion. It is therefore felt appropriate that all or part of the proceeds from sales of land and property held by English Partnerships should be re-invested in the town in order to provide better facilities and improved infrastructure to the various transport links including the need for better public transport.

  3.6  Although as already stated the Borough Council did acquire some of the former assets of the Northampton Development Corporation on its demise in 1985, large areas of land were subject to clawback requirements. Effectively this means that at the present time the Borough Council only obtains about one-third of the value of any of these sites on any sale whereas English Partnerships would secure approximately two-thirds of the receipts. As a result it does not encourage the Borough Council to consider any disposals at the present time, and it is felt that there would better opportunities for selling such land (in parallel with other developments currently taking place) if the clawback requirement could be reviewed to give a more equitable share of the proceeds of the sale.

  3.7  English Partnerships still own areas of employment land within Northampton, and it is felt appropriate that there should be joint marketing campaigns between English Partnerships and Northampton Borough Council (in conjunction with owners of other commercial areas) to assist in the promotion of the town and encourage further inward investment for the benefit of the town. To some extent this work has already started in recent months, but it is considered that there should be a formal basis upon which such joint promotion should take place.

  3.8  The democratic structures of local authorities such as Northampton Borough Council allow them to be responsive to the needs of the community, and it is therefore felt appropriate that there should be greater opportunity for consultation and co-operation arrangements and more engagement on local issues which could involve a formal structure of partnership. Upon the demise of the Development Corporation in 1985, there were regular consultations between officers and Members of the Borough Council, and officers of the Commission for the New towns, but this tended to slow during the 1990s and there has been no formal structure of consultations during the course of the last five years. Such consultation (now being restarted on a more regular basis) ensures a more harmonious working relationship between the two authorities, to ensure that the strategies of the local authority are fully acknowledged by English Partnerships and vice versa.


4.  CONCLUSION

  4.1  Northampton has welcomed and taken part in the opportunity to respond to the Government's review of English Partnerships. The community related assets package negotiated at the time of the winding up of the Development Corporation in 1995 recognised the then need for a balancing exercise, so that although much development land was retained some assets did come to the Council to balance the extra burdens placed on the Borough as a result of the then existing development.

  4.2  It is considered that this philosophy should be carried forward in respect of the further major developments on the fringe of the town which have subsequently taken place, and those which remain still inchoate. The view is taken that residual assets should now be devolved to the Council as the relevant new town local authority, given not only the local growth pressures but the pivotal role of the Council in economic and social development within its boundaries and Northamptonshire as a whole.

  4.3  Such assets would augment existing resources and provide further local leverage to form any local development partnerships or companies to manage further growth, and to recognise the place of local democracy within the future management and control of such land.

  4.4  To conclude, the Council is already actively pursuing major regeneration proposals and, with the assistance of consultants where appropriate, has well established and well developed skills in marketing and land disposal, and is of a size sufficient to provide the relevant structure and experience directly to benefit its council tax payers and the business community at large by such recognition and transfer of assets.

  4.5  It is recognised that this Memorandum deals but with one aspect of the New Town legacy, but it is an important one. It is ironic that the partnership between Northampton Borough Council and the Northampton Development Corporation of the 1970s and 1980s is now succeeded— in this era of partnership working—by a situation in which the NDC successor body no longer has the same direct formal commitment to invest and recycle the products of investment into the Borough areas, and that as costs have risen dramatically so have access to capital and revenue resources directly available to the Borough declined in relative terms.

  4.6  Northampton does not argue for special treatment—the taxpayers in general are entitled to some return for general national investment—but we do argue that a way should be found of requiring that wealth and potential created locally should be required to be recycled locally.

  I hope that the foregoing paragraphs are helpful, and I should be willing to elaborate on them if required.


 
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