Members present:

Andrew Bennett, in the Chair
Mr Clive Betts
Mr Brian H Donohoe
Mrs Louise Ellman
Chris Grayling
Christine Russell


MR TONY McNULTY, A Member of the House, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Housing, Planning, Regeneration and Ordnance Survey, MR PAUL HOUSTON, Head of Urban Policy Unit 5, and MR PETER ELLIS, Planning Directorate, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, examined.


  1. Can I welcome you to the Committee and can I ask you to identify yourselves and your team for the record please.
  2. (Mr NcNulty) My name is Tony McNulty, the MP for Harrow East, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister for Planning, Regeneration and Housing.

    (Mr Ellis) I am Peter Ellis from the Planning Directorate, not in fact Mike Ash. Mike Ash is in bed unfortunately.

    (Mr Houston) I am Paul Houston from the Urban Policy Unit, responsible for various regeneration programmes.

  3. Right, do you want to say anything by way of introduction or are you happy to go straight to questions?
  4. (Mr NcNulty) I do have a brief opening statement.

  5. Okay, we are happy to have a brief opening statement.
  6. (Mr NcNulty) Well, thank you very much for the opportunity to take part in your inquiry on the new towns. Since you launched this inquiry, as everyone knows, the former DTLR has of course been split into the Department for Transport, DfT, and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, ODPM, where responsibility for new towns issues now rests. This is a good time to be taking stock of new towns issues and I welcome this opportunity to discuss the subject with you. One of the main drivers behind the new town movement was the need to deal with population growth in particular and to provide housing and this is clearly still an important issue today. In many ways the new towns policy story is a story of success and there is much to applaud in what has been achieved over the decades, but that is not to say that individual towns have not faced problems and challenges as they mature. The Urban White Paper Our Towns and Our Cities: the Future recognises that the future of urban areas and the concept of urban renaissance is vital to regeneration and creating stable patterns of development. Its key aims and methods of delivery, I believe, hold as true for new towns as for any other local authority. There is a strong feeling in the new towns that they have now come of age and we take seriously their desire to be treated like normal local authorities. ODPM of course is currently carrying out the quinquennial Review of EP, English Partnerships. As the outcome of Stage One of that Review made plain, there is clearly some important work for EP to do, and you have just heard from English Partnerships about their activity, with the Urban Regeneration Agency being the other key element. The details of the organisation's future remit are yet to be resolved. The DPM, the Minister for Housing and Planning and I are currently looking with a fresh eye at the key issues which have arisen from the Review and I will write to you as soon as possible with information on our conclusions. As I say, I welcome the opportunity to talk with you on this issue and I aim to be as helpful as possible in responding to your questions here today.

    Chairman: Thank you very much.

    Christine Russell

  7. Minister, can we welcome your fresh pair of eyes and I think, to be fair, we should acknowledge that you have barely had time to get your feet under the ministerial table, but can I ask you, of the 21 new towns, how many have you personally visited?
  8. (Mr NcNulty) In my current capacity or previous capacities?

  9. Any capacity.
  10. (Mr NcNulty) I would say in previous capacities I, as a London and South-East boy, have pretty well done the tour of everything, I guess, south of Birmingham, so certainly coming from Harrow with the whole wedge of Hatfield and Stevenage and all those, Welwyn, which are very close by, and Harlow certainly as I have some connections there. Beyond that, not a whole lot, but I shall.

  11. Can I encourage you to be really provocative and say, of those new towns which you have visited, which do you personally consider are a success and those that you consider are failures?
  12. (Mr NcNulty) Well, I will be not provocative, but entirely evasive and say that I never went to any of them with an eye to reviewing them in the context of urban policy or new town success, so I do not think I can answer that with any degree of honesty. Milton Keynes I have been to also, I should add, and Warrington.

  13. Well, perhaps I can invite you to consult your colleagues and tell the Committee whether or not they are aware that the Department has ever carried out or whether you have evaluation criteria for determining what are successes and what are failures as far as the 21 new towns go.
  14. (Mr NcNulty) I told them that they would not have to say much, but feel free.

    (Mr Ellis) From the planning perspective, we have carried out general research which looks at the contribution to sustainable development one can gain from a variety of forms of development. We looked in the early to mid-1990s, as I recall, at the contributions to be made from urban brownfield sites, the contribution to be made from urban extensions, and the contribution to be made from new settlements, new towns. That is not quite the sort of evaluation I think you had in mind. That was not actually looking at the success or not of the new towns which have been built, but the contribution that could be made from various forms of development. That research eventually fed through to the new approach that we see in PPG3 with its emphasis on urban brownfields first and urban extensions next.


  15. But there was a series of academic sociologists who did a study, looking at the impact of moving people from the East End of London out to certainly the London new towns, and that in the 1960s did put some question marks. It would be really interesting to know whether there has really been any thorough academic work looking at how far in the end the new towns achieved their objectives or failed. Are you aware of any work that has been done on that?
  16. (Mr Houston) There has been some recent work under the Cities(?) Programme sponsored by the ESRC which is evaluating new towns against other forms of settlement and evaluating them as a group. It concluded on the whole that compared with some of the other urban areas in the country new towns have not done too badly, but I am not aware of any recent research which is sort of evaluating new towns against each other.

  17. Would it have been logical for somebody actually to look at which of them have succeeded? Was it a critical size, was it the road patterns, those sorts of things?
  18. (Mr Houston) It would be logical, yes.

    Mrs Ellman

  19. Minister, have you yet had time to consider whether some of the new towns have suffered from asset stripping by the Commission for New Towns and now English Partnerships?
  20. (Mr NcNulty) I think in the first instance I would turn that around. We really are, I think, at a real crossroads not least with the review of English Partnerships' functions. This may seem irrelevant, but it does matter actually and I know Knowsley is not a new town before we go on, but I was in Knowsley and when I got there to talk about wardens and a walk-in bus scheme, which is all very good and really elevated the whole community, they kept talking to me before I spoke about, "We don't want to dwell on the blame culture". It took me about 15 minutes to work out that what they actually meant was that the Council had not done a whole lot with these byways and paths and everything else which now constituted this glorious walk-in bus route, but rather than anyone dwell on what the Council had not done for 30 years, they were all really elevated and looked forward to what they could now do with the wardens and everything else. I would be kind of disappointed if we spent the hour or so that we have today just going on blame about what EP did or did not do, what CNT did or did not do. If you want the specifics on asset stripping, I would not use that term. It is terribly unministerial and it smells like a trap to me, so I cannot use that, but if you want examples of bad practice, then the sort of complete sell-off of the Gordon Town Centre with no plan as to its future strategy and evolution was not a terribly good thing to do in the context of any urban planning device. I have no doubt at all that mistakes were made in the past, I have no doubt at all that perhaps under prior regimes, and I caught the tail end of what you were doing with EP, best price did rule over everything else and there has never been a shift towards best consideration, let alone best value, so perhaps things were sold for top dollar without much consequence about what it meant in an urban policy framework. I am not going to give you chapter and verse on that because it would be unfair to and remiss of me and I would confess happily that I do not know of every single land transaction that has been undertaken by CNT or EP. So were mistakes made? I am sure there were. Are we moving on and looking forward in the context of Stage Two of the Review and subsequent development? Well, I think we are and I think that is the whole thrust of it.

  21. Would you consider giving clearer ministerial guidance to English Partnerships about the need to look at best value and community benefit rather than concentrating on maximisation of land sales?
  22. (Mr NcNulty) I think, and I really need to get into this and get back to you, but the impression I got from the tail end of their discussion with you was that they did not wholly need that, number one, and it was for them rather than me. If I gave an absolute, positive departmental response, that would wholly preempt Stage Two of the Review and I do not think that would be fair either, but I think a fair description, and best value might be at the end of that particular journey, is what I think Margaret Ford was saying about the whole process being evolutionary. There is certainly, I think, in EP's own mindset already a real shift from best price, bottom dollar through to best consideration. There is certainly, and I know regardless of what happens with Stage Two of the Review this will be absolutely encouraged, a view that in the end perhaps some critics would say that partnership must mean exactly that in the local, regional and occasional supra-regional context. Whether that journey ends with best value or not I think will be entirely presumptive of me to say.

  23. But you would not rule out ministerial guidance if there was evidence that the evolutionary approach was not freeing resources quickly enough?
  24. (Mr NcNulty) I certainly would not rule anything in or out five weeks into the job, but I do not think we would. There may well be, at the risk of over-speculating, occasions where given what is planned by EP in terms of their partnership, and I believe somebody beside me will hit me if this is otherwise, things like clawback could be waived if it was in the interests of the wider community interests in terms of that particular landholding and that particular scheme where EP is in partnership. Are we going to shift from that final evolution of best consideration to best value? Maybe. I think that is the fairest I can be.

    Mr Betts

  25. Is there a real understanding in the Department that whatever the successes of the new towns, the real problem they have is that all their infrastructure is ageing at the same time and there is a need for substantial investment right across the field there?
  26. (Mr NcNulty) I think there is certainly an understanding within the Department that that is what prevails in any number of our urban areas, new towns or otherwise.

  27. They are different, so how can they be ageing at the same time?
  28. (Mr NcNulty) Well, partly so and partly again because of some of the tail end stuff that I caught about specific design in other areas that were common to some of the new towns in their various ways. Saying that about urban centres generally is not in any way to diminish the specific difficulties that there are with new towns. Some of the new towns in some cases, as you say, their stock is deteriorating together and where English Partnerships or the Government can have a role to arrest that, I am sure it will happen, so there is that recognition, I think.

  29. Does the Government recognise how much money it is going to have to put into this process itself?
  30. (Mr NcNulty) Well, in a kind of tangential way because we are doing, and, as I understand, it is part of Stage Two of the Review, almost a root and branch assessment of every little thing that moves in terms of EP's ownership, but hopefully, and I think this is prevailing again in terms of what you were saying about strategic sites and non-strategic sites, hopefully within the context of if they are to dispose, to dispose in what context, for what advance in terms of strategy and everything else, and that must mean not simply in terms of land disposal, but in the broader context. You have heard already some of the examples of what EP are doing with some of the new towns and I take the point about the speed at which they do it and that may well be a feature of Stage Two of the Review as well, so can I come to you or promise to write to you with the bill for renovating, refurbishing and updating every single aspect of defect in every single new town? I suspect the answer is no. Are we going to be a lot further along the road to knowing exactly what is needed in the context of development in all these areas? Certainly by the time of the end of Stage Two of the Review, we will be a lot further along that curve than we are at the moment and that is part of the real focus for it. I was saying to someone earlier that there is this really interesting tension where new towns want almost to be grown up, and that is not meant pejoratively, but they have matured and have come into the mainstream and want to be seen as all other urban centre, but with a stronger recognition of from whence they came in terms of history and the particular problems as well as advantages that that brings. I think that is a really interesting tension and we need to kind of be addressing both of those. When I say "all urban centres", I mean treat new towns as any other local authority in that context, but as with any other urban centre, treat them with full regard for their history, their development, with the level of stock, the state of the stock and all those elements as well which I think are fair points.

    Mr Donohoe

  31. Have you been able to come to any decision in terms of where there are strategic sites and how they will be defined?
  32. (Mr NcNulty) I am dreadfully sorry because this all really sounds like sort of pleading the Fifth Amendment in America or something, but that is all ongoing now as part of Stage Two of the Review and that is literally ongoing as we speak. I think and hope the plan is for that to be done and signed off in every way by the end of the recess, and I have not heard otherwise, but it really is part of that process and I am not party to that at this stage. With my ministerial colleagues, I guess I will be at the tail end of that when the Review reports, but it would be entirely wrong for me to speculate about that given that this process is unfolding.

  33. In terms of your own position, how do you see you categorising strategic sites?
  34. (Mr NcNulty) Well, in essence, and I know there are kind of two or three definitions, but, in essence, I would see strategic sites in terms of EP's holdings as those that may in the future assist the Government in the pursuit of its objective, be it housing, employment or any of the other areas that are outlined. I think that is a fair distinction. I think that is a useful distinction, but it is one which hopefully will be seen in all its glory when Stage Two reports.

  35. You did indicate that we should be looking forward and not backward, but sometimes it is best to look backward to move forward, and it is very clear that if you do not start to invest in the assets, as they are assets at present, in the future these assets become liabilities and very clearly the evidence that we have and indeed what I see for myself on a daily basis in my constituency is that these assets are very quickly turning into liabilities and it is all down to the fact that they never got to the levels of populations that were predicted as being necessary to be able to bring about a complete community. Just exactly what would your opinion be as to what could be done to be able to overcome that obvious problem?
  36. (Mr NcNulty) Well, I think you are exactly right in the sense that those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. I accept that entirely and hopefully as part of the Review and the wider context of looking at new towns, those lessons will be learned. Just given the nature and disparity, although you can put them in, I guess, clusters around age and geographic locations and things like that, I suspect there are lessons, harsh lessons to be learned almost on a new-town-by-new-town basis. The key now in terms of going forward is for English Partnerships and development agencies and all the assorted partners to look at the new towns that are in difficulty on a case-by-case basis, literally history-by-history basis, and work out within their own localities how to take things forward to regenerate those areas. That is why in the broader context of our plans for urban regeneration anyway, but also in the specific locality, that is happening. You have heard some examples, Woodside, Telford and stuff like that, and Castlefields up in Warrington, I think, where Horton Borough Council, RSLs and the housing corporation are all working together. Is it happening too slowly? That is always in some cases a fair charge, but is it happening and is there progress in the right direction? I think there certainly is.

  37. Can I just take you to another aspect of this because there are differences between Scotland and England. I am not suggesting for a minute that in five weeks you will have been able to get yourself to Scotland to look at the differences ----
  38. (Mr NcNulty) I nearly did, funnily enough.

  39. Well, you are going to be looking at the comparators of what has happened in Scotland and what has happened in the rest of the United Kingdom, I presume.
  40. (Mr NcNulty) Well, even though my brief is pretty well exclusively England, absolutely. It was kind of an aside, but I was very close to popping up to Dundee to see some very good work on a family enhancement-type programme, anti-social behaviour and all that sort of thing with one of my other departmental hats on, so I am more than happy to cross the border if it means visiting good practice and not reinventing the wheel, but to see how the Scots have made things work in ways that we might learn down here and I am sure there are plenty.

  41. I will tell my local press that you are coming to Cunninghame.
  42. (Mr McNulty) You can tell them but do not give them a date.

    Christine Russell

  43. Minister, can I ask you to speculate on when there will be progress on the transfer of these non-strategic sites to local authorities?
  44. (Mr McNulty) I would hope as soon after the completion of the second stage review as is practicable.

  45. You will not be drawn more precisely than that?
  46. (Mr McNulty) I do not know what is in the second stage of the review or the quantum of strategic sites versus non-strategic sites, so it would be unfair to put

    any firm timetable on it. Is there anything more to add to that?

    (Mr Houston) No. The aim would be to effect the transfers as early as possible. I must point out that the conclusion of the first stage was that the transfers should be to the most appropriate body which might not in every case be the local authority.


  47. Can you give us one or two for instances of people other than the local authority who might be appropriate?
  48. (Mr Houston) In a purely theoretical way the Regional Development Agency could be a transferee. I just thought I ought to make that point to the Committee. I fully support the Minister, the aim is to do it as quickly as possible. The aim is to do it as quickly as possible but you will appreciate that these matters involving finance and legal issues do take time.

    Christine Russell

  49. So how much progress are you making on drawing up what the level of liabilities will be and what balancing packages will go with the liabilities when you transfer to local authorities or these other third parties?
  50. (Mr Houston) A lot of work is going on by English Partnerships, I understand, into looking at the exact nature and size of the liabilities and the assets.

  51. Can I ask you about the transfer of planning powers to local authorities because that has already been agreed. Is it not a bit irrational? Why can you not just transfer the planning powers now to local authorities? Why has that got to be gradual?
  52. (Mr McNulty) Because that would prejudge what is a strategic site and what is not a strategic site, so you cannot do that globally and overnight. That really is something that will emerge fairly swiftly after the second stage of the review. If you transfer planning powers now universally then you may be - I do not know because, again, this is in the realms of speculation - undermining the whole notion of why they are strategic sites in the first place.


  53. If they are strategic and there is agreed action for it, the local authority is not going to refuse planning permission. There are lots of sites which Regional Development Agencies have at the moment that still require planning permission from the relevant local authority.
  54. (Mr McNulty) That may well be the case but nonetheless it prejudges and presumes the outcome of the second stage of the review and I do not think that is appropriate.

    Mr Betts

  55. Minister, as part of the review will you be looking at the possibility of ending the clawback arrangements? If it is not part of this review are you prepared to review that?
  56. (Mr McNulty) I am not entirely sure if it is part of this review. I do not think it is, is it? These are largely Treasury driven things.

    (Mr Houston) It is.

    (Mr McNulty) It is? You answer it then.

    (Mr Houston) The answer is yes.

    (Mr McNulty) As I indicated earlier there will be, I am pretty sure, a will, where appropriate in exceptional circumstances - I suppose they will throw in phrases like that - to waive that clawback if that is part of the overall package in terms of an agreed way forward for a particular area. I am not saying by any means that is going to happen in nine out of ten cases but it is important to know that provision is there in exceptional cases.

  57. As a matter of basic principle is there not a recognition in Government that the operation of clawback will be linked with the basic principle of best value because if you look at what is best for the site and how you might address it, you might find you cannot fund the regeneration that is necessary because the bit you sold off, the resources do not come back for regeneration, they go in the clawback. Is that not a real problem, that the best use is not being made of land in all cases because of that?
  58. (Mr McNulty) As I say, that is part of the review. If there are real exceptional circumstances like that where the clawback is essentially the difference between a significant regeneration, refurbishment, modernisation project or whatever else happening or not then it is something we will look at very, very seriously.

  59. It might be that the authorities would say "we want to sell that site and buy that one" but they cannot do it even though there is a logic because, as I said the first time, it disappears in clawback. All of those sorts of arrangements are not possible in the current circumstances.
  60. (Mr McNulty) I accept that and I think in the context of what I was saying earlier it may well be an evolutionary period and the evolution ends with best value as opposed to best consideration or best price, I am not sure. Equally, these are not value free or cost free parcels of land that we are dealing with, they come with a degree of baggage in terms of finances and in some circumstances the clawback is appropriate. I do not know on a site by site basis where that starts and where that stops, that is part of the process that the review is going through now. I would not say absolutely 100 per cent, which one senses is the view of the Committee, clawback is horrible and nasty and just gets in the way of things. In terms of the history of each of these on a site by site basis it may well be appropriate in terms of community assets that have been passed on and all those sorts of other elements in the history of each particular site. They might be appropriate. I would hope that we do get to a position post the second stage of the review when we are looking, as I know the Committee wants, very, very seriously, at how to go about the regeneration and all the other elements we are talking about, to look at those aspects when we are passing up projects for particular projects to go forward with the regeneration of the new towns, that a review of clawback and how that fits in is part of the process. That is not to say it is going to be written off every time, I do not want to leave that impression, but it needs to be looked at.

  61. You talked a few minutes ago about the new towns being grown up. Do you think they can be grown up organisations when they have all got the covenants that still exist around the place, there are things like the situation in Harlow where English Partnerships own the subsoil so they have to be consulted about things that they should not be consulted about? I think it was Hatfield who said that EP owns the ransom strips which means they have to be consulted. Are those not matters that ought to be dealt with and cleared off the decks?
  62. (Mr McNulty) Longer term with the second stage of the review and all that is going on now, I would hope so. I think English Partnerships have heard your message and will hopefully get back to you on it. I think that is right. They need to start from the premise - I do not know what the answer to this is - are there absolutely compelling public policy reasons why English Partnerships own the subsoil.

  63. This is all part of this review?
  64. (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?


  65. 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.
  66. (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

  67. And ransom strips and covenants.
  68. (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.


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

    Mrs Ellman

  71. What is the case for a continuing role for a national body in new towns?
  72. (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.

  73. What does the Government plan to do to help Skelmersdale?
  74. (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 effective 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.

  75. Should the title "new towns" be dropped?
  76. (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

  77. 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?
  78. (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 depredation 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

  79. 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.
  80. (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 stuff, 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.


  81. 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?
  82. (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

  83. 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?
  84. (Mr McNulty) I think I said English Partnerships and all other agencies, the Development Agency and anyone else that is around.

  85. The Department is going to take a view on that as well?
  86. (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

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

  89. 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?
  90. (Mr McNulty) Back to your first question, or whether it was your first two or your first three questions rolled into the first question.

  91. Design principles.
  92. (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.

  93. What about planning out crime?
  94. (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.


  95. 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?
  96. (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?
  98. (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.


  99. 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.
  100. (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.

  101. 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.
  102. (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.

    Chris Grayling

  103. We have two very specific concerns as a Committee. If you look at the areas where abandonment has begun, the properties are changing hands for very small amounts of money. The level of Housing Benefit does not reflect anything like a sensible yield on the investment that the landlord is making in the property. There is no actual reason why if a property is selling for under 5,000 the state should be spending 2,000 a year to rent it for someone. That seems to be a flaw in the system. The other element, which was a recommendation of the Empty Homes Report, is I think general licensing of every private landlord across the country would be an absolute nightmare for every local authority and completely undesirable. What you need to do is to give individual authorities the flexibility to introduce a scheme of licensing for those landlords who are expecting to take on tenants who depend on benefits. If the authority and the state is paying the bill they have a reasonable right to set an expectation on the type of property and quality of property that their money is paying for. Those are the two elements that we would like to see addressed.
  104. (Mr McNulty) The first element is Work and Pensions, again not my concern. That is not to be pernickety with the Committee, it is simply not my role to speculate about what may or may not ----

  105. You have the ability to make representations to colleagues.
  106. (Mr McNulty) In the context of what develops and prevails in housing, regeneration and planning and how it impacts on other Government departments then I will be talking to other Government departments, but suffice to say it is Work and Pensions. On the second, as I understand it, the initial thing we are trying to do, and as I say hopefully as soon as possible, is on a selective basis license. Where I think the difficulty in that is - I have read it but do not have the whole thing grasped by any means so if this is wrong I will certainly let the Committee know - if we do that universally it is a nightmare, an absolute nightmare, because with all these things universally you start from the other end and see what should be excluded and it just becomes a complete nightmare, so you have to select. The difficulty we have at the moment is defining under statute how you select and how you link it into the benefit system and all that you said about that sort of cross-fertilisation or relationship between the value of housing and benefits. That may be a way to go and if it is I will explore it and I will get back to this Committee or, I suspect, to cover myself, its successor body. The gist of the answer is that in terms of legislation it is easy to say in local communities where X percentage or whatever else are abandoned, empty, and there is clearly something significant going on with sinister overtones because the same landlords, criminality or otherwise, are involved we will selectively license those private landlords to take a grip because the area, the estate or whatever else, has reached X degree of depredation. That is easier and then coming back to the bit in the middle which is picking up pockets like Woodside and Telford. I think that is right but if it is not I will certainly get back to the individual Member or Chairman.


  107. There is one other issue you should be looking at and that is the remit of the Rent Officers. One of the problems that was put to us in Telford was that the Rent Officers were looking at the whole of Telford in setting what were appropriate rents and therefore they were taking into account the more affluent parts of northern Telford and making a judgment about the rent on the basis of the whole area. If they made a judgment about the rents that were appropriate in some of those more difficult areas the rents would have been considerably lower and the system would not have been ripped off quite so much.
  108. (Mr McNulty) I will certainly look at that. I think there is a lesson in that generally when you are getting down to real micro levels of doing things on a small area based focus than either ward, borough or district level. I think that is an area that does need looking at I would say, at the risk of a bolt coming from the sky, across Government rather than simply in this area.

  109. You do not need to worry about a bolt from the sky.
  110. (Mr McNulty) Oh, I do. I can assure you I do.

  111. The Deputy Prime Minister told us three and a half years ago that Housing Benefit was a shambles. There is some recognition in the Department that there are problems there.
  112. (Mr McNulty) I hope, and I am sure he does, that he remembers that.

    Chairman: We will remind him.

    Chris Grayling

  113. The other area I want to raise with you, Minister, is many of the new towns have got small local authorities. Just down to simple things like the number of people in the planning department, for example, it does put significant pressure on them. Do you think there are any ways in which the Department can provide a back-up to them to enable them to meet some of the challenges that being a new town authority represents?
  114. (Mr McNulty) Underlying that, which I was hoping given I have still to read the glory that is your report, is all that we may or may not do in terms of the Planning Green Paper in our legislative response to it and in response to the consultation. In the broader sense, not just new towns but in the widest possible sense, more and more again across the public policy field, as and where appropriate and if we need to make changes they should be looked at, local authorities should not live simply within their own mindset or their own administrative boundaries. That is happening in some regards. It is certainly happening in terms of some London local authorities, which clearly I know more about than others, where solutions to affordable housing are now being done on a two or three borough basis as a specific and appropriate and efficient public policy response. It may well be that needs to happen in terms of the new towns in a wider response. It may well be something that needs to be looked at in the context of whatever we come up with in terms of the Green Paper and where that goes, which I am sure will be done with the full cognisance and appreciation of your Committee's report on the Planning Green Paper which I confess I have not read yet.

    Christine Russell

  115. Minister, as you personally are fully aware there is huge demand for housing, particularly in the South East. What is your opinion on whether or not some of these new towns that you have mentioned at the start can actually absorb some of that housing growth?
  116. (Mr McNulty) Again, I think the answer is some can but that is couched because we will very much get a steer on that not just from Regional Planning Guidance 9, which talks about some of the corridors that should be included in the development, not just because of constant and ongoing repetition in terms of London and the South-East, Thames Gateway and all that entails, but because strategic sites versus non-strategic sites in the context of the actual review will give some indication that that might be appropriate. Hand on heart, is development of housing over the next ten years to try and solve London's and the South-East's problems going to include some of the new towns? I would be astonished if it did not.


  117. And a new new town?
  118. (Mr McNulty) Let us see.

    Christine Russell

  119. The other observation we came back with from our site visits was these vast expanses of green spaces which were obviously very costly to maintain.
  120. (Mr McNulty) Is that the countryside or green spaces in new towns?

  121. If you take a new town like Telford, which essentially is isolated pockets of development with vast spaces between them, what is your view on building on a few of these green spaces, perhaps to meet local affordable housing needs?
  122. (Mr McNulty) In Telford's context I am certainly not going to tell Telford what to do with the bits in-between or how to project into the future. There is clearly a role, given the land holdings there, for EP. I would be astonished if there was not at least the odd strategic site that emerged from phase two of the review in that particular context. That is not to prejudge anything but from the little I know about it. Our starting point is always, and has been, the brown field sites, the urban fringe and then you look. Do you rule it out forever, filling in some of the green bits? I do not think you do. I do not think you are serving the community or the town or the dynamism of the whole urban economic community and doing it any favours by saying everything green at the moment is redlined, that is not doing anybody any favours. In one sense, if you do look at those after you have gone through brown field and some of the more obvious locations, filling in perhaps some of those with new build that preserves the greater green fringe around the edge of some of the towns. There are quid pro quos involved.

  123. Even though that will offend the purists from the new town movement?
  124. (Mr McNulty) The purists, I do not know who they are and I have never met them but I am sure they are there because they are there in every walk of life.

  125. We met them in Harlow.
  126. (Mr McNulty) The purists, if they have a real affection for the new towns, need to live and grow with the new towns over the next ten, 15 years. New towns are not there as museums or historical heritage sites, they are there as living, vibrant communities and we want them to remain that way and grow and develop and prosper.

  127. Many consider them to be part of the post-war socialist dream.
  128. (Mr McNulty) Hopefully you do not lose some of those elements. Hopefully you do not lose some of the key elements that make particularly some of the immediate post-'41s distinct. Please do not take that as Minister suggests locally and nationally listing everything in the town centres of some of the key new towns of the immediate post-war period, because I am not, but if you can, as ever in urban scapes, preserve some of that heritage but live and grow as communities and urban centres need to, then that is perfectly fine.


  129. I think Stan Newins on behalf of the Harlow Civic Society would be very pleased to see some protection for the green wedges in Harlow.
  130. (Mr McNulty) Maybe so. In the first instance, with all due deference to Stan, that is a matter for Harlow and Stan as part of the stakeholder community or whatever in Harlow.

    Mr Betts

  131. Finally, in the strategic review of English Partnerships, is one of the things you are looking at possibly the winding up of English Partnerships up and giving their assets to local authorities or the RDAs? People have said to us repeatedly what is the purpose of the body now that we have other organisations.
  132. (Mr McNulty) As I understand the framework or good practice for the development of Quinquennial Reviews that is phase one and if after phase one you accept there is a rationale, a raison d'etre, a purpose, a mission, for this particular non-departmental public body you move on to phase two. In that sense that has been asked and answered and we are now into phase two.

  133. So English Partnerships is there for the foreseeable future?
  134. (Mr McNulty) I guess, yes. It depends how you define "foreseeable" or "future". I would hope it will be given that phase one has been determined. Does "foreseeable future" mean to act in the way it has done in the last three years, five years, ten years, I would hope not because the essence and excitement of this whole area - housing, regeneration planning, all of it - is it is forward, it is dynamic, it has to react to the environments within which it works and grow and take all the elements with it. If English Partnerships or any other element in the partnership is not doing that then that is troublesome but from what I have heard, meetings and discussions I have had, they are about forging those partnerships and taking everything forward.

  135. Recognising that some of the non-strategic sites may go back to local authorities or whatever, what can English Partnerships do on strategic sites that the RDAs could not do?
  136. (Mr McNulty) In that sense I do not know, show me the strategic sites, because you are back to what are they.

  137. As a matter of principle surely the RDAs were created for that purpose?
  138. (Mr McNulty) I do not think they were created to take over the strategic sites as defined by the second stage of the Quinquennial Review into English Partnerships.

  139. They should be capable of doing the work.
  140. (Mr McNulty) I would guess so but English Partnerships must bring something else to the table. What they bring to the table will be defined by whether we agree or not with their strategic sites and the whole undercurrent of stage two of the review.

    Chris Grayling: There are some specific sites, such as the Omega site in Warrington which as far as I am aware is still undeveloped which has been classified for a number of years as being a potential major inward investment site in the North West. Therefore, in that case, it is obvious there is linkage with the RDA.

    Mr Betts

  141. Why can RDAs not deal with that?
  142. (Mr McNulty) Because EP, CNT and URA before it, that existed before they did, have got a whole bunch of land holdings and we have a national set of policy objectives that we want to fulfil. I think, as has been said, in some cases non-strategic sites may well go to the RDA. I would think in most cases, if not all cases, development of the strategic sites will be within the context of a partnership with the RDA and whether the local authorities are concerned. We decided at the first stage of the review that there is a future, especially in terms of brown field development, for English Partnerships. The second stage is now looking at the strategic dimension for that and what sites they should own. It is not as simple as strategic sites EP still have a role, non-strategic sites they do not.


  143. It could be argued that the strategic review of English Partnerships stage one was carried out by a Minister who had perhaps slightly less sympathy for the Regional Development Agency than the Deputy Prime Minister. Since the Deputy Prime Minister is now responsible for it, might it not be that he might feel that the Regional Development Agency should be playing a bigger role in this?
  144. (Mr McNulty) That is so entirely mischievous and laced with speculation that I am not going to answer it, with the best will in the world, because it would ask for an opinion on previous colleagues, an opinion on existing colleagues and an opinion on, at least as I count, three governmental agencies. I have been here four weeks - pass.

  145. On that note, can I thank you very much for your evidence. Perhaps I can offer you a copy of our report on the Planning Green Paper which I am sure will make some nice lunchtime reading for you.

(Mr McNulty) It will not because I have got to go to the Adjournment Debate in Westminster Hall, but thank you anyway, I shall certainly read it.

Chairman: Thank you.