Examination of Witnesses (Questions 49-59)
MR TONY MCNULTY, MR PAUL HOUSTON AND MR PETER ELLIS
WEDNESDAY 3 JULY 2002
49. Can I welcome you to the Committee and can I ask you to identify yourselves and your team for the record please.
(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 ill in bed unfortunately.
(Mr Houston) I am Paul Houston from the Urban Policy Unit, responsible for various regeneration programmes.
50. Right, do you want to say anything by way of introduction or are you happy to go straight to questions?
(Mr NcNulty) I do have a brief opening statement.
51. Okay, we are happy to have a brief opening statement.
(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 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.
52. 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?
(Mr NcNulty) In my current capacity or previous capacities?
53. Any capacity.
(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.
54. 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?
(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.
55. 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.
(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.
56. 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?
(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.
57. 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?
(Mr Houston) It would be logical, yes.
58. 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?
(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 walking 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 walking 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 Corby 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 had 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.
59. 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?
(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 pre-empt 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 occasionaly supra-regional context. Whether that journey ends with best value or not I think will be entirely presumptive of me to say.