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14 Jan 1998 : Column 458


Queen's recommendation having been signified--

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 52(1)(a),



(1) the matter of priorities in education in Northern Ireland, being a matter relating exclusively to Northern Ireland, be referred to the Northern Ireland Grand Committee for its consideration.
(2) At the sitting on Thursday 29th January:
(i) the Committee shall take questions for oral answer pursuant to Standing Order No. 110 (Northern Ireland Grand Committee (questions for oral answer)) and shall then consider, pursuant to Standing Order No. 114 (Northern Ireland Grand Committee (legislative proposals and other matters relating exclusively to Northern Ireland)) the matter referred to it under paragraph (1) above; and
(ii) at the completion of those proceedings, a Motion for the adjournment of the Committee may be made by a Minister of the Crown, pursuant to Standing Order No. 116(1)(H) (Northern Ireland Grand Committee (Sittings)).--[Mr. Allen.]

14 Jan 1998 : Column 459

Teesside Development Corporation

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Allen.]

10.30 pm

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East): I am grateful for the opportunity of this short debate. One of the flagships of the so-called Thatcher revolution was the creation of the urban development corporations. They were designed to re-create the industrial strength and vitality of Britain's manufacturing heartland and to recast the nation's self-image along impeccably Thatcherite lines.

Now, 10 years on, we can see that they were, if anything, what could be called Potemkin flagships--a glossy and frequently imposing facade hiding a history of often inappropriate and threadbare achievement. The picture is becoming apparent only now, as those bodies come to the end of their lives and the reality of audit and actual achievement are laid bare.

I have asked for the debate because the urban development corporation covering my area, Teesside, is coming to the end of its life. Many of us are concerned that there are skeletons in the cupboard of the Teesside development corporation--skeletons of possible liabilities and possible problems for our local authorities and the residuary body. We must calm those fears or take action to deal with the problems.

Among a number of damning reports that have been made public in the past year were the findings of the National Audit Office when it investigated the affairs of the now defunct Bristol and Leeds UDCs. In both cases the National Audit Office found serious problems: in the case of Leeds, problems with land deals in the Kirkstall area that led to accusations of double standards and murky behaviour on the part of individuals in the Leeds UDC; in the case of Bristol, problems relating to standards of infrastructure provision, the late processing of compulsory purchase orders, bad record keeping and cost monitoring and a bill to the then Department of the Environment for £4.9 million to clear up the mess.

As a result of that debacle, the National Audit Office submitted a report dated 28 February last year to the House of Commons and the then Secretary of State for the Environment in which it recommended a number of actions that it considered essential in all future wind-ups of UDCs.

The NAO recommended, in summary, that all UDCs should provide the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions with a risk assessment examining the likelihood of winding-up tasks not being completed and identifying strategies for the management of outstanding tasks; that all existing UDCs should ensure that document storage and retrieval systems are of a high standard, that files should not be destroyed and that after wind-up reliable records should be available for the location of every file; and that UDCs should consult widely on future regeneration proposals and pay more attention to the transfer of knowledge on the development opportunities of each site.

I mention those recommendations because they are central to my concerns about the present situation in regard to the winding up of what has been called Mrs. Thatcher's favourite UDC, the Teesside urban development corporation.

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The TDC is, in terms of the land that it covers, the largest of the urban development corporations. In its decade of existence, it has sponsored many schemes and it has certainly made its mark locally through its lavish advertising and public relations budget. I do not want to be entirely negative about the TDC and the projects that it has sponsored. Some projects, such as the one that set up the joint university college of Teesside and Durham universities at a site in Stockton and the creation of the Hartlepool marina have been welcomed in Hartlepool, Stockton and elsewhere on Teesside.

However, once the PR hype and the trumpet fanfares ceased to echo, other schemes failed to emerge or were highly controversial and faced opposition. In that context, I cite three developments. The first is the massive Teesside Park out-of-town shopping centre. It was vigorously opposed by the local authorities at the time and has had to be countered by the use of state funds through city challenge to safeguard high street shopping in Stockton.

Secondly, plans for a massive hypermarket on the old Middlesbrough dockside--which created much hostility among planners, a neighbouring local authority and other town centre retailers--have now been called in by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister. Prior to the call-in, the promotion of the scheme at the planning stage was so badly handled by the TDC that a successful appeal to the High Court found that the corporation was, in the words of Mr. Justice Sedley, guilty of

Referring to the fact that he would have to direct the TDC to reassess the application, Mr. Justice Sedley said:

    "if it were a bench of justices that had erred, I would direct that the decision be taken by a fresh bench."

Mr. Justice Sedley regretted that that was not possible in this context.

Thirdly, it is widely known in the region that the TDC was unwilling or unable to produce a full business plan to support Millennium Commission funding for a proposed tall ships centre for the Middlesbrough docks area. That has led to considerable delays to a scheme that has much public support.

It is a well-known fact of life on Teesside that the TDC and particularly the corporation's chief executive, Duncan Hall, are difficult to deal with. It is also a well-known fact that many Teesside local authorities, both past and present, have found it difficult to work constructively with the TDC. It is well known in the corridors of power and in the Teesside business community that it is difficult to achieve joint working with the corporation unless it is on its terms. It is well known among the local media that it is well nigh impossible to obtain detailed information from the TDC--indeed, a regional Sunday newspaper recently described the TDC as a "secretive" body.

I must inform the House that there is an almost complete lack of confidence on Teesside in the Teesside development corporation's willingness to achieve, or interest in achieving, a wind-up in the spirit of the advice from the National Audit Office. The secrecy of the corporation is also giving rise to fears among local authorities on Teesside that many cash liabilities may be hidden in the woodwork. Those liabilities may become apparent only long after the corporation has been consigned to its grave and the present

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massive PR campaign is long forgotten. I would like to know the cost of the "long goodbye" that we seem to see every half hour on regional television at present.

The National Audit Office argued persuasively that there should be full and wide disclosure of regeneration possibilities with legatee bodies--principally the local authorities of the area that the UDC covers--and the designated residuary body, the revamped Commission for the New Towns. Those arguments have been accepted by the Labour Government--they were also accepted by the previous Government--and they have been incorporated in the advice of the Department of the Environment and that of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions to the urban development corporations. I understand that, unfortunately, to date, there have been only minor discussions with many of the local authorities on Teesside. I understand also that they have been mainly technical, relating to the transfer of planning applications files, planning agreements and details of highway adaptations.

There has been little or no discussion on important issues such as key regeneration matters--issues our local authorities have had to dovetail with their own work. These are issues that I have written about in letters to my hon. Friend the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning.

The scale of the refusal to deal in a meaningful way with Teesside's local authorities is summed up in a report that went to members of Middlesbrough borough council on 16 December last year. The report, written by the council's chief economic development planning officer, stated:

The report adds, astonishingly, that the council's officers

    "have been unable to obtain any detailed information of plans or proposals that may have been drawn up by the TDC for future regeneration as this is being handled exclusively by the TDC's Chief Executive."

This is a level of secrecy that smacks more of the inner chambers of a Medici princeling than of a public body set up by statute and spending public money.

The report continues in terms of the council's future policy plan. It states:

I am told by senior council officers on Teesside that the secrecy of the TDC on these matters is affecting the ability of our local authorities to bid properly and effectively for European structural fund cash for the preparation of strategic sites for new, or potential, inward investors. That is money that will now go elsewhere.

It could be said that Middlesbrough council has been somewhat lucky in having the TDC talk to it at all. Another local authority body on Teesside, the Tees Valley joint strategy committee--a body set up by statute following the passing of the statutory order for local government reorganisation for Teesside--has been entirely ignored. The JSC is not a local government body of whim. I repeat that it is a creature of statute that is made up of serving

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councillors from all the boroughs in the former Cleveland area and from Darlington, and it is entrusted with all matters relating to strategic planning issues.

The JSC has been trying to set up meetings with the TDC for over a year now to discuss winding-up matters in the overarching strategic context. It has had its requests constantly and adamantly refused by the TDC's chief executive and no logical reasons given for the refusals.

The need for consultation with the JSC is vital. It is now in the midst of preparations for the drafting of the new Tees Valley structure plan which, to be robust, needs to be based on knowledge of, and insight into, the development proposals of the TDC.

There are other matters that need to be discussed with Teesside's local authorities. Above all, we need from the Department an honest statement on the risk assessment of the TDC projects. I am particularly concerned about completed large infrastructure projects such as the river Tees barrage.

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