Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 1-19)




  1. Can I welcome you to the Committee for the continuation of our inquiry into the Urban White Paper. Could I ask you to introduce your team for the record, please?

  (Mr Prescott) Yes. First of all, Chairman, can I start with an apology that I was not able to come here in December. As you know, I was doing Prime Minister's Questions, so it was not possible for that. I must say perhaps I have not been as well briefed as I would like with the bereavement in my family, and I have the funeral tomorrow, but I have two or three very good people who know all the answers in these areas and who will endeavour to give the best answers possible to the Committee. I have, on my right, Paul Evans, who is the Director of the Urban Policy Unit in the Department. Of course, Hilary Armstrong, who is the Minister for Local Government and Regions, who was before your Committee yesterday. And, of course, Nick Raynsford, who is the Minister of State for Housing, Planning and Construction. If I can I would just like to make one or two quick points before we come to the questioning. The Urban White Paper was published, of course, within a week or so of the Rural White Paper. That was because we do believe that the principles apply to both rural and urban, but you need to apply them in a different way and that was why we had two separate White Papers. We had some exchanges on that at the last meeting. Chairman, all the people who live in these areas deserve good quality services and facilities, and that is the design of the Urban White Paper, as indeed the Rural White Paper. They have fundamental similarities but there is a particular relationship between the cities and the suburbs as there is between the market towns and villages and surrounding hinterland. They are the sorts of factors that we have tried to recognise and are common to both documents. As the Committee will know, the Chancellor did announce an extra 33 billion a year for key services by 2003-04, which is the important point of our approach. It is not just economic regeneration we are concerned about, as indeed the Committee has often commented on, it is the importance of the social investment in facilities in both urban and rural areas. Indeed, that will help people throughout the country. The National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal, which I was launching with my ministers and, indeed, the Prime Minister a week or so ago will help people in deprived areas. Those are the areas we are trying particularly to target. The Urban White Paper is much more than about money, it is a very comprehensive paper which cuts right across my Department and, indeed, the whole of Government. I can recall in previous questions that you were concerned that we did address ourselves to joined-up Government and delivering in a more comprehensive way than simply just in a departmental way. It is our first policy statement about towns and cities for more than a generation and it is about what we want our urban communities to look like and how we want to live and it reflects our long-term commitment to towns and cities and, indeed, takes on a great deal of the advice that you made in your own recommendations to us in the preparation for that Urban White Paper. I am grateful for your Select Committee Report on our Urban White Paper and I hope you feel that your concerns are properly reflected in that White Paper. It also follows very many of the recommendations of Lord Rogers' Urban Task Force, not every recommendation, and we could perhaps follow that if you like, some we adopted, some we did not, some we did in a different way, but the broad thrust of it and the majority of the recommendations we have put into the White Paper. The new Cabinet Committee on Urban Affairs, which will see to the implementation of this White Paper, did meet last week under the chairmanship of Hilary. Fully realising the potential of our towns and cities does depend on partnership. We are spending a great deal of time and effort in emphasising partnership between Government, local authorities and other agencies and with local people. Frankly, without that we admit that we would not be able to achieve the kind of urban renaissance that we have set out in our White Paper. I thank you for that opportunity to say a few words.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed.

Mr Donohoe

  2. What plans does the Government have to now introduce an Urban Bill?
  (Mr Prescott) This was, indeed, one of the recommendations of Lord Rogers. We looked very carefully at it and I think we discussed it also at the last meeting of the Committee. We have rather taken the view that we have not accepted that we need an Urban Bill but that is not to say we will not have legislation. There were changes that were recommended, for example, on local authority financing that we will have in the Local Authority Finance Bill. There are some recommendations about housing that we have already got and are dealing with in our present Housing Bill. The transport plans, of course, and the commitment of resources to the Ten Year Transport Plan again has already been dealt with in a separate piece of legislation which we have already passed through the House. All in all we have taken the view that a lot of the work that was suggested to be in an Urban Bill is done in other legislation. The other main consideration is we have set very comprehensive targets in all of these areas and those targets are the ones that we expect and will be measuring against and, therefore, that can start now and not be delayed by the period of a new Urban Bill, and we will want to check it. We have committed ourselves to the kind of Urban Summit that will take place next year and we have promised a review of all of these activities to be printed and assessed within a five year period. Putting those things together, we are not convinced that the way is to go for a separate Urban Bill. I can tell you from my past experience of the first Government, it is always difficult getting pieces of legislation you want and then you are forever criticised by it. I am pleased to see we are well on the way with different pieces of legislation and targets to achieve those objectives.

  3. Are you confident in these circumstances that you will be able to implement the very good recommendations within the White Paper without legislation?
  (Mr Prescott) Certainly some of the recommendations of Lord Rogers when he was talking about the Urban Bill are to make some recommendations about the financial framework and recommendations, VAT and things like that which we have discussed in this Committee before, but they will be the proper preserve of the Finance Bill anyway. I am confident that the range of things we have got at the moment will be delivering, and are delivering, and we do not have to wait for the legislation. I will be judged on that, and indeed by the examination of your Committee, at the five year examination we intend to carry out provided, of course, we are elected at the next election.

  4. So you will be back in five years to tell us how successful or otherwise it has been?
  (Mr Prescott) That is a much more difficult question to answer. Let me say the Department will have that responsibility.

  5. If we look at what is going to be the case in three years' time, what will have changed? If you look three years down the road, what will have changed?
  (Mr Prescott) If you are asking me at this point in time what changes I thought there would have been three years ago, I would have thought we would have been advanced in some areas and not in others, so it is difficult but let me make a start. If we look at the amount of resources we are putting into the housing area and for refurbishment, we will get major advances in there but we want to tie that to a real improvement of the built environment, which the Committee has constantly been concerned about. So we are looking for a decent type of housing in a built environment where the public services are of high quality and it is sustainable, and to deliver this we have had to do the planning changes that Nick has been involved in, things like housing, regeneration, the Millennium Villages that we are doing at the moment which will deliver a high quality standard of living. I hope also that we will be able to see an awful lot more of the brown land in our cities coming on stream and houses being built on it and less people coming out of the cities because they do not like living in the city either because the housing is not available or, indeed, the education is poor or crime is too high. We have to change those factors to begin that movement back. I do believe, and our policy will be judged on this, that more people do want to live in the towns and cities if we continue to make them attractive.

  6. Do you not think as part of that that it would be sensible to beef up what the powers are as far as compulsory purchase is concerned?
  (Mr Prescott) I think that is a very important point. Nick is very much involved in the review of compulsory purchase. It is something that any of us looking at urban development in towns and cities know is a very tiresome and difficult problem. Perhaps Nick could give you an idea of how far we have advanced on making those changes in compulsory purchase or making it more effective for local authorities and private bodies to be able to do something in the towns where with private properties there it is difficult to deal with at the moment.
  (Mr Raynsford) We have been in very detailed discussion with the Law Commission about a pretty fundamental change to the existing legislation affecting compulsory purchase. It is complex, it is very detailed, and it requires very thorough analysis if you do not want to end up with legislation which is unsatisfactory or contains new anomalies. That will take time and will require a lot of work. In the meantime, we have put considerable emphasis on helping authorities to streamline the procedures and to get through the processes with less red tape than sometimes applies under the current system. We will go on working at that because land assembly, particularly in urban areas, is important as a component to regeneration. Helping local government work together with the private sector to assure assembly of sites located for regeneration is obviously an important part of that business of rebuilding confidence in cities.

  7. If somebody objected to their property being subject to compulsory purchase at the present time that timescale is fairly long and in some cases it takes up to five years. What would you say that you will be able to achieve on the basis of what you are going to do?
  (Mr Raynsford) You will appreciate that the range of circumstances are so enormously wide that it would be impossible to give an average figure because the purchase of one or two individual properties is usually a very much quicker process than assembling a large site with a mixed bag of residential and commercial properties. There is no possible average but it is certainly our objective to speed the process up while at the same time respecting the right of the individual to receive proper compensation and, if necessary, to challenge an unwelcome Compulsory Purchase Order.

  8. Can you give me one example of how you expect to speed this up?
  (Mr Raynsford) In the first place by ensuring that local authorities are familiar with the procedures. A number have simply lost expertise over the last few years because compulsory purchase has not been the same part of their repertoire of activities as it was in the 1960s and 1970s when compulsory purchase was a fairly common occurrence. One element is ensuring that local authorities, either themselves or through links with other neighbouring authorities, have the expertise as to how to deal expeditiously with the quite complex processes they have to go through. That is something that can be done on the basis of guidance. Changes to the law, through our discussions with the Law Commission, obviously will take longer but that will help to speed things up in the longer term.


  9. Do you feel that there might be some problems of compatibility with the human rights legislation on compulsory purchase, or do you feel that area is perfectly safe?
  (Mr Raynsford) No-one in my position would say that anything relating to the Human Rights Act was perfectly safe because clearly there are very wide ranging implications. I did stress that the improvements that we want to see are subject to proper consideration of the rights of individuals to receive proper compensation and, if they wish to object, to object to the serving of a Compulsory Purchase Order. Those principles we are absolutely wedded to. I believe as long as we do maintain that, that the approach we are adopting is entirely compatible with the principles of the Human Rights Act.

  Chairman: Thank you.

Mr Donohoe

  10. If I can change the subject somewhat. Does the Government propose to take steps to prevent out-of-town business parks and office developments and all of these out-of-town stores we are seeing? If you really mean business as far as the White Paper is concerned one would expect that you would.
  (Mr Prescott) I think if we make the first comparison with the previous administration as to how many out-of-town shopping centres there are, there has been a complete collapse in the number of new out of town centres being built. There has been an unnecessary feeling expressed in the last few months as to whether other retailers were coming in, big store people, and were going to develop outside town centres. We have made it clear that is not acceptable and we have changed our planning arrangements to make that clear and Nick has been dealing with that. We do recognise that we are quite prepared in some circumstances where there may be a mix of housing and building that we can consider out-of-town. The Newcastle one is a good example. The Sage computer people, software, wanted to develop there but they also wanted to be near an airport and Newcastle wanted to develop new housing. We have been trying to adjust our planning to make it flexible to meet sustainable communities both with growth and jobs but not our policy with regard to out of town shopping development. We have turned down some difficult and controversial applications for that because often it is either wrapped up with some other particularly good project or saying "you must do this to get the social objective" and people just change those objectives. We have been quite tough in the application of those planning rules which Nick has been implementing.

  11. What initiatives are you giving to those who may not come at all if, in fact, they are not allowed to develop, particularly on the office side, out of town? Is there any initiative, any incentive given to those who may be coming from abroad?
  (Mr Prescott) For an out of town area or a greenfield area the incentive is very clear there, you try to discourage them because it works against the objective you want. There are clear decisions that have to be taken on industrial development, sometimes which whole communities are dependent upon. One is in Newbury, where the telephone company Vodafone, who were in 57 buildings said they wanted to develop in Newbury, but it would have to be outside in a greenfield site or they would go to another part of the country or to Europe. You have to make a judgment about that. Our judgment at that time was it made sense to be able to do that, to keep the community in a sustainable way, both the jobs, in a very big sense, and the community were kept as one. We have not found it necessary to offer any kind of incentives. Where I think it becomes a problem is cluster developments, which is an entirely different thing, as we have seen in Cambridge and in other areas where you see research and development. Indeed in the concentration in the Warrington area, which caused real problems with research and development there were very difficult questions about location.

  12. As far as specifics are concerned, with PPG 3 and PPG 6 there are provisions there for sequential testing of the whole question as to the sustainable locations. What plans does the Government have to provide a similar test as far as office and business sites are concerned?
  (Mr Raynsford) We have no specific proposals. We believe that the current framework, which generally encourages development in town centres, is the right approach and that is one that we have maintained. As you know, PPG 6 has been extremely effective in ensuring the re-focusing of shopping and leisure development in to town centres rather that out of central locations. With PPG 3 we are in the early stages, but there is very much a shift of emphasis towards the reuse of brownfield sites and development in existing town centres, rather than on greenfield sites. If we felt that there was a serious problem in relation to office developments I am sure we would be sympathetic to adopting a similar formal approach. At the moment it is certainly our perception that office developments, in general, are focusing predominantly in urban locations, close to appropriate transport or in business park locations, which have to be approved through the planning system. There are proper safeguards against inappropriate developments out in the countryside. Through the call-in procedures, which we apply quite rigorously, we are able to act against individual development proposals by companies seeking an out-of-town greenfield and sometimes greenbelt location which is inappropriate. Our records show that the existing powers are working effectively to achieve that objective.

  13. You will agree, will you not, there is very little point in ensuring that housing is located in urban areas when most of the jobs that are around are outside of these areas?
  (Mr Raynsford) We agree entirely. This is the purpose of the policy. The reason that we adopted a sequential approach and PPG 3 was that the existing policy was not achieving that result. Our existing policy and powers are successful at the moment in relation to office development. I said we would be happy to look at this further if there was evidence there—it was not.


  14. When you say you agree entirely, have you managed to convince the Department of Trade and Industry that this policy is right? There did appear to be constructive or, perhaps, destructive tension between the two departments; is that unfair?
  (Mr Prescott) Always constructive.

  15. Always constructive! What is going to happen with this new guidance on clusters? Is their view going to win or is your view going to win?
  (Mr Prescott) We were generally agreed when all departments came together to discuss clusters. When they were fashionable we had people coming over and saying what they were doing with clusters in these different countries. To my mind clusters have been around in economic history for the best part of 100 years. It is not a particularly new theory. What is new about it is that you plan it as a cluster and the supply industries come. You make a deliberate planning decision to achieve that. Some of them come quite naturally. If you look at the motor car industry around Silverstone, there is a tremendous development of high technology in a cluster sense. We did not have to do anything to improve that, although I think the latest application by Jaguar—I am not getting into that—wanting to go into the area, I am not going to comment on that because it will be a final decision between ourselves and the DTI. The DTI have made some announcements in the last day or so about encouraging development in these areas. They may be a bit more sceptical but they do not doubt it can be a source of growth. We want our Regional Development Agency to play a part in encouraging that where they can. Yesterday I was talking to the Regional Development Agency Chairman from the South East and he was telling me that someone he knew went to live on the Isle of Wight, he was from Australia but he married a girl from the Isle of Wight. He had been dealing with compound materials and he has now begun to produce a kind of material that the Danish wind farms are using on their propeller systems. They are building them there, but they have now found that the universities want to come and develop research. In that sense this is a concept of clusters. The Regional Development Agency can play a part in encouraging that, looking at what are the real strengths in the indigenous economies in the regions and seeking to exploit it. Clusters can play a part there. We have to leave a question mark as to whether they are highly successful. Well we can now, they are there, they have been for a while and they are an important source of growth.

  16. Are we going to be able to get the clusters on the brownfield sites or are they going to hold us to ransom and demand greenfield sites?
  (Mr Prescott) There are some cases where they are greenfield sites and they ask for more space, Cambridge is a classic example, the Wellcome Trust. The more controversial one, as I mentioned, is between Warrington and Oxford, which caused considerable controversy. We hope they will use brownfield sites, but that is an argument about making the towns and cities more attractive, whether it is easier to get in and out on transport, whether it is easy to get the houses with easy access to. Those problems are so different from town to town. London's problems on housing and transport are different than in Hull. We are knocking houses down in Hull, it is a pity we cannot transfer them directly to London.
  (Mr Raynsford) We have made it clear through our regional planning guidance that this is something which ought to be looked at through the development of regional plans. In the first one we have proved for, the East Anglia region, this has been an important feature, naturally enough with Cambridge being a magnet for development in the computer software area. We do think that is the right way for the issue of clusters to be addressed by the regional authorities working with the Regional Development Agency to ensure that they are providing for the needs of business but doing so in a sustainable way as part of the planning process.
  (Mr Prescott) Can I also say, the DTI are publishing a map of all these cluster sites, I take that as an indication that they think that it is still important to indicate to the RDAs. I was struck in Stepney last week, where we were launching the National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal, that there was a desperate shortage of teachers, there were 900 graduates in the Asian community there and no jobs for them. It means if skills are the essential requirement of any cluster industry it may well be that we begin to find with certain towns the skills are not there but not being not employed properly. That may require clusters to go where the skills are necessary to meet their demands.

  17. You want the Regional Development Agency to deal with clusters.
  (Mr Prescott) To encourage them.

  18. You talk about giving them some guidance, that presumably, is going to be planning guidance. When will that be available?
  (Mr Raynsford) It was issued in our Regional Planning Guidance, which is PPG 11, the guidance which applies to authorities when they are preparing for regional planning guidance. I mentioned the East Anglian region as the first one where there had been development of regional planning guidance and where the issue was addressed. I expect it to addressed in the other regional planning guidance as it is developed.

  19. But there is nothing more to be issued by the Government on this?
  (Mr Raynsford) No.


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