Memorandum by Halton Brook Residents Association
REVIEW OF RUNCORN NEW TOWN
This subject is long overdue for review since
the New Town concept dates back over 50 years and we don't think
a comprehensive overview has ever taken place.
Many New Towns have been highly successful but
many have failed to achieve what they set out to. New Towns were
a logical follow on to post-war overspill developments, which
had only partially tackled the chronic housing shortage. The basic
concept was to build a New Town on the periphery of an existing
community without the constraints of local interference and at
a later defined time to merge the two into one hopefully thriving
enlarged community, which would be self-sustaining.
First generation New Towns mostly in the south
of the UK had proved successful and Runcorn New Town was conceived
as one of a batch of second generation.
The following is our attempt to compare aspirations
and objectives with what has actually materialised.
Runcorn New Town was conceived in the early
sixties and legislated for within the 1964 New Towns Act. Its
planning architect was Professor Ling and comprehensive details
are contained in his Master Plans One & Two. The area within
its boundaries was almost entirely greenfield south of the existing
town of Runcorn. Professor Ling conducted major research into
the needs of the area and designed facilities to meet them. Basically
they were two-fold:
(a) to provide a dormitory for workers in the
designated employment area. Now that Runcorn Bridge was built,
this area included South Liverpool (the new Ford Halewood plant,
Triumph Motors and the associated factory estates in Speke), Ellesmere
Port to the west (Vauxhall Motors, Stanlow Refinery etc.) and
as far south as Knutsford. This was termed the "Designated
Employment Area". Workers who qualified would now be able
to live in a pleasant country environment of a New Town where
commuting facilities were well planned by public transport.
(b) to provide industrial and commercial opportunities
for new or relocated businesses to operate in pleasant, new greenfield
factories with workers living in the New Town. There were to be
9,500 new houses for social renting plus up to 5,000 new properties
for owner occupation as and when the demand developed. The first
social houses were ready for occupation in late 1966 and, in fact,
Halton Brook was the first estate to be completed on schedule.
The last social housing was handed over in 1980. Private housing
development kept pace with this progress and is still ongoing
at a reduced level. The existing factories in the designated area
were ongoing and expanding and the New Town factories were built
and new industries established to keep pace with the influx of
new population chiefly from Liverpool.
Professor Ling made it very clear that for the
aforementioned to work smoothly, a professional team of community
development specialists would be needed. This was put in place
from the commencement and headed by Miss Madge Collins OBE. They
were highly successful, closely monitoring progress and adjusting
if and when required. They established a comprehensive and workable
lettings policy that was strictly adhered to. We will not enlarge
on this aspect here but it was based on full employment for at
least one in each household plus facilities for migration of parents
of families and second generation at a later date. Alongside went
the development of community facilities on each estate, churches,
public houses, community centres, schools, ie a comprehensive
By 1980, a few rough edges excepted, Runcorn
New Town had developed into exactly what Professor Ling had set
out to achieve.
So what has gone wrong?
3. THE PROBLEMS
Under our New Towns Act 1982, was the revised
target date when the entire New Town should have been ceded to
Halton Borough Council. In 1974 Widnes and Runcorn had merged
into the new Halton under local government reform and a new political
atmosphere had developed which made the merging of a New Town
financially difficult and also bitterly opposed by the "Old
Brigade" mostly from Widnes.
Simultaneously the Thatcher/Ridley partnership
had also developed an anti-local authority complex and despite
several attempts to hand over the New Town they all ended in failure.
Progress was made even more difficult when Thatcher decided that
it could be solved by temporarily merging Warrington and Runcorn
4. THE SOLUTION
The 1988 Housing Act and the emergence of the
Housing Corporation as the principal provider, in the future,
for social housing was to be the solution. In Runcorn a consortium
of Housing Associations was formed, the New Town valued at a NIL
VALUE and a dowry package, approximately £30 million, was
provided, to carry out specific improvements identified in the
Chesterton Report. This deal had never been offered to Halton
Borough Council who, in hindsight have said they would have accepted
if it had been offered.
Simultaneously, the commercial and industrial
properties were to be sold off separately. Leaseholders could
buy freeholds, and the remainder were packaged and sold to two
property companies. Seems straightforward until the implications
are pointed out ie that under DEVCO control covenants relating
to employment of local labour were strictly enforced. Now it was
a free for all and slowly outside labour had taken over our jobs.
At the same time Halton Borough Council were expected to take
on board all of the community related assets with their associated
costs. This was vigorously opposed because they were refused funding
and any costs would have to come out of council tax.
5. THE NEW
Five housing associations divided up the social
housing and divided up the dowry. They point blank ignored the
need to provide a continuing support for community sustainability
in its many forms which were already up and running. Apparently
their policy did not have the funding, nor the expertise or the
willingness to even recognise the need to do so. It was pointed
out to them that their expertise in housing management of pepper
potted units within established communities would not work in
the entirely new world of estate management. They chose to ignore
The most fundamental change was their lettings
policy, the impact of which had not become apparent to the residents
who had voted for them. Housing need was their only criteria which
when put across, seemed a very laudable policy until you realise
where it is leading and now where it has led, ie ghettoism. Alongside
this you have the employment of local labour changes. Surveys
have been taken of the influx of labour coming in over Runcorn
Bridge and southern routes to fill jobs which had been created
in the New Town and it is a startling statistic. Any employment
which is available in the New Town is almost entirely in the low-income
bracket and unemployment is also very high. As we write, 85 per
cent of residents in Halton Brook are eligible for housing benefit
and there is little prospect of improvement of this figure. An
atmosphere of ghettoism exists which has slowly increased since
the introduction of Housing Association Management in 1989.
6. OUTSIDE FUNDING
The criteria for SRB funding was based on 1995
statistics at which time the deterioration had not taken hold
in Halton Brook. Today we have well entered the deprivation zone
but the bureaucracy of Government Office built an impenetrable
barrier and we have completely failed to get any response to our
overtures for reconsideration of our most obvious qualifications.
7. THE PICTURE
Presently 60 perfectly sound three bedroom town
houses are being demolished due to "low demand" or rather
the fact that no one actually wants to live in Halton Brook if
there is an alternative.
There had been a glimpse of hope during the
1980s when Halton Brook had been the most popular New Town estate
for Right to Buy. In fact 300 out of 850 units were sold
under the scheme. Now even this has turned sour because the owners
are locked in because a sale is almost impossible other than at
a silly price. This has had two knock on effects. One, owners
have attempted to let on uncontrolled tenancies, causing even
worse problems. Two, they have given up hope of being able to
move at all, no new families are arriving, no children and both
our primary schools are less than half full. It is a bleak outlook.
8. THE FUTURE
The aforementioned is a brief explanation of
the historical decline into deprivation and it has to be fully
understood before you can even contemplate how to reverse it.
Even halting it will be difficult but endless discussions will
not help unless a sense of urgency is recognised now and adequate
funding made available. Neighbourhood Renewal Funding will be
This deprivation can be clearly traced back
to local employment travesty. What can now be done? We can only
repeat, it is a serious local issue which cannot be solved by
a Cabinet Think-Tank. Urgent action is the only way forward.
9. FURTHER PROBLEMS
The housing situation is considerably aggravated
by peripheral problems and health is probably the worst. Halton
tops the leagues tables on many benchmarks and these are clearly
set out in many research papers. Pollution itself is a problem
of mega proportions with emissions on our windward side being
seven times heavier than the second worst area in the tables,
viz. "Friends of the Earth Pollution Research Statistics".
You might even ask: "Should Runcorn New Town have been developed
here in the first place?" Debateable!
We, of course, have the usual law and order
problems. It would be unusual if we though that the policing was
adequate. The irony is that both the Cheshire Constabulary and
local MPs admit resources are not adequate. This problem must
be addressed and remedied alongside other remedies if we are to
progress and succeed.
10. OUR LOCAL
Since handover to Housing Association management
in 1989 we have had in place a strong arrangement of resident
participation. The overall picture is that our Runcorn Residents
Federation takes a comprehensive overview and each estate has
its own Residents Association and this has worked comfortably
during those years. There is an underlying problem however, because
in every case we have to use a begging bowl, usually to the individual
housing association, to get funding to enable us to exist. This
inhibits strenuous debate, eliminates whistle blowing on the more
serious issues of which lettings policies and rent restructuring
have been but two. The overall cost of this operation must be
relatively small and it would be very beneficial if funding could
be completely divorced from the present landlord/resident begging
Housing Associations made it very clear on handover
that they did not have a responsibility in this area of management.
Their basis for this was that their remit was simply to be a home
provider. We challenged this because the DEVCO had always provided
a very comprehensive package of both staff and funding. Housing
Associations took over the estates in this ongoing format, charged
exactly the same or higher rent levels. How did they explain this
anomaly? They didn't and never have. In their response to the
2000 Green Paper they continue to insist that this is still their
financial position and any funding for community work has to be
levered in from outside agencies and grants or so they claim.
There is, unfortunately, a problem which wont go away and that
is on an estate such as Halton Brook with 500 social rented units
and 300 right to buy owner occupiers how would you be able to
provide heavily subsidised community facilities for the tenants
only? It hasn't been solved. Housing Associations can and do use
it as an excuse. This problem should have been remedied at handover
but it wasn't. There is a solution, whether tenant or owner-occupier
we all pay the same Council Tax. Place this responsibility clearly
in the hands of the local council and if certain areas need special
attention and funding to alleviate pockets of deprivation make
adequate adjustments in the annual spending assessment from Central
Government to cover this extra cost. It's not rocket science,
just simple common sense.
As a Residents' Association, we would much prefer
to deal with local Councillors and a Local Authority who we know
are adequately funded than with RSL because this leaves us in
the invidious position of having to beg, persuade, justify, wait
until they get a grant and end up having to say thank you for
what we were entitled to in the first place. This is first year
socio-economics and one problem which could be remedied quickly
12. TO SUMMARISE
The aforementioned is an effort by our group
to highlight the salient points in their 40 year history of Runcorn
New Town which has led us, in conjunction with Halton in general,
to head league tables for the many benchmarks of deprivation levels.
Failure of Government in the past to heed the messages, dogmatic
remedies which lead us down the wrong routes plus the general
decline in basic social values have all contributed and we know
there is no magic instant solution.
The part played by the Housing Corporation is
questionable. They seemed to assume that their only role was as
a provider of homes for people in need. In their early days this
may have been so and regenerating property in small packages where
a community already existed was a fairly straightforward housing
management discipline and they were reasonably successful. Financing
was also easy to handle because HAG was high and deficits, if
any, were wiped clean annually. The deal that was engineered for
the handover of Runcorn New Town was dubbed the Sale of the
Century, very adequate financing to enable them to continue
a status quo and a pledge that surplus HRA monies would be ring-fenced
to finance added facilities. From a resident's point of view it
seemed perfect. The break down seems to have two predominant causes
exacerbated by many smaller ones. We emphasise these in 13 and
13. A LETTINGS
Housing need can be interpreted in many ways.
One way is to assume that it goes hand in hand with the qualification
for housing benefit, ie if you need housing benefit you almost
certainly have a housing need. This was a yardstick used right
from day one in stark contrast to DEVCO's employment qualifications.
Priorities for one parent families, no checking of previous background
of applicants, no priority for second generation, allowing 50
per cent outside allocation to the local authority are just some
of the flawed lettings policies which led to the drift to deprivation
and ghettoism. It is only now that realism has taken over because
sustainability is the only basis on which you can build and maintain
a large community. This gospel had been preached for years by
the Rowntree Foundation, David Page and many, many respected commentators
and we as a group are on record advocating this to our landlord.
They refused to listen, hoping that if they could increase the
85 per cent housing benefit to 100 per cent, they may even be
able to dispense with rent collection but claw-back, rent arrears
levels, low demand and the general decline into ghettoism are
now serious issues. The fact, that no properties in Halton Brook
will sell on the open market for more than £30,000 and that,
at today's mortgage rates, this relates to about £180 per
month, simply aggravates the low demand scenario and then they
set a rent level of £56 per week and more. Who is not doing
their sums? Yes, they will still get tenants who can claim housing
benefit or can they? These tenants can now shop around and it
won't make thing better. Time will tell but there isn't much time
left. Is it an irreversible problem? Well on our Castlefields
estate they seem to think so and decanting and demolition is the
order of the day.
14. LOCAL EMPLOYMENT
Local employment is the other major issue. Is
there a solution? This is above and beyond our comprehension.
We are the sufferers. Experimenting with New Deal, training initiatives
etc are only playing games with a major problem. Cut backs in
industry, sell offs (eg ICI to Belgian based Ineos) mergers and
the like are allowed to happen without thought of the impact.
We lose out on many deployments to the south and so the story
goes on. A trouble shooting team would need to employ some big
guns from the DTI to put things in reverse gear. Until this happens,
decline in Halton and Halton Brook will continue and remedies
will become more and more drastic and costly.
15. FINALLY TO
(a) No, the original design (Master Plans
One and Two) was completed in 1982, 20 years ago and it was successful
because it was kept in focus by the New Town management team.
It started to lose its way when Runcorn (second generation) was
merged with Warrington (third generation). Warrington knew they
were only caretakers until some permanent handover deal could
be struck. They took their eye off the ball. The steady decline
started in 1990 when the housing and employment of residents parted
company. Car dependency has been a social trend everywhere. The
difference in Runcorn would be the predominance of old bangers.
Bus and rail privatisation has accelerated this trend everywhere.
(b) Relationships between old and New Town
areas has always been cool at all levels and perhaps Professor
Ling did not realise this would occur. The autonomy given to New
Town management was resented at local authority level. The old
town population resented the influx of mainly Liverpool people.
The targets of the New Town had been met but the "them and
us" complex has never gone away. Now after 10 years of decline
in the New Town, with demolition being actively discussed, we
frequently hear "I told you so". Property prices in
the old town rise steadily and the complete opposite is happening
with New Town properties to the point where estate agents advise
letting rather than selling.
(c) (i) Our land supply is, we think,
controlled by the Commission for New Towns who have lost the plot
as far as a joined up policy of local population and local employment
(ii) Local authority did not take us over.
The lack of cohesion between Housing Corporation and privatisation
of industry has been disastrous.
(iii) If a residuary body had been put in
place in 1990 with a co-ordinated sustainable policy we probably
would not be writing this response today.
(d) We still seem to be developing commercial
and industrial opportunities for non-residents of the New Town.
This will continue until someone does something about it but who
is that someone? Halton Borough Council proudly announces new
development on cheap industrial land but its impact on employment
for New Town residents is negligible and it is not part of the
(e) We have attempted to describe the present
scenario accurately. We find it unacceptable but is anyone listening.
So far not, but it would be short sighted to simply keep talking
when ACTION should be the name of the game.
(f) This is a social/economic problem of
enormous proportions. It needs treating as a one-off and not aggregated
in the overall New Town scenario. It cannot be left to the mercy
of the Local Authority. An approach similar to the Heseltine/Merseyside
regeneration attempt in the early eighties may be a possible way
forward but please, please press the urgent button.
Runcorn New Town was planned and fine-tuned
with expert skill by Professor Ling. It was put together over
a period of 15 years by diligent, expert and dedicated staff.
It should have been merged into the big wide world with the same
skilled handling but it was not. It was a victim of Tory dogma,
resentment at local level, unenlightened management by both the
Housing Corporation and Housing Associations, treated as a poor
relation by Cheshire County Council and as a newly formed unitary
authority, Halton Borough Council is floundering and only tinkering
with the edges of the problem.
On behalf of the Halton Brook Residents Association
George Connor, Chair
George is the present chair and has been so
for the past seven years. He is also Divisional Board member for
Riverside Housing, a director of Four Estates Ltd and sits as
delegate on several local committees. He has lived on Halton Brook
for 17 years.
Working in partnership
On Behalf of Halton Brook Community Development
Ron Hart, Company Secretary
Ron Hart is Company Secretary of HBCD Ltd, a
Company Ltd by Guarantee and a Registered Charity (Reg No 1090522).
He is also a committee member of HBRA, delegate to Runcorn Residents'
Federation and a school governor. Worked as a civil engineer on
New Town infrastructure 1966-78, Runcorn Estates surveyor 1979-89,
and self employed director of Site Management Consultants Ltd
1990. Resident of Halton Brook since 1971.