5 MAY 1967, Page 23

Wanted: an old towns commission MONEY


When Keynes was trying to teach governments in the 1930s how to spend their way out of massive unemployment he had never thought of asking them to build new towns. His ideas had only run to public works of the conven- tional type—roads, electricity power stations, land clearance and drainage and so on. The scope for these projects was limited and the expense controllable. But to build a new town in virgin territory calls for a fantastic outlay of money and labour and the cost is almost uncontrollable. A vast area has to be land- scaped, huge water and sewage works under- taken, roads laid out with parking places, public parks and recreation fields provided, a town centre built, complete with town hall, shops and administrative offices, many housing neigh- bourhoods constructed, with 'pantry' shops, public houses and community centres, not to mention all the schools, hospitals, churches, gas and electricity services which make up a new urban community. I had experience of it when Dalton appointed me to the board of the Basildon Development Corporation, which was creating a new town centre out of an Essex farm—and cleaning up two old rural towns and several rural slums—in order to take fac- tories and people away from East and West Ham.

Perhaps the 1945 Labour government had Keynesian ideas in mind when it decided to build eight new towns around London— Stevenage, Welwyn, Hatfield, Hemel Hemp- stead, Harlow, Basildon, Crawley and Brack- nell—and to add Peterlee and Newton Aycliffe in the north-east and Corby in the midlands. It had planned to spend £1,000 per head of people housed and to run up a total bill of around £500 million. Even now in this period of restraint the Chancellor has had to make loans to the new towns of £84.6 million for 1967-8, following £62.6 million and 43.9 million respectively in his previous two budgets. And this is skimping them!

As we no longer have to think of now to spend more money to employ more people— - now that the Government is trying to spend less money to keep more people uneniploed —it may fairly be said that we should no longer be planning to build new towns but to extend existing ones. Obviously it will be far cheaper to provide houses where the existing electricity, gas, water and sewage schemes of local authorities can be extended rather than have to create the whole costly infra-structure of an urban community from scratch. Yet Wales has been allowed to go ahead with the new town of Cwmbran, the north-east With Washington, Lancashire with Runcorn and Skelmersdale, and Birmingham with Dawley and Redditch, not to mention Scotland with four new towns. Not content with these new extravaganzas, it is proposed to build a huge new town in rural Buckinghamshire at Milton Keynes! It is surely time to stop and think twice about committing the central govern- ment to vast loan expenditures which turn out the most expensive way of housing the People.

I am not suggesting that the investment in the new towns has not been worth while. Far from being a burden to the taxpayer, the in- vestment has created a most valuable asset which has appreciated greatly in market value. The Commission for the New Towns which has taken over from the Development Cor- porations the nearly completed towns of Crawley, Hemel Hempstead, Welwyn and Hat- field disclosed in its last report that the in- vestment of £17 million on commercial and industrial developments in Crawley and Hemel Hempstead was currently valued at £27 million, an appreciation of 60 per cent. The total expen- diture of £100 million on these two new towns is no doubt worth today £200 million. And when all the towns are finally completed the Government's investment will probably have trebled in market value.

But this is no reason why we should go on spending hundreds of millions on new towns when the same housing results—and probably the same capital appreciation—can be obtained far more cheaply by extending old towns. Much of our economic malaise comes from wasteful investment and, seeing that we are lunatic enough to carry out our increasingly heavy

social investment at absurdly high rates of in- terest, we should at least try to lay out our capital in the most economic way. I am sup- ported in this view by Professor Donnison in his critical study of ouo housing policy in The Government of Housing (a Pelican lOs 6d). He points out that, relative to our population, our existing stock of hous- ing is the most ample in western Europe (with the exception of Belgium) and that we have an above-average proportion of houses built be- tween the wars which are of reasonable standard—with a higher proportion of separate bathrooms than in other European countries— and of reasonably long life. It would therefore be a sensible policy to spend more money on adapting the best of the existing houses to the smaller-space needs of a changing and ageing population. This must, of course, be carried out in conjunction with a dynamic slum- clearance policy, but it all points to the forma- tion of an Old Towns Commission which should advise the local authorities on the best way to extend their existing towns and adapt the prewar, stock of housing to modern living conditions. Landlords, provided they conform to a Good Landlord Code, might be encouraged to carry out their own conversions by extra depreciation allowances for tax purposes. Pro- fessor Donnison aptly quotes from Engels: 'The rent must not only pay the interest on building costs but must also cover repairs etc.' The private landlord has still a useful part to play in the extension of the old towns.

My suggestion for an Old Towns Com- mission should not be read as an invitation to wind up immediately the Commission for the New Towns. This commission is now manag- ing the assets created by the Development Cor- porations of four new towns which have not yet been taken over by the local authorities. It is still carrying out a programme for building houses, shops, factories and offices, acting as though it was an independent contractor on behalf of the Minister of Housing. It has been accused of behaving like a 'remote bureau- cracy,' but so are the Development Corpora- tions themselves with boards of directors appointed by the Minister of Housing without reference to the local authority.

In my opinion, these Development Corpora- tion boards of directors should be abolished and their work taken over by the general mana- gers reporting to the New Towns Commission. The general managers would become, what in fact they are already, the business managers of an expert contracting body doing work which the local authorities are not yet qualified to do. Eventually these general managers would be taken over by 'the local authorities as the busi- ness managers of their old towns, but, for the time being, the local councils need the expert contracting and planning services not only of

• New Towns Commission but of an Old Towns mmission as well. Mr Greenwood please note.