Harold McCusker – 1978 Speech on Craigavon

Below is the text of the speech made by Harold McCusker, the Ulster Unionist MP for Armagh, in the House of Commons on 17 April 1978.

At the outset I want to make it clear that nothing I shall say this evening should be construed as “Craigavon bashing”. That label is sometimes given to anyone who over the past few months has raised questions about the future of the new city concept in order to try to obtain from the Government what their thinking is on the matter.

I have requested this debate to elicit clarification on what is now the Craigavon question. It hinges around the simple issue whether Craigavon has a future as a new city or as a growth area. As I develop my theme I think it will be seen to be not as simple as it appears. This is a matter which has perturbed not only me. As the Under-Secretary will know, it has perturbed the borough council of Craigavon, which recently called for a public inquiry into the whole issue.

It is also essential that we should have this opportunity for debate because of two major policy decisions that have been made during the past six months. One has been the decision of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to stop further building in Craigavon. The other is the new emphasis and initiative, which has been spearheaded by the Under-Secretary, to reconstruct and regenerate inner Belfast.

There is substantial unease in the area of Craigavon because 3,000 acres or 50 per cent. of the total of the compulsorily ​ acquired land still remains undeveloped 12 years after it was acquired. This all points to the fact that there has been an obvious and distinct divergence from the original concept and plan of the 1965–66 period.

It is important to review the historical development of Craigavon in order to put it into perspective. The early 1960s were accompanied in Northern Ireland by an accelerating growth in population and a growing success in the attraction of new industries. The accelerating growth in population put great stress on existing housing and necessitated an acceleration in the provision of housing in the Province. The attraction of new industry demanded a modern infrastructure and the services which today’s industry requires.

Furthermore, when the high percentage of unemployment in the Province was analysed, it was found to consist of small pockets of unemployment scattered throughout the Province, rather than a large and readily available labour market, which is sometimes envisaged when one talks about a 10 per cent., 12 per cent., or 15 per cent. rate of unemployment.

Confronted with this situation in the early 1960s, the Northern Ireland Government commissioned Professor Matthew to produce the Belfast regional plan, which recommended the creation of a new city in County Armagh, located on the borders of Lurgan and Portadown. The new city was not to be created by natural or accelerated growth of the existing towns; it was to be a planned creation in the smallest detail, involving the expenditure of hundreds of millions of pounds. The cost was estimated at £140 million in 1965. If that expenditure had continued through to today it could have been quadrupled.

In a debate at Stormont on 6th July 1965, justifying the compulsory acquisition of the 6,200 acres of prime agricultural land, the then Minister of Development stated:

“The intention is to create a modern environment of the highest standards, embracing all aspects of living—urban, village, rural. All this must be developed in accordance with a single unified plan.”

This theme is readily discernible in everything associated with the new city, in the ​ New Towns Act of 1965, and in the manner in which the Northern Ireland approach to new cities development differed from that of Great Britain.

In July 1965, the Ministry of Development designated for the new town site an area of about 100 square miles, which was called the designated area. This was to be rigidly controlled and developed. On 8th June 1966, 6,200 acres of land were compulsorily purchased by the Ministry of Development, to be known as the “distinguished area”. This area was to be planned virtually down to the last blade of grass.

The debates of the time illustrate clearly the intention of the Northern Ireland Government. It should be remembered that this detailed planning and application was the justification for introducing legislation in Stormont which gave the Ministry of Development and the New Towns Commission powers far in excess of those applying in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Extracts from the debate of the 24th February 1965, said:

“The Bill is a piece of machinery for a specific purpose.… The immediate purpose of the Bill is to provide the machinery for the creation of the new city in County Armagh.… It is the means of accelerating large growth centres at a pace well beyond the capacity of local resources. … If one is convinced of the need for a development of this size then one has to acquire 6,000 acres. One will see that it is wise before embarking upon such a venture as investing £145 million to make sure that one can carry it through to a successful conclusion.”

So it can fairly be seen that the Government’s intention was, over a relatively short period of time, to build a new city in County Armagh using massive sums of public money. Lurgan and Portadown, the two existing towns, were to be relegated to a secondary role of “district centres”. That is the term used in the second report of the plan, printed in 1968. Despite my opposition to the concept, and to the decisions taken in 1965, I would accept that there were factors and indicators there which favoured the decision that was opted for.

The Northern Ireland population had risen between 1945 and 1965 from 1,300,000 to 1,500,000. By the early 1980s it was expected that it would rise to 1,700,000, and to more than 2 million by the turn of the century.

The birth rate in 1940 was 25,000 a year, and it rose rapidly to an average of 33,000 a year, year on year, in the early 1960s. Then in 1965 the New Towns Act was passed. It must have been the most effective contraceptive device ever introduced into Northern Ireland. Since 1965 the birth rate has fallen each year, year on year until this year it will probably be the lowest in any year since the formation of the State. The population of Northern Ireland peaked in 1973 at a little over the 1965 figure of 1½ million, and is now just about holding its own, and there has been a little falling off over the period.

The economic well-being of the early 1960s deteriorated in the latter half of that decade and, coupled with terrorism, inflation, and the energy crisis, industrial growth in the Province has ground to a standstill.

Even as early as 1971–72 targets were being missed, despite the exodus of people from the troubled areas and moving to Craigavon for the wrong reasons. In the early years of the project one had to have a lob in Craigavon and one was carefully vetted before being allowed to set up home there—and as people came willy-nilly into the area, we saw the dream of the 1960s becoming almost a nightmare of the 1970s.

I believe that de facto recognition of the demise of the new city was indicated by the dissolution of the New Towns Commission in 1973. It is interesting to note that on 24th February 1965 it was stated:

“When the stage is reached that the new development is complete or substantially complete the New Towns Commission will be wound up.”

That could have read:

“When the stage is reached that the new development is unrealistic and impossible to achieve, the New Towns Commission will be wound up.’

In the Under-Secretary of State’s own words, the Commission was “replaced by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive”, the Department of Commerce assuming its industrial functions and with the recreational functions being taken over by Craigavon Borough Council. In the same letter he said:

“… the former Craigavon Development Commission employed some hundreds of staff in what was in a very real sense a multi-purpose organisation. Under the present system ​ of organisation only a very few officers in my Department have specific responsibilities for Craigavon and they are heavily committed in many directions”.

In fact, when the Commission was wound up, its responsibilities were handed over, as is indicated in that letter from the Minister. That was a de facto indication that the new city was grinding to a halt.

Perhaps most important of all is what was described in the second report of the plan in 1968:

“A most important component of Craigavon will be the city centre.”

I read from page 38 of that report:

“Apart from the residential and industrial areas, a most important component of Craigavon will be the city centre. While fulfilling a regional role, this facility must also crown a hierarchy of service centres within Craigavon.”

It goes on:

“The city centre will be the hub of the area and a focal point of activity and influence for a catchment beyond the city itself, a main commercial and business precinct, including offices, specialist and department stores, and will relate to zones of civic and community buildings, comprising local and central government offices, law courts, police, post office and other municipal functions. Cultural and entertainment buildings, such as a cinema, theatre, concert hall, restaurants and hotel will also form an integral part of the design. In addition, central area apartments will be provided.”

Later in the report, we see:

“The city centre will have restaurants and cafes like the one featured in the sketch. As well as shops, offices, civic and entertainment buildings, town houses and apartments will be built there for people attracted to the idea of central area living. The centre will be designed to be a place of bustle, excitement and interest at all times.”

That is the description in the report. It shows how much importance was placed on the city centre and how vital it was to the whole concept. Yet the Public Accounts Committee a couple of years ago criticised the Government heavily for its expenditure there and recommended that no further expenditure should take place.

Despite those hard things, I hope that the Under-Secretary will agree that I have tried to avoid the emotive issues, but they are serious and fundamental and they must be touched upon. There is the destruction and vandalism and hundreds of houses in Craigavon, sometimes twice over. There is the neglect of Lurgan and Portadown. Even to this day it has not ​ been thought fit to include them in the town centre face-lift scheme. I hope that the Under-Secretary will have second thoughts about that.

There is the unemployment in the area, which, while better than in most of Northern Ireland for a time, is now running at 3,000, about 10 per cent. of the working population. All the social problems associated with the rootless society are evident there. I shall not list them now.

There was the deliberate neglect of existing small communities and attempts to eliminate them. The fact that after 12 years of enforced growth there are still more than 3,000 acres undeveloped and likely to remain undeveloped this side of the year 2000 are all further causes for concern. The Under-Secretary must be the only absentee landlord of any significance left in Ulster. He has 3,000 acres of agricultural land under his control and the farmers who at one time owned that land and farmed it now have to rent it back from him to do precisely the same thing.

While it was the intention of the Northern Ireland Government when vesting the land to avoid unscrupulous exploitation of land which had been given an added value by the investment of huge sums of public money, it surely could never have been their intention that the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, not noted in other spheres of its activity for frugality or good house-keeping, should become Rachman profiteers.

I well remember reading the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Craig), who spelt this out in detail to a public, who did not really appreciate it, 12 years ago in Northern Ireland, that if the Government were going to spend £100 million and that was going to give an added value to land in the area, they would not see people exploit that situation. There is exploitation taking place.

Councillor Bob McAvoy, who does not belong to the same political party as I do but who is a former employee of the Development Commission, described the ground rent policy of the Housing Executive in Craigavon as

“a legacy from the days of feudalism and land lordism.”

He said that at £30 per year ground rent, with a density of eight to 12 houses per acre,

“The Housing Executive are commanding a higher value in ground rent per acre per annum than was paid in compensation to the former landowners.”

Was this the concept of the Northern Ireland Government 13 years ago? I know the answer. The answer is that it was not. I believe that if that Government had still been in existence it would have acknowledged that fact some years back. It would have taken stock of what had occurred and was occurring and would have sought to establish the best way forward from there.

That is what I am proposing to the Minister tonight. I do not do it in bitterness or animosity or with any desire to embarrass him or the Government. Therefore, I hope that he will not hide behind the type of reassurances given earlier this year by his right hon. Friend, who tells us when challenged “We will make a success of Craigavon.” That is not the kind of answer we want. Unfortunately, that meaningless reassurance conceals what is required, which is an acceptance that things have gone wrong and that it is time to reassess and move forward from there.

At a time of nil or declining population growth, it is impossible to reconcile the Minister’s vital decision to rebuild and revitalise central Belfast and the decision to create only 20 miles away Craigavon as originally conceived. It is an impossibility, and this Government should have the courage to say so. Only then can we obtain a proper assessment of our priorities.

For example, what is necessary to develop the business and commercial centres of Lurgan and Portadown so that growth can again be based on them? How can we maintain, exploit and pay for the excellent recreational and leisure facilities that are already in existence? How can the area designated for the city centre evolve and develop to provide a mixture of shopping, business and certain other commercial activities which are suited to the facilities provided there?
How can we encourage and generate a home-owning society in an area where we have a massive surfeit of public authority houses and where home ownership ​ might bring with it a sense of responsibility and belonging to the community?
How can we return to many farmers the land which is properly theirs and which is now held under false pretences? Can we make a start with those on the periphery? In other words, is it not time for us to think again?