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House of Commons

Wednesday 10 January 1996

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Coalfield Communities

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

9.34 am

Mr. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood): I am extremely grateful for this debate about the regeneration of the coalfield communities. This is the first Wednesday debate of the new year, which is a time for reflection and recollection--a time to draw lessons from the past but also to tackle the coming year with new hope and resolution. That is what the coalfield communities are doing. It is also what they were doing three years ago.

The House will recall that in October 1992 the then President of the Board of Trade announced the closure of 31 of Britain's 50 collieries. That decision was taken away for reflection and reconsideration, and in May 1993 the review was finalised, with consequences that are now plain to see: massive job losses in the coal industry and many collieries closed.

I have a new year's resolution of my own, which is not to alienate my colleagues. I know that members of the miners group are to meet my right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) at 10.30 this morning--I am sure that they too are tackling the new year with new resolution--so I shall be brief because I know that some of them want to contribute. Indeed, I hope that everyone connected with the coalfield communities will have a chance to speak this morning.

In Nottinghamshire, the consequences of the pit review are clear: six collieries have closed and 10,428 people who used to work in the coal industry have lost their jobs. Moreover, 4,100 people connected with the secondary industries have also lost their jobs, and there has been a loss of spending power in the local economy of £550 million a year--a significant amount.

Unemployment in Nottinghamshire is still unacceptably high and there is real deprivation. To be sure, unemployment has fallen, but I urge the Minister to look closely at the figures. In October 1992 unemployment in Nottinghamshire stood at about the national average. Now it is above it, and in certain pockets unemployment has risen against the trend. I am sure that some of my colleagues will mention the fact that unemployment in the coalfield communities is understated. I have looked carefully at a report by Sheffield Hallam university which suggests that male unemployment in the coalfield areas is in the region of 20 to 35 per cent. That compares with the national norm of 15 per cent., calculated on the same basis.

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Even more significant is a comparison between national unemployment figures since October 1992 and unemployment in coalfield travel-to-work areas. Since October 1992, national unemployment has fallen by 17 per cent. In the Mansfield travel-to-work area over the same period, the percentage decrease has been just 7.1. In the Worksop travel-to-work area--another coalfield area--unemployment has fallen by less than 1 per cent.

So unemployment may be falling generally, but the rates differ according to area and the gap between the rich and the poor appears to be growing. The Government were aware that those problems would occur and in their announcement they offered an aid package worth £200 million over three years. I calculate that £30 million of that came to Nottinghamshire.

The first question that I want to ask the Minister is what research has been undertaken on that aid package's effects. I have heard him and his colleagues talk about inputs into coalfield communities. Three years on from the closure announcement, we should consider some performance and output measures. How far has that £200 million changed things in coalfield communities? I suspect that no research has been undertaken and that the reason for that is that the aid package was known to be inadequate at the beginning. It is short term--it will end during this calendar year. There is a scatter-gun approach--a shot at lots of moving targets, but no real strategy. There has been little co-ordination of that package.

I want to consider some of the measures, including enterprise zones. I hope that the Minister will visit the three enterprise zones in Nottinghamshire, announced more than three years ago. Not one brick has been laid on any of those zones and, three years on, not one new job has been created. That is the measure of the success of the Government aid package. That is the position in Nottinghamshire, but the figures are similar throughout the country.

I want the Minister to recall our debates, especially those on the Coal Industry Bill, when a number of us pressed the Government hard on what was to happen to British Coal's non-operational land, where there is a basis to create new jobs and which could be a cornerstone for new development land. Very little has happened. As the Minister knows, the Environment Act 1995 went through the House last year. That transfers liabilities for derelict land on to new owners. British Coal has been set different priorities. It has been told not only to dispose of the land and to create new jobs, but, clearly under section 11 of the Act, to get the best price and value for the land and to dispose of the liabilities.

I understand that almost 80 sites were to be transferred to English Partnerships, the regeneration agency, to create new jobs in England. Three years on, that land has not been transferred. Strong discussions are taking place between British Coal and English Partnerships about who is responsible for the dereliction and who will clear up the liabilities. Clearly, English Partnerships would like to take the land, but it is not prepared to pick up an unlimited liability. If the Minister wants to help coalfield communities, he could intervene in that discussion and ensure that that land comes on to the market straight away.

Smaller schemes that would lift the landscape and enhance the environment are also being held up. The county council in Nottinghamshire would like to acquire

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six former colliery tips from British Coal. Discussions are well advanced. The Forestry Commission would plant the sites and take responsibility. We could create a new Sherwood forest that would lift the landscape, yet the deal is stuck because there are questions about who is responsible for the liabilities. We want the landscape to be lifted and to see change, but because of arguments about liabilities, that deal too is stuck.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley): My hon. Friend touched on a point about the environment and the landscape. I know that the same is happening in Northumberland and parts of Durham. On the landscape, we have seen nothing but opencast mining. All the deep mines have closed, all the jobs have been lost and, all over the place, there have been a load of planning applications for opencast mining, which is a blot on the land.

Mr. Tipping: It is clear that opencasting can be a blot on the landscape. It should be allowed only where there is local support and where it will lead to environmental improvement. The problem with opencasting is that people want to make a profit out of it and that the profit is to be made out of big green-field sites. That again leads to further dereliction in coalfield communities.

Ms Hilary Armstrong (North-West Durham): I am sorry to intervene, but the issues that my hon. Friend is talking about especially affect regions such as mine, where the mines have been closed for well over 20 years and where, in response to Durham county council's inquiries, developers have identified, in my constituency alone, almost 40 potential opencast sites. If those sites go ahead, and even if they do not, with current policy, there will be a blight not just on people's living environment, but on the attempts of both the public and private sectors to attract new industry that will grow in the community for years to come.

Despite the fact that it has been 20 years since the pits closed, we still have an enormous task to bring jobs that will give the region a future. We have the blight of opencast, on top of the amazing problems that we had early on from dereliction, although the landscape in our county is now green and beautiful. To see it destroyed again would be a dreadful indictment of Government policy.

Mr. Tipping: My hon. Friend makes two important points. First, we do not want planning blight in coalfield communities. People have lived with dereliction; they now aspire to something better. Secondly, she makes a strong point that the regeneration of coalfield communities will not be brought about by a three-year aid package, which is short term and limited; as she says, the process will last for 20 years or perhaps longer. It is certainly a generational thing.

As well as derelict land, there is a problem involving organisations such as the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation. During the passage of the Coal Industry Act 1992, we were promised that CISWO-associated recreation and community land would be transferred to CISWO and to the National Playing Fields Association. I know that there have been considerable discussions about that, but three years on, that package has yet to be delivered.

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Again, the issue involves the liabilities. Both CISWO and the NPFA are charities. They have been advised by the Charity Commission not to take on land where there is a liability. Those recreational lands and sports fields are important for coalfield communities. Again, this issue needs to be unlocked quickly.

English Partnerships aspires to take on 80 sites from British Coal. They may be the best sites. It is also responsible for distributing derelict land grant. There is a feeling among some local authorities that, as the owner of sites and the distributor of grant, English Partnerships may focus derelict land grant on its own properties.

Local authorities have a long history of tackling urban decay and derelict sites. They seek assurances that derelict land grant will continue to be available to them. They do not want to be in a position where they have acquired derelict land and where they and their council tax payers become responsible for the liability. They are happy to work in partnerships--they have done so for years--but they still want access to derelict land grant. I hope that the Minister will give those assurances.

I hope that the Minister will also give assurances to English Partnerships, which is chaired by Lord Walker, a man noted for intervention. His intervention with English Partnerships has perhaps been ineffective. I know that he has pressed hard for extra resources to tackle the tasks that are before the agency. I note that he has been unsuccessful in the Budget. Next year, English Partnerships' budget is to be cut by £7 million or 3 per cent. By the end of March 1999, its budget is to be cut by £26 million or 12 per cent. What hope does that provide for the coalfield communities in the new year? Can an assurance be given that such communities will be given priority by English Partnerships?

British Coal Enterprise is another economic development agency which has operated successfully in coalfield areas since 1984. It is the only agency which focuses entirely on coalfields. It is to be privatised on 31 March this year. While it has been in the public sector and can receive funds it has been a conduit for European funds. It has received £10 million from Europe. Will the Minister clarify whether there is a danger that once it is privatised that £10 million could be clawed back by the European Community?

Although I oppose the privatisation of British Coal Enterprise, I also seek an assurance that the sale proceeds--about £20 million--will be reinvested in the coalfield communities. Surely it is only right and equitable that the proceeds of the sale of an agency that has worked for the coalfields should be reinvested there. Perhaps the Minister will tell us the guidelines for the sale of British Coal Enterprise. Is it merely to be sold to the highest bidder, or will he ensure that the new private sector owner gives assurances that it will continue to focus on and give priority to the coalfield areas?

European funds, too, are important to coalfield communities. We are now two years into the RECHAR II programme and the current objective 2 programme. Despite that, money is not yet trickling through to projects in the Nottinghamshire coalfield or in other coalfield areas. Part of the reason for that is staff shortages. Let me draw the Minister's attention to the Government office for the east midlands--GOEM. I am not criticising the staff who work there because I know that civil service staffing

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has been frozen for the past three years and that to the year 1998-99 there is to be a further 12 per cent. cut in civil servants.

Letters have been sent from the Government office to local authorities asking for local authority staff to be seconded to the Government office to deal with grant applications. In fact, it is even worse than that. I have in my possession letters from temporary staff at the Government office in Nottingham who have written to local authorities saying that their contract is nearly up. They have worked at that office for two years and are about to be entitled to full employment rights at the office, but they are to be laid off. They are asking Nottinghamshire county council to employ them and second them back to the Government office. That is short-termism in the extreme. A total of £30 million of European money could be drawn into the Nottinghamshire coalfield, but the Government are not prepared to pick up the bill to fund the civil servants necessary to bring that money in. In essence, that is my complaint. We have a short-term solution from the Government for a long-term process that will not be resolved easily.

One of the interesting things about the Budget was the way in which capital spending was slashed. The Minister, with his knowledge of local authority spending, will understand that capital investment is long-term investment. It produces value and resources over a period of time. I believe strongly that if we are to invest in coalfield communities, we must invest in capital projects. I draw the Minister's attention to the Robin Hood railway line in Nottinghamshire. I am delighted that the line, which will connect Nottingham to Worksop and run through the Nottinghamshire coalfield, has been funded by the Government. An announcement of a new tranche of money was made only this week. However, I remind the Minister that in May 1993 the then Secretary of State, speaking to the Nottinghamshire chamber of commerce, promised that Government money would be available to complete the line. We are now three years on and the line still has not been built. It would be a recognition of an approach to the coalfield if that money was forthcoming.

I am keen to see a road to recovery in Nottinghamshire. I want to see a road that links the M1 and the A1 and which runs through the Nottinghamshire coalfield opening up new development sites. That is a widely perceived view in the coalfield and I am extremely disappointed that the first leg of it, the Rainworth bypass, was refused funding in the transport policy and programme announced before Christmas. The lack of funding for that bypass means that the southern and western bypasses in Mansfield, also essential to the recovery, will not be completed before the 21st century. Investment in infrastructure is an essential part of coalfield recovery.

Let me remind the Minister about the former British Coal housing stock which was transferred to housing associations. There are pockets of such housing throughout the coalfields. There are 2,000 former British Coal houses in housing association ownership in Nottinghamshire. They are in a deplorable condition and need renovation and refurbishment. Will the Minister lift the embargo that was put on the Housing Corporation to provide grant to refurbish those properties? That would help to regenerate those communities.

I remind the Minister also about the National Mining museum in Yorkshire which was given national status fairly recently. That museum received a great deal of help

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from British Coal but when that was no longer forthcoming, Government grant was made available for three years to continue the museum. That grant has nearly expired and the museum faces serious challenges. It is looking to the national lottery to survive and expand, but it will take a change in the rules and criteria if it is to be eligible. Our heritage is as important as our future and I hope that the Minister will look closely at that issue.

People who live and work in coalfield communities are pragmatic, hard-working and resilient. They can take bad news but they cannot take uncertainty. They have had a series of bad knocks over the past decade, but despite that, they are still working for a better future. What characterises coalfield communities is that parents want better for their children.

All over the coalfields people are working for change. The Ollerton and district employment forum has come together in a private-public sector partnership which has had some success with the Ollerton pit site and the Boughton pumping station. In Bilsthorpe local people have got together to form CHUBB, which is a resource centre for the community and the unemployed. Its future is blighted by the lack of money from the European social fund. In Newstead residents are working together to refurbish the housing stock and regenerate the village. Change will happen; it is inevitable, but it is a long-term process.

Last autumn the North Nottinghamshire training and enterprise council produced its evaluation of its coalfield action plan. It demonstrates success but also highlights some failures. I hope that the Minister has had an opportunity to look at it. It concludes that while much has been achieved, much more needs to be done.

Mining communities and the mining industry, in Nottinghamshire and across the country, feel betrayed by a Government who simply walked away from the promises they made to Notts miners. The Government cannot similarly walk away from the coalfield communities. It is not sufficient to make short-term investment over three years. The TEC's evaluation is that new resources, new strategies and renewed partnerships are needed for many years to come.

It is essential to invest in coalfield communities. They need better than they have now. We should be supporting them and investing in their future.

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