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10 am

Sir Jim Lester (Broxtowe): I apologise for the fact that I have to attend a Select Committee meeting this morning. I shall, therefore, speak only briefly and, unfortunately, will not be present for the Front-Bench speeches.

I welcome the debate on the Nottinghamshire coalfield communities and thank the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) for initiating it. He asked some pertinent questions which I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister will answer.

We all support the hon. Gentleman's new year resolution to make regeneration the watchword for our local society, but despite what he said, and for the very special reasons that anyone born and bred in Nottinghamshire understands, I cannot think of any other industry going through a period of change that has had the same individual and community support as the coal industry. No other industry that has gone through decline

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and change--for example, the textile industry--has had anything like the support that has been given to the coal industry.

I made my maiden speech from a spot not far from the place where the hon. Member for Sherwood is now sitting. It was in February 1974, when there were two coal mines in my constituency--Moor Green, famous for all that D. H. Lawrence wrote about it, and Babbington, which became famous in 1984 for a rather less pleasant reason. Both mines were worked out; neither was closed because of recent decisions. Although the mines have been worked out, many miners still live in my constituency. Many of them have transferred to different pits. Indeed, as the hon. Gentleman said, they have shown great resilience in moving from pit to pit to stay in work.

Now, my principal connection with the coal industry is resisting the development of an opencast site at Shortwood farm--a green-field site--because of all the problems that it would create. My hon. Friend the Minister has already had an opportunity to look at the site. Although I understand that he cannot comment on it today, he has shown that he understands what it would be like to watch a green-field site being dug up for the next 10 to 20 years.

I hope that the hon. Member for Sherwood will welcome the Eastwood Phoenix project in our constituencies and that of the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon). It is a new departure in coalfield regeneration. Eastwood, too, is famous for its connection with D. H. Lawrence. It is not in decline as a result of changes in the coal industry, but it is stagnant. The project, introduced by Broxtowe borough council and enthusiastically supported by me, has been accepted by the Government because it aims to prevent decline, regenerate Eastwood and help it to remain a market town for the community around it.

I warmly welcome the regeneration of the Moor Green site in my constituency, where new factory units providing employment for miners and other people in the area are being developed. We must recognise that careful analysis of the problems, which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Sherwood, followed by correct action at the right time and in the right place, is the way to regenerate and prevent decline in areas that once depended totally on a vital coal industry.

10.4 am

Mr. John Cummings (Easington): Other hon. Members have used a broad-brush approach when speaking about the demise of coalfield communities. I want to focus specifically on Easington colliery--the last colliery in the Durham coalfield to close. It lies in the north-east of the Easington district, which has a population of 98,000 people. The area has been devastated by the demise of an industry which in 1951 employed 81,000 people in the county.

In the Easington district alone, more than 10,000 jobs were lost between 1984 and 1993, and it is estimated that a further 10,000 were lost in related industries. The appalling levels of economic, social and environmental deprivation, which derive from the area's former dependence on the coal industry, are shown in statistics

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that make rather gruesome reading. They come from a document prepared by Easington district council for Easington colliery's rural challenge submission.

Unemployment stands at 14 per cent. The rate for men is 21 per cent., almost one third of whom are categorised as long-term unemployed. That figure does not include the more than 12,000 people who are on long-term sickness benefit after spending a lifetime in heavy industry. Easington is the third poorest district in the country in terms of average disposable income. It is worth reflecting on the fact that new jobs coming into the area pay only between £2 and £3.50 an hour.

Easington has the 19th highest standard mortality rate in the country, some 47 per cent. above the national average. Life expectancy is three years below the national average. Less than half of households own a car. About 41 per cent. of households have a resident with chronic illness. Between 1971 and 1991, the district lost about 11 per cent. of its population. The percentage of youngsters staying on at school is the third lowest in the country. More than 200 hectares of land is derelict.

As I said, Easington was the last colliery in the Durham coalfield to close. It has a population of just over 5,000. It was and is a typical pit village. It was built under the shadow of the pit pulley wheels and was closely associated with the pit head and buildings. Not surprisingly, its problems mirror those of the whole district. When I talk about Easington, I could be talking about any of the former coal mining villages in the district, which once numbered 13.

Where information is available at ward level, the signs are that the problems are somewhat worse than I have described. For example, population loss between 1971 and 1991 was considerably higher at 20 per cent.; car ownership levels are lower and the main economic activity rates are the sixth lowest in the county. As in all colliery villages, the colliery was the centre of economic and community life--at Easington, it was so for more than 100 years. The colliery provided not only jobs but leisure, social facilities and housing. It nurtured a collective sense of identity which made it a community in the real sense of the word.

With the demise of the colliery, many hundreds of colliery houses have been left to God and good neighbours. Several housing associations, acting quite responsibly, have moved into the area and spent a considerable amount of money, but their efforts are being frustrated by individuals and companies who have also moved into the area--to gain some form of tax relief. They have no intention whatever of underpinning the real investment of the housing associations. That matter will have to be addressed in the colliery village of Easington.

When the colliery closed in December 1993, with the loss of 1,400 jobs, it marked the end of an industrial era for the county and the start of a search for a new and exciting future, but the Minister did not accept the rural challenge submission and we have fallen at the first hurdle. Perhaps the system of bids for rural challenge development and the single regeneration budget 2 should be re-examined. It is run on a competitive basis, but the problems in Easington ought not to be left to chance or, indeed, a form of national lottery.

Too many of the problems faced by the local community are inextricably linked to the demise of the coal mining industry, which has left a legacy throughout

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the district, and especially in Easington, of economic, social and environmental problems. I have mentioned high unemployment. No fewer than 77 per cent. of all jobs in Easington colliery were lost when the pit closed. There is a very poor and limited range of alternative employment opportunities. Due to the mining culture and the colliery's dominance of the local economy, there is a lack of an enterprise culture. The long-standing dependency on the pit has meant that there is no local post-16 education or training facilities in the colliery village. We have very low levels of educational achievement. There is a mismatch between the skills of the work force and the needs of local and regional employers--and, indeed, employers who are considering coming into the area.

We have a very high and continually rising crime rate, an increase in the fear of crime, a very high incidence of substance abuse among young people, a lack of facilities, especially for young adults, and poor and declining health standards. Colliery housing is in very poor condition, there is a lack of suitable accommodation for the young and the elderly and there has been no private sector development for new housing for the past 40 years. All of those problems emanate from the village's dependency on the pit, the colliery and the National Coal Board.

In the colliery village of Easington, there are 27 hectares of derelict colliery site. Despoiled beaches are a product of colliery waste tipping. In excess of 1.5 million tonnes of solid waste was dumped along the coastline each year. Thankfully, the bid submitted to the millennium fund has been successful and we hope to tackle the problems on the beaches, but are we to be left with beautiful beaches crowned with derelict housing, housing in need of renewal and derelict cliff sites? One does not equate to the other.

The coal mining industry sustained the village economically and socially, but it bred a culture of dependency that stifled enterprise and exacted an enormous price in environmental and health terms. I well remember talking to my illustrious predecessor, Manny Shinwell, on becoming involved with the Labour party at the beginning of the 1960s. I said, "Manny, why have we no car industry in Easington? Why have we no real manufacturing base in Easington?" The answer was quite simple. He said, "As long as the nation requires coal and as long as the people of Easington are there to dig coal for the use of the nation, you will never ever have attractive manufacturing industry in the district of Easington. Coal miners would undoubtedly leave the mines to work in a more attractive environment if they could." The cards have always been stacked against us in coalfield communities.

In the light of the problems that I have just outlined, there might be an inclination among Ministers and Departments to write off Easington village as a viable entity. None the less the community consultation workshops have proved that, although the village might have lost a sense of identity, it has retained its self-esteem and its dignity. There is a growing feeling of optimism in Easington colliery community, which requires and looks forward to positive change. A local community-led generation partnership, which has a clear vision of the future, has been established.

I have mentioned the down side of Easington colliery and district, but it has many physical attributes that could be exploited if Ministers and Departments would only take note. I invite the Minister to visit the area at any time.

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It lies in a very pleasant rural setting on the coastline--the only coastline in County Durham. There is easy access to the coast, where improvements are being pursued with the help of the millennium fund. Areas of open space could be used by the community and, indeed, industry. There is good access to the A19, an east coast railway, a major road network and it is very close to centres of employment on Tyneside, Wearside and Teesside.

The problems are such that demands on all of those resources are extremely high. Competition is strong and there is much emphasis on gap funding. Notwithstanding the laudable efforts to reverse the decline in the village to date, on-going initiatives are disjointed and inadequate, and the rural challenge scheme might have provided the key to overcome some of those difficulties.

Only towards the end of December did the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration come to Easington and designate six enterprise zones, for which we are extremely grateful. We are looking forward to those enterprise zones being filled very quickly with new, exciting and modern firms. However, may I draw the Minister's attention to an anomaly? The link road proposed to feed the Fox Cover site from the A19 has not been accepted by the Department of Transport. That enterprise zone will therefore have no real link with any major means of communication. No doubt the Minister will hear more about the matter in due course. Nevertheless, we are extremely pleased that the enterprise zones have been designated.

The single regeneration budget 2 bid has also failed recently. Are Ministers really serious about regenerating mining areas? I remember the Minister's colleagues in the then Department of Energy repeatedly painting a rosy picture of the situation and saying that regenerating coal mining areas through a range of approaches would be emphasised, but not one penny piece has been spent in Easington, or indeed--perhaps--anywhere else in the country. The people in coalfield communities are looking to the future. We have established a superb working relationship with English Partnerships, and we hope that great things will come from it in the not too distant future.

I must tell the Minister that the issues are too important to be dealt with through competitive bidding. Why not give a little back to Easington, which has served the nation so well over the past 100 years? I remind the Minister of the awful tragedy of the Easington colliery disaster in 1951. The community of Easington has paid in blood, sweat and tears. The Government should respond accordingly to the needs of that community. I await some positive response because it is now time for the nation to recognise that we have served it well and to give us back a little bit so that we can help ourselves.

Easington is undergoing a period of traumatic adjustment. We are searching for a new role, image and function. The village faces a considerable task if the transition from a working pit settlement to a thriving rural village is to be achieved. I am sure that, by virtue of our resilience and optimism, which is founded on our collective sense of identity, we will rise to the challenge. We look to the Minister to fulfil his obligations and his colleagues' promises to achieve that transition.

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