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House of Commons

Friday 8 February 2002

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Disadvantaged Areas

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jim Fitzpatrick.]

9.33 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble): The Government are determined to overcome the years of neglect that have left too many children growing up in poverty and too many neighbourhoods living without hope and without a future.

The legacy of 18 years of Conservative administration was shocking. Between 1979 and 1994-95, incomes rose by 68 per cent. for the richest 10 per cent. of the population, while the poorest 10 per cent. saw their incomes fall. In 1979, 10 per cent. of children lived in households with below half the average income. By 1994-95, that figure had risen to nearly a third. The legacy was a widening gap between rich and poor people and a widening gap between rich and poor communities.

So often, people in poverty means communities in poverty and neighbourhoods in poverty. For too many people, their personal poverty mirrors the problems of the community around them. Burglary rates are highest in the areas where people earn the least. Waiting lists are longer in places where people are the least healthy. Public transport is worse in places where fewer people can afford a car. Those living in the most deprived areas are more likely to die younger. For example, there is a 10-year difference in male life expectancy between Glasgow city and Chiltern district.

Children living in our most deprived areas suffer poverty three times higher than those of parents throughout the rest of the country. People living in our most deprived areas are far more likely to be members of black and minority ethnic groups. We know that 70 per cent. of people from all ethnic minorities live in the 88 most deprived local authority districts. Taken as a whole, ethnic minority groups are more likely than the rest of the population to live in poor areas, to be unemployed, to have low incomes, to live in poor housing, to have poor health and to be the victims of crime.

Statistics tell their own story: 41 per cent. of African-Caribbean and 84 per cent. of Bangladeshi people have incomes that are less than half the national average compared with 28 per cent. of white people, and 14.7 per cent. of Bangladeshi and 13.8 per cent. of African-Caribbean people have suffered personal thefts or assaults compared with 9.6 per cent. of white people. Residents of deprived communities have put up with poor housing, poor health, poor education, few job

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opportunities and higher crime rates for far too long. The Government are committed to resolving those problems. They represent considerable challenges that the Government are determined to meet, and are meeting.

The Government are determined that nobody should be disadvantaged by where they live. There is still a long way to go before we achieve that, but we are starting to make a real difference. We are putting our principles into practice and adopting some new approaches, and it is those that I want to set out.

Linda Perham (Ilford, North): Does my hon. Friend accept the real need for investment and regeneration in London, which has many disadvantaged areas? My borough is seen as a leafy outer-London suburb, but five of the eight wards in my constituency are in the top 50 per cent. of the index of deprivation. However, there are pots of money in various sources of funding, for which we are not allowed to apply. Does my hon. Friend agree that Londoners face huge pressures as a result of higher living costs, especially in terms of housing and transport?

Ms Keeble: My hon. Friend is right about the position in London. One of the appalling factors is that the wealthiest communities and the poorest live side by side. Often, little can be done to relieve the poverty of some of those areas. The approach that we are taking, which I shall set out, will deal with my hon. Friend's point about areas of great affluence, or comparative affluence, which mask some areas of acute need. One of the advantages of our approach is that all areas can make an application where they can identify the areas of greatest need, and can seek ways to resolve the problems.

The key to the delivery of our objective of ensuring that everybody should have a decent and sustainable community is our neighbourhood renewal strategy. It can apply to areas of apparent affluence as well as to some of the hardest-hit communities.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): The hon. Lady is right. Will she acknowledge that there will be many areas of deprivation in other places that might be thought of as quite prosperous, such as market towns and boroughs in the countryside? She will know from her own history that Cheltenham has two of the most deprived boroughs in England. Does she agree that Cheltenham deserves as much support as many of the more obvious areas in the north of England?

Ms Keeble: The hon. Gentleman is right about the difficulty of targeting small pockets of disadvantage in otherwise affluent areas. We all know that virtually throughout the length and breadth of the country there are little pockets of disadvantage in areas of comparative affluence.

One of the criticisms that Labour Members always had of the approaches taken by the Conservative Government especially was that they did not target those pockets. A general improvement in the economy did not necessarily stretch to acutely disadvantaged areas. The approach that underpins our national strategy for neighbourhood

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renewal makes it possible even for relatively affluent areas to identify the needs of the most deprived communities, to target them and to meet them.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): Clearly, there are areas of considerable disadvantage next to areas that are not exactly well-heeled, but are relatively prosperous. That has consequences for local government finance and standard spending assessments and can lead to the loss of objective 2 status, as has occurred in my constituency, despite the massive rundown of manufacturing in north-east Derbyshire and Chesterfield. It is important to treat the problem where it exists. My hon. Friend mentioned ethnic minorities. North-east Derbyshire has one of the smallest ethnic minority populations in the country and therefore cannot draw from the funds designated for those minorities; nevertheless it is in need of assistance.

Ms Keeble: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that as long as combating disadvantage relies on bolting on new initiatives, we will not achieve the turnaround that we seek in the life chances of people living in the most deprived and disadvantaged communities. That is part of the thinking that underpins the national strategy for neighbourhood renewal. It is designed to address the problems that hon. Members have identified which affect pockets of disadvantage in areas of comparative affluence. That strategy is designed to revitalise our most disadvantaged communities and to ensure that they benefit not just from add-on measures, but from the Government's extra investment in mainstream public services. Our approach involves a radical long-term programme to help poor and excluded people lift themselves into mainstream society.

The national strategy is a series of practical initiatives involving everyone in our poorest neighbourhoods. It harnesses the enormous desire among communities, businesses, local agencies, service providers and residents to make the places where they live and work safer, friendlier and more prosperous. It is a different approach from what has gone before.

Previously, attempts to tackle area deprivation have tended to be prescriptive, top-down and short term. Too much attention was paid to small, fragmented initiatives at the expense of the main Government programmes for schools, hospitals and the police, which have such a massive impact on people's lives.

Previously, Government failed to note the importance of local economies and properly to co-ordinate their efforts. Perhaps most important, communities were never properly engaged as agents for change in themselves. There was too much emphasis on physical regeneration rather than on communities. Regeneration was something that happened to people rather than with them.

In the national strategy for neighbourhood renewal, we have learned from the mistakes of the past. We have found new and innovative ways of working based on three key principles. First, every community has its own set of problems, which no single national initiative on its own can solve. Secondly, local problems often respond best to local solutions, negotiated and implemented by local businesses, service providers and residents; and, thirdly,

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the best solutions are often owned by the community themselves, with everyone having a stake in the revival of their neighbourhood.

We therefore stress the need for local solutions co-ordinated and delivered by local people with the help and support of a national framework. We emphasise this area-based approach because we can map poverty. The poorest people have become more concentrated in small areas of acute need and, as has been mentioned this morning, many of the most acute differences lie within regions, cities and even boroughs. Our poorest neighbourhoods often exist in the shadow of some of the most prosperous areas. England's poorest ward, Benchill in Manchester, is only a few miles from the famously wealthy Wilmslow.

Local extremes apply to jobs as well. Some of the most deprived neighbourhoods lie only a mile or two from prosperous city centres where employers find it hard to fill vacancies. So we have to get down to the local level really to understand the problems and to deliver the right solutions for the people who live there, and that justifies a neighbourhood-based approach. It is part of the reason why the Government have applied their area-based approach to programmes such as the new deal for communities and the education and health action zones. As my hon. Friend the Member for North–East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) said, we have seen the value of making sure that all the mainstream programmes deliver properly for local people in ways that make a real difference. Combating disadvantage is not an add-on; some would say that it is the main purpose of public services, so mainstream services must bend to meet the needs of the most disadvantaged in our society. We have also seen the value of getting local people involved.

Those two concepts—delivering mainstream services better and involving communities—are the purpose behind local strategic partnerships that bring together residents and the public, private and voluntary sectors to identify local problems and deliver local solutions. They should not apply only to the most disadvantaged areas, but operate in areas of need in otherwise affluent areas such as Cheltenham and Redbridge.

Community involvement is crucial, not least because nobody better understands the strengths and weaknesses of an area than the local people. The private sector needs to be engaged because involving local businesses in neighbourhood renewal is key to rebuilding strong, sustainable communities with strong local economies. Improving neighbourhoods leads directly to greater business opportunities, by creating new markets and enabling employers to access better-skilled workers. So we are looking for ways to get local chambers of commerce and local businesses more involved in regeneration. We are also encouraging local communities to participate, although this can be difficult in communities which do not have a sound skills base. We are addressing this through a range of initiatives totalling some £107 million.

The neighbourhood renewal fund, worth £900 million over three years, provides extra resources for 88 of the most deprived local authority districts in England, but that does not mean that those districts should be the only ones looking to identify pockets of disadvantage and finding ways to tackle it.

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