Previous SectionIndexHome Page

10.48 am

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): I welcome the debate, and I echo the comments made by the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) about the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Daisley). It was an excellent speech in difficult circumstances, and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on making it. I urge his Whips to go easy on him over the coming weeks. That might give him the chance, for instance, to speak out against the public-private partnership. However, that will be up to him.

The hon. Gentleman managed to convince me that Brent has improved slightly, but he did not convince me that it is the best council in London, as that is, of course, the Liberal Democrat-controlled London borough of Sutton. I congratulate him, none the less, on the fact that he did not make a partisan speech and did not criticise Ken Livingstone. It was an entirely apolitical speech, and that is welcome.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury): The hon. Gentleman has just extolled the virtues of his Liberal Democrat-controlled council, but does he agree that the Liberal Democrats' commitment to tackling deprivation in our cities is shown by the number of Liberal Democrat Members who are in the Chamber?

Tom Brake: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I have no doubt that many of my colleagues are touring the most disadvantaged areas of their constituencies as this moment.

I thank the Urban Forum, Groundwork, the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, the Country Land and Business Association and the London borough of Sutton for their assistance in providing briefings for the debate. Reference to those organisations will, I hope, take away the partisan aspect of the debate, because they are actively involved on the front line in delivering regeneration. I will be inviting the Minister to respond to their comments.

Clearly, regeneration is not just about bricks and mortar but covers a range of areas: policing, access to good health services, housing and policies to tackle graffiti and to deal with abandoned cars, as well as regeneration policies. There is some optimism and there have been some success stories. The Minister and hon. Members have referred to those and I welcome them, but there are also some threats.

The Government's Green Paper on planning is perhaps one of those threats. There are proposals to abolish urban development plans. I am not sure how that will contribute to involving local communities actively in regeneration schemes. New business zones are being introduced that do not need planning consent, but I am not convinced that that is the best way to involve local communities in regeneration. Some of the organisations to which I have referred believe that one of the key problems is that it is difficult to get local communities involved in schemes such as the new deal for communities, and that there is still too great an emphasis on professionals or the local authority running schemes. I hope that the Minister will respond to that point in her winding-up speech.

8 Feb 2002 : Column 1175

I do not think any other Member has referred to regeneration in the rural environment. The concern of the Country Land and Business Association is that many rural communities have been badly hit by foot and mouth. There is perhaps a need to prop up many of the rural services on which those communities depend. The association provided some interesting figures: 78 per cent. of rural settlements do not have a general store, 72 per cent. do not have a small village shop and 53 per cent. are without a public house. Clearly the Government need to assist the process of ensuring the long-term viability of rural services and post offices.

Affordable housing is another of the association's key concerns. That is also an issue in the rural environment—hon. Members have already referred to it in the context of the urban environment, particularly London. According to the Countryside Agency, there is a growing problem of rural homelessness and insufficient affordable housing. The Government need to work with local authorities, private business and other providers to ensure that there is sufficient affordable housing in rural areas.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) rose

Tom Brake: I give way for what I am sure will be another constructive intervention.

Mr. Atkinson: The hon. Gentleman talks about rural society and rural problems. Does he agree that rural crime is one of the big issues?

Tom Brake: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, which was entirely constructive. As I said earlier, policing is a critical issue and although it does not have a direct impact on regenerating a particular area, we need to be aware of and to make constructive proposals about local communities' fear of crime.

The Urban Forum, which is an umbrella body for community and voluntary groups that have an interest in urban and regional policy and which was established in 1994, expresses concern, echoing comments by hon. Members, that Government programmes are on occasions so targeted that they exclude groups that are not geographically centred in a particular area: for example, people with disabilities and members of the black and ethnic minority communities, who are then unable to access funds. Because the targeting is so area-focused, it may end up assisting people who are less disadvantaged than people immediately outside that particular area. The Urban Forum has suggested that the focus on a very specific small area perhaps contributed to the problems last year with riots, where one community could look at another across the street, see that very large sums of money had been invested in that community but that nothing had spread literally across the road to their community. Targeting needs to be more sophisticated.

Some of the measures that the Government have put in place—for example, tax credits—can help, although the Urban Forum is concerned that the system is complex and that the interpretation of the rules varies from place to place, making it perhaps not as helpful as it could be to people on lower incomes and to disadvantaged areas.

The Government must ensure that the assessment of the viability of projects is conducted thoroughly before they or organisations such as the Housing Corporation agree to

8 Feb 2002 : Column 1176

fund certain schemes. I am sure that other hon. Members will have seen the Heriot-Watt report, which talks about literally millions of pounds being spent since 1998, so it is not something that happened under a Conservative Administration. I am surprised that no Member has yet referred to this. Over the past four years, the Housing Corporation has built 10,000 affordable homes for people on low incomes, mainly in the north, but either those homes are empty or the tenants want to move out.

If there are limited funds, let us at least ensure that the money is spent in the right place and that homes are not being built that are not needed. An article on the report refers to the 20,000 to 30,000 houses that are needed in London to meet demand from key workers. I represent a London constituency, and many social workers and teachers have been to see me about the enormous difficulties they face in finding accommodation in and around the London borough of Sutton.

There are very few affordable homes. Under criteria for being able to access affordable homes, people are required to earn a certain income, which often they do not earn even though they are in work. I am sure that the Minister has studied the Heriot-Watt report. I hope she will say what the Government intend to do to ensure that what money is available is spent well and provides homes and regeneration projects that are successful.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for mentioning that report. Does he agree that the real scandal is that the Housing Corporation had adequate evidence that the homes were not going to be wanted, yet it still carried on funding them?

Tom Brake: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. It is clear from the article on the report that in the area where homes were built, there was already a large number of empty homes. Had the Housing Corporation looked around the surrounding area, it could probably have easily deduced that the homes were not going to be used and would remain empty. That is a crucial point, to which I hope the Minister will respond. We need to ensure that there is effective assessment of the viability of projects before they proceed.

We also need more community involvement. A report by Cambridge university—I understand that it is available on the DTLR website—assessed the success, or otherwise, of single regeneration budget projects. It clearly demonstrates the link between the degree of local community involvement in SRBs and the benefit that communities feel they have derived from such projects. In the view of the Urban Forum, even more community involvement is needed. As a counterpoint, perhaps there should be less Government involvement, or at least less controlling, centralising influence over the projects.

The Urban Forum raised the key issue of the provision of support for voluntary groups in deprived or disadvantaged areas. I am sure that hon. Members who have an active council for voluntary service in their constituency will concur with the view of the forum that where there is an active CVS—in my case, the Sutton CVS—which has core funding, ensuring continued voluntary support for voluntary and community groups year after year after year, there is much greater involvement in and activity to assist with regeneration projects.

Next Section

IndexHome Page