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House of Commons

Wednesday 16 March 2005

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

English Partnerships

1. Mr. Bill Olner (Nuneaton) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the work of English Partnerships. [221847]

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott): English Partnerships is the national regeneration agency. It is responsible for the national brownfield strategy and has played a key role in increasing the percentage of new homes built on brownfield land from 56 per cent. in 1997 to 67 per cent. in 2003. English Partnerships is also responsible for the development of the growth areas, the millennium communities, coalfield regeneration and the housing pathfinder programme. During the current spending round, EP will invest £2.2 billion to create sustainable communities, including £1 billion from receipts. On top of that, EP aims to lever in a further £2.5 billion of private sector investment. Finally, it is also running our competition to build high-quality homes for £60,000, so that more people on low incomes can get a foot on the housing ladder.

Mr. Olner: I commend the fact that my right hon. Friend is continuing to fund English Partnerships well. EP is doing a wonderful job in Pride in Camp Hill, in my constituency, in seeking the regeneration of both housing and industry. I have issued him an invitation before, but I really would like him to come and see what that money is doing in real terms, and what English Partnerships is doing to regenerate the communities that need that investment.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks about the important role of English Partnerships, and I note his invitation to visit his constituency. I suppose I shall be visiting many places in the next few weeks, and I shall take the opportunity to pass on his praise about the excellent work of English Partnerships in increasing the investment of public and private money in regeneration. The Opposition are proposing to cut £1 billion off that programme, which
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would mean cutting back on social housing, housing for first-time buyers, and pathfinder programmes—but what's new? That is what they always do.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): What would the Deputy Prime Minister say to my constituents who find that this unelected quango is foisting a huge number of extra homes on the RAF staff college site in Bracknell against the wishes of the local residents and their elected representatives?

The Deputy Prime Minister: My first advice would be to tell them to vote Labour. Apart from that, I would point out that English Partnerships was set up by the previous Conservative Administration. It is an excellent body, and we have made it into more of an intervention tool than it was under the previous Administration. We are trying to build new housing in Bracknell, a move that the local authority very much supports. There is some difficulty about the infrastructure, but people there desperately want more housing. We have tried to buy more public land, which will give us the opportunity to provide more housing, which is desperately needed, particularly in the right hon. Gentleman's area.

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that English Partnerships has been extremely helpful in my constituency, in assisting Lancaster city council with the west end masterplan in Morecambe, which deals with housing regeneration in seaside towns? Does he also agree that, when we are dealing with private sector housing and compulsory purchase, we must be very sensitive to the residents who are directly affected and ensure that the city council takes their views into consideration? I welcome the support from English Partnerships, however.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her kind remarks. She is absolutely right: English Partnerships has shown great sensitivity in consulting local authorities, communities and other stakeholders on the changes that have had to be brought about. The pathfinder programmes are an area of great sensitivity, but they are providing homes that people want, and it is important that they go through the proper consultation.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): Given the abysmal record in many parts of the public sector of managing publicly owned land, is it not time that Ministers asked English Partnerships to develop a more coherent strategy for using that valuable land? Since the senior management at English Partnerships has improved recently, why does not the Deputy Prime Minister ask EP and the local authorities together to compile and publish a full register of all publicly owned land, not least so that that land can be made available to tackle the crisis in affordable housing?

The Deputy Prime Minister: That is precisely what we have been doing. English Partnerships has been recording all the available brownfield sites, and I want it to ensure that all the land that is known in the public sector should be available. In that regard, the Government have made a bid for land used by the
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Department of Health and the Ministry of Defence. The land in Bracknell mentioned by the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) is also a classic example. We want to use public land to provide affordable homes. The idea that we have developed is that the Government can hold on to the land while charging only for the price of the construction on it. It is an idea that has caught on, despite the industry telling me that homes for £60,000 could not be built. It now admits that that can happen, and I notice that French Ministers adopted the idea last week.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): Will the Deputy Prime Minister visit the Gedling borough area again in the next couple of months, to look at the excellent work that English Partnerships is doing at the former Gedling colliery site? It has made £2 million available for regeneration there. On his visit, will he also press the Tory-controlled Gedling borough council to get its finger out and grant planning permission there?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I will leave it to my hon. Friend to give such very direct advice, but English Partnerships is certainly playing a major role in the coalfield communities. Many of them have been transformed, and given hope where there was only despair after the massive closure of the pits and the communities by the previous Administration. It is a delight to visit those areas now to see that they are providing, in some cases, more jobs than were involved in the pits themselves. New ideas and innovations, very much led by English Partnerships, have brought the public and private sectors together. The Glasshoughton site is now a ski instruction area, which employs more people than were involved in the mine. The chief ski instructor is an ex-miner, which is good.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con): English Partnerships has expressed concerns about the Deputy Prime Minister's policy of demolishing perfectly good terraced housing. I was brought up in a Victorian terraced house and I remember with affection the enormous community spirit in the area, and I also remember the heart being torn out of those communities in the 1960s by transportation to soulless tower blocks. Why does he want to cram more people into the south of England and abandon the north of England to the bulldozer?

The Deputy Prime Minister: It always amazes me when hon. Members make criticisms about knocking houses down. The hon. Gentleman should have seen the state of some of the houses that are being knocked down in these pathfinder areas: they have an outside toilet and are being sold for £1,600. It is not possible to make the proper improvements to them. Many of them benefited from the previous Government's regeneration programmes, which tarted up the windows and painted the doors. They call that regeneration. We want a fundamental change, which in some cases means that if we want communities with green spaces some houses might have to be knocked down, but only the ones that really cannot be repaired to good value. This is about lifting up a community spirit and being involved in the area, but I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that he must not rely totally on the press for advice, as he does in his comments about Brentwood when he gets on
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about the Gypsies. He is the one who cancelled the programme, with the rest of his Administration, for the provision of land for Gypsies.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is aware that we got the money to deal with Shirebrook pit tip. We flattened it, and there is now a factory on there that will be employing 1,000 people by the end of this year—more than worked down the pit at the end, when the Tories closed it. That is because of our co-operation with the Labour authorities and English Partnerships. Is he aware that we have another project on the Markham pit site, where we are going to get the junction from the M1 straight on to the site? There will be 5,000 jobs—English Partnerships again. We are turning the whole thing round. Eight great Budgets, and still the show goes on.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am very grateful for the kind remarks of my hon. Friend, who, living in the coalfield communities, knows exactly what has been done by English Partnerships. He came to see me early in 1997, asking what we could do for the coalfield communities, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale). I put together a £450 million programme. It is a great delight to go to coalfield communities now to see that they have hope, jobs and a future. How different that is from the previous Administration's destruction of the coalfield areas.

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