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Westminster Hall

Thursday 30 June 2005

[Mr. David Marshall in the Chair]

Problem Estates

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Kevin Brennan.]

2.30 pm

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas) : I welcome the opportunity to set out what the Government have achieved in turning around problem estates, and to describe what we shall continue to do in the coming years.

The Government have shown clear leadership on this agenda since the earliest days of their first term in 1997. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister delivered his very first speech as Prime Minister from the Aylesbury estate in Southwark to highlight our commitment to bringing jobs, skills, opportunities and ambition to everyone.

In 2001 we launched the national strategy for neighbourhood renewal, and set the goal that within 10 to 20 years no one should be seriously disadvantaged by where they lived. I think that the press referred to it as the ending of the postcode lottery. That was, and still is, an ambitious goal, but it is essential.

It was and is unacceptable that the gap between the most deprived estates and the rest of the country should have grown so wide, with such differences in job opportunities, health prospects and, indeed, life expectancy, educational attainment, housing quality, levels of crime, quality of the local environment and many other factors. How could successful, thriving and sustainable communities be built when so many neighbourhoods suffered from such intractable problems? However, it is also morally, socially and economically wrong to have so many people living on the fringes of society. We knew that urgent action was required.

We often talk about statistics, schemes and funding measurements. We talk about public service agreements, local area agreements, floor targets, the safer and stronger communities fund, liveability and sustainability. We often use jargon that the Minister for Local Government does not understand, let alone his constituents. Therefore I want to describe what the unfairness of social exclusion means.

I recently met a volunteer for a Sure Start scheme—one of the most successful schemes that the Government have set up. I think that there is cross-party consensus on that. The volunteer was the matriarch, if I may use that word, of the estate. She is a grandmother and she is 38 years old. I thought, "What is such a young woman doing in such a responsible position?" That was my prejudice and stereotyping, but she was taking that responsibility. I asked her what she had been doing that evening. She said that she had just visited a flat on the estate where a six-month-old baby girl had been left alone for several hours, was lying in a urine and excrement-stained nappy, had not been fed and was
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clearly distressed. The baby's mother was walking the streets of Manchester earning a living to pay for a heroin addiction.

A colleague from Liverpool this week told me of an attack by feuding gangs on a flat in his constituency, which left a terrified family waiting three hours for a police response, only then to be interviewed in the police car because the police themselves were afraid to leave the car and go into the estate.

Examples such as those are unfortunately too frequent. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will recognise such stories and others of witness intimidation, loan sharks and money laundering—often enforced by violence—and circles of despair involving tranquilliser addiction, strong lager and other alcoholic drinks, domestic violence, dysfunctional relationships and public servants wanting to leave areas to get new jobs as soon as possible. The list goes on. That is the reality of life for too many people in our most deprived estates.

In the middle of that crucible, we have to stir in the chemicals of community politics. There is cynicism about the intentions of politicians. There are jealousies and rivalries between individuals, families and different groups. The daily struggle to maintain involvement and commitment is an obstacle for volunteers and participants. The here today, gone tomorrow media can turn up to cover a story after months, if not years, of hard work by community participants, local authorities and other agencies, only to trash again the reputation of an estate in a simple headline or news bulletin.

Those are the problems. Sometimes, because of what I call estate politics, there are rival points of view. A local rent-a-mouth can trash the work of the residents association, MP, council or other representatives, and set back the reputation of the estate, with the consequence that it becomes more difficult to develop lettings policies and attract mixed communities. We are working to break those circles of deprivation, as well as improving the economic and social situation.

Estate politics can be brutal, frightening, frustrating and spirit breaking, especially when one comes up against organised crime and all that goes with it in some of our worst areas. However, it can also be exhilarating, rewarding, real fun and successful. Why? Because the people involved in trying to improve their estates—the ones who are prepared to stand up and say that they will not tolerate the mess, the ones who respond positively and say, "We can do something about this"—are some of the most wonderful people in our country. I pay tribute to them and I am sure that hon. Members of all parties will want to do the same.

When I talk about PSAs, LAAs, floor targets and the rest of the jargon, I ask the House to bear in mind the reality of estate life and the decency of the overwhelming majority of people who live there and want to turn the estates around. The Government are the friends of those people. We are at war with estate deprivation. We are fighting that war with the residents, not against them, and we are determined to win.

Let me report some progress. By 2001 we had started to support the most disadvantaged communities, for example, by helping people move off benefit through the   new deal programme of welfare to work, by transforming the quality of social housing and by
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working to raise standards in health and education. However, even then it was clear that we needed to do more to narrow the gap—to address the inequalities in health, life expectancy, job chances, educational attainment and quality of life.

Since 2001 we have launched a series of programmes to support neighbourhood renewal. They include having given over £4 billion-worth of regeneration funding directly to communities through the 88 neighbourhood renewal fund areas. We also have 39 new deal for communities partnerships targeting specific areas, most of them within the NRF areas, and 35 neighbourhood management pathfinders looking at how we can empower neighbourhoods, and some 245 neighbourhood warden schemes. There are other funding routes, and we have invested £552 million in schemes to address the problems caused by low housing demand and abandonment in nine areas.

Often when we talk about these schemes we see a plethora of initiatives, acronyms and language that can be difficult to get our heads round. These schemes matter on the ground. They are turning around our problem estates.

That investment has paid dividends. Areas with neighbourhood wardens have seen a 27 per cent. fall in crime while there have been slight increases in crime in similar areas without wardens. Many new deal areas have also seen real improvements. Let me give some examples. Unemployment in the Bristol NDC area is falling faster than the city average and fell from 12 per cent. to 9 per cent. over a three-year period. Permanent exclusions from schools in east Brighton have fallen from 15 to five over a four-year period. Those are not huge numbers but there has been a steady fall and a steady closing of the gap in inequality.

NDC funding in Newcastle has created 301 jobs; it has helped 530 people get into a job. Some 816 have obtained qualifications who would not otherwise have done so. The gap in recorded crime between the NDC area in Bradford and the rest of the district has been reduced by 84.9 per cent. In other words, five years ago people living in the NDC area in Bradford were 90 per cent. more likely to suffer crime than those living in other parts of Bradford. Such inequalities are unacceptable to the Government, which is why we are targeting them.

We asked people in the Kensington NDC in Liverpool whether they were satisfied with the quality of the local environment. We tracked those measurements over the years in all those areas. Satisfaction rates in those areas have more than doubled. Our strategy has been described by some as search and destroy. We are searching for and destroying social exclusion. We now have indices of multiple deprivation called super output areas. It is a lovely title, I know, but it means that we can now identify pockets of poverty at sub-ward level in addition to the area, ward and borough level. That is helping to target and destroy that discrimination and social exclusion.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): In relation to super output areas and neighbourhood renewal funding, it was always the intention that
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neighbourhood renewal funding would be a long-term support for the most deprived neighbourhoods. I understand that the Department is reviewing the future funding on neighbourhood renewal. Can my hon. Friend the Minister give deprived areas such as mine any reassurance that they will continue to be funded or will receive some transitional funding so that the work he is ably outlining this afternoon may continue?

Mr. Woolas : I want to pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend in campaigning on this issue. He has rightly recognised the paradox of regeneration strategies. Simply put, when they work the area is lifted out of the deprivation indices and so may not qualify for the money in future. I know that it is a problem that the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) has grappled with in his professional capacity. My hon. Friend rightly says that consideration of the future funding of the neighbourhood renewal schemes is going on at present. He will understand that I cannot pre-empt those announcements. First, it would be wrong to do so and, secondly, decisions have not been taken as yet.

The Government and the departmental advisers are aware of the damage that can be done by dislocating funding streams. When an area is coming out of deprivation or has had problems that have worsened, one has to consider whether the funding formulas, which obviously have to be fair, should take that into account. I have already listened to the representation made by my hon. Friend on behalf of his constituents in the run-up to the decisions. The only reassurance I can give him at this time is that the Department and the Government are well aware of his point.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): Before the Minister leaves this point, will he address something similar? I refer to the problem of time scales, not only for putting resources into an area for the work that needs to be done, but for measurement. With some of the areas that we are concerned about, it might be some years before we know whether long-term, sustained improvements have been made. That is a difficult situation, because it will not be possible for the Government to sustain the original level of funding right through to the end of the period, at which point someone might be able to say, "This has been a success." Looking at the studies on renewal issues, I am aware that if too arbitrary a time scale is used to say, "We've done it", it might not be long enough. Will the Minister assure hon. Members that long-term recognition of sustainability will be built into calculations, so that areas will not be left unlooked-at for another generation—whether or not the original funding can remain the same—to ensure that initial improvements have been continued?

Mr. Woolas : The hon. Gentleman makes a valid, sensible point. The other side of the coin is that if an area is perceived to have been regenerated because it has met some targets, withdrawing funding could lead to an immediate reversal. That is why the buzz word "sustainability" is so important.

The NDC is a 15-year programme. The neighbourhood renewal fund, on which it is anticipated that we will make an announcement in the next few weeks, will be for a two-year period. Bearing in mind the
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points made by the hon. Gentleman and by my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love), I would say that sustainability must be a major consideration in the allocation of the funds; otherwise, the danger is, as the hon. Gentleman says, that the improvement is self-defeating.

I shall draw a general point from the points that I have listed so far, which is that it is not only the areas involved in the neighbourhood renewal strategy that are intended to benefit; there is a much broader, national interest in turning around deprived areas, whether that has to do with less crime, better educational attainment, more people in work or whatever. All those things benefit the country as a whole for two reasons. One is the common-sense reason that if there is less crime on an estate, fewer resources are required from the police and the other is criminal justice services.

Let me give some statistics. A child is five times more likely to be killed in a road accident if they live in one of the 88 neighbourhood renewal fund areas than if they live outside those areas. Half of all crime in England takes place within those 88 areas. Someone is more likely to wait longer for housing benefit and therefore the ability to move from welfare to work and to sustain their family, if they live in an NRF area than if they live outside those areas. About half of all deaths by fire in this country happen in an NRF area. That is the scale of the inequality that affects the people who live in those deprived areas, but the benefits of addressing and solving the problems are seen throughout the country in terms of resources saved and the ability to put resources into other areas.

There is another reason. If someone lives, for example, in what I think is called the Bridge ward in Nottingham, they have only a 5 per cent. chance of getting five GCSEs. If someone lives at the other end of Nottingham, in what I think is called the Wollaton ward, they have an 85 per cent. chance of getting five GCSEs. None of us believes that the children of the most deprived ward in Nottingham are inherently less intelligent than the children of the richest ward. None of us believes that—it cannot be true. It may be that a child in that poorest ward—or a number of children—will be    successful in education, if they are given the opportunity. They may go on to university, get a degree, become a successful scientist, get a Nobel prize and bring riches to our country. The point of our strategy is not—[Interruption.] My reference to Nottingham invokes an immediate response in the form of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) entering the Chamber, for which I am grateful. It may be that that child in Nottingham, living in that deprived area, will bring wealth and opportunity not just to himself, but to our wider country.

However, targeted area-based programmes alone will not turn around the entrenched problems of many of our most deprived communities. We also need to ensure that key public services work most effectively in those deprived areas. As a result, we have the national public service agreements, to which I have referred. They have specified improvements that must be made in those areas, ensuring that a fair share of the increases in funding to public services goes towards improving those areas. That is a major step change in Government policy, as mainstream public spending must be more effectively targeted.
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Mr. Love : One of the biggest concerns about area-based initiatives has been the plethora of different initiatives from different Departments, which do not make much sense to local communities. I know that, in the past, the Department has said that it will rationalise all those area-based initiatives. How is the Minister getting on in making sense of what happens at local level to the people who actually live there?

Mr. Woolas : My hon. Friend's intervention is extremely timely in relation to the next paragraph of my speech and I am grateful to him for that. It shows that he is following the issues closely and I commend him for that.

Last week I was able to announce the second phase of local area agreements, which I shall spend a few moments in explaining. We have announced that our goal is for all areas to have a local area agreement by 2007. The second wave that we announced last week means that there are now 86 local area agreements, covering all top-tier authorities. In essence, a local area agreement brings funding together, so that the public agencies work through their local strategic partnerships to ensure that we move away from the confusing situation in which there are not only huge numbers of funding streams, but high numbers of performance indicators, meaning that agencies and public servants too often are looking over their shoulders rather than looking at the front-line delivery.

As I said to the Local Government Chronicle conference last week, I believe that local area agreements will bring about a revolution in local area funding. They will cajole, if not force, local authorities and other public service agencies to work together. They will, whether through pooling or aligning the money, clarify what is available. They will diminish ring-fencing to a substantial point although, from some points of view, there are dangers in diminishing ring-fencing. Most of all they will mean that all the agencies, whether those are voluntary sector agencies, private partners or public sector agencies, will have to face the same direction, through a public service agreement.

I think that rolling out the local area agreements and speeding up the programme will bring about huge benefits. Targeted programmes, more effective mainstream programmes and the efforts of front-line staff have led to significant progress. For example, positive progress is evident in education across a range of measures. The gap between the average pass rate for five good GCSEs in the 88 neighbourhood renewal fund districts and England as a whole has narrowed. We are succeeding in improving educational attainment. The gap in achievement for numeracy and literacy levels for 11-year-olds has also shrunk. Hon. Members may remember that our goal is not just to improve attainment levels but also to narrow the gap between the English average and the neighbourhood renewal fund areas.

Most pleasingly, employment rates have increased across the country and the gap has narrowed between deprived areas and the rest of England. In addition, new ways of delivering support have been put in place with more power to local partnerships and an increased focus on community consultation and engagement. Someone said, "Lots done, but a lot more to do," and that is true of the neighbourhood renewal fund strategy too.
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Four years after the launch of the strategy, and although we have achieved a lot and changed the attitude of many people, the document "Making it Happen in Deprived Neighbourhoods", which was published earlier this year and charted the successes of the strategy, acknowledged that there was still more to do to create sustainable communities free from the blight of the sort of deprivation and exclusion that I described in my opening remarks.

The No. 10 strategy unit has recently made an assessment of how we are progressing and has made recommendations for the future. It reported that, although progress has been made, substantial challenges remain. For example, 8 million people— more than 15 per cent. of the population—still live in deprived areas, using objective judgments. More than 70 per cent. of the minority ethnic population in England live in those deprived areas. The challenges that remain are huge.

The report also made it clear that area-based deprivation is caused by a combination of factors that form the cycle of decline and that we need to build on key lessons learned since 2001. Therefore, future action will focus on three things. First, it will focus on revitalising local economies by tackling unemployment and raising economic activity.

Economic growth and a thriving private sector are crucial to sustainable regeneration, so we are now engaging successfully with business through a number of projects. The business brokers scheme has helped to bring businesses together with the public sector. The underserved markets initiative is attracting investment into deprived areas. Many of our partners in business are working with us on that. Examples include Merrill Lynch working in Tower Hamlets and, in Yorkshire, Yorkshire Water helping to provide jobs and improve skills in Bradford. The Co-operative bank is, as one would expect, playing a key role in the scheme by, for example, providing training opportunities to unemployed people in Skelmersdale.

The new £300 million initiative known as the local enterprise growth initiative was announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in the March 2005 Budget. It is hugely significant. It will encourage local authorities to develop proposals for increasing enterprise and economic opportunity in deprived areas and will further enhance private-sector involvement in local economic regeneration.

We are not starry eyed about the project. We know what the lack of the private sector in deprived areas can mean. Often there is a thriving private sector in our worst estates. The problem is that it is illegal and does not pay any taxes. Our goal is to erode that and bring people into legitimate businesses. Often such areas have no private sector. There are some estates in our country where there are no shops. Therefore, local people cannot get jobs as retail workers and perhaps do not have the means to travel elsewhere. Investing in such simple things can not only make a huge difference, but point out to the private sector where there is a market for jobs, and goods and services. Alongside the local authority business growth initiative, which will reward local
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authorities directly if there is an increase in the number of businesses paying business rates, those two factors can have a big impact.

Mr. Love : I apologise to my hon. Friend for making so many interventions, but I have an interest in this subject. I agree with his comments about the need to ensure that the local economy thrives in our most deprived areas, because that will do more than anything else to raise them from their current status. However, one of the difficulties is that economic regeneration is spearheaded by the regional development agencies—and in London by the London Development Agency—while social regeneration is spearheaded by the local strategic partnerships, with the local authority usually taking the lead role. That is the dichotomy. Although I understand why it must exist, I wonder what efforts the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Department of Trade and Industry are making to ensure that those two agencies gel locally to improve our communities.

Mr. Woolas : Far from regretting my hon. Friend's intervention, I welcome it because he makes an important point. He highlights the potential dichotomy that all Governments have faced—I know that the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire is familiar with this point.

Economic regeneration and growth, for the country as a whole, require Government initiatives to look at where growth potential is greatest. For example, this week I visited the Park Royal partnership in north-west London, which is the largest industrial estate in Europe. The estate provides some 40,000 jobs and is home to around 19,000 businesses. It is a powerhouse, not only of north-west London but of UK plc. The Government and the ODPM are investing in that industrial park, because that is where growth is strong and where jobs are being created. We are trying to ensure that the park gives benefits to deprived areas in north-west London—in other words, that local people get the jobs. That is our first criterion, and the initiative is funded by the London Development Agency.

In social regeneration and turning around problem estates, the emphasis is not on such initiatives, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton said. Distributing the money only on the basis of economic growth would perpetuate the divisions that we are talking about. We are trying to square that circle.

Crucially, there are three points. First, with their roll-out to the whole country, the LAAs now have a fourth funding stream, which is economic regeneration. That will encourage local authorities and other public, private and voluntary sector partners to focus on economic growth. Secondly, the local authority area business growth initiative, which is making significant sums of money available, will provide that incentive to local councils and square the circle of the devolution-centralisation argument about business rates—that is, whether they should be national or local. Interestingly, the local authority with the fastest business growth rate measured by the number of new businesses paying business rates is Bolsover. That is because of the regeneration money that has been put in, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) for that. The third element is, as I have said, the
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£300 million that has been made available for the local enterprise growth initiative. In other words, we are trying to marshal our forces and target them on social regeneration, to ensure that economic—in the sense of private sector—regeneration is a central part of the process. In many respects, that is one of the most exciting proposals.

Ministers are often criticised, sometimes fairly and sometimes unfairly, for not making announcements to the House before they make announcements to the press, so I am pleased to be able to say that in advancement of the local enterprise growth initiative I can announce here and now that we are making a further £10 million available to eligible local authorities so that they can take stock of their economic potential in the most deprived areas and put forward proposals for use of the local enterprise growth initiative money. I thought that I should announce that initiative to the House first, rather than to those outside, as this debate is taking place. I would have done so anyway, as I am sure my hon. Friends recognise.

Following the stocktaking that we carried out, the second purpose is improving housing and the local environment, and reducing concentrations of disadvantaged households in order to have better housing, higher quality design and better places to live and work.

Our five-year plan "People, Places, Prosperity" set out earlier this year the action we will take to ensure that everyone has a decent place to live—places they are proud of and respect, and where antisocial behaviour and misuse of the local environment are not tolerated. We are encouraging more intensive housing management, which I believe is one of the most important factors, in the most deprived neighbourhoods, to bring about better management and maintenance, which will help to reduce crime and antisocial behaviour, leading to the increased popularity of the areas concerned and greater demand for housing there.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): I thank the Minister for his generosity in giving way, especially as I did not arrive in the Chamber until after he had begun his speech. This is one of those occasions when hon. Members watching television in their rooms can be encouraged to attend a debate, as I was when I heard some of the sensible things that my hon. Friend was saying.

Does the Minister accept that wherever we have put a human face on the Government's intervention in problems on estates and elsewhere there has been a high success rate—for example, where we have encouraged bobbies on the beat, police community support officers and neighbourhood wardens?

The Minister reminded me that in the city of Nottingham the arm's-length management organisation scheme—Nottingham City Homes—is up and running. It did exactly what my hon. Friend said and created patch managers, who have between 300 and 400 homes under their wing. They are directly concerned, hands-on and well known to the people there. Everywhere we put a human face to deal with these problems people respond. They are in touch with others and it makes a real impact on the ground, as opposed to some of the partnership strategy, airy-fairy acronyms we have got
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used to over the last 10 years. I encourage the Minister to carry on in that vein and to put real people in real jobs on the ground.

Mr. Woolas : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those comments, especially as I referred to his constituency earlier. I add to his remarks by saying that last week we announced a further 61 private finance initiative and ALMO schemes, which will invest another £3 billion to tackle more than 125,000 non-decent homes. One of this Government's great successes has been to make people's homes better. Like my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, I acknowledge that our priority has been to make those homes decent rather than to build extra social housing—we have done that too, but not as much as we could have done had we not prioritised decent homes. But that is the right decision, and I say that as someone who used to live in a house that was not decent. Tenants will recognise that.

I shall draw my remarks to a conclusion, Mr. Marshall, as I have spoken for longer than I intended and I want other hon. Members to be able to contribute.

The evidence shows that the high visibility of wardens, police community support officers, estate caretakers, Sure Start workers and volunteers on the estate, combined with a sense of ownership through what we call neighbourhood empowerment—basically, putting together residents with suits—can dramatically improve an area. Those who think that their area is better off and who want to increase that measurement should put wardens, PCSOs and other high visibility workers in there; they will find that it works. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides would agree.

With the range of initiatives that I have outlined, we have refocused our policy. We are determined to plough ahead with our strategy. We want local public service agencies to work together. We believe that it will improve clarity for neighbourhoods. We believe that it will improve the services received by individuals on those estates. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which is spearheading that approach across Government, will use the local area agreements to ensure better co-ordination across Whitehall. We will need joined-up Government if the strategy is to be effective, but most indicators show that the gap between the most deprived areas and the rest is narrowing, and of that we can be proud. We know that many of our estates are intolerable for those who live on them, and we are determined to win the war against deprivation.

Thank you, Mr. Marshall, for allowing me the freedom to speak for longer than I intended. I apologise to the Chamber if I have tried Members' patience.

3.12 pm

Mr. Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the Minister. I have never before been called to speak this early in a parliamentary debate, so I can happily delude myself that my parliamentary seniority has increased.

I start by saying how much I agree with the Prime Minister's pledge, to which the Minister referred, that by 2010 no one should be seriously disadvantaged by where they live. I was shocked to hear the Minister say that about half the crime in our country occurs in the 88 neighbourhood renewal fund areas, of which
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Hartlepool is one. However, I am pleased that he said that the war on problem estates will be won. I am happy to report that crime in Hartlepool is down by 25 per cent. over the past 12 months, so the war is being won there.

The objective that no one should be seriously disadvantaged by where they live has to be at the forefront of the Government's domestic agenda, so that we fulfil the principle that everybody, whether they live in Henley or in Hartlepool, can achieve their potential, and that residents of Kensington high street and of Kendal Road in my constituency are all free from fear of crime, have a clean local environment and have the same access to public services and opportunities for employment.

I shall concentrate on two points. First, I shall identify the indicators that show that an area is in decline. Secondly, I shall outline some of the positive things that I have seen in Hartlepool, which have produced real benefits for the so-called problem estates, and which I hope will provide the opportunity for my constituency to receive even more money from the Government.

The need to turn around problem estates is the consequence of decades of neglect and disinvestment. Generation upon generation of families in certain areas of my constituency have been left on the scrapheap in the wake of industrial decline, and by the policies advanced by Governments in the 1980s and 1990s. The attention that the present Government have had to pay to neighbourhood renewal is partly the result of neglect by previous Governments.

Turning around problem estates is very expensive. I would much rather spend the rewards of sustained economic prosperity that this Government have worked for on health and education, so I am extremely interested in pointers that outline the factors that identify an early decline in estates. That area has been addressed by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, which has published guidance on how to identify neighbourhoods at risk of falling into decline. Its 12 indicators of decline are not complex mathematical formulae, but simple common sense. Signs of decay include high levels of litter and graffiti, an empty property rate of 4.5 per cent., an increase in rented housing, low voter turnout in elections—below 15 per cent.—poor academic attainment, higher than average rates of unemployment and more than 200 recorded crimes a year per 1,000 residents.

These indicators should be monitored by local authorities and other agencies, and when they are triggered, agencies and government should move in together swiftly to stop the rot. The policy of "zero tolerance of grot and broken windows" should be embraced throughout the country. The royal institution states that

Quick and effective intervention on relatively minor issues will save billions of pounds in the long run.

I have seen such decline in my own constituency. Close to the town centre in Hartlepool is Thornton street, a beautiful row of large, Victorian terraced
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houses. The decline started slowly but then accelerated. Litter and broken windows led to an increase in rented properties, and some homeowners were stuck in negative equity as the private landlords moved in. Now, the decline is horrific to see, and the local new deal for communities, which has a 10-year programme to spend some £50 million in the constituency, is having to spend millions of pounds to regenerate the area. I cannot help thinking that that might have been avoided had the authorities moved in quickly at the first hint of decline and had the Government provided them with the money to deal with the problem early.

At the moment, cash for regeneration is concentrated on the most deprived areas. I do not suggest that that policy should be changed; Hartlepool has benefited from neighbourhood renewal funding and from the new deal for communities, and this week it was one of the areas to receive a local area agreement, for which I thank the Minister. It is right that we lift the most deprived areas out of poverty and misery, but I would like the Government to consider providing additional resources to tackle estates that are not yet classified as deprived, but are at risk of becoming problematic. I hope that that is something that he will consider.

I do not want to spend a great deal of time on the following issue, as it deserves a debate of its own, but I make the point that the Government need to do more to tackle problem private landlords. There are still landlords living here and abroad who have bought portfolios of property without having a clue as to where their houses are. Such landlords have never visited their properties and continue to draw housing benefit without any regard for the social fabric of the local community. I urge the Minister, in conjunction with the Minister for Housing and Planning, to address the issue, so that problem landlords are obliged to put something back into the neighbourhoods that they have so often helped to bring into decline.

I congratulate the Government on having provided the resources to enable us to tackle the problem of declining estates. We are having real success in some neighbourhoods in Hartlepool. Let me outline some of the most positive moves. The Burbank estate springs to mind. Five years ago, that estate, which is close to the town centre, had reached an all-time low. It was experiencing exactly the indicators of decline that the RICS mentioned. The estate had been poorly designed in the first place in the 1960s and 1970s, and it provided hiding places and rat runs; it was a good breeding ground for crime. Buildings had fallen into disrepair; residents suffered from high unemployment and poor skills; burglary and drug addiction were on the increase; morale among residents was at an all-time low; and some people became prisoners in their own homes.

The Government identified Burbank as a deprived area and provided new investment through the police priority area and community safety initiative schemes. Further resources were given via NRF moneys. But, most crucially, the residents took charge. Not many did so at first—it was perhaps no more than half a dozen—but they said that enough was enough and began to take charge of their future and that of their estate.

Although I must acknowledge what the Government have done, I recognise that, as the Minister rightly stated in his opening speech, the true heroes are the local residents—residents such as Sheila Dowson, as what
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Sheila does not know about Burbank is simply not worth knowing. I am talking about people such as Andrew Thorn, about whom it is said, "If you want something doing in Burbank, or in Hartlepool in general, you ask Andrew", and people such as Clive Hall and Norma Morrish, who are ordinary people doing fantastic things in their neighbourhoods. I am also thinking about residents such as Paul Nugent, who is afflicted in the same way as I am by being an accountant. Despite that affliction, Paul is doing extremely good work in the community and has been a leading light in the formation of Burbank Uniting Residents Together—the BURT group.

The improvements to the estate have been fantastic, and they have obviously been aided by Government money and policies on crime and economic prosperity. Burglary and car crime have been virtually eliminated, new skills are being learned and the general environment has been tidied up. The improvement has been achieved by different agencies—the council, the local primary care trust and Housing Hartlepool—all working together. Crucially, however, it has also been achieved because of the massive contribution of the residents. We are talking not about Government money or services provided to the community and bestowed from on high, but about money and services with and for the community, with residents shaping policies for the area.

I have mentioned the residents of Burbank, but I could mention many other areas and people in my constituency—people such as John Reid in Owton Manor, for example, or Morris Nelson and Muriel Boreland in Dyke House. That is the key to turning around problem estates. As I said, it is not enough for the Government simply to provide money; elected representatives such as MPs and councillors must engage with the local community and provide leadership to facilitate and allow residents to make the progress themselves.

That is not to say that I want Government money to end. Hartlepool is on the up and has significantly benefited from initiatives such as neighbourhood renewal money and new deal for communities funding. Agencies such as Hartlepool borough council and the local primary care trust can, with the community, produce massive improvements from regeneration cash. I want that to continue, because it is making a difference, but like the Minister, I also want the Government to provide funding to promote communities and allow them to stand on their own two feet.

The country is enjoying the most sustained period of economic prosperity that we have ever enjoyed, but the fact remains that the number of business start-ups per 1,000 residents in the north-east is 23, compared with 40 for the UK as a whole and 62 in London. That gap can be narrowed only through active and intensive involvement by the Government, using the regional development agency One NorthEast to encourage local people to start businesses and give them as much support as possible.

I therefore welcome what the Minister said earlier about the Government's proposed local enterprise growth initiative and sincerely hope that Hartlepool is a key beneficiary. Promotion of enterprise will help to produce full employment in deprived areas and will ultimately, I believe, help turn around problem estates.
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3.23 pm

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Marshall, for calling me to speak impromptu on an issue that is of great importance to my constituency.

Mine is the classic problem-estates constituency, in that Nottingham, North is made up of seven large former council estates and is the part of the city that people do not visit—the bit without the castle, the football and test cricket grounds, the theatre and the entertainments for which Nottingham is rightly famous. It is the white working class dormitory across the north of the city, and, classically, it is made up of outer problem estates of the sort that my hon. Friend the Minister alluded to.

Some tremendous people work in the constituency, but I want to make a couple of points later about the fact that, at the most chronic end of the spectrum, what people do not have—this is also shown by the deprivation indicators—is the community infrastructure that exists in the constituencies of many other Members. Such areas do not have the same web that involves tenants associations, local activists, neighbourhood watch or even, I might say, membership of political parties. Those things atrophy when the social mix is homogenous and there is no leavening from areas of middle-class housing or from computer-literate people, which many other constituencies have. That means we start from a relatively low base.

As someone who constantly goes on to Ministers about localising initiatives and not doing so much from the top down, I have to face up to the contradiction that my own constituency sometimes needs an injection of ideas and energy from the Government and from outside. Those things are not always there, waiting to be discovered and put in the right consultative framework to tackle the problems. The answers do not always pop up; it is not quite as simple as that.

There are lots of different types and scales of deprivation that we need to consider, and we cannot have a one-size-fits-all approach. What is helpful for the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) may not be helpful in an area that has even more chronic problems than average. I am worried about how we will develop that, and I do not pretend to have the answer. I am delighted to hear the Minister talking about LAAs and saying that they are being extended, although I missed his remark about whether Nottingham will get one. Perhaps he will let me know whether an LAA is on the way. We would certainly welcome that, and we would bid for the first round. That would help us to focus and find our way forward.

All too often, in the target culture, when the Government impose bright and often very well-meaning ideas from on high, I shudder at the local impact. For example, people might say, "Let's have a street crime initiative to tackle those muggers. We all hate muggers, let's go and do that." But I know immediately that that means that police officers will be sucked out of my outer estates and end up standing on street corners in Nottingham city centre, catching fewer and fewer muggers on a law of ever-diminishing returns. The stats for street crime there have improved massively, but let us consider the volume of crime stats for the same period
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in my constituency, which show why those other stats got better—mine went down. There are other reasons, but that is one.

If, for example, the standard measure of achieving five A to C grades in exams is imposed, that means in a constituency such as mine that a lot of kids who could have achieved a decent number of A to C grades will not be dragged up to that level because teaching time has to be devoted to the strata of kids who can reach the target that the Government have measured and consider right.

Again, I ask for flexibility more than anything else. We live in a highly centralised state where local government has fewer responsibilities and no constitutional independence. While we live in such a state, I hope that Ministers and civil servants will constantly use their power and authority to try to interact more effectively with local government and local agencies. I ask for that because not even the greatest brain in the world, sat in No. 10 Downing street, and not even the Member of Parliament for Nottingham, North, can second guess what needs to be done in specific circumstances and make a better decision than a local councillor, a local neighbourhood warden or a local beat officer on the ground.

Localisation can give us flexibility. Often, we know how to tackle the difficulties of our problem estates. For example, my constituency sends the fewest kids to university of any constituency in the United Kingdom. Our educationists, head teachers, Members of Parliament, councillors and local parents got together in a series of meetings that I convened and thrashed out how we want to progress. Eight out of nine schools in my constituency kick the kids out at the age of 16, but we want to hold those kids on site to do vocational training and education, and some academic education.

It took us a long time to develop that concept locally. We involved everyone and everyone thinks it will work, but we now face the enormous task of trying to convince the national agencies that this is the way forward, because it does not fit a national template. The Learning and Skills Council has a view—often given to it by central Government—that a certain path is the way forward. In recent months, we have all seen the classic example of downplaying adult education and focusing on 16 to 19-year-olds. I do not have a problem with that idea, but that national strategy, well-meaning though it may be, will have an impact in my constituency, where we have joined up our thinking and agreed that the more adults we get into some form of education, the more we will break the culture of adults telling kids that education does not matter. That is superb local thinking, but that local "joined-up-ness" has been blown out of the water by a well-meaning national strategy under which adult courses are stopped because of the redirection of LSC funding.

Mr. Woolas : I acknowledge my hon. Friend's points, and I am sure that hon. Members across the House have examples of difficulties similar to those he describes. I confirm that his area has been given the go-ahead for phase 2 of the local area agreement, the intention of which is to have greater flexibility and less ring-fencing, and to bring together the agencies. I am not familiar with his local strategic partnership, but I imagine that
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the LSC is involved. I do not say that the LAA will necessarily solve the problem, but it is certainly an acknowledgement of his point.

Mr. Allen : That is welcome news indeed. I thank the Minister for that helpful intervention, and I promise that we will make the LAA work.

In a moment, I shall talk about stability on the front line. I hope that there will be some stability in the Minister's job and that he is in post for more than a year or so. That would help. I would love it if he came to Nottingham to see our plans in operation; we will make the LAAs work. I ask him to keep me to that promise, because I know that my own authority will work hard with its partners to make things work. We are grateful for the opportunity and will prove to him that we are up to it.

I was fortunate to secure a debate on regeneration in this Chamber in September 2004, in which I raised a number of points. I am pleased to hear that the Minister is addressing one of them—the plethora of bodies and initials involved in local regeneration—and I hope he uses local area agreements as an instrument to cleave through a lot of the confusing jargon that exists locally. I do not understand how it all works in my area, and I am into this policy issue.

It would make your head spin, Mr. Marshall, if you were to write down all the various initials on a piece of paper. That is how I feel, and I care deeply about the issue, so I am sure that a lot of my constituents, who want to come terms with these things even though many of them do not have a high level of literacy, will, to be blunt, not be able to navigate their way through the jargon.

I am trying to find a few thousand pounds to kick off the building of a statue of a gentleman called Bendigo, who was the world heavyweight boxing champion. He used to fight in my constituency, but on a hill so that everyone could run away when the Peelers came. Trying to find bodies to chip in £1,000 here or do the consultancy there, or to pay for the artistic impression, is an absolute minefield and very difficult. I hope that, as the Minister continues the good work he is doing in the Department, we will have fewer bodies with which to negotiate, so the bright ideas that come from the grass roots will come to fruition a lot more quickly.

In the September debate, I asked the then Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Phil Hope), about the area committee structure, which we have in Nottingham. It probably exists in many other places too. The council has sought to devolve power to the areas and wards of the constituency, and that has really impacted on people locally. They would never dare go to our wedding cake council house for a meeting, yet they will go to the local community centre to meet the local councillors, the local bobby and representatives of the local health service and get a few things going.

I hope that the Minister who is here today will consider this machinery of government too. It is not enough to revive local government at the city or urban district level, as that revival needs to go further and genuine power and resources need to follow down to a level where they can make an impact. We are not talking
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about skewing millions or possibly billions of pounds one way or another. Often, it is the little bit of match funding that counts—a couple of hundred quid or £1,000 will make all the difference. This does not tie up £10,000-worth of officers' time in the various agencies and the council. We just need someone to sit down at a table with that kitty and agree to make the thing work. I hope my hon. Friend will look at area committees and make action plans from those committees central to how we seek to revive our problem outer estates.

I am not sure about how long I can speak for. I will be guided by you, Mr Marshall. A glower will get me to sit down within a couple of minutes, but I have a few other points to make, if that is acceptable.

As I am sure the Minister has heard before, Nottingham, North is quite unusual in that it is sometimes amenable to a constituency solution. It is homogeneous. If someone landed in any part of the constituency, they would find solid, brick-built council houses with gardens front and back. There are no tower blocks and there is no deck access. Nottingham, North hangs together as a series of estates, and the constituency contains none of the things that Nottingham is famous for.

The one big advantage, apart from the fact that we have the most horrendous deprivation statistics, is that as a constituency Nottingham, North is amenable to an answer. It is therefore also possible to involve Members of Parliament. Obviously I am speaking personally, but I am sure that that happens in other constituencies too. Members of Parliament can be involved and play a leading part in regeneration. I understand that our former colleague who is now a European Commissioner used to be the chair of the local strategic partnership. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool will tell us his role in the strategic partnership.

Mr. Wright : Yes, I am chair of the local strategic partnership.

Mr. Allen : Now, whether these things happen because of local knowledge of entrepreneurialism by the Members of Parliament or whatever, this shows that there is a role for Members of Parliament in a broader sense, which the Government might consider and encourage if they feel it appropriate.

The other point that I want to emphasise with my hon. Friend the Minister is one on which he kindly took an intervention: the impact of real people doing a real job in the middle of communities. People are fed up with yet another consultation, strategic plan or partnership meeting. They are fed up with the pile of documentation that is produced, as well as the jargon and the buzzwords. People want action. The best way to get action is through a real person.

People can relate to that. If they can see their MP, that is wonderful, but we cannot be everywhere. If they can get hold of their councillor that is tremendous, but there is a public service army in the background and we need to get face to face with people. I mentioned earlier that we now have beat officers in Nottingham, following our battle to restore them. We have police community support officers and neighbourhood wardens, and, as I mentioned to my hon. Friend the Minister, we now have patch managers on our housing estates. They are real people who can make the connection and get things done.
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If someone, in the current jargon, interfaces with—or, as we used to say in Nottingham, North, talks to—a local beat officer, that officer can put them in touch with, say, a benefits adviser. If someone talks to their local neighbourhood warden, the warden can tell them when the council surgeries happen. I almost dread to say it, but in the past year or so I have begun to feel quite optimistic about what is happening locally. People have said to me, "I saw that bloke walking up the street." They may think it was the beat officer, but perhaps it was not. Perhaps it was the neighbourhood warden or the PCSO, and people say, "They are back on our streets. Now and I can go and say hello, and perhaps start to talk to them." That may lead to information being passed on, and just maybe, later on—if we can crack the climate of fear—to someone becoming a witness. This is the way to crack that climate of fear.

I am pushing a big task towards my hon. Friend the Minister. Whenever he talks to his Home Office colleagues who look after the probation service, I want him to say, "Is it possible, as part of the long-running review of probation, to get probation officers out of the castles in the city centre and back to the estates—back with the people they are meant to serve?"

I have been in this House long enough to remember the time when I knew the three probation officers who each covered a third of my constituency. I could pick up the phone and speak to them; we were on first name terms. They would tell me if I was being a chump about a particular person or case, and I could tell them likewise. We could work out an answer. If I wanted someone put away, perhaps, because of what he was doing on one of the estates, for example, they would say, "Graham, this is a housing problem. If you could get Charlie Bloggs properly housed with his family, you would totally disperse the tension in that man's life. He is desperate to make sure that his kids and wife can be accommodated in the same place."

And so it went on. Those officers worked in that way with me, with local councillors and all the other public servants. Now if I have a problem with someone who is on probation, I write. I receive a letter, civil service-style, six months later, from the director of probation in Nottinghamshire. That does not do it for me, or for people on the ground.

Tragically, a case occurred in which there was awful pressure on the probation service, which meant that certain things were missed, and at the end of a very long chain of events—I do not ascribe blame to anyone—a police officer lost his life in my constituency. That might have been avoided if there had been a probation officer on the ground who knew where the person who took the officer's life lived and was able to connect with that person and his acquaintances.

That is, however, a dramatic example that stretches a point. The day-to-day, nitty-gritty interaction between the services is what will build up the web of connections on the ground that I think is important. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to spread the word and to say to all his colleagues, "Does this course of action put a face on the estates, and put a named, recognisable person out where one is needed? Or is it something beyond local experience and interaction?"

We had a battle to get our beat officers back, and we got them back. The problem that we had subsequently was turnover. That is why I mentioned that I should love my
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hon. Friend to stay in post long enough to pursue to fruition whatever initiatives he comes up with. Exactly the same applies to PCSOs, beat officers, neighbourhood wardens, or patch managers. Once they have built up that local knowledge, they are far more effective than someone new.

Those from Nottinghamshire police force who decide to go off and do something else, whether it is to go to another police force, become trained as a dog handler or whatever, simply disappear. There does not seem to be a formal period of notice to allow staff to overlap and to allow succession. That happens in so many of our public services, particularly in tough areas. Of course, it is hard work. In my constituency, people such as head teachers and nurses all go the extra mile. Why on earth would they work in Nottingham, North if they were not committed people who wanted to do the right thing? Sometimes the stress is just too much and they want out—I understand that—but professionals and managers must ensure that all front-line services have proper succession, so that knowledge can be passed on.

In one of the toughest areas, a number of key people in the drug gangs in the east midlands or even nationally have been arrested. We had a beat officer for five years who knew everyone's name, every family, people's birthdays, the good guys and the bad guys, but he just disappeared; he went off to do something else. There were reasons for that move, but it is incumbent on us all to ensure a degree of stability and proper succession so that we can build up a web or network of local support, not only for communities, but for the services that support them.

I have spoken about the impact of mainstream funding, which I mentioned in a previous debate. My hon. Friend the Minister can chip in money on a relatively low-level basis to help this or that initiative, but if we do not get mainstream funding right, those initiatives could be blown out of the water.

I mentioned adult education and the fact that, for all the right reasons, the LSC is being reoriented by the Department for Education and Skills, and I spoke of the impact of that change. I worked extremely hard to ensure that Nottingham, North was the first constituency to have an education champion—a spider at the centre of the education web who could tell teachers, parents or kids what was on offer; tell people where to go to get a HND course; and tell the few who wanted to go to university how to get a bursary and how to get their parents on to the local campus so that they could understand what their kids aspired to. I and many others spent a long time on that.

Looking at the big picture, however, if for one reason or another we shift education spending worth many millions of pounds, it makes those local efforts as nothing. It means that, while we raised people up again and let them build up something, the big picture moved on over the top. The big money will have closed a school or created schools in less appropriate areas. We must always marry the bright local initiatives that we need to encourage to mainstream funding in order to ensure that things happen.

I am currently working trying to get Nottinghamshire police force to create a neighbourhood watch promoter, a full-time post. The job would be to try and create a
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proper weft and warp for neighbourhood watch as a first level of intelligence gathering for the police force in a tough area—an area that has no such provision. It is like pulling teeth. I have spent two years trying to get someone to do that job—someone bright and young, an enthusiastic organiser who would leaflet areas, answer the phone and start to build up those connections. Yet again, £1 million will be thrown to Nottinghamshire police force for this or that function, and the small things—the things that really matter in the constituency and more locally—will be neglected. The small things are apparently not relevant when it comes to ticking the boxes that come down the pipe from Whitehall and Westminster. Again, local flexibility and local activity is particularly important.

The next point that I want to raise—you have not glowered at me yet, Mr. Marshall, so I will continue—relates to sustainable funding. I think that the Minister was touching on it when I came in, so I hope that he will forgive me if I am going over ground that he has already covered. I am sure, however, that he is familiar with the person who used to run the Bulwell toy library. The name sounds a bit quaint, but in an area with a lot of single mums and high levels of poverty and immobility, where people are stuck in their homes, one of the best things that we can do is to get toys to kids so that they can learn through play. So, the toy library in Bulwell, which is one of the areas in my patch, provided an invaluable service. Whenever I talked to Lawrence Jackson, however, who happily sacrificed 15 years of his life to keep the library going and expanding, he was spending half his time at work trying to ensure that he would get a salary for his next year of work. He was chipping away at this fund and that fund, with all the acronyms that we talked about earlier, trying to keep his head above water and sustain a project that he really cared about.

Hon. Members in all parts of the House will have examples from their own areas of people who have done something similar. These are selfless people who are desperate to do the right thing and who work really hard. They try to get a bit of money from SRB5 line 1 to add to NRF pocket 3. They wonder whether they can get the LSP to chip in a couple of hundred pounds and get the Greater Nottingham partnership to then add £1,000. They have heard that if they do that, the LSC will add £5,000 out of the pre-April spend that it has to get rid of and that that could be added to what the LEA will offer.

I could go on, but I will not, because hon. Members get my drift. I accept that this is a tough issue for the Government. We will have to make decisions about funding and so will the local authority. The local area agreements will have to say which funding will stop, but also which funding is sustainable and will continue. We need that clarity. It is better for someone to know that they will not be funded at all in 18 months than it is for them to be told, "Maybe you'll be funded and maybe you won't. You've got to work a bit harder to find a bit of money." It is far better if people can work out where their future is so that they can get on and do the job.

I am grateful to the Minister for the opportunity to debate this issue and to colleagues for allowing me to come in and make a contribution. I have one final thought about governmental policy as regards making our problem estates less problematic. Since 1997, we
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have focused on antisocial behaviour, and rightly so, given the pain that we have heard about on our estates. I commend the Government without reservation on their efforts to bring antisocial behaviour under control. We in Nottingham have, I hope, made a contribution in many other areas, and particularly towards tightening up antisocial behaviour orders. I do not know whether our "Respect for Nottingham" campaign led the Prime Minister to coin a similar phrase, but we are certainly proud of the efforts that we have made with the Government to tackle antisocial behaviour.

I shall leave one last thought with my hon. Friend. Having known him for many years, I know that he will take it seriously, and I ask him again to consider discussing it with colleagues. Every time we tackle antisocial behaviour, we must also seek to promote social behaviour. By that, I mean building a sense of values and decency into our young people—and there are many of them on my problem estates. I am talking not about old-fashioned "hang 'em and flog 'em" discipline, but about self-discipline, self-policing, pride, respect for others and values. Many young people go to school blissfully unaware of the idea of respecting others. As many Ofsted reports have said about my constituency, many children are incapable of speaking in full sentences. When they go to school, many of them are incapable of recognising numbers, let alone adding them up. There are people who always settle arguments by resorting to violence and who cannot interact with and relate to other people of their age.

There is a raft of issues that I would like the Minister to consider, because they are central to solving the problems on difficult estates. The issue is about giving youngsters the right emotional intelligence within the national curriculum, and doing for social behaviour what we have done so well for literacy and numeracy. We must ensure that youngsters who will become parents in two or three years' time have parenting classes and understand what parenting means. We must give youngsters the social toolkit to enable them to work their way through and take advantage of the very good education system at primary and secondary level that we have created in my area since 1997. I am very proud of that.

Even if my hon. Friend the Minister enjoys some stability and is in the job for a couple of years, however, that time scale will not suit the work that needs to be done. It will be a generation before we see the fruits of that work, but unless we tackle social behaviour now and promote it with the vigour with which we have tackled antisocial behaviour, in 15 or 20 years' time we might still be talking about the problems of our estates.

3.56 pm

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): No one who heard the Minister could doubt the Government's ambition in respect of the programmes that we are discussing or the success of many of them. However, the contributions that we have heard from the hon. Members for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) and for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) raise the question of the balance between central targets and all the burdens that they impose, and local flexibility and autonomy and the ability of local communities to work out their own solutions. Central imposition and central funding, no matter how good the ideas and how inspired the thinking behind them, can
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lead to a disempowering of local people—to their being given the impression that solving their own problems is somehow beyond them and that someone else has to come in to solve the problems for them.

I particularly thank the two hon. Gentlemen for saving me a lot of time, because they mentioned many of the points that I was going to raise. I shall therefore be much briefer than I feared I would be. The hon. Member for Nottingham, North made a point about the density of social networks on some estates and the problem of localising—to whom and to what? I am talking about the lack of a local social infrastructure with which to engage. Many estates need a vast amount of community development before institutions can be created in which people can participate.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the institution of area committees. One of my last acts as leader of Cambridge city council was to institute a system of area committees in my city. One thing that has to be taken into account in creating such a system is when to do it. If it is done too early, before any community development has been achieved, it threatens to be simply a council institution that does not engage the local population. However, if people tell themselves that they have to get lots of local institutions and social networks going before they devolve to area committees, they will often be disappointed: they will never get far enough and will never end up doing it. Devolution to area committees is often part of the creation of local networks because it is a focal point for people to come together to discuss local problems and to argue with local councillors, perhaps initially in a confrontational way, which eventually becomes more consensual.

The experience of many councils is that to begin with not many people turn up to area committees, and those who do are cynical or angry, as the Minister described. But after a while, especially if the area committees tell people what they have done, and if people can see that suggestions they have made have produced action, that cynicism starts to break down, there is consensus and people solve problems together rather than just complaining about them. The hon. Gentleman was right to say that it illustrates the point that one size does not fit all. A good deal of flexibility is needed to allow different areas to choose how to decide matters.

The hon. Member for Hartlepool raised the issue of basic services, which I was going to discuss. Much of what is needed on many estates is simply the better delivery of basic things. The hon. Gentleman described them when he spoke about the signs of decline. For example, how good are housing repairs, how good is street sweeping, how fast is graffiti removed from walls, how quickly are abandoned cars removed from the streets, how long does it take to do the repairs when a local playground is vandalised?

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the important matter of houses with broken windows. If windows are boarded up and estates are allowed to look as if they are neglected, it feeds back to people that no one cares about the place, and they ask why they should care about it.

These services are continuing services. In the jargon of local government, which I am more used to, they are revenue services: they need continuing funding. There is a problem that national Governments tend to think in terms not of permanent funding but of time-limited
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initiatives of two, three or four years, whereas the underlying problems need funding for ever. That means that the agency that should be dealing with the services is local government and the question is whether the Government trust local government enough to allow it to engage with the problems on a long-term basis and not just on an initiative or capital basis. Both hon. Members made the important point about the stability of funding. If there is only capital funding or initiative funding it is not stable enough.

I listened with great interest to what the Minister said about targeting. The programmes he mentioned are all targeted programmes. The hon. Member for Hartlepool said that there was a particular problem with targeting—that of marginal cases and preventative expenditure. I raise a further problem: there is a difference between targeting the redistribution of pure resources—money—and targeting public services, because if one area is targeted, it un-targets another. One of the most important things that I learnt from the Audit Commission was that any politician can say what their priorities are, but to govern they must know what their priorities are not and what they will not spend money on. To target public service expenditure means to take it away from other places.

There is a danger that targeting can go too far, although we have probably not reached that stage yet. It can lead to incentives for people to opt out of areas that are not targeted and from which resources are being taken away. That is a process that the Department for Education and Skills has already recognised. The Minister should be aware that there are limits to how far we can target without losing consent for public expenditure in general and storing up problems for the future.

I also listened with interest to what the Minister said about the dichotomy and tension between growth and regeneration. For my constituency, growth is our great opportunity, but also our great problem. However, I do not think that the Minister managed to reconcile the two issues completely. What he suggested would achieve some local reconciliation in certain areas, but the question is whether it would reconcile national policy as a whole. National policy must take into account the fact that economic growth leads to problems in the areas in which it takes place and that infrastructure spending needs to take place not only in areas that have problems due to a historic lack of economic success, but in areas where economic success causes current problems. The tension between those two is still completely unresolved.

The tension is especially unresolved under a system of local government finance in which central Government attempt to take all the big decisions, particularly those about capital spending. The Minister mentioned business rates and, although I do not want to get into that, the main tax on business and business property is, in effect, a national tax. We do not have the incentives that exist elsewhere, whereby local government can borrow against the future revenue streams that it would secure if there was a local business property tax.

The hon. Member for Hartlepool talked about the fear of crime, as did the hon. Member for Nottingham, North towards the end of his remarks. I also want to talk about that, going from the macro scale to the micro
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scale. One of the main problems that public representatives at all levels of government experience is witness protection. Much of the legislation that emerges from this place requires someone to give evidence in court against someone else. The central problem that we all experience is that people do not want to do that. Sometimes people fear immediate retribution. On other occasions their anxiety is more amorphous—that something might happen to them because they have heard of something happening to somebody else. That is a fundamental problem with using legal initiatives to solve social problems. I have never thought of an answer to it, but it is a limit to the possible success of legally based initiatives.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned antisocial behaviour. Work has been conducted locally on antisocial behaviour, involving acceptable behaviour contracts, getting people together to solve problems individually and ASBOs-plus, whereby people not only receive an ASBO but an attempt is made to solve the underlying problem. One of the things that has emerged from that work is an important matter for joined-up government, namely, that in many cases—not all, but enough to be worried about—the underlying problem is not one of criminality but of mental health. There needs to be a lot more joined-up government involving the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Department of Health, and much more emphasis placed on mental health by the Department of Health than over the past few years.

In the end, the issue comes down to empowerment: to empowering residents to solve their own problems, to entrusting tenants to run their own estates, to encouraging tenant co-ops and perhaps even to ideas, such as community involvement in local justice. A system of restorative justice could operate, under which local miscreants are brought before their victims—the local community—and asked to make reparation by working for the local community, on the basis of what local people have said, as a way of diverting those miscreants out of the criminal justice system.

Mr. Allen : I am following the hon. Gentleman's speech with great interest and, so far, I have found little to disagree with in his remarks. Will he also take the chance to draw the role of the criminal justice system into the debate about regeneration and problem estates? All too often, people on such estates feel remote from the courts, the Crown Prosecution Service and the probation service. I hope that the Minister will encourage his colleagues—not least his colleagues in the Department for Constitutional Affairs—to reunite the legal system with the people that it is meant to serve.

I can give one minor example of that, from my own city of Nottingham. We are trying to put in place a person who will receive phone calls from the tenants' associations—and anyone on the ground—if, for example, they have had a problem with graffiti on their subways. That person will then be responsible for getting young offenders who have been given community service hours out to deal with that problem quickly. So, within 24 hours, everyone will see that the criminal justice system is working for them on the estates. All of a sudden people will think, "It is not the courts, way over there. I reported something happening on my estate, and the criminal justice system works for
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me." If the system does that, we are halfway towards getting those people, in future, to stand up and give evidence in a trial for something more serious.

David Howarth : That is a good example of something else that the hon. Gentleman talked about. I want to finish with the point that he made about humanising such systems. He is right that there is too much distance between the bureaucratic systems and the alphabet soup that he mentioned, and what real people on the ground want and need out of the various organisations.

The example that I shall give is from my own city. At one stage, the council decided to set up a system of local odd-job men. A group of people were employed to fix things locally—to mend fences or benches that had been vandalised—and to get little things done. That system turned into something much more important than it was originally intended to be—a system of neighbourhood rangers, in which people could identify the ranger and talk to him. The rangers then became integrated with the criminal justice system because they knew people and the police would talk to them. Thinking in terms of people and encouraging people to interact with one another, often gets better results than expected.

Finally, I ask the Minister, and the Government in general, to remember that systems usually fail, but people often succeed.

4.13 pm

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate and the fact that it has been called. I thank the Minister for his opening remarks and the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), who spoke for the Liberal Democrats, for his remarks. I do not know whether this is the first outing of the hon. Member for Cambridge on the Front Bench, but it is the first time that I have heard him and I enjoyed his contribution very much. I will also make reference to the contributions of the hon. Members for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) and for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen).

There are few issues in contemporary social politics that arouse the sorts of emotions and intense scrutiny as problem estates and, more particularly, those who live on those estates. The stories that emanate from those estates play to a whole range of concerns in modern Britain, and can be used to justify almost any social standpoint, from those concerned with moral and social decline, whose solutions lie with greater discipline, enforcement and responsibility, to those who cite systemic social exclusion that should be remedied by wider-scale actions of society well beyond the estates. However, behind the lurid tabloid stories and the social commentaries, there is genuine misery that none of us can take for granted. That raises concern from across the Floor, as has been evident from the excellent contributions that we have heard this afternoon.

The misery that we speak of takes many forms: the despair of those who feel trapped by situations beyond their control, where loss of health, job or family is compounded by their physical surroundings; the fear of those who see or hear the activities of others that frighten them, from their neighbours to unidentified youngsters apparently beyond control; and the impotence of those who struggle to maintain their
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dignity amid such difficulty and find that their post code or address means that they are condemned without justice. A million people may be marching this weekend in pursuit of justice abroad, but impoverishment is closer to home than many would believe. There is much less of a feel-good factor in tackling problems on our doorsteps than in trying to tackle them far away.

I am delighted to speak as the new shadow Minister with responsibility for communities and regeneration, and I look forward to a close association with the Minister and his colleagues during this Parliament. As he was good enough to indicate, this is not an entirely new area for me. During the 1992–97 Conservative Government, I was one of several sponsor Ministers who had responsibility for certain cities and were given oversight of elements of the city challenge programme. I was proud to be the sponsor Minister for the cities of Manchester and Salford between 1994 and 1997, with city challenge responsibilities in Bolton, Blackburn and Wigan, as well as Hulme and Moss Side in Manchester.

I do not believe that the modern world began in 1997, and I will resist strongly those who occasionally and unkindly suggest that it might have done. The Conservative Government of which I was part undertook some excellent regeneration work on both a large and small scale, trying new things and building a platform on which the Government have built. A growing number of Conservative local authorities, such as Coventry, are also continuing to build, and I enjoyed my visit to Coventry just last week.

We were instrumental in breaking down some of the problems that had been endemic in estates for many years and in creating situations that are taken for granted by local authorities of all political complexions now much more than they were 20 years ago. That included the breaking up of monolithic local authority housing estates, and partnerships with the private sectors and tenants. All those developments were pioneered, and rightly so. Some credit for what we tried to do would be helpful, although that is not always the way that the Government work.

In his book "No Longer Notorious" on the revival of Castle Vale in Birmingham, Adam Mornement studied the changes in the area and the evolution of the housing action trust from an aggressive Conservative policy to an exemplar of new Labour thinking. He said that the process was a victory for the democratic process, and I agree. We sometimes build on the building blocks left by others. We will do that in time, and I hope that we will pay due credit to the activities of the Labour Government when they have finally passed away.

My time with the communities affected by the city challenge programme taught me a great deal about failed expectations, multiple deprivation, the need for joined-up thinking and, above all, the resentment of people all-too-often used to having things done to them rather than with and alongside them. I spoke last night to Malcolm Doherty, the former leader of Blackburn with Darwen borough council, who was in charge during the city challenge programme. He confirmed my view that city challenge changed expectations and left many positive outcomes in his borough. He pointed at one in particular: the encouragement and empowerment of the Asian community to take more responsibility in
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their community and town. Members of that community now fulfil a significant number of local authority roles.

I am sure that mistakes were made in the city challenge programme and in other aspects of our regeneration programme, but in my experience, they were honest mistakes made by groups of people at local and national government level—politicians and officers, local community groups and independent bodies—striving to do their best to deal with the long-standing and seemingly intractable problems of problem estates.

Contemporary problems have been well illustrated by colleagues today. The hon. Member for Hartlepool speaks quietly but with great passion. He is obviously deeply rooted in his home community. He referred to the problems of crime, multiple deprivation, ill health and the lack of opportunity that still affect some of the estates in his constituency and with which we are all familiar, but he also referred to the opportunities that have come along in recent years, such as the renaissance of the Burbank estate and the people who play a part in it. Indeed, he emphasised the part played by the residents themselves in ensuring that people have different opportunities in future.

The hon. Member for Nottingham, North spoke with his usual range of knowledge about his own patch and described the problems that must still be resolved, such as the lack of a community infrastructure. He put his finger on issues that I might touch on in due course, such as too many funding streams and the problem of a multitude of bodies dealing with the same issues.

The hon. Gentleman proposed that local MPs should play a more prominent role in regeneration initiatives in their areas. That is an interesting idea. I can certainly imagine the Government being interested in giving one or two of their colleagues prominent roles that will engage them fully. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones) might be heavily engaged in problems in her area, and the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) might be very busy away from Westminster. The hon. Member for Nottingham, North, whose mischief is not unknown in this place, might have hit on yet another good example of patronage for his colleagues.

Hon. Members emphasised both the good and bad issues that still affect problem estates and the problems with which we must deal, and I am quite sure that we would have heard similar stories from other colleagues around the country if we had not had the debate on Africa in the main Chamber this afternoon, which has genuinely and properly engaged the attention of a larger number of colleagues than might normally have been expected.

Problem estates do not simply crop up in the obvious target areas. There are pockets of deprivation in so many different places. When I was MP for Bury, North, Bury was a relatively affluent part of Greater Manchester, and the deprivation indices revealed Bury to be a perfectly prosperous area. It was, but there were pockets of deprivation. One of my concerns was how to prevent estates that were on the cusp, where the problems were not yet too great but the signs were beginning to become apparent, from sliding into
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deprivation. On such estates, spending a little money and doing a bit of work would prevent the problems from becoming greater later. It is clear from what the Minister said that this issue is still exciting interest, and that better ways of targeting these problems are being found.

It is too early in this Parliament for my party, and too soon for me in my reconnection with the issues that we have been discussing today, to have the impudence to stand before the Minister and colleagues and announce a series of initiatives and ideas that will end these problems once and for all, so I shall not do that. If you will allow me a few minutes, Mr. Marshall, I shall instead set out a series of principles that are not exclusive or fixed in stone, but which I expect to guide the thinking of Conservative Front Benchers on these matters during this Parliament.

First, we will look for evidence of long-term commitment—and I really mean long-term—to the most difficult of areas. I commended the realism of the Government when the Chancellor began to talk of the eradication of child poverty in 20 years or so. Indeed, the Minister referred to the Prime Minister's first speech on an estate after he became Prime Minister, in which he talked about a 10 or 20-year programme to deal with problem estates and related matters. That sort of time scale is to be commended, because several of the problems that we face cannot be dealt with in conventional four or five-year chunks that might affect a Parliament. There is a balance to be struck. If the time scale is too long, it may look hopeless for those who are already involved with the problems. On the other hand, if they are unrealistically short, we all know that we are kidding ourselves and, worse than that, we are kidding the people whom we wish to serve.

The problem of our problem estates, however we define them, is that they are so stubbornly located in the same areas, generation after generation. Commitment to make a real difference may well go beyond 20 years to 30, 40 or even 50 years. Successes in that area of work point to evidence of extraordinary long-term commitment from exceptional individuals, such as Angus Kennedy in Castle Vale in Birmingham, whom I visited a couple of weeks ago, Dick Atkinson in Balsall Heath, and Bob Holman in Easterhouse, whom I first visited in 1992 when I held the poverty and low income brief at the Department for Social Security. They have showed long-term commitment from partners and agencies, which is necessary to build both capacity in an area that has been lacking it and infrastructure, and to ensure confidence. Of course, there will be individual initiatives that might have shorter time scales, but for the endemic, rooted problems, long-term commitment will be there. We shall be thinking of the sort of solutions and structures that will give practical effect to such long-term commitment.

Secondly, we shall be looking at ways in which the Government will tackle and overcome the problem of silos, and will be looking to do it ourselves. It is easier in opposition than in government. Whether or not the title of communities and local government is attached to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is of little interest to those whose multiple problems we are discussing and trying to deal with. Dealing with communities and regeneration, and turning around problem estates must involve the bringing together of education, work
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opportunities, housing, health, transport, environment and the police—so many of the matters ably covered by colleagues today.

How will the application of sustainable communities and neighbourhood renewal overcome traditional turf disputes and organisational logjams that inevitably occur? A recent article in Estates Gazette described that quite firmly. It was written by a developer in Liverpool, who alleged a problem within the city council in terms of its relationships with developers, and highlighted an unfavourable comparison with Manchester, which is, of course, the worst sin of all in Liverpool. It referred to Manchester's greater ability to bring together partners. I do not know enough of the background to say whether the allegations made are correct, but the frustration felt by the developer, and the sense that Liverpool could be doing better in terms of partnership, was clear. The ability of those working on the regeneration of our estates and communities and cities to overcome such institutionalised problems will be a key to future success.

Thirdly, we shall also be thinking about how simple we can make funding. How can bidding processes be streamlined? Is bidding always the answer? We all know of those who have spent huge amounts of time and financial resources to make a bid for a relatively small amount of money. It is enormously frustrating and not    cost-effective. How difficult do we make the accountability process, such as the problem of the plethora of performance indicators, and measurements of success? Crucial and important though it may be, have we overdone that element? Are standard criteria always applicable? Both the hon. Members for Cambridge and for Nottingham, North talked about the need for flexibility. Some measurement may be applicable in one estate in one part of the country, but not in another. The same standard criteria might not be necessary to be employed, however important that might seem in a room in Whitehall when they are being devised. We shall look at what better examples there can be of direct but accountable funding, and we shall be looking hard at areas where there are complaints that bureaucracy is overcoming the good intentions of a scheme.

We are also interested in devolution to the lowest possible tier. We all appreciate that occasional difficult choices and compromises are necessary. We are aware that local decision making can be influenced by unfortunate factors connected with personality or prejudice. The Minister referred to the local loudmouth who, in a single outburst, can trash the work of the residents association, upset the feeling on an estate, and leave bitterness and resentment—sometimes for years—as a result. That is true, but it is a risk. One of the great lessons that comes from the studies and our personal experiences concerns those areas that have seen the greatest turnarounds. They have been the ones that have risked devolving down: they have built on the capacity of ordinary people so that they have become able to perform extraordinary tasks of which they did not believe themselves capable a short time before.

Trust breeds responsibility and involvement breeds trust. I would like to see the work continued in closer co-operation with existing democratic institutions. As a former local councillor in Haringey, known to the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love), who is sadly not in
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his place but whose interventions I enjoyed earlier, I value the commitment of local councillors of all colours. They must not be written out of the script. However, often the devolution of power that the Government tell us about involves the giving up of local authority, not necessarily of Whitehall power. In the best of examples, a new relationship with local councils has been forged on the back of a previous indifferent one, and old mistrusts have been laid to rest. Sustainable and long-term outcomes are unlikely unless that happens.

The building of trust and of capacity in local areas also tackles something else, which is difficult but important to face. Many of those who are actively involved in turning around estates and who do not come from a right-of-centre political standpoint, speak of the problems of long-term dependency and the impact of the combination of welfare and benefits systems on individual responsibility. They are now worried about how that is challenged.

I should like to quote from a chapter in Dr. Dick Atkinson's book, "Civil Renewal: Mending the Hole in the Social Ozone Layer." If the Minister or other hon. Members have not seen it, I know that Dick Atkinson has a number of copies. Dick played a part in the transformation of Balsall Heath. He does not come from a Conservative background, but he says, in the course of a wide-ranging discourse:

The book is endorsed on the back cover by the following quote:

That was written by the former Home Secretary, now the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett). I raise the issue of dependency, but not from an ideological point of view. As the hon. Gentleman will know I am not a card-carrying member of the hard-faced right-wing tendency. But I am interested that people who have demonstrated their commitment to the poor by living for years among them have concluded
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that there is something in the system that makes people more dependent than it should. That is worth exploring and tackling.

Another equally tricky principle needs to be discussed. It was touched on by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North at the end of his remarks. We cannot leave out the difficult subject of the transformation of individuals. Communities cannot be transformed merely through the physical environment. We have all learnt that much. It is a necessary, but not a sufficient component of change. Transformed communities will inevitably reflect transformed individuals. In some cases such work cannot and should not be accomplished by the state. The issues will be too personal. The independent, voluntary and faith sectors have much to offer in this regard, such as tackling drug and alcohol dependency, mentoring the young fatherless, challenging spiritual vacuums and supporting and rebuilding failed personal relationships.

Last week the Centre for Social Justice in Kennington, in the company of a number of MPs, including the Minister for Pensions Reform, the hon. Member for East Ham (Mr. Timms) and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), hosted as inspiring an evening as I have been to for many years. Six exceptional projects were honoured for their work and commitment in catering for those in exceptional need. At the Eden project in Salford young mentors have committed five years of their lives to live and work in the inner-city community. The Bristol community family trust is building up marriage and relationships. A small, but tough, abstinence from drugs project has been built up on the back of one woman's hard and painful experiences. In each case small amounts of money were releasing exceptional people, although they did not consider themselves to be exceptional.

We can no longer shy away from the difficult task as a society of helping individuals and communities to rediscover the values and boundaries challenged in the past, where the experience of absence has resulted in personal or social harm. The experience of children who have lived through the pain and hurt of parental separation and the correlation of those children's multiple difficulties, which range from health to education, are prompting a sensitive but urgent exploration of how fragile relationships between adults can be fostered and protected to avoid such separation.

The hon. Member for Nottingham, North said that some youngsters need a social toolkit to guide themselves through life. An absence of something in their background—parenting skills for example—is ill equipping them for the challenges of modern society. It is worse than it was. We all acknowledge that society is moving faster than ever. Technological knowledge and educational advantages attach ever more closely to those who have them and those without are left behind.

The gap between advantage and disadvantage is growing. It is no fault of the Government. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor would not have stood before the House in 1997 and said that in eight years' time they expected to see the gap between rich and poor in our society growing. But in some ways it is. It is not their fault; it is a consequence of modern society. Capturing what can minimise that gap is crucial. Some
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of the social skills and values that youngsters have lost are identifiably seen to have been lost and it frightens those around them. It is crucial to get to those people.

Mr. Allen : The hon. Gentleman has been particularly balanced in his approach. He is making a sensible and rational contribution from the Conservative Front Bench. However, he must answer one question about developing social behaviour. If we do this seriously—one reason to do so is to save hundreds of thousands of pounds in court costs, police costs, drug rehabilitation and so on—we must track the youngsters and their families and ensure that the intervention can take place at the right time. In the spirit in which the hon. Gentleman made his remarks and in trying to find a way forward, will he accept that talk of Big Brother or the state intervening will damage the possibility of getting all-party consensus on how to build more socially responsible youngsters who do not trouble the authorities in the way that I outlined earlier?

Alistair Burt : I entirely accept the hon. Gentleman's point. I have not so far come across a sense that the early identification of youngsters from particularly difficult backgrounds and watch over them because they are statistically the most likely to find themselves in trouble is an over-application of the Big Brother state. I have not heard that argument expressed terribly strongly among my colleagues and if I did I would resist it. There are concerns about what the state knows about people, but equally we all understand that information is there to be used on occasions for perfectly good purposes. It is the difficult judgment of Government and Parliament to decide when they must have that information, how to use it and to make a decision about what is fair to gather and what is unfair.

I argue for the freedom of individuals to take more responsibility on their own shoulders in certain respects, but I also understand the need for greater intervention in the lives of some in order to make up for gaps that might be there. I hope it is not inconsistent to do so; needs sometimes require it.

I shall cover a couple of other matters and then bring my remarks to a conclusion, as the Chamber has been generous and I appreciate that. We recognise the importance of a safe and secure environment for people to live in. Antisocial behaviour is a scourge in those areas where it exists. A recent Joseph Rowntree report made it clear that there is a concentration of such behaviour in deprived urban areas, which we know and understand, but it is interesting that it is reflected statistically. Some 34 per cent. of British Crime Survey respondents in those areas reported that levels of antisocial behaviour were high in their locality, and that figure is not replicated elsewhere.

The report also stated that the majority of respondents to the Rowntree survey favoured preventative action, not simply tougher enforcement. There was an understanding of the causes that produce antisocial behaviour as well as a determination to ensure that where it occurred it was dealt with effectively. The rebuilding of community pride and the encouragement of responsibility, to which I referred earlier, will play its own part in overcoming antisocial behaviour.

We accept the ASBO society as we accept gated communities as the answer to crime at our peril. They have their place, but an over-heavy reliance on them and
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an increase in their use does not tell us good things about the way we live and the way we want to live in future. That those on our poorest estates have the same rights as everyone else to quiet enjoyment of their lives, and that their children have the right to safe streets, safe places to gather and freedom from bullying is fundamental. No one is to be abandoned to a lesser life by their post code.

I shall look carefully and with interest at the ability of the system to transfer knowledge of good practice from one area to another. I went to see people at the European Commission in Brussels the other day, which was a surprise for them. They got a phone call out of the blue from a Conservative Front Bencher saying, "Can I come and see you to talk about what you are doing in terms of social regeneration? Don't tell my colleagues."

I got the same sense from the European Commission that I have had from others, that it should be a relatively easy matter for conferences, symposiums and people getting together to transfer knowledge, but it does not appear to work as well as people would like. There are good examples in this country and throughout Europe of people tackling common problems, and there are lessons to learn.

There was an interesting piece on the internet from Malmö in Sweden, about how a problem a few years ago on one of the estates there was tackled. It would not have been out of place here. I hope that we can encourage the transfer of knowledge and information, which would be helpful.

We will keep a close eye on the new communities that are being built. The Deputy Prime Minister is building new communities in my constituency and others in the south-east, and we will want to ensure that the problems of building new communities in the past are not reflected in those. We do not want to build dormitory towns for people who will get in their cars or on the train to go into London, coming back at night to soulless places in which they feel no connection with society around them. I am interested in how that will be prevented, and we will look carefully at that.

The problems of our poorest estates that we have discussed this afternoon are sadly not new, but there is growing evidence of successful ideas to challenge stereotypes, and the commitment of so many people who work and live in such areas is genuinely humbling to the politicians who talk about them. We can and should be confident of overcoming the challenges posed by multiple deprivation and of creating communities that people want to stay in, not escape from, and of which they will be increasingly proud. We should be ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with all those with such aspirations.

4.46 pm

Mr. Woolas : I thank hon. Members for taking part in the debate. It was a debate that I volunteered for, as it were, partly to give a platform to air overall views of strategy, but also to try to build some allies in the campaign. I am particularly grateful for the point made by the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) about the coincidence with the debate in the House on helping Africa to fight poverty. The former Whips in this Chamber may have views about how we arrange those things.
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I want to sum up briefly and try to deal with the points that have been made. In the intensive round of briefing that I have had in the past few weeks, two statistics have stood out. The first is that, 50 years ago this month, the then Minister for Town and Countryside—they did not call it sustainable communities, local government or communities in those days—made an announcement. I should at this point, incidentally, congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) and the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire on their posts. The then Minister was a certain Mr. Harold Macmillan, who announced to the House the idea of building 125,000 new homes across south-east England to cope with population demand and the needs of key workers in the public services. Those on the Labour Front Bench opposed that policy vigorously and accused the Conservative Government of wanting to "concrete over" the south-east of England. Uncannily, Harold Macmillan's arguments were sound and succinct, and they are now being repeated by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister.

My point is that the problems of how we deal with estates and change things are not new. I mention that because one of the last points made by the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire was about ensuring that we do not recreate old problems. Most of us would acknowledge that the problem estates that we talk about now were built under Governments of both parties, but mainly under Labour Governments and in Labour areas, with the best of intentions. Lord Hattersley, as a former Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook, acknowledged that fact in the development of Labour's policy in opposition. The hon. Gentleman has made a strong point.

The second statistic that struck me forcefully was one on the social mobility of the bottom 10 per cent. of the population measured by income, which the social exclusion unit in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is examining. During the course of their lives, those people have a better chance of moving up a social class from the bottom decile if they were born in 1958 than if they were born in 1970. There are all sorts of reasons for that, some of which have been mentioned, but even today, after eight years of what I would argue have been targeted redistributive policies—I will come to what the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire said about Conservative policy—it is still true that people's chances of getting out of that bottom 10 per cent. are pretty slim, at least if they stay within the law. A Labour Government cannot afford to allow that circumstance to continue. That is why I say that turning around problem estates is not just a matter for local authorities. That is a point of principle, which the hon. Member for Cambridge addressed and with which I am sure he will agree. The issue brings us to the debate about centralisation and devolution. The Government have a national strategy, and we are clear about that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) drew our attention to the work of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and its 12 measurements of decline. He made the important point that, although the debate and the policy concentrate on existing deprived areas, the Government and local government are responsible for looking at areas that might become deprived, where the market might have failed or there are particular social circumstances.
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Although the tide of economic and social prosperity in this country is rising, some boats have holes in them, and he drew that to our attention.

I became slightly worried when my hon. Friend introduced BURT. I thought that it was an alliance with which I was not familiar, but he was referring to the good example of Burbank United Residents Together. He rightly paid tribute to his constituents who are involved in regeneration and turning around problem estates. Every speaker has acknowledged his point that the issue is about people. Without the people getting involved, we will not succeed.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) for his contribution. I think that he saw the debate on the Annunciator and came in to raise some of the points that he has raised in other debates, as well as some new ones. I give him a commitment that I take his points very seriously indeed, as I hope he knows. He made a powerful plea for neighbourhood empowerment and for putting weapons into the hands of people on the ground. That was the theme of his speech, along with the visibility of real people. This debate is about turning around problem estates, but the other side of the coin of our strategy is the programme of neighbourhood empowerment. Our intention is to provide neighbourhoods with access to real, executive power, in conjunction with local authorities and councillors.

One of the most fascinating developments in that policy area is about defining what triggers we can put in the hands of local people. For example, if fly-tipping clearance rates were not strong enough, what could the local community do about it? Could it have access to a pot of £1,000 or instruct the local authority to change the providers? That debate about empowerment and triggers is very important indeed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North also made an important point about the involvement of local Members of Parliament. My experience and that of the Government is that local Members have a crucial role to play, as civic leaders and bangers of heads together. A number of local strategic partnerships have invited their local MPs to become the chair where appropriate, because they are in the unique position of being able to provide leadership and balance and to act as a champion of local residents in a way that is not always possible for the service providers. There is a growing agenda on that point. Whereas the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire teased me about the role of some of my colleagues, I think he is on to a good idea, although we shall have to check the numbers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North talked about turnover of local officials and mainstreaming of funding. He again paid tribute to the real people. He referred to the Bulwell toy library, which is an incredible story of long-term commitment that, in a micro way, backs up the point made by the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire.

I strongly endorse my hon. Friend's point about real people, visibility and continuity of public service, whether it comes from police community support officers, estate patch managers such as those in Nottingham, estate caretakers or whatever. All the
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evidence shows that that works and builds confidence and stability on estates, and also that the satisfaction rates of a local authority covering such an area rocket, because people appreciate the attention that they are given.

My hon. Friend made an important point about concentrating on social as well as antisocial behaviour. The development of that agenda is extremely important. We will all look forward with great anticipation to the publication of the forthcoming youth services Green Paper. I appreciate that his point goes beyond youth services to the behaviour of human beings in such areas. I thank him for taking part in the debate.

The hon. Member for Cambridge talked from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench about his experience of tension between central and local issues and the dichotomies of devolution. He said that targeting can lose consent, and I recognise the point that he makes. Our interventions with local area agreements are an attempt to square those circles, and I look forward to seeing that develop.

The hon. Gentleman talked about restorative justice. I thought that we were about to hear a Liberal Democrat making a plea for vigilantism and talking about sticks rather than carrots, which are what his party normally talks about, if he will pardon a bit of teasing. He made an important point about restorative justice, which was backed up by the example given about the cleaning up of graffiti by youngsters on the youth offending teams.

For example, damage to bus shelters terribly blights areas. If bus shelters are repeatedly smashed, companies will replace them with metal ones, which further deteriorate the area, starting a cycle. Home Office experiments have proven that what works is that, if offenders are punished by being made to clear up the mess and make it good, that reduces the level of crime not only among those who smashed the bus shelters, but among those who have committed other crimes and have been made to clear up. That agenda is strong, although I will tease the hon. Gentleman by saying that when we put forward the idea of restorative justice, his then Front-Bench spokesperson spoke and voted against it. However, that is life and we move on.

The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire, whom I welcome to his position, made a thoughtful, interesting and progressive speech. Let me reassure him on some of the points that he made about some of the regeneration programmes undertaken by previous Governments. We must acknowledge that not everything was bad under the previous Conservative Government. United did win some cups. I can go so far as to say that his bit of the Conservative Government did a lot of good work. In the briefing for this debate, we did some research on that work. He will be pleased to know that Castle Vale is held up as a good example of a programme that worked. There were also the housing action trusts established in 1988 and the estate action programme in 1985, and the city challenge in which he was personally involved in 1991 is described in official ODPM policy as a successful scheme.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): Castle Vale HAT has been successful, but it cost £67,500 per property. The Optima scheme in central Birmingham
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was proposed and went through at £17,000 per property, and the stock transfer was minus £4,000 per property. Finances are important, and they cannot be ignored.

Mr. Woolas : I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point, and I acknowledge the truth of what he says, in that those are cost benefits.

I was trying to point out that some of the regeneration programmes undertaken by previous Governments had a degree of success. The estates renewal challenge, which was set up in 1995, was another good example. I genuinely do not want to score political points by describing the breakdown of the economy under the previous Government or give the macro-reasons or micro-reasons for it. We want to move forward.

The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire helpfully outlined the principles that he intends should govern his policy, and how he intends to react in the coming years, and I thank him for that. I am sure that there is some agreement on the principles. For instance, his points about silos, simplicity of funding and the clarity of funding were all helpful pointers.

The hon. Gentleman spoke interestingly about the challenge of welfare dependency. A matter that I did not raise—I did not want to open another debate—was the relationship between welfare benefits and turning around problem estates. Council tax benefit, housing benefit, the earnings disregard and so on are all important issues. The supporting people programme is another important initiative.

The traditional view of welfare dependency in the hon. Gentleman's party may be characterised as, "Make them get a job by cutting benefits." In the past, my party might have said, "Give them enough benefit so that they do not have to work"; at least, that would be how he would describe it. As he knows, what we want most of all is that work should pay. We want a transition from welfare to work that does not rest on a punitive attitude of cutting and driving down benefits to force people into work; we want it to help people into work. However, we accept the rights and responsibilities argument that he implicitly accepted. The point that he made about that was interesting, and we will see in the coming months and years how it develops.

To be more pragmatic, the examination of the benefit system and its relationship to turning around problem estates is something that the Government will focus on more and more.

Alistair Burt : I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He may want to think about the possibility of experimenting with benefits. The example from Malmö in Sweden to which I referred included making an
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adjustment to the benefits system whereby an element of people's rent was taken and refunded to the community to be used by residents to care for their properties, instead of being included in their rent and therefore covered by welfare provisions. The welfare provisions had to be changed to enable that process to happen.

I remember from my time at the Department for Social Security, as it then was, that it was difficult to change welfare provisions, as our benefits are national. However, I think we had an opportunity to introduce one provision making that possible. In terms of exploring seriously the relationship between welfare and dependency, not from an ideological point of view in order to prove a particular case, but from a practical point of view, especially if it is being raised by practitioners on the ground, I ask the Minister to bear those issues in mind. Perhaps he will discuss with his colleagues at some future stage whether making some changes to benefit provisions and allowing some experimentation might be part of our armoury in tackling that sort of problem.

Mr. Woolas : I am grateful for that contribution. We have provided pilot schemes or experiments on initiatives such as welfare to work and Jobcentre Plus. The question of flexibility in the benefit system on targeted geographical points with a specific purpose in mind is important and interesting.

I shall finish with this example: we would all agree that, if we want to provide a community worker on an estate, it will be better if that person lives on or near the estate, rather than outside. That is the case for many obvious reasons. Often, the person may not be able to take paid work if the role is part-time and would cause them to lose benefits. Such cases cause all sorts of tabloid headlines that can be a nightmare for politicians, which is why it is important to build consensus. I simply mention that as an issue that we are considering.

On the benefits agenda, someone's access to benefits is likely to be much worse if they live on a deprived estate than if they do not. The average waiting time for housing benefit claims to be dealt with is 136 days in Liverpool, 110 days in Leicester and 99 days in Stoke-on-Trent. However, the average across England is 43 days. In other words, if someone lives in a deprived area, their access to benefits is likely to be more difficult than if they do not, for obvious reasons. Government policy must address that.

I thank hon. Members for taking part in the debate. It has been useful, even if it is for nothing other than putting on the record Government and Opposition attitudes to this issue and soliciting positive ideas from the hon. Members who took part.

Question put and agreed to.

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