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9 Nov 2005 : Column 143WH—continued

Regeneration (North Staffordshire)

4.28 pm

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab): I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister—he is a friend—for taking the time to come, listen and respond to the short debate about regeneration in north Staffordshire.

Despite the title, I do not want to be parochial. I hope that the issues raised have relevance elsewhere. The reason for requesting the debate now is that the next phase of the revision process of the regional spatial strategy by the West Midlands regional assembly was launched on Monday.

One would be forgiven for nodding off at this point, because most people have no idea that regional assemblies exist, let alone do anything. The tiny few in my area who have even heard of the assembly think of it as yet another committee, inconveniently situated in Birmingham and remote in more senses than one. That overlooks one point of great significance, namely the assembly's role in producing the regional development plan and in holding the regional development agency, Advantage West Midlands, to account for our region's economic development strategy. These documents are crucial. If we do not influence them, in planning terms they can simply override every policy that we strive to produce locally, as the Minister well knows.

The regional development agencies were set up in 1999. I became an MP not long afterwards, in 2001. In   my area, it is fair to say that regeneration has proceeded in fits and starts, and—more often than not—false starts. The history of regeneration in north Staffordshire can be told through the sheaves of consultants' reports that are stacked in our offices. We have certainly been good at regenerating the consultancy industry although, sadly, none of that is indigenous to north Staffordshire. As my borough's latest draft development plan points out politely, north Staffordshire has seen many strategies come and go over the past several years.

The difference now is that, because of the Government's commitment, we finally have serious money to spend in north Staffordshire. Our regeneration zone is up and running, and the housing market renewal pathfinder is already starting to make a real difference to the future of our area. Two very good people have been recruited to drive the process forward locally—Aktar Choudhury, the director of the regeneration zone, and Hardial Boghul, the head of Renew, the housing market pathfinder. Our job as Members of Parliament is not only to support them and to make sure that the money is spent, but to make sure that public money is well spent for the future of north Staffordshire.

My area has been hit hard by the triple whammy of massive job losses in the coal, steel and pottery industries. It has cried out for investment to create jobs. Above all, however, to break out of the vicious circle of low aspirations, poor educational achievement, low skills and low pay, we require people with a vision, imagination and a commitment to bring in a mix of jobs and skills to our area. Sadly, during the summer, after what seemed ages of privately urging officials to consider the quality of jobs as well as quantity, I had to criticise publicly the direction that much of the
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economic regeneration has taken to date. If the Minister were to drive through Stoke-on-Trent and my constituency, Newcastle-under-Lyme, one thing might strike him most of all: the proliferation of huge warehouses and massive distribution sheds in garish green and grey. They have certainly brought many jobs to the area, but many of them are low-skilled, low-paid, picking and packing, humping and heaving so-called logistics jobs.

Of course, we have had great successes, one of which is the development of Keele university science park in Newcastle-under-Lyme. I hope that, together with English Partnerships, the development at Silverdale colliery, the last mine to close in our area, will be another. So it is certainly not all doom and gloom, and I want to set the right tone. My criticism is that north Staffordshire is becoming dominated by sheds and warehouses. The failure of imagination simply replicates the same old formula of targeting distribution companies. Public money is used to prepare the sites and therefore subsidises what many people consider to be a blight.

In a nutshell, my criticism is of the approach to regeneration by regional and county agencies. All too often, that seems to be a box-ticking exercise, which involves the number of jobs that are created, the number of hectares of brownfield land that are regenerated, the number of unsophisticated targets that are met and the   number of crude outputs that are fulfilled, never mind the quality. I stress that it is not my intention to criticise individuals. Everyone in regeneration in my area works extremely hard. However, if we are not careful, the system can lead to lowest common denominator outcomes.

I might be accused fairly of being the loudest, but I am certainly not the only person in north Staffordshire to voice such concerns. During the summer, the planning committee in Newcastle-under-Lyme also decided to say, "Enough is enough". It turned down the latest warehouse to be foisted on the borough, which was another 280,000 sq ft monstrosity. For the committee, it was a shed too far. Elsewhere at Trentham lakes in Stoke-on-Trent, the site of another former colliery, InStaffs (UK) Ltd., the county's inward investment agency, and the North Staffordshire chamber of commerce joined MPs and councillors to voice concerns over yet another 400,000 sq ft warehouse. All that is happening on precious, developable land—a scarce resource and one that will rapidly run out.

This year, the regeneration zone commissioned a new integrated economic development strategy for the north Staffordshire conurbation. It explicitly recognised such concerns and stated:

That work was funded, through the regeneration zone, by the regional development agency and Renew. It has been adopted by Newcastle-under-Lyme, Stoke-on-Trent and the other local partners. Yet, it is not being followed through in practice, as plans proceed for shed after shed after shed at Trentham lakes in Stoke and at Chatterley valley to the north of my constituency, in particular. It seems that we are being used—in the words of a highly respected figure at the North Staffordshire chamber of commerce—as a "dumping ground" for distribution in the west midlands.
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With regard to the shed that we refused in Newcastle, Staffordshire county council is the public sector partner. At Chatterley valley, it is the county again and Advantage West Midlands. At Trentham lakes, it is AWM and English Partnerships who are pursuing separate coalfields projects outwith the regeneration zone programme. There we have it: the regeneration zone sets the strategy, the regional development agency funds it, then all the outside agencies simply ignore it. I   hope that the Minister agrees that that is hardly joined-up thinking; it certainly is not joined-up regeneration. I shall certainly raise these issues at a meeting with English Partnerships. I have already done so with AWM.

This is where the regional spatial strategy comes in. In the last plan, which was adopted in June last year, north Staffordshire is cited as a possible site for a regional logistics site. People scratch their heads and think, "Yet more of these sheds." I stress, however, the word used was "possible". Now, with the revision, we have the chance to stand our ground. That process, which was launched on Monday, seeks among other things to

We have until 31 December to give our views. I understand that local authorities in north Staffordshire have already told consultants who are preparing a logistics survey that we do not wish to be singled out for a regional logistics site, thank you very much.

The response from our RDA has hardly been sympathetic. In a recent letter to me, it said:

It goes on to say:

All that is before the consultation has even started. One can hear the hackles being raised. As so often with our RDA, we simply do not know, locally, whether we are dealing with friend or foe.

Will the Minister join me in calling for joined-up thinking? Is it not time that the regional strategy was updated to align with the local strategies that the RDA paid a small fortune to produce? Will the Minister ensure, through the Government office for the west
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midlands, that meaningful consultation will take place on the revision of the spatial strategy, and that voices throughout the region will be listened to, not just a few decision makers based in Birmingham?

Before I conclude, I shall raise another often-neglected issue that is key to regeneration, be it economic or social: the importance of good design. I have the privilege of being the patron of Urban Vision North Staffordshire, the architecture and urban design centre that grew, three years   ago, out of a small group of committed people's   determination that our area and the core of Stoke-on-Trent should enjoy a renaissance like that in cities such as Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. The project was generously supported from the start by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment and, crucially, has also been funded by our regeneration zone.

Urban Vision is charged with promoting good urban design in our area and has established a design review panel that advises on major planning applications, which is chaired by an architect of national renown. It is adding to regeneration capacity by acting as a source of expertise, which is often sadly lacking these days in local authorities. We are often criticised by our RDA for our lack of capacity on the ground.

The story, or even struggle, of Urban Vision, is an example in microcosm of how difficult organisations find it to deal with the regeneration process. On 23   December 2003, Advantage West Midlands offered Urban Vision funding through the regeneration zone for three years, for which we were, of course, very grateful. Sadly, it was 11 months later, on 11 November 2004, that AWM finally delivered the signed contract, which allowed money to be drawn down to pay Urban Vision's staff. That slowness off the blocks meant that all of the money for 2003–04—

4.39 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.57 pm

On resuming—

Three Members not being present, The Chairman adjourned the sitting, without Question put.

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