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Suburban Areas (Funding)

4.30 pm

Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): I am delighted to have secured this debate. First, I should say clearly—I make no apology—that my points are about nothing more or less than hard cash and resources. I am not necessarily arguing that more money should go to regeneration, to facilities for young people, to training or whatever. I believe that this Government have devoted more time, energy and commitment to investing in and revitalising communities than any other. It is a record of which I and they can be proud.

My contention is that areas of the country such as my constituency that do not neatly fit into categories are    seen as being unwittingly but systematically discriminated against by the system of allocating funds for regeneration and facilities. This is, to put it crudely, about claiming a fair share of the cake for my constituents in Wirral, South.

My part of the United Kingdom could not be called deprived, either economically or socially. The Guardian, for example, profiles Wirral, South as a classic suburban seat. The definition of a suburb is in strict terms quite simple, and it is

If one substitutes the word conurbation for city, we might be said to be a suburb of Birkenhead or Merseyside. However, such a definition is far from adequate. It fails to describe the sheer variety of the landscapes that constitute my constituency, from prosperous residential areas to idyllic villages to leafy and not-so-leafy suburbs and to open countryside. That is part of what makes my job as an MP so enjoyable.

We are all able to identify a suburban area in our mind, but it is harder to put a finger on precisely what it means. That may go some way to explain why parts of areas such as mine tend, in my view, to be neglected. They do not fit neatly into any box. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has published some excellent pioneering research into the potential problems of suburbia. Some might argue that there are difficulties in defining and clearly marking the boundaries and characteristics of suburban areas, meaning that they are not given the attention that they deserve.

Suburban areas' mixed-use nature may result in a semblance, at least to the instant eye, of stability. However, there may not be a focus. There may be an incomplete sense of community and almost certainly an insufficiency of facilities. For the young that can engender, among other things, a sense of deprivation and boredom. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation's research stands out because it is virtually the only study of its type. Of the 42 pieces of regeneration research conducted by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, at least 30 are concerned specifically with urban areas. There are none on suburban areas.

It is right that areas of deprivation such as parts of Birkenhead and the north of Wirral should receive priority. However, as I shall go on to say, if we are complacent about suburban areas, it will cost more in the long run to sort them out. Simply put, my constituency does not fare well in terms of funding. A plethora of dedicated funds of one sort or another is
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available and I welcome the Chancellor's pledge in the pre-Budget report to use unclaimed money from bank accounts to fund youth and community programmes. We are short of those.

I am sceptical about whether we shall see any such funds in Wirral, South. At present, for example, we receive nothing from the neighbourhood renewal fund and precious little from the single regeneration budget, or what is left of it, and we are among the lowest recipients of lottery money. We are 569th in the constituency tables for lottery money, which is a considerable improvement on what went before. European money that is directly attributable to my constituency is minimal, we have no new deal for communities and minimal Sure Start. Why is that?

First, there is the culture of the bid. For most funding—thankfully, we are beginning to see exceptions to the rule—following the initial application, an at-length holistic business plan must be submitted to the relevant arbiter, whoever that may be, and that is followed by a review. The end result is that the process is long and tortuous and, in a sense, professional—I shall come to that later—which has consequences for areas such as mine.

The philosophy dates back to when Michael Heseltine was Secretary of State for the Environment in the late 1980s. His big idea was to make the allocation of regeneration moneys competitive. City challenge, as it was principally called, invited local authorities to tender, initially within a six-week period, for a funding pool. A bid required an extremely broad-based partnership, so applicants were required to muster up a coalition of unlikely bedfellows in the name of partnership—then and, to some extent, still the buzzword. Private sector companies, the voluntary sector, councillors, the chief constable, head teachers and others were all thrown together in a sort of Darwinian pact.

The end result was a close co-operation of necessity, but it was almost always short term in its effect because the partnership was brought together for the sake of securing the money. There was no basic solidarity, even if the bid succeeded. If it did not, there was worse to come, as the money for city challenge was not new but top-sliced from existing budgets. Those who lost suffered a double whammy with an appreciable cut in their budgets.

I believe that approach to have been wholly wrong. It was sometimes said that what brought a partnership together was the suppression of mutual loathing in order to get one's hands on the dosh. That was not my phrase. I would not say that myself, of course, but partnerships were formed, in effect, to make a quick buck, and successful bidders certainly enjoyed the spoils of extra cash for regeneration.

As it happens, the Wirral bid was successful. I believe that I am right in saying that more than £37 million came to Wirral as a whole, but next to nothing to Wirral, South. The losers were penalised—sometimes inevitably, as there was insufficient money to go around and good bids lost out. The Department of the Environment's interim report in 1996 praised the
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scheme overall, but even Heseltine's former Department was able to point to significant weaknesses. An evaluation of the programme states:

As studies in, for example, the academic journal Social Policy and Administration have noted, city challenge had a lasting effect on regeneration policy in this country. In my view, its legacy was not altogether to the good.

The bidding culture has led increasingly to the professionalisation of bidding, to the extent that there are advertisements in the press for lottery and bidding officers whose sole purpose is to maximise the likelihood of successful bids. That is dangerous in that, inevitably, it sucks resources away and means that people on the ground suffer if a bid for moneys is unsuccessful. As I said, the bidding element is no longer as entrenched as it was in all streams, but it and its culture are still there, to the detriment of the United Kingdom generally but particularly constituencies such as mine.

Not only is there the snowball effect of successful bids—one acquires the professionalism of bidding, which is, in a sense, a black art—that allows for successful bids, but money goes to money. Those who are able to bid in one challenge system are already geared up and have the people and professionalism to bid in the next round. Money follows money, and the concentration concentrates on the previous concentration, to the detriment of other areas.

Because of the holistic nature of the bidding approach, a by-product is that other resources naturally gravitate towards the areas that are already provided for in the funding. For example, police and drugs teams, outreach projects and so on will follow the allocated resources—to some extent, to the detriment of other areas. The purpose becomes the bid, not the job that is needed. Money is the driver of what is done. People seek to have projects that can secure funding, rather than those that do what needs to be done. Things are awry.

There are powerful and influential lobbies to speak for different parts of our country. Urban areas have, for example—I am just picking a few organisations at random—the British Urban Regeneration Association, the Urban Forum and the urban resource centre. Rural areas have the power of the National Farmers Union, the Countryside Commission, the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the Countryside Alliance at their disposal. To the best of my knowledge, there is nothing for suburban areas. There is no lobbying voice that speaks coherently and singularly for suburban areas. The ODPM has an urban and rural policy but, to the best of my knowledge, no suburban equivalent. It is left to local people to take the lead and the odds are stacked against them.

Often, as is the case in Wirral, the centre of gravity is with the local authority's physical location—in this case, in Birkenhead. The bulk of the voters are there and so is the bulk of the attention. However, we in Wirral, South also have our problems and they are not trivial. Mostly, but not exclusively, they centre on antisocial behaviour. Every day, my office receives reports of incidents of antisocial behaviour of one form or another. Whether it is gangs of drunken youths roaming the streets, or
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vandalism, petty theft, smashing bus shelters, breaking car mirrors, entering premises to intimidate, or being abusive, such behaviour happens every week and probably every night.

Some people in the leafy suburbs are afraid to go out; that should not be the case. Some parts of my constituency become, in effect, relative no-go areas on a Saturday night. I hold regular meetings with the police, residents groups and, of course, constituents. Antisocial behaviour happens in some of the most deprived areas, but it also happens in places such as Bebington, Clatterbridge, Bromborough, Eastham and even prosperous Heswall. In a sense, those places represent middle England. Antisocial behaviour has become a major blight and it is the No. 1 issue on the doorstep and in my postbag. We have strategies in place courtesy of the Home Office, but they are not wholly successful.

There are other arguments, although they are part of the same broader problem, and I raised them in Home Office questions on Monday. However, for the purposes of today, I am concerned with the other side of the coin: activities for young people. I am talking about facilities and things to do. It has been shown time and again that those things make a difference in the long run. The entire western half of my constituency currently has no sports and leisure centre. That means that young people are cut off and left to their own devices.

I am not saying that the provision of youth facilities would be a panacea. One can argue about the causes of antisocial behaviour, particularly in young people. It is obviously related to a multitude of things: parenting, truancy, education, the ready availability of alcohol, police presence, our culture and so on. We have the stick of antisocial behaviour orders, section 32 powers and so on, but the carrot is insufficient, particularly in areas such as mine. Time and again, resources are diverted away, wittingly or unwittingly. The toss can be argued and I have no doubt that those administering the funds would be able to put up a robust defence, but I find it hard to square the myriad objective tests with the evidence, which I see every week as a constituency MP, of problems and to some extent stagnation in parts of Wirral, South.

A case in point is one of my local areas: New Ferry. Businesses there find it hard to survive and some shut soon after they are opened. Despite the commendable work of the New Ferry regeneration action group, the place is starved of investment and resources and there needs to be an overall review. I cannot think of a better candidate for a rounded regeneration initiative, yet it is largely passed over and even the measures that are in train—the Wirral waterfront and Winstanley road home zone areas—are simply not enough in themselves. They help and I welcome them, but they are not enough.

The contrast in my constituency is immense. The index of multiple deprivation shows Heswall to be in the top 25 per cent. in terms of the least deprived in the UK. New Ferry is in the bottom 6 per cent. However, the devil is in the detail. New Ferry is a relatively small area and it is surrounded by more prosperous areas, not least Port Sunlight village. I accept that that is not greatly prosperous, but it is more prosperous. It is not a place of milk and honey, but it is slightly more prosperous than New Ferry. We missed out in the first round of the neighbourhood renewal fund because the objective
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measure took place at ward level, and New Ferry is in Bromborough, which, as a ward, is not classified as deprived, although, of course, it has its needs.

I am aware that the ODPM started to employ data that are now to be at sub-ward level and to be called super output areas. They can detect small pockets of deprivation; indeed, they identified New Ferry as such. I understand that SOAs will be used as a mechanism to deliver funds from April next year, but again we miss out because the cut-off point is 3 per cent.—the 3 per cent. most deprived wards, as a recently parliamentary answer informed me. The cut-off point was locally prescribed, but does the Minister consider it right that areas well within the 10 per cent. criterion for allocation of NRF money to local authorities receive nothing from a total next year of more than £6 million?

Will that cut-off point be maintained after April? Will it be the 3 per cent. most deprived SOAs? Does the Minister consider it right or fair for the wards in Wirral that will continue to receive targeted NRF help to contain several SOAs with lower—some not inconsiderably so—levels of deprivation? I am not sure that, if the SOA measures are to be used effectively, there is not a need to reconsider. I hope that the Minister will not consider it unreasonable of me to draw attention to what I and my constituents consider to be systematic discrimination against suburban areas, pockets and strands of deprivation.

I am careful not to overstate my case, but if the totality is thrown at today's problem areas, the areas that are now non-problem areas will become the problem areas of the future. We must maintain an appropriate balance. If action is not taken to at least nurture our more suburban areas, they will inevitably decline over time. Already, they suffer from a lack of facilities. In some respects, we are already there. With councils under more pressure to rein in their spending, from which my local authority is far from immune, not least in social services, it is more important than ever to ensure that various tiers of funding are allocated on the basis of need, which takes different forms.

Welcome though it is and an increase in real terms, Wirral's local government settlement, when rounded in all respects, comes out at about 2.6 per cent. this year. However, it is lower than the national average. It is tight. We need to think at both constituency and at Wirral level about how we allocate the scarce funds and the need to allocate them fairly. At present, it is my contention that areas such as mine are not receiving a fair allocation.

4.48 pm

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman) on securing the debate, which introduces a matter that is important to his constituents and to influencing Government policy throughout the country. He said that urban and rural areas have powerful and influential advocates; his constituents have a powerful and influential advocate in him. He is well respected and well known for standing up for them, as he has done again today. I can bring him some good news, at least by reassuring him that the central points of his argument are being acknowledged by the Government in many respects.
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My hon. Friend understandably referred to the revenue support grant settlement for 2006–07 and 2007–08, which was announced yesterday, of 2.6 and 2.7 per cent. We have also announced today the education schools budget allocation, and I am delighted to inform him that the allocation for schools in his area will be increased by nearly £12 million—nearly 7.5 per cent. I am sure he welcomes that.

The available data are now so sophisticated that we can, as my hon. Friend has, identify pockets of poverty—as he was about to say, the nattily titled super output areas. I have a map here, but unfortunately I am colour blind, so I cannot see the exact allocation. However, his constituency clearly has areas of poverty, which, were they in the neighbouring administrative area, would be entitled to funds that they perhaps do not receive now. The point that he makes is important not just for his constituents, but for the whole country. It is true that Government policy has been targeted on areas of deprivation, and he asks whether special attention should be paid to the suburbs.

It may be helpful if I outline Government policy. Over the past three years, we have worked with local government on possible changes to grant distribution formulae. We consulted publicly over the summer and drew conclusions that have been placed in the Library as well as—we are a modern Department—on our website for all to see. A key message about that settlement, and about funding for suburban areas and pockets of deprivation in the relatively prosperous suburbs, is that it is a matter for the main programme funding of the local agencies, such as the local authorities, the national health service and the police.

My hon. Friend referred to the SOA data, which are more sophisticated data than were available in the past. They give us a more detailed understanding of patterns of deprivation in England, which helps us to ensure that funding is targeted where it is most needed. The index of deprivation for 2004 provided data by SOA. Because those criteria were used when calculating the neighbourhood renewal fund, allocations for 2006–2008—the two years that I confirmed yesterday—and in relation to deciding which areas should get the neighbourhood renewal element of safer stronger communities funding have been made available.

We believe that the SOAs—the indices on pockets of deprivation—provide local strategic partnerships with the opportunity better to pinpoint deprived areas. Local partners in the public, private and voluntary sectors are therefore able to target their policies and funding more effectively. My hon. Friend's council, Wirral, and its partners should therefore decide how best to spend the overall annual budgets to meet the needs of all Wirral's residents, including his own, using the evidence that is now available. In addition to the mainstream funding that Wirral receives, the Government have provided extra support for pockets of deprivation, as I said, through the NRF and the safer stronger communities fund.

Wirral has deprived wards, so it has been allocated more than £5 million of NRF resources for the current financial year. It has also had an indicative allocation
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for the next two years of £6.5 million for 2006–07 and £7.5 million for 2007–08. Therefore, from 2001 to 2008, Wirral will receive nearly £36 million of NRF funding.

The purpose of that funding is to provide local support to local authorities in the most deprived districts to enable them, in collaboration with their other partners in the public sector and beyond, to improve services. That contributes to the achievement of Government targets and—I emphasise this point to help my hon. Friend—local targets to narrow the gap between deprived areas and the rest of the country.

To do that, the neighbourhood renewal programme, agreed by the Wirral council strategic partnership, provides support to the most deprived wards of the area—all of which are among the 3 per cent. of the most deprived wards in England. That is the crucial point that my hon. Friend made.

This is a local decision. The local strategic partnership is free to use its local knowledge and to spend those resources in any way that helps to meet the key national and local targets. The funding is already being used on a wide range of projects—for example, to target antisocial behaviour. In Wirral, the LSP is already providing more than £354,000 to fund warden initiatives across the borough as part of its strategy. There is also a neighbourhood management pathfinder scheme in Tranmere. I hope that Wirral, like other areas, will employ neighbourhood management principles to ensure that services are more responsive to the needs of residents.

Cutting to the chase, my hon. Friend rightly identified the fact that the safer and stronger communities funding was allocated by focusing on the 3 per cent. most deprived SOAs using the 2004 indices of deprivation, so small pockets of deprivation are targeted with additional funding. That is to ensure that funding is not spread too thinly. However, Wirral is getting one allocation of the neighbourhood element of safer stronger communities money, which is worth £1.6 million over four years. It is for local partners to agree how and where the money will be spent and which SOAs in their area will be covered.

The new allocations complement each other; many small pockets of deprivation outside NRF areas are being targeted by the neighbourhood element of the safer stronger communities fund. In total, 108 local authority areas will be targeted by one fund or by both. That means that the new resources will reach more than 93 per cent. of the people living in the 10 per cent. most deprived areas. Therefore, only a small number of small pockets of deprivation are not targeted by my Department in any way. Where pockets of deprivation fall outside those funding streams, it is for local authorities and their partners to support them using their own resources.

On top of the NRF and the SSCF, European objective 1 funding is available for the whole Merseyside region. Within that, an allocation of resources is aimed at tackling issues of deprivation in specific areas due to their classification as being among the most deprived areas of Merseyside. Three of those areas fall within Wirral, South. Single regeneration funding is available to support Wirral, South businesses.

Wirral is therefore in a good position to bring together funding streams from central Government to ensure better outcomes for people and improved public
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services through their local area agreement. As my hon. Friend is aware, Wirral is a round 2 local area agreement body and is negotiating that agreement ready for sign-off and delivery in April 2006.

The new area agreements are a new contract between central Government and local government. LSPs are free to use their local knowledge and spend these
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resources in any way that helps to meet key national and local targets for reducing deprivation. It is crucial that Wirral local authority and its partners continue to target mainstream funding to support areas of deprivation, including my hon. Friend's constituency.

Question put and agreed to.

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