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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Jim Fitzpatrick): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) on securing this debate and thus raising issues about the regional and national work that is taking forward the sustainable communities agenda. My honourable colleague has been involved in the development of the RSPB's Old Moor wetlands centre since its inception and I commend him and Councillor Norbury on the leadership they have shown in supporting that important and valuable community asset. My hon. Friend was deputy leader and leader of the local council, as well as now being the very active local Member of Parliament.

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is all about creating sustainable communities, and our departmental strapline and mission statement reflect that fact. However, that is much more than about words: it is about creating change, delivering diversity and implementing initiatives. That commitment comes not just from the ODPM, but from across Government. We are working closely with the Department of Trade and Industry, through the regional development agencies, with the DEFRA agents, such as the Environment Agency, and with organisations such as the RSPB to create better places to live and work, such as those in Barnsley described by my hon. Friend.

But I should like us to take a step back: the sustainable communities plan, launched in 2003, set out the Government's long-term vision for thriving, sustainable communities in every English region. The plan defined an ambitious programme to deliver a step change in housing supply, decent homes, urban renewal
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and countryside protection, and it also signalled unprecedented investment in our neighbourhood environments. It also made a commitment to the environment, making it clear that it is important that new housing should be located on brownfield land where possible and that the protection of the countryside and the green belt were priorities for the Government.

We have seen achievements in those areas. Residential development on brownfield land is up from 56 per cent. in 1997 to 72 per cent. today. The density of new residential developments has increased from 25 dwellings per hectare in 1997 to 40 per hectare. Between 1997 and 2004, there was a net increase of about 26,000 hectares in designated green belt. A further 13,000 hectares of green belt has been proposed in emerging development plans.

The sustainable communities plan also set ambitious targets for the growth areas, including the Thames Gateway, to consider green space as part of the overall master plan. In the Thames Gateway, the "Greening the Gateway" strategy established the principle that new and existing residential and commercial areas should be set in a network of varied and well managed green space. Supported by £26 million from the ODPM Thames Gateway programme fund, a number of green space initiatives have been funded, including £3.25 million to ensure the protection of the RSPB reserve at Rainham marshes and to construct an environment and education centre; £5 million for the London Riverside conservation park at Rainham and Averley marshes and the restoration of Erith, Crayford and Dartford marshes; and £2 million to provide a 74 hectare conservation site at Nevenden nature reserve in Basildon.

ODPM funding worth £40 million is supporting the delivery of key components of green infrastructure in the key growth locations by improving the interface between the urban and rural environments, providing improved access for people and wildlife and restoring areas of the countryside, which provides people with more opportunities to experience and interact with their environment first hand, as suggested by my hon. Friend.

Two examples of projects being funded are Dunstable downs, which is receiving £1.5 million to provide a new flagship facility to accommodate additional visitors resulting from the nearby growth area, and the Forest of Marston Vale, which is working to transform 61 square miles of land in a key location between Bedford and Milton Keynes, with a long-term aim of achieving 30 per cent. woodland cover. A sum of £2.8 million will ensure a wide range of environment and community benefits, including landscape improvement, wildlife conservation, agricultural diversification, recreation provision, employment generation and environmental education.

More recently, the Government's response to Kate Barker's review of housing supply reinforced the commitment to protecting and enhancing the environment alongside accommodating housing growth. As my hon. Friend can see, on a national and regional level we are working cross-departmentally to deliver sustainable communities.
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Quite a few of the examples I have cited are from the south and the midlands, but let us not forget the subject of today's debate. My hon. Friend has given us the example of the Old Moor wetlands centre in a former coalfield area in his constituency, and I am glad that he has raised the profile of the centre, which demonstrates what can be achieved in a location that could so easily have become a no man's land, or a nobody's land, to be more politically correct.

Reflecting on what I said earlier, Old Moor certainly demonstrates excellent usage of brownfield land being, as it is, a former farmhouse and associated agricultural buildings surrounded by an area formerly used for mining with some contaminated land. Through a combined budget of £500 million, the national coalfields programme, the Coalfields Regeneration Trust and the Coalfields Enterprise Fund mentioned by my hon. Friend are delivering real change through a long-term programme and commitment to action. People are being given access to the skills and jobs that they need, the environmental legacy of the coal industry is being cleaned up, and the housing, economic and social needs of the local communities are being addressed.

Old Moor nature reserve is a practical example of how a former coalfield site can become an important community asset. A number of the awards received by the centre mirror the Government's commitment to sustainable building. During the actual building process, the builders, Wakefield-based Tolent Construction, demonstrated high standards of workmanship and health and safety to staff and visitors. The company and the RSPB won the national built-in quality award for innovation for the visitor centre's many energy conservation measures. It has a wind turbine, solar panels and wood chip boiler supplied from a nearby sawmill.

There are also links to education, culture and heritage through the work of the centre. Old Moor, with its extensive visitor facilities, is a fantastic place to watch wildlife, particularly a range of birds. A mix of habitats includes open water, marsh, reed beds and grassland. There are also curriculum-linked, term-time educational visits, including pond-dipping, "mini-beasting" and other creative and science-based activities to suit children from reception to key stage 2. Around 4,000 children have had first-hand experience of nature through the reserve's field teaching programme, and 65,000 visitors are expected to go through the gates during this financial year, reaching the targets set for 2008. I am sure that, as a result of this enjoyable but educational facility, a generation of children will grow up with a much wider appreciation of the local environment, and that that enjoyment will translate in later life into a caring and responsible attitude towards their community, as my hon. Friend suggested.

As my hon. Friend said, by the first anniversary of the opening of the centre in the autumn, the RSPB work should be replicated across the country in line with the Government's sustainable communities agenda. I hope that I have demonstrated that this is happening nationally, and I certainly commend the RSPB's plans to create and enhance other wildlife areas throughout the Dearne valley. The RSPB has additional proposals for the Yorkshire coalfield area to develop more
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reserves. In the Lower Aire valley, it is looking at opportunities between Leeds and Castleford. It is to work alongside UK Coal Mining Ltd at the former open-cast St. Aidan site. People living, working and visiting the area will have easy access to a network of sites via new footpaths, bridleways and cycle routes.

Moving slightly further afield from South Yorkshire but still in the Yorkshire and Humber region, North Yorkshire county council is consulting on the Swale and Ure washland project. Future sites could form a network, with high ecological, landscape and amenity value. In Wakefield, the council is working with partners through developing local area agreements to develop plans to designate a number of local nature reserves, to improve biodiversity and provide improved green spaces for the deprived communities in its district.

I cannot finish without referring to the work of the Land Restoration Trust. It is a joint venture company, which was launched in 2004 by the Deputy Prime Minister. It is jointly owned by English Partnerships, Groundwork, the Environment Agency and the Forestry Commission, and regional development
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agencies are represented on its board. It seeks to hold sites, including many in the former coalfields, and to ensure that they are managed into perpetuity.

I certainly feel that I have covered a lot of ground, both geographically and from a policy point of view. It is easy to get drawn into the minutiae of these issues, so it is good to reflect on the bigger picture, as afforded by my hon. Friend. He has raised the issue of sustainable communities with reference to the Old Moor wetlands centre. Communities are about people—people from all backgrounds, young and old. Centres such as Old Moor help to bring life to an area in many ways. That area suffered with the decline of the mining industry, but a new life is emerging, as demonstrated at Old Moor and replicated in other parts of the country. I conclude by congratulating my hon. Friend once again, not only on securing this debate, but on his solid support for our policies generally and for the Old Moor wetlands site and the creation of similar sites across the country, ensuring the building of sustainable communities.

Question put and agreed to.

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