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Regeneration (Thetford)

12.30 pm

Mr. Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): I am delighted to have this opportunity to fly the flag for my constituency, and in particular for the market town of Thetford. I am also pleased that the Minister—someone I consider a parliamentary friend—is replying on behalf of the Government. I know that he will be positive and sincere in addressing the issues I raise, and that his advice will help to move us forward. I wish to outline the problems facing Thetford, the opportunities that exist, and what needs to be done to give Thetford the chance it so genuinely deserves.

Thetford lies in the heart of Breckland, an area of sandy heath and forest around the Little Ouse valley, and it has historically been the industrial engine of the area. It is the fourth largest town in Norfolk, and it is the centre for employment, shopping and community services for the surrounding rural community. It is only six miles from the county boundary, so its catchment area extends into neighbouring Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and beyond.

Thetford has a wealth of heritage that should attract more national and international visitors, but it is not a renowned tourist location, and it is largely held in low regard by Norfolk residents from elsewhere in the county—indeed, sadly, it is often seen as a troublespot. Between 1956 and 1980, Thetford was a London overspill town, and it went through a period of rapid expansion in housing and jobs. That has left Thetford with large housing estates and industrial areas on its outskirts.

Norfolk is a diverse county, with some areas of affluence, but others of extreme deprivation. That is a significant problem in Thetford, and particularly in the west of the town. We continue to face the major challenge created by grafting three substantial housing estates on to a relatively small area, but with limited sustained mainstream investment in social and economic opportunities. The 2001 census, coupled with local information provided by the Keystone Development Trust, showed that the key issues include child poverty, ill health related to disadvantage, low educational attainment and aspirations, antisocial behaviour, high teenage pregnancy and high levels of petty crime and domestic violence. Do the Government accept that Thetford has for too long been undervalued in respect of their investment priorities?

Fortunately, however, Thetford is now reaching a turning point. I am pleased to report that partnership-driven regeneration work, underpinned by the East of England Development Agency and European resources, has brought the town to the threshold of positive change. That has created some hugely positive trends, fostered and encouraged by many local agencies, including Breckland council, Thetford town council, the Keystone Development Trust and Norfolk county council. Thetford is benefiting from demographic diversification, with the influx of new residents who work in Norwich or Cambridge. They will bring some wealth to the town. However, it is important that we develop local jobs for local people, and have a diversity of shops and facilities, so that they choose to spend their money in the town.
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We have had help for the housing estates through the single regeneration budget and European objective 2 funding, but what will happen when that short-term regeneration funding comes to an end? The local authority is trying to balance the need for new additional housing stock with the difficulties faced in respect of outdated existing housing. That is hard to do. When the Government plan major housing developments, Ministers must accept that we need funding for local amenities if areas such as Thetford are to provide for the community when it moves in. When new houses are built, that has huge implications for schools, GPs' surgeries, and local transport and leisure facilities for children and adults alike.

Currently, there are about 7,000 migrant workers in Thetford. They meet labour shortages in the local economy—they do jobs that the indigenous population do not want to do. They make a significant contribution to the economic development of the area, but, unfortunately, they are perceived by some as having a negative effect on local services and schools. I would like the Government to support local agencies to promote understanding and respect, and to ensure that we have a properly integrated community. That would allow Thetford to celebrate its new multicultural nature.

I am the first to admit that much positive work is being done and there is a good feeling in the town, but those trends must be viewed realistically as part of a bigger picture for the community. There has been criticism that support in respect of drug and alcohol dependency, and sexual health and domestic violence on the estates, has been piecemeal, and that the lack of mainstream public resources for community centre costs or social programmes has made things worse. Unfortunately, there is a general fear of crime, and of persistent racism or racial harassment. There is only a limited amount that the local authority can do without support from central Government. As the Minister probably knows, it is doing its best. However, when we find that community policing is hampered by resource limitations, that puts the ball right back in the Government's court.

It is true that unemployment is currently relatively low. Many of the industrial estates in Thetford were created in the 1960s and 1970s as part of the Greater London council overspill programme, when many businesses were relocated to the town. That has left a lasting legacy. There is a number of large manufacturing businesses, and a predominance of manufacturing employment in the town; over 50 per cent. of the work force are employed in that sector. However, that means that the national trend of the contraction of that sector has the potential to hit the town very hard.

In the greater Thetford area, we have recently been hit by an announcement by Del Monte that it may close its factory in Methwold, with the loss of more than 250 jobs. Future closures—there will inevitably be more—will result in difficult to let, outdated units as well as job losses. Will the Government recognise the challenges faced by Norfolk market towns such as Thetford, and continue to make funding support available to address those challenges? Will they also recognise that social, economic and environmental regeneration is not only
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needed in large urban settlements and seaside resorts, but required to keep Britain's market towns vibrant and sustainable?

Now let us look to the future. No one denies that European funds and local and regional public sector regeneration funding have started to address the social, environmental and economic issues facing the town, but will Thetford benefit and move forward over the next five to 10 years? In the draft regional spatial strategy, Breckland council has earmarked Thetford for another wave of significant growth in both housing and jobs. It sees that not as an end in itself, but as a means to regenerate Thetford, and in particular the town centre. Will the Government ensure that Thetford's potential is fully realised through support for current and future regeneration initiatives, such as the rural enterprise valley and the Moving Thetford Forward projects? Moving Thetford Forward is a vision and development strategy prepared to inform Breckland council's local development framework. It is a hugely exciting vision for the future of Thetford

but it remains largely unfunded.

Thetford has a dearth of places to play sport, watch films, view art or go dancing. Local residents have some way to go if they want to do so. Young people lack appropriate places to meet, and public transport does not offer easy access to other towns that enjoy such benefits. What support can the Government give to encourage the development of cultural and leisure facilities to enhance the lives of the people who live in Thetford?

As the leader of Breckland council, William Nunn, told me,

I would like to think that this debate will start to redress the balance, and that the positive progress made in the town will persuade the private sector and the media alike that Thetford has an exciting future, which will be delivered all the sooner if we work together, and if the Government openly support the projects being instigated by local agencies and interest groups.

Other opportunities for the future have been identified and are being examined, including the possibility of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister giving Thetford growth point status, and the possibility of establishing a market town regeneration company; a feasibility study into that is under way. Can the Minister offer advice and encouragement on the future of those initiatives? What about the local area agreement, a key Government tool for engaging all agencies? The LAA highlights many of the issues facing Thetford, but does it bring any new money to deal with them?

In order to attract investment to the town through skilled employment and well paid jobs, Breckland council is working on the rural enterprise valley project, to which I referred. As Mark Stanton, the economic development and regeneration manager, told me:

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The project includes the construction of Thetford enterprise park, which will offer high-quality, purpose-built premises to the sector and its associated supply chain. However, two key issues are as yet unresolved, the first of which is funding.

Breckland council, the Crown estate, which owns some of the land, the Government office for the east of England, through objective 2 funding, and Norfolk county council have all made firm or provisional commitments to funding the project. I urge the East of England Development Agency to commit to the £1.5 million grant that would enable the project to get off the ground. I hope that the Minister will support me in that request. As long as the EEDA agreement remains outstanding, there is a risk for the council in starting work.

The project is hugely exciting, and will have a major and continuing economic impact on the district, county and region. It will support a high-growth sector, promote inward investment along the A11 corridor, and bring new, quality employment opportunities. I want the project to be at the heart of an area of investment and opportunity, known and promoted across the country as "Tech Anglia", where people will want to live and work because it offers a positive future for them and their families.

If we are to achieve that goal, we must address the outstanding matter of the local roads infrastructure, and in particular the A11, which is a vital link between Norfolk and the rest of the United Kingdom. There remains an 8 mile stretch of single carriageway between Fiveways Corner roundabout and Thetford which leaves Norfolk the only county, and Norwich the largest settlement, not connected to the national dual carriageway network. The need to dual that section is paramount. It must be completed as a matter of urgency. The business community, utterly frustrated by unfulfilled promises and ever growing delays on that stretch of road, has rolled in behind our local authorities. A compelling case has been submitted to the regional assembly. Will the Minister support that project, and will he join me in calling on the Secretary of State for Transport to approve it so that a timetable can be drawn up and work can start?

I have highlighted Thetford's history, the difficulties that the town faces, the opportunities that lie just around the corner, and the next steps towards making a real difference to Thetford and the surrounding area. I know that the Minister will take on board the fact that neighbourhood regeneration is a long haul, but does he    accept that neighbourhoods such as Thetford experiencing poverty and disadvantage deserve the best and consistent services, rather than piecemeal regeneration schemes? What can he offer the people of Thetford, and the agencies working so hard on their behalf, for the future? We want Government support for a secure and viable economic future. Where necessary, we want appropriate, timely funding, to ensure the success of the area.

I have one more issue to raise, and that is the concern in Thetford, Breckland and across south-west Norfolk about the proposal by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister that the county should become unitary. There
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is a commonly held, passionate belief in the local delivery of local services, supported, of course, by Government, rather than a one-size-fits-all unitary approach.

Again, I thank the Minister for listening to my concerns. I invite him to visit Thetford to see for himself the issues that I raised. Thetford is an example of a town that has been done down by too many people for too long. Much could happen in the town in a short time. I am determined to do all that I can to ensure that Thetford achieves its true potential in this economically competitive and technological age, and to ensure that the concept of "Tech Anglia", and all that it could stand for in East Anglia and across the country, is truly realised.

12.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Jim Fitzpatrick) : It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Hood. I congratulate the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser) on securing this debate, which provides an opportunity to discuss the significant work in progress to regenerate Thetford. I appreciate his kind remarks, and I hope to respond somewhat positively to a number of his points.

Recent developments in the town and plans for the future are extremely encouraging, as has been outlined by the hon. Gentleman. Partners including Thetford town council, Breckland council, the Keystone Development Trust and the East of England Development Agency have been working together to develop long-term plans for the town. Those plans culminated this month in the launch of a vision and a development strategy called Moving Thetford Forward, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. That strategy is the product of extensive consultation with local stakeholders, and local people will continue to be widely consulted as a vital part of ongoing activities.

At the core of the proposals is the plan to build on the town's outstanding natural assets. From among those, the town's waterfront has been identified as offering considerable opportunities for development. I am advised that options for increasing waterside accommodation and attractive leisure activities are under consideration. Residents and businesses are keen for further improvements to the town's streetscaping, and want to combine a mix of traditional and contemporary enhancements that are sympathetic to Thetford's rich history and to its need to develop as a modern, thriving economy.

In all, five key themes have been identified as the basis for the vision and the development strategy. The putting together of that vision has really underlined the strength of the partnership in Thetford and the determination of central partners, including those mentioned, to reinvigorate the town, working hand-in-hand with local businesses and residents.

It is important that the vision maintains its momentum as a blueprint for practical actions in the town over the next few years. As part of the vision, the East of England Development Agency invited Breckland council to submit a proposal for a feasibility study to consider the potential for establishing a market town regeneration company in Thetford. Obviously,
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that is still at an early stage, but it provides a clear signal of the positive intent of partners to ensure that Thetford continues to progress and realise its potential.

Rightly, people living and working in Thetford take great pride in the town's rich history and culture. Thetford has an exceptionally interesting past, which has been influential in shaping key investments to develop the local economy. It was from Thetford that Queen Boudicca—when I was educated, she was called Boadicea—plotted her attempted overthrow of the Romans. Another resident continuing the noble tradition of freedom and liberty was Thomas Paine, who attended Thetford grammar school. Of course, Thetford was a world-famous centre for steam traction engine production in the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century through the Charles Burrell company.

That history has been at the centre of significant investments in the town, designed to unlock the potential in that rich heritage and so help stimulate the town's economy. The development of the magnificent ancient house museum, located in a 15th century Tudor merchant's house, will provide an outstanding exhibition space for the town's collection of valuable artefacts. Those include a hoard of late Roman jewellery and spoons as well as a display of original items from an Indian prince with connections to Thetford, Duleep Singh, the last Sikh maharajah of the Punjab. The manner in which this architectural jewel has been revitalised illustrates well the community-based approach to cultural and economic development in the town. Throughout the closure, local people have been involved and kept informed of progress, and educational opportunities have been maximised through close working with Thetford's schools.

The town's industrial heritage is celebrated and explored in the redeveloped Charles Burrell museum, which contains some wonderful examples of steam-powered traction engines. The local community is now considering options for further developing this facility, including potentially enhancing its impact as a museum that brings to life the history of Charles Burrell and Sons in the town, or extending its usage as a craft and music venue for the young. The need for increased provision for young people in the town has been identified as a particular priority within the Thetford vision and development strategy, as mentioned by the hon. Gentleman.

As well as stimulating the town's economy through the creation of 21st century visitor attractions, such facilities are also acting as powerful tools to engage local people in the town's history and culture, and that can exert only a positive influence on people's sense of pride in place and connection with the town, which the Government are keen to promote. This sense of pride in place is clearly important in helping to bring together the culturally diverse community that lives in Thetford.

Thetford has a proud tradition of embracing and supporting new populations and groups, from the migration of engineers during the 19th and the early part of the 20th century from London, the midlands and Yorkshire, to the expanding employment opportunities in the town's Burrell works, to the settlement in the
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1950s of several thousand Londoners in Thetford and the more recent establishment of a growing Portuguese community.

Of course, as well as bringing fresh opportunities and perspectives, these changes have also carried with them new challenges. The Government recognise that and have invested, for example, in measures to ensure that the Portuguese community is supported as part of a thriving community and is able fully to play its part. The difficulties faced by this growing migrant community in negotiating language and cultural barriers are real, as are problems accessing employment and training opportunities and general services.

In responding to these challenges, more than £190,000 is being provided under the Home Office's race equality grant scheme, "Connecting Communities", through the Thetford-based Keystone Development Trust, to remove barriers to employment and skills development. A central part of this scheme will be a range of services to guide migrant workers through the various types of provision in the Breckland area. The scheme also includes support for the setting up of a Multilingual and European Thetford Association, run by and for migrant workers, and support for better childcare facilities, which are more responsive to the shift patterns worked by some migrants. Practical work advice has been provided to hundreds of Portuguese people, directly resulting in them gaining employment. An information pack, providing a guide to public services in the Breckland area, brings this information together.

In addition, the European social fund objective 2 programme has part-funded a complementary skills package of support for the food manufacturing industry to help promote growth, sustainability and competitiveness. That project has provided support for 2,000 beneficiaries, a large proportion of which are migrant workers. All this provision is clearly important in making a genuine difference to the lives of people within this community and to their ability to contribute to and be part of a thriving town.

Developing the town's skills base and job opportunities has been a priority. The Government recognise the urgent needs within Thetford, which manifest themselves in high levels of benefit dependency and unemployment.

Mr. Fraser : On the skill base, can the Minister assure me that new money, rather than the piecemeal packets that I mentioned, will be available for the projects about which we are talking? We need to examine what will happen in the long term, not just put little amounts of money here and there.

Jim Fitzpatrick : I am not sure that I will be able fully to satisfy the hon. Gentleman, but I will deal with the amount of funding that is under active consideration. This debate will allow me the opportunity to make inquiries to reinforce the representations that he has been making to Departments in support of the various projects being considered at the moment.

As I was saying, there are high levels of benefit dependency and unemployment, as well as low levels of educational attainment. We have responded to this in a number of ways. Funding has been made available for a
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town regeneration manager and a linked package of measures to improve the attractiveness of the town centre and promote its vitality as a business and visitor location, including improved landscaping and traffic management schemes.

Responding to the need for more provision of workshop and light industrial space linked to training facilities, £1.76 million has been invested in a brand new social enterprise and skills centre in the town.

Mr. Fraser : The Minister mentioned the town regeneration manager. I should like to put on the record that the funding for that position, which is currently held by Mrs. Susan Glossop, will come to an end. I should like the Government to recognise that we need continued funding for that job.

Jim Fitzpatrick : I hear the hon. Gentleman's request and undertake to make inquiries and write to him about the continuation of funding in respect of the regeneration manager.

Core elements of the social enterprise and skills centre will include the provision of vocational training to meet the demands of local employers, which will provide a real boost to the town's economy, as more than 70 jobs are expected to be created.

In addition, some £3.2 million has been invested in a new enterprise resource centre, which is providing much-needed managed workspace for new and growing employers, training and childcare facilities. Further investment in a refurbished grade 2 listed landmark office building in Thetford, to create a community development centre, is providing a strong statement of the town's determination to put development of its citizens and the work of community groups at the heart of future plans. This is complemented by the refurbishment of a voluntary sector hub to promote voluntary groups and to tap into the unique insight and understanding of this sector as a significant provider of essential services.

Just as Charles Burrell's steam engine facility provided a hub for state-of-the-art manufacturing and high-value-added employment at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, so the developing automotive sector in Breckland, including Thetford, offers an exiting opportunity into the 21st century within an advanced engineering and motor sport cluster that is a major source of employment and prosperity in the area and offers considerable potential for the future. Turnover in advanced engineering in Breckland in 2003 amounted to £190 million, of which £23.8 million was within the motor sport sector. In ensuring that this vital source of high-value-added employment continues to grow and prosper, partners have been working hard to put the right sort of infrastructure in place to maximise its potential.

Already, £612,500 has been invested in a team of business support experts in the field, who are providing brokerage, grant, recruitment and youth employment
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and graduate engagement services. This resource is the first part of a package of measures under the rural enterprise valley initiative, with long-term plans for a fully serviced site to support and grow this important cluster now being discussed between key partners, including Breckland district council and EEDA. These talks involve the injection of considerable sums into the project including, potentially, £1.5 million from EEDA, as well as up to £1.9 million from the Crown estate in cash and land.

Of course, we recognise that well planned and carefully thought out transport infrastructure is an important factor in supporting the economic prosperity of Thetford. Many schemes are in place or under development to deliver this. The A11 is a key trunk road, both within Norfolk and also as a route connecting Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. The Minister will know that several improvements have taken place to this road over recent years—most recently, the current A11 Attleborough bypass improvement scheme, which is due to open in early 2007.

The A11 Fiveways to Thetford improvement scheme is identified in the Highways Agency's current business plan as a scheme to be progressed subject to regional priorities. We have now received the region's advice and are assessing it. The A11 Fiveways to Thetford scheme has been identified as a priority scheme by the region and within that ranking it has been allocated a delivery date of no earlier than 2011–12. This takes into consideration the funds available over the next 10-year period and how the full list of schemes can be afforded out of that funding. I understand that the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), is writing to the hon. Gentleman with details and further clarification.

It is possible that the scheme could be started earlier, but only if other schemes do not happen or their programmes slip. The region will be undertaking regular reviews of the priority list to ensure that best use is made of the money available. In addition, improvements have been made to the A47 and measures are being taken forward by the Highways Agency, under its route management strategy, to improve safety and incident management and control vehicle speeds along the Acle straight.

There is no doubt that Thetford is on the move. Certainly, we do not underestimate the challenges ahead. Nevertheless, I hope that the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk will feel somewhat reassured that the activities in place to increase the town's prosperity and prospects, set against the framework of the newly launched town vision and development strategy, provide a strong basis for the future.

I wish him, his constituents and all those working on the town's future every success. I regret that I am not in a position to respond to his kind invitation to visit, but I will seriously consider accepting in future.
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