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Housing (East Lancashire)

Volume 403: debated on Tuesday 8 April 2003

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11 am

I am glad to have the opportunity to raise the issue of funding for the housing renewal area in east Lancashire. I have raised the subject of housing many times over the years, but I do not apologise for raising it again. Indeed, I have been trying to secure an Adjournment debate on the subject for several weeks. The issue is of great importance in my constituency; it is the biggest single issue facing Burnley and a major problem throughout the whole of east Lancashire.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) will want to have a short word before the Minister responds to the debate. My hon. Friends the Members for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) and for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson) have indicated that they regret that they cannot be present today because they are away from Westminster on parliamentary business, but they fully support the case that will make. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs also supports me. We all know that he is currently involved in discussions of important events in Belfast with the Prime Minister and the President of the United States.

The issue is important. I have heard of the plight of so many of my constituents when I meet them at my advice bureau, on the streets and as I canvass in the local elections, and I get letters about such problems every single day from various people. People are living in houses in terraces that are almost completely empty. They live in fear of crime, squatters, fire and all sorts of other things. I share their fears and concerns; I know what it must be like to live in such conditions.

Other people have lost all their money because they cannot sell their houses. They have seen the price of their houses nosedive. We all believe that, in this country, someone invests in a house and the value goes up. At the end of the day, people hope to make money. In Burnley, exactly the opposite occurs. In many cases, people find that, when they have to move, the amount that they owe on their mortgage is more than the amount that they receive for their house. That is a great tragedy and I am very concerned about those very real problems.

I want to comment briefly on the history of the problem. How have we got into this situation? Much of the blame lies with the Tory Governments that were in power between 1979 and 1997. There is no doubt at all about that. I raised such issues time after time in the House, in questions and debates, and I met various Ministers and had them come to Burnley. There was never any response at all. The last time I spoke on the subject, I referred to a speech that I made in 1984. This time, I want to refer briefly to one that I made in 1986. On that occasion, I said:
"In Burnley the cost of improving an old terraced house is more than the sum that the house will sell for … the house may well become derelict, causing the entire terrace subsequently to become derelict."—[Official Report, 15 December 1986; Vol. 107, c. 924.]
That is the type of problem that we face. That was the situation in 1986 and that is what we are seeing today.

In May 1987, a dossier—I will not go into it in detail—was prepared by the then chief executive of Burnley borough council, Brian Whittle, who went into great detail. We put it to the relevant Minister, but to no avail. We got no response. In the 1990s, the then Bishop of Burnley became so concerned about the position in east Lancashire that he set up an independent inquiry, with housing experts and others interested in the issue, to consider the situation. The Lancashire housing inquiry was published in 1993 but, again, it was to no avail.

Since the election of the Labour Government in 1997, we have seen housing gradually move up the agenda. I say to my hon. Friend the Minister, in a friendly way, that we want to see it continue to do so because it is an issue of great importance. We recognise that the south has very different problems from east Lancashire. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has paid two visits to my constituency, and we have had several visits from Lord Falconer. On one visit, when Lord Falconer met the Members of Parliament and the chief executives and council leaders in Accrington, we realised that we were beginning to get an answer to the case that we had made. Lord Falconer asked us to prepare a bid based on a 10-year programme for tackling the problem, showing what response we needed from the Government to enable us to do that. We in east Lancashire work together—I chose to have a debate on not just Burnley but on east Lancashire—and we chose to put forward a case together.

I welcomed the announcement last April of nine pathfinder housing renewal projects, one of which covers east Lancashire, including Burnley. I welcomed the announcement a few months later of funding of £2.66 million for each of those projects to allow early preparations and for the schemes to get underway. That was very important. We all welcomed the statement by the Deputy Prime Minister on 5 February 2003, in which he said that £500 million would be made available over the next three years for the nine pathfinder projects.

When the Deputy Prime Minister made that statement in the House, I said:
"In Burnley empty homes are no longer a problem; they are a living nightmare…Will more money be made available, and does my right hon. Friend recognise that all the problems in those nine areas cannot possibly be solved in three years?"
The Deputy Prime Minister replied:
"I agree with my hon. Friend. Having visited his constituency, I was left with a powerful impression of the way in which such problem areas scar the whole community and give rise to economic and political problems."
He continued, in response to my question on the programme:
"We hope to learn a great deal from it and to expand it, but it certainly will not be limited to three years."—[Official Report, 5 February 2003; Vol. 399, c. 287.]
That was a very important point, which we very much welcomed.

Elevate, the group formed in east Lancashire to promote the scheme, with David Taylor in charge, was launched on 17 February. Each council had a little piece in the document produced for that. Burnley borough council said, among other things:
"Land registry data shows that the prices of terraced houses in Burnley fall well below those achieved both regionally and nationally. Burnley has a crude surplus of housing, with large proportions of vacant dwellings in all sectors."
We have 4,500 empty houses, 10 per cent. of our housing stock. It is that which makes Burnley, in percentage terms, the area with the biggest single problem in the whole of the country. I accept that many other areas in the north-east—in Manchester, Merseyside and east Lancashire itself—have problems; but in percentage terms, ours is the most acute at the present time.

Burnley council goes on to say:
"The problems that this brings with it, boarded up houses, vandalism etc. have so far been concentrated in a small number of areas of the town but it is recognised that the problem is growing worse rather than improving."
On the positive side, Burnley council says:
"The Market Restructuring Scheme means that East Lancashire will be able to tap into resources amounting to £500 Million nationally over three years. This is seen as the first phase of a 15 to 20 year programme to revitalise the housing market within East Lancashire. For the first time, this gives Burnley Borough Council the opportunity to make a real difference in improving living and environmental conditions for its citizens."

My concern in raising this debate is the need to ensure that the people of Burnley and East Lancashire see an end to the decline and downward spiral that we have seen continue for so long. MPs, councillors and council officials well understand announcements, but the public do not understand the need for plans and preparations in the same way as those of us who are involved. The public want action, as do I, Burnley borough council and other local councils in our area. That is why I continue to press the case. I shall be retiring at the next general election, whether it is in two or three years time. By that time, I want to see a positive improvement in the problem and the removal of the blight on the area that I represent in Parliament.

I was pleased to hear last week's important announcement of another £4 million for the east Lancashire renewal project. The Minister for Housing and Planning, Lord Rooker, wrote to me on 3 April stating:
"I have always stressed that it is important to see some action on the ground as soon as possible. This will help build confidence in the pathfinder areas and send a clear message to communities that we are committed to turning around these areas.

Today's announcement, while underlining the importance we attach to strategic schemes. will enable all pathfinders to deliver innovative action demonstrating our joint commitment to tackling low demand and abandonment"
We are discussing not just demolition, although some is necessary, but the importance of regenerating such areas.

The points that I want to put to the Minister are as follows. The east Lancashire market restructuring organisation, Elevate, welcomed the Government's announcement on 3 April of resources for 2003–04. Its chair, David Taylor, said:
"This is an exciting opportunity. We are already beginning to deliver a £1m programme of action, and this new money is a welcome boost to our efforts. It is the start of a long-term plan to revitalise the area's housing markets and neighbourhood over the next ten to fifteen years. We realise that our various communities need to see action on the ground now, and in the next few weeks we will be announcing specific projects to use this money."
I agree with those sentiments and I am particularly pleased that in allocating £4 million to Elevate Ministers have made significant improvements in comparison with earlier indications of funding levels. Having said that, even £4 million is low in view of the scale of the challenges to be dealt with. The communities of Burnley and east Lancashire are impatient for action now and the political implications could be serious if we are not seen to respond.

In the longer term, Elevate is well aware of the need to prepare a comprehensive, strategic plan to release future resources. That work is well under way. Consultants have been appointed to help and a dedicated team of staff is being recruited. Local authorities and their partners are working well together and the Minister acknowledged that when he met them in January.

I trust that the Government will respond positively in the coming year's allocations, including, crucially, the period beyond the three-year comprehensive spending review. I hope that the Minister will indicate the Government's intentions on that because we must be able to plan ahead. My hope today is that the Minister will emphasise that long-term commitment to Burnley and east Lancashire and that he will say that the Government will respond positively if we can show that local government, the private sector and the people of east Lancashire can work together to deliver an accelerated programme to end the decay and make those areas vibrant and worth living in.

11.13 am

I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) for allowing me a few moments to emphasise his points and to speak about my constituency of Pendle, which lies within the east Lancashire pathfinder. We want significant sums of money for east Lancashire—enough to make a difference. That is the acid test. People must see evidence of change on the ground. Huge swathes of crumbling and rotten terraced housing should have been pulled down a generation ago. My constituency has the highest percentage of pre-1919 terraced housing in the country—over 60 per cent., which compares with an English average of about 20 per cent. Some of it is in a dire state. Furthermore, 25 per cent. of the housing in east Lancashire is unfit, compared with the English average of about 7 per cent.

The scale of the problem is enormous. My local authority estimates that it would cost £150 million to bring private housing stock up to standard in my constituency. Last year 4,290 houses in Pendle were unfit. Next door in Burnley the figure was 9,336. Last year there were more than 2,000 empty or abandoned houses in Pendle and 4,500 empty properties in Burnley, which have spread out like a contagion on street after street. We have lived with the problem for decades.

My hon. Friend mentioned the inquiry by the then Bishop of Burnley in 1993. It repays rereading. If anything, the situation in some parts of Pendle and Burnley has got worse, not better. The Bishop's inquiry told us that poor quality terraced housing in need of renovation could be purchased in the inner town areas for as little as £12,000 to £15,000. I can point to areas in Pendle where properties can be bought for £6,000 or £7,000. When Lord Falconer visited my constituency, his jaw dropped when I pointed out a house on the market for £1,000, which still had a roof on and windows. It is staggering.

No one expects a new Jerusalem tomorrow, but people expect evidence of change. Strategies, plans and inquiries are, as my hon. Friend said, necessary, but they cannot be an excuse for delay. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can reassure people in Pendle, Burnley and elsewhere in east Lancashire that the Government are determined to do something about the deplorable housing conditions in our area.

11.17 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister
(Mr. Tony McNulty)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) on securing this debate on this important issue and on his unstinting work in voicing his constituents' concerns. He has certainly put Burnley on the map and his constituents are well served. I also recognise the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice). The saddest comment I have to make following both contributions is that this is not new. If something had been done by the Conservative Government when the first inklings of the problems arose in the 1980s and before, east Lancashire would not be facing the severity of the problem that it faces today. That is a matter of profound regret.

I also understand the impatience of people in Burnley and east Lancashire and how they seek and crave a sense of real commitment. I also pay tribute to my other right hon. and hon. Friends who represent constituencies in east Lancashire who have worked equally tirelessly to ensure that the issues we are debating today are not forgotten. I recognise what my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley said about my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and my hon. Friends the Members for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) and for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson). The people of east Lancashire will be grateful to them for all their efforts because today we can reflect on what the Government have already done and the promise of more investment to come. I know that the people of Burnley and east Lancashire want action quickly.

My hon. Friend alluded to much of the background and the position of Elevate now, so I will not dwell on those aspects unduly. The east Lancashire partnership has already begun to address the challenges and it has a vision for east Lancashire. Its existing strategy is to achieve that vision based on a foundation of what it will do in the coming months and years. I accept what my hon. Friends have said in the debate about visions, plans and strategies when people want real action, but sustainability underpins all that we are going to do in the market pathfinder renewal areas. The last thing that the people of Burnley and Pendle or anywhere else in east Lancashire want is another gimmick or quick fix; they want lasting, sustainable action that will change their areas and arrest the decline.

East Lancashire has a new opportunity: a promise of new Government investment in the next 10 to 15 years to help to tackle its housing problems. That is a real commitment. My hon. Friends would not expect me to dictate to the Treasury what should be in the next comprehensive spending review, but there is a clear commitment from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister that—as my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley said—these problems will be addressed in a sustainable and lasting way over 10 to 15 years. Of course, we understand that people are impatient for results and action now, and in the coming months and years, but long-term problems require long-term solutions. I assure my hon. Friends that the Government, too, are in it for the long-term.

If the three fast-track schemes, which are further along the road, cannot use all the resources that are allocated to them, and east Lancashire shows that it can accelerate its plans, can funding be moved over and used for housing rather than it being lost?

There will certainly not be any loss of funding between the nine pathfinders. We have said clearly to all nine that it is not a race, but neither is it a matter of £500 million divided by nine, and that is their lot; the allocation needs to be rooted in their strategy and plans. Although, as my hon. Friend said, three of the nine are fast-tracked, the others, including east Lancashire, are coming up on the rails and may overtake them.

As I said last week when I announced the allocation of £4 million, my message to all the people who are involved in low-demand pathfinders is, "Take your time, but get on with it." We understand people's impatience, but we want them to take a step back and ensure that the plans, as they unfold, are long-term and sustainable. As my hon. Friend said, any fool can bulldoze a row of houses, but if that does nothing to contribute to the long-term, sustainable vision and direction of communities such as Burnley and Pendle it will do no one any favours. We must consider where those towns and communities will go in the next 10, 15 or 20 years. The schemes may be called housing market renewal pathfinders but they are about far more than housing: they are about the future of towns and communities, which is the key to the whole project.

I shall not dwell on the launch of Elevate East Lancashire at Turf Moor, as my hon. Friend has covered the subject. To spare his blushes, I shall not mention Watford and the 7–4 result, which would be churlish of me given that Watford abuts my constituency. At least Burnley has the integrity and imagination to play in appropriate colours—claret and blue—although my affiliations are in a London, rather than a Lancashire, context.

Nine months is a short period for action to turn around the decades of under-investment to which my hon. Friend alluded. However, much of the groundwork has been done in east Lancashire. The board, drawn from local and regional organisations, has been established; in December, David Taylor, a leading regeneration practitioner, was appointed as independent chair, and the pathfinder has completed the action necessary to draw down the initial £2.6 million from the Government's capital modernisation fund to begin the task of replacing unpopular and obsolete housing.

As my hon. Friend said, I recently met the board, which I am convinced has the integrity, skills, expertise and dynamism to deliver for Burnley and east Lancashire. The local authority is well represented on the board and some of the big decisions necessary for east Lancashire in the next couple of years are being discussed and assessed, and will be taken forward. There are signs that the board, and local government, accept that the proposals are of major importance for the future of the communities in east Lancashire, and they are taking the job extremely seriously. The pathfinder has already moved to convert money into tangible outcomes that residents will recognise as making a difference to the housing market. I accept what was said about the need for early action.

Elevate East Lancashire recently announced several measures to boost the regeneration of neighbourhoods in Burnley and the east Lancashire area. The strategy is about regeneration, refocusing and restructuring the communities in those areas—it is not simply about housing. Some £300,000 is to be invested immediately to improve the quality of life and environment across the borough of Burnley, and I welcome that important demonstration of commitment to the people of Burnley and east Lancashire.

The programme includes some simple, but important initiatives that will make big differences in the short term. Additional funding will be provided for the Council's alley-gating programme, which will improve safety and security in the vulnerable back streets of terraced houses. The area caretaker scheme will be expanded, with two new caretaker posts for the Burnley Wood and Fulledge areas. Community wardens will be enabled to tackle "grot spots", involving young people and other residents. A strategy will be developed to deal with vacant properties, with the aim of reducing the number that stand empty for long periods. Those are all small actions, but are as important as the wider actions and the wider vision. Contributions will also be made to demolition programmes in Burnley Wood and south-west Burnley. The proposals are small scale, but are none the less important. I know that the people of Burnley will welcome the improvements that they will make to their town.

Last Thursday I announced that we will make an initial allocation of market renewal funding of up to £4 million for east Lancashire in advance of completing their market restructuring scheme, to carry on the good work begun over the past year. That allocation means that, alongside drawing up the scheme, action can be taken in the areas that need it most: action that will underpin the future schemes. The range of initiatives that I have just outlined will be expanded and the people of Burnley, and east Lancashire as a whole, will see the benefits in the coming months.

We do not start from the perspective that £500 million is sufficient to deal with every problem in each of the nine pathfinder areas I am encouraged that in many areas, not least in east Lancashire, the boards are beginning to examine how they can use some of that money to attract further money to deal with the size of some of the problems.

In that particular case, is it not important that English Partnerships and the regional development agencies should be involved?

Very much so. If we are considering the regeneration of entire areas, communities and towns, English Partnerships, the regional development agencies and the private sector in the areas should be involved.

We are seeking to introduce other measures. In the Housing (Overcrowding) Bill that has just been published, we are examining ways to legislate for selective licensing of private landlords, who are part of the problem, and for licensing of houses in multiple occupation, which also cause some difficulty. Moreover, today the Anti-social Behaviour Bill will receive its Second Reading: that Bill also contains some housing elements.

Making the most of all these opportunities is crucial. We are at a crossroads, and offer a once in a lifetime opportunity for these communities, working with local and central Government, to take over and determine their own future. As I said at the start, it is a matter of regret that these situations were highlighted time and again by my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley and others under the previous Government, but to no avail.

The challenge now is to bring forward an innovative and sustainable vision for the future of east Lancashire. All involved in local leadership must therefore work together positively, breaking down traditional boundaries and barriers, in pursuit of that vision. Burnley borough council, with its partner local authorities, must play its part. It will require new ways of working in partnership, in which the overall vision is the goal. It will require the development of credible strategies, in which all stakeholders, including the private sector, can have confidence.

The Government have provided the opportunity and resources for the area's rejuvenation, and it is time for local leaders to take things forward. The people of Burnley and east Lancashire deserve nothing less. It will take 10 to 15 years, but I assure my hon. Friends the Members for Burnley and for Pendle that this time the Government are listening, and will not let Burnley and east Lancashire down. We are here for the long term; the time for waiting is over. Action is needed now and I will do all that I can to fulfil my hon. Friend's desire to see real change and action for Burnley, before he stands down at the next election. I should say that when he steps down, the vacancy that that will create will be a matter of profound regret.

Burnley and east Lancashire will thank my hon. Friend for raising these issues today. It will be a long haul, but the Government are committed for the long term.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.