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House of Commons Hansard
Regeneration (East Lancashire)
21 February 2007
Volume 457

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I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important issue. I am also pleased that my hon. Friends the Members for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson) and for Burnley (Kitty Ussher) are present in the Chamber, as is the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans). I hope that they will all have the opportunity to make a brief contribution, because I know that they are as concerned as I am about this important issue.

Given that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley is present, I should say in passing that, by rights, I ought to be the Member of Parliament for that constituency. I contested the seat in the 1987 general election, and I think that it was widely acknowledged that I was unfortunate to lose by 22,000 votes—it rained on polling day and it was hard to get the Labour vote out.

Five or six years ago, I raised in a debate the issue of the housing conditions that some of my constituents had to endure. I told the House that the conditions were a disgrace and that they were a badge of shame for various people—those involved in public life; the council, whichever party ran it; the Government and the previous Administration; and, perhaps most of all, myself, as a Member of Parliament. I had tolerated for too long a situation in which people were living in intolerable conditions.

At that time, more than 2,000 houses had been abandoned in my constituency. They were terraced houses that were unfit for human habitation. People could not sell them and had simply walked away from them. In 2000-01, houses changed hands in public houses for less than the cost of a round. In such an environment, unscrupulous private landlords flourished, because they rushed into towns such as Accrington knowing that they could buy up properties for next to nothing and then make a healthy profit out of the housing benefits system. They did not care what sort of people they had as tenants, which added to the spiral of decline.

It was a housing market that had no base on which to build future prosperity. There was no rising equity in most of the property stock in Hyndburn or in other parts of east Lancashire, which meant that there was little financial incentive for home owners to invest in their properties, although there were obviously other incentives. The housing market at that time was not so much stagnant as in a spiral of complete decline.

My advice surgeries, and, I suspect, those of my hon. Friends, were full of decent and hard-working people. Some of them had perhaps served in the war and had then bought a respectable working-class property, settled down and raised their family. Such people found themselves being the last ones living in a terraced block or street. Imagine what it must be like for an elderly person trapped in that situation. The houses next door would be empty, abandoned, vandalised and burnt out. Damp would be coming through because next door’s roof had been burnt off. The truth is that no matter how well my decent constituents looked after their own properties, they were trapped in that nightmare and could not move. They could not sell their properties, because those properties were essentially valueless. That situation was endemic in the heart of Accrington in my constituency, as well as in Blackburn, Burnley, Nelson, Colne, parts of the Rossendale valley and, I suspect, parts of Ribble Valley. People tend to think of Ribble Valley as being a prosperous area—large parts of it are, but all-too-real pockets of deprivation exist there, too.

I was going to say that what has happened since is that we have been fortunate enough to be part of the housing market renewal programme and to have Elevate East Lancashire as the pathfinder, but we have not been fortunate—those things happened not by chance but as a result of political will. We were not lucky to get the help that the Government gave us, because we deserved it. I am proud of the difference that Elevate is making to the communities that I represent and to those represented by my hon. Friends in east Lancashire.

A few years ago, I took the Minister who had responsibility for housing at that time, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, as he now is, to Lonsdale street in Accrington, in my constituency, to show him the nature of the problem. I think that he was shocked by what he saw and by the conditions in which people were living. Since then, we have had the pathfinder programme, which has made an astonishing difference. Let us consider what has happened in Lonsdale street and its neighbouring streets. Lonsdale street has rightly been demolished. I shall come on to the argument about demolition and refurbishment, but I should say that in some cases demolition is the answer. For example, the conditions on Lonsdale street were dire and needed clearing. We have cleared that street and the neighbouring ones. People who walk along it now can see what we are building in its place: a state-of-the-art health centre in the middle of a ward that has some of the worst public health statistics in the UK. Around that health centre, we will build a mixture of diverse housing that will meet different housing needs in a diverse community. There will not be a one-size-fits-all approach; there will be different types of large and small housing.

This is not just about demolition—or even mainly about it. I must deal with one of the myths that has been put about by lazy journalists who rolled up in places such as Liverpool and east Lancashire and said that we are somehow ripping the hearts out of communities, that we are demolishing our built heritage and that it is all a disaster. If that were the case, neither I nor my hon. Friends would be here—far from it; we would all be signing up to a campaign to oppose what Elevate is doing. That is not what is happening on the ground.

Some demolition is taking place, but the truth is that more than twice as many properties are being refurbished as are being demolished. In 2005-06, which is the last year for which figures are available, Elevate improved 830 houses and demolished 331 houses, mainly older ones that were unfit. The improvement-to-demolition ratio is more than 2.5:1. The reason why I support Elevate so strongly—I believe that this is also the reason why my hon. Friends support it—is that this is about creating sustainable communities. It is about far more than just housing; it is about culture, sport and business. All those things are interwoven.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and agree with everything that he has just said. My own constituency has experienced parallel, if not identical, situations. I support the Elevate programme and want it to grow. He has touched on the subject of broader regeneration. Does he agree that the matter is not only about housing, sport, education and so on, because connectivity is crucial to our constituencies? Will he join me in urging for better links into Manchester, where many jobs are currently available?

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My hon. Friend has made a powerful point, and I strongly agree with it. She has been an incredibly good advocate of regeneration in her constituency. She has mentioned links to Manchester, and we could improve the rail link by restoring the Todmorden curve or by doubling the track between Blackburn and Manchester Victoria. Such things are important for cultural, sporting and business links. Improvements would mean that people would be able to travel to work much more easily and that people who live in Manchester could come to see the beautiful scenery in places such as Ribble Valley, thus improving tourism. Those are all powerful points. The important thing is interconnectivity, because, taken together, those are all drivers for economic growth.

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I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and on speaking with such passion about the area which I know he loves. As far as the wider business aspects are concerned, will he accept that we also need to see what we can do to ensure that the manufacturing base, for which east Lancashire is well known, does not completely disappear? We must consider how we can regenerate the manufacturing and business lifelines that exist in the whole of east Lancashire. That includes the areas that he has spoken about, which in turn include areas such as Ribble Valley. People think that Ribble Valley is a wealthy area, so sometimes the businesses that operate from it do not get the financial support that they need. People who live in Burnley, Hyndburn, Rossendale and Darwen, and Pendle travel around and work in the other constituencies.

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The hon. Gentleman has made an important point. We are not just talking about traditional manufacturing areas such as Accrington—people would think of those areas as having manufacturing—because there are manufacturing companies dotted across Ribble Valley. There are many such companies in Clitheroe, some of which are having a tough time. They need help just as much as companies in my constituency, so I strongly support what he has said.

Returning to housing, five or six years ago, there were streets in my constituency in which house values were essentially nil—I made the point at the beginning of my speech that there was no base to the housing market. I checked some house prices on the internet yesterday in streets in inner-urban areas of towns such as Accrington. To someone living in London, the figures may not sound astonishing, but they are astonishing when house prices in those streets were nil five, six or seven years ago. In China street, Accrington, houses are now for sale for £100,000, and in Aitken street they are £97,000. However, prices in Pendle street show that we still have a problem: houses are for sale at £44,000 because three blocks have been done up, but one block has not. That street is outside the Elevate area, and I hope that the Minister will arrange with Hyndburn council that Pendle street should be the next street to be improved. Only around 200 people live in that block, but they deserve our help in having their case listened to. There are some clouds on the horizon, but we have made a fantastic start.

During the last bidding round for 2006-08, Elevate bid for £104 million and received £94.9 million. We are grateful for that £94.9 million, because it is money that we did not have before. It is great and we are thankful, but if there is to be a £10 million gap every year—it could become wider—we will end up with a funding gap over the period of the project of £150 million or even £200 million. The figures that I have seen go as high as £272 million.

We are in the business of transforming people’s lives with this project, which is making a huge difference to the communities that I represent. We have been blighted by years and years—decades—of under-investment. My plea today is that now is not the time to stop. Now is the time to say that the comprehensive spending review is an opportunity for us. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a real difference to those communities, and I hope that the Minister will press for proper funding for Elevate in the comprehensive spending review.

My hon. Friends and I have asked the Minister for Housing and Planning to visit my constituency and the neighbouring ones to see the work, and I make that request again today through the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela E. Smith). If the Minister for Housing and Planning comes to see what is happening, she will see that it is worth supporting the project and worth campaigning for extra resources.

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I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) for allowing me to make a brief contribution to the debate.

My constituency is in east Lancashire, and I want to start by paying tribute to Elevate’s valuable work. At the outset, we had a fight to ensure that the borough of Rossendale was included in the scheme, and I am pleased that it was included. Some of the work has made a huge difference to people’s lives, particularly in parts of Bacup and Stacksteads, where there were some very poor living conditions.

I pay tribute to the vision for Pennine Lancashire of Mr. Anthony Wilson and his partner, Yvette. Their plans for an adrenalin gateway in the Rossendale valley would fit in with the spirit of the valley, where we are fond of outdoor activities and sporting events. The proposals are very exciting indeed—I endorse what my hon. Friend said to the Minister—and we hope that they will continue.

As my hon. Friend said, there is a problem because of the increase in house prices, which adds to our concern about the potential funding gap in years to come. In my constituency, we reckon that house prices have risen by a staggering 57 per cent. Houses that were worth £30,000 two years ago are now worth around £70,000. Compensating people for four houses of that value obviously costs a great deal more.

I also endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher) said about transport links. We want very much to improve transport links into Manchester from Rawtenstall in the Rossendale valley, to cut down on the daily congestion on the M66, and on the Clitheroe to Manchester line, which runs through Darwen, where we are sure a commuter service would be popular. My plea is also intended to try to get things done, and I hope that the Government will consider bridging the funding gap, which we are concerned about, because it will mean that that much-needed project cannot continue.

I want to bring a problem to the Minister’s attention. In Darwen, the Redearth Triangle is due to be demolished. Most of the houses are boarded up and the residents have left. In fact, a former resident of Sudell road came up to me in Sainsbury’s recently, put his arms round me, hugged me, and said, “Janet, I’d just like to say that I have moved to much better house and I am absolutely delighted. Thank you very much for what the Government have done.” I fully endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn said about Elevate. It has transformed people’s lives, and some of the doom and gloom exposure in the media has been far removed from the truth.

We have a particular problem in Darwen because a small group of protestors have managed to hold up the demolition of the area. A planning compulsory purchase order inquiry is due to take place on 12 June. We are concerned about the delay, because the proposal for the site is to build a city academy, which is much needed in Darwen. We have no sixth form in the town, and we have the highest proportion of NEETS—young people not in employment, education or training—in Lancashire, because there is no sixth form in Darwen.

We want to improve education and that is what the academy would do. However, there is a small group of protestors, led by Mr. Simon Hugill—I make no apology for naming him—who does not even live in the area. He does not educate his children in Darwen but chose to move them to Bolton. It does not matter to Mr. Hugill whether the academy is held up, but it matters to the rest of us and to the children in Darwen. Perhaps the Minister would see whether she can do anything to bring forward that inquiry date.

I want to underline what my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn said about a ministerial visit. We have written to the Minister for Housing and Planning to ask her to visit. We would very much like her to see for herself the improvements, the way in which many people’s lives in east Lancashire have been transformed, and why it is imperative that that work continues.

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I want to add one thing to what the hon. Members for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) and for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson) said. If we look at regeneration, we must look at every aspect of it, and that includes business.

We are privileged to have BAE Systems operating in Samlesbury in my patch, and Warton is not far away, so we have two large factories in the area. Constituents of mine and every other hon. Member in the Chamber work there. The importance of that is not just that BAE is there, but that so many smaller industries and firms have grown up around BAE Systems and also employ people. It is important to have the vitality of the aerospace industry in east Lancashire, and that it has a future. That includes projects such as the Eurofighter Typhoon and the joint strike fighter.

I hope that the Minister will say something about industry, and how we can support it to ensure that it flourishes by supporting such projects. The large firms grab the headlines, but the smaller enterprises consist of people who have come in, perhaps remortgaged their homes and properties to start up their own businesses, and give a future to those who live and work in the area.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) on securing this debate, and on his passion and commitment, which have led the efforts that he and his colleagues have made to secure the improvements in east Lancashire. All MPs from east Lancashire, including my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson), the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), and my hon. Friends the Members for Burnley (Kitty Ussher) and for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) have shown a wide commitment to the matter.

We recognise that much of east Lancashire had faced deep-seated and long-term housing, social and economic challenges, but the Government’s ongoing sub-regional response is robust, positive and proactive, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn acknowledged. The Government’s primary role has been to stimulate private investment by tackling particularly challenging blockages to recovery, a number of which my hon. Friend highlighted. Our approach to east Lancashire has focused on investment to address problems in the housing market, and we have invested in capacity-building its people and institutions, where poor performance exists. We have also focused on challenging poor performance to raise aspirations and on stimulating the growth of an entrepreneurial economy, which the hon. Member for Ribble Valley mentioned.

We recognise that, in encouraging sustainable investment, we need to address the many other factors that influence whether people want to live and work in an area. As has been mentioned, such issues include low crime, decent schools and colleges, clean streets and access to leisure facilities. The general issue is whether people want to live in an area and whether they feel safe and secure there and part of the community.

Changes are taking place in respect of all those issues in east Lancashire. It is a particularly beautiful part of Britain, and I say that as a Londoner and an Essex girl. It also offers a great quality of life. I was delighted to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn and other hon. Friends refer to our housing market renewal policies there. As a result of those polices, many people are now choosing to live and work in the area.

In December, we were pleased to announce the success of the Pennine Lancashire bid for the local economic growth initiative. The competitive process, which was largely assessed by the private sector, awarded £22.3 million over three years, subject to the comprehensive spending review. That award is the biggest nationally and will benefit the constituencies of Pendle, Burnley, Blackburn and Rossendale and Darwen. I understand my hon. Friend’s comments about funding, and I shall say more about that in a moment. The local economic growth initiative is aligned with, and complemented by, a range of wider strategies because other challenges feed into the housing issue that he mentioned.

Housing formed a large part of my hon. Friend’s speech, and I understand his concerns. Although, as he said, things are slightly different for those of us who live in London, I grew up in an area with very poor housing. I still remember how thrilled I was at the age of 10 when my family got its first house, which was in New Town and had a bathroom and a garden. I am sure that my hon. Friend’s constituents would feel the same. Having somewhere decent to live is one of the most fundamental rights that any person has.

I commend the excellent progress that has been made by the nine housing market renewal pathfinders. More new homes are being built and refurbished to modern standards than are being demolished—my hon. Friend also made that point, and it is worth placing it very strongly on the record. Such initiatives help to improve the quality and choice of housing on offer. The record on that issue is impressive, and I congratulate all those involved. They have had strong support from local MPs and should take enormous pride in the work that they have undertaken.

Since the start of the pathfinder programme, more than 30,000 run-down homes have been refurbished. Since spring 2003, average house prices in the nine pathfinder areas have almost doubled from £40,000 to £79,000. As my hon. Friends the Members for Hyndburn and for Rossendale and Darwen suggested, however, we must recognise that the decades of under-investment in housing and people’s lives mean that there is still much more to be done to restore stability to communities and ensure that they are truly sustainable not only in the longer term, but in the short term, too. In recognition of that, the Government have allocated £1.2 billion to pathfinders for 2008.

I was grateful for the comments that my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn made about funding and about the difference that has been made by the money from the Government. We must look at new complementary funding solutions to capitalise on increasing land and property values and draw in as much private sector funding as possible. Value for money is key to making our money work smarter, and we look forward to working with local authorities and pathfinders to identify solutions that bring about even greater private sector investment. We expect the recently announced Communities England to play a significant new role in helping to ensure that that happens. However, we must ensure that partnerships spend money wisely and to best effect. We are talking not only about houses, but about improving people’s way of life in disadvantaged areas and meeting community aspirations.

I was pleased to hear my hon. Friends for Rossendale and Darwen and for Hyndburn give their strong support to Elevate, which the Government, too, strongly support. As we are seeing all over the country, but particularly in Lancashire, the housing market is beginning to turn the corner. Only five years ago, some areas were facing widespread abandonment and market collapse, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn wisely set out the social costs of that. Now, however, we are seeing the creation of more balanced housing markets that reflect modern communities’ needs and demands. As a result, we are seeing a strengthened housing market.

My hon. Friend referred to the house price increases in his constituency, and I am sure that many Members in other parts of the country would welcome such prices. I was looking at information about the new apartments in Accrington, and they are part of an incredible new development, which would not even have been thought of a few years ago. I understand that there are plans to clear the derelict site on the other side of the lake, which will bring real benefits to the area. It will create a community in which people will want to live and work, of which they will want to be part and where they will feel safe. Hyndburn is therefore an excellent example of how housing market renewal activity is being complemented by other public sector investment.

I was pleased that my hon. Friend mentioned the other issues that must be tackled to bring about real change, and my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley, too, referred to interconnectivity. Unless we deal with transport, employment and business, we will not make truly sustainable communities. Such issues are being taken on board, and we recognise that despite all the work that has been done, considerably more needs to be done. Our aim is to ensure that all housing is decent and attractive. I take the view that if I am not prepared to live somewhere, we should not expect other people to live there either. That should be a strong driving force behind the improvements that we want to make.

Several deep pockets of market failure and weakness remain. Too many houses are still in serious disrepair, and there is insufficient choice and quality for today’s communities. Those problems will not be resolved overnight, but my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn clearly highlighted the direction we are taking. We are moving in the right direction and we are in this for the long haul; we will not abandon areas now that we have made a start on making improvements.

There is considerable encouragement to be had from the progress that has been made. I commend Elevate’s partnership work with the private sector and registered social landlords to deliver a much better choice of social housing for people in east Lancashire. I am aware of some of the excellent wider working that Elevate has enabled through programmes such as “Constructing the Future”, which offers residents the opportunity to improve skills and gain qualifications to improve their ability to access good employment opportunities. Elevate has also worked closely with Lancashire county council to develop a new regional economic strategy across the sub-region, and that is directly related to raising the housing offer. It is worth putting on record that unless we deal with the economy and businesses, as the hon. Member for Ribble Valley said, we will not provide sustainable communities.

I pay tribute to the partnership work that has been done in east Lancashire, and local people clearly have a role in determining the future of the places in which they live. I also pay tribute to all those in the sub-region who have risen to the challenges. They have made a personal commitment to, and put effort into, enabling their communities to develop clearer strategies and significantly improve performance. The local strategic partnerships of Pendle, Burnley and Hyndburn have undergone significant change, which has made a real difference to changes in those areas.

Let me say something about liveability, because regeneration is about more than just housing and the economy; it is really about people, although I sometimes think that that gets lost in the debate. My hon. Friends the Members for Hyndburn and for Rossendale and Darwen made it clear, however, that people are the crux of the issue. Regeneration is about raising aspirations, improving the skills of the community, improving the environment and creating places where people really want to live, raise their families, work and spend their leisure time. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn said, we are seeing improvements in all those issues in east Lancashire. The local area agreements covering the area have been well regarded and have been important in strengthening partnership working, developing proposals for continuous improvement and ensuring a joined-up approach to rationalising and aligning resources to deliver the priorities agreed by the community as a whole.

I assure hon. Members that I will take on board the issues that they have raised and take them back with me. I understand the concern expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen about the town of Darwen, and my colleagues in the Department will look at the issue. Her commitment is clearly to ensure that people who live and work in the area have the best possible services, and I pay tribute to her for that.

In closing the debate, let me say that we are working, and will continue to work, to support the economic regeneration of the sub-region. I look forward to a day when east Lancashire has re-established the vibrancy that it experienced during the industrial revolution, with the economic diversity providing a varied and sustainable offer for the whole community. I pay tribute to all hon. Members involved for playing their part, and particularly to my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn, who raised the issue. He can take some credit for the changes that have been made, as they are due in no small part to his efforts.

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.