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Neighbourhood Renewal Funding (Peterborough)

Volume 487: debated on Monday 9 February 2009

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr. Blizzard.)

I am delighted to have secured this debate on neighbourhood renewal funding in the Millfield and New England areas of Peterborough. These older city residential areas existed before Peterborough was designated as a new town and before the Peterborough development corporation was established in 1968, and they have a proud working class heritage, having been home to many families working on the railways or at Perkins Engines—skilled craftsmen, artisans, practical people and their kith and kin.

It was the 1850 opening of the Great Northern railway’s main line from London to York that transformed Peterborough from a market town to an industrial centre. Relatively little urban development took place to the west of the railway, but the marshalling yards and other installations were labour-intensive and housing for railway workers and their families spread from the vicinity of the North station almost to Walton. The Great Northern built an entire community here, which provided much of the labour for the enormous marshalling yard and associated engine sheds close by.

For almost 55 years the North ward on Peterborough city council has been represented by the indefatigable Charles Swift, OBE, who lives in Scotney street in New England and was once the Labour leader of the city council, but is now robustly independent, and his colleague, Councillor Keith Sharp. Only two weeks ago, Charles featured in the Peterborough Evening Telegraph bemoaning the state of his home area, under the headline “Peterborough is decaying in front of our eyes.”

My constituents living in the Millfield and New England areas of Peterborough have been witness to the steady decline of their neighbourhood for a number of years, but the increased pressures of the current economic climate—in particular, the recent spate of job losses in the city, business closures, crime and, among other things, the increased pressures of immigration—have highlighted the very real difficulties these communities are facing. In particular, the huge and unprecedented influx of EU migrants into the city since May 2004, estimated by the East of England regional assembly two years ago at more than 16,000 individuals, most of whom have congregated in this area, has put significant strain on the delivery of public services.

The situation has been exacerbated by heavy job losses across Peterborough over the last 12 months in good-quality, blue-chip companies—400 jobs at Hotpoint, 450 jobs at Perkins Engines and 500 at Freemans Catalogues. In particular, in the area east of the north-south Lincoln road—from the junction with Dogsthorpe road up to the A47 Soke parkway, and including the northern third of the Central ward—the environmental deterioration of what were once pleasant streets of owner-occupied properties, well tended and demonstrating an obvious element of neighbourhood pride, has unfortunately given rise to an increasing number of often scruffy, unkempt properties in multiple occupation with neglected gardens at front and back, physical deterioration and environmental blight including noise nuisance, neighbour disputes over matters such as refuse collection, and more general antisocial behaviour.

I understand that last Thursday the Minister, in his capacity as Minister for community cohesion, was due to visit the New Link centre in Lincoln road, at the heart of the area. Had it not been for the inclement weather, he would have seen at first hand what I have described. When Charles Swift and I undertook a comprehensive walkabout across the North ward before Christmas, he showed me what he has labelled “grot spots”. He has described the area and its ambience as “bedraggled and worn”.

Although Peterborough is to benefit from a number of regeneration projects—they include the redevelopment of Cathedral Square, the “carbon challenge town” on the south bank, the new North Westgate retail and housing development and the development of the station quarter over the next 10 years, and the opening of the new university centre later this year—a number of residents in Millfield and New England fear that the well-established residential areas outside the city centre will be overlooked rather than receive their fair share of both private and Government regeneration funding.

It is appropriate to set these two specific localities within a wider economic and social context in the Peterborough sub-region. The Peterborough city council area has the highest unemployment among the nine sub-regions in the eastern region. The unemployment rates are, respectively, 7.3 per cent., with 1,847 male claimants, and 3 per cent., with 588 female claimants. The overall rate in the Peterborough constituency was 5.4 per cent. in December 2008.

A lower proportion of people than across the other sub-regions have five GCSE passes at grades A to C, 11 per cent. lack basic literacy skills, 56 per cent. lack basic numeracy skills and 57 per cent. lack basic information and communications technology skills. The sub-region contains 10 “super output areas” that are among the most deprived in the region, suffering from education deprivation and low adult skills. We have the third highest proportion in the region of adults with no qualifications, and the third lowest proportion with degree-level qualifications. Our NEETs count—the number of young people not in work, education or training—is above the county and regional average. Our sub-region contains the greatest number of individuals receiving incapacity benefit, and half of them have been claimants for more than five years.

The city ranks high when it comes to health problems such as diabetes, heart disease and asthma, and has the highest incidence in East Anglia of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Life expectancy in Peterborough is four years less than in Cambridge, just 31 miles away.

The local area agreement and the Investing in Communities business plan for the city—the latter was published in 2007—focus on key target groups: people with disabilities, lone parents, those who are otherwise economically inactive owing to long-term illness, migrant workers and NEETs.

Before I deal with the specific issues in the wards that make up Millfield and New England, it would be wise for me to record the efforts made by community-minded people locally to improve their own community. The city council is pioneering a neighbourhood management and renewal programme first developed in the Dogsthorpe ward, using money from the Stronger and Safer Communities programme. Greater Dogsthorpe Partnership has done excellent work under the leadership of Adrian Chapman and, subsequently, Graeme Clark to empower local residents to improve the quality of their lives through active participation and engagement.

Last year the city council established the Millfield and New England task force. It is now developing an action plan geared towards housing and environmental issues, involving the use of legislation to improve problematic properties, issuing penalty notices for littering, investigation of fly-tipping, and proactive work regarding houses in multiple occupation. The urban regeneration company Opportunity Peterborough is taking the lead in trying to ensure the viability and long-term future of the Millfield local district shopping centre.

I have the honour of serving on the Salvation Army good neighbours board of management, which is overseeing investment of formerly objective 2 moneys and now Investing in Communities funding. I pay tribute to Carol Bailey and Des Davis and all the staff, helpers and volunteers at the Salvation Army citadel at Bourges boulevard for their hard work and dedication in helping vulnerable people, particularly the large number of elderly people in New England.

The Millfield and New England economic regeneration partnership—MANERP—under the chairmanship of Hema Patel is a grass-roots organisation that fights hard to ensure that the area is not overlooked, by campaigning for city council days of action and appointing street leaders, and by monitoring houses in multiple occupation, the problems of unscrupulous landlords exploiting newcomers to the area and the challenges of living in a diverse population, as well as serious crime-related issues such as the growth of brothels and cannabis factories in the locality.

Why is this area so deserving of attention? Not only does the area—the North ward west of Fulbridge road and the west of Park ward—suffer from endemic social problems as a result of the decline in manufacturing and manual trades and the growing culture of benefit dependency, but it has the feel of a community expiring on its feet. In the last year, HSBC has announced the closure of its branch in Millfield, the New England post office has been earmarked for closure and even St. Paul’s church at the junction with St. Paul’s road has been downgraded and will soon be forced to share a minister with St. Mark’s church, which is much nearer the city centre, despite the sterling work of its stand-in priest in charge, Rev. Ron Watkinson, who provides both spiritual leadership and pastoral care to the parish.

The North, Central and Park wards rank particularly highly in respect of the indices of deprivation in super output areas, many of which are ranked in the top 25 per cent. in the country. One super output area in the north of the Central ward is ranked in the top 16 per cent. most deprived in the UK.

Mass and uncontrolled migration has had a major impact in damaging community cohesion, as well as leading to the physical degradation of parts of these residential areas as the character of the neighbourhoods has changed. It has had a negative effect on what is a low-skill and low-wage economy, affecting indigenous residents, and has, regrettably, caused welfare dependency to become even further entrenched. The number of working-age claimants on benefit across the city council area remained static at 15 per cent. between 2002 and 2007, and in the same period—a period of economic growth—the proportion of those in employment has declined from 77 to 74 per cent. For those in work, median gross weekly wages are falling, and they fell between 2006 and 2008. One in four of those living in the North ward suffers from a long-term illness, almost a quarter of residents are pensioners and one in 10 residents are unpaid carers for others.

Let me now turn to the issue of crime, which is often linked to economic downturns and recessions. The most recent figures provided on a ward-by-ward basis by the northern division of Cambridgeshire constabulary—those for January 2009—show that in the North ward serious acquisitive crime is up 23 per cent. compared with the same period last year, and is up 10 per cent. in Park ward; violent crime is up 12 per cent. and 16 per cent. respectively and antisocial behaviour is up 11 per cent. and 6 per cent. respectively, while alcohol-related incidences are up by a staggering 156 per cent. in North ward and 159 per cent. in Park ward.

I hope that the Minister understands the picture I reluctantly paint of a part—not, I hasten to add, a majority—of my constituency. I believe that owing to its unique set of circumstances—low skills, low educational attainment, worklessness, unprecedented mass immigration, struggling public services, declining housing stock and deprivation, poor health outcomes and welfare dependency—local agencies such as the East of England Development Agency, the primary care trust, the urban regeneration company and the local authority are, through lack of capacity, simply not able to deploy the financial and other resources they would like in order to tackle the intractable problems to which I have alluded.

For that reason, New England and Millfield merit the Minister’s serious consideration for funding under the auspices of the working neighbourhoods fund. In their November 2007 report, which was unimaginatively entitled “The Working Neighbourhoods Fund”, the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Work and Pensions made the point that the fund

“is not just about money. It is about new ways of working...targeting areas of high worklessness by devolving and empowering communities”.

Peterborough’s new and developing neighbourhood management model would complement that approach.

I contend that Peterborough will now meet the WNF funding criteria—particularly those relating to the benefit claim rate and employment rate—in a way that it may not have done under the previous criteria attached to neighbourhood renewal funding prior to April 2008, which focused on district-wide measures of deprivation indices. It was never equitable or sensible to exclude many authorities, such as Peterborough’s, that have pockets of very severe deprivation at super output area level but fell short of the criteria. Peterborough’s eligibility will be enhanced by the decision to include both jobseeker’s allowance and incapacity benefit in the funding criteria. I think those on both sides of the House welcome the greater devolution of this funding programme to local councils.

Furthermore, in the interim, I ask the Minister to give his support to Peterborough city council’s undertaking a neighbourhood renewal assessment of the distinct neighbourhoods of New England and Millfield—such an approach has been taken in respect of Barrow, Burnley, Liverpool and Rugby, for instance—on the specific basis of housing stress and multiple deprivation under the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 and subsequent regulations.

The Minister has had to take in an awful lot of information. Clearly, he would have had the opportunity to make a visit last week to see things for himself—that might have assisted my case. The situation has become ever more pressing recently as a result of the redundancies that I mentioned. They have certainly had a considerable impact on the already difficult circumstances facing many of my constituents in these difficult economic times.

The chairman of MANERP’s cohesion sub-group, Marlene Coussell, said in 2007 that she felt saddened at how her neighbourhood had declined in the past 25 years. She said:

“When I used to say I lived in Millfield, it was mentioned reverentially. But now, I get looks of pity. We are here to try to change those perceptions.”

I am realistic about the challenges we face and the chances of turning things around quickly, but I believe that if we can harness the energy and local knowledge of people in the community in developing their own solutions, we really will be able to improve the quality of life of individuals living in the deprived neighbourhoods of which I have spoken, many of whom live in a half life of benefit dependency, crime, ill-health and worklessness. Such a situation is both unfair and economically wasteful. It is socially destructive but it is not inevitable. I concede that this Government have done the right thing in refocusing regeneration moneys at the most local level, and I ask the Minister to do all he can to make sure that in my constituency the funds are directed where they are so desperately needed.

I thank the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) for raising this important issue. The debate provides an opportunity to discuss not only the issues and the real challenges facing his constituents in the Millfield and New England areas of Peterborough, but the work under way to address those as part of a more coherent approach by local partners in the city.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the working neighbourhoods fund and made a plea for its money to be provided to those two areas. The WNF is targeted at 65 local authorities, all of which score more highly than Peterborough on the indices of multiple deprivation. The Government decided to focus these funds more tightly in light of the recommendations of the sub-national review of economic development and regeneration. There are no plans to revise the eligibility criteria or to increase the number of eligible authorities.

I wish to add a couple of things, as we are on the WNF. Under the formula grant—the hon. Gentleman did not mention this in his short contribution—Peterborough received an increase of 6 per cent. in funding in 2008-09 and will receive more than generous inflation increases in 2009-10 and 2010-11. If one examines all the grants that Peterborough will receive in 2009-10, one will discover that an additional £11.5 million is being provided. The point is that, as important as the working neighbourhoods fund is to those deprived parts of the country—the 65 authorities that receive it—it is a fraction of the funding that Peterborough receives in the generous payments from the Government to the council and other key agencies.

Peterborough is benefiting from a range of other Government policies, related interventions and funding to support the delivery of local ambitions. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for having the generosity to mention some of the work going on locally as a consequence of the Government providing local authorities with the tools and funding, all of which play a significant part in supporting the regeneration of neighbourhoods, through greater collaboration between local partners. Some important examples include £21.5 million growth area funding over the three years to 2010-11. There is £1.6 million funding as part of the neighbourhood element of the safer and stronger communities fund. In Peterborough this will help Welland, Old Dogsthorpe, Bluebell, and part of the New England areas—about which the hon. Gentleman is rightly concerned. An additional £21 million from the East of England Development Agency for regeneration projects in Peterborough will contribute to projects worth £100 million in total since 1999.

The sum of £16.6 million from the region’s Urban II programme is focused on nine wards in Peterborough city centre with high levels of unemployment linked to a lack of skills. On the Labour Benches, we appreciate the contributions made by Europe, and the European regional development fund finance has provided just over £7.8 million to help the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. In addition, there have been funds for cohesion and preventing violent extremism for the period 2008-2010, the latter totalling almost £765,000.

The Minister will concede that there are difficulties in measuring the robustness and veracity of population statistics. He will also know that the transitional arrangements between neighbourhood renewal funding and working neighbourhood funding have thrown up some difficulties. Unless we get the population data right and make them topical, deserving authorities will lose out, even under the new programme.

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of the robustness of the statistics. A combination of migration and growth has affected Peterborough recently, and we simply cannot wait for a census every 10 years. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the excellent work that is being done to improve the robustness of the figures and ensure that they reflect the real situation, rather than lagging behind.

The issue is not only money, as important as that is. The new local area agreement has already benefited Peterborough by bringing about a more co-ordinated and collaborative approach to tackling the challenges facing the city, from delivering growth to reducing inequalities—and a wider ambition to be the UK’s environment capital. Tools provided by a Labour Government are being used by a Conservative local authority to benefit the residents.

The planned growth of the city will bring significant opportunities for Peterborough to help bring about transformation, including within neighbourhoods. The city is blossoming, despite the tough economic climate. Considering the circumstances—including the recession—things are going well. The leader of Peterborough city council since 2003, John Peach, says that there is more going on now than ever. He should know as he has been on the council ever since the unitary council came under Conservative control.

It was not the hon. Gentleman’s intention—and he was careful to emphasise that he was talking about part of Peterborough, not the whole city—to talk down Peterborough. The regional spatial strategy for the east of England identifies Peterborough as a key centre for development and change. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that the successful growth of the city is an important factor in tackling deprivation and regenerating areas such as Millfield and New England. Knitting together those two important agendas requires a strong partnership between all sectors and we believe that that can happen in Peterborough.

I do not want to pretend that there are no challenges, and the hon. Gentleman was right to stress some that face Peterborough, which is growing faster now than at any time in the past 50 years. It faces two significant challenges: first, to close the gaps between the worst and best neighbourhoods; and, secondly, to deliver its ambitious plans for growth. The debate today, in my opinion, should be about how we collectively maximise the resources already available in the city to deliver an ambitious agenda for the future. By pooling intelligence and capacity between partners, engaging and empowering local communities and providing real opportunities for them to be a part of the future plans for transforming the city, we can make a difference. It is happening on the ground. Peterborough city council and its partners, including the business community and the public, through the Greater Peterborough partnership, drew up the sustainable community strategy with the vision of

“A bigger and better Peterborough that grows the right way”—

through substantial and “truly sustainable” growth.

We need to strengthen the capability within Peterborough to secure additional funding, whether by attracting private sector investments through growth or improving its potential bidding credentials for competitive funding. It is right to focus on Millfield and New England. Many Labour Members entered politics to help those who were the most deprived in communities, and that is what social justice is about. The hon. Gentleman was right to draw attention to the ongoing challenges in Millfield and New England. I firmly believe that greater collaboration between service providers to tackle the underlying social and economic issues, continued education and awareness raising, ongoing enforcement and investigation work to deal with unscrupulous landlords and linking the growth plans with those for regeneration are more likely to secure a sustainable solution for the area.

I am pleased to say that such an approach is already being used in Millfield and New England by Conservative Peterborough city council, through its neighbourhood approach across the city. I understand that that city council has led with a restructure of its services and that the new neighbourhood management model that is being implemented includes multi-agency delivery teams, which will be tasked with responding to local priorities identified by neighbourhood partnerships. That is an example of Government devolving power with additional funding devolved to communities, turning subjects into citizens and citizens into active citizens.

Millfield and New England will form part of the central and east neighbourhood management area of Peterborough, which I think is a good thing. I would not want you to think, Mr. Speaker, that it has become a habit of mine to defend Conservative councils, but Peterborough city council is using the tools that we have given it and is working with appropriate partners to try to help neighbourhoods such as those identified by the hon. Gentleman, including Millfield. The scope of the work is also being expanded to cover New England.

I am afraid that there is no time left for me to deal with all the housing issues referred to by the hon. Gentleman, but there are now city-wide grants available for assistance with repairs and to disabled residents. We are working to address the issues about houses in multiple occupation. The council has a city-wide tenancy relations officer and a private landlord accreditation scheme. The city council has submitted an application for additional licensing for houses in multiple occupation, too.

The council is using the tools provided by the Government, and it is using the extremely generous record levels of investment that the Government have given it. I look forward to a bright future for Peterborough. Legislation based on the community empowerment White Paper will soon be considered in this House, after leaving the other place. There will soon be a joint inspectorate comprehensive area assessment, which will hold local authorities and, more widely, public sector partners to account on the delivery of local priorities.

To summarise, let me reiterate the benefits of collaboration, alignment, and the targeting of resources by key partners in a way that engages local residents in making a difference to their areas. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will wish to join me in congratulating the local authority and the many other partners and people who are working hard to improve the quality of life for those who live in Peterborough. I am sure that you, Mr. Speaker, will agree that the Government are supporting partners with a range of policies and initiatives geared towards greater flexibility, which will enhance delivery and enable Peterborough to realise its ambitions. Never in the history of this country have a Government done more during a recession or economic downturn than this Government. I hope that the people of Millfield and New England will see the fruit of that soon.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.