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Telford (Regeneration)

Volume 515: debated on Wednesday 8 September 2010

It is good to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mrs Brooke. I am in the Chamber to talk about what I believe to be the most important issue in Parliament—my constituency. Of course, every hon. Member quite rightly thinks the same thing about their own constituency. As hon. Members will know, I represent the new town of Telford that was so designated in the 1960s and is one of the most successful new towns built post-world war two. The town comprises a mix of older communities on the east Shropshire coalfield such as Oakengates, Dawley and Madeley. In the 1960s, a number of new developments were created to infill the area between those towns. In many ways, the community is rooted in east Shropshire, although people have moved in, largely from the west midlands conurbation, when issues such as overcrowding and slum clearance were tackled during the 1960s.

There is a big challenge facing all new towns as a result of the fact that, because they were designated at a particular time, the fabric of the town ages over the same time period. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, significant parts of the new town estates in Telford needed to be regenerated. In addition, the older communities in our town also needed support and investment over time. Therefore, there is a mix of older towns that, as I have said, are focused around mining communities, engineering and heavy industry, much of which has now sadly gone. There are also new town estates that were designed in the 1960s and often based on the Radburn layout where non-traditional design patterns and architectural patterns were used to put housing estates together. That has thrown up a series of challenges that I will touch on in my speech.

I will now run through Telford geographically, going broadly from north to south, touching on the issues confronting each particular community. Before I do so, I will mention two key issues. First, housing has got to be the cornerstone of any regeneration activity. It was right for that to be the case when the new town was designated, and it is right for that to be the case now. There are a large number of people on the housing waiting list in Telford, with over 10,000 people seeking social housing. Over the past 20 to 30 years, we have not built enough social housing in the town and we must address that problem. I do not place blame on any particular Government; we must come together and acknowledge that we need more social and rented housing. That must be the cornerstone of our regeneration strategy.

Secondly, Building Schools for the Future is proving to be particularly successful in Telford, where the Minister will be pleased to know that the BSF programme is going ahead, largely because it has been well put together. The initial bid by the old council was good, as are the schemes being pursued by the existing council. It is a pleasure to say that I support the scheme and welcome the fact that it is continuing and that we will see over £100 million of investment in new schools across Telford. Some schools have already been rebuilt and are proving incredibly popular with pupils and parents. In many communities, those new schools will form the focal point of regeneration activity, which is why I am delighted that the programme is going ahead and will be effective in towns such as Dawley and Stirchley, and right across the borough.

I would now like to canter through some of the local communities and mention one or two of the key issues and challenges facing them. My home town is Oakengates, which is one of the older communities in Telford. I shall begin by saying what an excellent job the chamber of trade is doing in trying to sustain and promote the local economy through its activities and its superb website, I grew up in Oakengates, which has received investment over recent years. The theatre has been refurbished, and there has been a significant amount of housing-led regeneration on former industrial sites throughout the town. Partner agencies have come in, such as the Salvation Army, which redeveloped a new hall that is a fabulous facility. We have also seen investment through the primary care trust and with GPs in new surgeries. However, Oakengates faces continuing challenges that are the same as those confronting many towns. The street environment needs to be improved—I know that the council has been talking to the community about that. The town has serious parking problems, which are dangerous. We must redesign the centre of the town to make it more attractive to retailers and the public, and we must make parking safer.

There used to be a vibrant market, and there are still two or three stalls on market day, but there used to be a lot more. We need to see a revitalised market in Oakengates and in other towns across Telford. Perhaps the Government should go back to the drawing board and think again about how to promote markets, not just in Telford but across the UK, and what more we can do to support their establishment and survival.

In many ways, Oakengates is the centre of the night-time economy in Telford, and CCTV provision must be improved and enhanced. There is also an old, classic building called the Walker Tech. I know it well, but it has fallen into disrepair and is boarded up. It and must be brought back into use as quickly as possible. It is owned by a private developer who I hope we can encourage to bring the scheme forward. The Government must think about how they can encourage developers who own older, empty buildings to bring forward investment and bring classic old buildings, such as the Walker Tech, back into use.

Another area I want to mention is St Georges, which I also know well, as it is where I went to school. Continuing with my theme, there is another classic building in St Georges called the Gower street youth club. It was an old school building but it is now empty. It could be converted into flats to provide high-quality accommodation, but again, that scheme needs to be developed quickly. I gathered a petition of over 300 signatures from people in St Georges who want the building to be brought back into use. We must develop a strategy for new youth provision in St Georges. Regeneration is not only about bricks, mortar and fabric but about sustaining communities. As I have said, youth provision was taken away when the Gower street youth club was closed, and it has never been properly replaced. There are also significant parking issues in St Georges.

I will now briefly mention one of the new town areas—Hollinswood and Randlay. Hollinswood is a classic new town estate based almost on a Radburn-style layout with a road network that is different from a traditional road layout. We need investment in the fabric and in things such as estate roads and footpaths. It is simple: often, regeneration is not about grandiose large schemes but about sustaining the investment that has already been made. In Hollinswood, we need investment in the local centre and in the general infrastructure of the estate.

To the council’s credit, plans for the Randlay centre are extremely good, but we need to get on with them as quickly as possible. The community has been waiting for a long time to see the local centre in Randlay redeveloped. It is a partnership with the private sector; it is a good scheme and it should be moved forward as quickly as possible.

Dawley was the town on which the new town is based. It was called Dawley new town before being redesignated as Telford. Dawley is an old community that has undergone a lot of change. I welcome the investment in Dawley centre even though I have concerns and reservations about the new bandstand in the centre of the town and the reintroduction of traffic to the high street. However, I am open-minded and willing to be proved wrong about my concerns.

I very much welcome the investment going into Dawley, but we must do more, as we need a renewed drive against antisocial behaviour in the high street. I continue to raise that with the police, as it is an ongoing problem. Local residents constantly say to me that it is a serious issue, particularly at night. When they go in to use the town, there are gangs of young people concentrated in the town. We need to divert those people and give them something else to do, but we also need to crack down on antisocial behaviour, which is unacceptable. That must be a priority for the police in Dawley.

We also need the market back in the high street in Dawley on a Friday. Because of the street works, the market has been moved to the adjacent car park. We need to get the market back in the high street as quickly as we can, so that we can support local traders and continue to have a popular market in Dawley.

Stirchley is another new town estate, and is a good example of where Building Schools for the Future will sustain the area and help us to develop a new local centre with a focus. It is a good example of how investment through a project such as BSF can come together with a range of partners—the private sector, retailers and the health service—to remodel a local centre. I look forward to seeing exciting plans relating to Stirchley.

Brookside in my constituency is another new town area that needs investment. The local centre is a mess. The buildings are incredibly unattractive, and the street pattern has turned the area in on itself. It needs to be cleared and redeveloped, and we need to put together an exciting initiative, in partnership with the private sector, if that is to happen. There are serious street drinking problems outside that local centre, and the police need to deal with that effectively.

The Wrekin Housing Trust has been using people engaged in the future jobs fund to progress improvements on the estate. Unfortunately, that programme is coming to an end. More than 20 people have been involved. I would like to think that agencies could look again at how we engage people, through schemes such as the future jobs fund or a replacement for it, to get people active, cleaning up neighbourhoods and receiving training as well. We need Government support to develop a major regeneration plan for the Brookside area.

One of the first major regeneration schemes that we pursued in Telford was at Woodside. I am very proud to have been involved in that project over the years, right from its start. We have done some fantastic work up there. We are now starting to see work progress on the local centre and on the area to the east of the estate, which needs to be redesigned. I would like to hear from the Minister today an ongoing commitment to Woodside. I am sure that he will be able to give one—I hope he will—because the project is the lynchpin of regeneration in southern Telford.

Similarly, I would like the Minister to give a commitment to further investment on Sutton Hill, which was the first new town estate to be built. It has major design and infrastructure needs. There is a big scheme on the anvil to redevelop the centre of the estate, alongside the investment that has been made in the children’s centre and in the new school over recent years. There is a very positive agenda for Sutton Hill, but the local centre needs to be remodelled, and we have to examine the layout of the rest of the estate as well, because regeneration does not just involve the centre. We need to remodel the roadways and the neighbourhoods, because of the design of the estate.

I welcome the work that the police have done in recent weeks to tackle fire starting in Sutton Hill. Someone has been setting fire to vehicles and caravans there. The police have been working very hard on that, with information from the local community, and I very much welcome that. However, there are other issues of antisocial behaviour on Sutton Hill where, at night, young people gather and intimidate others. We need to think about how we police that area and, again, how we divert the people involved and make the environment safe.

I have mentioned a number of new town estates, and one of the big issues on those estates is empty homes, which are often owned by private landlords, who perhaps own one, two or three properties. They are very often absentee landlords who do not look after their properties. The Government need to re-examine how to secure possession of those empty homes, which are owned by a single landlord or small groups of landlords, because they drag an area down very quickly and a whole street can be blighted if one property is empty.

Madeley is a good example of how the private sector can lead regeneration. The scheme in Madeley is excellent, and I congratulate Tesco on the fantastic job that is has done there. The centre has been completely revitalised through a good partnership with Tesco, involving investment in the local street scene, rather than an out-of-town store. Tesco deserves some credit for that.

I now want to discuss Telford town centre, where there are a number of key private sector interests and where the local authority, too, has its offices. There is a real opportunity to transform the environment and create a lively centre with high-quality shopping, entertainment and office and residential development. My concern is that the partners are not producing a comprehensive vision for the area because the owners of the shopping centre—Hark Group Ltd—and the local authority seem to be at odds over the best way to proceed.

The council sold its Malinslee House headquarters to Asda, which is moving out of the shopping centre. I disagreed with that decision, as the original plans for the redevelopment of the Telford centre envisaged the Malinslee House site as a mix of residential, office and small retail units. In my view, that is still the best use of the site. That said, local government means just that—government, not administration. The council has taken its decision democratically, which is fair enough. However, I am concerned that an application by Hark to create a new supermarket and a range of smaller shops and restaurants on the Red Oak car park site has been with the council for some nine months. That application must be determined as soon as possible. Hark invested £450 million when it purchased the Telford shopping centre, and that scheme could provide 400 jobs that the town desperately needs.

I welcome the initiative in the town centre to redevelop the Southwater area, and the council and the Southwater Event Group seem to be working well together. The Telford international centre is, by the nature of its name, a venue of international quality, and we need to support it fully. There is a real opportunity to transform the environment and we should grasp it.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on initiating this important debate. He is a fair-minded Member of the House, so will he congratulate Conservative-controlled Telford and Wrekin council on the regeneration partnerships that it has already formed and the regeneration not only of wards in his constituency, but of market towns in other parts of the borough? Also, will he put on the record his support for the formation of a local enterprise partnership with Shropshire council and other stakeholders in the county and in the borough, devolving powers from Advantage West Midlands to ensure that rural areas and places such as Telford and Wrekin—urban areas—receive more funding, rather than just urban areas in Birmingham?

It is good to see my hon. Friend, as I shall call him, here this afternoon. There has been a good record, under both the Labour Administration and the Conservative Administration we have now, of putting together partnerships. Woodside was put together under the Labour Administration and has been very successful. Other partnerships put together by the Conservative-controlled council have also been successful. I do not think there is a need for us to divide up on that. We have a good record over a number of decades of putting together regeneration programmes, which is positive. We are meeting about the local enterprise structures in the next two or three weeks, and I shall be keen to see what the council is proposing on that score.

I am conscious of the time and I wanted to secure from the Minister a commitment to the regeneration programmes that we currently have in Telford through a confirmation from him that existing funding is safe, that schemes will be completed and that budgets through the local government settlement and through the Homes and Communities Agency will be protected. I would like to think that he will agree to commit the HCA to work with the local community on the creation of new regeneration plans for areas such as Brookside, and that he will look positively on proposals that may be made to extend the scope of regeneration activity under way or planned in areas such as Sutton Hill.

Finally, will the Minister take another look at some of the housing issues? Housing will be a central element of our plans to regenerate the town. Will he consider any proposals that may be made to develop more social housing in the town and will he take another look—a serious look—at empty homes and their impact, not just in Telford but throughout the country?

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Brooke. I join in the congratulations to the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) on securing the debate, which he has made full use of on behalf of his constituents. In addition, I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), who is also interested in this issue. It is an important one, and I appreciate the way in which the hon. Gentleman put his case.

Regeneration is something to which the Government are absolutely committed, and I was interested and pleased to learn about Telford and Wrekin’s ambitious regeneration agenda and the projects and programmes that were mentioned, including the multi-million pound borough town initiative. That tailored approach to meeting the needs of six individual and distinctively different towns demonstrates the importance of local understanding in developing successful regeneration programmes.

Local people have not only the knowledge but, more importantly, a vested interest in the best sense of that phrase in driving forward the changes needed to improve their communities and areas. That is why the Government are committed to devolving power to neighbourhoods, scrapping regional planning and allowing communities and local councils such as Telford and Wrekin to have much greater control and power over their own destiny. By removing the regional tier of government and abolishing the regional development agencies, neighbourhoods—and their councils and partners, as we heard—will finally be at the very heart of regeneration.

I am conscious, however, that no two areas are the same and that each has its own priorities and faces its own challenges. That was amply demonstrated by the hon. Gentleman. That is why we invited local authorities and business leaders to form local enterprise partnerships. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman looks forward to finding out the details. My hon. Friend is right that there is a bid from the local authorities and the business community in the Marches to join local authorities in forming exactly such a partnership, with interventions focusing on enterprise, employment, planning and housing, transport and infrastructure, education and skills, sustainability and strategic leadership. I know that the bid picks up on a number of those factors, including housing, education and skills, which were referred to during the debate.

Those partnerships are key regeneration vehicles. They will empower local areas to provide the strategic leadership needed to drive economic growth and enterprise and to meet local priorities. It will give local authorities, businesses and the voluntary sector the opportunity to join in rationalising existing arrangements and focus economic activity at the local level. Those reforms, together with the new general power of competence, will make it easier for local authorities to bring about real change and drive forward the regeneration that their communities want.

Alongside that more permissive neighbourhood-based approach to delivering regeneration, we are developing a new way of thinking. We need to get away from the idea that things can be fixed only through Government intervention. The Government are not always needed to fix things. We need to get into the habit of finding local solutions to local problems, driven by local people. However, that does not mean that the Government are entirely out of the picture; of course we have a responsibility to provide communities with the right incentives, tools and information that they need if we want them to participate actively in the regeneration and economic growth of their local areas.

That is why, in addition to the introduction of local enterprise partnerships, the Government are establishing a £1 billion regional growth fund to provide support for projects that offer significant potential for sustainable economic growth that can create new private sector employment. As hon. Members know, the fund will operate for two years and will play a central role in rebalancing the economy in those regions where, historically, there may have been some reliance on public sector spending. Proposals for that could come from both private and public bodies—and, I hope, private-public partnerships. I am sure that local enterprise partnerships will play a key role in that process.

I am conscious that the spending review dominates a great deal of thinking at this time. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I cannot pre-empt its results.

The local enterprise partnership submission to the Government from Shropshire, Telford, Wrekin, Herefordshire, the Marches and business partners makes various recommendations and requests. One relates to the Homes and Communities Agency, which has significant assets in Telford and Wrekin. I hope that the Government will look carefully and favourably on allowing HCA assets to come to the LEP in order that regeneration can take place locally.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I am aware of that ambition, and Ministers in my Department and in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will want to consider the bid carefully. I am glad that the LEPs are ambitious in such matters. We will obviously need to consider the detail of the bid, which was received only recently. I am sure that the growth of LEPs, together with the regional grown fund, will be of benefit for exactly that sort of consideration.

I am well aware of the hon. Gentleman’s interest in housing and housing growth in Telford. He spoke of the shortage of affordable housing in the borough. Areas such as Telford, where there appears to be a recognition of the need for housing and a willingness to grow, are precisely the areas that will stand to benefit from the Government’s new homes bonus scheme, particularly in relation to the need for social or other affordable housing. Funding at 125% will be a particular incentive for such authorities. I am sure that that will be a material benefit.

I understand that Telford was one of the first authorities in the west midlands to develop a local investment plan with the HCA, in which it set out its key housing priorities for the next three years. As we have heard, it is focusing on town centre renaissance and regeneration, including the projects referred to by the hon. Gentleman, and the establishment of a housing and regeneration partnership board with the borough council and the HCA—another good example of community working.

In relation to the specifics of Woodside raised by the hon. Gentleman, I am aware that Telford and Wrekin council is currently working out proposals for the next phase of the project, including the provision of affordable homes, open space and the remodelling of existing areas. We will of course consider those proposals with interest. I hope that the levers that we have will encourage the council. Similarly, in relation to Sutton Hill, the first phase is under way, focusing on the local centre benefiting from HCA investment, match-funded by the local authority, and the strategy for future phases is being considering further by Telford and Wrekin council. Again, we look forward to seeing its proposals.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned empty housing; he made a fair point. It is still a problem in various parts of the country, and local authorities have a key role in identifying empty homes and working with owners to bring them back into use. The Government have given a commitment to explore a range of measures to bring empty homes back into use, and we began the process in the summer and autumn as outlined in the Department for Communities and Local Government’s structural reform plan. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have seen that plan; it is available on the website. Again, the power of general competence gives a further potential lever for local authorities to use in that regard.

I turn to the question of markets. As a local councillor, I had a spell as chairman of my borough council’s markets committee. It was a fascinating period of my political life. Markets make an important contribution to the local economy. We are alert to the matter, and my fellow Minister, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell), is working on the matter and will shortly be issuing further proposals. We hope to work with the market and retail sectors, giving advice and support for existing markets and encouraging new ones. The Government can work with the retail sector to encourage such things. The hon. Gentleman has made a timely intervention on that topic, and we are endeavouring to take it on board.

I look forward in due course to finding out more about Telford. I have done my best to deal with the points raised by the hon. Gentleman, and I am grateful to him for having drawn those points to our attention.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.