I beg to move,
That this House has considered regeneration of towns and cities in England.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Main.
I will use the time allotted to consider some of the issues to do with the regeneration of towns and cities in England. The matter is most vexing for my constituents—and, I suspect from the number of colleagues present, for many others. I will reflect on issues specific to New Ferry, a small town that I represent, but I intend to use the example of New Ferry to discuss wider issues in England.
By way of a caveat, and to help the Minister, I should say that we had a good debate in Westminster Hall in February, before the election; we covered a wide range of town centre issues—parking, business rates, shopping locally and that sort of thing. I do not intend to go over the same ground, with the exception of out-of-town shopping centres. I want to talk about proper regeneration and what happens when a place is deprived and the market fails. I am talking not about making a small shopping centre or retail market work, but about what we do and how we respond when a market has failed and about whether the Government care. Specifically, I want to talk about two things: Government policy on planning and access to capital; and the views of my constituents. I want the Minister to hear how their situation makes them feel.
First is Government policy. Having read through the transcript of the February debate and looked at the evidence, I can only conclude that the national planning policy framework has failed. The “town centre first” approach is not working. An Association of Convenience Stores report tells us that 76% of new retail space is out of town. Did anyone in our country intend that the wonderful town centres that we have all known and grown up with should be gradually shut down in favour of out-of-town retail spaces?
By and large, people have to drive to out-of-town places, which is less healthy and causes more pollution; those people who do not drive or do not have access to a car for whatever reason cannot get there. Did anyone in our country intend for that to happen? I argue that the answer is no. I argue that no one in England thought that it was a good idea for us to sacrifice historic town centres for out-of-town retail. Such retail can be a good thing and work well, but planning policy should ensure that it happens alongside and not instead of town centres. How will the Minister reshape Government policy to change our country’s aspiration, which I honestly think is probably a cross-party one? How will he make that aspiration real and not only words on a piece of paper? As we know from the ACS report, so far that aspiration has failed.
The second part of Government policy that I am extraordinarily concerned about is access to capital. We need to think not only about our successful city and town centres. I am proud to be from Merseyside. Those who are familiar with Liverpool and have visited it down the years know that, some years ago, when I was growing up there, it was possible to wander around and to see many sites left derelict since the second world war. The beautiful buildings were the exception rather than the rule. Thanks to the efforts of the previous Government, that has changed a great deal. There are still gaps and spaces, but things have changed and the city is doing well now. Its population is growing for the first time in my lifetime—more people are now coming to live in Liverpool than are leaving, which is a great success.
What, however, is happening to the peripheral town centres? What is going on outside, in places where businesses cannot make a good argument to invest? Those places are sinking further and faster. We cannot see the same kind of business investment as in Liverpool in towns such as Birkenhead, Ellesmere Port or New Ferry, which I represent. Merseyside has had some success in the centre, but Knowsley, Southport and other places around the city centre are not seeing the same benefit. That is because of market failure—the degradation has been so great that the regeneration needed is too big for the private sector on its own.
My hon. Friend and I share not only the region of Merseyside, but similarities between our constituents and constituencies. St Helens has seen huge cuts to local government, plans for investment in transport shelved, a moratorium on a new police station and now the proposed closure of the court house. Given the points that she has made, does she agree that that denigration of the status of our town discourages business and, most importantly, people?
Order. May I ask for interventions to be kept brief? That was more like a mini-speech.
Thank you, Mrs Main. I think that was the first intervention that my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) has made in Westminster Hall, so I am sure he will take your advice.
My hon. Friend is right, however. Of course I care that businesses should be successful; I want people to be able to make a profit, to enjoy their town centres and to have a good environment to be in. My main point, however, is that regeneration matters because of what the quality of buildings and the built environment do to people’s hearts and souls. Being from a place that other people think is rubbish is no good—I know—so regeneration matters not only because it helps people to make a buck and to get a job, but because of the pride we take and the status of our towns. That is why I am having the debate today.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North made another good point. The problem with regeneration is the fact that the Government pull away access to capital from every direction. The housing market renewal initiative, which was helping lots of parts of Merseyside, including just up the road from New Ferry, has been cancelled and done away with. Swathes of grassland just by New Ferry are not being built on because the market is providing no capital to build the houses, and the Government will not do it. Regional development agencies—gone. Bromborough, where I am from, was rebuilt by the regional development agency, which identified business opportunities and pushed friendly capital towards there, so that our place would grow, and it did—but the RDA is now no longer there. We have the local enterprise partnership, which is a lovely organisation, but it has no resources. As my hon. Friend said, every Department of Government has stopped spending capital that previously went to regenerate our towns.
The net impact is that market failure simply cannot be addressed. Where a town centre has deteriorated to such an extent that no business can make a decent case to the markets to access capital to invest there, nothing can be done. Only the state can fix this—it is not for the private sector alone. It is not down to Government alone, either, but it cannot be done without Government.
I want to say a few words about New Ferry. It is where my office is, and I have spent time trying to get a regeneration scheme off the ground there. It is very close to a cancelled housing site that is now just scrubland, and there are lots of empty shops. There is a genuine need, not just for business investment but for regeneration. The area needs reshaping and a new idea of what it can be; there are so many empty shops that people do not go there any more. No business is prepared to risk expending capital by itself on New Ferry. What the Government have done means that there is no mechanism to make regeneration happen, so I am standing here today to ask the Minister to create a mechanism—to find a way for the state to do regeneration in our towns once more. That is desperately needed and it must be done.
I will briefly share some of my constituents’ views. In advance of this debate, I distributed leaflets and used Twitter and Facebook to tell my constituents about it, and they have written to me in great numbers to tell me what they think. Miriam Clack of Stanley Road in New Ferry said, about the place that we are from:
“it’s a pig hole, and it’s a disgrace, and no one is in the least bothered about it.”
I am bothered about it, and I think the Government should be as well. This is the place where we live. She asks why the closed shops are not pulled down or made into something else, and she is right to. She goes on:
“If I was younger I would leave but I can’t so I’m stuck in this hole.”
Another constituent, Matthew Thomas, has had a great idea. He says:
“I think we already have a sufficient number of shop premises. I would even say we have too many. In my opinion it is worth considering the impact of removing the shops”.
He is right. New Ferry needs to be reshaped, but only the Government can do that. No one business, on its own, is going to lead a private sector solution to deal with it; it needs to be a partnership.
The local community has done great things, but, as Joan Rawcliffe of Ortega Close said,
“in spite of considerable efforts carried out by the New Ferry Regeneration Action Group (e.g. the farmers’ market, the landfill site”—
we have a new park there—
“regeneration of the area as a whole failed to take place. Monies from outside sources…were not received by New Ferry.”
Such money was received in other areas, but is not available now because of the Government’s actions.
In closing my contribution, I put it to the Minister that the situation is desperate. I see it, day in, day out, week in, week out, when I am in New Ferry staring at boarded-up buildings and the crumbling bricks of those beautiful old buildings I mentioned. I see it; if he does not, he is welcome to come with me to myriad town centres up and down our country to see it. I ask him to think about this: if he, as a Government Minister, could do one thing, it should be to restart the regeneration of our country. That is desperately needed and I ask him to do it.
Thank you for allowing me to speak today, Mrs Main. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) for securing this debate. She is the Member for the constituency neighbouring mine, so we face a number of similar issues. This is one we definitely share, although, as we will probably hear from other Members, I believe it is also one that a great many town and city centres up and down the country are grappling with at the moment.
As my hon. Friend has mentioned, there have been myriad discussions and debates about the causes of town centre decline, and I do not see any great benefit in rehearsing them. The time has come to find an answer, and I agree with my hon. Friend’s suggestions. There have been attempts in Ellesmere Port, which I represent, to try to regenerate the town centre. We were fortunate, a number of years ago, to have Marks and Spencer invest in the constituency. Despite many efforts on our part as a borough council, we could not persuade it to relocate to the town centre, but it was prepared to invest—in fact, it was its most significant investment in the UK for a number of years—in a large store on the edge of town, in Cheshire Oaks. As many people will know, that is a very popular destination.
Obviously, we were concerned about the impact on the town centre. We were able to agree with Marks and Spencer a generous section 106 contribution for town centre regeneration. Over the past few years, we have been putting that to good use. With that fund a town centre panel was set up, consisting of a number of representatives from the community—from the third sector, local businesses, market traders and the council, including me as I was a local councillor at the time.
The panel is still running today, but the money will run out in the not too distant future. However, it has made some important contributions to keeping the town centre going. A number of events have been put on with the broad aim of getting people into the town centre. We have had concerts and fun runs; there was a big wheel at one point, and a number of Christmas activities. The question we always ask ourselves when we look at how that money should be spent is, “Will this help get people into the town centre?”
Another interesting and innovative use of the money has been on shop front schemes. They have changed the view down the main high street, and people’s perception when they come into the town—they see lots of new shops where before we had empty shops and derelict signs. It is a short-term solution, as those shops still need to be filled. We talked to owners whose units have been empty for a number of years, and put a proposal to them whereby we agreed to use the section 106 money to refurbish their shop fronts and shop units on the basis that they would then let the units to a third-sector organisation on a peppercorn rent for two years. That has brought new life and new initiatives into the town centre, but it is for a limited period, so at the moment we are grappling with the question of where that will take us in the future. It has kept us going in recent times but will not last forever. Some life has been brought into the high street, but the solution is not permanent.
I know a number of towns and cities have been looking at business improvement districts, but in a town such as Ellesmere Port the local traders do not operate on the sort of profit margins that would justify their acceptance into that sort of scheme. We have to accept that a lot of those operations are run on a national basis and it is difficult for a small stall in a smaller town in the country to justify that additional expense. BIDs have had some success, but they are not right for every town. Some of the short-term initiatives have not really been followed through, which is why I agree that we need a fundamental, sustained long-term financial plan and support for town centres.
To pick up on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn), the civic and community importance of town centres has been undervalued in recent years. Current pressures on the public purse and further anticipated court and library closures mean we are seeing further erosion of the civic facilities that invite people into town centres. We need a new approach. Local authorities have local knowledge and so have the tools at their disposal to try to tackle this issue, but they cannot do that without significant financial support. We know that local authority funding is being squeezed at an unprecedented level. Discretionary spend—essentially, that is what this is—is getting ever more squeezed.
I think that we should be looking at residential units as a possible option, and that some sort of new homes bonus for town centre units that are brought back into residential use should be considered. That would give an incentive to local authorities to try to change some of those empty units.
We should look at the way in which out-of-town centres are managed: they have one person who is responsible for all the functions of the shopping centre. We should have a town centre manager in every neighbourhood. We have had a town centre manager as a result of the section 106 money, which has proved invaluable in bringing together all the different strands that make up a town centre. Ultimately, that can pay for itself if the growth that, hopefully, some innovation generates allows the local authority to keep an increased proportion of the rates. I believe that a co-ordinated approach of that ilk is required.
We should also consider whether to look at enterprise zones for town centres. There is a lot to be said for enterprise zones, but when we are giving people incentives to relocate their new offices, factories and premises out of town centres, we are not doing anything to help those centres. It seems a little perverse that we are all here today extremely concerned about the future of town centres, when a system is in place that encourages businesses to locate outside town centres.
Those are just a few of my suggestions, and I echo what my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Wirral South said: if the Minister is up in our neck of the woods, he is more than welcome to come to Ellesmere Port and have a look at some of the good things we have done and the challenges that we have to face over the next few years. We have made progress, but, as is the theme of this debate, we can only go so far without a significant financial commitment to regenerate these town centres.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I think this is the first time you have been in the Chair when I have spoken, so I welcome you to your position. I also welcome the Minister to his position; I think this is the first time I have spoken when he has been winding up for the Government.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) on securing this debate about an issue that affects us all, wherever we live, whether in England or Wales. There is nothing worse than the situation she cited in her speech: when someone does not have pride in their community because they believe that the Government or society do not care about them—a feeling underlined by boarded-up shops or derelict places in their communities.
I am also pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders). I was very friendly with his predecessor, who was known as one of the great scientific minds of Parliament. I remember how, in one of our last conversations before he left this House, he waxed lyrical about the fact that his successor knew local government inside out. I am glad that my hon. Friend is bringing that knowledge to bear in the House today.
I will try to keep my contribution short, given what we have heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston and for Wirral South. I would like to bring two examples before the House. Community regeneration is something I have been interested in for a long time, in particular through living and having grown up in south Wales, where we are part of the post-industrial age.
In all the time I have been a Member of Parliament, I never thought that I would speak in a debate and praise a Government led by Mrs Margaret Thatcher. However, I find myself doing that in drawing attention to the Cardiff Bay development corporation, which was set up in April 1987 to regenerate the 1,100 hectares of old derelict docklands of Cardiff and Penarth.
If anybody remembers Cardiff Bay—as I know you do, Mrs Main, with your Welsh connections—they will know that Tiger Bay was a no-go area. The most famous person ever to come out of Tiger Bay was Shirley Bassey. It was known, unfortunately, for two things—dockers and prostitutes. It was not a nice place to go. However, when people go there now, it is modern—a place where someone can take their children for a day out. It holds modern office blocks. Essentially, it was part of the British Government’s urban development programme to regenerate particularly deprived and run-down areas of British inner cities, and it showed that when a Government have a political will, great things can happen.
The mission statement for the regeneration project was to put Cardiff on the international map. I am very pleased to say that it has done so, and not just with the Ryder cup 2010, held at Celtic Manor just down the road in Newport, or the recent NATO summit. The facilities in Cardiff—including Cardiff castle, where the President of the United States dined during that summit—really put Cardiff on the worldwide scene, and that is because of what is happening in the bay.
The five main aims and objectives identified in the regeneration project were as follows: first, to promote development and provide a superb environment in which people want to live, work and play. Having enjoyed some of the restaurants and the pubs—sometimes too much—I can say that it is certainly a place that I want to visit. My hon. Friends have encouraged the Minister to visit their areas in Merseyside, and I ask him to visit Cardiff Bay, not in an official capacity, but in a personal capacity, with his family. I think he would have a great day out there.
Secondly, the project aimed to reunite the centre of Cardiff with its waterfront, which is, of course, one of the focal features of the city. It has been used as a backdrop for many news programmes and as a filming location in programmes such as “Doctor Who”—unfortunately, a filming request for the new James Bond film, “Spectre”, was turned down.
The third aim was to bring forward a mix of development that would create a wide range of job opportunities and would reflect the hopes and aspirations of the communities of the area. Cardiff Bay is a melting pot; it brings together several cultures, like many dockland towns, such as those in Liverpool. I am glad to say that Cardiff Bay celebrates the integration and diversity that makes our country so great. Fourthly, the regeneration project aimed to achieve the highest standard of design and quality in all types of development and investment. Fifthly, it aimed to establish the area as a recognised centre of excellence and innovation in the field of urban generation.
Some of the significant achievements of the project included the construction of a barrage across the mouth of the bay to create a 200-hectare fresh water lake—I am glad to say that there are many boating trips on there now. There was the construction of new homes, including those at Atlantic Wharf, and the new offices at Crickhowell House, now the home of the National Assembly for Wales. The development also created commercial and leisure facilities, such as those at Mermaid Quay on the waterfront and the Atlantic Wharf leisure village. It is evident that investment in the regeneration of our towns and cities is vital for the most prosperous future. If somebody wants to see the beating heart of that, please visit Cardiff Bay.
My second example, from further afield, is Bedford-Stuyvesant. The change there was brought about by my great hero, Robert Kennedy, when, in 1964, he set in motion a round of legislative action that created the special impact programme, which was an amendment to the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964.
Kennedy called for the formation of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Renewal and Rehabilitation Corporation and the Development Services Corporation. Bedford-Stuyvesant, at that time, was a hotbed of crime and urban decay, and many of the brownstone houses that made up that beautiful community during the 1930s had fallen into disrepair. What Robert Kennedy outlined was a conceptual framework for a comprehensive and integrated community planning and development effort. His speech recognised that the efforts of community residents combined with those of the private sector and of Government could bring about economic, social and physical revitalisation of some of the most impoverished areas.
Robert Kennedy identified three critical threads, which I believe also link to Cardiff Bay: co-operation with the business community in self-sustaining, economically viable enterprises; integration of programmes for education, employment and community developments under a co-ordinated overall plan; and drive and direction to be given to those efforts by the united strength of the community, working with private foundations, unions and universities, in community development corporations organised for that purpose.
Many people wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South about her area; if there was the idea of a community development corporation that they could get involved in, I wonder whether they could put their ideas into practice. I see community development corporations, if they are taken up—again, with political will—as using the best expertise of business along with the activism of local communities.
Vital to this approach is the recognition that community development requires the direct participation and involvement of the community of residents. That means that however many Government schemes we have, and however much money is thrown at schemes by Government, they work only if there is buy-in from the communities themselves. That is not only in the decision making, but in the production, management and control of what is being produced. If people feel that a fruit and veg shop is needed in their shopping centre, that should be run as a food co-operative, or there should be some other way of bringing it about. However, that can be done only if we lower business rates and create the environment for it to come about.
The notion of community development connotes not only empowerment of residents, but the formation, development and maintenance of community-based institutions, including churches, schools, day care facilities for young and old, health centres, shops and recreational facilities. Thriving local economies are at the heart of a competitive UK economy, but development is needed to help towns and cities to meet their potential—from the quality and affordability of housing, to the mix of office space and the connectivity of transport links. Anyone who has walked down their high street and seen boarded-up buildings where shops once stood, or who is struggling to afford a decent home close to work, will grasp the scale of the challenge.
For too long, “regeneration” has been something of a dirty word. It is seen as something that Government deals with by throwing money at it. Some people will say that it is a waste of time—too big an effort. That is not helped by the fact that many grand projects have failed to deliver the benefits promised, and public funds have been wasted. But to me, regeneration matters; community and civic pride matters. For communities to thrive and prosper, people need to feel proud of where they are and where they come from. For the public, thriving local communities are about having the amenities that they need on their doorstep: leisure facilities, public services, good transport links and, most important of all, jobs. For businesses seeking to set up in towns and cities, the right environment can be the difference between success and stagnation.
We need a new approach to regeneration in which business, local authorities, central Government and local communities work together to deliver new homes and modern office space, rejuvenate our high streets and develop high-quality infrastructure to connect towns and cities. Even in the digital age, in which connections are increasingly made remotely, place, as well as a sense of being, still matters, providing somewhere to live and work and also the right connections to be able to get around.
According to a recent report conducted by the University of Plymouth, “The Failure of Regeneration Policy in Britain”, there are two main types of urban problem in the UK. The first is problem localities in prosperous cities. The second is depressed towns and cities. In both cases, and despite years of policy intervention, there is little evidence that the situation is improving. There are fundamental economic problems to be addressed on both the supply and the demand side. Preferences will have to be altered so that peripheral regions and problem areas become more desirable.
The changing balance of Government spending and the increased costs of motoring should be priorities. The first group involves the essentially prosperous economies of London, much of southern England and the provincial capitals of which Bristol is a glowing example. The second consists of locations that have struggling economies. They include former mining towns, which I represent, and centres of shipbuilding, which my hon. Friends represent.
The report draws the conclusion that the main solution seems to lie with education and training, design improvements, limited tax changes, proposals to clean up contaminated land, and targets for brownfield land and redevelopment. I think that the Government need to take a two-pronged approach. They need to look at the examples of Cardiff Bay and Bedford-Stuyvesant. Government will in Cardiff Bay has regenerated and rejuvenated that area. Community activism regenerated Bedford-Stuyvesant. At our best, this country does those things better than anybody else. I encourage the Government to promote these issues as best they can.
I would like to point out that I will be calling the Scottish National party spokesperson at 10 minutes past 5.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I shall be brief compared with my hon. Friends, but I do want to add a London perspective to this very important debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) on securing it. It is disappointing to see how empty the Government Benches are. If that reflects a lack of interest on the Government side in regeneration issues, it is a sad state of affairs. I am just making a statement of fact. People can compare the numbers; it is not difficult.
My hon. Friend mentioned the out-of-town areas that people have to have a car to access, and we heard about examples from the north-west and from Wales. I think that all these issues are linked together by the concept of suburbia. I am talking about the suburbs. Those areas are within our cities, so they are not the out-of-town retail parks, but they are on the edges. Often, places such as my own constituency, Ealing Central and Acton, were conceived around transport nodes, and I think that they are suffering under this Government. They were built as an ideal that was in-between the rural idyll and the big bad city; they were meant to be the best of all worlds. However, they can end up being forgotten, because unlike the real rural world, they do not have pressure groups such as the Countryside Alliance to fight their corner; and at the same time, they do not have the urban allure of the cities or the inner cities for regeneration initiatives. So in the end they can up being a bit forgotten and dismissed and derided by urban snobs, who see suburban dwellers such as me as people who live behind twitching net curtains, who live in places that are a bit out of the way: “You wouldn’t really want to go there.” There is that metropolitan snobbish attitude, I think, so I want to speak up for the suburbs in my short contribution to the debate.
Some estimates say that 80% of us now live in suburbs. However, they are always absent from the debate. People may remember that when the late Baroness Thatcher won her third election victory in 1987, her first reaction, probably looking at the electoral results, was to say, “We’ve got to do something about those inner cities.” Nobody ever said, “We’ve got to go to Acacia Avenue. The people there are hurting; they’re suffering.” However, I would contend that under this Government, there is a whole set of suburban problems that my constituents in Ealing Central and Acton face. I am talking about problems such as housing, which my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) mentioned. People face exorbitant housing costs. In my constituency, there are beds in sheds. That is a relatively new phenomenon. We also have delayed transitions—people in their 30s who are still living in the parental home. That is a suburban problem that people have in west London.
My hon. Friends who have contributed to this excellent debate—I restate that I think it is sad that there were not more Members from the Government side and, indeed, more Members from both sides of the House here—described the issue of hollowed-out high streets. That is in the face of rising business rates such that small businesses are collapsing, and we have seen more of a movement towards online transactions, so the idyllic suburbs are looking ugly with those empty shops. Also relevant are rising transport costs that become punitive, and derelict pubs. The public house was part of the suburban set-up, but more and more of those have gone.
Although suburbs are by definition peripheral zones, suburbs should be central to any future regeneration policies. We have heard time and again about urban taskforces that go, with their gung-ho attitudes, to spruce up areas. Is it not time to have a suburban taskforce to look at suburbia in this country?
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I thank the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) for calling the debate, which I have found most enlightening. It is a shame that Government Members are not here, particularly given that I, a Scottish Member, am here speaking in a debate largely about English towns.
In particular, I want to say that we can learn much from one another across these islands in the way we approach urban regeneration—in the way we approach our towns and cities. I am a Glasgow Member. Glasgow is a city, but it is also made up of villages all around it. We might not recognise them as such because they are close together, but they do have their own distinct feel and vibe, and people are very proud of where they come from even within a city the size of Glasgow. Cities that have suffered the long-term social impacts of deindustrialisation, such as Glasgow, share a lot with cities in England and Wales. That is a particular challenge, too.
I want to highlight a few things that Scotland has done thus far to make progress on urban regeneration that might be of interest to my colleagues here today. Regeneration is difficult. It requires sustained investment, long-term planning and commitment. It is not a project to be embarked on lightly or for short-term political gain; and it cannot be done successfully without working with local people and communities and being led and informed by what they want to see on their doorsteps.
Projects have failed. The Glasgow East Area Renewal in the 1980s failed for a number of reasons, but the main one was that the people locally did not see anything for them in that. It came; it went; and there was nothing left afterwards. I absolutely agree with what the hon. Member for Wirral South said about market failure in our towns and cities. When that happens, an intervention is needed, which will not come from the private sector; local government and national Government will have to work in partnership to turn things around. In Glasgow, in the area I represent, Clyde Gateway has been key not only to doing the difficult land remediation projects, but to regenerating parts of Bridgeton and Dalmarnock. Across the neighbouring constituency of Rutherglen and Hamilton West, a lot of difficult work has been done, and Clyde Gateway has stepped in to fill the void.
In the Communities and Local Government Committee yesterday, I listened with great interest to the Minister for Housing and Planning, who talked about investment in transport hubs. People do not live in transport hubs, in my experience; they live in towns and places, towards which they feel great affection. The Government need to consider the place of towns in people’s health and wellbeing, and their sense of self. If we do not recognise how important that is, we are setting ourselves up to fail.
Many sites around our cities remain boarded off; they do not have the required investment because of the market failure that has been mentioned. In Scotland, we have recognised that. The Scottish Government have undertaken a range of initiatives, particularly through the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, which supports the role of local communities in taking ownership of areas in cities and towns, as well as in rural areas. That could play a significant role in regenerating urban areas, bringing people in and changing how they feel about the areas in which they live. Instead of being frustrated that they cannot do anything about the situation, people can come together and buy out that area, or have an option on that land, so that they can do something with it.
The Scottish Government have a lot of strategy for town centres. They developed the “town centre first” principle in agreement with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. The town centre action plan was started in 2013 and followed up in 2014. The Scottish Government established an empty homes fund for town centres, because part of the problem is that if people move out, there is no one to support local shops and local businesses. Scotland has a £2.75 million fund for town centre housing and a £4 million empty homes fund, so local authorities and housing associations can start to change that around, fix the houses that have fallen into disrepair and bring people in to live in towns and cities. The small business bonus scheme supports small local businesses below a certain rateable value by exempting them from business rates so that they can stay put, and that helps to sustain them in difficult times.
The regeneration capital grant fund is being used in my constituency in an innovative way. The Barras market is world famous for various reasons, but it has seen better days, and regeneration capital grant funding will bring derelict floor space in the Barras market area back into use. Industrial buildings or buildings that once contained market stalls, but that have fallen into disrepair, are now being brought back into use. Various organisations, including artists’ organisations, are coming back into the area. That will have a positive impact and will bring more business and other things into the area.
May I ask the hon. Lady to address her remarks to the regeneration of towns and cities in England? She is coming to the end of her remarks, and they have been somewhat out of line with the motion.
Yes. I am interested in hearing about what is happening in towns in England, and I believe that some of the ideas from Scotland may be of use and of interest to other hon. Members. I would be more than happy to visit the constituencies of other hon. Members, and I encourage them to come to Glasgow or elsewhere in Scotland to see some of our initiatives. There is a lot going on.
I have great friends in Glasgow, and I visit often. I thank the hon. Lady for her invitation, and I extend a similar invitation in return.
I thank the hon. Lady and I will leave it at that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) on securing this debate on the Government’s failure to secure investment in regeneration in our town centres and district centres away from the main urban centres. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that she has done with the community in her constituency in supporting regeneration initiatives that have already had a big impact, such as the Port Sunlight river park, which I believe she helped to open, and the award-winning New Ferry farmers market, which certainly sounds as though it is worth a visit if hon. Members are in the vicinity of the Wirral.
My hon. Friend has also spoken, however, about many of the concerns that her local residents raise with her—the sight of empty shops blighting a previously thriving town centre; the lack of new investment in the area; a general sense of decline that people do not want to feel about the area where they live and bring up their families; and the general lack of opportunities, not only for young people who are growing up and will feel as though they cannot stay in the area but for adults who are already making their lives in such places.
We are not just talking about New Ferry; we have heard many examples from other parts of the country that are suffering in similar ways. We have heard from Cardiff and Liverpool about the success of their urban regeneration projects. Those projects are, on the whole, led by Labour councils that are doing a fantastic job, but the Government have denied them the tools that they need to do even more for the communities that they serve. No one has mentioned London yet, but London is not exempt from this problem.
I do apologise; of course my hon. Friend mentioned London. No one has mentioned south London, then. I will mention Croydon, which is, like Ealing, in outer London. Because of that, it feels forgotten sometimes. Even in an outer London borough, district centres such as Thornton Heath or South Norwood in my constituency also feel as though they have been forgotten by the main town centres in their boroughs.
I want to draw attention to three areas in which the Government could do better— first, cuts, funding and resources, secondly, the role of local enterprise partnerships and thirdly, devolution. The Government continue to ignore the unfair impact of the way in which they allocate funding across the country. Only last weekend, new figures showed that the reduction in councils’ spending power per head in the worst-off areas has been 10 times higher than in the wealthiest areas. It does not seem fair to penalise poorer areas. Doing so will push areas that are already struggling to succeed into a downward spiral, which does not benefit anybody. In the Wirral, there has been a cut of £228 per head of population in spending power since 2010, which is nearly nine times higher than the reduction in the least deprived parts of the country. How is that helping the Wirral to overcome the kinds of problems that my hon. Friend spoke about so eloquently in her opening contribution?
Let us turn to local enterprise partnerships. I speak as a former board member of London’s LEP, the London Enterprise Panel. LEPs could be much more effective than they are at the moment, but they need two things that they are not fully getting from the Government: a long-term commitment and the resources to do the jobs that they are looking at properly. Regional development agencies, which LEPs replaced, were able to make single three-year funding agreements that offered stability. LEPs, however, have access to far smaller overall budgets and many different funding pots, so they cannot combine them in ways that could be more helpful and beneficial to the communities that they serve.
Labour has proposed rationalising the LEPs where they do not properly reflect functioning regional economies. For instance, they should look at covering a travel-to-work area as an indicator of a regional economy rather than subdividing them as they do in some places, with the result that they cannot work effectively across the whole area. Government need to be much clearer about the core purpose of LEPs, because that would enable them to work much more effectively and build stronger partnerships with local authorities.
I will conclude by speaking about devolution. We believe strongly that powers should be removed from Westminster and handed to communities across the country, but we cannot do that in the piecemeal way attempted by the Chancellor. The Government cannot dump a one-size-fits all model on each part of the country and leave them to it. Devolution deals must properly reflect the different characteristics and needs of the area that they are being set up for. We need to ensure that, when the Government strike a deal with Liverpool, the needs of places on the fringes of that great city, such as New Ferry and Ellesmere Port, are not neglected. I look forward to the Minister addressing the many serious concerns that have been raised by Opposition Members, and I hope that he will reflect on what he has heard and conclude that the Government need to do a much better job.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I thank the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) for securing this important debate and giving me this opportunity to set out the Government’s vision for the future of our towns and cities.
I am passionate about high streets and town centres and their importance to our communities and local economies, so I was delighted to take on the portfolio for high streets, town centres and markets. We are at a critical moment for our town centres, and I am dedicated to giving local authorities, local enterprise partnerships and local communities access to the tools that they need to transform their local areas. The Government have made it clear that we wish to empower towns and cities to become real engines of growth, unleashing their full potential by placing power to make decisions locally in the hands of people who know those local areas best, and we have certainly started to do that. We have created 39 local enterprise partnerships, chaired by business leaders, covering the whole of England. We have delivered 28 city deals, which are revitalising the English regions by enabling private sector growth. And now we have the Chancellor’s vision for a northern powerhouse that will raise the growth rate of the north, which could be worth an extra £44 billion for the north by 2030. Clearly, the Wirral and Liverpool have a vital role to play in that vision.
There has been significant investment in the Wirral, which I will touch on when I answer some of the hon. Lady’s questions. There has been significant progress, because five years ago more than 1,300 people in the Wirral were claiming jobseeker’s allowance. That figure has now fallen to less than 700, which is less than half the number we inherited. We are not complacent, but that reduction represents significant progress.
High streets and town centres play a crucial role in our areas. They create future jobs and nurture small businesses. A recent Association of Town Centre Management report shows that town centres contribute nearly £600 billion to UK plc each year. Recent news has shown that high streets across the country are fighting back valiantly following the great recession. Recent data show positive footfall trends in most locations, and the national town centre vacancy rate fell to 9.8% in July 2015, which is the lowest reported since records began in July 2011. Year-on-year sales have increased for 28 consecutive months, which is the longest sustained period since 2008.
Where empty shops stubbornly remain, I recognise that they can blight town centres and bring down the general appearance, which is why I urge local authorities and landlords to think innovatively and look for meanwhile uses for such properties. Pop-up shops have provided a great stimulus in many towns and high streets, not only enabling entrepreneurs to get going but bringing people into town centres who are keen to see new, innovative traders. The Government have taken significant action to support town centres to weather the storm. Since 2010, the Government have helped to create 300 town teams and have given more than £18 million to towns, which includes funding and practical support in New Ferry in the hon. Lady’s constituency.
I think that the Minister is about to make my point for me. We had pop-up shops in New Ferry, and they did not work; we have a town team, and it does not work. What we need is capital, because the market in New Ferry is failing. Will the Minister please help us with resources?
I am coming on to those points. I am well aware that there are many structural issues facing many town centres, and there are many areas where, as the hon. Lady identifies, the stock of property is not conducive to 21st century use. There are many challenges, so this is probably a good point for me to address her questions. First, she mentioned the national planning policy framework. There is a strong “town centre first” policy in the NPPF, and areas such as Croydon, Swindon and Southampton are doing extremely well in ensuring that they are strong in relation to the “town centre first” policy. The chief planning officer wrote to all local authorities in February 2015 to reiterate the “town centre first” policy and to remind councils that they should pay due deference to this important policy.
The hon. Lady also mentioned the views of the Association of Convenience Stores. The association is extremely important, and I am meeting it this Friday, which I am sure she will be glad to hear. She made a fair point on out-of-town stores, but she and her fellow Opposition Members failed to mention online retailing, which has had a significant effect on town centres. She made an important point on regeneration.
Will the Minister give way?
Just bear with me, because I have very little time. The hon. Member for Wirral South made some important points, and I am doing an awful lot of work to try to introduce proposals on the issues that she mentioned. The structural problems faced by many areas, not just in the north but in pockets across the country, are significant. We need to look at those problems carefully, but we should not go back to the days of the failed regional development agencies. In my region—the west midlands—the RDA failed significantly, with fewer people employed in the private sector after the RDA finished than before it started. Gloucester is a good example of an area where the LEP is embracing its town and city centres. Gloucester city centre is benefiting from the LEP’s work, but we need to encourage the LEPs to take on board the challenges in our towns and city centres and work to support them.
The shadow Minister mentioned Government support, and Wirral South has had significant Government support. There was an £8.5 million investment in the Unilever Port Sunlight research and development project, and there is also the Wirral Waters enterprise zone, which I understand will be the largest regeneration project in the UK. Some Opposition Members fail to understand that these issues are complex. Although money is important in many situations, it is not the only solution. I am looking into the many challenges and working through the different issues that affect our town centres, and I am working with partners to try to secure solutions.
It was good to hear from the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans), who mentioned Cardiff. It would be good one day to go to see the regeneration that happened as a result of the work of Mrs Thatcher and Lord Heseltine back in the 1980s. The comments of the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) were reasonably negative, but I note that Pitshanger Lane in Ealing has been entered into the great British high street competition, which I welcome. I wish its supporters well in their efforts. The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) made the important point that the UK Government and the devolved Administrations need to work together on what works well and on best practice.
I find it difficult to accept the shadow Minister’s view on cuts. Before the general election, the Labour party said that it was going to cut local government, so it is difficult for him to say now that the Labour party would not do so. On spending power, the authorities that he mentioned generally have higher spending power than authorities such as the one in the area that I represent. I certainly do not want to go back from LEPs to RDAs, as he mentioned.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).