Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Iain Stewart.)
I thank Mr Speaker for granting this Adjournment debate. I want to discuss a matter that is very important to me, my constituents and all those in Merseyside, and that is the situation in New Ferry.
New Ferry is a small town that I represent, and it also happens to be the place where I live and where my office is. It is very important to all my constituents. I am glad to say that the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), has visited New Ferry, which we were grateful for. Nearly two years ago the town suffered a most terrible explosion.
At just after 9 o’clock on a Saturday evening on 25 March, there was a huge blast. This is an ongoing matter before the courts, so I will not discuss the specifics of the explosion, but I want to say a few words about New Ferry as a place. The Minister knows New Ferry, as he has visited it, but many others will not be aware of what it is like. I want to talk about the response to that explosion, the situation we are now in and the rebuilding of New Ferry, and ask the Minister some questions.
New Ferry is a small town on the Wirral peninsula in Merseyside. It is just south of Birkenhead. For many years, it was a place where ferries stopped, hence its name; long ago, the Mersey ferries stopped there. It was a town where people would go shopping. There used to be a number of hotels and other historic buildings, but over time, the ferries ceased calling there, and it just became a place where people would go to shop. This will be a familiar story. As with lots of our high streets up and down the country, the change in New Ferry has been significant, particularly over the past 20 years. The onset of out-of-town shopping and then the impact of the internet has hit New Ferry just as it has hit many other places.
Before the blast two years ago, we already had a big challenge in New Ferry. We had used the coalition Government’s initiative of having a town team to try to get more shops into New Ferry and more events happening that would bring people into the town centre. Local people put lots of effort into that. We had arts and cultural events in New Ferry, but nothing really stuck because the quality of many buildings was very poor, as it is now. It was hard to get small businesses to use those buildings and bring them back to life.
The place was crying out for investment, and then two years ago we had the terrible event of the huge explosion. The community was struggling with the fact that the place they loved and had grown up in was no longer somewhere they could go shopping to buy fruit and veg or a loaf of bread. Lots of businesses had closed down already. Major supermarkets had left, and we had seen the last bank in the town close.
I had already been campaigning for regeneration when the blast happened. As I said, I am not able to talk about the details because of the legal situation. However, I want to put this on the record. As the Minister knows, the blast was extraordinarily traumatic for the area. It had a big impact on people. One of the frustrations that people in New Ferry feel is that although, in the aftermath of the blast, they were listened to and people saw the pain that had been caused, the response has been too little and too slow. I turn now to that response.
After the blast, there was a question about whether Wirral Council would apply for the Bellwin scheme, but it was advised not to apply for funding from that scheme because the response required at that time did not hit the £500,000 threshold. There is a problem because, as I understand it, the rules of the scheme stipulate that the assessment of funds needed under the scheme had to be completed within four weeks. However, the site was completely unsafe, and it remained out of bounds for reasons of investigation for six weeks. In my opinion, the council was not properly in control of the scene, and it was not able to do what it would have needed to do under the Bellwin scheme. That was a problem, and it has been quite difficult to find out more about whether there are any exemptions under the scheme, or how this could be reopened.
I was glad that, in September 2018, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government received a delegation from New Ferry in his office here, and he listened carefully to what my constituents said. Unfortunately, in the letter he wrote to us after that meeting, he said that no change in the Government’s approach would be forthcoming, and that they were still not prepared to look again at the issue of the Bellwin scheme. That is really hard for my constituents to take. Given the level of cuts to Wirral Council, the situation that New Ferry was already in and the fact that it is really struggling, the idea that Wirral council tax payers should just pick up the entirety of the bill for what happened in New Ferry, through no fault of the people there, is one that my constituents find very difficult to understand. I am sure that the Minister will wish to comment on that.
I want to talk about the rebuilding of New Ferry. As I have said, the place needed regeneration long before the blast. It was crying out for it. I had spent hours and hours in meetings with potential developers—such as the Co-op supermarket, which owns one of the buildings—desperately trying to say to people that this could be a great place if they would be prepared to invest in it. Unfortunately, there has never been significant regeneration capital from the Government for New Ferry, and that has held the place back because commercial organisations must feel that it is too big a risk. It has always needed the state to step in, and that has never happened. It is happening now in a small way, but my complaint is that it is not being done quickly enough and we really need to see progress, because people in New Ferry are losing faith in that ever happening.
This is the situation as it is today. Homes England, which the Government charge with regeneration, has now spent about £100,000 on a plan and a study of how the rebuild should happen, but that means that we are still—two years on—only in the planning stage. I think most people, and certainly most people in Merseyside who drive through New Ferry, think it is actually a bit ridiculous that we have not been able to move this on faster. I really want to say to the Minister: this has got to happen more quickly.
The consultation options are out there, and people are talking about them. I would like to support an option that has been put forward by traders and residents that would see more rejuvenation of the town centre. They want better parking arrangements, which will help with the footfall, and units of different sizes, so that we are not just reliant on big business coming in to rescue New Ferry, but can have small and developing businesses too, and I support that.
The city region is also trying to step in and help. Applications have been made to the town centre fund from the Liverpool city region. That is a really positive option that could help us with the town centre and make sure that we still keep a commercial heart, not just become a dormitory area. I think I know what the Minister is going to say, which is that we should rely on what the Liverpool city region is doing. I know that the Minister supports devolution, as I do, and that is fine.
I support Liverpool too.
We both support Liverpool, and we both support devolution—but it is not really a good enough answer. When, through no fault of its own, Salisbury experienced terrible events that damaged its prosperity and possibilities, the Government found £2.5 million to assist it. I and my constituents, and indeed the public at large, do not understand why such support was not found for New Ferry. Put simply, if such resources could be allocated to New Ferry, rather than needing permanently to be bid for, asked for, or cobbled together from different sources, we could get that regeneration and rebuild under way. That is why it is slow. The Government have all the resources of the Treasury, and they could help people in New Ferry today.
I am grateful that the Minister came to meet people, and that the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government met my constituents, but that is not enough because we need actions, not just people listening. Will the Minister answer a simple question today? Can he commit capital, so that when we have finished the consultation on what the rebuild will look like, we will know that those plans will happen, and that we will not be stuck in the permanent state that I—and before me my predecessor, Ben Chapman—have been stuck in, with constant bidding rounds where money never comes forward? The plans are there, but they never seem to be realised to allow people to see the prospects of our town changing. That is what people want. They do not want any more plans and consultations; they want action.
In conclusion, across the road from my office in New Ferry is a block of derelict shops. Every time I walk to my office, I walk past those shops and I think about the impotence of politics, and about the lack of care and attention for the ordinary considerations of British people. The Minister knows this already, but I repeat that if he thinks I will ignore the dereliction and lack of care and attention in the town of New Ferry, or that I will stop coming to the House to badger the Government and ask them to do more, and to request action that is quicker and has more effect, he is wrong. Nobody in New Ferry will ever give up on the place that we love and care about. I will never give up asking the Minister, so he might as well just say yes today.
The hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) has made an impassioned plea on behalf of her constituents, and I pay tribute to her for her tenacity and for the regularity with which she has brought this important issue to the House. Her constituents should be proud of the service that she offers as a constituency Member of Parliament who cares passionately about the community she represents.
As the hon. Lady said, I visited New Ferry a couple of months after the initial explosion, and nobody who has been there—the hon. Lady visits every week when she walks to her office—could be anything other than moved by the devastation caused by the explosion. She is right to say that today we should not get into the details of how that explosion may have happened. There will, I hope, be a day of reckoning regarding the cause of the explosion, but it will not be today.
Immediately after the event the Government, as with all such incidents, deployed one of our liaison teams—we call it a RED team, as it covers resilience, emergencies and disasters—to work with Wirral Council and consider how to support it. The hon. Lady mentioned a good meeting with the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, and residents and business owners from her area. She says that she will not ignore any dereliction of duty and that she will keep on fighting. I am sure that after that meeting she, like me, went away and reflected on the fact that in some areas Wirral Council had failed to react correctly and speedily enough on behalf of its constituents. It had a hardship fund at the time that could have been accessed, but it was not. I know a hardship fund has now been made available. At the time of the explosion, despite what the hon. Lady says about local authorities up and down the country being hard pushed in terms of public finances—and I accept that Wirral Council is one of them—the council did have some £68 million in unallocated reserves.
As well as pushing me on the Government’s response, I hope that the hon. Lady will continue to push Wirral Council. In the very moving meeting we held with the Secretary of State, it was absolutely clear that people felt that the initial response—what people often talk about immediately after such disasters—had simply not been good enough from Wirral Council, despite the support from the Government and the resilience and emergency division. There may be lessons for the Government to learn—I will come on to some of the ways in which we will continue to support the people of New Ferry—but there are also lessons for the local authority to learn. I will leave my remarks there, but if the hon. Lady would like to talk to me about that after this debate, I will happily do so privately.
The hon. Lady is absolutely correct to say that the regeneration of the site has been slower than any of us would have hoped for. Following my visit in June 2017, I immediately asked Homes England to make £100,000 available to work jointly with the local authority on a regeneration plan. Those plans, by their very nature, are complicated and take some time to work up. There was, however, a significant delay on that plan coming back to Government with any request for support.
I welcome the work that has been undertaken. There has been an opportunity for local residents to ensure that their views are heard. The council, in conjunction with Homes England, is now evaluating the comments from the feedback sessions that were held in New Ferry. Work is ongoing to find a preferred residential mix-use development for New Ferry. I recognise what the hon. Lady says about the challenge facing high streets up and down the country. She makes the point extremely well that any regeneration in New Ferry must be of that mixed residential and commercial use for it to continue to be sustainable. In parallel to that, Wirral Council is planning to invest £1.3 million to start the land assembly of the New Ferry site, which will enable that exciting regeneration to take place.
On Government support, the hon. Lady has campaigned tirelessly to support the residents and businesses affected. She talks about the Salisbury nerve agent attack, an appalling national and international incident that saw the murder and attempted murder of people by foreign actors on British soil, and the support the Government made available to the people of the city of Salisbury. Such support is normally dealt with through a Bellwin scheme. The hon. Lady correctly says that the Bellwin scheme is for expenditure by Wirral Council, which is currently in excess of £495,000. At the time the discussions were taking place, Wirral Council estimated that it had spent only £400,000.
I would point out that following the explosion—the hon. Lady is absolutely correct—the site was in the hands of Merseyside police, who were, quite correctly, gathering evidence about any criminal acts that may or may not have happened on that site as part of the explosion. It was handed back over to Wirral Council on 6 April. Although there was some delay in the council gaining control of the site, there was ample time and it was well within the Bellwin scheme qualifying period. It may have been apparent to the local authority at the time that it would not be successful in putting forward a claim, but it is simply not correct to say that it did not get control of the site within the claim period. I understand that Wirral Council has agreed to set aside funding for individual residents and business owners who have suffered considerable financial hardship in the period following the explosion, and I welcome that.
I shall now turn to what help the Government can, and I hope will, provide to the residents of New Ferry. I understand that a bid of some £5 million has been made to the Mayor of Liverpool City Region’s town centre fund. That is, of course, Government money that is part of the gain share that gets paid to the city. I hope that Steve Rotheram, former Member of this House and Mayor of Liverpool City Region, will look with favour upon the application along the lines of the plan that has jointly been worked up with the Homes and Communities Agency.
The Minister describes the city region funding as “Government money”. In some sense, we can describe anything that comes from the Treasury as Government money, but if New Ferry is not helped directly by the Government, that city region development money that was there for the purposes of rebalancing our economy is effectively doing the work that the Government should be doing in this shocking and terrible event. It is simply not acceptable to the people of New Ferry that they should have to bid to a fund that is there for general economic development.
For a start, I am sure that the hon. Lady would agree that there is actually no such thing as Government money. It all belongs to all of us as taxpayers. I gently point out—I did so in my opening remarks, and I do not want to get in a war of words about this—that at the time of the explosion, Wirral Council had tens of millions of pounds in reserves, which was money paid in by Wirral taxpayers over a period. In her speech, the hon. Lady, who has been in Parliament since 2010—we came in together—talked about the need for regeneration of this site under her predecessor’s term as the Member of Parliament. She talked about how in her entire time in Parliament—nine years in total—she has been campaigning for the redevelopment of this site. Although, as she points out, the explosion has taken something from being “important” to “urgent”—and that is absolutely correct—it is an area that would, I hope, have been the recipient of regeneration funds from the Liverpool city region in any event. However, I accept that this explosion has taken it from being important to urgent. I do not think that anyone could deny that.
More widely, there is the future high streets fund, which was announced at the last Budget. It is open for bids of exactly this type, looking at a wider high street and town regeneration plan. The plan is already in existence. The expression of interest for the future high streets fund has to be in by 22 March. The hon. Lady said, I think, “bid, bid and bid again”. With the future high streets fund, we have ensured that the expression of interest round is very light touch. I am aware of the bidding fatigue in local authorities—in fact, it affects my authority in Lancashire—so we have tried to ensure that the first round of bidding for the future high streets fund is at a very low bar to enable local authorities to access it without unnecessary expense. Working up that bid to the second phase—if areas are successful in that competitive fund—is revenue-funded, so the Government will pay for and support the bid, working it up with the local authority.
I gently mention to the hon. Lady that I hope that, using her influence, she may be able to persuade Wirral Council to bring New Ferry forward as its preferred bidder for the future high streets fund. As she rightly says, it has made significant progress with the Homes and Communities Agency, looking at wider regeneration. In that fund, there is the possibility of fast-track funding for areas that already have a plan to deliver for their area. The intention is that the capital element of the fund could be spent this year, so if New Ferry were successful, either by being fast-tracked or by getting into the second round, it would mean that support could be available from central Government this year as part of our desire to invest in our high streets up and down the country and see wider regeneration.
Finally I shall turn to the public support available from central Government. In addition to the Mayor’s fund and the future high streets fund, this week we announced the stronger towns fund, which involves a wider regeneration package that could encompass New Ferry, Port Sunlight and other areas and looks at how, on a town deal basis, areas could pull together a wider bid to Government. That is more long term and may not lend itself as well to this redevelopment, which, as the hon. Lady said, has gone from important to urgent, but it is available. In terms of Government support, however, the future high streets fund, which is a competitive fund, albeit with a light-touch bidding scenario, is probably the way to go.
Finally, I want to talk about the importance of devolution. The Liverpool city region, which I know well, having been born and brought up in the city of Liverpool, is really changing the conversation around politics. The hon. Lady is an exemplar of that. She, quite rightly, is fighting like hell for her constituents. I have huge admiration for it. It is evident in the way she brings this debate back to the House of Commons and has meetings with the Secretary of State. It is clear that she will never ever give up, as she says.
I think that devolution is part of that and I am very pleased to be part of a Government who have taken real power, money and influence and returned it to the people of Merseyside. I hope that with the Mayor’s gain share fund and the opportunities for redevelopment it will also deliver for the people of New Ferry, who I know the hon. Lady will continue to work for.
Question put and agreed to.