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Levelling-up Fund: Rother Valley

Volume 695: debated on Thursday 13 May 2021

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

I feel privileged to rise to discuss the levelling-up fund and its crucial role in the regeneration of Rother Valley’s high streets. It offers local authorities the opportunity to bid for up to £20 million of investment in projects that benefit the whole community.

Rother Valley has been identified as a priority 1 area, meaning that a strong bid submitted by Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council could be rewarded with a grant of the full £20 million. Additionally, the Government have allocated £125,000 to enable RMBC to put together its bid and have assured the council that if its first bid, in June, is not successful, it can reapply in the future. There is no doubt in my mind that a project to regenerate my constituency’s high streets would have the biggest impacts on the greatest number of people.

I will use this opportunity to discuss the transformative potential of the levelling-up fund and the levelling-up agenda in Rother Valley. I and many Members of this House were swept to victory in December 2019 as a result of the historical neglect of constituencies by a complacent Labour party. People felt left behind, disenfranchised and ignored, and they decided to bring about change. The local elections last week show that this sentiment remains as strong today as it was then. I point to the results in my area of Rotherham, where the Conservative party surged from zero councillors to an incredible 20 councillors, breaking Labour’s decades-long stranglehold on the area in the process.

Why does the Conservative party enjoy such strong support among people in Rother Valley and similar communities across our country? There can be no doubt that a core element of our appeal is our levelling-up agenda. We can no longer allow our areas to decline and fade into obscurity. To remain a great, forward-looking nation, we must build back better and level up in all four corners of our United Kingdom. Levelling up resonates with the residents of Rother Valley because they want to be able to see with their own eyes tangible evidence of progress and real proof that their lives are being improved.

For my part, I am working tirelessly to ensure that Rother Valley collects every single penny of central Government funding. Today’s debate joins a petition presented to Parliament recently as yet another way of doing just that. I am sure the Minister agrees with me that Rother Valley is now known in Parliament and Whitehall in a way that it simply was not before the last general election. My job is to be the cheerleader for my area, and I always want to shout the loudest when it comes to representing my constituents.

I will address first the repeated shortcomings of the Labour-led council in looking after the towns and village of Rother Valley. For years, hundreds of millions of pounds of investment have been funnelled into the centre of Rotherham for white elephant schemes such as the redevelopment of Forge Island, while the rest of the borough has been completely ignored. Another example is the towns fund, which only benefits Rotherham central and not Rother Valley. Often, it seems that the Labour-led RMBC is a council for Rotherham town proper, as opposed to its adjacent hinterlands, and there is a fundamental issue with how RMBC approaches areas such as Rother Valley. It is not just that we do not receive any investment, but that there are few plans in place for these areas. The lack of development plans is particularly extraordinary when one considers that Labour has controlled RMBC since time immemorial. There were no council plans in place for Rother Valley’s high streets, and everyone in Rother Valley has known that for years.

To fill the vacuum left by RMBC, parish and town councils have had to adopt neighbourhood plans to plug the gaps. Dinnington has just adopted its plan, and Maltby and Wickersley are in the process of devising their own. However, as commendable as our town and parish councils’ work has been, individual and disparate neighbourhood plans are no replacement for a joined-up co-ordinated approach across the constituency, and our towns and parish councils recognise that fact. Their efforts cannot begin to match RMBC’s financial resources and capabilities with regard to economic feasibility studies and planning law. Of course neighbourhood plans have their role in the context of the building of new homes in existing communities, but they cannot be expected to imitate an overarching vision and a strategy for our area. We need RMBC to lead on this by adopting an ambitious masterplan for Rother Valley’s high streets and to work with town and parish councils to integrate their neighbourhood plans into a wider, unified scheme for the constituency.

Of course, it is not just RMBC that is responsible for the lack of plans in place for Rother Valley. The Labour-run Sheffield City Region has the power to transform Rother Valley’s transport, to fund large infrastructure projects and to boost businesses and local skills—all with central Government funding. As a key part of the Sheffield metropolitan area, we should be benefitting from devolution, but very little comes our way. Whether it is RMBC’s obsession with Rotherham town or Sheffield City Region’s fixation with Sheffield city, we lose out time and time again.

The impact of this neglect by the Labour-run local authority on Rother Valley’s high streets and our communities is stark. I shall take Maltby as an example, although much the same could be said of Dinnington, Thurcroft and towns across my constituency. In Maltby, a staggering 8% of residents are unemployed, 32% of households do not own a car, and travel time to the nearest town centre via public transport averages 42 minutes. Broadband speeds are almost half the England average, and the community needs score for Maltby is 167, compared with just 68 in England as a whole, indicating reduced community cohesion and civic connectivity.

Those disturbing statistics highlight how the chronic lack of investment in Rother Valley’s high streets means that areas such as Dinnington, Maltby, Thurcroft and Kiveton Park risk withering on the vine under Labour’s watch. That cannot be the fate of our wonderful towns, and I shall not stand for it.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

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

These are towns with immense potential, filled to bursting with warm, friendly, talented people. It is not the case that these are not great places; I can assure the House that they are some of the finest communities in our United Kingdom. However, in order to thrive they must be given a fair chance. That is all we are asking for—nothing more, nothing less. For the people of Rother Valley, this is the true meaning of the levelling-up agenda: ensuring that we have the same chances that are afforded to towns in Surrey and Oxfordshire, or to neighbourhoods in London.

First, it is important that RMBC ensures that money is allocated to rejuvenate all high streets, not just those of Dinnington, Maltby and Thurcroft. We must level up in every corner of Rother Valley, including Kiveton Park, Waverley, Aughton, Whiston, Wickersley, Aston, Todwick, Treeton, Wales, Anston, Swallownest and all our wonderful communities. RMBC must work with these areas and with me to embrace localism and deliver on these communities’ priorities. There cannot be a top- down approach, and RMBC must not decide unilaterally what is needed in our areas.

In Dinnington, I have been in extensive discussions with Dinnington Community Land Trust and Dinnington St John’s Town Council regarding what is needed to regenerate the high street. The sheer number of boarded-up, burnt-out and abandoned buildings is disheartening. Both organisations raise the point that Dinnington was for many years the area’s main commercial centre. It had a broad range of shops as well as banks, a post office, a cinema, a theatre and the other commercial outlets that one would expect in a busy local town.

With money from the levelling-up fund, there are great possibilities for renewal on Dinnington’s high street. There has always been a market in Dinnington, but over the years it has decreased in size and importance due to lack of vision from the council and poor-quality facilities for vendors and customers. Yet it remains the only traditional market for many miles and still enjoys a good following on market days. It needs rethinking in order to give a 21st-century offering to its customers and vendors, with specialist vendors encouraged to set up in the market area to win back customers who travel to Sheffield for products they cannot currently buy at Dinnington market. My constituents will know how important an improved access road into Dinnington is in order to facilitate that inward flow.

The presence of Tesco and Aldi attracts up to 1,200 shoppers each day to the centre of Dinnington, and pre-pandemic up to 200 people visited for performances at the Lyric Theatre. We need to ensure that those people stay on the high street, by way of an attractive and well-defined pedestrian route, such as a “town centre gateway” through Constable Lane; a complete rebuild of the indoor and outdoor market; and support for more restaurants and bars along the street to encourage a vibrant night-time economy.

The levelling-up fund must support business owners to renovate their shop frontages and tackle the preponderance of unsightly shutters. Similarly, Dinnington’s high street is currently maintained by little more than one man and his brush. A small investment in street cleaners and waste bins would clean up our town centre and make it a more pleasant place to visit. Equally worth considering is a fully pedestrianised high street, which would tackle speeders and joyriders, and allow vendors to spread out into the high street, permitting trees, street furniture, monuments and seating to be strategically placed in order to create a more open feel. We must not forget our heritage, either, so it is important that some money is allocated to a local history centre on the high street, which would pay tribute to our miners and serve as a destination for local schools and community groups.

Those needs and wants are echoed on high streets across Rother Valley. In Maltby, we need to preserve the historic and iconic Maltby Grammar School building and endow it with a new purpose. Likewise, Coronation Park needs a comprehensive revamp. My constituents would like to see a nod to Maltby’s glory days, with any rejuvenation efforts paying tribute to the town’s mining heritage, textile industry, brickworks, library and picture house. Traffic congestion on the high street is a serious problem, with RMBC taking no steps to address the promised motorway bypass, and in fact building more and more new houses without taking mitigating measures.

We need to make Maltby High Street a destination once again. That means clearing up the broken glass and introducing frequent sweeps of the road; supporting lots of new shops and restaurants; improving the road between Maltby and Dinnington; and ensuring that our high street complements local attractions such as Roche Abbey and our beautiful countryside and villages. Furthermore, we urgently need a reliable, frequent and fast bus link between Maltby and Dinnington, with the network extending throughout Rother Valley. It is a disgrace that we do not have that direct bus link in the constituency.

In Thurcroft, the parish council has suggested that initial improvements with levelling-up fund money could include the renewal of bollards, street furniture, litter bins, new street management and the creation of additional shop units on adjacent land. Likewise, the Aston Parish Council recommended that Swallownest High Street, Rose Garth Avenue in Aston and Aughton Main Street urgently need funding for the return of the lengthsman who cleaned the streets three times a week, alongside more dustbins, street furniture, footpath repairs and an increased police presence.

In Kiveton Park and Wales, residents wish to see the levelling-up fund used to renew the roads and pavements, spruce up the existing shops, finance more dustbins and street cleaning—yes, there is a theme—and back the introduction of flower boxes and grass verges, as well as facilitating the drainage of the Kiveton Park football club fields. On Whiston High Street, we must take measures to safeguard against flooding in order to protect homes and businesses.

Vandalism and antisocial behaviour are a scourge on all our high streets as well. We need the levelling-up fund money to be spent on CCTV, street lighting and crime prevention measures, which will dovetail with my campaign to persuade the Labour police and crime commissioner to have a police base on Dinnington and Maltby high streets.

In the light of this consultation with my towns, and with the title of the debate in mind, how will regenerating high streets in Rother Valley lead to better outcomes for my area and my residents? It is important to understand the role of the high street in Rother Valley. Our high streets are not just the centre of our towns, but the very heart and soul of our community. They are a reflection of who we are as the people of Rother Valley— our heritage, our character and our aspirations—and serve as an illustration of the pride we have in our local area. And we are a proud people: proud of our industrial and mining past, which forms the foundation of every town; proud of our “roll our sleeves up and get the work done” attitude, which encapsulates our straightforward and uncomplaining nature; and proud of our ambition and talent, which we combine with our warm-hearted and friendly demeanour. That is who the people of Rother Valley are, and accordingly, we deserve high streets that match up to our rich history and our bright future.

That is why it is an absolute priority that the levelling-up fund money is used to regenerate Rother Valley’s high streets. We want to create the new high streets of the future, ensuring that they are the “places to be” and the “places to live”. This mixed usage will see provision for housing, health, business and transport, where residents can shop, work, access vital services and spend their leisure time. This funding really will transform our constituents’ lives, spreading jobs and opportunities throughout Rother Valley. It is clear that a prosperous high street means a prosperous town and a prosperous community.

I recently visited the regeneration project in Waverley, where there are plans to build a new, thriving, modern high street for the communities who live there, and I must say it sounds very impressive. There is no doubt in my mind that the principles being followed to build Waverley’s new high street must be applied to our historic high streets across Rother Valley: keeping residents local by ensuring that they have the amenities they need; building good transport links; clamping down on crime; and prioritising high-quality local employment and education.

Of course, the rejuvenation of our high streets with levelling-up fund grants will build on the work that I have undertaken to level up Rother Valley since I was elected. Recently, I presented a petition to Parliament on levelling up our area’s high streets that has been signed by over 1,800 constituents, and I have fought ceaselessly in the House for access to the levelling-up fund and increased investment for Rother Valley generally. The co-chairman of the Conservative Party—the Minister without Portfolio, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling)—and the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government visited me on Dinnington High Street to support and discuss my high streets campaign, and over the past year, I have taken countless meetings with parish and town councils, constituents and RMBC concerning what Rother Valley needs most.

I have sponsored debates in my campaign to bring high-quality renewable energy jobs to our towns—for example, focusing on the hydrogen and critical minerals industries. I have vocally opposed fracking, which would degrade our communities at the expense of fossil fuel companies. I have stood against High Speed 2, which would cost huge sums of money for a project that destroys our landscapes and homes for no benefit to us, when we need the investment to be spent on transport locally. I have championed the reopening of the South Yorkshire joint railway to connect our towns and villages. I have led a bus campaign as part of the Rother Valley transport task force, as well as convening the Rother Valley rural crime task force calling for the reopening of police stations to make our towns and villages safer. I have also spoken out against CISWO’s sale of our community assets, which have been paid for by miners and should have remained open for residents to enjoy. All of that work is part of my vision for safer, prosperous high streets and a truly levelled-up Rother Valley.

As I draw to a close, I am pleased that RMBC has noted my petition, and now agrees with me that high streets need to be prioritised in this bid. I ask the Minister to urge RMBC to level up for all our communities and for all the people in Rother Valley, by restoring our high streets to their former glory and making them a place of pride once again. The levelling up fund will be life-changing, and I look forward to seeing that change on Rother Valley’s high streets in the months and years to come.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) on securing this hugely important debate. Since his hugely important and historic election result in December 2019, he has shown his passion and determination to secure the brightest possible future for his constituents. He has been a true cheerleader for the Rother Valley, as he has demonstrated today, championing the local issues that he has outlined, like Dinnington high street through the impressive 1,800-signature petition that he submitted to Parliament; like his campaigning on high streets with the Minister without Portfolio, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling); like his work on bringing net zero jobs to his constituency; like the numerous meetings he has held with his local council, with businesses and with stakeholders to ascertain and understand their levelling-up priorities, to ensure that those can be reflected properly to central Government.

My hon. Friend has already spearheaded the work to regenerate Swallownest High Street in addition to his work on saving Maltby’s grammar school building. I commend him for all his work as lead sponsor for a South Yorkshire joint railway, through the Department for Transport’s restoring your railway fund, which looks to reinstate the connection between Worksop and Doncaster, which includes a number of stops in my hon. Friend’s constituency. The revised bid has been submitted and DFT is currently assessing it; I expect that the Department will be announcing that before the summer. These are hugely important achievements to his constituency and his constituents, and I commend him for his work.

My hon. Friend aptly described the challenges and potential of many local high streets as lifelines for our communities, particularly over the past year, while so many people have had to base themselves at home and had to shop local in their high streets. They have been vital sources of jobs, prosperity, local pride, local identity and community and have great potential to be even stronger local assets than they are now.

The towns and villages of Rother Valley are rich in history, from their ancient beginnings to their proud industrial heritage. I remember very well my hon. Friend’s maiden speech, in which he explained how his constituents’ hard work, skills and resourcefulness are forged into the very heart of our democracy: the Palace of Westminster was rebuilt from limestone transported here from the quarries of Anston. However, of course we completely recognise that over more recent decades, the pace of industrial and economic change has created new challenges and barriers to growth, prosperity and social mobility in places such as Rother Valley. These challenges, which my hon. Friend has outlined, are the reason why levelling up is crucial to our vision, and why we have set out a clear commitment to unlock economic prosperity across all parts of the country.

Our landmark White Paper on levelling up will be published later this year. That will lay out bold new policies that will improve opportunity, support businesses and high streets and boost livelihoods across the country, including of course in Rother Valley. Levelling up is about providing the momentum to address precisely those long-standing local inequalities that my hon. Friend has so clearly articulated, and providing the means for people to pursue life chances that have previously been out of reach. We are backing up these levelling-up ambitions with considerable funding, helping to unlock the investments most needed in our communities—the investments that our constituents want to see—particularly as we support places to recover and build back better from the pandemic.

The spending review in November 2020 announced £27 billion of investment in transport, energy and digital communications to help level up the entire country. Through the restart scheme we are providing a further £5 billion to specifically help businesses, including on the high street, which my hon. Friend talked so passionately about, as the covid-19 restrictions are lifted. In April we launched our £56 million welcome back fund, from which my hon. Friend’s council has received £470,000. That builds on our reopening high streets safely scheme, which has been supporting councils and businesses across the country, helping ensure a safe return to the high street. The high streets taskforce will also be providing expert advice to a number of towns around the country, including visiting local towns alongside stakeholders. That will be followed up by ongoing, continued support that can help the wider area, including through planning, advice, training and workshops. I am pleased to confirm that Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council covers one of the areas that will receive that tailored support; I am sure that it will work with my hon. Friend to deliver it in the places that he names, such as Dinnington and Maltby.

That targeted support for councils and their high streets comes on top of the extra local government support that has been received by local authorities this year, not only through the finance settlement, but in the covid grants. We have provided more than £9 billion directly to councils across the country, including more than £46 million for Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council, of which more than £24 million has been un-ringfenced so that the council can spend it on local priorities such as supporting the high streets and economic regeneration, as my hon. Friend outlined.

Our reforms of the planning system are also set to further unleash the power and potential of local high streets by removing eyesores, transforming unused buildings and making the most of brownfield land. There will be more freedom to allow outdoor markets and dining, and longer opening hours. We will make it easier to change the uses of buildings, to keep our town centres vibrant and to support more thriving businesses. In total, approximately £25 billion has been transferred from Government to businesses through covid support grants during the pandemic. Across South Yorkshire, that amounts to more than £487 million in support for businesses through local authorities, and more than £177 million for businesses in Rotherham.[Official Report, 17 May 2021, Vol. 695, c. 4MC.]

Our £520 million Help to Grow scheme, announced in the Budget, will also provide help to small businesses right across the country to learn skills, reach new customers and boost their opportunity and reach, while the furlough scheme continues to protect those workers who are most affected by the ongoing impacts of the pandemic as we successfully move through our road map towards the reopening of local economies.

My hon. Friend talked about levelling up and the levelling-up fund. The White Paper on levelling up will be a natural continuation of our commitment to support local places, building in particular on the £4.8 billion levelling-up fund, which was announced in the last spending review and will allow local areas right across the country to invest in infrastructure that improves everyday life. That will include regenerating town centres, upgrading local transport networks and investing in cultural heritage assets—exactly the kinds of project that my hon. Friend talked about.

The prospectus that we published for the levelling-up fund in March explained how we are welcoming bids from all parts of the country, but we have also been clear on the areas of the country that have the highest category of need, based on the fund’s priority themes of economic recovery, improved transport connectivity and regeneration. As my hon. Friend correctly points out, Rother Valley, within the Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council area, is in the highest category of need. Councils in category 1, such as Rotherham, will benefit from £125,000 of capacity funding to help them to work up their bids for the fund.

We have also recognised explicitly, through the levelling-up fund prospectus, the crucial role that local Members of Parliament can play in championing the interests of their constituents and communities, and in understanding the local priorities. That is why we expect bidding authorities to fully consult their MPs as part of the process; I am pleased to hear that my hon. Friend’s council has been doing so and working with him on his priorities alongside other businesses and stakeholders in the area. MPs can officially endorse one of the bids by writing in and can support other bids in the usual way. This is a hugely important part of the bidding process; it is a positive role for MPs in helping to shape the bids and perhaps in acting as a local broker for consensus on what the area really needs. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for all his work on that alongside his council.

On 30 April we published some updated information to clarify a number of issues for all bidding authorities and respond to some common questions, which will help to address some of the issues that my hon. Friend raised about the type of bids that can be submitted. It provides further guidance on, for instance, how up to three projects can be presented as part of a package of proposals within one bid. He referenced multiple projects that he would like to consider alongside his council and other stakeholders for that bid.

Later this year, we will set out more detail about future rounds of the levelling-up fund and how it will work from 2022. While I cannot comment on the specific merits of any of the emerging proposals that he is working on alongside his council or, unfortunately, their chances of success, I certainly encourage him to keep working with his council and to get that bid in by midday on Friday 18 June. We look forward to receiving that.

I also want to mention the UK community renewal fund, which sits alongside the levelling-up fund to pilot new approaches to tackling the skills, employment and local business support challenges faced in different communities. Ultimately, the UK community renewal fund will help us pave the way for the introduction of the new UK shared prosperity fund from 2022, about which we will be saying more in an investment framework later this year. It is important that local areas look to the dual opportunities of the levelling-up fund and the UK community renewal fund, which have the potential to complement each other extremely positively. Given that Rotherham is in the high priority category for the UK community renewal fund, we very much hope it will be submitting for both bids, and we look forward to receiving them. Rotherham should grasp the opportunity that both funds present.

My hon. Friend has passionately articulated the case for his community. I congratulate him on securing this debate and on his determination to deliver for Rother Valley. We believe that all areas of this country should have the means to positively shape their future. That is important now more than ever as we look to recover from covid-19, and he has made the point that residents of Rother Valley can sometimes feel in need of levelling up. There is the work he is doing on Dinnington and Swallownest high streets, the work he is doing alongside my right hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase on net zero jobs and the work he is doing on Maltby’s grammar school building and the South Yorkshire Joint Railway proposal. It is clear that Rother Valley and wider South Yorkshire is building on its rich industrial past, ushering in a new era of economic renewal and innovation under the leadership of my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley, alongside his colleagues.

One thing is extremely clear: since my hon. Friend’s election, he has placed Rother Valley at the centre of a political map. His community now has a loud, strong and powerful voice in Parliament, which cannot be ignored. He has made sure that Ministers and the whole Government are listening, and he has left us in no doubt that we must deliver for Rother Valley.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.