HC Deb 07 November 1985 vol 86 cc211-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Archie Hamilton.]

10 pm

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Croydon, North-West)

I am grateful to have the chance to bring up the subject of the urban programme. I am privileged that you, Mr. Speaker, have taken the Chair for this debate. Recent disturbances and civil disorder in our inner cities have focused our attention sharply on inner city problems generally. One thing is certain: these problems are not easily solved. They have taxed successive Governments for many years—Governments of different political persuasions, all of whom have shown concern and all of whom have introduced new and sometimes successful initiatives. This Government in particular have introduced initiatives. I am acutely aware of the concern shown and the action taken by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State and his colleagues.

My family is no stranger to some of these issues. During the war my mother worked in slum housing in Liverpool. My father, who was an Army chaplain for 30 years, is now vicar of the East End parish of Greenwich. My wife worked in the probation service. We have all seen these problems at the sharp end.

In 1974 I was privileged to fight the general election in the constituency of Toxteth in Liverpool against the then Labour Member, the much-loved and respected Dick Crawshaw. I saw some of the city's problems. Despite the tremendous sense of humour of the Liverpudlian, even then there was an air of despair in Liverpool. There was poor housing—both public and private—and high unemployment. Most of industry had gone. There were a large number of immigrants, who were closely linked through their accommodation. Their prospects, especially of employment, were bleak. Crime was high. There was very bad environment—no green fields and no gardens. There was no real hope.

There were deprivations, but they were not limited to the great city of Liverpool. In order to respond to a variety of deprivations, the enhanced urban programme was introduced under the direction of the Department of the Environment in 1977. I congratulate the Government on strongly supporting that programme and on increasing its funding to £348 million in 1983–85—an increase in real terms of 43 per cent. over the inherited level of £165 million in 1979.

The Government have improved the thinking behind the programme, in particular bringing in the important voice of the private sector. They have required authorities to consult chambers of commerce. In 1982 they introduced the commercially oriented urban development grants. The Government have given support to the voluntary sector's contribution to tackling urban problems. They increased the value of support for projects run by or for ethnic minority groups nearly fourfold in the three years to 1984–85. The urban programme has been something of a success story.

Of course, that programme alone cannot reverse the decline, but it has certainly proved its worth as a way of involving a wide range of organisations in some effective projects. Moreover, the programme has succeeded in persuading local authorities, voluntary organisations and businesses to work with Government Departments to cooperate in promoting the new approaches that the citizens of towns and cities need. Opportunities for such collaboration are rare enough to deserve our recognition and support. That is why it is disturbing that after a period of development, this high quality programme—less than one two-hundredth of Government expenditure and excellent value for money—has been reduced in value by about 13 per cent. in real terms in the last year or two.

Tonight I am particularly concerned with the traditional urban programme aimed primarily at authorities such as Croydon, which contains my own constituency and yours, Mr. Speaker, where relative affluence for most residents sits alongside pockets of deprivation. Three years ago, 131 district and borough authorities secured support from the traditional urban programme. Their numbers have been gradually reduced, and this July the Department published a list of 46 authorities deemed eligible to apply for new projects from 1986 onwards. Croydon was not among them, nor were many other authorities containing pockets of deprivation.

On the surface, Croydon is affluent, with modern office blocks, excellent shopping facilities and crowds of shoppers. It has an excellent chamber of commerce and a local authority whose rates record is one of which we should all be proud. But behind that there are poor and deprived areas, particularly in the north of the borough, where there is still some very poor housing, an unusually high number of elderly people, a much higher than average number of one-parent families and a high ethnic population. However, housing problems are the most important reason why people in Croydon seek advice from their local citizens advice bureau and Members of Parliament.

Problems of homelessness also exist in that affluent borough. The Minister knows that I have been concerned with some of the problems associated with bed and breakfast accommodation used for the homeless. In April this year the Department announced that only two applications out of the 10 submitted by Croydon council had been approved for traditional urban programme funding this year. Neither of those applications, both of which were time-expired and came from voluntary organisations, was granted the full amount that they had requested, and one was told to expect funding to end after just two years.

In a year when 26 applications had been submitted, the news came as something of a blow to the many interested voluntary organisations. Now, this reduction in the amount of money has been superseded by the worse news that Croydon is not being invited to submit applications this year.

Traditional urban programme funding has had a significant impact on the range and effectiveness of services provided in that borough, particularly by voluntary organisations. I believe that there is a strong case for traditional urban programme money to be made available to the Croydon borough.

Let me mention some of the currently funded schemes, although there are many more. Croydon Gingerbread is a playschool which for years has provided after-school and holiday care for the children of single parents in the borough. In short, it is a magnificent venture. Croydon play council provides holiday play schemes. Drop-in is a youth counselling service. The North Croydon victims support scheme gives practical help and advice to victims of crime. The Croydon Association for the Young Single Homeless provides supportive-type accommodation for 25 homeless young people, and that helps the local authority.

Among the ethnic groups, several of which are supported, there is the Pakistan Welfare Association, of which, Mr. Speaker, you are the chief patron. It does much good work in the borough.

I mention those organisations, but there are others no less valuable whose enthusiasm has been dampened by this latest news. I know, Mr. Speaker, of your enormous involvement in the work that goes on in the borough in these and other organisations that do much good for the community. The local guild of voluntary organisations is concerned about the threat to the continuity of the voluntary sector-based services posed by the traditional urban programme exclusion.

The Government argue that resources should be concentrated on the most deprived inner city areas. I accept the thinking behind that argument and see the logic in it. It is right that Lambeth, for example, should receive millions of pounds each year under the programme and that Croydon should receive less. But the resources available even to the inner city areas have fallen in real terms. The unemployed single parent living in a draughty flat in Croydon feels just as deprived as his counterpart elsewhere.

The trend is slightly worrying. Uncertainty and worry about the future surround existing projects. Where will the money come from? Will the local authorities take projects on board? In such an atmosphere of uncertainty will future projects so desperately needed be launched?

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary believes, as I do, that the urban programme has successfully brought together local and central Government, voluntary organisations and the private sector to pioneer new approaches to city problems. The Government are determined to press ahead with a variety of measures. The urban housing renewal unit is one such example.

I speak for many, not just those in Croydon but elsewhere, when I say that I hope that we shall maintain the traditional urban programme and keep up the real value of resources for voluntary organisations.

We all know the problems, but to none of us is given the answer. However I am cheered by the enormous enthusiasm of those who work on voluntary projects. People give up time and are not paid. They are constantly worried about money and constantly injecting new initiative and enterprise. Throughout the country thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of voluntary workers do much good work.

Some of what I have said tonight might appear to be critical of the Government. I do not want my remarks to be thought of in that light because this Government have a great deal to be proud of.

I am also cheered by the awareness of people of all political persuasions—and of none—that every section of society has a role to play in sorting out the problems. In the past that was thought to be the monopoly of the Government and some voluntary organisations. Today people are aware that not only politicians can help but industrialists, schools, churches, trade unions and ethnic leaders can play their part. The role of ethnic leaders is sure to be important in the years ahead. I think also of sporting bodies and the voluntary organisations themselves. Each of those groups, and many others, must join a partnership and rise to the challenge.

Only through a concerted effort of will by all of us shall we be able to hand over to the next generation towns and cities where growth and hope rather than decay and despair are to be found. I am an optimist and believe that that can be done by men of good will. I look to the Government to take a leading role in joining every strand of society to help to cure the city problems that recently have been brought to the front of our minds. I am sure that the problems can be solved.

10.13 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir George Young)

The House has listened to a well-informed, positive, understanding and sympathetic speech. It is right that at the beginning of the new Session we should have an early debate on the problems in our inner cities and the development of the Government's urban programme.

My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Malins) reminded the House that even in a seemingly prosperous suburb such as Croydon pockets of deprivation exist and that social problems have to be tackled. You, Mr. Speaker, are well aware of those problems as a constituency Member.

Ministers in my Department have paid great attention to the letters which we have received from you, Mr. Speaker, on behalf of the Pakistan Welfare Association, and from my hon. Friend on behalf of the same association and other organisations such as the Croydon Gingerbread group about their future and the decisions that we have taken about the traditional urban programme.

Croydon is currently in receipt of £382,000 assistance from central Government under the traditional urban programme. Therefore, we understand the anxiety about any decision that implies that those resources may be redirected to other authorities. I do not disguise the fact that the Government have had to take some tough and unpopular decisions on the urban programme. I hope to explain why we have done that.

My hon. Friend was generous in paying tribute to the Government's achievements on urban policy. The urban programme is but one vehicle for our urban policy, the main objectives of which are improving employment prospects and opportunities, reducing dereliction, strengthening the social fabric and reducing housing stress. That involves a fairly wide spread of programmes and policies involving a large number of Government departments, each reinforcing the other. They add up to a national attack on inner city problems, to which the Government collectively give a high priority.

Priority is not just a matter of increased public expenditure. My hon. Friend paid tribute to the energy and commitment of the voluntary organisations whose help we desperately need in tackling some of the social problems.

While the total of local authority current expenditure has increased in real terms since the Government took office, with many inner-city local authorities leading the field, it would be too simple to expect that the complex and long-term issues underlying the decline of many urban centres could be settled by blanket spending, irrespective of efficiency, the effective targeting of resources and the effect on the households and private firms which must pay through rates and taxes for what the local authority spends.

We must back policies that strengthen the processes of investment and job creation rather than weaken them. That is why the Department of Employment, and especially my right hon. Friend's policies for strengthening enterprise and improving training, play an increasingly central part in our urban policy.

In his excellent speech this evening, my hon. Friend concentrated on the direction and administration of resources, as well as mentioning their scale. The Government have given a high priority to the clarification of objectives for urban policy and the improved targeting and management of programmes that deliver them. That is not because we have anything to conceal on the scale of resources. Indeed, my hon. Friend mentioned that in his speech.

Since 1978–79, urban programme expenditure has risen from £93 million to £338 million. Over the period, nearly £2 billion has been allocated in support of local authority programmes of urban renewal. We have deliberately concentrated resources on the worst areas and have sought to work with local authorities, such as Croydon, to ensure that the maximum value for money is obtained.

Many authorities have every reason to be proud of their record in using the opportunities provided by the urban programme. The local focus for the administration of the programme is important. Needs and potential for action differ from area to area, and in clarifying objectives at national level we have been careful to leave room for sensible local variations in priorities and choice of action.

We have encouraged authorities to go for strategies that support economic development, improve the environment and encourage business confidence. They have recently agreed a management initiative from which better structured inner area programmes, with clearer statements of local objectives, will emerge. Better monitoring and quantification of output, as well as more clearly defined management responsibilities, have been encouraged.

I shall quote from the Islington strategy statement about the programme and especially about partnership. It said:

There has been a perceptible improvement in the Borough's environment which is largely due to Partnership funding; none of the rolling programmes would exist without Partnership. On the central Government side, the co-ordination and targeting of Government programmes in the partnership areas has been improved by the city action teams. It is part of their job to ensure that national programmes are well related to local needs and that all opportunities for joint action are exploited vigorously.

This work has been helped by the greatly improved regional policy map, which now includes all the partnership areas outside London and all but three of the programme authorities. The social departments are becoming increasingly involved in the work of the city action teams, not least the Home Office with its programmes of support for the voluntary sector and ethnic minorities, to which my hon. Friend referred.

My hon. Friend referred to the voluntary sector. The growth of urban programme funding for the voluntary sector has been a particular success, and I endorse my hon. Friend's tribute to that sector's contribution, which is often made in areas where the statutory agencies are less adaptable and less freely innovative in their response to particular needs. This year, some £78 million of urban programme resources will be used to back voluntary sector schemes.

There has been a particularly rapid growth in expenditure on projects which are run by or primarily for the benefit of ethnic minority groups, and my hon. Fried referred to the figures, which have risen from £6 million in 1980–81 to £31 million in 1985–86. The Hackney partnership committee produced a paper in which it said:

Probably the major change is that through Partnership the Council has started to open its ears to the very sizeable black and ethnic communities in Hackney who had previously been alienated from the processes of local government. My hon. Friend referred to urban development grant. This has promoted private sector investment on some of the rather difficult inner city sites about which we all know. By the end of last month, 165 schemes had been approved. These involve grant offers of £74 million but private sector investment of no less than £325 million. About £60 million of the approved grant will enable industrial and commercial projects, creating 16,000 jobs to go ahead. The remainder is concentrated on housing development, leading to the provision of nearly 4,000 homes.

The action we have taken is consistent with the recommendations in the Scarman report on inner city policy and housing, Lord Scarman recommended that there should be a better co-ordinated and directed attack on inner city problems to ensure that the resources that the nation is able to devote to the inner city are effectively spent.

The city action teams and urban programme management initiatives which I have described contribute directly to that objective. In his statement to the House on 21 October, the Home Secretary confirmed that the Government would continue their strong commitment to urban regeneration and attached great importance to ensuring thatthe substantial government resources for inner city areas, including the programmes of the Home Office and other Departments, including my Department's contribution, were spent to the best advantage and were directed to the real needs of the people who lived there.

The housing initiatives that my Department is now taking through the urban housing renewal unit, to which my hon. Friend paid tribute, are fully consistent with Lord Scarman's emphasis on involving the community in housing management and development. We are also working with local authority associations, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Institute of Housing to improve the responsiveness of public sector housing management to the needs of ethnic minorities.

Increased housing choice and opportunities for low-cost home ownership are also being promoted by the urban housing renewal unit, which was set up to encourage local authorities to improve the management of their stock, to involve tenants and to explore private sector solutions to their most problematic estates. The unit is also concerned to improve standards of housing education and management.

It is funding 15 post graduate studentships on the LSE's housing management course.

Another strand of the Government's urban policy is designed to stimulate the urban land market. Far too much land is lying idle, for no good reason. That is why the derelict land grant programme has grown from £23 million in 1979 to £82 million this year. The programme is concentrated on recycling land and on schemes which lead to development. The powers that we have under the land register system to require public sector owners to dispose of unused land are also being used.

There have been other initiatives. The garden festival in Liverpool—my hon. Friend fought a constituency there in 1974—and garden festivals in Stoke, Glasgow and Gateshead are all going ahead, combining action to reclaim severely derelict sites by turning them into a focus for renewed confidence and investment.

The other strand has been the urban development corporations which are proving outstandingly effective in tackling vast tracts of disused land in the heart of London and Merseyside. Nearly £80 million will be spent by the public sector on the two UDCs this year. So far, public investment in the London dockland area has attracted £860 million of private investment. Communications are being improved by the light railway and the STOLport. By 1990, nearly 10,000 private houses will have been built in an area which previously offered few opportunities for home ownership.

Some of those initiatives give the flavour of the range of initiatives that the Government have been pursuing. My hon. Friend mentioned the corrected geographical scope for those initiatives. He mentioned the impact of that initiative on Croydon and some other authorities that receive urban programme help.

It is right that the bulk of our resources should be concentrated on the areas with the most severe needs. Since 1979, the urban programme has allocated £150 million to the Birmingham partnership and £140 million to the Liverpool partnership—substantial sums of money which reflect the severity and complexity of the economic and social problems at the heart of the major conurbations. There are 23 programme authorities receiving annual allocations of up to £5.5 million.

The selection of authorities was last reviewed in 1983, and we have given assurances to a number of authorities that narrowly missed promotion on that occasion that their cases will be reconsidered and their submissions taken fully into account when the selection of authorities is next reviewed. In the meantime, they have the benefit of allocations through the traditional urban programme, and in the case of designated districts there is an annual allocation for economic and commercial projects.

The appropriate geographical scope of the traditional urban programme, which picks up the needs of authorities such as Croydon without partnership or programme status, has been much debated.

I do not dispute that many local authorities can demonstrate the existence of pockets of deprivation—to use my hon. Friend's expression—within their administrative areas, where, for example, there is a high rate of residential unemployment, poor housing, a concentration of pupils with educational difficulties or households with special social needs. In so far as those characteristics can be picked up by the census, the method of analysis which my Department uses is sensitive to the needs of small areas. The overall assessment of need is built up from census information at enumeration district level—a basic unit of about 150 households.

The real argument is that it is not appropriate or feasible for the urban programme to give specific assistance to every deprivation black spot in the country. If we were to do that, it would place too great a burden on the specific grant machinery. It would also spread our resources too thinly and tend to give assistance to authorities that could cope and have shown that they can run successful projects on their own from within their own resources.

In concentrating the urban programme on a list of about 80 authorities, including partnership and programme authorities as well as recipients of the traditional urban programme, we have tried to select those with the highest overall intensity of need, those with the greatest scale and concentration of problems and those with the highest levels of unemployment. There is no unique way of doing that and no absolutely authoritative ranking of authorities in terms of a single index of deprivation. I do not believe that there ever will be. We must use our judgment to interpret the statistics.

I understand the problems that that has caused authorities such as Croydon. There is an assurance that there will be no abrupt termination of approvals which have already been given. In Croydon many of the organisations that receive help will continue to do so until 1990. The traditional urban programme has supported and will continue to support in Croydon important projects for ethnic minorities, disadvantaged groups and young people. There should be no problem with those projects where we have given an undertaking to fund for a given number of years.

On the broader point, there is evidence that the voluntary sector can work with the local authority to tackle the problems. I hope that Croydon will not always need the incentive of central Government grant to take account of the potential of the voluntary sector in its area.

The total value of approvals in Croydon over the past five years has been about £250,000. I hope that the urban programme has made an impact. However, one is back to the difficult decisions of public expenditure which have been debated frequently in this Chamber.

Public expenditure involves difficult decisions on priorities, and there can be no doubt that the relative disadvantage of many other areas, especially those which are facing the pressing problem of unemployment, has deepened, and it is to those authorities that the Government have decided to give priority.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.