HC Deb 18 December 1991 vol 201 cc428-34

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

2.1 am

Mr. Robert Litherland (Manchester, Central)

I welcome the opportunity, even at this late hour of the night, or early hour of the morning, to raise my chosen subject for the Adjournment debate. It may seem small beer, sandwiched as it is between the two days of the Maastricht debate, but it is of great significance to many of my constituents and of special priority to one family.

I promised my constituents, Mr. Brierley and his wife, that I would do my utmost to draw attention to an event that will have an everlasting effect on their family life. Regrettably, it has taken the forfeit of a young life, that of seven-year-old Mark Brierley, who plunged to his death in a derelict building which his parents and local residents refer to as a death trap, to create an awareness of the number of dangerous, dilapidated buildings in inner-city areas.

With the decline of manufacturing industry in Manchester, many empty buildings are a temptation to youngsters. They present a challenge to youngsters and are seen as adventure playgrounds. Such buildings also entice vandals, who enter, cause damage and increase the possibility of accidents and further deaths such as that of Mark Brierley.

Those who have knowledge of the inside of the mill in which Mark died tell me of the dangers which are not apparent to youngsters who may venture inside out of curiosity. Vandals have caused fires. There is a great deal of debris scattered around. Floorboards are missing. Holes in the roof allow some light into the upper floor, but the ground floor is in complete darkness, and torchlight or other artificial light is needed to move about in that area.

In this case, the building in question is Victoria mill in Miles Platting, Manchester—a grade 2 listed building, which was purchased privately. Permission was granted by Manchester city council planning department in October 1989 for conversion to residential and commercial use. Unfortunately, that proposal has been left in abeyance, and the mill still stands, structurally sound but in an extremely sorry state for the want of a commitment and support from the people who can bring about the required transformation.

Rumour has it that the owner purchased the property in the hope that Manchester would be awarded the Olympic games and it would be a profitable investment. Regrettably, last time we were not awarded the Olympic games. We may be more successful next time. The other theory is that the owner is a modern philanthropist and that it is some sort of expensive hobby. The person in question buys interesting architectural gems and converts them to pristine condition, to conserve them for posterity.

I do not know whether either theory is correct. All I know is that the collapse of the venture has resulted in a dangerous, unsightly, dilapidated building, which is detrimental to the neighbourhood. I am informed that the owner is spending about £300 a week to try to secure the property, in an attempt to keep it in its present condition.

One of two things can be done with such buildings: refurbish or demolish. A revised scheme is being drawn up by a church-based organisation named "Linking Up". With the aid of city council funding, it has made a study into the re-use of the old mill. I am informed by the planning department that the overall objective is to link the owner with community leaders and private sector finance to provide housing for rent, community facilities, offices and small commercial uses. The viability of such a scheme for such a large site will depend on grant assistance and a housing association to provide the housing element. The commercial section would require a city grant. The scheme proposed is estimated at £12.9 million, and I am aware that it has been presented to the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment for consideration and assessment.

It is refreshing to know that the Under-Secretary has visited the area. He knows of the mill, has taken an interest in it and knows exactly what I am talking about. I appreciate his personal interest.

The line of action presented to the Minister is supported by residents in the area, who recognise that the mill could offer an amenity and revitalise the area. While the city council supports in principle, the objective of the Miles Platting Community Development Trust to re-use the Victoria mill, due to the nature of the proposals it is not in a position to fund the bulk of the redevelopment and has little or no control over the grant aid required to ensure success.

However, there are other derelict buildings in my constituency which do not have the potential of Victoria mill. They have gone to rack and ruin, and no one appears to be accepting responsibility. Under the Acts relating to derelict buildings, the owners are responsible for securing their safety—that is, when they are aware or have reasonable grounds to believe that a danger exists on the premises. The onus is on the owner to take the necessary precautions. That can be a continuing and costly activity in the case of large buildings. Regrettably, many of the properties are allowed to deteriorate until they are in a dangerous state and concerned people or organisations draw the attention of the local authority to them.

An order on dangerous building, requiring the owner to carry out the work so as to obviate the danger, or to demolish the buildings or part of it, can be obtained by application to a magistrates court. If the owner fails to comply, the council can undertake the necessary work itself, and under normal and urgent procedure any expense incurred by the authority may be recovered from the owner.

That sounds good in theory, but the practicality is something different. For example, can the owner be located? I can remember, when I was a member of Manchester city council, that we had to deal with many small properties that had missing owners and absentee landlords, all of which hindered local authority modernisation schemes. Some of the absentee landlords were eventually traced to somewhere in Australia.

For dilapidated buildings such as the Victoria mill, the procedure is by requiring the owner to carry out the works of repair or restoration. This procedure is subject to special appeal and enforcement provisions. The owner is permitted to challenge the notice by way of appeal, so this can be a long-drawn-out process, and if the local authority has to do the work because the owner has not complied with the notice, where does the finance come from? There is not the local government finance to undertake such major operations. Manchester city council has difficulty with its own properties. Blocks with deck access, their tenants long gone, still stand there blighting whole areas because there is no money to demolish them.

The father of Mark Brierley is a good, honest and sensible man. I am supporting his endeavours to ensure that no child suffers the fate of his, and no family suffers the trauma of that experience. George Brierley is not bitter, but, like many of us, he would like to see the problem of derelict buildings accorded proper attention. If they cannot be refurbished and are of no architectural merit, they should be demolished, and the local authority should be given the resources to undertake a survey of all these properties, and the financing to take the appropriate action.

On the other hand, if the building is worth refurbishing, a serious scheme can be presented, as in the case of the Victoria mill. The scheme for that will transform a derelict eyesore into the amenity envisaged by Linking-Up Enterprises Ltd., and described by it as a major opportunity for far-reaching change in the economic and social life of east Manchester. The mill is structurally sound. The project is viable and the local community is enthusiastic but, most of all, there is the energy and the will to succeed. Mr. Brierley supports this action, as do his neighbours, the constituents in the area.

In a deprived inner-city area, this scheme encourages community involvement and participation. It moves away from the traditional, commercially led schemes. It talks of community ownership—an ingredient that the Minister has espoused in recent times. I implore him to become involved, and to do something constructive. I want his interest to help to bring about this dream for the people in my area.

I sincerely hope that Mark did not die in vain, and that his sad death will exercise our minds and act as a catalyst so that, one day, this depressing, dilapidated and dangerous building can be transformed into an amenity of which we can all be proud.

2.14 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Robert Key)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Litherland) on his success in winning the opportunity to initiate this debate. I only wish that it was not being held in such sad circumstances. Fainter hearts might have fled the Chamber at 2.15 am, but he and I have serious business to do.

I was in Miles Platting only 10 days ago—before I knew that this debate would take place—and I visited the Victoria mill area. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman said that I had been in the area a number of times during recent months. I acknowledge that his constituents are well served by him. I recognise the difficult circumstances that have led to him bringing this subject to the House. I also recognise, as he put it, the everlasting effect of the death of Mark Brierley on his family, not least his father George, and also on the whole community.

I am a southerner, but I have come to know the people of Manchester over recent months. I know that they are courageous people and will undertstand when I say that courage and patience are both qualities that will be needed if we are to make progress. I listened to the detailed points that the hon. Gentleman made, and I should like to consider them in depth at a more civilised hour. I am sure that I will be in touch with him frequently in coming weeks.

First, I shall deal with the bones of the hon Gentleman's argument about the building. It is a grade 2 listed building, it is a fine example of architecture, but it is seen by some as a danger to the community—a target for crime and vandalism and, especially now, an object of fear. The listing itself does not prevent necessary work being carried out or even the building's demolition. Demolition or work that would alter its character would require consent. If an application for consent to demolish were made, all the relevant circumstances would be taken into account. Demolition of a listed building is regarded as very much of a last resort, and would he unlikely to receive consent if alternatives to retain the building were reasonably available.

It is for the owners or the local authority to carry out any necessary work and to seek consents that may be required. As the hon. Gentleman said, responsibility for the building rests primarily with its owners, and it is for them to do whatever is necessary to render it safe. The local authority—in this case, Manchester city council—also has a role to play, in that it has the power to take action where a building is in such a defective state that it is prejudicial to health, a nuisance or dangerous.

Sections 76 to 78 of the Building Act 1984 enable local authorities to take steps in relation to premises that are in a defective state and are prejudicial to health, a nuisance or dangerous. It is for the local authority to judge whether the use of that power is appropriate in a particular case. I acknowledge the further points that the hon. Gentleman made, and I will consider them.

For those who are not familiar with the area, it is important to set the building in its context. I have spent a good deal of time in the area, and I have come to know it quite well. Victoria mill is situated in Miles Platting, which forms part of east Manchester—or, as I was told shortly after I first began visiting Manchester, "Don't talk about east Manchester, it doesn't exist; talk about the villages and the communities to the east of Manchester." It is a broad area to the east of the city, covering about 3,000 acres and with a resident population of more than 50,000 people in seven local communities.

The area used to contain much of the city's heavy engineering, chemical and textile industries. Victoria mill is a reminder of the scale and the importance of the textile industry to the city. However, it now has large tracts of derelict land and many vacant buildings.

Past attempts to tackle the area's problems have been piecemeal. The worst of the dereliction has been removed, and programmes are taking shape to deal with the rest, but there remains a great deal to be done. The city action team in Manchester and the city council regard east Manchester as a main priority area. The thrust of the regeneration proposals for the area is to consolidate the vacant and derelict land and bring it forward for redevelopment in partnership with private sector owners.

There are proposals to develop major sporting facilities, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. Should Manchester be successful in the bid for the 2000 Olympic games, east Manchester will be the focus of the facilities to be provided. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has now agreed to provide £2 million to support detailed studies of the stadium, velodrome and arena. I have been closely involved in this from the start, and I will continue to be so.

The regeneration of east Manchester will be greatly aided by the steering arrangements, focused through the evolving east Manchester partnership, a widely drawn group from the private sector, chaired by Terry Thomas, the managing director of the Co-operative bank.

Partnership with the private sector is likely to strengthen the regeneration efforts in east Manchester, but a further encouraging sign is the growing strength and participation of community organisations. In February, I was privileged to attend, with the Bishop of Manchester, a meeting inaugurating the Miles Platting development trust. There was discussion of the problems facing communities in east Manchester and a commitment to taking positive action. Following that meeting, I was pleased that my Department was able to fund a feasibility study into the future of Victoria mill, and that further talks are being covered by the bishop, with the support of local Church organisations, to enhance community organisations in the inner city.

During my visits to Miles Platting, I have been impressed by the grandeur of Victoria mill. It is a most imposing Venetian-style building. Victoria mill is privately owned. The building, although structurally sound, is badly run down, and in need of complete refurbishment. I know that the owner is eager for the mill to be refurbished and re-used. He is, however, unable to find funds for such works himself. To this end, my Department provided £65,000 of urban programme grant to enable the feasibility study to be carried out by linking up an ecumenical and national organisation. It investigated a mixture of uses which would be both commercially viable and of major benefit to the community.

The preferred option for redevelopment provides for mixed commercial, community and residential uses—possibly with housing association involvement. A scheme of this nature would provide a valuable resource for Miles Platting and east Manchester and assist its regeneration. I know that the owner is actively seeking investors and that the Housing Corporation is considering its priorities for investing in the city.

As with any major scheme, careful planning is vital to ensure that the final scheme is both practical and viable. Where support from various sources is required to ensure that the project meets a mixture of uses, there is a need to ensure that every part is in place—that there is demand from the market for those parts which depend on the private sector and that the community elements will be welcomed. However, the recent tragic accident at the mill has reinforced the need to act urgently in the interest of public safety.

There are various programmes available with which to tackle dilapidated buildings and render them safe for the public. The urban programme makes a significant contribution to the renewal of the inner cities. I am keen to make people realise that the creation of healthy local economies and communities is the key to urban regeneration. The main emphasis should be on sharply targeted and self-sustaining economic and environmental improvements, with a social and community dimension.

The objectives of the urban programme reflect the wider objective of the Government's efforts of urban regeneration. Those in particular which are relevant to this case reflect the need to make the inner cities more attractive to residents, as also to businesses—by, for example, tackling dereliction, bringing buildings back into use, preparing sites and encouraging development; but also more specifically, and more importantly in human terms, by making inner cities safe and attractive places to live and work in. Together we must fight crime, including vandalism, improve education and community and health care, and develop better facilities for recreation, sport and the arts.

It is envisaged that this kind of self-sustaining regeneration might best be achieved by targeting tightly drawn geographical areas. East Manchester is one of the targeted areas in Manchester.

This year, Manchester city council's urban programme includes support of nearly £2.5 million for schemes in east Manchester, to be used primarily to bring forward large sites for redevelopment, as well as continuation of environmental upgrading and substantial remodelling of Beswick district centre. In the past the urban programme has been used to great effect in supporting housing refurbishment for the large Miles Platting estate, with environmental and security measures. It is likely east Manchester, or part of it, will be the subject of Manchester's bid for city challenge in the coming round. The focus will shift from the Hulme estate to east Manchester. If successful, the concentrated application of resources could make real sustainable impacts on that area— I hope that that will happen.

Derelict land grant is available for the reclamation of land which is so damaged by industrial or other development that it is incapable of beneficial use without treatment. Land in this context includes buildings and structures, factories, mills and chimneys which have become so dilapidated or decayed that they are structurally unsound. The rate of grant for most of the derelict areas in the north-west is 100 per cent. for local authorities and 80 per cent. for the private sector.

In the current financial year, Manchester city council shares an allocation of £2 million with Tameside metropolitan borough council, of which £264,000 has recently been approved by my Department for the demolition and clearance of a dangerous goods shed on a site known as Ardwick east goods yard, in east Manchester. The building is in an unsafe condition and is a hazard to local children who are attracted to play on the site. After clearance, the site will be marketed for commercial and office use. The hon. Gentleman has referred to the fact that many such buildings still exist. I acknowledge that, and we want to find them and will do so together. Where we can help, we shall seek to do so.

Another derelict and unsafe building in greater Manchester which has been demolished with the aid of derelict land grant was Times mill in Rochdale council's area. That was a privately owned four-storey mill which was vacant and vandalised. Because of the visual value of the site arising from the reclamation, a private-sector grant of only £4,000 was all that was required to secure the removal of a dangerous eyesore.

City grant is another mechanism that the Government use for returning derelict sites and buildings to full economic use. The grant is provided to support private-sector capital projects which benefit run-down inner-city areas and which, because of their inner-city location, cannot proceed without assistance.

In the north-west region, my Department has approved eight city grant projects which involve either the refurbishment or conversion of redundant buildings. Grant of £4.6 million has attracteld private sector investment of nearly £15 million towards the regeneration of those sites. We shall continue to assist the Victoria mill project where possible. I cannot offer any funding until we have explored soundly based proposals for the whole scheme, but I have no doubt that they will be forthcoming.

The hon. Gentleman has raised a topic that is important not only to his constituents but in the wider context to enable people to begin to understand what we are trying to do in inner-city regeneration. So far, we have considered bricks and mortar alone but, like the cities that have accepted city challenge, we recognise that, if we are to succeed where perhaps we have failed for too long, we must engage the attention, enthusiasm and commitment of whole communities.

What we are about is improving the quality of life for everybody living in our cities. We want to make our inner cities places where people want to stay and to which those people who have left want to return, not places that people want to get out of as soon as they can. We are beginning to see a dramatic change. Manchester is a good example. Indeed, we can see those dramatic changes at many sites, not only in Manchester and Salford, but in Liverpool, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and many other places.

At the heart of all this, Government, the private sector and local authorities must all bear in mind the quality of life of the people living in the city. We have learnt a tragic lesson from the hon. Gentleman's constituency—a lesson that will not be lost.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Two o'clock.