§ 11 am
§ Ms Hazel Blears (Salford)
I am delighted to have been successful in the ballot for today's debates and to see so many colleagues here. We are about to debate a subject that is of tremendous importance not only to those of us who represent the north-west in Parliament but to the country as a whole, because the north-west is such an important region, economically and culturally.
The north-west has the second largest economy in the United Kingdom. It is one of the most densely populated areas—5.5 million people live in Lancashire, Cheshire, Cumbria, Greater Manchester and Merseyside. We have 140,000 businesses and currently benefit from £370 million from the European structural funds, which we would like very much to keep. We also have £375 million from the single regeneration budget challenge fund.
Although manufacturing has declined in recent years, it is still a major source of output and jobs in the north-west. It accounts for 27 per cent. of the north-west's output and 22 per cent. of its employment. Our manufacturing is concentrated in four main sectors: chemicals, textiles and clothing, food products and engineering and, of course, the very important aerospace industry.
Manufacturing has been hard hit in recent months, which is why it is so important that the regional development agency should begin its work of drawing investment into the region, preparing its business plan, setting up strategic sites, and working with the regional chamber of commerce and all the local authorities.
Time and again, it has been shown that partnership is the key to economic success and to social regeneration. In the north-west, we have a tremendous record of working together to achieve results. In Greater Manchester, the city pride project involves Manchester, Salford, Trafford and Tameside working together to regenerate the city-centre core. MIDAS, the new Manchester investment development agency service, is drawing jobs and opportunities into the area. We are all working together to bring the Commonwealth games to the region, which would be of enormous benefit economically.
Some regions say that they do not feel close-knit or that they do not have a real affinity with their neighbours. That is certainly not the case in the north-west, where we share our history, language, literature, geography and, I believe, our sense of humour. That is why the north-west needs a voice as a region. I want a democratically elected regional government to shape and focus our growth and development, bringing decision making closer to the people and the communities that we serve.
§ Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)
How many letters has the hon. Lady received asking for an elected authority for the north-west?
§ Ms Blears
We have been consulting the communities, and many say that they want decisions to be made at a local level. The hon. Gentleman might be in favour of remote government, but I am sure that that is not popular in his area.
I was talking about being closer to the people, and I want to say a little more about what is happening to regenerate my city of Salford, which is becoming more 258 exciting by the day. The past 20 years have not been especially happy for Salford and its people. We based our economy to a large extent on manufacturing and full-time, high-quality jobs, but the Tories put paid to all that.
We had two devastating recessions which decimated manufacturing and knocked the heart out of many local people. However, in the 18 months since the Labour Government were elected, we have begun to see a revival in the city's fortunes—a new beginning. I hesitate to say that there is a Salford renaissance, but that is how it is beginning to feel.
We have an education action zone and a health action zone, and we have pathway status for our regeneration projects. I shall give a couple of examples of local partnerships working on the ground—real regeneration from the bottom up. Just last week, we submitted the action plan for the regeneration of Seedley and Langworthy, one of the most difficult communities in Salford. The bid was for £25 million for the city as a whole but focused on that particular area. The bid contains some genuine innovations which could inform regeneration projects on a wider scale.
One proposal is for a community housing company, whereby local people decide on the design, management and lettings of property and have a stake in the growth of the community. Another proposal is for a community trust, again led by local people, which will be an agent to draw in funds and resources from the new deal, Europe and elsewhere to provide jobs and opportunities.
Most exciting of all, there is to be a community financial institution. Banks and building societies have withdrawn completely from the inner cities, so there is very little access to financial services in those areas. We are to have our own community financial institution—a people's bank, if you like—which will provide loans and start-up grants to local businesses and bring financial opportunities back to the inner city. That is what sustainable improvement is all about. It is not about being here today and gone tomorrow; it means improvement, week by week and month by month, changing and growing, so that once again the community becomes strong, self-confident, vibrant and caring—somewhere where people are proud to live and where they want to bring up their families.
We need to tackle the problems of private rented property and absentee landlords who do not have a stake in the community. I want the Government to examine the regulation and licensing of private landlords to make sure that they meet their social responsibilities to the communities in which they have property.
We have to invest in community capacity. We have various regeneration projects, but we are asking the same group of local people to get involved. People have their own lives, families and jobs, which makes it difficult for them to participate in a range of projects, so we need to glean the necessary skills and talents from a wider group of people.
We need real, joined-up government. We have all the various initiatives, but we cannot have people spending time on administration and bureaucracy only to find that they are bidding against each other for funds. We have to ensure that the different initiatives mesh and integrate. We shall then have the opportunity to show that we can provide the best value for the extra money that we invest and can renew the fabric of the communities forgotten by the Tories.
259 I shall highlight a couple of other local projects, the first being the development of the Lowry centre in Salford. It is the national landmark millennium project for the arts, involving £127 million of investment. It is unique in bringing together funding from the national lottery, the Millennium Commission and Europe—a real partnership which, in 2000, will deliver the most wonderful, breathtaking cultural centre anywhere in Britain.
Just last week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport topped out the centre with the final golden bolt. He was awe-struck, not only by the building itself, but by the concept of bringing together a performance space for large productions—there is seating for 1,750 people—a flexible studio theatre, galleries for Lowry's paintings, a digital world centre, and a centre for virtual reality linked with the university. The final accolade was the receipt of £2 million in sponsorship from Electronic Data Services, a major information technology employer. That is initiative and enterprise.
I pay tribute to Salford city council, which had the ability and vision and was prepared to risk taking the project forward. The best return on that risk will be the fact that local people, especially children and the young, will be able to take part in, enjoy and appreciate performance and art. Salford is packed with creativity and talent. At long last, we have a Government who recognise that and want it to flourish.
Our examples of regeneration are quite breathtaking. Salford Quays now employs more than 7,000 people, more than when the docks were operating at their height in the 1950s and 1960s. The latest development is Century 105, the north-west's newest commercial radio station, which is investing £2.5 million in a high-tech studio and creating more than 50 jobs. The metrolink extension goes through Salford Quays into Eccles. There is a major project with English Partnerships to regenerate Chapel street, which is the main A6 corridor into the city.
Only last week, we announced the building of the only five-star hotel in the region, which will bring jobs for local people. We are also examining the possibility of a popular music centre in the Chapel street area to build on the creativity and talent of local people. There is also a housing and leisure development at the old hospital site. There is a huge development at Chapel wharf with the Calatrava bridge, which has won international awards, and 2,200 staff are based at the new Inland Revenue headquarters.
In fact, some £875 million of capital investment, public and private, is planned for Salford over the next five years. That could support up to 35,000 local jobs. To cap it all, there is an application to build a snowdome in Salford—who would have thought there would be skiing in Salford? It is hard to believe, but it is true. That, too, will provide jobs and opportunities for local people.
A few weeks ago, some out-of-date research was published. It compared Salford to the Titanic, alleging that people were leaving the city and abandoning ship. That research is nine years old—from the depths of the third Tory term, when our city was at its lowest. Today, nothing could be further from the truth. The city is becoming an exciting and vibrant place in which to live and work.
I do not have time to say everything that I want because many colleagues want to speak, but I shall say this: north-west Members are a force to be reckoned with. 260 We shall be working together for our region and the people whom we are here to represent. We shall be ensuring that the north-west's voice is heard at the very heart of government. We know that our Government want to encourage regeneration; we have made a wonderful start. We will be watching very closely to ensure that that regeneration continues, for the benefit of north-west people.
§ Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)
I am grateful to be called so early in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Salford (Ms Blears) on the enthusiastic way in which she gave a one-person commercial for Manchester and Salford. Judging by the number of her hon. Friends who surround her, I am sure that she would be the first to admit that the north-west does not comprise only Manchester and Salford. Although she is brimming with the natural enthusiasm of a new Member under a new Government, I respectfully remind her that the development in Salford Quays, together with many regeneration projects in Liverpool, Trafford Park, other parts of Manchester and all over the north-west, began under the previous Conservative Government.
I must also remind the hon. Lady that the previous Conservative Government introduced a broad-scale scheme known as city challenge, in which we provided money on a co-ordinated basis to places such as Blackburn. Her rather selective retailing of what is happening now does not properly reflect some of the measures that we undertook when in government. I would be the first to admit that I wish that we had done more. I do not think that there is a party difference between us on the need to invest more resources in dealing with the many problems in inner cities and urban parts of the north-west, although the hon. Lady perhaps gave the impression that the previous Government did nothing.
It is a little rich for the hon. Lady to talk about economic and industrial matters without mentioning the burdens with which north-west industry has had to cope since this Government came to power: high interest rates, a high pound, pressures on manufacturing industry, the advent of things such as the social charter, and so on. I shall not dwell too long on those matters. Suffice it to say that the idea that the north-west and its business suddenly hit calm, tranquil waters on 1 May 1997 is a travesty.
I would not necessarily have expected the hon. Lady, who advocated the benefits of Manchester and Salford, to mention the north-west's most important industry: aerospace. [Horn. MEMBERS: "She did."] I apologise if she did; perhaps she did not go into it in quite as much detail as I should like to. Aerospace is one of this country's most dynamic industries. It underwent a difficult period in the early 1990s, but is now working positively for the future.
The hon. Lady will be aware of British Aerospace, the importance of civil aviation to the north-west's economy and the generation and development of civil aviation through new technology. When I asked the Minister for Energy and Industry at Question Time last week for a straightforward answer to a question about the civil aviation research and demonstration programme, which brings £20 million to bear on seedcorn development, all I heard was rubbish. So interested was the Minister in giving me a sensible answer that all he could say was, "We are doing more than you were doing."
261 I wanted an answer to that question because the programme represented the seedcorn funding for much of the work that developed the airbus wing. The hon. Member for Salford will know the importance of the airbus wing to British Aerospace's work. I hope that the Minister will give a straightforward answer on the Government's intentions. Without such technological development and such a lead, many of the hon. Lady aspirations for the north-west economy will not be fulfilled. I should like assurances on the matter.
§ Mr. Phil Woolas (Oldham, East and Saddleworth)
In the light of the right hon. Gentleman's comments on the north-west business community, does he recognise the strong—indeed, unanimous—support among north-west businesses for the region's submission on regional government? Have not businesses throughout our region been strongly supportive of the creation of a regional development agency because they recognise the role that such an agency can play in the regeneration of our communities?
§ Mr. Jack
From the companies to which I have talked, I do not sense a great deal of enthusiasm about this issue—but then business is pragmatic: it would not turn up its nose at new channels through which resources can be directed for the benefit of the north-west. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating—when RDAs start their work. There are some problems on the horizon. There will be tremendous competition between RDAs for every one to be a winner and a success. They will also face competition from a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly. They will be hard pressed to match some of the successes of regional appeals which the previous Government were able to deliver.
Will the Minister reassure me that one of the most crucial factors in ensuring that technologies in the north-west aerospace industry remain at the forefront for the benefit of its regeneration is FOAS—future offensive air systems? A great deal of work is being undertaken in some new technology development at the margin—unique in this country, and, in fact, in Europe. Without continuing Government support for such programmes, which the UK and French aerospace industries are exploring, our north-west industry will not be able to remain at the forefront of technology. It is important that the Government reassure us that they recognise that, because the north-west aerospace industry accounts for 40,000 jobs.
Last week, there was a debate on seaside towns, of which the north-west has quite a few. One of the most important is Blackpool. Since we are debating matters connected with regeneration, I should like an answer from the Minister to a question that has been bothering me.
One factor that might be inhibiting further development of the Blackpool and Fylde coast is the blight that has hung over the area for some time as a result of North West Water's inability to achieve recognition of its meeting the European Community bathing water directive standards.
In late September, the Minister for the Environment made some pretty strong comments, amplifying some of the problems and ignoring work to be undertaken as a result of the investment of a further £100 million by North West Water in projects approved by the Environment Agency to enable the waters to meet the bathing water 262 standards, so removing a blight from the Fylde coast and sending the signal that it is a good place for a family holiday. Which schemes does the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning support and believe will do the business for the north-west's principal tourist location? It is easy for the Minister for the Environment to rubbish the Fylde coast at the Labour party conference. The damage to a very important part of the north-west economy caused by such ill-considered comment is serious and must be addressed in today's debate.
§ Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)
My right hon. Friend will doubtless recall how keen the Labour party was to stop holding its party conferences in Blackpool, which has had a serious effect on Blackpool.
§ Mr. Jack
Indeed. My hon. Friend will be aware that a new private sector partner has bought the facilities, including the Winter Gardens. The fact that more money will be invested will be a testimony to private enterprise, but it will also be a test of the Labour party—will it be prepared to back Blackpool again when the new facilities are installed?
§ Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)
Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that, at the end of the 1980s, when North West Water said that it did not consider further treatment of sewage on the Fylde coast necessary, and said that it would simply build a longer outfall pipe to put still-polluted sewage into the sea, Lancashire county council fought a major campaign, supported by the European Commission? As a result, treatment is starting to be implemented on the Fylde coast. That programme is not yet complete, and tertiary treatment may be required, but does the right hon. Gentleman recall that he, and the Government of whom he was a member, refused to accept that any further treatment of sewage was necessary on the Blackpool coast?
§ Mr. Jack
In a spirit of reckless generosity, I was hoping to agree with some of what the hon. Lady said, because, as leader of Lancashire county council, she was a doughty fighter for an important development on the Fylde coast. I would fall out with her only on the last part of her intervention, because she is right, in a sense. All of us, on both sides of the political spectrum, had to battle with North West Water to persuade it that the long sewage outfall was not the answer. I remember that we won that battle, but that progress could not have been made had we not privatised the water industry. We occasioned £500 million of investment—now £600 million—to deliver the systems which, I hope, will lead to a solution for the Fylde coast.
§ Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)
In fact, the Select Committee on the Environment went to Fleetwood to consider the argument made by Lancashire county council, and held an evidence session on that at Rossall point. The Government changed their opinion on long sea outfalls for the whole country as a result of that inquiry and the campaign that had been fought.
§ Mr. Jack
The hon. Gentleman bears out my point that the success in getting that investment made was the sum total of the parts. The former leader of Lancashire county council may be distorting history slightly in taking all the credit.
263 I shall now talk about the transport infrastructure in the north-west of England. Although it is absolutely right to explore every opportunity to make the best use of all modes of transport and, whenever possible, to move freight on to the rail system and to develop our rail system, all that the hon. Member for Salford hoped for for the north-west may be more difficult to achieve if the Government do not seriously consider the condition of the M6. To suggest that the Birmingham northern relief road will solve all the problems of that vital transport corridor is to ignore reality.
Some people suppose that our position on the western side of the United Kingdom, when the majority of our export business goes to Europe, puts us at the wrong side of the country. We must not give the impression abroad that we are in any way cut off because the M6 is becoming an almost intolerable route. That would be the worst thing that we could do. The Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning smiles, but those who use that motorway know that it is a nightmare road at times. I hate to think of the environmental damage being done by vehicles stuck in endless queues on that motorway, and of the loss of business time because the capacity of the system is not big enough and there are no plans to develop relief for some of the pinch points.
§ Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)
I could not agree more with the thrust of the right hon. Gentleman's argument, but why, under the Administration of whom he was a member, was there no investment in the west coast main line or—more important, and more relevant to the specific point that he is making—in rolling stock for the freight industry? Ludicrously, we are still in the situation that we inherited from his Administration: V6 engines leaving a very successful Vauxhall plant in Ellesmere Port are being exported to Europe by road because his Administration left no rolling stock for the freight industry.
§ Mr. Jack
In reply to the first part of the hon. Gentleman's intervention, sadly, the investment that should have been made in the west coast main line depended on the tilting train working, and it did not. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I always try to be fair. If there is a fault, those of us who were part of the previous Government should acknowledge that. However, because the tilting train did not work, all the railway investment went to the east coast main line.
Yes, there may well have been a dearth of investment in freight, but we should consider the progress that English, Welsh and Scottish Railway, the new freight company, is making in its purchase of 300 locomotives and new specialist facilities. Had freight services remained nationalised, none of that investment would have been possible. It is a pity that the hon. Gentleman is not prepared to acknowledge the benefits that have already flowed to the north-west economy—its routeways and roads—as a result of the transfers to rail freight that EWS is making. The Conservatives set the industry free.
I do not want to go into details, but I hope that, when the Minister reflects on the debate, he will not forget the Importance to the region of agriculture, especially horticulture. The horticulture industry still employs a 264 large number of people. If the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Lord Donoughue, read the comments regularly made in Grower magazine, he would understand why the Government have a poor reputation in the horticulture industry. It is time that the Government developed a proper strategy for the development of the industry, because it is vital to the north-west.
I close on a point about the human capital of the north-west—its people, whose ability or otherwise to make an economic contribution reflects the condition of our health services. At present, a small group of people is inhibited from making its contribution to the economy because of the poor state of renal services in the Royal Preston hospital. I should like the Minister to convey to his friends in the Department of Health my earnest wish that the work being undertaken by the Department of Health and by Sir Leslie Turnberg in a review of regional services—including renal services—in Lancashire, will gel together to enable an early decision to be taken on the need to expand renal services in Preston. The people who are affected by the current pressures on those services might be able to make a better contribution to the north-west economy if decisions were taken on the expansion of those services.
I hope that I have been able to paint a broader picture of the north-west economy, drawing attention to some of the challenges that must be met by hon. Members and Ministers if we are all to ensure that the north-west region, which we represent in the House, prospers in future.
§ Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Ms Blears) on securing the debate. I shall persuade my wife to read her speech in Hansard. Perhaps she will then stop pestering me to take her to Paris, and instead we shall nip down the East Lancashire road and visit Salford. It would be an awful lot cheaper.
Undoubtedly, after years of neglect of the north-west, there is now a steady overall improvement, which is continuing, despite the trading difficulties experienced by much of manufacturing industry. I welcome the strides that the Government have taken, but I shall draw attention to many issues that should be addressed to allow the momentum of economic improvements to gather pace.
One of the things that most irritates me as I look back on the past 20 years is the tendency of Government in London to regard deprivation and social exclusion as primarily a matter to be addressed in the inner cities. Deprivation and social exclusion also exist in smaller towns—those that have lost traditional industries, such as textiles, or suffer from levels of disadvantage similar to those of inner Liverpool or inner Manchester.
Towns such as Barrow, Burnley, Preston, Rochdale, no doubt Ellesmere Port, and Skelmersdale in my constituency do not receive the automatic attention that they deserve. It is true also, as the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) said, that the incidence of social exclusion and economic failure in rural areas is not negligible. Systems to tackle that difficulty are only just being devised.
It is important to remember that Cheshire, Lancashire and Cumbria are predominantly rural areas and that they are about to lose their objective 5b status. Skelmersdale 265 is a town of about 45,000 people. It experienced some of the most violent effects of recession during the Tory years. In recent months, the tide seems to have turned for the town. Unemployment, which was more than 13 per cent. when the Tories left office, is now down to 8.7 per cent. However, that is still twice the national figure.
The economy in Skelmersdale is becoming more exciting and stimulating. New businesses are moving in to the extent that we have run out of industrial and commercial business land. Investment in Skelmersdale is growing rapidly and that is due to three factors. First, it is due to regional selective assistance and assisted area status. Secondly, the local partnerships that have been formed have been tremendously successful, largely thanks to the energy and intelligence of West Lancashire district council, in this context at least. These are the partnerships between businesses, public agencies, community groups and the county council. Thirdly, there is the expansionist mood of several key industries in the town, to which I shall refer.
Assisted area status as we know it is up for significant change, and Skelmersdale is in danger of losing it. Most of west Lancashire is in the Liverpool travel-to-work area; it is on the northern edge of Merseyside. Many workers move in and out of Merseyside and Skelmersdale for their work, which makes more sense as their travel-to-work area than a Lancashire countywide area would. To use different criteria for designating assisted area status for Skelmersdale would damage a town that has, as I have said, twice the national rate of unemployment. It would damage also the local partnerships which have hitherto been very successful in attracting continuing investment into the new town.
Other problems have been created by the way in which Department of Trade and Industry grants have been used to underpin foreign investments in some new plant in the region. We all welcome such new investment in the region, but it seems foolish to put taxpayers' money into, for example, a new paper mill in Trafford Park. I wish no harm to Trafford Park and its development. However, A and M Paper in Skelmersdale has invested huge amounts of its own money in expansion in the town, and Kimberly-Clark has similarly put massive investment into a paper mill in Barrow, and each of those indigenous firms will find themselves in regional competition from heavily subsidised rivals.
The same is true of a firm called Europanel in my constituency, which makes Contiboard. It faces competition from a Portuguese firm, Sonae, which has been subsidised to move an identical factory in Kirkby, about four miles away. It will operate in a sector of production in the country that is already oversupplied. I know that the DTI is not the responsibility of my hon. Friend the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning, but in my view the DTI should tighten up on those investments, and I hope that that will be a function of the regional development agency in the near future.
The north-west is one of the country's premier agricultural areas. Two thirds of the region is rural. It is the region that was most damaged by the BSE tragedy. Cheshire and Cumbria—particularly Cumbria—were hard hit by it. Similarly, Lancashire has many pig, poultry and egg producers. They are again in deep recession. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has had some remarkable successes in Europe and in his negotiations with British retailers, all of which have 266 been deeply appreciated by the agricultural community in the north-west. However, the depression in the industry is still with us. It spreads outwards to have an effect on rural life generally in the region and it is unlikely to be resolved for some months.
Each of the factors to which I have referred adds up to a compelling case for the RDAs to get cracking as soon as possible and for the Government to start planning for full-blown regional elected government. The RDA must get a grip, perhaps sector by sector rather than area by area, of the strategic planning for the north-west. That would help us avoid unhelpful decisions about the assisted area map or about DTI grants, which can damp down regeneration in the north-west's most disadvantaged areas.
Equally, the RDA must, as a matter of urgency, tackle the region's transport infrastructure. I agree absolutely with what the right hon. Member for Fylde said about the M6, through Lancashire particularly, and about the west coast main line. It is clear that the mixture of private rail and coach companies is entirely unable to sort out transport in the region. That must be a job for the RDA.
In my view, the RDA must impose on itself a rural filter. A rural representative on the board is not enough—indeed, it might be counter-productive. Every decision that the RDA makes should be viewed in the context of how it enhances or diminishes the lives of people on low incomes, especially those living in rural areas, as well as how it enhances or diminishes the rural environment.
Above all, the RDA must reflect all the region. It will be too easy for it to be dominated by Manchester. I say that with all due respect to Manchester, which has a lot of muscle. I accept that it would be strange if it did not use that muscle. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider closely the composition of the board to ensure that it properly reflects the entire region. I hope also that in the not-too-distant future we shall start examining regional representation in the new House of Lords, further to strengthen the north-west in that place.
Finally, I suggest to the Minister, who I know has his heart in the regions and in regional development, that he will receive huge support from the 64 Members of the north-west parliamentary Labour party in his work towards the development of RDAs and regional government. The Opposition have been making many noises recently about the terrors of our moving towards a Europe of the regions. Speaking for myself, I would positively welcome such a move. I think that there are tremendous advantages in the regional structures that our European partners have and of which we are deprived. I look forward to the strengthening of those structures in the not-too-distant future.
§ Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)
I am grateful to be able to contribute to the debate. I must offer congratulations to the hon. Member for Salford (Ms Blears). The hon. Lady has not quite persuaded me that Salford is a tourist destination, but she has done very well as a start.
My constituency is tucked in the extreme south-east corner of the north-west region. However, I assure the House that there is a strong sense of identity and community over the issues that affect the whole region.
It is perhaps worth emphasising briefly the context in which the region finds itself and what has happened to it over the past two decades. If we are considering the coal 267 industry, the steel industry, the textile industry or even investment in the rail industry, we must recognise some of the difficulties that have had to be overcome and some of the wounds and bruises that have been left on the regional economy. It is perhaps no surprise that within that context, there have been major population shifts and changes. A recent estimate is that the population of Merseyside is set to decline by about 10 per cent. and that of Greater Manchester by 2 per cent. in the next census period.
At the same time, as the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) has said, our connection to Europe has become more and more important. Therefore, I shall devote the rest of my contribution to examining how we might exploit and develop that connection and how we might heal the wounds and bruises to which I have referred. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) intervened to ask how many letters had been received about an elected regional development agency. I have received the same number of letters about that as I have about the setting up of single regeneration budgets. Stockport council has sought vigorously to participate in the SRB process, but—like many other public bodies and institutions in the north-west—has become snagged in a nightmare bidding regime. That is an inheritance from the previous Government that I hope that this Government will get rid of as quickly as possible.
Stockport made bids in three consecutive years and spent more than £100,000 on bids that were unsuccessful. We have now got some single regeneration budget money and we are grateful for it. However, when the council submitted in priority order the 27 projects for the reduction of class sizes that it believed should be supported by the Department for Education and Employment, the Department took no notice of the council, its education experts and the head teachers, allotting the money apparently on the random rolling of the dice. That is another example of the bidding system failing to support investment in the north-west in the most appropriate and targeted way.
The citizens of Stockport contribute £30 million a year to the national lottery, but they do not receive anything like that—
§ Mr. Stunell
They do not receive that amount in prizes or projects. The national lottery receives 20 bids for every one that is successful. We should end the bid culture and bring back to our region the responsibility for taking decisions about spending resources.
The Liberal Democrats are very pleased that we are to have a single regional development agency for the north-west. Regional accountability is important, and we want to see the development of an overall economic strategy for the north-west. Is the Minister yet able to announce the membership of the RDA? We expected to learn that in October, but we have not yet done so. The RDA must swing quickly into action, but how will it be linked to the training and enterprise councils? We need to consider carefully how to develop training in the north-west. I remind the Government that if we seek successful models of regional development, both Spain 268 and Germany provide excellent examples. Strong, democratic and locally accountable regional bodies are the source and the essence of their success. Will the Government think again about democratic accountability for the RDA?
We need two sorts of infrastructure for success in the north-west. We need what I call software infrastructure, including democracy and devolution on the one hand and enhanced training and education on the other. Investment on a grand scale in the hardware infrastructure is important, but so is investment in the software infrastructure. In other European countries, democracy and devolution enhance the value of spending and investment in the public and private sectors. Training and education are also important and the north-west has an enviable reputation for the development of engineering skills. Indeed, Hazel Grove is the birthplace of Fred Williams, the co-inventor of the first functioning computer in the world, which was developed 50 years ago at Manchester university. Despite our innovative engineering skills, Microsoft and Sanyo are not based in this country, let alone in the north-west. We are not good at exploiting our assets.
We also need investment in hardware infrastructure. I support what other hon. Members have said about investment in the west coast main line, but I go further and ask the Minister for a quick decision on the application to start the Eurostar service from Manchester. The trains are sitting in the sidings and the company is ready to operate, but the Government decision remains long awaited. We also need confirmation that the channel tunnel rail link connection will be made on time, because rail freight and rail passenger services from the north-west to Europe will be crucial in the next decade. We also need local public transport infrastructure decisions.
At the conclusion of a previous Adjournment debate, the Minister boasted about the publication of a transport White Paper, but we need transport action. In Stockport and, especially, in Hazel Grove, the issue of access to Manchester airport will become crucial with the opening of the second runway. Passenger numbers will increase from 16 million a year to 30 million, but the infrastructure to cope with that increase is not in place.
The north-west offers a high quality of life to those who live there. It offers a high quality of environment to many, but not all, who live there. It also offers a good quality of economic activity to most of us who live there. For the future, we need to ensure that those benefits are extended to all. That will need this House, the regional development agency and the local authorities and councils to work together.
§ Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)
Over the past seven years, the public, private and voluntary sectors in the north-west have developed strategies on economic development, transport, training, innovation and the environment, working through the North-West Partnership and the North-West Regional Association. Now that the Government have appointed the regional development agency with executive authority to act, supported by the North-West regional chamber, we can move from developing those strategies piecemeal to a more focused effort to bring investment to the north-west. That will help to change the situation in which the north-west has one of 269 the lowest gross domestic products per head in the country and contains many urban deprived areas, including Liverpool, which ranks first for urban deprivation in England and Wales.
I wish to draw attention to a major opportunity that has arisen to develop trade in the port of Liverpool, the area that I represent, and the whole of the north-west. The Good Friday Irish peace agreement has opened up new opportunities to develop the growing trade between the Irish Republic, Northern Ireland and the north-west through the expanding port of Liverpool. It is part of an initiative to develop east-west trade, linking both parts of Ireland with the north-west and developing a corridor creating a gateway to northern and central Europe.
The development of a regional development agency, speaking for the north-west and with authority to act—working together with the north-south ministerial council to be set up in Ireland, the British-Irish Council and the Northern Ireland Assembly—means that we are now in a unique position to develop that expanding trade.
I was pleased to chair and help develop an important new trade group between the north-west and Ireland which met in the House of Commons three weeks ago. My hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Mr. Benton) and I held a meeting with the Irish Businesses and Employers Confederation, the Northern Ireland Confederation of British Industry, the Bank of England, the North-West chamber of commerce, the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, the Warrington Project and other industrial and commercial groupings, together with the chairman designate of the RDA.
That group was set up to develop trade between Ireland, the north-west and northern Europe. It recognises the growth in trade between both parts of Ireland and the north-west, and the fact that 30 per cent. of goods from Ireland come to the United Kingdom. It also recognises that, in 1997, 2.5 million tonnes of freight passed between Liverpool and Ireland. That is part of the development of Liverpool and the expansion of trade and the generation of wealth there.
To develop that trade link between Ireland, the northwest and northern Europe we must look for opportunities to develop exports. We need to identify new markets by researching different sectors, to identify and remove barriers to trade and to consider policies for backing small and medium enterprises, both as part of this initiative and more generally.
We must consider investment in SMEs, the need for new technology and communications, investment in the west coast main line and in the Liverpool-to-Hull rail line, and the development of the port of Liverpool. We should also consider co-operation between education institutions.
§ Mrs. Ellman
I am pleased to see increased investment in the port of Liverpool and the hard work being done there by all parties. I welcome that expansion. This initiative is an important part of developing trade and wealth in Liverpool while developing trade opportunities for businesses throughout the north-west.
270 The sectors already identified for the expansion of trade generate wealth and jobs and include the food and tourism sectors. In the north-west, tourism generates £1.5 billion and 200,000 jobs—6 per cent. of the north-west's work force. In Merseyside, 16,500 jobs are generated by tourism and £500 million is spent through tourism in that economy. This is a major opportunity for the expansion of tourism, as for other sectors of industry where research is required.
§ Mrs. Ellman
The right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) made many promises, but delivered little. It is the hard work of the people of Liverpool and Merseyside, together with the investment that has been attracted, that is starting to turn the area round. We must not forget that Merseyside still has the lowest GDP per head in the whole of the United Kingdom, which signifies that we have a long way to go, despite new investment, major efforts and increasing prosperity.
The setting up of the north-west and Ireland trade group presents an excellent chance to focus on new opportunities. The North-West regional development agency provides an executive body which can support SMEs, trade and communications, and lobby for and attract further investment and training in the region.
I hope that all sectors will support this new initiative. I hope that the Minister, through his Department and in discussion with other Departments, will support it. It is about investment, communications and the generation of wealth and much-needed employment.
§ Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate and I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Salford (Ms Blears) on securing it.
Listening to the contributions of Labour Members, I was disappointed that, so far, there has been no reference to the importance of education in regenerating the north-west. That is a special interest of mine on which I would like to spend a little time this morning.
The north-west has some fine schools, both state and independent. Manchester, in particular, has excellent independent schools—Manchester grammar, Manchester high and Withington girls' school, among others. But the tragedy is that in many parts of the north-west, the state education sector fails to live up to the standards which the people there have a right to expect.
§ Mr. Miller
Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that Cheshire has delivered a higher standard of education than Kent, despite Kent being full of grammar schools? Perhaps he could explain why that is so.
§ Mr. Brady
You would doubtless rightly call me to account for departing as far as Kent, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, I am happy to take the hon. Gentleman a little closer to home to my own borough of Trafford, where schools perform rather better than those in Cheshire, and 271 rather better than in any other part of the north-west. Last year, we had the best A-level results in the country and our secondary modern schools—not just our grammar schools—are achieving outstanding results. The hon. Gentleman may wish to consider the Ashton-on-Mersey school in my constituency, which the Secretary of State for Education and Employment has declared a beacon school—an example of how to educate our children in the north-west; a secondary modern school which is performing better than most comprehensive schools.
The hon. Gentleman may also care to consider the Jeff Joseph college in Sale, a city technology college, which is now recognised as being the most improved state school in the country over the past year, again, in a selective system, not a grammar school but a secondary school achieving fantastic results.
Labour Members would be wise to reflect, not on the ideology, but on what it is that achieves the highest standards in education in the north west. The hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman) has grammar schools and the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Mr. Goggins) is privileged to have Sale grammar school in his constituency. Many of us represent excellent schools which should be defended and protected. In the interests of our children in the north-west, we should be looking to spread that example, not only by maintaining the excellent schools that we already have in some parts of the north-west, but by trying to learn something from them.
One of the great missed opportunities of the early days of the new Government in the education sphere was that they tended to focus their activities on undermining the very best schools rather than trying to build up the bad schools which are letting down our children in many parts of the north west.
I come now to the economy and industrial relations. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) was gracious in her tribute to the previous Government for the abolition of the dock labour scheme. I think that the import of her remarks in reply to my intervention was that she recognised that the port of Liverpool could not have achieved any of the growth and expansion to which she alluded had the dock labour scheme still been in place.
§ Mr. Brady
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for pointing that out. I am deeply sorry to hear that I have drawn the wrong inference. Perhaps I was being too charitable to her. Apparently, she has missed the fact that the port of Liverpool could not have developed in the way in which it has without the abolition of the dock labour scheme. I hope that she will talk to those who run the port and ask them their views on that. I suspect that she will find that they agree with the inference that I chose to draw from her remarks.
Liverpool has been dogged by bad industrial relations performance—more, perhaps, by the perception of bad industrial relations on Merseyside—and that has to be tackled. My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) suggested that there is a battle between Manchester and Liverpool. I would not want that, 272 although one thing that the regional development agency will have to address is long-standing rivalry between, not only those two great cities, but the other parts of the north-west. Cumbria, which never considered itself to be part of the north-west, has been brought into the same RDA zone, which will cause problems for the RDA.
It was slightly unfortunate that no hon. Member representing Liverpool gave true praise to my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine).
§ Mr. Brady
Very little else; my right hon. Friend is right to point that out. The people of Merseyside feel that there has been a void in the past 18 months, and they might like someone to fill that role.
The role that has been performed so ably by the development corporation—in Liverpool, as in other parts of the country—also deserves a mention. There was a rather sad aspect to the speech by the hon. Member for Salford. I have great affection for her, as she knows, and she spoke with great enthusiasm about Salford, Manchester and the north-west, but she was wrong to suggest that the investment to which she alluded—at some length—was all achieved by the new Government and to give so little credit to the previous Government for their important role in building the economy of the north-west so effectively.
In the same vein, reference was made to why investment in the west coast main line did not happen sooner. Labour Members should reflect on the fact that the massive investment in that line—and in trains, in which Virgin Trains is taking part—would not have happened had it not been for the privatisation of the rail network. Modernisation started some time ago, but, sadly, it will take a little while to achieve the benefits. I hope that the hon. Member for Salford, and her hon. and right hon. Friends, will not take all the credit when that happens. Investment by private companies, and achieved because of the freedoms that the previous Government gave to them, will bring enormous benefits to the north-west.
The north-west is a land of enormous opportunities. My constituency perhaps has greater good fortune than some other parts of the region. We have excellent education, a nice environment in which to live and a vibrant small-industry sector. I am also privileged to represent many of the people who make businesses work across much of Manchester and much of the north-west. They perform an important role.
What concerns me about the new Government's policies, proposals and approach to business and the economy is that, sadly, the whole thrust of their economic and employment policies will make the work of the people who I represent more difficult. It will make it harder for businesses to justify investment in their operations and to make a profit, increase the costs of 273 employing people and discourage investment and the creation of jobs. I fear that, in the coming years, the result will be more lost jobs and less investment in the region.
§ 12.4 pm
§ Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Ms Blears) on ensuring that the debate has taken place. It is funny that the Opposition do not seem to remember the 1980s for the decline of the north-west and the complete destruction of jobs and industry. The way of life in the north-west was totally threatened by the previous Government. We must look to the new millennium and to the new Government to ensure that the fortunes of the north-west are redressed and that the balance comes back to the north from the south.
The north-west has always been the engine room of the country and of the economy. It has stimulated the country and has always responded, as it will continue to do, but we must ensure that the north-west has a strong voice. That will come through the regional development agency. Some of us believe that it should be elected; that will come, when we have seen its worth.
The north-west will have to compete against the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. It has to stand together and be united, and there is no better place to look than Lancashire, and what it has to offer. In Chorley, we have a former Royal Ordnance site with 800 acres of brown-field land ready for redevelopment and ready to play a crucial role. What better place is there than Chorley to host the headquarters of the new RDA'? It would be an ideal position, because it is central to the north-west.
We must not lose sight of that, and we must also remember that we have farming in Lancashire. Thankfully, the Government are addressing farming issues and ensuring that farmers will continue to farm in the north-west, which was the second most affected region because of bad management by the previous Government. The Government are addressing that. They will continue to do so, and they will continue to be supported.
The north-west Members of Parliament stood together against the decision to move to Wales the headquarters of 101 Battalion, the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. We will continue to fight that, because it would mean redundancies in the north-west. That is not acceptable.
We should be pleased that we have an important role to play in ensuring that the north-west has a main line link to Europe. We must not lose sight of that and we must stand together to ensure that we get a direct link—it is crucial. We want further investment in the west coast main line. Would not it be nice to see the InterCity trains that we lost in the early 1990s going back into Blackpool regularly? We do not want one-offs, but regular journeys that start at Blackpool.
We also want further investment. That will come from my hon. Friend the Minister, who believes in the north-west. He will support it and continue to ensure that we get a fair crack of the whip, which we failed to get under the previous Government.
Health is important, and there have been new challenges with the link-up of Chorley and South Ribble district general and Royal Preston hospitals in clinical services. That will create a better response and better 274 ability to treat people's needs. We must also remember that renal services are important. They were failed in the 18 years of the previous Government, but I believe that the Government will address that and will continue to do so quickly. Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing this debate.
§ 12.8 pm
§ Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)
I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in the brief debate. I am not sure whether Walt Disney has heard of the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle)—some of the stuff that came from him was complete fantasy. We should start concentrating on the great potential and opportunities that exist in the north-west, although there are distinct problems as well.
I refer the hon. Member for Chorley to the latest Confederation of British Industry report, which says that "considerable pessimism" still exists in the north-west. We rely a lot on manufacturing, and manufacturing jobs have declined in the past 18 months. My right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) talked about British Aerospace, which is vital as an engine for skilled defence jobs in the north-west. Hundreds of small businesses throughout the north-west feed into British Aerospace. There are skills in British Aerospace at Warton in my right hon. Friend's constituency and at Salmesbury in mine, and at Royal Ordnance in Chorley. There is a tremendous skill base, and we want it to increase.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) spoke about manufacturing jobs and the need to export, but we have high interest rates compared to the rest of Europe and a strong pound because of that. It is difficult for manufacturing industry in the north-west to get those new markets about which she spoke, because it has to compete with industries in the rest of Europe. It is a great shame that she does not take such opportunities to lobby Ministers and persuade them to produce different economic policies. I do not think that anyone would dispute the fact that we are in a recession created by Downing street. The problems faced by industries in the north-west are the Government's responsibility, because of their economic policies.
The hon. Lady's answer to the problem is an elected regional chamber. Does she really believe that the people of the north-west are clamouring for yet another elected body? Where will it all end? We have elections to Westminster, European parliamentary elections, county council elections, borough elections and parish elections, but she wants yet more elections. The Labour Government understand bureaucracy and red tape, but they do not understand business.
§ Mr. Woolas
When we have elections in the north-west, my side wins and the hon. Gentleman's side loses. That is why we like elections.
§ Mr. Evans
At least all the Lancashire Conservative MPs have turned up for the debate. After the next election, when we have another debate on the north-west, 275 many more Lancashire Conservative MPs will be sitting on the Government Benches, and the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends will be sitting on the Opposition Benches.
§ Mr. Evans
I suspect that the others are busy putting advertisements in next year's Yellow Pages, so that they, too, can get another job.
Tourism is vital. As has been said, it is important for Manchester and Liverpool. I represent a rural constituency, 75 per cent. of which is an area of outstanding natural beauty. We want more tourism in the north-west, which could feed into Blackpool. It is a great shame that the new Labour Government's attitude to Blackpool is so snobbish. That seaside resort attracts many millions of people, and instead of slamming Blackpool, the north-west Labour MPs should have spoken up on its behalf.
I invited the Minister for the Environment to come swimming with me in the sea at Blackpool, such is my confidence. I make the same offer to the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning, who may take it up when he winds up the debate. He could come up to Blackpool and we could have a nice little dip. The hon. Member for Salford (Ms Blears) referred to the Titanic. I do not know whether the Minister will float or sink, but I assure him that no harm will come to him from what is in the sea at Blackpool. That is proved time and again by the many millions of people who are not as snobbish as the new Labour Government and come to Blackpool in their droves.
Millions of pounds have been spent on the pleasure beach, which attracts tourists from Britain and Europe. Granada studios are in the north-west, so that will ensure that this clip is not on "North Westminster" on Sunday. We also have Alton towers. Many tourists come to the north-west, and we want tourism in the region to develop further.
Transport infrastructure has been mentioned time and again. We want new investment to alleviate the clogs and jams on the M6. Hon. Members who travel back to their constituency by road know that there is a problem. Publicity during the Labour party conference highlighted the severe problems with the trains. One of my constituents has written to me about her experiences. She travels every week between Preston and Euston, and told me that the majority of the trains are late. We need new investment in infrastructure to ensure that the north-west will survive and, as a result of regeneration, prosper into the future.
§ Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)
I welcome the debate. I am pleased to see my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), my hon. Friends the Members for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) and for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins), and, for a time, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton), who have listened to all or part of the debate.
276 I congratulate the hon. Member for Salford (Ms Blears) on her enthusiastic opening speech, and on her obvious pride in the city of Salford. I enjoyed listening to her as she took us on a Cook's tour of the achievements in her constituency. I do not want to enter a sour note, but I thought that she was a trifle churlish in suggesting that this new Jerusalem began in the early hours of 2 May 1997. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde aptly pointed out, many of the measures that have led to the regeneration of Salford were introduced by the previous Government, but one would not expect to get that message from the comments of Labour Members.
Between 1979 and 1997, the previous Government's policies helped to secure record inward investment, not least in the north-west. During that period, inward investment in the north-west helped to create or to safeguard more than 80,000 jobs. Conservative policies brought Sony to Merseyside. In the teeth of opposition from the Labour party, our policies enabled BNFL to flourish: it is a major contributor to the economy of the north-west. The current Government's economic policies jeopardise the progress that has been made.
The Conservative regeneration strategy helped town and country alike. The hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) referred to rural and agricultural life. The single regeneration budget combined into one pot 20 separate programmes previously operated by five different Departments, and provided a flexible fund for local regeneration. In the three years from 1995, the SRB provided some £4 billion, with more than £800 million from the challenge fund for new regeneration projects. The emphasis on competitive bidding ensured that funds were targeted on the schemes most likely to produce tangible results.
In 1994–99, the Merseyside objective 1 area has received more than £350 million in funding from the European regional development fund. Meanwhile, the Rural Development Commission and our rural challenge scheme promoted a range of programmes supporting economic and social regeneration in rural areas. We established the 230 business links across England, which provided one-stop training, advice and information centres for business. I hope that that puts the position into perspective, because these measures did not begin on 2 May 1997.
I do not have long, and I do not want to eat into the Minister's time, but I must pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde. He referred to the numerous regeneration projects in the region, and brought up the important subject of British Aerospace and the aerospace industry. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West, who described the crucial role of education, which is a fundamental part of the regeneration of our cities, towns and rural areas. It is vital for people to have the proper education and training to be able to compete in and contribute to a highly competitive economic environment.
I am not sure how the Minister will respond to the challenge of my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley, tempting as some people may find it. My hon. Friend raised the important issue of tourism in the region. He also made a valid point, which I know Labour Members do not like hearing. Given that Labour Members have paid lip service to Blackpool, which featured prominently in the debate, why did their party kick the town in the teeth by deciding that it was not good enough 277 to host its conference every other year—although, presumably, it is good enough for other people to visit for their holidays? Clearly, Labour is not the servant of the people but the overclass, and the hotel and tourism facilities that Blackpool has to offer are not good enough for new Labour.
I fear that the threat posed by the Government's current economic policies—by relatively high interest rates, and the level of sterling—to manufacturing and other industry will hinder, rather than help, the further development of the north-west.
§ The Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning (Mr. Richard Caborn)
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Ms Blears) for initiating the debate. She is a great champion of the north-west, and of Salford in particular. As many speakers observed today, she does justice to the region, and I have no doubt that, in the not too distant future, she will become a great agent for tourism.
The debate has featured a notable contrast between the constructive and the destructive. Hon. Members have suggested that we should adopt a constructive approach to the problems that we inherited from the last Government, implying that, during their 18 years in office, that Government did no damage to our economy. Other genuinely constructive suggestions have been made, however. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), for example, described efforts to promote trade with Ireland. I know that the chairman-elect of the regional development agency has been involved in those efforts. Others have referred to the need to ensure that the economy of the north-west is handled in the way that should be expected of a Labour Government, and to deal with the economic deficit that is the legacy of the last Government.
The right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) mentioned the aerospace industry. There is no doubt that the industry is a jewel in the crown of British manufacturing, and the north-west has played its role. In the early 1990s, I chaired the Select Committee on Trade and Industry for four or five years. We produced two reports on aerospace, in which we pleaded with the Administration of the day to provide launch aid similar to that provided by our continental partners and by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in America; but we did not get a dime out of that Administration. As the right hon. Gentleman will see from column 1036 of Hansard, he was told in a parliamentary answer on 3 December that the Government were investing up to £323 million in launch aid for the British aerospace industry.
§ Mr. Caborn
That is in marked contrast to what was done by the last Administration. The same applies to economic regeneration. The last Administration dealt only with the symptoms, not with the cause. A classic example is provided by an interview with the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) about development corporations in the Financial Times. When the right hon. Gentleman, then President of the Board of Trade, was asked how he would control the corporations, he replied, "It is 278 very easy. For as long as I have a pot of gold on my desk, they will beat a path to my door." That is an example of the arrogance of centralised government—the wish not to devolve power to people so that they can find real, sustainable solutions to their problems, but to ensure that everything is dictated from the centre.
Throughout their 18 years in government, the Conservatives took powers from local authorities and partnerships, and domiciled them in Whitehall. This Government are dealing not just with the symptoms, but with the underlying problems that we have inherited. We are bringing together regional development agencies—which will be business led—and other partners, in the hope that they can deal with the fact that not one English region is now performing, in terms of gross domestic product per capita, as well as the European regions are on average. When it comes to wealth creation, that is the legacy of the last Administration.
We intend to tackle the problem. We shall do so by devolving real powers and resources to the regions, so that they can take a strategic overview of local problems—in this context, the problems of the north-west. The initiative has got off to a flying start with the appointment of Lord Thomas as chairman of the regional development agency in the north-west, and the appointment of a chief executive. We shall announce the membership of the boards in the next few days. The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) suggested that we had said we would do so in October, but we did not have an Act of Parliament until November.
We want the partnership that we are establishing not just to address the economic deficit in the regions, but to develop further strategies with the regional chambers. Most of that will happen in the public sector, but we hope to build on partnerships in every region, particularly the north-west. The north-west has blazed a trail in establishing a partnership between the regional development agency and the regional chamber. At its inaugural meeting on 3 July, the chamber announced the constitution that would govern the partnership, which I understand has been signed by all those involved.
The regional chambers will play a role in strategic thinking that has not existed in the past, in regard to land use planning, spatial planning and the transport planning that was outlined in the White Paper announced some weeks ago by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister. They will try to deal with, for instance, the problems of the west coast main line and the conurbations surrounding Birmingham, which will have a major impact on the ability of the north-west to transport, and import, goods and people. Such problems will be dealt with in a much more strategic way.
I assure Opposition Members that the proposals have been welcomed by all the stakeholders in the north-west. They may deride the role of the CBI, the chambers of commerce, regional branches of the TUC, local authorities and the community; but such derision explains why we have so many more Members of Parliament than the Opposition. We have listened to all those people.
My hon. Friend the Member for Salford mentioned the regeneration initiatives that have been used so effectively in Salford, which will no doubt continue to bring about sustainable development. This Government take seriously the need to provide resources and develop policies in a more holistic way to tackle regeneration problems in 279 the regions. Our new deal for communities commits £800 million over the next three years to dealing with some of the worst problems in 17 English estates. I acknowledge that, as has been pointed out, it was an advance on the part of the last Government to combine the spending power of four Departments, and make it effective in terms of delivery.
We have committed some £3.8 billion to regeneration, the bulk of which will be provided through the single regeneration budget. Eighty per cent. will be targeted on urban areas, and 20 per cent. on, in particular, rural areas. As some of my hon. Friends pointed out, two-thirds of the north-west is rural.
We will co-ordinate most of those policies in the middle of next year, when we publish our urban White Paper—the first for 20-odd years—and the rural White Paper, which will clarify the links between urban and rural areas. We believe that we are tackling the real, underlying problems of the north-west by launching partnerships. Again, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Salford for instigating today's debate.