HC Deb 21 October 2002 vol 391 cc94-104

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

8.2 pm

David Wright (Telford)

I am pleased to be able to speak about a subject that is not just close to my heart—given my background in urban regeneration—but crucially to communities throughout our towns and cities.

The quality of urban design is important for many reasons, but perhaps the main reason is the fact that well-designed urban environments promote a sense of self-worth. I want to focus on the potential of good urban design to reduce crime and promote the creation of sustainable communities where people want to live, work, shop and enjoy their leisure time.

I believe that if people have a well-designed neighbourhood that is well maintained they will treat it with respect, and will endeavour to police it themselves. They will create an atmosphere that tells criminals "You are not welcome here." If an area is poorly designed and poorly maintained, however, people will respond to their environment in a negative way and will accept decline as being the natural trend. As I said earlier, people derive a sense of their own self-worth from the condition of the environment around them: their aspirations for themselves and their families are shaped by their locality.

In terms of general principles, our objective as a Government must be to encourage the creation of physical environments that are conducive to the overall security of communities. To do that, we need to examine some of the dynamics of modern urban living and adapt our approach accordingly. Increasingly nowadays, geographical communities are breaking down and being replaced by communities of interest. People now have a series of social contacts that are not necessarily linked to the location of their homes. Friends from work, for example, often live many miles away, but they see more of them than they do of their neighbours.

People do not have as much contact with their neighbours as they used to, which creates a sense of isolation in communities. More people are living alone as well, and many do not speak to their neighbours at all. A friend of mine once told me that he was more likely to hear the voice of Nelson Mandela on television that evening than to hear the voice of his neighbour.

Those changes in social infrastructure are compounded by the poor design of many neighbourhoods, which at worst encourage crime and at best fail to provide any deterrents. I also believe that some people nowadays have expectations that are unachievable in relation to quiet enjoyment of their homes. That is difficult for many to acknowledge, but we must understand that our society is changing. People often do not want their children to play a long way from their homes; they want them to play in the street outside. Although they may not like it, people must accept that that is a growing trend.

Why is the issue important? Antisocial behaviour and crime on estates are the number one issue in my advice surgery and in my postbag. There is a feeling that many estates are, in the words of Telford residents, "out of control", and gangs of predominantly young people are behaving in an increasingly lawless manner. The fear of crime is of course more significant than its incidence in most cases, but the quality and structure of the local environment is a major contributory factor in the level of fear.

The amount of police cover available in many areas will never meet the needs of local communities, and recent research by the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders has shown that closed-circuit television is not necessarily the panacea that many think it to be. Effective design that reduces the incidence of crime and the fear of it is not a luxury today, but a necessity.

It is easy to highlight practical design problems in parts of my constituency that lead to crime and the fear of it. Telford contains a number of housing estates built in the 1960s and early 1970s with the Radburn layout. On those estates, the housing and street pattern is the reverse of the traditional layout, with vehicular access to the rear of the property and pedestrian access to the front. Residents cannot see their vehicles once they have parked them, and unless they fence off their front gardens they merge into the wider public realm.

The access-ways on those estates are a maze, and public space is ill defined. The planting is often overgrown, and makes pedestrian routes through the estates dark and unwelcoming. Local facilities—shops and community centres—are provided in small arcades that are themselves visually unattractive and at night are literally steel-shuttered bunkers.

Some of the potential solutions to those problems are just common sense. I am thinking of the creation of defensible space, which I will return to shortly; the promotion of mixed-use development, often with higher densities of housing, so that areas in towns do not close at 5.30 pm and become no-go zones; the creation of distinct neighbourhoods in housing areas with their own character, or legibility as the professionals like to call it, so that people begin to recognise and associate with their neighbours again; and the removal of unwanted areas of public open space through, for example, the incorporation of rear access ways into gardens, better lighting, and better allocation of pedestrian space.

Those things sound so simple, but on many estates throughout Britain they have not been achieved. We are not seeing significant improvements in the physical environment.

The design of new housing is obviously important. Design features that reduce crime need to be incorporated—for example, doors and windows overlooking the street and public spaces to provide natural surveillance opportunities. Developers need to consider that when submitting proposals to planning authorities. However, the issue does not relate exclusively to the design of new homes; in fact, most problems occur in existing residential environments. The refurbishment of homes needs to be done with crime-reduction principles in mind, and as much attention needs to be paid to the external street scene as to the fabric of the properties.

So how can we move forward? I want to recommend four key areas of action. First, we need to ensure more cross-departmental working at national level, particularly between the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Home Office. Designing out crime should be a core activity in regeneration initiatives, and should be measured in terms of project outputs. Government should at an early stage consider consolidating the complex array of legislation relating to the design, management and use of the street. That can be coupled with the development of public realm strategies, which should bring together all the players involved in designing the urban environment. Tackling crime and antisocial behaviour can form a cornerstone of that work. The excellent homezone initiative that is being rolled out across the whole country, including in Woodside in my constituency, could be used as a starting point and pilot for much of this work.

Secondly, communities should be encouraged to work together to resolve problems of crime and antisocial behaviour. I would particularly like to compliment the Urban Design Alliance, which is supported by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and English Partnerships, for its work on the placecheck initiative. That initiative encourages local people to identify problems in their own neighbourhoods and develop practical solutions. Much of the work being done in this area by the Institution of Civil Engineers and the Design Council is also excellent. Local parish councils can play a particularly important role in drawing out community perspectives and providing seedbed funding for local initiatives. A number of parish councils in my area have been particularly good at drawing up parish plans. St. George's and Priorslee parish councils are leaders in this area.

Thirdly, local authorities should vigorously apply crime prevention criteria when evaluating planning applications. That is a material consideration. The planning system must be used to generate attractive and easily managed environments. There is no excuse for local authorities, as the planning guidance is already in place. Circular 5/94, PPG 1, PPG 6 and PPG 12 all contain guidance on addressing crime through the planning system. Local community safety partnerships are beginning to move these issues up the agenda in many areas, and the police flagship scheme "Secured by Design" is extremely important.

However, I feel that the services being offered by police architectural liaison officers are often seen in the police service and locally as a luxury add-on and not a fundamental tool through which to reduce crime. Government, local authorities, various agencies and players and the police service need to put that right.

That links to my fourth point, which is that developers need to ensure that designing out crime is at the centre of their work. It is not a fringe activity, whose principles can be discarded once projects are on site.

Those are the four key areas of work that I hope the Minister will consider this evening and in coming weeks and months.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West)

My hon. Friend is an expert in this area, having spent many years working on local authority housing. Could he help me in my constituency? A couple of estates have the Radburn layout, which he has explained to us.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. I remind the hon. Member that he should address the Chair.

Rob Marris

I beg your pardon, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was hoping that my hon. Friend could explain what could be done in older areas of terraced housing. There are some excellent initiatives in my constituency on alley gating, some of which have been funded through the Government's new deal for communities. Is there anything else that could be done in older, terraced areas? I know that they are not as prevalent in my hon. Friend's constituency, but he is an expert.

David Wright

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. One of the key things is to close off access points, as is being done in parts of his constituency. The main problem with that is the mixed ownership pattern in terraced streets. Many people have purchased their home with the right to gain access at the rear of the property, and they often do not want to give that up. It is up to the people in those streets and communities to come together and reach agreement about how to manage rear access ways. With common agreement, closure of access ways can be achieved. The Government have recently issued additional guidance on the closure of rights of way in urban areas, and local authorities should consider those issues carefully.

The issue of designing out crime in neighbourhoods is not new. In the early 1990s, the Conservative Government funded a project called the design improvement controlled experiment.

Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East)

My hon. Friend will be aware that there was a DICE project on the Durham estate in my constituency. Despite initially giving great hope to the community, it is now popularly considered a failure because the community buy-in and response to the proposals was inadequate. Does he agree that the role of elected councillors is vital in designing out crime? They amplify the voice of a community. In that ward in the past 20 years, my constituents have been miserably let down by their three Liberal Democrat councillors.

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North)

'Twas ever thus.

David Wright

As my hon. Friend says, 'twas ever thus. My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson) will be aware that I did some work on that project, which I shall refer to in a moment. As he rightly says, one of the key issues is to ensure that communities buy into those initiatives. It is not just about change to the physical environment.

Professor Alice Coleman led the DICE initiative, and I worked on one of the projects in the west midlands. The concept involved the redesign of council estates to reduce the incidence of crime. Much of the work was good, but it did not address some of the underlying socio-economic problems that people in deprived neighbourhoods face. The simple fact is that designing out crime needs to be part of a wider approach to regeneration: it cannot stand alone. Investment in the social infrastructure of areas is as important as investment in the fabric.

The architect Oscar Newman spent a considerable time working on issues relating to urban design and its impact on crime, and he particularly focused on the theory of defensible space. That process involves reassigning the perceived ownership of residential space, thus allowing residents to assert control over their environment. Newman said: Once residents re-establish control of their environment the criminal is isolated because his turf is removed". How right he was. That seems to me an excellent statement of intent for future design in relation to crime reduction.

In closing, I say to the Government and all the agencies involved in urban regeneration and design that we should use the design process to give people their areas back and communicate to people that we care about their environment and about them.

8.17 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Tony McNulty)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright) on securing this debate and raising this important issue. I also congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) and for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson) on their insightful comments. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West referred to alley gating, which, together with local councils, we are trying to do something about, and my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East tutted and made telling comments about the failure of Liberal Democrat councils. Such comments are all too frequent, and sadly that is an experience that we all know only too well from our own constituencies.

I would also echo the comments made about the experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Telford in regeneration and urban design. Recently, I was in Sandwell where he did much of his work, and he was still fondly and lovingly regarded by all in West Bromwich. Like many hon. Members, my hon. Friend understands that regeneration has for too long been separated from urban design and many of the other areas to which he referred. If the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister does anything, it will be to ensure that regeneration, housing, planning and designing out crime are all part of one key policy, which is to build and sustain our vibrant communities. That cannot be an afterthought or an add-on; it must be rooted into plans for regeneration at the start of the process. For most of the summer I have been visiting places around the country. I do not want to be less than generous to the architectural profession, but it seems to me that in the 1960s and 1970s, architects up and down the country were awarded prizes for designing crime in rather than designing crime out. I have been through a number of dark alleyways abutting railway stations, as well as walkways and covered ways around a variety of estates, which are beyond belief, although any fool could tell that they would be dens of iniquity and criminality. Even though much money from the public purse has been spent by a range of councils from all parties to design out crime after architects designed it in, such places are a sight to behold.

The Government are fully committed to tackling crime and the fear of crime, and I want to return to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Telford made about social capacity, social capital and designing out crime not being sufficient of themselves. They must be part of a wider context and a wider policy framework. Designing out crime and tackling the fear of crime must be the key to the regeneration programme for our urban areas and to producing sustainable communities.

We are spending more money than ever on crime reduction initiatives. For example, over the past three years through the crime reduction programme, we have invested more than £340 million in 1,470 projects to build on proven approaches to tackling local crime problems and to develop evidence of what works.

Our plans also mean more police and more modern and efficient police forces throughout the country. The Police Reform Act 2002 contains measures to create a police service that will be flexible, responsive and in a better position to give local communities the ability to live free from crime and the fear of crime.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Telford said, we are developing and mobilising our partnerships with local authorities, agencies, private industry and community groups to deliver crime solutions that work for local people. If the solutions do not have the ownership and buy-in—for want of some other, far less clumsy phrase—of the local community, they will not work. That is the point that my hon. Friend made. We are working across the Government effectively to focus our efforts on the shared goal of community safety and neighbourhood renewal.

Rob Marris

The Minister has mentioned a number of partnerships which, laudably, the Government are setting up and getting involved in to tackle this important issue. Have they had a chance to tackle the architectural profession, to which he has referred, in terms of its training and awareness of those issues? If so, will he say a few words about that?

Mr. McNulty

If my hon. Friend will bear with me, I have plenty of nice words to say about the architectural profession as well, but at least part of the legacy of previous architects is there for us all to see.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Telford said, the planning system also has its part to play in tackling crime. While good planning alone cannot solve the problem of crime, its contribution, when co-ordinated with other measures, can be significant. Well-designed developments can reduce the fear of crime, make crime harder to commit and increase the risk of detection, but once a development is complete, the main opportunity to incorporate crime prevention measures has been lost. Much has been done subsequently in many estates to build out and design out crime, but that is far more expensive and disruptive than designing out crime at the start of the process. The Government want community safety not to be seen as an optional add-on, but to be integrated in the design of new developments.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Telford said, we have already produced Government guidance on planning out crime that sends out hard-hitting messages. Crime prevention can be a material consideration—in English, a relevant factor—when local planning authorities consider planning applications, and it must be considered when reviewing their development plans.

To be entirely fair, much of local government, certainly in its latter-day initiatives such as unitary development plans, is taking designing out crime and its crucial importance in the pre-development stage far more seriously. Initial research shows that incorporating crime reduction features in buildings and environments at the planning stages reduces crime. For example, a 2000 Home Office study of the effects of the principles behind "Secured by Design", which is promoted by police forces throughout the country, showed that burglary levels in homes built to the "Secured by Design" standard in West Yorkshire are 30 per cent. lower than in non-standard homes. There is tangible evidence of what my hon. Friend the Member for Telford has chosen to highlight in the debate—this is a serious matter—and it does work.

We have therefore stressed how important it is for local planning authorities to take advice on developments from police architectural liaison officers at an early stage. That is especially important where there is potential to eliminate or reduce crime, such as in new housing estates. Much of what my hon. Friends have said involves existing estates and housing developments, where such measures are equally important. In too many instances, however, criminals' work has been made far too easy and people's lives have been blighted unnecessarily, so the Government still need to take further action.

My hon. Friends the Members for Telford and for Wolverhampton, South-West mentioned the Radburn design for housing estates, which may be seen in some of our new towns dating from the 1960s and 1970s, and elsewhere too. With access to property from front and rear, and limited natural surveillance, in some cases burglary has been more of a problem than it should have been. As my hon. Friends attested, residents have suffered.

The Government can take action, which is why we are committed, as stated in the urban White Paper, to driving home the fact that crime prevention is and must remain a key planning objective. We will review and update the existing Government guidance, "Planning Out Crime", and produce a good practice guide to accompany the guidance. The guide will set out what works in designing out crime, and will be relevant to both local planning authorities and the police. It will also be practicable and robust in a wide range of circumstances.

We have already underlined the key messages in "Planning out Crime" in planning policy notes as they have been reviewed and updated. My hon. Friend the Member for Telford alluded to that. For example, PPG 3, on housing, encourages local authorities to promote layouts that are safe and to take account of crime prevention and community safety considerations". More recently, PPG 17, on sport, open space and recreation, published this summer, states that "security and personal safety" must be principles for planning new facilities and open space. My hon. Friend is right: we must consider not just design and layout on housing estates, new or old, but the spaces between the places where people live and work, whether they are parks and green spaces or the wider urban realm and public domain in which we all live and work. I shall come to that in more detail shortly.

The Government are committed to higher-quality design, including in residential developments, which is key to providing thriving, inclusive and sustainable communities. The updated guidance on crime will reinforce and complement existing guidance and good practice advice that we have already issued on housing design. My hon. Friend was robust in his lyrical description of at least the PPG titles to the extent that I might be knocking on his door for further planning expertise and advice. As he said, we already have clear planning guidance—PPG 1—on the importance of securing good design. We underlined in the urban White Paper the Government's commitment to good design, and we shall restate that in the promised update of PPG 1. Good design means safe as well as sustainable places.

For my sins, I am, among other things, the design champion for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. I am keen to ensure that good design is embedded in the ethos of my Department's work. My hon. Friend mentioned the Urban Design Alliance. I had the great pleasure of launching its urban design week, and I shall continue to work closely with it in all the good work that it does.

To spread good practice, in 2000, something called the DTLR published with the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment the guide "By Design", which looks at the tools local authorities have to help to deliver better design and how to use them effectively. Last September, we published "Better Places to Live", a companion guide to PPG 3, which provides sound, practical guidance on how the planning system can help to achieve quality residential environments. It emphasises that by giving attention to the urban design principles and approaches that underpin successful housing such as safety, community, attractive and clearly defined public and private spaces, the quality of housing layout and design can be improved and everyone benefits.

Equally, high-quality, accessible and safe urban parks and green spaces rely on good design. The recent urban green spaces taskforce report highlighted the need for a design-led approach in providing new, and improving existing, green spaces. Green spaces and parks are as important as spaces on estates. We will be launching our response to the taskforce's report later this month at the urban summit on 31 October to 1 November in Birmingham; tickets are available at a very reasonable price, if there are any left.

For my sins, I am also the Minister with responsibility for parks and green spaces. I work with the Minister for Social Exclusion, who leads for the Department on the cross-cutting review that has just been concluded on open spaces. My hon. Friend the Member for Telford is right: unless we tackle the urban realm, open spaces, parks and green spaces on a cross-governmental basis, taking account of the concerns of other Departments such as the Home Office and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, schemes will not be as successful. Our conclusions from the cross-cutting review will form part of our wider response at the urban summit.

As my hon. Friend said, home zones can also play a key role in improving the quality of life in residential streets. By reorganising the road space to strike a better balance between the needs of drivers and others, principally pedestrians, there is scope to engender more of a sense of place and community. I cannot remember whether it was my hon. Friend the Member for Telford or my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West who said that all this is very good but if it is not accompanied by a real sense of pride and ownership, recapturing the essence of what our communities are about, it will not be as effective as it should be.

Through good design we can secure safe neighbourhoods where people want to live, which are well connected to an inclusive town, city or locality. Modern practices in urban design are being brought forward through local strategic partnerships. In many cases, crime and community safety are key priorities.

It is not rocket science. In some instances, it is simply about better lighting—lighting that is more thought through. It is about imagining what a walkway or hidden path would be like late at night in an ill-lit environment. My hon. Friend the Member for Telford will know that, in Telford, English Partnerships is working in partnership with the council, the Housing Corporation and the regional development agency on the redevelopment of the Woodside estate, which will embrace current policy on urban design and designing out crime. I am keen that the same principles apply also to the millennium community proposed for East Ketley.

I think that it was a constituent of the Deputy Prime Minister who told him on one occasion, "I love living here but not like this." That goes to the heart of the problem of designing out crime and recapturing and reclaiming our communities from the criminal and those who would indulge in antisocial behaviour.

Most crime is opportunistic. Design principles based, frankly, on common sense, such as encouraging natural surveillance or providing defensible space, can help to improve an area's security for both people and property, and defend communities and areas against the opportunistic criminal, which is crucial. There is no reason why community safety and crime prevention should not be central concerns for local authorities when exercising their planning responsibilities and every reason why they should.

In the three or four months since I have been in this position, one of the most impressive schemes for me, which has made a tangible difference and is tangential to what we are talking about—designing out crime and the fear of crime—has been our programme for street and community wardens. Almost wherever I go, they instantly attract a sense of ownership and pride back to local communities and allow people to reclaim streets that previously they would not walk down at all. They are not policing on the cheap or special constables in different T-shirts or uniforms. As with designing out crime, the ethos behind street and community wardens is about reclaiming our space for our communities, giving people back a sense of ownership and pride, which is important in developing social fabric and capacity.

Of course local authorities should be careful that they do not step beyond what they can legitimately pursue under the planning Acts, but implement policies that make real improvements to the quality of people's lives. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Telford for drawing this matter to the attention of the House. It is a serious matter. I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Wolverhampton, South-West and for West Bromwich, East for their comments, which I shall take on board too. My hon. Friend the Member for Telford can be assured that I have taken note of the serious concerns that he has raised and look forward to meeting him on this and other issues such as English Partnerships in the very near future.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to Nine o 'clock.