HC Deb 19 November 2003 vol 413 cc761-3
6. Bob Spink (Castle Point)

If he will make a statement on using pathfinders in providing housing. [139312]

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott)

Nine market renewal pathfinders have been set up in the north and the midlands to tackle the problem of low demand and abandonment. The pathfinders will rebuild thriving housing markets in those areas, and we have allocated £500 million over the next three years to fund this ambitious programme.

Bob Spink

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's intentions in respect of pathfinders. The initiative should help to reduce the pressure to build more and more houses in the south-east, which he is forcing on constituents in already overdeveloped areas. But throwing more money at the problem will not solve it; we have got to get tough and tackle antisocial behaviour in those areas, to increase and strengthen private buyer confidence.

The Deputy Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman is right: through the pathfinders, we are doing a great deal in the north to deal with areas that are in massive decline. But I believe that people in the south have a right to live there if they so wish, and that there are sufficient resources, such as land, to provide for that. We have already established a programme to deal with antisocial behaviour. Is he saying that the £96 million that we have just awarded to south-east Essex and to his own constituency is unacceptable? [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Before I call the next hon. Member, I should point out that it is far too noisy in the Chamber. It is unfair.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that one tenth of all properties in east Lancashire are empty or abandoned, that there are properties in my area that cannot be given away, and that last year, 2,500 properties were sold for less than £20,000, which is more than in any other pathfinder? What we in east Lancashire want is not endless strategies but the resources that we need to do something about a housing problem that has been festering for decades.

The Deputy Prime Minister

I certainly do not disagree with my hon. Friend's analysis, but the £500 million that we are giving to pathfinder areas is a unique sum that should be welcomed. It doubtless will not meet all the problems in all such areas, but we are attempting to find new solutions to these different and difficult problems. We are on the way, and several pathfinders have already been developed. They are being turned from strategies into reality, and my hon. Friend should perhaps welcome that.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

May I say to the right hon. Gentleman how flattered I am that such an early reference was made to my speeches? I should hate him to waste civil service or political adviser time: if he would simply like to get in touch with me, I will make sure that he gets them free, gratis and for nothing.

The pathfinders are good projects run by good people, but it is necessary to ensure that there is effective private sector investment. This is not just a housing programme; it is housing-led. In east Lancashire, employers have walked away. What joined-up government are we going to get to make sure that we bring back employment and economic opportunities, so that housing projects are part of a broad strategy of regeneration and do not simply hang on their own?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his new job as shadow Secretary of State for his new cabinet. Apparently, there are seven shadow Secretaries of State within his own group, which seems to be another shadow phantom cabinet, in addition to the one designed by the Leader of the Opposition. I welcome his saying that we should not waste the civil service's time, but perhaps he should have a word with the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), who has asked 31 questions on subjects such as the money I have spent on drinking water, expenditure on horticulture and gardens, and what I am doing about pest control. I do my best to control the Opposition, but perhaps he should reduce the number of such questions.

To be serious, the right hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, and we are addressing that issue. The programmes are not just housing programmes; they recognise that there must be a partnership with the private sector. Increasing the value of the houses in that area is an important change that we need to make, working with the public and private sectors. Creating a sustainable community means dealing with jobs as well. We are putting those two elements together, and having some success.

Mr. Curry

When the hapless and unhappy Minister for Sport and Tourism introduced the Bill on regional development agencies, he said that the Government would be judged by whether there was a closing of the regional economic imbalance. Does the Deputy Prime Minister believe that the communities plan in the southeast, however necessary, will contribute to closing the economic balance between the south-east and the northern regions, or to widening it?

The Deputy Prime Minister

Regional development agencies are important in developing prosperity in all regions; that is why, unlike the previous Administration, we did not limit them to certain regions. We said that all regions need RDAs to develop their indigenous assets and increase prosperity. Since we increased the number of RDAs, there has been a considerable increase in prosperity in northern areas. I recognise that there is a growing differential, but all areas are far better off. Unless he is prepared to change his proposal to abolish RDAs, things will get worse.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)

My right hon. Friend will know from his visits to Burnley that the problem of empty houses in Burnley in east Lancashire is, in percentage terms, worse than in any of the other district councils. He will know that Elevate is putting together its bid under the housing renewal pathfinder project. He will also know that, to regenerate those areas and to make them attractive areas in which to live, that bid addresses not only the need to demolish houses but the key problems to which he has referred. Will he assure me that he will give a positive answer to that, so that work on the ground can commence at the earliest possible date?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments. We certainly are doing that. I have visited his area where houses were being sold for about £1,000 each. It is the collapse of the private market that has created great difficulties for us. We are trying to regenerate the area, the houses and the communities. In some cases, we will have to demolish but in others we can rebuild. Different experiments and changes are under way.