HC Deb 19 July 2000 vol 354 cc87-94WH 12.30 pm
Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford)

I shall present the case for the north Kent economy, and the principal purpose of this debate is to spell out the opportunities that lie within the area, not only for north Kent and the south-east region, but for the United Kingdom economy as a whole.

North Kent is characterised by traditional industries—heavy industries that have been in decline for a long time. That was particularly the case during the two Tory recessions, under which we suffered greatly, and nowhere more than on my own patch. When Chatham dockyard closed in 1984, 3,000 jobs were lost at a stroke. In the dark days of the mid-1980s, unemployment in the Medway towns rose to nearly 20 per cent.

Fortunately, those days are behind us. Unemployment in my constituency is now down to 3.9 per cent.—a fall of nearly 50 per cent. since 1997. However, north Kent Members of Parliament know that the headline unemployment rate sometimes places a shadow over pockets of deprivation in our communities where need is still very great. We are determined to play our part in relieving that deprivation, and if we can unlock the development potential of the area, it would be a sizeable contribution towards that end.

In this short debate we shall highlight the achievements of the Thames gateway in Kent, and spell out how, with the right investment and Government assistance, we can secure the economic regeneration that we all desire. In an Adjournment debate just over a year ago, I and my hon. Friends who represent the north Kent constituencies from Dartford down to Swale, called for assisted area status for the Thames gateway area of Kent. I am pleased to see my hon. Friends here in Westminster Hall today. As you have said, Mr. Deputy Speaker, they hope to catch your eye later.

Since that earlier debate, we have experienced the rollercoaster of celebration and disappointment. There was celebration when the Government responded to our calls and recommended to the European Commission that north Kent be included on the new map of assisted areas. That was followed by disappointment when the Commission turned down the Government's recommendation.

Last year, we made the case for north Kent with confidence. That confidence remains as strong today as it was then, because we, the north Kent Members of Parliament, are united in a common approach, as are our local authorities and the business community. We recognise that, throughout the gateway, we are interdependent, and that interdependence will bring success. Investment that brings jobs to Gravesham means job opportunities for people in Dartford and the Medway towns. The second Swale crossing—a key piece of infrastructure that my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) has fought hard to secure—benefits not only his constituents but all of us, throughout the gateway.

Many years ago, we woke up to the fact that people do not live their lives according to district council boundaries. Therefore, all our economic plans have a north Kent focus. If there is any doubt about that in Medway, we need only to remind ourselves that, in a population of 250,000, 50 per cent. of the work force work outside the Medway towns. Success for one means success for all. There are key development sites, but the right investment in the area can fulfil all the expectations that the previous Government and the present one have had for it, to relieve west London from the heat of over-development, and bring to north Kent the prosperity to which we have all referred.

However, we should also make it clear that there has not been stagnation. We in north Kent have not sat back and wrung our hands, waiting for Government assistance. It has not been simply all talk; we have made great efforts to lay the foundation stones for regeneration. However, we need financial assistance to complete our key projects, and the Government have recognised that. Principally, they recommended assisted area status so that we can unlock that potential, but they also recognised our track record of delivery, and I should like to point out a couple of success stories.

First, there is the Rochester and Chatham riverside development of 80 acres of brownfield land in the heart of the Medway towns. Plans for a high quality mixed-use development are now well advanced. New housing, which is essential to our prosperity, will be developed alongside businesses and leisure outlets. That is the essence of the recommendations in Lord Rogers' report "Towards an Urban Renaissance". Such projects do not appear overnight. Six years ago, Rochester city council, of which I was a member, decided to transform that derelict wasteland on the River Medway. We brought together finance and landowners, and in time created a sufficiently large area to enable development on a waterfront that is a stone's throw from the finest castle and cathedral in Britain.

The partnership has been formed, we have chosen a developer and the community.is about to be consulted. This weekend, the community will participate in a planning conference that will shape one of the most exciting developments in the south-east. We have brought together the brownfield site and the landowners, and, where necessary, used compulsory purchase orders to buy land. There was a tendering process, through which developers put forward proposals, and we are involving the community in shaping that development. However, behind any project there is always an initial driving force—someone who is determined to get things started. That person was my former colleague, the late Tim Robson, who, before his untimely death in 1995, was chairman of the planning committee and a prospective parliamentary candidate for Chatham and Aylesford. He would have had great pride in seeing the community discuss the implementation of his vision.

Secondly, we in Medway are bringing together learning and economic development. The Medway innovation centre, in partnership with the council, the South East England development agency, the universities of Greenwich and Kent, and the Kent institute of art and design, will provide much needed research and development in advanced engineering, creative industries and electronics. Medway council has already invested £500,000 in the project, yet a further £3.5 million is needed to complete the necessary capital works.

Here I come to my final point. The Medway innovation centre is typical of many key projects in that, although the project is almost within our grasp, we need help to make it a success. There is massive potential for growth in north Kent. Brownfield sites in Dartford and Gravesham could generate some 50,000 jobs, and the Isle of Grain has the largest brownfield site in the south-east. Adjacent to the rail-head is the second largest container port in the United Kingdom, yet the infrastructure is woefully inadequate, particularly the A228, which is put to uses entirely different from those that were originally envisaged. There have been many fatalities and serious accidents along a stretch of that road.

Rail investment is a source of frustration in Medway. In particular, we want the Hoo junction to be developed. We have one of the best rail links to London, but we need faster delivery of improved rolling stock. It is vital that Railtrack and the train operators listen to local authorities and, importantly, user groups. The north Kent user group has an important role to play in the development of rail infrastructure.

We know that the Government recognise our area's potential, and we welcome yesterday's announcements in the comprehensive spending review, especially those involving transport investment. In this debate, north Kent Labour Members of Parliament have set out our case for the area. If the Minister provides the means, we shall continue to do what we do best, namely, to deliver for the people of north Kent.

12.39 pm
Mr. Paul Clark (Gillingham)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) on securing the debate.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions is well aware that, during the past six months, all local authorities, including Kent county council, have invested much work in the area, as have private and voluntary sector groups, and others, and they have sought to deliver a partnership. My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford said that what is delivered in one area is important to the rest of the Thames gateway corridor, which is a sub-regional part of Kent. My colleagues and I, and those who work to realise the opportunities in the Medway towns, welcome the Government's initiatives and the creation of the new ministerial-led strategic partnership.

The Minister expressed slight doubts when my hon. Friend referred to our having the best castle and cathedral in Rochester—

Mr. Shaw

In Britain.

Mr. Clark

Sorry—in Britain. I extend to you an invitation to visit the north Kent Thames gateway as soon as possible so that we can show you some of its gems, including the finest castle and cathedral.

All local authorities and the private sector want to deliver the agenda that we believe in—it involves jobs, environmental issues and combating social exclusion. However, gap funding is involved. My hon. Friends referred to the Isle of Grain, and we hope that tomorrow a major Railfreight initiative will be announced which will help in that regard.

We welcome yesterday's comprehensive spending review announcement on regeneration budgets, the strengthening of the Regional Development Agency's role, the neighbourhood renewal fund and a national centre for neighbourhood renewal. We want to deliver the objectives that will benefit the Thames gateway in north Kent.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton)

The hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Clark) spoke for a little longer than he said he would in the commitment that he gave earlier. He also extended an invitation to me, rather than to the Minister, to visit his constituency and the Medway towns. I am sure that he meant to invite the Minister, but I should be delighted to accept.

12.43 pm
Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey)

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) on securing the debate.

We have fortunately recently received the go-ahead for a second crossing of the Swale. The current bridge is called Kingsferry, and I wonder whether we shall be allowed to call the second bridge Queensferry. I have been in correspondence with the Minister about that. It would be a welcome way to twin the bridges.

Yesterday's announcement contained fantastic news about science—I am a great science supporter. We have a huge research centre, which is nearly full although it was empty four years ago. That shows how the north Kent economy has changed.

We do not hear too much about tourism and the north Kent coast, although earlier we discussed castles and cathedrals. At the end of a Remembrance Sunday memorial service, a constituent told me that HMS Cavalier, a destroyer in the second world war, would not be located at Chatham. However, through the good hands of a great Select Committee, we managed to persuade the lottery to give us £800,000. It will be fantastic to see the Cavalier at Chatham.

I want to discuss what will happen during the next 10 years, when the Labour party win the next election and the one after that. We shall make a cultural capital bid—a north Kent culture bid, where we have hardly any decent culture—for Rochester and Canterbury. We have no practice rooms, conference centres and little theatre, which was mentioned in yesterday's spending review. I also bring to the Minister's attention the east London-north Kent bid to host the Olympics in 2012—we are beginning to group together to make a bid.

On regeneration, we are missing a rail link to Ashford. Because the Canterbury stations are about half a mile apart we need a nodal point, but we have been in conversation with Railtrack about it until we are blue in the face. The cost would be £30 million, but it would link the docks at Sheerness to Ashford and on to Europe. The question is not whether it would make any money; it would provide the infrastructure to secure the regeneration of the whole area.

12.44 pm
Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway)

I join the general paean of praise to my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) for initiating this important debate. I want to use the opportunity to bring two matters to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions, both of which have been touched upon.

The first is higher education. Much has been done by an exemplary Labour-controlled council during the past two years to improve higher education in the Medway towns, but we remain the largest conurbation in Europe without its own university. My right hon. Friend will accept that it is impossible to unlock the full potential of the Medway towns until we have such a foundation, but I know that that is not specifically her responsibility. I have brought the matter to the attention of many other Ministers, but I mention it now to bang another marker into the ground. I hope that if enough markers are banged into the ground, there will be a seismic shift.

That brings me conveniently to the Strood tunnel. As my right hon. Friend knows, it has been closed or mainly closed for the past six months, which has caused immense aggravation and distress to my constituents. Railtrack cannot be blamed for that—I say that rather unwillingly—because the problem has been 150 years coming. However, it draws attention to the second matter that I want to bring to my right hon. Friend's attention.

The infrastructure serving the Medway towns remains lamentable. The outskirts of the Medway towns and the Isle of Grain have the largest potential inward investment site in the whole of the south of England. We need the key to unlock that because it would extend the prosperity not just of north Kent but of the whole south-east region. What we require from Government is the funding for that infrastructure. We also require pressure on the new utilities, specifically British Gas which owns the site, to make it available.

I hope that my brevity will earn me your accolade, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr Deputy Speaker

I shall trust the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) to speak very briefly.

12.47 pm
Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham)

I shall speak briefly and quickly at 78 rpm.

I want to extend an invitation to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions. My hon. Friend the Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting recommended in the House last week that every hon. Member should visit Gravesham. I described Gravesend as the latest tourist hotspot, but that applies to the whole of north Kent where our cultural heritage is an important part of the regeneration potential, as are the available brownfield development sites and the transport links. In particular, the rivers Medway and Thames have enormous potential for regeneration and development.

Local authorities and other agencies in north Kent, as well as hon. Members who represent the area in Parliament, are committed to ensuring that we achieve regeneration to allow all the communities in the area to share in the growing prosperity and employment in a way that provides a driving force for prosperity and social justice. The Minister will agree that yesterday's announcement, particularly with regard to the 15 per cent. increase in regeneration budgets, brownfield sites and transport, will help. As other hon. Members have said, we have the commitment, determination and energy to make it work. What we need from the Government is the means to achieve that.

12.49 pm
The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Ms Hilary Armstrong)

I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and those hon. Members who represent north Kent constituencies for the debate. I am delighted to be here, although, coming from Durham, I will need a lot of persuading that any cathedral is better than Durham cathedral. I want to thank hon. Members not just for the debate, but for their work to ensure that we make progress in the Thames gateway and that we work together effectively at central and local government level and with the other partners who want to ensure that the Thames gateway is developed. We especially want the north Kent area within the Thames gateway to be developed in a way that really does enhance the opportunities of local people to achieve a better quality of life in all senses.

Hon. Members have outlined their particular aspirations. People and organisations in the public, private and voluntary sectors of north Kent have done much to respond to the vision of long-term regeneration strategy in the Thames gateway. They have worked hard to put good ideas into practice. Increasingly, that is being done in partnership, which is essential to identify and co-ordinate action on local priorities and ensure that regeneration does not exclude the needs of the existing community. A reflection of that approach is the decision to set up the new north Kent Thames gateway partnership on which the private and voluntary sectors are represented, together with the leaders of all the local authorities in the area. I welcome the efforts that have been made, and are continuing to be made, by all north Kent partners to deliver regeneration in the area.

The South East England development agency is also a member of the partnership. As hon. Members will know, the RDAs were set up to develop strategies to drive forward sustainable economic development in the regions. I was pleased to see and happy to endorse the high priority given in SEEDA's strategy to the Thames gateway in Kent. In part, that will be about bringing brownfield sites back into use, but it will also be about social regeneration, which local authorities, the Government office for the south east, SEEDA and, above all, local communities are tackling.

I recognise that the decline of traditional industries has left significant pockets of deprivation in which the community is excluded from opportunity. Five strategic single regeneration budget schemes are helping to address that problem. They are directing significant funding to local projects, helping to provide disadvantaged and unemployed people—especially young people and those from ethnic communities—with the skills required in the modern north Kent economy. Some projects include day care centres with facilities and support for young people with addiction problems. The people that such schemes are helping are some of the most excluded from our society. The ultimate aim is to offer them direct help, so that they can play a positive role in the north Kent community. A good example of that is the role that the Kent Learning and Business Link Company has played in community economic development and lifelong learning initiatives.

I know that my hon. Friends welcome as much as I do yesterday's announcement of the outcome of the comprehensive spending review. That includes a major strengthening of the role of RDAs, giving them the flexibility that they have asked for to play a strategic role in delivering regeneration. The spending review will give RDAs nationally an extra £500 million by 2003–04 to deliver economic regeneration and growth. The settlement will allow the RDAs to provide an effective input, including via direct development where necessary. The spending review settlement also sets out substantial increases for housing and transport, tackling crime and the health service. It will lead to improvements in public services that we all want to see.

I cannot explain in detail today what that will mean for north Kent. However, the Government are committed to sustainable regeneration in the Thames gateway, an area of regional and national importance for regeneration and growth. As the 10-year transport plan is developed and local authorities do their part by producing local transport plans, I am confident that transport issues will be addressed. The same is true for other areas, such as regeneration and housing. That is why the area has been identified as a priority for public and private investment in the draft regional planning guidance for the south-east, and that it is why, to help delivery across the Thames gateway, we are setting up the new Minister-led strategic partnership to provide a focus for the whole of the Thames gateway area. That will bring together Government, regional and local bodies, and local partnerships including representations from the public, private and voluntary sectors, across the Thames gateway in Kent, London and Essex. It will also ensure that the area's economic and housing potential are married to its infrastructure needs.

I am particularly keen to see good progress in Kent. As has been said, Kent Thamesside offers huge potential for sustainable urban development, as set out in planning policy guidance note 3. New communities can be created, with integrated public transport provision, quality homes, jobs and supporting facilities, such as GP surgeries and schools, and the other cultural and educational opportunities, to which reference has been made, to meet local and regional demand for affordable homes and improved public services.

On business investment, continuing progress is being made on the construction of the channel tunnel rail link, which will give an enormous boost to the north Kent economy. In the borough of Swale, we have recently given the go-ahead to the second crossing of the Swale river, which will bring opportunities for inward investment and jobs for the islanders.

In Medway itself, in and around the constituency of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews), much good progress has been made. It is an area well placed to make the most of business opportunities that provide the right environment to attract inward investment. Thousands of jobs have been secured by the merger of Medway's largest employer, Marconi Avionics, and British Aerospace, creating BAe Systems, a company of world-class status.

Medway council's positive approach is illustrated by the development of the partners for growth scheme, a project that is closely linked to the development of the small business service. The scheme offers financial assistance to small and medium enterprises of up to £25,000 per company in key sectors such as advanced engineering and high technology industries. That is an excellent example of what can be achieved when the public and private sectors work in partnership. Medway council is also considering the potential to develop financial services and supply clusters to focus inward investment on the flagship site at Chatham maritime development, and the proposed mixed-use regeneration at Rochester riverside. The urban task force report recognised the good work that the council is doing there.

Other plans include the development of a business incubator centre, focusing on the advanced engineering and design sectors and the "learning city" concept, referred to by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway, which involves the establishment of a university for industry, a university for Medway, and a European business school. All those factors, allied with the remarkable built and environmental heritage of the area, make Medway a prime area for a successful urban renaissance. I know that the decision on the assisted area map review in north Kent was disappointing for partners in several areas, but enterprise grant is available to assist small and medium firms to undertake investment projects.

In summary, there is every reason for continued confidence in north Kent. There is the on-going process of the channel tunnel rail link and the regeneration benefits that that will bring, and the establishment of the new Kent partnership, which will provide a coordinated approach to support and complement delivery by local authorities. There is also the new Minister-led strategic partnership, which will play an important role in ensuring co-ordinated action in Kent and across the gateway. As a Minister, I am determined that we shall play a full part in ensuring that that partnership works. In addition, the generous spending review will give the RDA, local authorities and other key players the tools for the job.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Time is up, Minister. We move to the next debate, initiated by the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien).