HC Deb 26 March 2003 vol 402 cc101-22WH

2 pm

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham)

I am pleased to have secured this debate, Mr. Cook, as it is of great importance to many of my constituents and to many hon. Members who represent mining and former mining communities. In my maiden speech in the House on 9 July 2001, I described my constituency as rural, but with urban problems. The two main towns, Chester le Street and Stanley, and their satellite villages, were founded on coal mining and related industries. With the decline of coal mining and the closure of the north Durham coalfield, which began in the 1960s and ended in the 1980s, the economic reasons for many of those communities disappeared, sometimes overnight.

Much of the housing in north Durham villages such as Craghead, Grange Villa and South Moor, was linked to the mining industry. Consisting mainly of terraced housing for miners and their families, it was originally built by coal owners in the late 19th century and early 20th century, then taken over by the National Coal Board. With the closure of the pits, much of the housing was sold to individual tenants, in some cases in the 1970s for just a few hundred pounds. There lies the root of one of the problems that those communities face today. Over the years, the local employment base has diminished and the need for and popularity of terraced housing for families has declined. As a result, such concentrations of terraced housing present serious problems. In addition, the populations of the villages have continued to decline and to age.

Basically, Mr. Cook, the local housing market has collapsed. Properties in some of the villages change hands for only several thousand pounds, and certainly less than £10,000. That has led to an influx of private landlords, many with no local connections, who buy up properties, often at rock-bottom prices, and let them to individuals who have no links with the area—often people who find it hard to get accommodation anywhere else. We now have a further problem. Because the communities are declining, people who own their own houses find it hard to sell them. They are being targeted by private landlords who want to purchase further properties in many of these communities.

Many of the properties that are let, often for short periods, are not maintained or cared for, which leads to general dilapidation of the area. In some places, certainly in Craghead, landlords have simply abandoned properties and boarded them up. Some properties have been empty for several years, which adds to the general air of neglect and dereliction in those villages. Many of the tenants to whom landlords let their properties stay for relatively short periods. Sadly, their behaviour is often antisocial, certainly in relation to drugs. That, Mr. Cook, creates tremendous pressures—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Frank Cook)

Order. I would be remiss if I were not to draw hon. Members' attention to the fact that when the House first took its decision to have sittings in Westminster Hall, it decided that the occupants of the Chair were to be referresd to as Deputy Speaker. I was loth to interrupt the flow of the debate, but I have let the matter go three times already and I would be criticised were I to do so again.

Mr. Jones

I am sorry if I have caused offence, Mr. Cook, as you have been a friend and colleague for many years.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, these problems put tremendous pressures on local communities: a resident of South Moor told me that she felt as if she was living under siege. To try to quantify some of these problems in my constituency, last year I commissioned Northumbria university to produce a report based on Grange Villa and Craghead villages; I shall highlight some of the findings. The report stated that 42 per cent. of the residents of Grange Villa are on some form of benefit and 50 per cent. of the households have no one with any educational qualifications. Grange Villa is in the worst 3 per cent. of wards nationally for child poverty.

As part of the report, residents in the villages were interviewed. I shall quote some of their comments to the researchers. One Grange Villa resident said: There are drug dealers in nearly every street. It would be a nice place if we could get rid of the heroin addicts and drug dealers. Another said: Drugs are taking over our village. In Craghead, a resident said: A lot of the private rented houses are occupied by drug dealers. Another resident said it was a pity that what was a very good village was being allowed to die.

The study underlined what I have come to know since I was elected as the local Member of Parliament: once-vibrant communities, with a strong sense of identity, are under pressure. I agree with the report's conclusions, that some of the communities are now close to the edge. The problems of drugs, antisocial behaviour, crime and physical deterioration are crippling these communities. As many hon. Members with rural constituencies containing former mining villages know, because they are rural communities, the true nature of the problems is masked. If the problems were in inner cities, they would be highlighted.

I have already mentioned the community spirit that exists in these communities, despite the pressures that they are under. It would be remiss of me not to mention the sterling work of the Craghead Partnership, which has resulted in a new village hall, and the continuing work of the Grange Villa action group, whose members are deeply committed to their community and want genuine improvement. In addition, proposals made last week by the Government for the registration of private landlords are welcome; sure start in Grange Villa is making a difference; and Derwentside council's use of antisocial behaviour orders in South Moor has had some effect.

The task that faces communities in north Durham and many coalfield areas needs a more strategic Government approach. I sent a copy of the report that I commissioned to the Minister, who reminded me that Derwentside was to receive extra neighbourhood renewal money of £3.3 million over the next few years. Sadly, however, my experience is that much of that money is not going to the local community groups that need it; instead, it is being targeted at organisations for tasks that should receive mainstream funding.

Another problem in my constituency is that although it has some of the poorest housing in the region, it also has some of the wealthiest. Communities such as Grange Villa and Pelton Fell do not qualify for neighbourhood renewal funding because some of the most expensive housing in Durham lies within half a mile of them.

At the Minister's suggestion, I met Michael Laing from Wear Valley council, who is co-ordinating a strategic approach to housing in Durham. I understand that research is taking place in the south of the county to pull together a strategy. Finance is an important factor in some of the problems faced by the communities, but a clear strategic approach needs to be implemented to ensure that the Government office, One NorthEast, local authorities, housing associations, private developers and local people can put together a local housing strategy that will make a difference in the villages, covering both private sector and social housing. The issue facing my community is that much housing is in private ownership.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough)

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this Adjournment debate so quickly. One of the prime problems facing all former coalfield communities is the preponderance of absentee landlords. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should give local authorities more powers to deal with absentee private landlords? Currently, they have to deal with them primarily through the environmental health service or by serving a repairs notice on them. Does he think that the Government should consider a new initiative—for example, a management notice, whereby if the absentee landlords were not managing their properties properly, the local authority could appoint a housing association to take over the properties from the absentee landlords and provide a service to tenants?

Mr. Jones

I agree that registration will help some of these communities. My hon. Friend raises a pertinent point. In some areas, private landlords who have made their money out of property that was often bought at a very low price abandon it. They are determined to get as much money as possible out of the property in a short time, but when problems arise they put up the boards, or in some cases allow the local authorities to pick up the costs of doing so. I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to give local authorities more powers to take over and improve such properties.

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda)

On top of that, it is a scandal that many absentee landlords are making their money from the housing benefit system.

Mr. Jones

I refer to them as "housing benefit junkies", because that is what they are. They put little investment into the properties they buy, often at very low prices, and live off the misery of the neighbours who have to put up with it. However, I am not tarring all private landlords with the same brush. There are some, even in north Durham, who are responsible, carry out repairs and care about and vet their tenants; however, such landlords lend to be those who live in the community.

Registration of private landlords would be welcomed in north Durham, but that will not in itself solve the fundamental problem, which is that the local housing market has collapsed. We need a regeneration strategy that includes social housing providers, local authorities, and—I have to say—the private sector. In some villages in north Durham there have been some very good schemes where private housing development has given a boost to the communities. We need to come up with similar strategies.

Will the Minister consider setting up a housing taskforce for north Durham—and the county of Durham in general—that can pull together all the agencies and come up with a strategy to deal with the severe pressures that the communities in my constituency, other Durham constituencies and other coalfield areas face? Without such a strategic approach and the establishment of a taskforce, communities will continue to decline and my constituents and I will, sadly, continue to experience a sense of frustration.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We have 45 minutes left before the commencement of the first of the wind-up speeches. I ask hon. Members to bear that in mind when making their contributions and when making and receiving interventions.

2.15 pm
John Mann (Bassetlaw)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on having secured the debate and, even more, on the work that he has done since his election to the House. I commend his excellent report about the situation in his constituency.

The debate parallels one that my predecessor initiated in 1997. I shall not repeat what he said about the state of housing in some parts of my constituency because my hon. Friend has very eloquently spelled out the nature of the problem. On that occasion, he referred specifically to Warsop Vale and Warsop. Consultation about some parts of Warsop, specifically the royal estate, which has an even bigger problem than Warsop Vale, has been going on since 1968, when the late George Brown was Deputy Prime Minister. I look forward to raising a toast to Lord George-Brown when the current Deputy Prime Minister visits the area in the near future, as I trust he will, to launch the special purpose vehicle for housing. The Minister can put that down as a request; I am fairly certain that my hon. Friends the Members for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) and for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) will be vociferous in endorsing it. I am sure that everybody sends good wishes to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover during his stay in hospital.

I shall outline the benefits that will accrue as a result of the special purpose vehicle, which has taken up a lot of my time during the past 18 months. It brings to fruition those 34 years of consultation. The last thing that people in my community want is more consultation. They want action on something straightforward they want to live in decent houses. They do not want every drug addict in Lincoln prison to be dumped on their doorstep—advertisements are put up in Lincoln prison suggesting which landlords to apply to, and the prisoners apply in large numbers, with the result that we get more than our share of those with problems, including repeat drug offenders. My constituents want sustainable, viable communities that are occupied not only by old people who were born there, who worked in the pit next door and who still want to live there, but by young people and children. That is the definition of a viable community.

In funding and endorsing the special purpose vehicle now being set up across the Meden vale—10 communities in Bolsover, Bassetlaw and Mansfield—the Government have, rightly, brought hope; moreover, they have set out in detail what will happen. The first principle, which I am delighted to see, is that they are not waiting for the local council to get its act together. We waited for Mansfield council to sort out the housing problems in Warsop Vale and the royal estate, and I would be lynched if I suggested that the solution to the problems is to wait for the council to act. People have been waiting for that for many years, and Mansfield has been waiting for the money to make it happen. The council is a partner, but only a junior one, with the East Midlands Development Agency, English Partnerships, the Leicester and South Yorkshire housing associations, and the private sector and financial institutions.

The principle is that no one in the communities should lose out from the changes. Empty houses will be demolished and private landlords will be removed; they will be bought out, if necessary by compulsory purchase. Those communities will have only one landlord—one of the two housing associations—and residents and tenants will participate in management so that they can get on top of the problems. In addition, the houses that remain will be refurbished to decent standards. The private sector will include the owner occupier.

Some people will have to move house, because we cannot knock down odd houses. They can be knocked down only in blocks, so some people will have to bite the bullet, but I believe that they will be willing to do so. The other element that excites everyone is that development will be based not on what planners or consultants think is relevant, but on what the market thinks is relevant. In other words, houses will be built to fit demand. If there is a demand for five-bedroom luxury houses with two bathrooms and the rest, that is what will be built; likewise if the demand is for small terrace houses or pensioner bungalows.

That is appropriate, because we cannot artificially recreate such communities. Trying to create a viable community, full of young people, in Worksop Vale is a good example. There is only one shop, and there are no other facilities. The only people who would be attracted to the place are those with cars, and they would want a traditional three or four-bedroom house with a garage.

The way forward in creating a viable community is to use a combination of social housing, community involvement and the private sector. We are confident that such a model can be rolled out—I want to see it rolled out into other parts of my constituency—but I anticipate that there will be a demand for it in many parts of the country because it is coherent and sensible.

The Government were absolutely right to endorse that model of housing regeneration. The Minister will become a cult figure in my constituency and in the north midlands. In a sense, he is already a cult figure in Bolsover. We would welcome him there, but if he were to bring his boss along we would be even happier, because it was the Deputy Prime Minister who, in 1997, initiated the scheme in response to demand. He ought to get some of the credit for it, and we would give him a warm welcome and endorse the scheme's success.

2.22 pm
Paddy Tipping (Sherwood)

I am happy to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), and I am pleased to take part in this valuable debate, instigated by my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones). I agree with much of what my hon. Friends have said.

A real and pernicious problem in their areas is the private landlord—the absentee landlord who buys up properties and milks the housing benefit system. That bad practice exists also in north Nottinghamshire, where landlords have poor management practices and dubious tenancy agreements. My part of Nottinghamshire is not a former coalmining area but an area that still produces coal, and we are relatively lucky that most of the housing stock was bought by housing associations when British Coal was sold off. A great deal of hard work ensured that that happened. I am delighted that the partnership of Leicester housing association, Nottingham community housing and East Midlands housing association has taken on most of the stock.

We need to take a twin-track approach; and we need to consider carefully what private landlords are doing. I know that housing benefit fraud is high on the Government's agenda, so will the Minister give a commitment to talk to colleagues about taking on private landlord housing benefit junkies, as they have been called? Will he also consider the work and powers of local authorities? They have limited powers to intervene but they could play a greater role in dealing with private landlords if they had more power and were properly resourced? I ask him also to examine the work of housing associations because, as has been said, the communities that we are talking about are, by and large, rural and very isolated. We are not talking about big inner-city problems or problems on the outer estates of conurbations, but the problems are real and severe.

We need to look at what housing associations have been doing. They have achieved a great deal, although, in a sense, with their hands tied behind their backs. Many of my colleagues will remember the great debate about taking on that housing, and will remember that the idea was opposed by the then Secretary of State for the Environment, Nicholas Ridley, who put a moratorium on Housing Corporation money going to housing associations to allow them to improve their stock. I am delighted to say that the present Government lifted that moratorium, but the housing stock was left without investment for many years. Housing associations, such as Leicester housing association, wanted to renovate but had to carry out the work using their own resources. The Housing Corporation is now beginning to make money available to housing associations, but it is important that they receive a greater share of the profit.

Mr. Bryant

My hon. Friend is being very generous in recognising the role of housing associations, but does he accept that they can be part of the problem, as well as part of the solution? They can be part of the problem when they are reluctant to engage in the process of enforcing tenancy agreements on antisocial tenants.

Paddy Tipping

That is right. Many of my constituents and those of my hon. Friends are hard-working, decent, honest people. Coalfield communities want an environment that is improving. Coal miners want better for their kids than they ever had. Antisocial neighbours and nuisance cannot be tolerated in coalfield communities, and housing associations, as community-based organisations, should take a more proactive role in dealing with the problem.

Of course, housing associations are trying to move away from the roles of housing renovation and management. I commend to the Minister the work of Leicester housing association, which has moved away from the role of providing housing and is now much more engaged in building communities from the bottom up, setting up village companies and encouraging enterprise. British Coal was, in a sense, paternalistic and patronising to local people. Business start-ups in coalfield communities are among the lowest in the country, but the work that housing associations can do in subcontracting work to local and community businesses can make a real difference.

My third point relates to orphaned land. When British Coal sold the housing stock to housing associations, it was done in a hurry, which meant that housing associations took on lots of land and properties in a short time. Anyone who walks around any coalfield village will find areas of social, recreational land—what I call the jitties, or alleyways, and garage sites—but no one can establish the ownership of that orphaned land, which is decaying. The housing stock is being lifted, but because no one wants to take responsibility for amenity land, it is pulling down neighbourhoods.

I ask three things of the Minister that would make him a hero and a cult figure in Nottinghamshire. First, he should talk to colleagues about tackling private landlord housing benefit fraud. Secondly, he should examine the powers and resources of local authorities to deal with private landlords. The new housing Bill will give us an opportunity to consider that. Thirdly, he should commend the good community and enterprise work that housing associations such as Leicester housing association are undertaking. He should make sure that their work is backed by fairness. That is all that coalfield communities want. I want to see a fair allocation of resources from the Housing Corporation to coalfield housing associations so that the backlog of work can be cleared. Coalfield communities have had a tough time. By investing in them we can invest in a new future.

2.30 pm
Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly)

I shall make a few brief points in support of the arguments that have so eloquently been advanced. I shall speak in particular about the situation in the former coalfields of south Wales. At one time, the south Wales coalfield was one of the most important coalfields not only in Britain but in the world. On the eve of the first world war, it employed 250,000 miners. Since the 1920s and 1930s and since the second world war, there has been a gradual contraction of the coalfield. Today, there is only one deep mine left in south Wales at Tower colliery in Hirwaun.

During the incredible development of the coalfields in the latter part of the 19th century there was also a fantastic acceleration in house building. It was during that period that the archetypal terraced houses clinging to the sides of the valleys were constructed. They were almost always owned by their occupants. Today, as the coal industry has contracted, we see, especially in the top ends of the valleys of south Wales, communities consisting of elderly people, young people and people without employment. In other words, we no longer have the balanced, vibrant communities that we once had.

Coal mining has, however, other legacies. One of the clearest and most tragic is that of ill health. In some wards in the upper parts of the south Wales valleys as many as one in four of the population of working age is on incapacity benefits. In communities such as Merthyr Tydfil, Blaenau Gwent, Neath, Port Talbot, Rhondda Cynon Taff and Caerphilly, which is part of the constituency that I have the privilege of representing, unprecedented numbers of people are on incapacity benefits. In those areas, one in eight of the population of working age is on such benefits.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I, too, represent a former mining community at the top of the Swansea valley. Like him, I recognise the legacy from which former coalfield communities suffer. However, does he agree that we need a comprehensive approach—investment in health, education and employment as well as in housing—if we are to deal with that legacy?

Mr. David

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I must remember not to take any more interventions from him, as that was one of the points that I was leading to. He is absolutely right: we need a rounded, integrated approach to tackle all those problems. We should not consider policy in isolation. Coal mining may be one of the main causes of ill health in the south Wales valleys, but other factors compound the situation and make it much worse, and poor housing is one of those factors.

Shelter Wales, for example, has estimated that there are 200,000 people living in homes that in its words are not fit for human habitation". The greatest concentration of those people is in the south Wales valleys. Shelter Wales has also estimated that about £50 million per year in Wales is spent by the national health service on treating health conditions caused by poor housing. In other words, as well as the individual tragedy that poor housing represents, it is also a huge drain on society as a whole.

Housing in Wales is a partly devolved matter, and the National Assembly for Wales has been putting great emphasis on developing its strategy over the past couple of years. For example, there has been a somewhat different approach towards joint stock transfer of council housing, and housing co-operatives have been encouraged. That is an innovative approach and one that will be emulated in other parts of the United Kingdom. However, it is important to stress that there are aspects of housing in Wales that must be rightly addressed at UK-level. We have already heard what is happening with housing benefit and private landlords. That is a problem in the south Wales valleys as in other parts of the UK, and the Government need to consider that issue carefully.

I want to stress a point that has already been made. We can no longer look at housing as though it is isolated from other policy areas. We need a holistic approach that links economic development, health policy, social policy and housing policy. We hear much these days about joined-up thinking and joined-up government, but here is a clear example of how rhetoric needs to be made into reality. Above all else, we need at levels of government a new commitment to developing the south Wales valleys as healthy, living communities. Over the years, the population has drained from the valleys down to Cardiff and the M4 corridor. There is evidence that the trend is beginning to reverse. Communities at the mouths of the valleys are starting to revive, but a new spirit must be spread consciously through the valleys, and having a well-defined housing policy can be part of our overall approach.

2.37 pm
Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on securing this important debate. The contributions that have been made so far show the widespread nature of the issue. It affects all mining communities from Scotland, through the north-east, Lancashire, Yorkshire, down through the midlands, into south Wales and into the south of England. I hope that when the Minister replies we can have some reassurance from him about the maintenance of some of the current schemes.

British Coal had a considerable housing stock; in some areas it dealt with the sale of that housing stock rather differently than in others. In my area, most of the housing stock was sold off to the tenants, who have done a marvellous job on some of the estates. There are two contrasting estates in my constituency. In an estate in the former mining village of Dodworth, all the housing stock was sold off to sitting tenants. As I said, those tenants have worked on and individualised those houses and they look like a credit to the community.

In contrast, on the other side of my constituency in Elsecar, which is also a small mining community in a very picturesque part of the world, part of the housing stock was sold off to tenants and the rest was sold on the stock market. That resulted in absentee landlords, and trying to trace those landlords is a nightmare. The estate has become a dumping ground for problem families, which has affected the life chances of decent people who have become trapped there. Three years ago it presented an enormous problem for the local authority, with antisocial behaviour and drug taking. Most of the decent people living on the estate wanted to leave. Unfortunately, because of the way it had been disposed of, they were trapped.

Since that time, we have dealt with the issue progressively, working with local councillors. I set up an action group of tenants on the estate, which took on a commitment to dealing with the problem, and by and large the issue has been dealt with successfully. The estate is no longer the problem that it was. The Minister will know that the coalfield taskforce set up by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister identified housing in mining communities as a major problem that needed to be tackled. It is fair to say that since my right hon. Friend's taskforce report, a great deal has been done. There has certainly been a great improvement in my constituency.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis), who was in his place a short time ago, told me that the approach taken to a large estate near Grimethorpe in his constituency, which was mentioned in the taskforce report, led, by and large, to decent people remaining there. He says that resources are still needed to make some remaining houses more habitable, but that generally he is satisfied. My hon. Friend referred me particularly to the photographs in the taskforce report. The housing that was once identified with part of Grimethorpe has all gone; it has been demolished. Those streets and their housing have been improved.

Much has been done since the coalfield taskforce report. Will the Minister examine, for example, some of the work that is being done by the Coalfields Regeneration Trust, which was set up as a result of the taskforce, and which has helped to renew and rebuild communities? It is concerned with rebuilding the structure of communities and has done a great deal of work.

At present, much of the problem that I have been describing is tackled through the housing management allowance, but Barnsley has the lowest housing management allowance of any metropolitan authority, even though we perhaps have more deprivation to deal with. My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David) referred to the degree of disability—something that was identified in Barnsley—in a survey carried out in 1997. The survey showed that there was a disabled person in every third household. That is another legacy of mining. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider whether deprivation should be factored into the housing management allowance.

I should like my hon. Friend also to consider improvements to the law so that absentee landlords would have to meet their responsibilities instead of having to be chased, as has happened in Barnsley. If we can pull those elements together, in addition to what the Government have done in the past five years, we shall begin to tackle the problem of some housing estates.

2.44 pm
Matthew Green (Ludlow)

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on securing the debate. It is probably about six years since there was a debate on this subject, and this is a good opportunity to review the aspects of the matter in which progress has been made, and those in which it has not.

We have heard much about the problems, and I do not intend to repeat that. They are often the legacy of the policies of the Conservative Government of the 1980s. That should not be forgotten, and I wait with interest to find out from the Conservative spokesman whether his party now regrets the policy of forcing the old National Coal Board to sell those properties off and then preventing the use of the social housing grant to renovate them. The Conservative party left an awful legacy and, to be fair. the Government have taken steps towards dealing with it.

I should like to address a couple of issues to do with housing in former coal mining areas that hon. Members have not mentioned. The problem of searching for a former mineshaft within 20 metres especially affects properties in Staffordshire that were built in areas where there was shallow mining, such as Stoke-on-Trent and Walsall. A report by Heriot-Watt university in 2001 confirmed that the presence of a mineshaft can contribute to a depressed housing market in such areas. In former coal mining areas, house purchasers routinely obtain a coal mining search report, which is generally commissioned from the Coal Authority by a conveyancing solicitor. If the report discloses the existence of a disused coal mineshaft within 20m of a property, a sale can be jeopardised and the property can be devalued. In many cases, however, mineshafts are not as much of a problem as they might appear to be to the potential purchaser, and the house owner would not pay for the restorative work anyway.

That has been a problem for some time, and I understand that about a year or 18 months ago the Government established a working group—I think that it is under the Department of Trade and Industry—that involves the Coal Authority, the Law Society, the Council of Mortgage Lenders, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and the Association of British Insurers. I should like the Minister to say what that working group has proposed to overcome that problem, which affects Staffordshire in particular.

I had a conversation with the hon. Member for North Durham just before the debate, in which he looked me in the eye and asked, "What's your area got to do with former coal mining communities?" In fact, Ludlow does have former coal mining communities. The colliery in Highley was closed about 30 years ago, and the community there has a similar history to those that we have heard. The situation is perhaps not as severe as in other areas, but Bridgnorth district council, which owns many of the properties in Highley, has its problems.

The community in Highley is somewhat detached from other communities, public transport is poor and there is not much local employment—people have to travel somewhere else. Thanks to Conservative right-to-buy policies, which led to people buying up all the council houses in attractive little villages, a disproportionate number of council houses remain in Highley. When people go on to the housing list and say that they want to be in Bridgnorth, Much Wenlock, Shifnal or Albrighton because they work there, they get put in Highley. Councils that end up with housing stock in the wrong areas have a problem, although I do not want to overstate it.

The social problems in such areas are not on the same scale as those about which the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) spoke, but my constituency has experienced such issues on a smaller scale. Bridgnorth district council is a debt-free authority, but it has not sold off its council housing. The Government will make it difficult for the council to deal with that potential imbalance through clause 11 of the Local Government Bill, which will not make the council want to consider radical options to address the imbalance in social housing. The Government need to consider the impact that clause 11 may have before they proceed with it.

I would also like the Minister to consider how much money has gone into the regeneration of these areas. I understand that the Government have committed a total of £354 million over a three-year period for the coalfields. However, that sum is less than the sum accrued to the Treasury through the pensions of former British Coal employees. It appears that the Government could have done more with the funds. I acknowledge that they have done more than the previous Government did, and I do not denigrate the fact that they have taken some action.

Mr. Kevan Jones

The hon. Gentleman is taking up most of his time talking about problems other than the ones that most coal mining communities face. Will he say how much the Liberal Democrats would invest in coalfield communities such as north Durham?

Matthew Green

I do not have a figure to hand, but I am raising relevant issues for the Minister to address, and I hope that he will.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation is worried about the criteria used in the allocation of the funding and that the eligibility of former coalfield areas for funding is restricted. Is the Minister aware of that concern, and will he say what might be done to deal with it?

The issue of private landlords has been mentioned. In a debate six years ago, the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), who was the Minister responsible for housing at the time, said that the Government were considering a licensing system for houses in multiple occupation. One could argue that such a system should extend to other sorts of property. The Government made a point about the development of the HMO licensing proposals in their response to the action points listed by the taskforce. I hope that the Minister will say that those proposals will be considered under the forthcoming housing Bill as a means of dealing with the problem. We would certainly give the Government considerable support if they could address that problem.

We had the report in 1998 and the Government's response in December 1998. I have a straightforward question. The report made 29 recommendations. The Government rejected some of them, but made commitments on others. So that we may have an opportunity to review the progress that has been made, will the Minister run through which of their commitments the Government have met, which commitments they are on the way to meeting, and which ones they may have had to change along the way? We would do well to review the progress that has been made in the past four or five years.

This is a serious topic that covers a wide range of problems. As we heard, former coal mining communities throughout Britain have diverse problems that have not yet been dealt with. Again, I acknowledge that the Government have done more than previous Governments have done, but there is still much to do.

2.54 pm
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

I welcome the opportunity to catch your eye, Mr. Cook.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am loth to stop the hon. Gentleman's flow, but I would be criticised were I not to do it.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is confusing when some are Deputy Speakers and some are Chairmen. However, I am grateful to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I congratulate the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on securing this important debate. We heard sincere speeches from him, and from the hon. Members for Bassetlaw (John Mann), for Caerphilly (Mr. David) and for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping). I am not quite sure what the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) contributed to the debate, but I suppose that the record might show something.

The debate could be usefully summed up by the former right hon. Member for Heseltine—or rather, for Henley—who said, in relation to the problems of Liverpool: I accepted that it was possible to prop up these communities by increasing the flow of public money, but that didn't address the fundamental issue of concentrated poverty. We needed to attack the root causes of the problem. The teenagers with the skills, the young would-be homeowners, the aspiring entrepreneurs, the strong, all those with the resources to choose, had to be persuaded to stay—even to come back, live and invest—close to the areas of deprivation. It was necessary to tackle the infrastructure's problems, to improve dramatically the quality of the public services and to create an environment to persuade people that it was in their own interests to live and work there. In other words, one had to enable these communities to compete for their place in the sun. He put that into practice by completely regenerating the Hulme estate in the middle of Manchester, which was one of the most deprived areas in the UK. With the will and resources it can be done.

Mr. Clapham

It may be that the former right hon. Member for Henley gave some encouragement to changes in Liverpool. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that, particularly following the second lot of pit closures in the early 1980s, few resources were given by the Conservative Government to the former coal mining communities to help them to adjust and regenerate.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), partly because I failed to mention him in my opening remarks, and I apologise for that.

I thought that the issue of the figures would emerge, and so I asked the Library to look them up. When the Labour Government were in power in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, 308 coal mines were closed. In that same period under Conservative Governments, 256 coal mines were closed. We should therefore be under no illusion—during that period Labour Governments closed far more pits than Conservative Governments.

I shall quote from an interesting letter from Mr. Euan Hall to the Financial Times on 5 June 2002. It echoes the sensible words spoken today by the hon. Member for Caerphilly. Mr. Hall states: Housing is an important part of the regeneration jigsaw but it is by no means the only one. Communities need sustainable development plans that take into consideration the whole lives of the people who live there—homes, schools, employment, transport, leisure, services. That is exactly what the hon. Member for Caerphilly said, and he is right. There is no point in building new houses or renovating houses in areas where no one wants to live, and which have no prospects of economic regeneration. We need to regenerate areas economically at the same time as improving the housing programme. We should increase the whole range of facilities in those areas.

The problem of deprivation in former mining communities occurs in both urban and rural areas. The predecessor of the hon. Member for Bassetlaw rightly said in an earlier debate: The pub in Warsop Vale has shut. The post office shut and reopened as part of a grocer's shop. Bus services are poor. Elderly people are trapped in their houses, unable to get to a supermarket. It is like a backwater of Kentucky."—[Official Report, 16 July 1997; Vol. 298, c. 330.] We need to provide that whole range of services. It is sad that, in many rural areas, but also in urban areas, such facilities are being lost. There may be the loss of the one and only post office, perhaps due to the changes to the payment of benefits that are being made. We need to maintain such services in rural areas.

John Mann

Would the hon. Gentleman be surprised to learn that, as part of the regeneration, a new post office and health centre have been set up in Warsop Vale, which previously did not have a proper post office? The health centre is one of three planned centres to be built in my constituency this year for the many people now at work, because Bassetlaw has seen a 26 per cent. reduction in unemployment—the largest in the country by 6 per cent.—in the past 12 months.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

I am extremely pleased for the people of Bassetlaw and Warsop Vale that their economic regeneration is going so well, because nationally the unemployment figure has gone up by 650,000 in the six years that the Labour Government have been in power. I am delighted that things are going so well in that particular area.

I do not have much time, so I shall address a few of the points made in the debate. Several hon. Members mentioned rogue landlords, and none of us wants to see the activities that were mentioned. However, as the hon. Member for Sherwood said, we must not let the activities of some rogue landlords—no one would condone those activities—blacken the name of all private sector housing in this country. We need private sector investment in our housing, and it is vital that we get mixed communities, as I heard when I visited Liverpool and Manchester recently.

I was amused by a quotation from the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron). Referring to the Kiveton Park estate, he said: One of the houses on the estate has a great history, as my case work revealed. The landlord proved to be so bad and difficult to deal with that the London solicitors who were acting as his agents eventually gave up on him. They cancelled their agreement with him and refused to deal with inquiries about the property's state of disrepair. I was told by the firm of solicitors to contact the landlord direct—he lived in Baghdad."—[Official Report, 16 July 1997; Vol. 307, c. 337.] I do not know the name of that landlord, although one could speculate on different possibilities. However, one clearly does not condone the activities of any such landlords.

There is not much time left, so I shall move on rapidly. I want to ask the Minister one specific question. There appear to be two major current initiatives. One is the national coalfields programme, which has renovated 98 sites. It was set up by the previous Conservative Government in 1996 and has had a budget in its 10 years so far of £385 million. How does that initiative mesh with the Coalfields Regeneration Trust, which was set up through the coalfield taskforce by the Deputy Prime Minister in 1999 and has a budget of £45 million in its second round? I put that point gently to the Minister. In previous debates, I have criticised the fact that our urban regeneration has far too many schemes, some of which are underspent because no one knows what they do. I urge the Minister to consider simplifying the schemes available so that everyone knows what pot of money is available for what projects.

Will the Minister comment on the smaller but undoubtedly excellent projects funded by the Coalfields Regeneration Trust? I will give a typical example. The Kiveton Park and Wales community development trust receives—104,000 to cover 100 per cent. of the salary and associated running costs for a development worker to support existing services and develop new facilities. I am sure that that is an excellent service, but I worry about the large number of small projects funded by the Coalfields Regeneration Trust and whether they are so diversified that they are not achieving the core objective of regenerating coalfield areas. I also worry about whether the trust's management has the expertise to monitor the continuing evolvement of the small projects to ensure that they are delivering what they were supposed to deliver. Are those small projects properly audited so that no public money is lost and we can ensure value for public money?

This has been a short, but useful, debate, which has followed up on the debate that we had on 16 July 1997. I hope that we have more such debates and that the Minister will assure us that the Government are well on their way to meeting the Prime Minister's objective of everybody in this country having a decent home by 2010. I am sure that if that objective were met, most of the hon. Members who have spoken today would be very happy indeed.

3.5 pm

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

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), not just on securing the debate, but on his lasting interest in housing, both before and after his election to this House. I do not profess, or wish, to be cult figure or hero in Derbyshire or anywhere else; neither do I have responsibility for coal, so I cannot give assurances on existing working seams; nor am I a Minister in the Department of Trade and Industry, so I shall not comment on anything to do with the DTI. However, I congratulate my other hon. Friends on their cogent, well thought-out contributions on a very real and serious subject.

In terms of the Government's response, the subject needs to be seen in the context of the communities plan that was elaborated on on 5 February, which has at its core the survivability and sustainability of communities, and which treats the issue in the very real way that my hon. Friends have suggested. The plan is not just about housing. Many of the assorted regeneration programmes and vehicles associated across the piece with former mining communities are not just there to rehabilitate housing; they are there to do all that can be done for communities, root and branch.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) on his local press release. I have to say that he seemed to witter on about everything except housing in former coal mining communities. Throwing in a little bit at the end about the report and the taskforce did not really add up to a sustained contribution to a serious issue, and that is a matter of some regret. Usually in Adjournment debates there is at least one intelligent contribution from the Opposition and one not so intelligent. Today we have been blessed with two completely unintelligent contributions.

To mention the former Member for Heseltine—or Henley—in a coal mining debate shows that the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) has more front than Harrods. It really is quite lamentable. In the next breath he suggested that the former Member for Henley regenerated Hulme in Manchester. I have been to Hulme and I was not falling over former mining shafts in downtown Manchester. That point had nothing to do with coal mining communities. It might have been interesting if he had told us how extending the right to buy to social tenants in the registered social landlord and housing association sector would help the vibrancy of our former mining communities, but he did not.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

I meant to declare my interest as a fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. I also have certain property interests, which I do not think are affected by the debate.

To respond to the Minister's request, releasing funds relating to the right to buy and the registered social landlord sector would enable considerably more affordable houses to be built than the Government are building at the moment. The Government are building 21,000 affordable houses a year. When the Conservatives left office, the figure was 35,000; when they came to office in 1980, the figure was 100,000.

Mr. McNulty

We might leave it to those who live in the ex-coal mining communities to reach a judgment on a policy that is rooted in what was once described as voodoo economics. This is not the place to go into any detail about Walt Disney versions of extending the right to buy. This is a serious subject.

I am happy to acknowledge the research that my hon. Friend commissioned into issues affecting the forming mining villages of Craghead and Grange Villa, which was published with the university of Northumberland. It was an extremely useful piece of work. One thing that the hon. Member for Ludlow said that was of value was that we talk collectively of the former coal mining communities, but in their previous histories, the working lives of those who live in them and the industry's legacies there is as much disparity as there is similarity, and that is important.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) referred to private landlords, absentee landlords, what might be termed benefit farming and the antisocial behaviour that often follows. I shall come on to talk about the housing Bill in a little more detail, but we need to consider the forthcoming housing legislation and the antisocial behaviour Bill. Elements from both will help our communities.

I am more than happy to put on record that many housing associations, landlords and registered social landlords do profoundly good work in that area, and have long since stepped out of the box to work with communities in a regenerative way, by seeing housing as an device for the wider regeneration of communities. I am also happy to register my hon. Friend's other point about the powers of councils. When we examine those two pieces of legislation we will see that in part, at least, what councils can do in that regard will be enhanced. I shall return to that point in a moment if I have time.

I cannot promise my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) that the Deputy Prime Minister is about to come riding over the hill and visit him in Bassetlaw and the Meden valley, in relation to some spurious link to the former right hon. Member for Belper, who happened to have the same title. We shall consider that and see what happens.

Many of the themes introduced by my hon. Friends were linked, albeit from the perspective of a range of disparate communities. I take full account of what my hon. Friends the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David) and for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant) said about the legacy of the south Wales coalfields. There are elements of housing build that apply across England and Wales, and we have worked closely with the Assembly in drawing up legislation.

Mr. Clapham

As the Minister rightly points out, there are similarities but mining communities are different. However, many of the problems are similar in the sense that the social structure came under enormous strain after the local colliery closed. The one reinforcing factor was the tenacity of that structure, which the Coalfield Regeneration Trust is helping to rebuild.

Mr. McNulty

I am more than happy to recognise and endorse my hon. Friend's point. Suffice it to say that there is much that unites them, not least the fact that a single industry has been ripped away with all the tensions and pressure that puts on the community socially. Equally, I would agree that in all the areas that we are talking about there is a real durability and tenacity in the local communities, and often among the local leadership, which means that they do hold on and bounce back when appropriate. That is partly a result of some of the assistance afforded by the national coalfields programme, the Coalfield Regeneration Trust and the other assorted elements.

I was going to go into some depth on that, but I want to concentrate on where we go from here in relation to the housing Bill and some aspects of the communities plan. The communities plan marked a step change in how we ensure that people have access to decent housing in thriving communities across the country. My Department will try, through regional housing boards and similar bodies, and by working with the national coalfields programme and the Coalfield Regeneration Trust, to ensure sensitivity and responsiveness to local conditions and the regional dimension far more readily than we have until now.

At its core, as everyone has said, the vision is not simply about housing, but the spaces between in relation to housing and the economy, the creation of attractive living environments and the empowerment of local people. No penalty should be attached to living in areas where the glory of a formerly dominant industry is now in the past. People in those communities have as much right as people in any other part of the country to live in thriving sustainable communities.

Jeff Ennis

I apologise for not being present for the whole of this interesting debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Unfortunately, I was serving on a Standing Committee, which I am glad to say has now concluded. I echo the point made by my hon. Friend the Minister that the debate is not just about bricks and mortar, but about the surroundings and making coalfield communities attractive to local residents again. Will he join me in congratulating the Groundwork Trust on working closely not only with local councils in coalfield communities, but with local communities in trying to make those areas more attractive? Will he use his best endeavours to ensure that that trust operates effectively in all former coalfield villages?

Mr. McNulty

I am glad, if no one else is, that that Standing Committee is over, so that my hon. Friend can attend this debate and make his point. I have the pleasure, among other duties, of being the sponsor Minister for the Groundwork Trust, and I fully endorse his comments about the works that it carries out. If he looks at the communities plan, he will see, as others have during the past few weeks, that we have secured further funding and resources to enable the trust to do throughout the country precisely what he has described. The work done by the trust and others in terms of remediation, which goes far beyond simply making shafts safe and the scars on the land vaguely green, is very important.

I visited the Ireland colliery, among others, when I was out and about once. The scars on the land there have been flooded, and it has been turned into a community focus centre. It has become a focal point for the surrounding area and for many events, which is a pleasure to see. That is about reclaiming the land from its previous industrial use, so I happily endorse it.

We are trying to deal with the areas where the situation is most acute and there is abandonment, rather than simply low demand or an issue about the private rented sector. We have identified nine areas where there are the worst excesses of low demand and abandonment, including north Staffordshire and south Yorkshire, as two of the key ex-coal mining areas. We shall look to those pathfinder areas to generate substantial plans and business propositions to turn round those areas. Again, that is not simply about bulldozing empty homes, as those who should know better have uncharitably characterised us as doing. I am talking about reconfiguring, reconstructing and working with local people so that those communities have a future, and we should work together to ensure that we are successful.

Not all ex-coal mining communities are in the nine pathfinder areas, but we hope that, as those areas roll out, huge lessons can be learned and read across to other areas. That is important, because in one way or another, many if not all of the ex-coalfield communities suffer from low demand, abandonment or a mixture of the two.

We are trying to sort out the landlords issue through selective licensing, and to work through solutions to low demand and abandonment. It is a pleasure to see communities considering their future in the broadest sense to see what direction they can take. In that context, we are affording English Partnerships a far more developed role. The communities plan states: We will tackle low demand and abandonment in former coalfield communities through continued funding and support for the work of English Partnerships on the National Coalfield Programme, the Coalfield Regeneration Trust and … the Coalfield Enterprise Fund". It is important to understand the total extent to which former coalfield community housing suffers from market failure and low demand, before suggesting any priorities for action or possible funding sources.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. McNulty

I shall, very briefly. I hope that it will be worth while.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

Perhaps, without persisting in being rude, as he always is, the Minister will answer my question about what the three bodies that he has mentioned do, and how they mesh together.

Mr. McNulty

With respect, I would rather dwell on answering questions from hon. Members who made serious contributions.

English Partnerships will, with the full co-operation of the coalfields communities campaign, begin to map out the extent of the problem experienced in coalfield communities, to begin fulfilling the commitment that has been made. We are exploring other areas in relation to updating coalfield area research on policy issues.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If questions are raised in this House by an hon. Member and the Minister ignores them, what is the point of debates?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The Chair is not responsible for a Minister's conduct. As I understand it, the Minister is trying to answer questions that were raised earlier.

Mr. McNulty

Some priority is necessary in these matters as they unfold; this is a narrow debate.

The root of much of the problem, as my hon. Friends have said, is the National Coal Board and the dismissive way in which it got rid of much of its housing stock, with little thought and, of course, with the complete indulgence of the previous Government. That decision led, as many of my hon. Friends have said, to a flight of owner-occupiers and an influx of antisocial tenants, who had been excluded from other areas and tenures, as has been graphically described. We shall try to resolve that state of affairs, through our Bills on housing and on antisocial behaviour.

The housing Bill will help to tackle bad landlords who have helped to destroy communities. Hon. Members will have to wait a short time for it to be published in all its glory, but it will, as we have already explained, provide discretionary powers for local authorities to license private landlords in areas of low housing demand where problems arise. It will address the bad management problem in relation to privately rented properties—especially houses in multiple occupation. I thought that the hon. Member for Ludlow was going to develop the concept of licensing houses in single occupancy, but perhaps he could elaborate on that after the Committee.

The state of some houses in multiple occupation has a severe impact on already vulnerable areas. They are sometimes attractive for landlords who want to make the most money in areas of low demand and abandonment. We will require that private landlords should be fit and proper persons and that they should meet minimum management standards, as well as playing their part in dealing with antisocial tenants. They should play a part in wider measures to deal with antisocial behaviour, encourage regeneration in low housing demand areas and provide for the setting of maximum licensing fees. I advise hon. Members to read across from the housing Bill to the antisocial behaviour Bill.

John Mann

Will the Minister answer the outrageous slur on the Coalfields Regeneration Trust in the suggestion that its projects were not properly audited? Will he confirm that the trust is properly financially accountable and is an organisation of the highest financial repute?

Mr. McNulty

I am more than happy to deprecate anyone in this Chamber or elsewhere saying otherwise. The remarks in question were, in the light of their ridiculous nature, among those that I was more than happy to leave on one side. I endorse my hon. Friend's view of the matter.

Rather than waiting for the housing Bill—it is undergoing some pre-legislative scrutiny—we are working closely with five or six local authorities in low demand areas, giving them additional funding, as a pilot scheme to enable us to get to grips with how our existing portfolio of powers might enable us to tackle matters more readily now. That pilot will, at least, point towards ways in which we should build on existing arrangements as the Bill goes through Parliament. We thought it important to grab the issue by the scruff of the neck now, rather than to wait for the Bill.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

Perhaps I can make my question even simpler, so that the Minister will answer. When does he expect the housing Bill to be published in draft?

Mr. McNulty

I thought that I said it would be very shortly. I thought that the hon. Gentleman was intervening to apologise about the Coalfields Regeneration Trust, but we can carry on hoping.

Through the special vehicles, the Meden valley is a model of the way forward; it will make a significant difference in north Derbyshire. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw said, it is exactly the same as a range of other ex-coalfield areas, with dispersed pockets of housing, typically 50 to 100 properties grouped together in two or three streets. About 900 properties in 11 distinct geographical pockets have been identified for action in the partnership approach involving English Partnerships, two local authorities and the East Midlands Development Agency. I congratulate all, including Government Departments, who have come to the table to get us to the stage where the scheme is about to take off. It will make a difference; as with other things that are happening in low-demand areas, we hope that the lessons learned from the success of Meden valley will be applied to what we want to do elsewhere and to the problems outlined by hon. Members.

This has been an interesting and important debate. These issues will not go away, but if we do nothing there will be no development. A housing Bill and a Bill to tackle antisocial behaviour will help, but we are not waiting for them as work is being done with the Coalfields Regeneration Trust and others. We are shifting the resources to regional level for dispersion, and regional housing boards with significant ex-coalfield communities should work as closely as possible with the agencies suggested by my hon. Friend to get the measure of the problems in each area and how they should be tackled.

That underpins what my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham said. The only certainty is that the communities will not die. They know they have a future although they may not be sure what it is, and that is why they need assistance. We must get to grips with the matter and build on the work that has already been done by a range of bodies to assess the problems. It is possible that the solution is in the Meden valley project, although the problems may be slightly different in North Durham, Mexborough and Penistone or in a south Wales valley. However, if we work together in partnership we can get to the stage where housing is dealt with in the ex-coalfield communities in a way that it leaves lasting, sustainable, durable communities that have a much better future than they had under the ex-right hon. Member for Heseltine!

Mr. Clifton-Brown

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As it is not yet time for the next debate to begin, and before the Minister leaves the Chamber, may I say that robust parliamentary debate is one thing, but "Erskine May" states that there are standards of behaviour for one Member towards another. I ask your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on whether the way that the Minister has behaved today complies with the rules laid down in "Erskine May" in respect of one Member's consideration of another.

Mr Deputy Speaker

It is the duty of the Chair is to see that the Standing Orders are observed and that "Erskine May" is respected. I have seen nothing yet in the conduct in the Chamber to indicate that that is not the case. Had I seen such conduct, I would have drawn to order at the time whoever was responsible.

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