Previous SectionIndexHome Page

12.56 pm

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West): I warmly welcome the opportunity to take part in this debate, especially on the urban White Paper. I also want to praise the neighbourhood renewal strategy, published more recently, which has put additional flesh on the bones of the White Paper. The renewal moneys announced in the strategy, the English cities fund, the Phoenix fund and the consultation that is taking place on the recommendations from the social investment taskforce offer for the first time an opportunity to provide significant investment not only in the fabric of our cities, but in the people who live there. The community action and individual enterprise opportunities needed in urban areas have, in many cases, been missing for too long.

I want to take this opportunity to make the case for our suburbs. Further action to assist suburban regeneration is needed. There is still a belief in some quarters that everything in suburbia is positive and that, even when it is not, things are not quite bad enough to warrant the serious attention of policy makers. Almost daily, the press devotes numerous column inches to the countryside and the inner cities, but there is far less coverage of the suburbs.

In an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley), the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) referred to the inner cities and the

26 Jan 2001 : Column 1236

countryside, but not to the suburbs. I do not criticise him for that; I merely suggest that that shows part of the problem that suburbia faces. The logic appears to be that, yes, the countryside and inner cities have problems, but suburbs can be ignored. That complacency is driven by the fact that some of our think tanks and media commentators on regeneration seem to think of suburbs as timeless, quiet, affluent places. Perhaps they still hold Cyril Connolly's view. In the late 1940s, he wrote:

Some 30 years later, Judith Viorst, in a book entitled, "It's Hard to be Hip over Thirty . . . "--I suspect that many hon. Members will recognise that problem--wrote:

I suspect that that attitude is still lurking out there, preventing us from focusing on the real problems that exist in suburbs, too.

Harrow, West is a classic suburban constituency. If one thinks of Harrow, one may perhaps think of the famous public school in beautiful Harrow-on-the-Hill, with St. Mary's church steeple lurking--for want of a better term--above the school and looking out across the rest of Harrow, which John Betjeman described as

He also referred to the "leafy lanes in Pinner". The garden village atmosphere still exists in much of my constituency. The leafy lanes can certainly be found in all of it, but along with them are poverty and deprivation and a need for action to tackle the problems of suburban regeneration.

Let us dispel the notion that there is not dynamism, innovation and energy aplenty in suburban areas. In my constituency, residents associations are particularly active. South Harrow residents association, Harrow Hill trust and Harrow recreation ground users association are powerful and energetic advocates for the district centres in which they operate. They are determined to press for improvements in public services, and the investment that we are putting into the public services is beginning to tackle some of the problems that have been flagged up. As we all know, that investment is at risk from the Conservative party's spending plans.

Associations and residents in my constituency have also shown great imagination. As part of the millennium celebrations last year, Hatch End association organised a triathlon, and I have just about recovered from the experience of taking part in it. The Pinner association has an imaginative partnership with the Heath Robinson foundation to devise the beginnings of a future for West house, an important historic building in Pinner that has been neglected for some time.

Many suburbs remain leafy and affluent, but a number of them are having to adapt to a range of socio-economic changes and they need help in doing so. In 1989, Peter Hall wrote a book called "London 2000" in which he said:

Ten years on, the suburbs are 60 to 80 years old. Some of them require urgent pro-active, community-owned development every bit as much as the other urban areas

26 Jan 2001 : Column 1237

that have been referred to in the debate. Under the Conservative Government's regeneration funding schemes, many suburbs did not receive the investment that they needed.

The urban White Paper does not reflect the traditional mentality of ignoring the suburbs. As a proud suburbanite, I very much welcome the 100 per cent. capital allowance for creating flats for letting over shops. However, we need to tighten up our understanding of suburban areas, and to build on the one think tank report that exists on them--the 1999 Joseph Rowntree survey--to sharpen up our solutions to the problems that suburbs face today.

We need to give our time and thought to understanding what is happening in suburban areas, so that we know what they need for regeneration. Where is decline taking place? What are its causes, and how can it be reversed? The high levels of funding for neighbourhood renewal that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister announced recently must go to the areas of deprivation that are most in need. However, we must consider what else we can do to make the funding streams available to assist the suburban communities that are fighting to reverse decline.

The Joseph Rowntree survey charted the symptoms of suburban decline and said that they were an increasing number of empty shops, a poor general street environment, ageing private housing in need of repair, crime hot spots and, often, a more transient population.

Other bodies highlight more specific pockets of deprivation and decline that need tackling. For example, Rayners Lane estate in my constituency has 680 properties, but probably covers just one or two enumeration districts and has not qualified for the tranches of regeneration funding. The individuals who live on Goldsmith close on the estate have to put up with substandard accommodation and are just as much in need as people who live on much larger estates that are able to benefit from the tranches of regeneration funding that the Government are making available.

More individuals and families who are in need live in suburban areas than is recognised. The right-to-buy initiative significantly reduced the amount of social housing stock and the previous Government failed to give sufficient funding to local authorities and housing associations to build more homes, so not enough social housing has been built. Many people on the housing register have moved into private rented accommodation or have been placed in temporary accommodation in cheaper, less popular suburbs. That creates a more transient population, with the additional problems that that brings.

The urban White Paper rightly highlights the impact on district centres of out-of-town shopping malls, which were a feature of the 1990s. The hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) charted the departure of many banks from our suburbs. That creates a vicious circle. When one store pulls out of a district centre, that reduces its attractiveness to other retailers, who then also decide to pull out. The pattern of decline continues and often only fast-food stores want to come into an area.

The urban White Paper also acknowledges that regeneration was inhibited by the way in which local authority funding has been hit in the past 20 years. Before

26 Jan 2001 : Column 1238

I came to the House, I served for seven years as a councillor on Harrow borough council. In that time, 1,000 jobs were lost and £50 million of expenditure was taken out of the area as a result of the Conservative Government's underfunding. Even though it can be a real challenge to them to do more than just deliver mainstream and essential services, local authorities are often expected to provide a financial commitment before they can lever in other moneys. When acute pressures suddenly build up on authorities, their job of regeneration is even harder. For example, my local authority is experiencing pressures on its social services budget. The costs of children's non-maintained placements have risen by two thirds in the space of just two years, and fostering and adoption costs have risen by a third.

Decline has many causes. Only by having an effective partnership between the public and private sectors, in conjunction with local people and local businesses, can we deliver a serious strategy to address the problems. In Harrow, that strategy is being put in place under the auspices of the Harrow Partnership. Local strategic partnerships, focusing on Rayners Lane estate and Wealdstone, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), have been put together. The local council plays a key developmental role, and the partnerships have been successful in involving local tenants on the estate, local businesses and, in the case of Wealdstone, traders.

When local suburban strategic partnerships are robust and the serious homework has been done to identify the priorities for an area, what other opportunities are there for a suburban local authority to secure the initial funding that it needs to stimulate wider investment? Strategic local partnerships need to be able to draw down funding to help to stimulate regeneration or to stop decline in their areas. The Government should commission wide-ranging research on the state of the suburbs and identify best practice for renewing ageing suburban district centres.

I am proud of the part of suburbia that I represent. We are rich in history, parts of the constituency have great beauty, and there is still a real sense of community. In our schools, thanks to the work of our teachers, standards are rising, and investment in our hospitals is improving services, although in both areas there is still much work to be done. An efficient and imaginative council has secured beacon status, begun to modernise its structures and successfully sought to engage local stakeholders in sustained and detailed partnerships.

The people of Rayners Lane estate in my constituency and of Wealdstone in the other part of Harrow, and those in other district centres in suburban areas, know that if it was ever true, the picture of suburbia in the past as universally affluent and sleepy is not true now. We have our leafy lanes, but side by side with them we have poverty and deprivation and areas in need of renewal. The urban White Paper is a strong document, and I hope that, building on it, my right hon. Friend the Minister will consider what further action he can take to facilitate suburban regeneration.

I cannot pass up the opportunity to raise two unrelated matters. In her speech about the rural White Paper, the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) spoke about countryside pursuits. As I pursue the sport of canoeing, perhaps I can flag up to my right hon. Friend the huge difficulties of access to water. There are some 10,800 miles of waters appropriate for canoeing, but

26 Jan 2001 : Column 1239

canoeists have access to just 376 miles. My right hon. Friend argued powerfully that voluntary access would not work for the right to roam on land. I hope that he recognises that, thus far, the voluntary approach has not been at all successful for canoeists.

One industry that holds out real possibilities of jobs for rural areas is the renewable energy industry. I urge my right hon. Friend to continue to fight for the cause of renewable energy in his Department.

Next Section

IndexHome Page