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23 Apr 2002 : Column 62WH

Regeneration (Great Yarmouth)

1.30 pm

Mr. Anthony D. Wright (Great Yarmouth): I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to raise the effect that some of the Government's regeneration initiatives have had on my constituency, Many colleagues have been genuinely surprised when I have raised in the House some of the problems that Great Yarmouth has faced for several years—high unemployment, high benefit dependency and other indices of an area of deprivation.

Those problems were highlighted by the national index of multiple deprivation drawn up in 1998 and 2000 by the Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions. That study examined 8,414 borough council wards in England using the following indicators: income deprivation; employment deprivation; health deprivation; education, schools and training deprivation; housing deprivation and geographical access to services. Great Yarmouth came out as the fifth most deprived in the whole United Kingdom.

In 1996, when I was leader of my local authority, we commissioned a report that highlighted how bad the situation was, based not only on benefit dependency, but on figures that came to light such as average household income—which, at about £8,000 per annum, was about 50 per cent. of the regional average—and our higher than average mortality rate among young and old alike. We knew then that we had to take action, and began the long journey to improve the lives of the people living in and around Great Yarmouth. Recognising the need for a plan of what we had to do to create a more prosperous borough, we decided on a document entitled "2020 Vision" to give us a vision of our borough in the year 2020.

That is just a rough snapshot of where we were five or six years ago. We have come a long way since then, not least because of the way in which everyone has pulled together. The public and private sectors and voluntary and charitable organisations joined in a partnership approach and the Government recognised that something had to be done to eliminate poverty. Regeneration can mean different things to different people. It includes regenerating industries—manufacturing and tourism—regenerating our education system and health service and regenerating in people the hope that they can improve their lives, by giving them opportunities that they have not had before. In Great Yarmouth, we are well on the way to achieving all that, but I stress that we still have a long way to go.

I have mentioned "2020 Vision", our blueprint for the future. It was not long into my first term as a Member of Parliament that our first major project was realised—our new gas-fired power station. That project was first applied for in early 1996, but it was not until late 1997 that the Minister for Energy gave the necessary permission to proceed. On the face of it, that might seem an easy decision but it was not because we were in the period of a gas moratorium. Permission was given because of the problems that we faced. The prospect of the largest single inward investment that we had seen, more than £160 million, with the resulting economic benefits, was enough for the Minister for Energy to accept the need for that investment, despite the moratorium.

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The second major project to aid our regeneration was the reinstatement of the dualling of the A47 Acle straight and an acceptance of the need to construct a new road connecting the A47 to the A149. That project had been removed from the previous Administration's roads programme back in 1996. Although the Government had been persuaded of the need to carry out a study as part of the roads review, the consultants unfortunately came to the conclusion that, on balance, the environmental issues were more important than safety and economic problems. That report had to go to the regional planning body, which, thankfully, agreed with our views and asked for a further study to take the economic case more fully into account. I impress on my hon. Friend the Minister that the overwhelming view of the vast majority of my constituents, both businesses and individuals, is that, on safety and economic grounds, that stretch of the road should be dualled.

The third, and most ambitious, project is a new outer harbour. The project has been around for several years, but since the formation of a new company, Eastport, under the stewardship of Richard Jewson and with support from Great Yarmouth, the county and the region, it has never been closer to coming to fruition. The fact that the regional development agency has agreed to invest in the project, subject to certain conditions being met, has given it a welcome boost.

Another welcome boost came last week, when in a written answer the Minister gave permission to Powergen Renewables to construct a large offshore wind farm just off our coast on Scroby sandbank. Alongside our oil and gas connections, that gives us justification to consider ourselves as the centre for energy in the southern North sea.

Before I move on to the direct Government help that we have received, the final project that I want to mention is our new business park. That project, which started as a vision about 15 years ago, has now been brought to reality by a partnership approach between the East of England Development Agency and many local businesses. The first building, an innovation centre, is due to be opened in May and will be of significant help to both existing and new businesses. It would not have been possible without regional help and will help enormously in our quest to encourage new, high-tech industry to set up in Great Yarmouth.

Everything about which I have just spoken, with the exception of the roads issue, was started under a Labour administration in Great Yarmouth, but equally everything has also received some assistance from Government sources, but only since 1997. As I said earlier, regeneration can come in different ways, and I want to discuss some Government-inspired projects that have been up and running for a little while, as well as some that are just starting.

Because of our social and economic problems, we have had significant help from the Government in the past few years. That help has included single regeneration budget funding, which, when all the schemes are finished, will have brought in about £12 million of Government awards. Those awards will cover areas throughout the borough, but mainly those that needed the regeneration most, such as South Denes,

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Cobholm and Lichfield. In addition, we have been awarded £4.2 million for our sure start project, and our latest award was from the neighbourhood renewal fund for £4.5 million, with a further £500,000 from the community empowerment fund and the community chest.

Our new education action zone is the largest nationwide, and has been awarded £3.75 million to cover 33 schools. In its first year, we are already seeing a great deal of progress, with improvements in 70 per cent. of the key stages and increased attendance levels with a marked reduction in exclusion. There has been further funding through assisted area status, European Union objective 2 and 3 status, East of England Development Agency investment programmes, English Partnerships investment programmes and lottery support.

The story does not end there because much more is going on. There are two new resource centres, which cost approximately £1 million each. A new museum, which cost £4.25 million, recording Great Yarmouth's fishing industry, has opened at a former fish curing works. A new Nelson museum has opened on our historic quayside, and new community centres are planned for the future.

When I began the debate, I painted a picture that was far from rosy when I, along with Labour, came into office in 1997. Five years on, I have highlighted areas in which the Government have helped in the regeneration of Great Yarmouth after years of neglect. In the few areas that I have covered, the Government have granted more than £30 million of direct or individual help, but there is even more going on with bids from our seafront partnership for European money, which would not be available without the help of my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson), who visited Great Yarmouth when she was the Minister responsible for tourism and pushed hard for the inclusion of seaside resorts under the objective 2 review.

Finally, one area that has been extremely helpful to the local authority is the extra Government money in grants to offset council tax. During the final four years of Tory Government, we had an average £50,000 a year increase in our external funding, whereas for the past four years my authority has had on average an extra £250,000 a year. That has allowed the new Tory council, which was elected two years ago, to reap benefits that were not available to the Labour council. The Government have certainly responded to a lot of our needs.

I must also point out to my hon. Friend the Minister that I have received one criticism—there was only one—of the need to form fill and to have checks made on certain funding and spending for, for example, one individual. My colleague states that in the document on community empowered funding grants, the Government said that they must be prepared to take a risk on empowering local partnerships to deliver. His plea to them is to take the risk that they said they would take, and be prepared to empower those who they wanted to empower.

One area that groups in Great Yarmouth are trying to address is the acute skills shortage. If we are to attract inward investment, we need skilled personnel. I know of one scheme at the Oriel high school in Great Yarmouth.

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It has applied for engineering status but is still waiting for the response. I have been involved in the education action zone attempts to encourage youngsters in the Great Yarmouth area to gain engineering skills. An organisation called ProTrain is working very hard to attract youngsters—male and female, I hasten to add—to engineering, which is a skill for the future.

I took a great deal of encouragement from a letter that appeared last week in my local paper, the Great Yarmouth Mercury. It gives a perception of the Great Yarmouth economy:

Those comments came from the Conservative economic development member on Great Yarmouth borough council, so I can only take that as a ringing endorsement of the Labour Government's policies.

I have tried to demonstrate the benefits that have resulted from the Government's many regeneration initiatives in Great Yarmouth, which are working well. However, as I said, there is still much more to do. We must create employment opportunities. We in Great Yarmouth are able to deliver. All that we ask is that the Government continue to help our area so that we can enjoy the economic benefits experienced in other parts of the UK.

1.41 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) on securing the debate. I am aware of the challenges that Great Yarmouth faces. My hon. Friend is an outstanding advocate for his constituency and has left no stone unturned in making sure that the Government understand the challenges, and the success that the area has had in achieving its goals. I am pleased to hear about the most recent developments, particularly the wind farm and the business park. It is also excellent to hear that the funds and programmes that the Government have designed and have targeted at the kind of problems that his area experiences are getting to the communities and making a difference, and it is especially good to hear validation from people who are not normally our political allies.

However, my hon. Friend is right to say that much remains to be done. The index of local deprivation 2000 confirmed that Great Yarmouth is the 43rd most deprived local authority area in England. On intensity and depth of deprivation, the borough scored the fifth highest level in the country. It is the only seaside town in the top 50 disadvantaged boroughs, although we recognise that other seaside towns have difficulties because of the particular economic pressures on them. The index confirmed what we knew before its publication.

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Before setting out what the Government are doing for Great Yarmouth and the effect of the initiatives, I want to draw attention to, and commend, what is happening locally. I know that the borough and other partners have long been aware of the issues that had to be addressed. Even before ID 2000, they had established a social strategy, coming under the framework of the "2020 Vision". Its specific aim was to bring a multi-agency response to deprivation. I am pleased that the strategy is not owned by any one agency but is a shared view of local issues signed up to by the statutory and voluntary agencies in the borough. I shall say more later about how the Government are working with and through the arrangements, but shall mention now that the way in which the borough has drawn together all the players and partners to tackle the problems is a model for towns elsewhere.

The borough has benefited considerably from the single regeneration budget. A seven-year round 2 scheme, worth £8.7 million, began in April 1996 and focused on the South Denes area. Projects are increasing the local community's awareness, involvement, and sense of pride in the area and helping to generate employment and training opportunities and to encourage business growth. Those include a nationally respected young mothers project, which enables them to gain skills and qualifications.

A seven-year round 5 local regeneration scheme, worth £2.4 million, began in April 1999 in Cobholm and Lichfield is delivering improvements to education and skills through the colleges, education service and the local Learning and Skills Council. It will also develop business opportunities and the local economy by way of business advice and the establishment of a credit union.

A four-year scheme worth £1.3 million across the whole of Great Yarmouth aims to widen participation in community-based learning, improve vocational skills and enhance employability, empower individuals, invigorate the local economy and ensure the social and cultural regeneration of the community. I am pleased to hear from my hon. Friend that the funding is having good results for his constituents because that is exactly what was intended.

One of the key issues in any regeneration project is crime and community safety. A year ago, the Prime Minister announced a street wardens programme to make streets in villages, towns and neighbourhoods cleaner, safer and better places to be. Great Yarmouth was successful in bidding for a scheme and I was pleased to hear that in the past few days, three wardens began their patrols around the town centre. There was a lot of competitive bidding for the schemes. They were very popular, and the fact that Great Yarmouth was successful was a tribute to the amount of care that went into the preparation of the bid and the quality of the scheme that was put forward. The new wardens will concentrate on preserving the physical appearance of the town centre but their uniformed presence will also help to deter anti-social behaviour and the fear of crime. That is particularly important for an area that is looking to increase its tourism trade.

In the past two years, £591,220 has been allocated for three closed circuit television projects in and around Great Yarmouth. The capital modernisation fund is

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also helping small retailers. Nearly £90,000 has been allocated for the communities against drugs initiative. The Great Yarmouth crime reduction partnership has received funding to increase its capacity to reduce crime. The safer communities initiative is assisting the partnership in tackling crime and disorder to meet national crime reduction targets and other local priorities. A lot is going on in Great Yarmouth to ensure that issues concerning crime and community safety are not acting as a brake on economic regeneration, and that the creation of a safe and secure community is fostered.

In his speech in the February debate, my hon. Friend drew attention to the success of the education action zone in Great Yarmouth. Key stage 3 and 4 results were higher than the national average, attendance levels improved and 80 per cent. of pupils showed measurable progress in reading. It has also been successful in setting up partnerships with a number of local businesses for sponsorship and workplace training. The EAZ has also been awarded an extra £260,000 by the East of England Development Agency for an innovative programme for key stage 4 pupils. From April 2005, the EAZ will become an excellence cluster increasing funding to £1.8 million a year. My hon. Friend is right to highlight the need to improve the skills and education base as an essential part of the economic regeneration of his area.

My hon. Friend mentioned the sure start programme and the success that that has had in Great Yarmouth with its funding of £4.2 million until 2004. A new £500,000 nursery was opened in February. I would particularly like to commend the programme's community parent scheme. Its course has achieved accreditation to the Open college, and it has been adopted as a model of good practice by several other sure start programmes.

Wider economic funding initiatives have also been used to good effect, including for objective 2, the East of England Development Agency investment programme, English Partnerships investment programmes and lottery support.

I have time to refer to only a selection of the major initiatives that address the challenges facing Great Yarmouth. Work is being carried out in the context of the national strategy for neighbourhood renewal, which was launched by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in January 2001. That is a new approach, which attacks the core problems of deprived areas, such as weak economies and poor schools, harnesses the powers of all sectors to work in partnership, explicitly focuses services and resources on deprived areas, and gives local residents and community groups a central role in turning their neighbourhoods round.

To deliver mainstream services better and to involve communities are the two purposes behind local strategic partnerships that bring together residents in the public, private and voluntary sectors to identify local problems and deliver local solutions. We were pleased to announce on 28 February that the Great Yarmouth local strategic partnership—comprising the Great Yarmouth economic, environmental and social forums, overseen by the 2020 forum—has been officially

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accredited. To achieve that status, it had to fulfil several key criteria. The Great Yarmouth LSP well demonstrated all those characteristics.

As I have said before, we have been struck by the strong partnership working in Great Yarmouth from the outset. The common sense of purpose bodes well for its future development and we believe that it has much to teach other LSPs. As a result, a payment of a further £1.4 million of neighbourhood renewal funding was approved for 2002–03, in addition to almost £1 million approved for 2001–02. A further £1.9 million will be available in 2003. That money can be spent in any way that will tackle deprivation in the most deprived neighbourhoods. Already, community development workers have been introduced into six key areas through the grant.

The involvement of local communities is key to making everything work. We will support, encourage and enable that in several ways, such as the community empowerment fund, the community chest and the community learning chest. Funding is being provided at £115,000 a year for three years. The community chest and community learning chest will provide small grants totalling £375,000 to formal and informal community groups to support community activity and mutual self-help.

The key task of any LSP in the context of neighbourhood renewal is to prepare a local neighbourhood renewal strategy, and Great Yarmouth LSP has submitted a framework for such a strategy. A notable factor, to which my hon. Friend referred, was the strength of input from all sectors of the community, and the fact that they have been able to forge partnerships ahead of time. That stands the town in good stead as regards attracting funding and, more importantly, delivering its strategies.

I shall deal now with specific issues that relate to economic regeneration, and particularly to two schemes, which I suspect are the most pressing for my hon. Friend's town, and on which decisions and actions have yet to be taken. He left me in no doubt, both today and on previous occasions in the House, of the local worry about the development of the Great Yarmouth outer harbour. That debate has been going on for 30 years. I know that Eastport, GO-East and the East of England Development Agency have had exhaustive discussion about bridging the gap between the full project costs and the likely commercial and local government support. It is vital that Eastport takes heed of the advice that it has been given, and, in particular, that it meets all its targets during the early preparatory stages. We cannot take it for granted that approval for any further European funding will be forthcoming, and behind all of that we must be conscious of the rules on state aid, which are becoming an increasing factor in economic regeneration.

Looking at the east coast, we cannot avoid comparison being drawn with Immingham, where Associated British Ports has secured funding on a commercial basis to underpin further expansion in ro-ro. Other ports, not only in the UK, have aspirations to expand in the same way as Great Yarmouth. There is a process to be followed and all cases will be judged on their merits. I am sure that my hon. Friend will assist

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and encourage all agencies involved locally to focus on working through the process to meet the various targets required along the way.

My hon. Friend also emphasised the need for the dualling of the Acle Straight, which has been a long-standing issue. The regional planning body has endorsed most of the recommendations of the Norwich to Great Yarmouth roads-based study, and I will write to my hon. Friend as soon as any decision is taken on future investment in that road. Led by the Government office for the east of England, we are committed to strengthening collaborative working between

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Government Departments to support neighbourhood renewal, thereby assisting the further regeneration of Great Yarmouth.

I congratulate my hon. Friend again on both the persistence with which he has brought up all the issues that relate to Great Yarmouth and the careful presentation that he gave of successful local achievements, the challenges that the town still faces and its strengths in work across different sectors, and the political divide to make sure that its economy delivers a better future for its people.

Question put and agreed to.

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