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House of Commons

Friday 26 April 2002

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Local Communities

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Kemp.]

9.33 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble): This debate is about the Government's determination to improve the quality of life in communities up and down the country. On one level, improved quality of life means personal prosperity and better life chances, such as health, skills, education and job opportunities. However, having a better quality of life in one's own home is not enough if people are afraid when they open their front doors.

I want to focus on the quality of life as it relates to people's experience of the areas in which they live and the contribution that the quality of the urban environment makes to that—in particular, what happens on the streets and in our town centres. What people think about their area is fundamental to their confidence and sense of well-being. It is also fundamental to the regeneration and renewal of our towns, cities and villages, to their economic success and well-being, to their social success and to the sense of pride that people have in their communities.

The Government are determined to achieve three key objectives: to make local communities cleaner, to make them safer and to give people a sense of ownership of their surroundings so that they feel they have some control over what happens in the streets around their homes. The objective of creating cleaner environments and communities is not just a matter of aesthetics; there are broader strategic goals in ensuring that our streets are free of litter, graffiti and vandalism. Cleaner streets create communities that are more secure and more stable. They also play a major role in the quality of life and the ability of a town or city to attract the inward investment that creates new jobs and gives people the chance to achieve personal prosperity.

Conversely, rundown streets, public squares and parks that are abandoned to muggers and drug dealers, and unkempt shopping centres and estates littered with abandoned cars are familiar scenes in too many areas. They foster criminality and antisocial behaviour and actively deter investment and confidence in our towns and cities. Public squalor undermines private affluence. As a leading criminologist, Professor George Kelling, wrote:

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The Government recognise that and I am pleased that much excellent work is taking place around the country, so making the public realm cleaner and safer and thereby contributing to the quality of life of those communities on both a social and an economic level.

We have taken action to deal with litter collection, one of the most basic of street services. Earlier this month, we doubled the fines that wardens can issue for littering offences. Litter encourages other environmental crimes, such as graffiti and fly tipping. Taken together, those problems make many residents uncomfortable and ashamed about the areas they live in and fearful of walking the streets at night. They also open the way to wider crime problems and often remind people of other problems in the area, in particular drug abuse. I am sure many hon. Members will have heard constituents talk about litter in general before focusing on the problem of needles and drug paraphernalia in their area, including the fears that that generates.

We are piloting schemes in which nine local authorities in different parts of the country can spend the fines that they receive from littering offences on environmental enforcement services. Three other local authorities, again right across the country, will join that scheme shortly.

Abandoned cars are another bane of the urban environment. We recently set out plans to give local authorities the power to deal more effectively with that problem, and they can remove them within 24 hours with immediate effect.

We have also recognised on a positive level the benefits that a quality environment can bring to local communities and the strategic importance of a high-quality environment to provide an impetus for regeneration and renewal. The Government established an urban green spaces taskforce that I chaired. It is due to report next month. There has also been a cross-cutting review of public open spaces, chaired by my colleague Lord Falconer, which will also make proposals to improve the quality of the public realm.

We are already seeing how towns and cities at a local level are seizing the initiative on those fronts. In particular, they are taking action to ensure that our parks and green spaces are not urban wastelands, but add benefit and value to the local community. For example, the regeneration proposals for Eastside in Birmingham will successfully incorporate new green spaces. A new city park will cover an area that mostly comprises abandoned and rundown warehouses. There will be improved access and circulation space in the new development, which will be linked with plans for a new residential development. We aim to get people and money circulating in an area that is very run down.

On a smaller scale, Groundwork, through the Barclays SiteSavers programme, has turned an area of disused land attached to Tewkesbury adult learning centre into an attractive garden and wildlife area that is accessible for people with disabilities—one of many excellent examples of the scheme turning derelict sites, which can be a haven for criminality, into community assets. I see that the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) is in his place, and I hope that he knows the scheme and appreciates its value.

One of the big issues of public concern is community safety. The management of the public realm and the local environment is crucial in that regard. Our second key

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objective is therefore to make local communities safer. Fear of crime, as we all know, can have a pernicious effect on people's confidence and their quality of life. We can improve people's quality of life substantially by making them feel safer, and we can actually make them safer through better management of streets and public areas. That type of work needs to go hand in hand with the work done by the local police force.

We are working to improve street lighting to increase safety and allay people's fears about walking along the streets after dark, and we have recently agreed with local authorities to undertake a national condition survey to help compile a national inventory of lighting. Public- private partnership schemes for street lighting are under way in some areas, including Manchester, Walsall and Sunderland. The £170 million CCTV camera fund and the Home Office's safer communities initiative—worth £20 million in 2002–03—will also help to make neighbourhoods safer.

In addition to these initiatives, designing development better from the outset can help reduce fear of crime, make crime harder to commit and increase the risk of detection. Designing out crime is an increasingly important and relevant issue, and we had have two Adjournment debates on the subject already in Westminster Hall. If hon. Members want a concrete example of how it has helped to turn a community around, they can consider the Northview estate redevelopment in Swanley, Kent. In the last two years, burglary has fallen by 73 per cent. and violent crime has gone down by 64 per cent. Community spirit has grown and tenants are transferring back to the estate. There are many ways in which the Government, and my Department in particular, are helping to foster good design through guidance, planning statements and our detailed work with the building industry.

A further good example of the way we are encouraging the designing out of crime is provided by our home zones schemes. These have been extremely popular and have been taken up by communities up and down the country. They transform the way in which residents can use their local streets. The road space is shared between drivers of motor vehicles and other road users, and planned, designed and built or rebuilt carefully to make sure that local people can maximise use—older people who want good, level pavements with street furniture, children who want play spaces, and drivers who want decent car parking close to their front doors. They also make sure that community safety issues are tackled—good-quality fencing, secure entrances and the ending of rat runs, and making sure that people have an environment that they can manage, but also one that they can enjoy.

In January this year, I announced the 61 successful bids—from 57 local authorities up and down the country—for home zones funding from the £30 million challenge fund announced by the Prime Minister last year. There was intense competition for the funds—a sign that the scheme had struck a real chord with local communities. One of our pilot home zones schemes in the New England area of Peterborough is already showing good results. That area includes a large amount of Victorian terraces and more modern semi-detached housing. About 1,450 households are to be involved in a phased traffic management programme that will cut down on rat running and help to reduce crime. Indeed, similar

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schemes in other parts of the country are remodelling areas where there is old terraced housing and where straight streets become rat runs for cars.

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