The Rt Hon Hazel Blears MP

The Rt Hon Hazel Blears MP

Secretary of State

Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

English Partnerships Open Meeting 2008

Date of speech 16 October 2008
Location Greenwich
Event summary English Partnerships' final annual open meeting

Draft text of the speech - may differ from the delivered version.

I'm delighted to be here, at a pivotal time for regeneration policy, with so many people who play a crucial role in the renewal and revival of communities across the country.

Today, I want to look ahead to the coming into being of the new Homes and Communities Agency, what it will deliver, and how.

But first, I want to review the work of English Partnerships.

This is English Partnerships' final Annual meeting. I appreciate that there will be mixed emotions for some staff.

But they should take heart from the fact that if we can now take our regeneration work to the next stage, it's because of all they have achieved in ten years. Their experience and expertise will be on the new Agency's greatest strengths.

I'm not coming to draw a curtain over their achievements; I'm coming to shine a light on them. And this is an appropriate place to do it.

"look at so many of the communities that have been making the biggest strides in the past ten years, and you find English Partnerships helping them along the way"

Towards the end of the twentieth century the Greenwich Peninsula was in a sorry state. As heavy industries died back, one by one, they left an ugly landscape, much of it contaminated.

English Partnerships bought a chunk of the Peninsula in 1997. Working closely with private investors, they started a transformation. Backed up by over £200m of investment, they cleaned the land. They helped bring the Jubilee Line, linking the Peninsula to the jobs in Docklands and the City. They built new homes, offices and shops to the highest standards of design.

Look at the Peninsula now. No-one would claim it has been a straightforward journey. We all remember the controversies about the Dome, and I acknowledge that that we need much more progress on housing. But the change is impressive.

Where once you had derelict land, we've got people living, working, bringing up their families in decent homes, surrounded by open green spaces.

In the O2 centre we've got an internationally renowned centre for cultural events. And to quote another mobile phone company, with the Olympics on the way, and plans well in hand for the further renewal of the Thames Gateway, the future is indeed bright.

This is what English Partnerships has been about. Its hard work has brought new jobs and new life to parts of the country that were crying out for change. You see the evidence everywhere from Heartlands in Cornwall, to Scotswood in Newcastle.

In former coalfield communities, English Partnerships invested nearly £400m; encouraged the private sector to invest double that amount; created over 16000 new jobs and built 200 new homes. The new footbridge in Castleford is a symbol of the town's confidence about its future.

English Partnerships have flown the flag for high-quality design, encouraging builders to aim high. Oxley Woods in Milton Keynes offers a place to live that is more than just functional - it's fun.

The organisation has played a big role in the fight against climate change, both to slow it down and to prepare for its consequences. There are now homes in Upton, Northampton prepared from top to bottom - with sustainable urban drainage round their foundations, and solar panels on the roof.

In the past year, under Robert's chairmanship and John's leadership, English Partnerships has continued to deliver. Nearly 150 homes completed in Adelaide Wharf, in Hackney. Over £1bn of private investment drawn in to housing and regeneration. The award-winning Northwich Salt Mine Stabilisation Project brought to a successful conclusion, giving the town the security to invest in its future.

And I myself, back in April, visited New Islington in Manchester, one of the Millennium Communities, and saw how the vision for a groundbreaking development with people right at its heart is coming into being, brick by brick.

In short, look at so many of the communities that have been making the biggest strides in the past ten years, and you find English Partnerships helping them along the way. It is a record to be proud of. And it gives us strong foundations as we look to the future.

Building the new homes that a green and growing country needs is a key priority for Government for a decade to come and beyond. The continued regeneration and renewal of every neighbourhood remains as vital to our vision of social justice as it always has been: and especially in tougher economic times, I am determined that we shall use the full power of Government to fight the mass unemployment and repossessions which characterised previous downturns.

But if we are to make progress on the scale that communities expect, then it is crucial to learn from the experience of the past ten years; to find ways of working more effectively, and to make every penny of public investment count.

This is why the New Homes and Communities Agency matters. Combining the resources of English Partnerships with the investment functions of the Housing Corporation, the expertise of the Academy for Sustainable Communities, and delivery elements of my Department, it will have the scope, the perspective and the powers to truly get to grips with the challenges.

For the first time, it will bring together in one agency the land and the money needed to deliver all the elements that make up communities which really work. It will look in the round to ensure not just new housing, but high-quality facilities and infrastructure to go with it.

There will be a big difference for Local Authorities, Regional Development Agencies, and the private sector. Instead of needing to have two separate discussions with two separate organisations about their plans for development, they will have just the one - what Bob calls 'the Single Conversation'.

And with clearer leadership and less fragmented funding, the Agency will be a more effective partner for getting things done. By spending public money more efficiently, it will enable an additional 15,000 homes to be built over its first five years.

The Agency has huge tasks ahead - tasks that will change the shape of the towns and cities we live in.

Big tasks call for strong leadership. I'm delighted that in Sir Bob Kerslake we have a chief executive with an outstanding record. Visit Sheffield today, and the moment you step off the train you see the impact of the investment and regeneration that went on when he was Chief Executive the City Council.

He has already assembled a top team drawing on talent from far and wide. As well as from English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation he has recruited from local authorities, regional development agencies, the Greater London Authority and the private sector.

"there is no better way to give someone a sense of control over their life than to give them a purpose and a wage"

With just weeks to go until the Agency takes up its responsibilities, I'm pleased that Sir Bob is here to give his view on the way ahead.

But I also want to take the opportunity to give my thoughts on how the Agency will operate.

You may know that we're currently consulting on our regeneration framework. Some of you may have already given your views on it. If not, you have two weeks left, so take the opportunity.

The framework is designed to set out the principles that will guide future investment in regeneration, drawing on all the lessons of the past ten years, and making sure that the public gets the maximum value for their investment.

I want to highlight three of the key principles you'll find in the framework and in our ambitions for the Agency.

First, a rigorous focus on jobs.

You can build the most marvellous new housing. You can employ the highest standards of design.

But if the people who live in those homes don't have access to jobs, then you are setting the development up to fail.

Jobs are a source of income and a source of pride.

Areas with high levels of employment have better health and lower crime.

And there is no better way to give someone a sense of control over their life than to give them a purpose and a wage.

It's encouraging that so many councils - 122 of 150 upper tier local authorities - have put employment as a priority in their Local Area Agreements.

"If change is going to stick, people need to feel a part of it."

It's got to be a core consideration for the Agency too.

That means making sure that infrastructure does what it's supposed to, in linking up residential areas with business areas.

And it means working closely with local authorities to make sure the money invested in regenerating buildings and infrastructure is matched by programmes to give people the right support and incentives to get into work.

Second, making communities that work is about far more than doing up the bricks and mortar. If change is going to stick, people need to feel a part of it. They need to feel that they own it and can direct it.

In my constituency there is a place that used to be called the Ladywell Estate, now Canterbury Gardens, that has been regenerated three times in twenty years.

The first time it cost about £8m of public money, the second about £12m, the third £16m.

The first two times we did the bricks and mortar, improved the buildings and infrastructure, but things soon slid back because local people weren't involved.

The third time it stuck because it involved tenants and residents and all the people on estate - it made them part of the debate, put their needs and aspirations centre stage.

I know that English Partnerships has a strong record of listening to, working with, taking their cue from local people. Look at Hattersley, where volunteers and community groups have been part of the efforts to turn the town around since day one.

That expertise is worth its weight in gold and it's vital to make the most of it as the new Agency works with Local Authorities, helping them understand what they can do to give a voice to local communities.

Third and finally, over the next ten years the case to build new homes at a faster rate than over the past ten remains as strong as ever. But the need for speed can't be allowed to sideline good design.

As post-war housing Minister, Nye Bevan said;

"we shall be judged for a year or two by the number of houses we build…we shall be judged in ten years' time by the type of houses we build."

Now I'm not going to get into the debate about who faced the tougher economic conditions, but I think the principle is as relevant as ever.

People deserve to live in communities that are beautiful, that appeal to the eye, that are designed with imagination and care. Not the brutal concrete mega-estates of the past. I've been inspired by places such as Chimneypot Park, designed by Urban Splash, literally turning people's assumptions about terraces upside-down.

It's not just an aesthetic argument. It's an economic one.

Well-designed homes hold their value best in tough times.

Meanwhile the poorly-designed are first to drop and last to recover.

In The Cost of Bad Design - a publication produced by the Commission for Architecture and Built Environment, to whom I was pleased to speak earlier this year - the architect Robin Nicholson argued that "bad design is pure waste".

Look at George's Park in Birmingham, laid out in the 70s. Full of blind corners that encouraged crime, it had to be redesigned at a cost of £1.2m.

Or take Holly Street estate in Dalston, which had to be demolished and rebuilt only 20 years into its intended 60-year design life, at a cost of £92 million.

So the Homes and Communities' Agency responsibility for championing good design is emphatically not an add-on, but will be part of the bread and butter. I look forward to them helping unlock the full scope of architects' imagination and creativity.

I'd like to make one last point before I leave you.

The great measure of English Partnerships' success is that it did so much more than produce annual reports, write articles, or start debates.

It created change that people can see and feel and touch, on a scale that even the optimistic among us - and I'm definitely one of those - would have found hard to envisage ten years ago.

Now it's up to the Homes and Communities Agency, working closely with its partners to take up the baton, and to match all the talk and expectations with practical results. That's what people want and deserve to see.

It's a hugely exciting prospect and I'm looking forward to working with Sir Bob, with everyone in this room, and with many more people all across the country to make it happen.

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