THIRTEEN years after the start of regeneration initiatives, £630m of taxpayers' money has so far been spent nationally on bringing 107 former pit sites back to working use and improving the lives of hard-hit communities.
Last week, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) cast doubt on how much benefit the expenditure had given to people's lives in communities that are among the most deprived in the UK. It also said the Government did not know how many jobs had been created by coalfield regeneration.
Edward Leigh, chairman of the cross-party PAC, said it was doubtful whether efforts made by the agencies involved were achieving value for money, and the committee called for a rethink in the way schemes are operated before the remaining 450m is spent. Some, like Professor Steve Fothergill, director of the Industrial Communities Alliance (formerly the Coalfield Communities Campaign), feel the PAC report and the equally critical National Audit Office report that preceded it have been unduly harsh.
"Around the margins there are some valid criticisms," says Fothergill, who is also professor of regional development at Sheffield Hallam University. "The reports missed the fundamental point that we should give full credit to the Government for recognising the problems of coalfield communities and addressing them. Let's be brutal here, the chairman of the PAC is a Tory and this is an opportunity to score political points. Anyone who was expecting the regeneration of coalfield communities to be quick, cheap and easy was deluding themselves."
Between 1984 and 1997, 170,000 people lost their jobs in coal mining. Replacement jobs in smaller numbers started to come along, but were unevenly distributed across the coalfields. By the late 1990s, there was a substantial jobs deficit plus a legacy of physical dereliction, high levels of poor health, low levels of educational achievement and a weak enterprise culture.
John Prescott led the government's Coalfields Task Force, set up in 1997. Efforts and money were focused on decontaminating and
regenerating former coalfield sites, providing new jobs, new business spaces, new housing, develop enterprise and improve educational, social and career opportunities for communities as well as upgrading the local environment.
Three agencies – the Coalfields Regeneration Trust (which works on schemes to provide opportunities for communities), the Homes and Communities Agency (responsible for the remediation and development of old pit sites) and the Coalfield Enterprise Fund (encouraging business development) – work in partnership with many other bodies such as regional development agencies and local authorities to breathe life back into former mining areas.
Last week, former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott attended the official opening of the 22.7m reincarnation of the former Grimethorpe colliery near Barnsley, where 6,000 had been employed in the 1970s between that pit and nearby Houghton and the Coalite Coking works and Shafton workshops.
About 197 hectares of land has been reclaimed, 258 houses demolished and 450 new ones built or planned, 589 homes have been modernised and 38 business spaces have been created. Other developments include community facilities, 1.7km of new public pathways, play areas and 130 hectares of beautifully developed public green space provided.
Grimethorpe is one of 33 sites in the regeneration programme in Yorkshire that have been completed or almost completed. Across the UK so far the programme has created 17,800 jobs and 2,500 new homes.
At Wath upon Dearne, the HCA says a 3.5m investment in detoxifying and regenerating the former coalfield has so far yielded 6.28m in land sales and a 2.8m reinvestment in the coalfields programme. At Dinnington, near Rotherham, land remediation investment of 14.26m has brought receipts of almost 10.5m, and at Fryston-Wheldale at Castleford, 6.47m investment has created a country park, new village green, and road improvements, as well as a platform for 150 new homes which is hoped to generate income of 1m.
It's illogical to suppose that large-scale employment can be provided on the sites of all former pit sites, so many are returning to the green landscape they were before coal was ever mined. Others, closer to towns and major road networks, lend themselves better to development of businesses.
At Glasshoughton, near Castleford, once the home of a colliery, coking works and railway marshalling yard, the Xscape ski centre, cinema complex, other leisure facilities, shopping outlet, hotels and 187 new houses have become one of the totemic successes of coalfield regeneration. The detoxification of the land was long, difficult and expensive, but the 9m of public investment has generated 15m in land sales.
On the "people" side of coalfield regeneration, the Coalfields Regeneration Trust (CRT), gives grants for community projects including the building of community centres, and encompassing everything from a family employment centre in Featherstone, to a Wheels-to-Work scheme whereby people who find it difficult to get to centres of employment, education or training because of poor public transport links, are provided with mopeds to get them there. CRT has invested more than 48m in 1,309 projects in Yorkshire since 1999.
Based on the largest housing estate in Wakefield, where health, education and employment were in a parlous state, the St George's Lupset community enterprise centre was started in 1997 in a rundown church hall. The CRT has given grants totalling more than 316,000, to provide 74-place pre-school childcare, adult learning and volunteering centre, IT and other adult training, a healthy living centre and community transport. The enterprise has created 33 jobs and attracted 6m in other funding. More than 20,000 people visit the centre each year.
A long-standing problem in coalfields communities has been youth disaffection and crime. Jill North and Jane Jukes are funded through CRT grants to take sport to youngsters who might otherwise hang around on the streets. Jill even persuaded former Olympic athletes Linford Christie and Darren Campbell to get involved in encouraging children to take up sport.
"I grew up and still live in the pit community of Askern and know what's happened to my village," says Jill. "It'll take a long time for recovery to happen, but sport offers great opportunities and makes people feel good. Linford Christie said that former mining communities
are even more deprived than some of the inner city places he's involved with."
Pat Heath, chief executive of Barnsley Citizens' Advice Bureau, says the workload is growing – most of it to do with financial problems, and last year people were helped to manage 14m debt. A year ago, the CAB received 23,000 to fund an outreach worker as part of the CRT's Debt Response Programme, working in the borough's four most deprived areas – the former pit villages of Elsecar, Wombwell, Kendray and Jump.
"Barnsley is one of the poorest boroughs in the country and the most disadvantaged in South Yorkshire. There's a high level of household income below 200 a week, and only 10 per cent of people had the national average gross household income of 659 in a survey done in 2007."
The target for the outreach worker was to help people to manage 1m debt and secure 50,000 in additional welfare benefits people were missing out on. "We've clearly seen the impact of the project," says Mr Heath. "By early March 250 people had been helped to manage 1.4m debt and 75,000 in extra benefits had been brought in." Funding is to be extended until December.
Stephen Gardner is the vicar of All Saints Church in Woodlands, near Doncaster, a village where the men traditionally joined the workforce at nearby Brodsworth Colliery. The once-proud mining community almost had its heart torn out by the pit closure and loss of 2,800 jobs, says Rev Gardner. Brodsworth is now a community woodland.
"There is high unemployment around here, and two local warehouses are the main providers of jobs. The problem now is not so much no employment as poor employment – people working long hours on minimum wages to support their families. The effects of the pit closures on two or three generations of families has been not just loss of earnings but loss of purpose and confidence.
"The regeneration money has been great, but when you spread it across all the villages in 50 communities around Yorkshire, it's a drop in a bucket. It's great to see a fantastic development like the Xscape site on the old Glasshoughton site providing 800 jobs and housing, but you can't build one of those on all former
"Our community woodland is a wonderful resource, and people still call it "pit top", but for committees looking for 'outcomes' the benefits of such regeneration and other kinds of improvements like the refurbishment of villages is largely intangible – they're about enabling communities to view themselves more positively.
"There are people here who are desperate to see their children's future as more positive. Poor lifestyles and drug problems have contributed to three young men committing suicide in five years... but we are by no means at the bottom of the heap.
"The process of reviving these places is slow, hard and costly, and a few hundred thousand pounds a year over ten years doesn't necessarily do enough. The problems will persist until people feel their communities are better places to be."
REGENERATION: THE FIGURES
(as at March 1, 2009)
HCA investment 146.4m
Private sector investment 245.3m
Land brought back into use 1,125.9 ha
Houses built 196
Employment floorspace created 353,003 sq mtrs
Estimated jobs created/safeguarded
(Source: Homes and Communities Agency)