I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise issues that are very important not only to my constituents, but to people across east Lancashire. That is why I am particularly pleased to see my hon. Friends the Members for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson) and for Pendle (Mr. Prentice). The issues that affect people in Accrington equally affect people in Nelson, Colne and the villages and towns of Rossendale.
Those areas were the birthplace of the industrial revolution. They built their prosperity on coal, engineering and textiles, which are industries that have been in decline for about 70 years. There was a time when people could leave school, go to work in a mill or factory and confidently expect to work there for their entire lives until they retired. Round the corner from my office in Accrington, there is a factory that, at its peak, employed 8,000 people. The factory closed a long time ago and the site has now been regenerated and changed to provide offices, shops and restaurants. Even today, after many years of decline in the traditional industries, in my constituency and across east Lancashire about twice as many people as the national average work in manufacturing. About one third of people in my constituency work in manufacturing compared with a national average of about 15 per cent.
However, manufacturing is incredibly vulnerable and fragile. Hardly a day goes by without my reading in the local papers of manufacturing jobs disappearing in east Lancashire. There are a variety of reasons for that. Traditional manufacturing is typified by old-fashioned enterprises, often working in unsuitable converted Victorian cotton mills. It is often low tech, low skill and low paid. Essentially we are making a low-tech product at an uncompetitive price compared with, say, eastern Europe. Only a couple of years ago, Leoni Wiring Systems Ltd., a large company in my constituency that made wiring for the automotive industry, shipped out its operations to eastern Europe simply because the labour rate was uncompetitive. That resulted in the loss of 500 jobs.
The question is not whether we should change the economic base in east Lancashire, because it will change anyway, but how we manage the change effectively and ensure that there is an economic future for my constituents and other people in east Lancashire. There are a couple of initiatives that I want the Government to support. First, there is the Centre for Environmental Research and Technology Transfer, which I have been involved with for a while and support. In this context, it makes sense to see east Lancashire as a city, rather than as five separate boroughs with different interests. It is essentially a city with five boroughs, but it does not have a university. I am not making a case for another undergraduate institution in east Lancashire. There are already 10 excellent universities in the north-west and two of them are in Lancashire; we do not necessarily need another situated in the east of the county.
However, we want the kind of university research facility that brings with it high-tech spin offs and well paid, highly skilled jobs. That is what the CERTT initiative would provide and that is precisely the kind of thing that would give us an economic future and would provide a hook for attracting other high-tech industries. It would give an added value to our economic base. When that project seeks support from a Government Department, I hope that it receives it.
Secondly, there is the site at junction 6 of the M65, which is on the boundary between Blackburn with Darwen council and Hyndburn and which is the only one of 25 strategic sites identified by the North West Development Agency that is in east Lancashire. Early purchase of that site would provide some real employment opportunities in the east Lancashire region. It would be the focal point for the gateway employment development zone. We have already secured £7 million from the European regional development fund, and it would be helpful if the Government could give it their support. I have already said that east Lancashire was the birthplace of the industrial revolution. If it is not to be its graveyard, we need a helping hand from the Government. We want an entrepreneurial approach, and we want to work with partners in the public, private and voluntary sectors.
The big issue that I want to address this afternoon, and the largest one concerning regeneration facing my constituents and people across east Lancashire, is housing. In my constituency, the housing situation is nothing short of appalling. As someone who has been a Member of Parliament for 10 years, I am absolutely ashamed of the condition of streets in my constituency. A quarter of all properties are unfit for people to live in, which means that more than 9,000 families live in unfit accommodation. To put that in context, the English average is 7 per cent.
Half the houses in my constituency were built before the first world war. The appalling truth is that the houses in which the Accrington pals—those sacrificed on the Somme—grew up are still occupied today by many of my constituents. Somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 houses are abandoned. People cannot sell them.
As a diversion, some of the housing prices in east Lancashire are utterly amazing. I know the Minister's constituency because when my daughter was a university student she was an elector in Hornsey and Wood Green, so I have some idea of house prices in that area. In Hyndburn and other towns across east Lancashire it is really common for houses to sell for less than £20,000. Houses go for less than £10,000, £5,000 or are given away.
Houses cannot be sold; people walk away from them because they are unsellable. That leads to other problems. One needs only one abandoned house in a terrace for the entire terrace to end up in a difficult situation in the housing market. The housing market has collapsed; we need to provide a platform in the housing market on which house prices can be built. In some neighbourhoods in Accrington a fifth of all houses are empty. That causes massive problems.
Unscrupulous landlords can buy up properties incredibly cheaply in such areas, and can house young people, or those with drink or drug problems. That creates a huge problem of antisocial behaviour. When one meets the decent people who live in those neighbourhoods, one realises that the sick joke is that the problem is funded by housing benefit. Decent people whose lives are made a misery and who cannot sell their houses are funding through their taxes the perpetrators of antisocial behaviour. We will clearly have to get a grip on that problem.
We have a multiplicity of problems: abandoned and unfit houses, houses that cannot be sold, people trapped in negative equity and antisocial behaviour. Many of my constituents are forced to live in that cycle of dereliction and despair. At the beginning of my speech, I said that it makes sense to consider east Lancashire as a whole—as a city. When one considers it as a single entity of half a million people, rather than a collection of large towns, small towns and villages, it becomes apparent that there are more than 100,000 houses in east Lancashire that are either unfit for habitation or are in disrepair. Five of the nation's 30 worst wards for housing are in east Lancashire. Accrington Central ward is in the top 1 per cent. of all wards in England in Wales.
Where do we go from here? First, let me say to my hon. Friend the Minister that I am delighted that east Lancashire has been designated one of the nine pathfinder areas. The programme offers us a real opportunity, which we shall take as best we can.
I wish to pay tribute to my noble Friend, Lord Falconer of Thoroton. In his time as a Housing Minister, he accepted my invitation to come and look at the housing crisis in east Lancashire. In my experience, he was the first Minister who fully understood the nature of the problems faced by so many of my constituents. I believe that he was the first person to point out that Ministers often attend to problems in inner cities—that is understandable and fair—and that the local authorities of cities such as London and others were getting resources from central Government to replace the housing that replaced the terraces, whereas in east Lancashire we had not even managed to replace the terraces.
There are historical reasons for that. For example, urban district councils were too small in the 1950s and 1960s to tackle the problem. I do not mean any disrespect to local authorities in east Lancashire, but the fact is that the borough councils of Rossendale, Hyndburn, Burnley, Pendle and even Blackburn with Darwen, which is a larger unitary council, are just not big enough to cope with the scale of the problem. Perhaps Ministers will bear that in mind when next there is a local government review, which is much needed for east Lancashire local authorities.
I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen will refer to this later, but I hope that the Minister will confirm this afternoon that parts of Rossendale will be included in the pathfinder project. They were originally left out. I hope that the excellent campaign that was run by my hon. Friend and to which I gave some support has been successful.
I cannot stress enough my final point, which is that we must move quickly and symbolically. We must take action very swiftly indeed. For the people who are trapped in the terrible housing conditions that I have described, the end to the misery cannot come soon enough. People are becoming incredibly disillusioned and alienated from the political process.
I have mentioned before—I make no apology for repeating it—a lady in Accrington who I spoke to during the last general election. I asked her to vote for me, the Labour candidate. She said that she would not vote for anyone because of the slum conditions in which she had to live, through no fault of her own. She felt that she had been let down by a previous Conservative council, a Labour council, a Tory Government, a Labour Government and me. Frankly, if I lived in her house, I would not vote for me either. It is a disgrace.
We must start giving people some hope—there is so much despair. They have been told for much too long that help is on the way, but it has not come. I know that it takes time to make a difference, that it is difficult compulsorily to purchase properties, to go through the legal procedures, to determine prices and so on, but I just wanted to share with the Minister the frustration experienced by many decent people.
A widowed lady came to my advice surgery a couple of weeks ago. She has lived in a house in Accrington since the end of the second world war. She told me that the area used to be a really nice part of town and much sought after. It is now like a war zone.
People look to us to offer a helping hand. They look to me as their Member of Parliament but, more than that, they look to the Government to help them. The pathfinder initiative is very welcome, and I am sure that it will make a huge difference. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform the lives of thousands of my constituents and tens of thousands of people in east Lancashire. I know that we have the support of my hon. Friend the Minister and the Government in making such a transformation a reality.