Whitehall initiatives to revive former coalfield communities have helped to make them more attractive places to live and work but many remain among the most deprived areas in England and opportunities to help train local people and promote local businesses have been missed, the NAO has today reported.
The regeneration effort has three strands: the National Coalfields Programme, to decontaminate and find uses for former coalfield sites; the Coalfield Regeneration Trust, to provide grants to community projects; and the Enterprise fund, to support businesses. The cost for these three schemes is £630 million to date and spending is set to reach almost £1.1 billion.
The National Coalfields Programme has brought into new use 54 of 107 former coalfield sites, making them suitable for private development or recreational use; and work is underway on a further 22 sites. Private developers have built housing and employment space on 44 sites. The Programme expects to have treated 90 per cent of land by its target completion date of 2012 and it will take twice the ten-year timescale of the original Programme to achieve its aims for housing and employment space.
While the Trust has helped to fund over 3,000 community projects and exceeded most of its targets, including building or enhancing over 2,300 community centres, because of strict funding cycles for departments it can currently offer support only up to 2011 and so the future of many projects is at risk.
The Department took five years to put the Enterprise Fund in place because of delays in meeting state aid requirements and protracted and unsuccessful negotiations with a private bank. The Fund has invested £6.5 million in 23 companies employing a total of 312 people.
The NAO found there is no overall strategy to coordinate the three initiatives and each reports and accounts for its work in isolation. A forum established in 2007 to co-ordinate efforts across Whitehall has met only six times, is poorly attended and has no substantive actions to date. At the local level the NAO found the Trust and the Fund could work more closely with the National Coalfields Programme to help train people to benefit from jobs created by the regeneration and to promote local business moving onto employment space developed on the sites. In addition, the Homes and Communities Agency and some Regional Development Agencies each claim all the credit for jobs created on coalfield sites, resulting in over-reporting of the benefits.
While jobs are being created in the former coalfield areas, data suggests that these areas have been particularly affected by the recession. Deprivation remains a problem despite a three per cent improvement from 2004. In 2007, 37 per cent of former coalfield areas were ranked among the most deprived in the country.