Making the news For Ann Widdecombe urban regeneration starts with blowing up the big estates

Ann Widdecombe likes to solve problems. In her political heyday she addressed employment and prisons under John Major, and was later shadow health and home affairs secretary under William Hague. Although she retired from frontbench politics in 2001, the Maidstone MP is still tackling problems, as she demonstrated last week.

First, she got to grips with urban regeneration in a two-part documentary for ITV’s Tonight with Trevor McDonald, in which a film crew followed her throughout a week’s sojourn on an Islington council estate.

Then she launched a report and campaign by Stannah Stairlifts against age discrimination in the UK. Speaking to Building at the launch, Widdecombe cheerfully admits that she qualifies for her own freedom bus pass this year.

“I don’t feel much different inside from when I left Oxford,” she says. “What is ‘old’ anyway, nowadays?”

It is a pertinent question, given the government’s recent crackdown on age discrimination in the workplace. Widdecombe says employers of manual labourers, such as those in construction, should realise that fitness and age aren’t necessarily connected: “If a 59 year old can demonstrate they’re just as fit as a 39 year old, then you shouldn’t have a problem.”

“Employers have an obligation to conduct fitness tests and make sure there are administrative jobs for workers who feel they can no longer perform physical tasks,” says Widdecombe. “There’s always something people can do, even in physical industries, if they want to.”

The problems she encountered on the council estate were not as straightforward. There, a more radical solution is called for: “What we need to do is knock down those big estates. We’ve created ghettoes,” she says (speaking shortly before the flat she was living in was firebombed).

“You need to mix dwellings, so that you have something small for the elderly there, something for families here and private housing next to housing association buildings. By doing this you can really get mixed communities.” As she speaks she maps out the buildings in front of her with her hands.

As a true blue Tory, Widdecombe is a firm supporter of private sector involvement in the public sector. The big problem, she says, is that PFI debt is raised by the private sector, and “the government can always borrow more cheaply”.

A former prisons minister, Widdecombe is more welcoming of government plans for the public to buy shares in the facilities through Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) to help fund new jails. She says: “I think it’s rather jolly, actually. We need more prisons. We need lots, lots more. Our duty is to supply the places that match the courts’ decisions. If the court says that fellow is to go to prison, then our job is to make sure he goes to the proper place.”

Widdecombe recently pledged support for a parliamentary motion saying wind turbines were “intrusive, visually unattractive and environmentally damaging”.

It’s unlikely that the motion will be supported by David Cameron, who is planning to put one on the roof of his Kensington home. Widdecombe rolls her eyes. “Those things only generate a fraction of the energy you need. We’re fools if we don’t recognise that the future is nuclear.”

So Cameron’s a fool, then? Widdecombe smiles and sits back. She won’t take the bait.

Where have I seen that woman before?

Since leaving the front bench in October 2001, Ann Widdecombe has carved out a career as a media personality. She has appeared on Celebrity Fit Club twice – once as a contestant (2002) and later as a judge (2005). She has been an agony aunt for The Guardian, and presented a BBC programme called Ann Widdecombe to the Rescue, in which she helped members of the public sort out their lives. She has written three novels: The Clematis Tree (2000), An Act of Treachery (2002) and An Act of Peace (2005). She regularly appears on Grumpy Old Women and as a guest presenter on Have I Got News For You?