HC Deb 15 November 2001 vol 374 cc1068-76

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Pearson.]

6.19 pm
Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale)

I am grateful for the opportunity to highlight once again some of the many acute social and economic problems that afflict seaside towns, to look at what action the Government have taken to address them and to consider what further measures need to be taken.

Having been raised in the seaside town of Morecambe, I witnessed its decline throughout the 1980s from a thriving, prosperous holiday resort to an area of high unemployment and social deprivation. The regeneration of our seaside resorts has therefore long been high on my list of priorities. Following my election to serve as the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale in 1997, a substantial part of my maiden speech to the House was devoted to that subject. Much of what I said about tourism and seaside resorts in general, and about my constituency in particular, has been echoed on many occasions by other hon. Members with similar constituencies. It may be useful to remind the House briefly of some of the points that I raised and use them as a benchmark to assess what progress has been made.

In 1997, I told the House that following the collapse of the domestic holiday trade in the 1980s, Morecambe was suffering from a wide range of social and economic problems. There was a huge stock of former guesthouses and hotels that had fallen out of holiday use and were being used as substandard houses in multiple occupation. The proliferation of HMOs had attracted a large number of socially disadvantaged and mainly transient people to the town, which had put an enormous strain on public services. High unemployment was endemic in several wards, and deprivation and social exclusion were widespread. Many of the resort's visitor attractions had closed and many others were on the verge of closure. Much of its infrastructure was old, decaying and in need of refurbishment. Access to the resort was poor, hampering efforts to attract new business. Those were the conditions that existed in my constituency, and in seaside resorts throughout the country, in 1997. Unfortunately, many of the problems that resorts faced then are just as acute or worse today.

In my constituency, squalor and splendour sit side by side. The high density of HMOs remains and continues to attract the socially disadvantaged into the resort. Many wards continue to harbour substantial pockets of social and economic deprivation among the worst in Lancashire. The resort's premier attraction, the Frontierland leisure park, has closed. The Bubbles leisure complex has also closed, and the resort still does not have a theatre. Occasionally, productions are put on at the Festival market hall, which necessitates the stallholders forfeiting their business to accommodate them. Shops in the main Arndale centre and surrounding area continue to become vacant with alarming frequency.

Access to the resort remains poor, whether by private car or public transport. Rail services are infrequent and, in the main, run only as far as Lancaster, where visitors to the town are required to change and frequently encounter lengthy delays. The ticket office and waiting room on Morecambe station are closed from early afternoon and, in inclement weather, passengers have to huddle under an open-ended shelter on the platform. After the ticket office has closed, no information is available to passengers about late-running or cancelled trains.

Bus services to the resort are also infrequent and often become entangled in the traffic chaos and congestion that pervade the Lancaster and Morecambe area. Those who travel to the resort by car experience similar difficulties. There is no doubt in my mind that poor access is the biggest single barrier to investment and the regeneration of Morecambe.

On a brighter note, a proposal to redevelop the Frontierland site as a retail park is being examined. A private developer is also attempting to renovate the Midland hotel, which was once the flagship of Morecambe's tourism industry. If either of those developments comes to fruition, it will give commercial activity in the town a significant boost.

Of course, the natural beauty of the area remains untarnished. But after decades of decline and underinvestment in its infrastructure, Morecambe—in common with many other seaside resorts—is still only at the stage of preventing further decline, never mind being regenerated.

Perhaps at this point I should make it clear that I do not lay the blame for the decline in resorts such as Morecambe at the door of the current Government, and neither do I accuse them of negligence or inactivity in advancing measures to remedy the problem. Nothing could be further from the truth: I firmly believe that, since coming to office in 1997, the Government have made enormous strides in getting to grips with the horrendous legacy that they inherited from the Tories.

Many seaside resorts now have access to funds from which they were previously excluded. My constituency is set to benefit from assisted-area status, as well as from objective 2 and single regeneration funding. The establishment of the resorts taskforce and the publication of the regeneration "Sea Changes" blueprint, which clearly sets out what needs to be done, constitute a major step forward, as does the multi-billion pound commitment to improve the nation's transport infrastructure that was announced in the Government's spending review. That undoubtedly will prove of great benefit to many seaside towns. The cross-departmental approach that the Government have adopted, given many of the problems of social exclusion in our resorts, is also soundly based.

Although I do not blame the Government for what has transpired in our resorts and commend them for what they have achieved so far, I do not want to give the impression that they can now sit back and contemplate a job well done. As far as I am concerned, they have taken a few small but significant steps down a long road.

The "Sea Changes" blueprint is only words on paper at the moment, and unless they are converted into action, they are meaningless. I should be interested in any details that my hon. Friend the Minister can offer of how and when the delivery of the huge amount of extra investment required to transform and modernise our resorts will be achieved.

I firmly believe that regionally based seaside regeneration delivery units need to be established to ensure that a focused, cross-departmental approach is maintained at local level. There is no doubt in my mind that, without such a focus, attempts to regenerate seaside towns will become patchy and over-bureaucratic, and that in general they will fall short of their targets.

To illustrate what I mean, I shall refer to a couple of things that are happening in the local authority that covers my constituency, namely Lancaster.

First, there is a long-standing bid to build a link road from the port of Heysham to the M6 motorway. There is almost universal acceptance at all levels of government that such a link is required, but there is a dispute about the routing of the road. I, the city council and the county council favour the western route, which offers the best prospects for economic development of the area. The northern route, preferred by the Government office of the north-west, appears to have a less adverse environmental impact, and accordingly the office has registered objections to the Lancaster local plan.

My concern is not that the office has objected to the proposed western route but that in doing so it stated that, although the western route would open up more areas for economic development, such developments were not part of the road's strategic objectives.

I believed that the Government had said that they would build roads for economic reasons and not just to relieve congestion, so I find the thinking of the Government office muddled and misguided. That is compounded when it is considered in conjunction with a bid submitted by Lancaster city council to establish an economic development zone.

The core of that bid is the industrial development of the Luneside site in Lancaster. The site is landlocked, with only limited access by minor roads. Government officials discovered how poor access was when they had to walk from the centre of Lancaster to inspect the industrial estate. It was just too difficult to reach by minibus, and the officials had to get out and walk there. Despite that, they have examined the EDZ bid and included it among the 10 high-priority schemes. It seems that the Government office is prepared to support the spending of millions of pounds on the development of the site but opposes the building of a road that would make it a viable proposition.

On Monday, I met Peter Styche who, until recently, was acting director of the Government office of the north-west, and asked him to reconcile those contradictory policies. Not only was he unable to give me a satisfactory answer, he appeared unable to give any answer whatever. Both the building of the motorway link and an EDZ are critical to the regeneration of Morecambe. I would be most grateful for any assistance that the Minister could offer in helping to resolve this matter.

In my opinion, the foregoing clearly demonstrates the need for a more focused approach to the regeneration of our resorts to ensure that the joined-up cross-departmental thinking that the Government adopt nationally is carried forward and implemented locally.

That leads me to my final point. Seaside resorts in recent years have suffered from a contraction in the domestic holiday trade similar to that experienced by mining communities as a result of pit closures. It is obvious that seaside resorts will require a similar amount of support and investment to that which the coalfield communities received if they are to be successfully regenerated.

Serious consideration should be given to the establishment of a seaside regeneration trust, modelled on the coalfields regeneration trust, which will focus on and give impetus to the regeneration of our seaside resorts. I am aware that the Government are currently of the opinion that the economic and social deprivation caused by the decline of seaside resorts is not directly comparable to that suffered by mining communities as a result of pit closures. Indeed, the Minister confirmed that to me in a written response to a parliamentary question earlier this week.

I have to inform the Minister that I believe that the Government are wrong in their assumption. The collapse of the holiday trade, on which the economics of seaside resorts depended, had an impact on many resorts every bit as sudden and severe as that which occurred in the coalfield communities. The only real difference in circumstances is that when the collapse of the holiday trade occurred, we were saddled with a Conservative Government who were not prepared to do anything about it. Much of the resulting devastation still afflicts seaside resorts today and it will take much more than a pump-priming role by Government to renovate, modernise and improve the infrastructure of seaside resorts and enable them to diversify and rebuild their economies.

If my hon. Friend the Minister is in any doubt that this is the case, I invite him to visit my constituency at the earliest possible opportunity to see for himself just how much still needs to be done.

6.33 pm
Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

Order. I take it that the hon. Gentleman has the agreement of the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) and the Minister to participate in the debate.

Mr. Foster

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) for obtaining this important debate. I am grateful also to the London Members who made it possible for more time to be spared for it.

What my hon. Friend said about her constituency in the north-west applies equally to my constituency in the south-east. Seaside resorts have special problems and, like her, I brought them to the attention of the House in my maiden speech; both of us have been battering on about it ever since. Much has been done, and I want to acknowledge that the Government have addressed many of the social issues and the symptoms of the deprivation that exists in many of our areas. But we need to acknowledge that seaside towns are unique in this special regard; they have a 180 deg catchment area. The economic success of an area is thus limited by a factor of 50 per cent. compared with areas with a wider catchment. That creates difficulties. Furthermore, our transport systems are frequently inadequate, which makes matters worse. That is certainly the situation in Hastings and, to some extent, Rye.

The lack of economic activity and low wages over many years has resulted in social problems. Older people have moved to the area. In itself that is a good thing but, sadly, they have a low income—certainly, they did in the past. It was always said that if people had money, they went to Bournemouth; if they did not have quite as much, they went to Hove; if they were a bit hard-up, they went to Eastbourne; but if they ended up in Hastings, they were really poor. I suspect that that is a particular problem in my constituency rather than in Morecambe, but all seaside towns face the problem, or challenge, of an elderly population who are often without economic strength. We see the consequences of that in our seaside towns.

The Government have successfully addressed the symptoms: for example, the minimum income guarantee is especially successful in helping the aged in my constituency to make ends meet. There is help through programmes such as the education action zones or cash benefits for low-paid families such as the working families tax credit. Like the sure start and neighbourhood renewal schemes, all those social benefits have brought significant changes to my constituents during the past four years.

However, in a sense, we are improving the social well-being of residents of seaside towns rather than providing the economic gains that are needed before we can make a leap forward. For example, although there have been improvements in my constituency, we remain the 28th poorest town in Britain. When a south-east town, only 60 miles from London, is the 28th poorest town in Britain, we have to ask why, after all that Government aid, we have failed to improve our relative position.

The answer is simple. To improve the lot of individuals is good and proper and we are grateful for it, but we need to improve economic benefits through the infrastructure to attract private-sector investment. In my constituency. a great opportunity was lost when the Government decided not to build a bypass, which would have brought wider benefits—not only by creating confidence among the business community but by safeguarding our seafront. The town is unique in Britain because its main trunk road trundles along the seafront, past its hotel, going through seven conservation areas. However, I pass on—the decision has been made so there is little purpose in bemoaning its effects.

The balance in the Government's consideration was wrong: the environmental argument was so strong that the economic argument was set aside. That is always a problem in seaside areas, because they are beautiful places. They are usually surrounded by a wonderful hinterland—as they are in my hon. Friend's constituency and mine. That is great and we appreciate it, but we have to balance the environmental cost with the economic gain. I hope that no other constituency will suffer as Hastings and Rye did from a decision that appeared perverse. None the less, we move on.

Transport is essential. Not only do we need roads for our seaside towns, we need public transport so that we can get to them. We need transport so that people can go to work elsewhere if there are no local jobs. I work in this place, but it takes me two hours to get here on the train every day—only 60 miles. That is probably a combination of Railtrack, Connex and a lack of investment over many, many years.

People need to be able to visit our seaside towns. If we do not have proper rail services, they cannot do so. I emphasise the infrastructure argument advanced by my hon. Friend. Hastings is not unique in its transport infrastructure difficulties; many seaside towns suffer from the same problems of inaccessibility. That is an important factor.

We also, in Hastings and Rye in particular, suffer from many other deficiencies, such as the lack of a higher education institute, which results in a work force with low skills. A package of measures is required. Seaside towns are not unique, but they are special in that many of them suffer from the same basket of disadvantage.

I do not want us to so improve the social infrastructure in seaside towns—especially Hastings and Rye—that we become a university for misfits. I do not mean that unkindly, but there is a risk that that could happen. We have plenty of cheap accommodation. As we improve the lot of our residents through our social programmes, those people improve. That is of course what it is all about, but there is no economic benefit because there are no jobs for our residents, so they move on. The space becomes available and more people move in with social problems similar to those that we have solved for other people.

That cycle is not unique to Hastings and Rye. It happens in many towns, including Brighton, and it may well happen in Morecambe. Although we want to benefit those with disadvantage, we want our community to gain from the investment in the individuals whom we so aid.

In conclusion, I am looking for a Minister-level taskforce for seaside towns. The needs of seaside towns are difficult, because they are numerous but they are perhaps not complex, because we know what they are. I am not criticising the Government, who have done much already, but if we could persuade them to take seaside towns even more seriously and get together a ministerial taskforce to focus on their specific needs, that would be a means by which Government could really demonstrate joined-up thinking and government and aid us all to a better life.

6.42 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Dr. Kim Howells)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) on instigating the debate. She has done her constituents a great service, as she certainly has since she was elected to this place. In highlighting the special difficulties that we find in coastal resorts and seaside resorts, she reminds us all of how important those towns are. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) is in the Chamber; I am sure that he is present because he is very interested in the debate, and many others could draw illustrations similar to those drawn by my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale in highlighting the special difficulties of seaside resorts.

I was slightly worried that my hon. Friend, in comparing those resorts with coalfield communities, was in danger of talking down the great potential of seaside towns. Many seaside towns, including Morecambe, are experiencing great difficulties at the moment, but they still have something that the coalfields certainly do not have in the aftermath of colliery closures: the sea and beautiful scenery. Their raison d'être was to provide a holiday for people.

Geraldine Smith

Yes, we have the sea, the views and natural beauty, but we need attractions. We need indoor attractions that families can use. We need decent infrastructure. We need decent road and rail links to get people to seaside resorts. Most seaside resorts are pretty isolated; they have the sea on one side and access to them is poor. Such improvements are essential to ensure that we attract tourists. After all, attracting tourists is our core industry, just as mining was the coalfield communities' core industry.

Dr. Howells

My hon. Friend took the words out of my mouth. We should also remember that in 1999, about 100 recognised seaside resorts generated £6 billion of income, which is well over 15 per cent. of the total income generated by tourism in this country—we do not have the exact figures yet as the tourism industry is a little slow in producing them, which is a big problem. The resorts accounted for 2.1 million domestic holidays, for more than 40 per cent. of all holiday trips and nights away and for about 200 million domestic day trips. Those figures exclude visits by overseas visitors.

The resorts are still phenomenally important generators of income and employment. My hon. Friend is right to say that they could do even more. She was also right to point to the need for inter-departmental action on the issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster) also pointed that out when he talked of the problem with the bypass decision. It was an important decision and it will have a long-term effect on the town.

I sympathise with my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale. I took my family to north Devon this year. If I climb the mountain above my house in Pontypridd I can see the shoulder of land above Ilfracombe, but when I set off to drive to 10 miles south of that shoulder of land on a Saturday morning in the middle of August it took me four and a half hours—breaking the law, I could probably have driven to Italy in that time. It was unbelievable. She is right to highlight the great problem caused by the lack of good communications and the problem of getting to the resorts. We should be able to get to them more easily and that is one of the great tasks that we face.

A range of sources of funding already exist as my hon. Friend knows and they are being tapped by a number of resorts. It is important that they continue to do so and that they can identify those sources of funding. The prime source has been the single regeneration budget. I am told that there have been 35 successful bids by coastal areas worth £172 million—28 per cent. of the total SRB round 6 awards. It is important for resorts to understand that if they can come up with imaginative and coherent proposals, the money is there to be used.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight)

I thank the Minister for giving way and the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) for initiating this debate. The single regeneration budget is important. Although it applies in Ryde in my constituency and has already applied to Cowes, we are looking forward to its roll-out to other coastal towns, such as Sandown and Ventnor, which suffer particularly.

Dr. Howells

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that I was subjected, in a very pleasant way, to a considerable amount of information about the help needed on the island at the Isle of Wight stand at the Earl's Court travel show yesterday. However, this is my hon. Friend's debate and I must answer some of her questions.

I assure my hon. Friend that at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport we are concerned that the problems that she has highlighted are tackled, not merely by our Department but by all the other Departments. We are determined that the fall in visitor numbers that she so eloquently described shall be reversed. For far too many families, the word holiday is equated with a flight to Spain or some other country. The Department and I must convince people that we have great things to offer them in this country.

Morecambe will finally be returned to its former glory—and more—when we get the visitors back there, so all the schemes and projects that my hon. Friend highlighted need to come to fruition. That is not easy; there are many competing claims. As she and my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye rightly said, seaside towns and resorts have special problems and their claims are many. Some of the poorest urban centres that I have visited are in seaside towns. I understand that, until recently, the poorest ward in the United Kingdom was in Plymouth, and there are many other poor wards in coastal towns.

The way out of this dilemma is to try to reverse the habit that has grown up in this country of assuming that people have to go abroad to have a real holiday, so the quality of the product must be improved in our country. We are trying to do that; we are absolutely determined to push up standards. There are some great hotels, bed and breakfasts and attractions in this country, but we have a far too lengthy tale of under-performers, and great improvements have to be made.

If we are to revive the fortunes of many of our seaside towns, we must ensure that the people who travel to them—whether for a day trip, a weekend stay, a short break or a fortnight's holiday—want to go back there afterwards. That is why I fully concur with my hon. Friend in saying that the problems that she and my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye have highlighted, which almost involve the ghettoisation of poverty and disadvantage, have to be tackled at the root, and we must work with other Departments to do that.

I hope very much that my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale continues to alert the House to those problems, as she has done this evening. I also hope that she continues to alert not only the Department that most obviously has responsibility for tourism in this country—the DCMS—but all the other Departments that deal with social inclusion and regeneration.

We have to consider planning very carefully, as well as the way in which the social security system works. Through the regional development agencies, the problem of investment in those areas must be tackled in a much more co-ordinated way. As my hon. Friend says, there can be no more urgent need for co-ordination than that for public and private transport links, which are very important.

Nevertheless, I hope that my hon. Friend will not leave the Chamber feeling gloomy about the prospects. The Government have put in place a lot of money, and we are very much aware of the difficulties that we face in trying to help communities such as hers. I can tell her that the coalfields faced an extraordinarily bleak prospect. A very short distance from the area where I live in south Wales, thousands of well-paid jobs, which propped up our communities, were lost in a matter of months, but, 10 years on, many of those communities are thriving. We have reinvented ourselves; we have got new industries. That has taken real co-ordination and a determination to win, and it has involved a lot of lobbying of respective Governments. Of course, those responsible have done us a great service. We benefited from the formation of the Welsh Development Agency, and this Government have introduced the RDAs, which are still in the process of inventing themselves.

The RDAs have no more important task than trying to ensure that the criticisms that my hon. Friend makes are addressed and that there is a proper and coherent response, so that we can lift the blight that hangs over towns such as Morecambe and use their great potential not only to develop new tourism industries, but to make them lovely places to live, because that is such an important variable in that economic equation. If we do that, we all benefit—the British tourism industry benefits and Morecambe benefits—and we start to create centres of excellence, which can be a model for many towns throughout the country.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes to Seven o'clock.