HC Deb 09 May 2000 vol 349 cc187-93WH 11.57 am
Mr. David Amess (Southend, West)

I am a born optimist, Madam Deputy Speaker, so I hope that by the end of this short debate there will no one in this country or overseas who will not wish to visit Southend. It is a truly magnificent seaside resort.

Following the events of last Thursday, I hope that I shall be allowed to be somewhat self-indulgent. Local Conservatives fought the campaign on the slogan, "Wake up Southend". From my biased political perspective, Southend did wake up. Before Thursday's elections, the Conservatives were one short of a majority. There are now 25 Conservative members and 14 opposition members. Sadly, every one of the Labour party's candidates was defeated, and only two of the eight Liberal Democrat candidates were successful. A huge change has taken place in the politics of Southend.

Although many local people seemed to think that the council was still Conservative, it has not been so for six years. The Conservatives made any number of promises during the election and they are beholden to try to keep those promises. They dare not let the people down. We are taking over at a difficult time in Southend, just as the incoming Labour Government claimed that they were taking over the country at a difficult on 1 May 1997. I pay tribute to all those who have worked to promote the town as a seaside resort. It is a wonderful tourist attraction.

So proud are we of the town that we invited Her Majesty the Queen to visit us for the first time a few months ago. We are not permitted to repeat what members of the royal family have said, but her radiance when she and her husband arrived on the seafront to be greeted by hundreds and hundreds of schoolchildren said it all. She thoroughly enjoyed her visit to Southend. If Southend is good enough for the royal family, I suspect that no one could fail to enjoy a visit.

Over the years, Southend local authority has adopted a number of strategies to promote tourism. Traditionally, one of Southend's main roles was that of a seaside resort for staying and day visitors. At one time, it was said to be the second-largest resort in the country. Tourism gave the town much of its impetus for growth during the late 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. It stimulated investment, employment and development, especially along the seafront. It gave Southend considerable status nationally and it encouraged migration into the town with the consequent expansion of housing, retailing and other facilities.

Of course, things have changed dramatically. Whereas some years ago 5 million people used to go abroad for their holidays, the figure is now in excess of 27 million. No seaside resort is nearer to our capital than Southend. It does not take too long to get there on public transport: 40 minutes on either the Fenchurch Street or the Liverpool Street line. If one is feeling depressed by the grind of the city, in no time at all one can be in an environment that will lift the spirits. Southend has a wealth of culture. It has singers, dancers, painters and sculptors. We have magnificent local talent, much of it inspired by the sea.

I am a Londoner. I was born here. I love London. When I was a child my parents used to take me to Southend for trips along the pier, which is the longest in the world at 1.33 miles. It is a magnificent attraction. I also used to be taken to Leigh to enjoy shellfish and one of the two finest ice creams in the world at Rossi's and Tomassi's. There is a bit of an argument in the town about who has the best ice cream and as I am friendly with both families, I will say no more. I found all those things very attractive as a child.

Given the 14 years that I spent somewhere else, I would never have believed it if anyone had told me that I would represent the place where I was taken as a child. However, it was a different sort of seaside resort then. Going abroad was something for the very well heeled. It was not within the aspirations of ordinary people.

The town has spent a great deal of time developing a tourism strategy. The Labour party applauds strategies, so that must find favour with the Government. British seaside resorts experienced a marked decline in visitors during the 1950s and 1960s due to changing leisure patterns, a lack of investment in new facilities and a widely held view that tourism was unnecessary for the town's future. That is crazy. Tourism is so very important for us all.

Madam Deputy Speaker, you and I visited a beautiful part of the world last year, but however beautiful the places that we visit, there is no place like home. The United Kingdom has so much to offer. People say to me, "But David, what about the weather? You cannot rely on the British weather." We can in Southend. Any meteorologist will confirm that we have the greatest number of hours of sunshine and the lowest rainfall—although that may not always be a good thing—and that the weather in Southend is always glorious. Anyone who suffers from asthma, hay fever and other such ailments will find that Southend can cure them all, due to the ebb and flow of the Thames estuary.

During the 1970s, the decline in tourism levelled, but left a legacy of environmental problems, especially in the Marine Parade area of Southend. There was also renewed awareness of the advantages of a thriving tourist trade and the likely cost to the town of stagnation and further decline. In 1985, the council reaffirmed its commitment to encouraging tourism and, in 1989; it published a corporate tourism and resort strategy. It acknowledged the potential benefits of leisure development, increased facilities, jobs and income for local residents and businesses and the need for the council to become actively engaged. I am delighted that the council, which is composed of members of all political persuasions, supports that strategy.

The aims of the strategy are: to promote the resort potential of the town by identifying development opportunities and encouraging the provision of new tourist facilities and visitor attractions; to work to achieve improvements in the environment of the main tourism area along the adjoining seafront; to retain an adequate stock of serviced accommodation and promote the provision of new facilities; and to encourage the provision of improved facilities for water recreation and the retention and development of entertainment, cultural and arts facilities.

I hear siren voices saying, "What on earth is the good of a wish list and strategy like that?" Unless we put down on paper what we wish to achieve, how can we measure whether we are achieving it? It is clear that no strategy can be set in stone because things are changing constantly, but in my view the local authority's decision to embark on some sort of strategy was an excellent idea.

The Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting will be only too well aware that the Conservative party has published a document called "Tourism Today", the details of which I will not go into, much to the Minister's relief. The document talks about standard spending assessments and about help generally given for seaside resorts. The Minister will readily acknowledge that the decline of seaside resorts has been a problem generally. The hon. Lady's Department can do only the best that it can in the spending round against all the competing bids for health, education and other services, so I am not expecting her to be able to comment on that. However, I would support anything that she can do to encourage her colleagues to give more money to seaside resorts because we know well that they are extremely important for the United Kingdom's economy.

The two coastal areas in my constituency of Southend, West are Leigh and Chalkwell. In a debate a few months ago, I frankly expressed my dismay at the way in which the objective 2 negotiations had been handled. We were told before Christmas that Leigh and Chalkwell would qualify, but out of the blue we were later told that the fisheries strand was no longer being taken forward and that we were going for the urban strand and—hey presto!—Southend, West lost the £15 million that would have been available over five years. I complained that I had been elected to the House at the same time as the Prime Minister, but had never had a letter from him in all those years. The next day, a letter arrived from the Prime Minister, saying that he was aware of my disappointment about objective 2 status. He said that the then council knew all about the matter, although it said that it did not. Whatever happened, Leigh and Chalkwell lost out. I know that the Minister can do nothing about that now, but I hope that she will encourage those of her colleagues who work closely with the European Community to ensure that Leigh and Chalkwell are not left out.

The situation in Leigh and Chalkwell is different, but they need help. I have a wonderful briefing from Leigh town council, which makes it clear that, while Southend was set up as a tourist resort, Leigh was and still is a working marine village. It is just 40 minutes by train from London to that magnificent fishing village. It is "quaint" and has everything to offer, although because it is so quaint, it has no electric arcades, bingo halls or funfairs and is more peaceful than elsewhere. We have a tea room that sells clotted cream teas and we have quaint cobbled streets, a beautiful nature reserve called Two Tree Island and arts and crafts centres. We do not want Leigh to become an entertainment extension of Southend; we want it to retain its charm as a niche for tourists.

Leigh has access and parking problems and residents feel that their needs must be considered. There are also problems with boat access and accommodation. However, Leigh offers several opportunities. There are small craft shops in the old town and other specialist retailers in the town centre. We want to maintain Leigh's designation as a port to ensure that the marine industries stay in the town. Public transport access to Leigh and Chalkwell stations is good, there is plenty of space for walking, picnicking and nature observation, and food and drink are available from our wonderful restaurants. I was in Agostino's restaurant with a party of people on Saturday, and there is the Paris restaurant—indeed, we have every variety of restaurant one could imagine.

We want to keep the creek open to commercial boats and pleasure sailors and ensure that Leigh has a future as a working marine village. To do that, we need to dredge the creek, and we had hoped to get European money to do that. There is all sorts of talk about dredging that would keep the creek clear for only five years. If the creek is to be dredged properly, however, we need to spend more. That would mean a great deal to the local community.

Chalkwell is an attractive part of the town. Without question, Southend has the finest parks department in the country. Unfortunately, Chalkwell currently has a problem with graffiti. As I have mentioned many times in the House, we keep having meetings with the police, who keep finding the perpetrators, and we then move on to someone else. If the Government have a new strategy to deal with graffiti, I would be delighted to hear about it.

The newly appointed chairman of the leisure, culture and sports committee is our retiring mayor, Councillor Tony North. He is new to the job, so he is now putting his wish list together. I greatly hope that the Minister, who receives invitations from all over the country, will be able to visit Southend—she would receive a very warm welcome. She knows that we have had a challenging situation with asylum seekers, with one or two unfortunate incidents, but I am delighted that the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), is in Southend at the moment meeting my parliamentary neighbour. We hope for some good news in our attempt to sort out that difficult situation.

There has been £50 million-worth of investment in Southend in the past 10 years. The annual day visitor market is estimated at more 3 million. There has been increased film and television coverage of the town, some of which I do not welcome. For 14 years the chattering classes used to take the mickey out of my previous constituency. One or two television companies seem keen to come to Southend to show a few elements that are best not broadcast to the wider public. We welcome all visitors to the town, but under no circumstances do we welcome yobs or drug pushers, as all Members of Parliament would make plain. It is a shame that some television companies and a few other people appear to want to advertise the worst elements of the town.

Southend's marketing division won the British Resorts Association Daily Mirror trophy for the best brochure cover in 1999. I am not surprised—it has a fantastic cover with photographs of a crowd of models. Anyone reading it would ask, "Why did I go to Tuscany for my holiday last year when Southend looks so fantastic?"

Peter Pan's playground is every bit as good as Disneyland and has had more than 1.5 million visitors. I pay tribute to Philip Miller, who is an amazing entrepreneur. He has just taken over the Sea Life environmental centre in Southend. I am keen on tropical and marine fish and am delighted to tell the House that the centre is now breeding many species of sea horses from all over the world. In two weeks' time I shall visit the Chelsea flower show. Southend always enters the flower show and was a world finalist in 1999. The Southend air show is the largest free event in the country. Last year I stood at the air show with the mayor and my wife. In the sky we saw the Utterly Butterly light aircraft. My wife and the mayor wanted to go up. So, Madam Deputy Speaker, when you and I were in Kenya, my wife and the then mayor were strapped to the front of the two light aircraft raising money for local charities. The town stages the biggest special events programme in the south-east and all sorts of other events take place there. The Cliffs pavilion offers a range of magnificent plays and shows. The Palace theatre is wonderful, and Southend has many other activities.

How can the Government help? First, they can help with transport. Southend badly needs an east-west road link to free some of the traffic. It badly needs help with the pier—as the Minister knows, our lottery bid was turned down—and we should like help with our ambitious hovercraft plans. Finally, anything that could be done to help with the dredging of the creek would be welcome.

I hope that I have convinced everyone that Southend is a place worth visiting and living in. I am very proud of the part of the town that I represent and I hope that the Minister will do everything she can to help the promotion of tourism and leisure in Southend.

12.19 pm
The Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting (Janet Anderson)

The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) is clearly as good an ambassador and spokesperson for Southend as he was for his constituency in a previous incarnation, which we remember well. There was hardly any aspect of Southend life that he did not mention. He managed, too, to get in a reference to the Chelsea flower show; his skills in the House are undiminished.

The hon. Gentleman clearly understands the potential of tourism and its importance to his constituency. The Government also understand it very well—when the Prime Minister gave me this job, the first thing that I did was reverse the order of my title so that Minister for Tourism came first. That was a small gesture, but it shows that the Government understand the importance of tourism to local economies throughout the country and to the national economy. Tourism's national contribution to the economy is about £63 billion a year. It employs 1.75 million people and is the fastest-growing industry in the world. We want to ensure that everyone has a fair share of it and I know that the hon. Gentleman will do what he can to ensure that people in Southend, especially in his constituency, will be included.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Conservative policy document on tourism called "Tourism Today". I like to think that the Government's strategy document was more far sighted, because we called it "Tomorrow's Tourism". As the hon. Gentleman said, one of the challenges is to keep up with changing consumer demand; the days when families went to the seaside for a fortnight's annual holiday have long since gone. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that the number of day visitors to Southend is about 3 million. Places such as Southend have to meet the demands of day visitors and appeal to people taking short breaks.

"Tomorrow's Tourism" was the first comprehensive tourism strategy produced by a Government. As the hon. Gentleman said, without a strategy, how can success be measured? We have already made substantial progress in reaching the target set out in "Tomorrow's Tourism". Last July, we launched the new English Tourism Council to replace the English Tourist Board, because a leaner, more strategic body was required to guide the industry in England and to carry out research into changing customer demand and other matters. It will focus on top-quality research, market forecasting, the collection and use of key information, the spread of innovation and best practice, promoting quality and developing a strategy on sustainable tourism and wider access. If I have time later I shall refer to some of the excellent practices that have been established in Southend.

The ETC has already made an excellent start; with its partners the AA and the RAC, it launched a new national accommodation scheme last September. We are determined to increase the voluntary take-up of that scheme and I am pleased that the local authority in Southend has a marketing policy of advertising only the quality-assured properties in that scheme. Visitors to Southend and other resorts will return again and again only if they can be assured of a good experience and value for money. That is what we want to encourage. I congratulate Southend on having an above-average membership of the national accommodation grading scheme.

The hon. Gentleman raised anxieties about asylum seekers. I am pleased that the Minister of State, Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), is today visiting Southend to see the situation for herself. Many of the points raised by the hon. Gentleman are matters for other Government Departments. The problem has implications for the tourist industry and seaside resorts such as Southend. In such cases we take every opportunity to make our views plain to other Government Departments. I have already had many helpful meetings with my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office and some other colleagues who represent seaside resorts. The Government are doing their best to ensure that asylum seekers are dispersed only to places where there is not only available accommodation, but appropriate social and community support and educational and employment opportunities.

The English Tourism Council has set up a number of taskforces that will report towards the end of the year on tourism trends, transport, sustainability and resort regeneration. I am sure that Southend will have an interest in its recommendations. Indeed, the experience of places such as Southend will have informed those deliberations. Seaside resorts still represent an important sector of our domestic holiday market, but despite their continued wide appeal, many are finding it hard to adapt to significant changes in holiday trends. Ultimately, it is up to the individual resorts to devise sensible regeneration plans. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that £50 million had been invested in Southend. Obviously all the players in Southend understand the importance of that.

I congratulate Southend on taking advantage of its good rail connections to continue to attract large numbers of day visitors. As the hon. Gentleman said, it is the closest seaside town to London, which is a huge attraction. I also commend it for not resting on its laurels. I have never visited Southend, but I should like to take up the hon. Gentleman's invitation. I look forward to the cream teas and the seafood. He tells me that the shopping at Leigh is wonderful. Rossi's and Tomassi's ice cream sound extremely good. I wish the new owner of the Sea Life centre good luck with his venture. Sea Life centres have been finding things relatively difficult recently and I hope that he can turn it around for the benefit of Southend.

I agree that it is a great pity not to ensure that the longest pier in the world is utilised to its full potential. I wish Southend the best of luck with any further applications to the heritage lottery fund. The hon. Gentleman said that there was nothing that I could do about that, but there is something that might be helpful. My officials have arranged with the British Resorts Association that its conference in Eastbourne in June will include a session with some of the lottery distributors, including the heritage lottery fund.

I hope that will help to emphasise to the lottery distributors the important needs of seaside towns, which have particular infrastructure problems such as piers and promenades that are not found elsewhere.

I hope that that I have reassured the hon. Gentleman that resort regeneration is one of the Government's priorities. We have made a lot of progress already. As he knows from a conversation that we had outside the Chamber, my Department made strong representations to try to ensure that the needs of seaside towns were recognised on the objective 2 map. I am sorry and I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern that the two wards in his constituency that were on the original map were not accepted by the European Commission. He will know that that is ultimately a matter for the Commission. If it is any consolation to him, four wards in my constituency were removed from the revised map, too.

Many resorts are included and I am pleased to say that Southend is in one of the new enterprise grant areas that offer opportunities to smaller businesses. That helps to illustrate the progress that has been made in the first year since the publication of "Tomorrow's Tourism". That was just a springboard. It was not a one-off exercise. We intend to keep in constant touch with the needs of the industry. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for telling us about Southend's needs. I will do all that I can to press the case for the projects he has mentioned—the hovercraft, dredging the creek, the east-west road link—with my colleagues in other Departments.

Finally, I congratulate the hon. Member on the way he speaks up for his constituency. His constituents should be proud to have him as their representative.