HC Deb 10 September 2003 vol 410 cc99-122WH


Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd)

I welcome this opportunity to debate seaside town regeneration, and begin by recognising the good work that the Government have done in helping such towns to regenerate themselves. I shall ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider three proposals. The first is the establishment of a resorts taskforce, perhaps followed up by a resorts trust similar to the trusts established for coalfield communities. The second is the establishment of a Minister with overall responsibility for seaside regeneration, and the third is parity of ring-fenced funding for seaside towns with that ring-fenced for coal, steel, rural and inner-city communities over the years. I shall draw on examples from my constituency to show the need for co-ordinated action.

The current Government have done much to help seaside towns. Most notably, in my area, they have achieved objective 1 status for Cornwall, west Wales and the valleys, Merseyside and South Yorkshire—although I do not think that there are any seaside resorts there. I pay particular tribute to the Secretary of State for Wales, my boss, who, when a junior Minister in the Wales Office, agreed to the redrawing of the objective 1 boundaries at the eleventh hour to include Denbighshire and Conwy. As a result, the towns of Prestatyn, Rhyl, Kinmel Bay, Towyn, Colwyn Bay, Conwy, Llandudno, Llanfairfechan and Penmaenmawr have been able to access objective 1 funding.

The Labour Government's attitude to securing structural funds for areas experiencing economic decline sharply contrasts with that of the Conservative Government, who refused to apply for EU structural funds, and took assisted area status away from many of our towns. I also congratulate the Labour Government on issuing new directions to the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight)

I did not intend to make a political point, but as the hon. Gentleman has done so, I congratulate the Conservative Government on giving assisted area status to the Isle of Wight, and express my regret that it was taken away by the Government of whom he speaks so movingly.

Chris Ruane

It was probably redirected to the Isle of Wight from my constituency, which suffered a loss of £40 million.

On the Heritage Lottery Fund, under the previous Government, £12 million was given to the Churchill family for the Churchill diaries, and £5 million went to developing the playing fields of Eton. When the Labour Government came to power in 1997, they altered those rules and said that money from the Heritage Lottery Fund would be dedicated to places with architectural merit and areas of poverty and decline. As a result, Denbigh and Rhyl in my constituency will both receive approximately £6 million to regenerate their high streets and commercial centres.

The Government have also expanded the further and higher education sectors, and as a result, my home town of Rhyl has its first ever college; the second biggest town in north Wales had always been denied one. Unemployment in my constituency has dropped from 4,500 under the previous Government to 900 people in 2003. The Government made west Rhyl a policing priority area 18 months ago. That was one of only five pilot projects in the UK, and Rhyl was specifically chosen because it was a seaside town. Through co-ordination and co-operation, crime levels in the west ward of Rhyl have dropped by almost a quarter—24 per cent.—in the past year.

However, despite those success stories, towns such as Rhyl and Prestatyn in my constituency, along with 43 other principal seaside towns around the UK, have specific structural problems that have not been addressed in a co-ordinated way.

Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown)

I would like to pick up that point. Does my hon. Friend agree that, despite all that the Government have done so far, which is welcome, there is a continuing need to bang the drum for the special problems of seaside towns? They are exemplified in my Brighton constituency. Visitors get an impression of prosperity and economic activity when they see the seafront, which obscures all the problems that we face, including urban deprivation in large enough measure to have a new deal for communities; homelessness, which is some of the worst in the country, and the largest number of drug deaths; very poor housing in the private sector, and intense housing need. Yet, again and again we have to convince people, even those in our own Government, that seaside towns have problems.

David Taylor (in the Chair)

Order. That was rather a long intervention. If hon. Members keep interventions short, there is a greater chance of everyone who wants to speak being called.

Chris Ruane

I agree with every word spoken by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner). One of my recommendations, which I hope will have the support of seaside MPs from all parties, is that we need a dedicated Minister responsible for seaside regeneration. Many Departments are currently involved in seaside regeneration. Usually, the Minister with responsibility for tourism responds to these debates. With all due respect to him, I am particularly pleased that the Minister with responsibility for regeneration is responding today. Seaside issues usually form just a tiny part of the role of the Minister for Housing and Planning, a tiny part of the Home Office Minister's role and a tiny part of the role of the Minister responsible for licensing houses in multiple occupation. There is no co-ordination to deal with the issues that face seaside towns.

I do not necessarily believe that all the 43 principal seaside towns will regenerate themselves around tourism. Some will, with 100 per cent. regeneration centring around tourism. All 43 towns will probably have an element of tourism in their local economies in future, but that is not necessarily so. Coal communities have not regenerated themselves around coal. Steel communities have not necessarily regenerated themselves around steel. I am, however, pleased that a Minister with responsibility for regeneration is responding to today's debate. That is welcome.

Whatever happens in our seaside towns around the UK, the jobs that we create must suit our local population, bearing in mind that by 2010 50 per cent. of our young people will be graduates. We need jobs in our seaside towns that will attract and keep those graduates. We are looking for high-skilled, high-paid jobs, even if they are in the tourism sector.

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby)

Having described the relatively beneficial climate that the Government are delivering, not only in his constituency but in Scarborough and Whitby and right around the coast, does my hon. Friend agree that the key partnerships that will deliver new jobs, vitality and regeneration must be born out of community partnerships and a local feeling that there has to be a better way for communities that are on the fringe of the mainstream? I am pleased to support my hon. Friend's plea for the taskforce and the initiative from a Minister.

Chris Ruane

I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. I shall expand on his points later.

All seaside towns will have a sizeable tourism sector, but it will not necessarily be as great as it was 20 or 30 years ago. The solutions for seaside towns will involve co-operation between many Departments. That is why a Minister with specific responsibility for seaside towns is needed to co-ordinate, monitor progress, commission cross-departmental research and spread best practice.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

I am very surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman say that he does not think that the regeneration of seaside towns will come mainly from tourism. Given the fact that the problems of seaside towns have come from the run-down of tourism, and that statistics show that on average 33 per cent. of a seaside town is devoted to tourism, hotels and restaurants, surely tourism will be the major leader in all seaside town regeneration.

Chris Ruane

That is an issue for the local community to decide in light of the local economy. In my home town of Rhyl, there used to be 900 hotels, guest houses, holiday flatlets and bed and breakfasts; now, there are 50 or 60, and we are not going to get back to having 900. The traditional two-week seaside holiday has by and large disappeared. We have to develop new markets and look to the future, not to the past.

Other Departments will play a key role in the regeneration of seaside towns. Previously I mentioned policing, which is a major issue in those towns. As I said before, the west ward of Rhyl was selected as one of five policing priority areas, and we have had great success through co-operation and co-ordination with a whole variety of agencies in the town. I would want the seaside Minister to have strong connections with the Home Office on such matters.

Rail services are likely to be a key issue for many seaside towns; I point specifically to Blackpool, Great Yarmouth, Cleethorpes and Llandudno. Many such towns grew up around the rail network in the 1840s and the 1850s. With the decrease in services in the 1960s under Beeching, and more recently, we must ensure that the rail connections are kept for those towns—not only the connections between the conurbations, but transport within and around those seaside towns. In my constituency, in which 65 per cent. of people do not own cars, people cannot access the 2,500 high quality jobs on the St. Asaph business park six miles away and they cannot readily access the 1,000 jobs in Glanclwyd hospital five miles away.

We need to work together and to come up with creative, innovative ideas to connect people who have by and large been cut off from where the quality jobs are. I am holding a conference in my constituency to tackle the issue in two weeks' time.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy)

Does my hon. Friend agree that a good example of how partners can work together to succeed was the foot and mouth outbreak? At the beginning of the outbreak, the only people receiving the attention of the country and the world were the agricultural community. Some of us realised very early that the tourism industry was also going to suffer, because footpaths were being closed, and that attention had to be turned to the people in the tourism industry as well.

My hon. Friend asks for more partnership. As we are talking about ring-fenced money, will he join me in asking the Minister to ensure that if, God forbid, such a crisis happens again, the tourism industry receives attention early on rather than two or three weeks later?

Chris Ruane

I welcome that intervention from my hon. Friend. I will deal specifically with the grants made available in Wales after the foot and mouth crisis later.

A key role for any Minister responsible for seaside tourism will be in higher and further education because many seaside towns have traditionally had a low skills base; they do not have the skills base to attract new jobs, or to maintain existing jobs. That is why, as I mentioned, Rhyl college in my constituency is key to the regeneration of Rhyl and Prestatyn by expanding and supporting existing industries and the service sector, and by making sure that people working in the tourism sector are properly trained. We must look to the future, see what jobs are on the horizon and train for the future, not just for the here and now; in my area, that involves training for the optoelectronics industry based at St. Asaph business park.

A problem shared by almost all seaside towns is that of HMOs. As I mentioned, there used to be 900 hotels, guest houses and holiday flatlets in Rhyl; the vast majority no longer have a role in tourism. Many have been bought on spec by landlords living as far away as London and Birmingham, who have no interest in their tenants or in the town and its people. Their only interest is in maximising their profits or, to quote Cyril Roberts, a former housing chair of Rutland borough council, "making money out of misery." That has led to a concentration of poverty in particular wards in certain seaside towns, where landlords pack as many tenants as possible into substandard accommodation.

Such accommodation does not benefit the tenants, local public services—police, fire, education or health—or local people. The only beneficiaries are the landlords, who pick up their cheques courtesy of the British taxpayer. We need to tackle the issue of benefits. Careful thought has to be given to what the HMOs can be used for and what grant regimes can be put in place to support schemes. In the past 20 years, money has flooded in to Rhyl to improve the housing stock. However, the HMOs have remained as such and have gone back to their former condition, because no thought was given to diversification.

What could the houses be used for? We would find a wide range of answers if we thought laterally and creatively. I urge a carrot-and-stick approach: grants should be made available for HMOs, but there should also be inspection, so that landlords understand the message: "Here's the grant. Convert or we'll come after you." The approach needs to be that bold. We should take the themed approach that I have suggested to my local county council. For example, all grants going to a certain district or street could be used to convert HMOs back into family accommodation and to create parks with swings and slides—a nice living environment—so that families return to the area. Alternatively, we could say that a certain street will be a "voluntary sector street", with shared communal facilities, or designate another "quality accommodation street." There should be grants and there should be inspection.

There is good practice around the country. In Conwy, representatives of the police, the fire service, social services, the education department, the Benefits Agency and the environmental health department meet regularly. They lay their cards on the table and discuss premises that are giving trouble and, invariably, the same two or three premises are mentioned. Then, they are able to go in mob-handed to sort those places out. However, even that approach is a bit hit and miss. We need a national licensing scheme for HMOs that leaves nowhere for slum landlords to hide. I urge the Minister to take back to her Cabinet colleagues the message that we should ensure that such a scheme is in the Queen's Speech this November.

My hon. Friend might also take back a message for the Lyons committee, which is considering the feasibility of relocating 20,000 civil service jobs out of London into the regions. I was informed yesterday that that committee will only consider towns with a population of 100,000 or more for the relocation of a Government Department. Of the 43 principal seaside towns, only nine will qualify. We have until Friday to make our submissions. I shall pursue the matter, and I ask the Minister to intervene to ensure that the seaside resorts that have been neglected for 35 years get their fair share of the cake.

We should consider not only public sector investment in towns but whether our seaside towns are getting their fair share of the public bodies that generate wealth by creating secure, steady, white-collar jobs. Again I use as an example Rhyl, where four public bodies are pulling out of the town centre and relocating to the St. Asaph business park. The central division headquarters of North Wales police should have been located in Rhyl, but sufficient land could not be found for it. Clwyd and Alyn housing association, which is supposed to be a social landlord, was located in the west ward of Rhyl, the poorest ward in Wales; that was great, but it has now left for the St. Asaph business park. The Denbighshire health board, which is supposed to look after primary care, is not located in the west ward of Rhyl, which has the poorest health record in the whole of Wales, but in the St. Asaph business park.

That is the wrong message for public sector bodies to be sending out. What message does it send to the private sector if there is a public sector flight out of the town? I hope that the Minister will take up the point with the Home Office—I will be taking it up with the National Assembly. Instructions should be sent to public services that they should not relocate their headquarters or their personnel from any fragile community without a full assessment of the impact on it.

Lawrie Quinn

Does my hon. Friend agree that the migration or absence of high-skills jobs in seaside community economies compounds the spiral of decline, because the very best young people who go away to get degrees elsewhere in the country simply do not return to the coast? That compounds the stress that many people who work in the social services and health services find themselves under. Does he agree that our towns have ageing populations because of the economic decline that he describes?

Chris Ruane

I concur with everything that my hon. Friend says.

The trend that I describe is a double whammy for our community. It has not only taken high-quality jobs out of our seaside town, but those public bodies now take up valuable space in a business park that is now completely full. There is now no opportunity to create new jobs through inward or domestic investment. A Minister with responsibility for seaside towns, be it in the National Assembly for Wales or in Whitehall, could monitor these trends and, as I say, could intervene and modify or even stop them.

I have dealt with the public sector, but the private sector will create the bulk of new job opportunities in seaside towns. Far more could be done to increase the number of business start-ups in seaside towns. The small and medium-sized enterprise base is low. I refer again to my home town of Rhyl. Not many people know this, but Rhyl happens to be the birthplace of two of our best known high street shops—Iceland and Kwiksave—which were born of an entrepreneurial spirit that existed in that town 30 or 40 years ago. That entrepreneurial spirit is currently dormant. It needs to be brought to life once more. Rhyl, with a population of 27,000, had 24 new company start-ups in 2000, whereas Ruthin, with a population of 5,000, had 44 new company start-ups—a massive difference. Local authorities, regional development agencies and the HE and FE sectors working with the local population and private enterprise can have a huge impact on start-ups.

We should consider best practice for start-ups, especially those involving young people. The Prince's Trust usually deals with people whom the banks have knocked back and gives them £5,000 start-up funding. The key thing that it gives them, however, is a mentor who can help them to develop their business. The trust has an 80 per cent. success rate. In addition, a great deal more could be done to expand the intermediate labour market in seaside towns. There are excellent ways of attracting the economically inactive back into the work force. If the post of Minister for seaside regeneration is created, expanding the SME base in seaside towns will be a critical job for whoever holds it.

The long-term decline of the British seaside towns during the past 35 years has gone largely unnoticed by Governments. Unlike coal, steel and rural communities, seaside communities have not had on their side powerful unions that can commission research or exert political pressure. Seaside towns are literally on the periphery of the country. They are not consolidated in any one area, and their political voice has been diluted as a result. To counter that lack of political voice, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) set up the Labour group of seaside MPs six years ago. I congratulate him on his sterling work in the group, and especially on the document that we produced "Supporting Seaside Towns", which would form the perfect basis for a seaside regeneration trust or taskforce. The document promotes an holistic approach to seaside regeneration. I am sure that my hon. Friend will expand on that.

The third issue is the funding that will be required to help us to regenerate our seaside towns. Last year I asked my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer for a breakdown of the specific ring-fenced budgets for coal, steel, rural and inner-city communities. He gave me an impressive list—one of which, as a Labour MP, I am proud—totalling £4 billion. There was £380 million through English Partnerships, for coalfield regeneration; £90 million for the Coalfield Regeneration Trust; £60 million through the Countryside Agency for rural programmes; and £120 million from the regional development agencies for rural developments. For the new deal for communities partnership there was £2 billion, and for neighbourhood renewal there was £440 million.

Those are impressive sums, and we in Wales have gone beyond that. When 3,000 steel industry job losses were announced by Corus last year, £92 million was put on the table to help steel communities. Foot and mouth hit Wales particularly hard, and £65 million was allocated to rural communities. I mentioned Kwiksave earlier: in 1998 1,000 jobs were lost in the seaside town of Prestatyn, yet the help that was given to the Kwiksave workers amounted to £250,000. I do not say that coal and steel communities should not benefit: they should. However, I ask for a level playing field, parity, and political recognition of the problems that we have faced, which have gone unrecognised for the past 35 years.

If seaside towns are to be regenerated, ring-fenced funding comparable to that allocated to the other areas that I have mentioned needs to be set aside. More than 3 million people live in the 43 principal seaside towns. Those towns have experienced long-term decline over 35 years. Their plight has been largely ignored. I ask the Minister to do all that she can to rectify that and to look positively on my three requests: for the establishment of a seaside regeneration trust, for the appointment of a Minister for seaside regeneration, and for the allocation of sufficient funding to regenerate those towns.

Several hon. Members


David Taylor (in the Chair)

Order. Five hon. Members want to catch my eye in the 34 minutes remaining before I intend to call the three Front-Bench speakers in this important debate. If the hon. Members will confine their remarks to a suitable time, they will all be called.

2.26 pm
Mr. David Amess (Southend, West)

In my relatively brief, eight-minute speech, I intend to talk about the present and the future. For the second day running I intend to praise the Government. I shall return to type next week, but credit must be given where it is due. When debates began in this Chamber some years ago, I obtained a debate to which the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson), who was then Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting, replied. She was extremely helpful, and I know that the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), will be as helpful today as she was when she was a Minister at the Department of Health.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane). Except when he was knocking the Conservative Government, I agreed with much of what he said, especially about HMOs. Like him, I hope that the Queen's Speech will contain something to deal with the problem nationally.

We all know what the problem is with seaside resorts. It used to be expensive to travel abroad. The Brits have always moaned about the dodgy weather here, but it is now inexpensive to travel abroad. This year's experience may alter things—we have had unbelievably good weather and people may return to British seaside resorts for their summer holidays—but we must deal with the present situation.

Southend-on-Sea, as one of the 43 premier seaside resorts, suffers the same difficulties that all hon. Members present for this debate are concerned about. I thank the Government for the support that they are giving Southend. We have been delighted by the number of Ministers who have visited Southend. It is pretty convenient, at 40 miles from here, but we are grateful none the less. I shall end my brief speech with a request for just a little more help.

We in Southend have 4.4 per cent. unemployment, which is more or less double the rate for Essex as a whole. In addition, just as things were starting to look good, the cliffs began to slide. That has been a major difficulty for Southend. Where is the money to come from for restoration? We have a huge, very heavy bandstand where tea dances were traditionally held in the summer. It will be difficult to relocate that, but perhaps if I write to the Minister she will be able to come up with some ideas. Approximately 12.5 per cent. of Southend's work force is involved in tourism-related activities, so Southend is very heavily dependent on the tourism sector.

I am delighted that in August the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister announced a £29.6 million funding package. Southend, through public and private finance, was allocated, potentially at least, a decent share of what we were told would be £2 billion. We know that the Deputy Prime Minister intends to deliver 120,000 new homes, but we certainly cannot take them in Southend, because there is no land and areas that were empty have already been built on. We are commited to about 250 new houses. The Deputy Prime Minister also spoke about creating 18,000 jobs in the Thames gateway.

I am very grateful for Southend's £29.6 million. It will be spent on the regeneration of Pier hill, the 250 new houses, infrastructure development for improvements to the Rochford business park near Southend airport, and, most excitingly, development of the university campus. We are determined to make Southend a centre of learning. The various projects centre on South East Essex college. We are working with the university of Essex. We also have many tourism projects under way, and new hotels are to be built.

We can all argue about which is the best seaside resort in the United Kingdom, but I know it is Southend. We have the longest pier in the world at 1.3 million miles—

Mr. Andrew Turner

Million miles?

Mr. Amess

I am sorry, I meant 1.3 miles. That was a slight exaggeration, Pinocchio-style.

We have the finest ice cream in the United Kingdom—Rossi's. We have Adventure Island playground, which is a bit like what they have in America; we have the Sealife centre and the Kursaal, and the wonderful Cliffs pavilion. In addition, we have seven miles of shoreline. However, there are problems. The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd talked about the money that his area had obtained from Europe. At the time when I secured a debate on the issue, one ward in my constituency, Westborough, was excluded from that funding. I hope that the Minister will help us to gain extra help for Westborough, which wants to become a village; I also hope for help for Westcliff community centre.

Mr. Andrew Turner

Does my hon. Friend accept that, although the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) was fortunate in that parts of his constituency abutted an objective 1 area, which was relatively easy to extend, the Isle of Wight does not abut an objective 1 area—indeed, it does not abut anything—and the Government found it impossible to extend objective 1 status to it? My constituents feel that that rule is very unfair.

Mr. Amess

I agree with my hon. Friend and I hope to visit the Isle of Wight in October, when I shall see the difficulties at first hand.

In the 90 seconds that remain to me I want to ask the Minister kindly to consider what help can be given for the Palace hotel, which we hope will be used by our new university. We would like a regional college for vocational skills and will need extra money for that. We very much need help with our fisheries project. My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) and I gave evidence at the London gateway inquiry; I can foresee terrible difficulties in terms of the effect on the Thames estuary if that huge project goes ahead.

Finally, I am concerned about Sir Michael Lyons's public sector relocation project, which the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd mentioned. Southend depends on Her Majesty's Customs and Excise being located there. If we were to lose that, it would have a devastating effect on the town. I thank the Government for what they have done so far, and look forward to the help that they will be able to give us in future.

2.34 pm
Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) for obtaining this debate and also for his indefatigable work since his election in raising the profile of seaside and coastal towns. That work has been shared by many members of the Back-Bench group of seaside and coastal Labour Members of Parliament that it is my privilege to convene.

On an all-party basis, I also pay tribute to the work of the British Resorts Association. I happen to have the title of president of that association, but all the real work is done, on a day-to-day basis, by a very small secretariat led by Peter Hampson. Indeed, I pay tribute to the work freely done by councillors of all parties and by officials across the country including this year's chairman, Mr. Les Byrom.

Reference has already been made this afternoon to the work of the seaside and coastal towns group in producing the document supporting seaside towns. I will refer to that, and to the specific proposal for a seaside regeneration trust and taskforce, later. However, much has already been done for seaside and coastal towns. Perhaps I could add to my hon. Friend's list. Many seaside and coastal towns, my own included, have benefited from the operations of the neighbourhood renewal fund. Increasingly, there is potential for business improvement districts. Blackpool has been cited as a pilot for business improvement districts. That is a real way of engaging the private sector in the improvement and regeneration of seaside towns.

Will the Minister take one point back to her colleagues? At the moment there is no mechanism in the proposed pilots for business improvement districts for the freeholders to contribute and participate. That, it seems to me, is a weakness. It has been raised by the Chairman of the Broadcasting Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper) who is not here today but is chair of the all-party group for town centre management issues. It is an issue that should be looked at again.

Despite all the good things that the Government have done and, indeed, the funding by lottery organisations such as the Heritage Lottery Fund, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd referred, many problems remain. One of them is a statistical problem. Seaside towns are not only peripheral, but they are highly variable in the employment, accommodation, and everything else that they offer. That can mean that, taken on a constituency basis, pepper pots of extreme deprivation within seaside towns are not recognised by the Office for National Statistics or, indeed, by some of the other agencies involved.

The figures are stark. Many coastal towns are classified in the 100 most deprived areas in the UK in the index of local deprivation. In 1996, eight of the 20 worst deteriorating districts in the UK according to the index were in coastal towns. We need to bear that issue in mind when discussing regeneration. I am sure that the Minister, given her particular responsibilities with regard to social exclusion, will want to bear it in mind as well.

Recently there has been a major and significant report by Sheffield Hallam university on the seaside economy. One of the things that that report has shown is that, although seaside towns are bearing up better than was expected in terms of maintaining employment, particularly in the tourism sector, in-migration to seaside towns is outstripping local employment growth, leading to a continuing imbalance in seaside labour markets. There is extensive joblessness, or underemployment, in seaside towns. That is beyond recorded claimant unemployment. One has to think only of the seasonal nature of seaside towns and of the fact that many people often have to do two or three low-paid and low-skilled jobs to keep their family going. Any regeneration policy and activity needs to take that point on board; it needs also to take on board the fact that we need a targeted and focused approach to be successful.

Regeneration must benefit residents as well as visitors. Too often, the balance has not been right, and that has led to local divisions that have hampered regeneration. Blackpool, for example, got its first publicly built sports centre only after electing a Labour authority in the 1990s. If we do not get it right—this applies to resident-friendly design as well as to the detail of balancing project finances between the needs of residents and visitors—we shall regenerate on contentious foundations. As my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) said at a recent Treasury-led seminar, her town centre must be made good and fit for residents to live in before investment in new attractions or infrastructure will have a lasting chance of sustaining new markets and visitors. We should always bear that in mind.

Seaside towns put a strain on the services provided by local authorities and agencies, particularly because of their skewed demography; they have a higher than average number of elderly people and a higher than average number of younger people, often with low skills and low employment prospects. That is particularly true for hospitals, social services and education. For instance, Blackpool has between 12 million and 15 million visitors a year and, as I said to the Minister in one of her previous incarnations when I was pressing the case for a new scanner at Blackpool Victoria hospital in another Westminster Hall debate, those pressures affect services for local residents as well as for visitors.

Such pressures affect all doctors, from those in general practice to those in mental health. An interesting survey in Doctor magazine last year pointed out the pressures and strains placed on doctors in seaside towns. Some of those issues are only just beginning to be addressed by local government funding formulae. Some welcome changes have been made, but we need much more because the drain on local government funding affects the ability of local councils to introduce tourism and regeneration initiatives.

Regeneration needs to be underpinned by adequate planning and up-to-date powers and structures. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd referred to the control of HMOs, and I entirely endorse everything that he said. We need a draft housing Bill in the Queen's Speech to incorporate a national framework.

The Chamber may not be surprised to hear me refer also to the liberalisation of gaming and of casinos. Casinos, not least in Blackpool, have the potential to regenerate employment in the area because of an increase in the number of visitors. To be successful, however, proper planning powers and a strategic approach are necessary. That is why I welcomed the August announcement on restricting such liberalisation to casinos of a certain size.

Over and beyond that, regional development agencies and councils have to consider tourism and seaside needs as part of an overall strategy. Some are doing it far better than others. We should also be aware that, unlike Blackpool, not all seaside towns are unitary authorities and that they are therefore dependent on the views of other organisations.

We need action across government. That action should demonstrate the diversity of needs, and to do that we require the voice of a seaside regeneration trust. It does not have to have an enormous new pot of money. By examining existing government work and the adequacy of current regeneration projects, it could act as the champion for the development of seaside and coastal towns. However, it is crucial to monitor and assess the effectiveness of the various initiatives being undertaken by Departments. That is why the coalfields taskforce regeneration trust has been so successful; and that is why I believe a seaside regeneration trust would be successful.

Several hon. Members


David Taylor (in the Chair)

Order. Sixteen minutes remain for Members to catch my eye. I ask those who are called to speak to bear that in mind.

2.44 pm
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I agree with so many of the contributions that have been made this afternoon that I do not propose to replicate or duplicate them. However, I must challenge the point made by the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). His ice cream may be the best in England, but Cornwall is another country.

I want to touch on another point. While congratulating the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) not only on the way in which he introduced the subject but on his long-standing interest in it and on securing this debate, I also want to congratulate the House of Commons Library. It is now producing an excellent debate pack for debates of this sort. I do not know whether all Members have had the benefit of reading it, but I am particularly struck by the wisdom of the first paper, which starts as follows: The debate on Cornwall's lack of affordable homes for local people reached boiling point this week when it was revealed that houses in some coastal areas have more than doubled in the past two years. The news, contained in the nationwide listing of property price increases in seaside towns complied by Halifax estate agents, brought a furious reaction from North Cornwall MP Paul Tyler. Now, I am an equitable person, so I can tell the Chamber that it was not a furious reaction, except in this sense. The regeneration of our coastal towns, particularly in the south-west, is being completely hampered by the lack of affordable housing. There is no point even providing in Cornwall the full-time, full-year employment that I have been working for throughout my political life if we cannot also ensure that those who are going to work in those towns can find affordable housing. It is not sufficient, for example, simply to try to impose an additional council tax burden on those who have second homes. Only when we have planning control over the conversion of a full-time residence to a second home will we be able to give those communities the chance of retaining a reasonable number of homes for local people.

The right to buy was a disaster for these towns, but their ability to survive in future will depend on the continuing availability of a housing stock at a rent and price that people can afford. Unless the rent and purchase price are within the scope of local incomes, we have not a hope of regenerating the employment prospects of these towns. My Liberal Democrat colleagues, most notably my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders), and I have been arguing this issue for so long with the Deputy Prime Minister that I hope that the Minister will recognise this afternoon that this is a particular and very serious problem.

There is some good news, however. I, too, will pay credit to the Government because, frankly, the previous Government did not seem to want to know what was going on in the coastal towns that I represent. The "Shifting Sands" report, which has not been referred to, was very useful and it was commissioned by English Heritage and the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment. We have to provide a quality product. The hon. Member for Southend, West made that point very forcefully. We have to provide a quality product that can compete Europe-wide and worldwide. One way to do that is to make the places that we represent along the coastline of Britain more attractive. As everyone knows, North Cornwall has the most attractive coastline not only in the United Kingdom but in the world, so there is not a problem with the natural advantages of coming to North Cornwall. However, I worry about investment, private and public, in the built environment. This new report is extremely helpful from that point of view.

Again, I give credit to the Government for their response. As the hon. Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams) said, the foot and mouth disaster hit coastline areas such as mine as hard as it hit inland, but help was not available so quickly. However, I give credit to the Government. The market and coastal towns initiative provides a mechanism to assist, and it has advantages over some of the traditional ways in which local communities have been helped because it is very much bottom-up. It is all about local initiative. If there is one point on which I disagree with the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd, it is that I am not convinced that the man in Whitehall or, as I would say to the Minister, the woman in Whitehall knows best in such matters. The more we can give opportunity for local initiative and respond to that and match it with serious funding, the more successful we will be.

My only concern with the initiative is that it tends to concentrate on the larger centres of population. I have in my constituency the worldwide surfing centre of Newquay, but I also have some smaller coastal towns such as Bude, Tintagel, Port Isaac and Padstow, which are famous in different ways. They are not going to benefit in the same way as some of the big towns. Although Newquay, which is here in the list, has one of the worst unemployment rates for 2002—we are addressing that successfully with some effective initiatives locally—some of the smaller towns also suffer. My concern is that local initiatives must be given as much flexibility as possible and the opportunity to develop in their own way for their own circumstances and communities. Yes, let us have a dedicated Minister if that will help, but let us not have this top-down approach, but a bottom-up one.

I particularly want to take up the point made by the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden). The British Resorts Association, of which he is a notable ambassador and with which I am also involved, has been effective in galvanising local communities to do their own thing and not just to accept what Whitehall has said. The biggest single way in which we can assist those communities is to ensure that, when they can both meet the requirements of residence and extend their season, nothing should be put in the way to prevent that. Full-time, skilled jobs and a quality product must be the aim.

2.50 pm
Mr. Alan Campbell (Tynemouth)

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) on securing this important debate, which provides an opportunity to reflect not just on the problems of seaside towns, but on the progress that is being made. It is almost unique to take part in a debate in which hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber acknowledge that.

My constituency includes Whitley bay, which, according to the Sheffield Hallam definition, is the principal seaside town between north Yorkshire and the Scottish border. It is a town of some 37,500 people and to a lesser or greater extent has similar problems to those outlined today. The explanation that is often given is the change in the annual week or two-week family holiday. That is a contributory factor, but on closer reflection there are other causes of the problems.

As well as those structural changes, important as they are, it is important to recognise that seaside towns suffered disproportionately from the big recessions of the 1980s and 1990s. Colleagues who do not represent seaside towns faced complaints, but those of us representing seaside towns in particular faced complaints about the number of for sale and to let signs and the number of charity shops in the high street. Seaside towns must attract people, and local residents were concerned that the wrong impression was being given.

The fact, not just the impression, of a stronger local and regional economy, helped by a particularly good summer, has created the feeling in places such as Whitley bay that perhaps we are turning the corner. We do not know whether that will be a long-term effect, because if one swallow does not make a summer, one summer does not make a strategy. However, although the structural problems remain, there are signs that seaside towns may be turning the corner.

It was announced yesterday that a long-awaited new shopping mall in Whitley bay has started. It was promised more than a decade ago but is being delivered only now. The local authority cabinet, which is a Conservative cabinet—I want to avoid accusations of political point-scoring—was due to make the decision yesterday on which developer will be given the task of developing the Spanish City site, and earlier in the summer it was announced that the Government would provide £7.5 million to improve the seafront and to put in some of the infrastructure for the private sector developer.

The Sheffield Hallam study shows that seaside towns have seen a rise in employment, which in many cases is at least the same as elsewhere in the country. More spending power in the high street, low interest rates and rising property values mean that Whitley bay is now a good place in which to invest, and I hope that people will do so. To that can be added the regeneration of the public sector infrastructure with two new first schools—controversially, they are being built close to the seafront—investment in the people who will teach in those schools, the increase in the number of nurses and local and central Government employees, a disproportionate number of whom choose to live in seaside towns because they are nice places in which to live. Public spending is an important factor in the regeneration and redevelopment of seaside towns and there are signs of that.

I want to focus on the balance between public and private regeneration. I welcome and encourage private sector developers, but local government and central Government should retain a role. I shall give a couple of illustrations. First, the Sheffield Hallam study showed that some seaside towns are changing what they offer and are finding a niche in the market. For Whitley bay, that means less emphasis on the annual family holiday and more on the evening economy. If one books into some hotels, one is more likely to find oneself among people on a stag or hen night than among people on a family holiday. That is not to be pushed away entirely, because it brings money into the town and people then develop hotels, bars and restaurants—that is welcome. However, the downside is the tension between residents and visitors over matters such as drink-related antisocial behaviour. A balance must be struck.

Secondly, private developers are too often trying to cash in on rising house prices. As such, development projects often mean a lot of houses, and they will change the architecture and nature of seaside towns if we are not careful. Local government and central Government have a role. I endorse entirely what my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd said about ring-fenced funds. We need a resorts taskforce, and the idea of a Minister has much to commend it.

Another part of the jigsaw, the regional development agency, is underperforming in my region. We need a coastal strategy that includes coastal resorts, which are part of the regional economy. Fishing communities also need help, but I am sure that we can build on the progress that has been made.

2.56 pm
Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)

Like others, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) on securing this important debate and on managing to raise the issue at Prime Minister's questions today. That was a marvellous trailer for a marvellous debate.

When I saw that the debate was scheduled for today, I cast my mind back to August 1996, which must have been the only time that Cleethorpes has appeared on the front cover of virtually every national daily newspaper. A one-man regeneration whirlwind in the form of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), who is now the Deputy Prime Minister, descended on Cleethorpes and brought with him most of the national media. That certainly gave a mini-boost to the local economy that day. I do not think that as much fish and chips and ice cream has ever been sold. The story is there for everyone to see, and I am included as well.

To be fair, Ministers have visited: my hon. Friends the Members for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson) and for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells). However, such visits are few and far between. I believe that many Ministers do not really appreciate the serious nature of the problems in seaside resorts. When people visit on the weekend, they see the wonderful bustle of the seafront at Cleethorpes. Like others, we have a marvellous sandy beach. We also have a steam railway and the east coast's answer to Alton Towers in the form of Pleasure Island. Unlike the seafront in the constituency of the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), Cleethorpes has the shortest pier in Britain, but one can walk almost to the Netherlands when the tide goes out.

It is a marvellous place, but, as others have said today, behind the few hundred yards of seafront there exists phenomenal deprivation in seaside resorts. The statistics show that 10 of the 14 electoral wards in north-east Lincolnshire, of which Cleethorpes is part, are in the top 30 per cent. of the index of multiple deprivation. I live in the ward of Croft Baker, which is the heart of the resort. It is in the top 20 per cent. of the most deprived. Other wards in the local authority also come in very high. One comes in in the mid-200s in the list of more than 8,000 electoral wards in the UK. That deprivation exists. We have more people unemployed, more people permanently sick and more people with disabilities. Young people drift away to universities in other parts of the country and do not come back.

It was mentioned that house prices are rising in Cornwall. House prices are not high in north-east Lincolnshire. My neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell)—Grimsby and Cleethorpes go together like fish and chips—said in The House Magazine: house prices are so low you could afford to buy a house for your stay. It will be cheaper than a London hotel room and you'd end up with an investment property. However, low house prices per se do not bring regeneration. The fact that our house price base is low means that landlords who have been milking the property markets in some of the towns in Yorkshire tend to want to sell those properties and move people into resorts such as Cleethorpes. Those people are being shifted, and that is leading to many problems in the housing markets in our areas.

As has been requested many times this afternoon, we need a coherent strategy pulling together the multiple problems that affect seaside resorts. If it were any other industry, the problems would have been addressed long ago, but because the resorts are dotted around the coast of Britain they have been overlooked. I hope that Ministers will do something. I issue a challenge to the Minister. Her Pontefract and Castleford constituency is probably just under an hour from Cleethorpes. She just needs to go down the M62, on to the M180 and stop when she sees the sea. She can bring her children and enjoy the day, but she can also take a look behind the seafront and see some of the severe problems that exist in our seaside resorts. Another Yorkshire MP said to me that he thought that there was deprivation in the mining communities in Yorkshire, but he had not seen anything like the deprivation he noticed when he visited Cleethorpes.

Vera Baird (Redcar)

My hon. Friend was verging on a subject that I want to mention, briefly, in connection with Redcar, which is the other seaside resort between north Yorkshire and the Scottish border. Does my hon. Friend agree that a problem that we have shows that the real difficulty is the lack of a conceptual grasp of seaside towns as a whole? We have a super new town centre and it is a great attraction. The trouble is that mobility patterns have altered, so that peripheral streets at the bottom end of the high street now have 19 empty shops—I counted last Saturday. Seaside towns are quite poor and peripheral. They do not have the money in the local economy to sustain themselves through change such as that. The situation is self-perpetuating and just gets worse.

David Taylor (in the Chair)

Order. The intervention is rather long. Will the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) respond and wind up as rapidly as possible?

Shona McIsaac

I totally agree with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird). She has certainly added to the debate and illustrated the nature of deprivation in resorts.

I hope that the Minister will come to Cleethorpes—a nearby resort—to see the problems. I am sure that, if she does, she will appreciate the sheer strength of feeling among those who represent coastal areas, who know that something must be done to stop the decline.

3.3 pm

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) on securing the debate. I entirely agree with him about ring-fencing and the need to create a level playing field. He gave the example of Corus, where 3,000 jobs were lost and £90 million paid. In my constituency, 4,300 jobs have gone—I am talking about Nortel high-tech industry—and not a penny was paid, although people were helped through the Employment Service into other work.

Most of our seaside resorts are Victorian in character. Their original infrastructure was created by the Victorians. They grew greatly at the time of the development of the railways as a way of enabling people from inland areas to visit the coastline. Things improved as the working man, and later the working woman as well, were allowed holidays. Statutory holidays helped to develop the British coastal seaside resort. Things changed in the '60s, almost at the height of that development, after people gained more employment and holiday rights. The jet engine came on stream, which guaranteed people decent holiday weather by taking them to the Mediterranean at a relatively reasonable price. That industry has got bigger and bigger, and families who used to have a two-week bucket-and-spade holiday in Bridlington, Torbay, or Blackpool, now enjoy the same holiday in the Mediterranean or even Florida.

The whole industry has therefore had to change and adjust. One way it has been able to survive is through people gaining more holiday rights—in many cases, people take a second holiday at a UK seaside resort. The transport infrastructure has improved, which has enabled people to reach holiday resorts more quickly, but it has also meant that they tend to stay for shorter breaks. They no longer depend on the coach or train service that took them down on a Saturday and did not allow them to escape for the next week or two. Today, they go down, and when it starts raining they leave the hotel and go home.

The whole industry has changed, and that has resulted in less money spent by tourists staying in local economies. That point should be emphasised. Today more tourists are needed to generate money that stays in the local economy than were needed in the '60s. Not only are tourist numbers down, but the value of that industry to the local economy is far less than it used to be. Holiday resorts have responded. They have tried to find new attractions, they have invested in their infrastructure, and they have looked for new products and improved existing ones.

The resorts constantly face trends that go against them. The 1960s holidaymaker who stayed in a guest house, which supported a family for 12 months a year, will today come down for a few days, go self-catering and possibly stock up in a Sainsbury's, a Morrison's or a Marks and Spencer's. Visitors do not spend their money in family-owned local businesses. When people went out in a town in the 1960s, they would go to a local restaurant or pub. Today, they spend their money in a branch of a national chain of restaurants or pubs. All the time, less money from tourism stays in the local economy, and that has a big impact on average incomes.

The Fothergill-Beatty report concentrated on unemployment and totally missed that vital point. We have been conditioned to think that unemployment is a dreadful thing—it is, but low incomes depress areas as well, and coastal communities face the problem of low incomes. There can be 100 per cent. employment, but if people are all in part-time jobs they are not earning the money that they used to. In many of our seaside communities, incomes are well below the national average, even if unemployment is only slightly above the national average. The Government have to recognise that and do something about it. It is the single biggest issue.

The Fothergill-Beatty report tended to concentrate on the right statistics but to draw the wrong conclusions. It seemed to take the fact that lots of people want to migrate to coastal towns as a good thing. We tend to accept that: people move to the south-east, the area is popular, house prices increase and therefore the area has a booming economy. However, the type of people who move to coastal areas—as the report identifies—tend to be those who are economically inactive or winding down economically. They are not thrusting entrepreneurs with high qualifications who want to create wealth. They migrate to enjoy the natural environment. There is nothing wrong with that, but the report turns it into a positive, when, in fact, it creates problems—it does not solve them. Migration is not, as the report suggests, a positive factor.

What do seaside resorts need? They need their problems to be recognised, which Ministers have begun to do. They also need support. Yes, some grants have been tweaked to help, and yes, word can go out to RDAs that some of the single regeneration budget funding should be skewed towards seaside resorts—I do not know whether that happens in every region. No specific grants are available for local authorities. The Government say, "Well, we have got some European funding." However, communities qualify for European funding irrespective of the fact that they are on the coastline. That is more spin than substance. Specific grant funding is required to help those communities to increase their incomes and economies.

Vera Baird

I intervene to emphasise the hon. Gentleman's point, which returns to the need to view seaside towns as a whole entity. Redcar, for instance, does not have a swimming pool, which is absurd for a seaside town of 40.000 people. No state agency will help us with that project because if one divides the population of the borough by the number of pools, on the face of it there are enough. State agencies do not see that such an amenity is absolutely imperative to a seaside resort. The want of a clear conceptual vision must be pursued.

Mr. Sanders

I cannot but endorse the hon. and learned Lady's comments, speaking as somebody who represents an area with a population of 126,000 that does not have an all-weather running track. We miss out with those grant regimes that do not consider applications holistically.

We are discussing what is behind the facade of palm trees and deck chairs. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) said, housing problems can be acute whether house prices are high or low. If house prices are high, local people cannot afford to purchase because they cannot compete with the people migrating in.

We have a problem with absentee landlords. Many social problems, such as antisocial behaviour and drug abuse, occur in areas of private sector rented accommodation where there are absentee landlords. We have an acute shortage of social housing. More money must be put into the Housing Corporation and housing trusts in order to put that right. We need investment in training, even better transport links and, above all, improved infrastructure to build on what the Victorians gave us and to make those communities vibrant, successful and prosperous in the future.

3.12 pm
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

I am delighted to catch your eye, Mr. Taylor. Surprisingly enough, I have one thing in common with the Minister: she and I are the only two Members present for the debate who do not represent seaside towns. I do not have to be nice to the Government because I have nothing to lose if they fail to give my town any money.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) on securing the debate, which has been extremely useful. Seaside towns have not been given enough attention by Conservative Governments or by the Labour Government, and there is a lot more to do. Seaside towns can learn a lot from each other's best practice. I do not agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman said, and I may return to that point if I have sufficient time.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) and the hon. Members for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden), for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) and for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) on their speeches. I have not forgotten the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell), who is nodding his head.

I was delighted to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West praising the Government, although I hope that he will revert to type soon. I also hope that he manages to persuade the Government that his constituency should get the Palace hotel, that his fisheries project should be supported and that Her Majesty's Customs and Excise should relocate to Southend, West, in which case he will be delighted that he has attended the debate.

As many Members have said, many national problems affect seaside resorts. The hon. Member for North Cornwall briefly referred to the paper, "Shifting Sands", commissioned by English Heritage and the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment. The opening paragraph admirably sums up the debate: As an island nation, our relationship to the border between land and sea is unique and deep rooted. Seaside towns share many similarities with their inland cousins, yet remain fundamentally different: climate, remoteness, ageing and transient populations, changing demands, balancing the needs of day-trippers with residents. That sums up what many hon. Members have said regarding our 43 principal seaside towns. I have spent a good portion of my life in north Norfolk, near Sheringham and Cromer, which are not on the list of 43 principle towns, so it is clear that many other towns need to be considered, too.

Statistics show that seaside towns are often small and diverse. There are 1.3 million people in our 43 principal seaside towns, and such towns tend to be small; roughly half have a population of fewer than 50,000. The excellent statistics prepared by the Library for the debate show that 32 per cent.—almost a third—of the 1.3 million people in our seaside towns are, as one would expect, connected with distribution, hotels and restaurants.

I would have thought that in most, if not all, seaside towns, an increase in prosperity will be led by an increase in tourism. That is why they must be made into attractive places that people want to visit. That includes people in this country, many of whom take a holiday—and particularly, nowadays, a second holiday—to a seaside resort. Also, we need to encourage more inward tourism from abroad. The Government can play a greater role in that. Tourism is now the world's largest business. It employs many people, particularly at the lower-skills end of the spectrum, and so should be taken more seriously by the country.

I should like to plug my area at this point. I do not represent a seaside town, but my constituency, the Cotswolds, has a crucial interest in tourism. I invite all hon. Members to go there; we like lots of visitors and tourists. Indeed, I am sure that every other hon. Member here likes people to visit their seaside town.

I do not have many minutes left, but I could not conclude without mentioning some problems that seaside towns have in common with the rest of the nation. I agree with hon. Members who said that regenerating seaside towns is a cross-government, multi-agency problem, but I criticise the Government for having so many different regeneration schemes. The problem is that no one knows what they all are. Statistics show that many funds are underspent, because people do not know what they are. I ask the Government to consolidate those schemes and promote them further, so that everyone can benefit from them. That would be a major step forward.

I also agree with those who say that we need to increase education and skills, not only in seaside towns but for the rest of the country. That does not necessarily mean sending everyone to university—the 50 per cent. target is suspect—however, there are vocational and other courses that people in seaside towns should have the opportunity to take. Education, and persuading people with skills to stay in their home seaside town, is important.

Many have mentioned the lack of affordable housing, which particularly affects seaside towns. The hon. Member for North Cornwall, who is chuntering in the background, mentioned the problem. Unfortunately, the homelessness statistics that have come out today make pretty dismal reading. The number of homeless households with dependent children increased by a massive 8,000 between 1997 and the last quarter of 2003. The statistics show that the number of those in bed-and-breakfast accommodation almost trebled between 1997 and the second quarter of 2003; and, more worrying, that the number of unintentionally homeless in priority need has continued to rise from 102,430 in 1997 to a staggering 129,320 today. Indeed, the Select Committee report on affordable housing said that we now have the highest number of homeless households that this country has ever had.

We need to be building more affordable houses, and more houses throughout England and Wales full stop. We have the lowest number of housing starts at any time since before the second world war. We need to address those problems, and consider how we can build more affordable homes, because young people wanting to get on the housing ladder are simply priced out of the market in a lot of seaside resorts, especially those in the south.

I am surprised that the hon. Member for North Cornwall did not mention what he has said often in the past: that in the south-east and south-west the affordability gap—the gap between what people earn and what they have to pay for a house—is widening alarmingly. The problem is not so bad in some places in the north. That makes it very difficult for young people to buy a house in the area where they were born and where they want to live.

Finally, there is an issue of funding. As well as consolidating their regeneration schemes, the Government should consider other factors. In 1999, there was a problem because the partnership investment programme and gap funding was withdrawn by Europe. I want to hear from the Minister whether that funding has now been fully restored to the various projects to regenerate not only our seaside towns, but inner cities. Has the gap been plugged? We want to make sure that, where necessary, seaside towns get investment. It is clear from the statistics produced for today's debate that where there is a thriving seaside town, there is net inward migration—there is a relationship in that the more thriving the seaside town, the more inward migration, growth and employment there is. That is surely what we all want to see.

Seaside towns play a vital role in tourism in this country. We need to pay more attention to them and encourage people to think that a holiday by the seaside is the best possible thing they can do for their health—provided they do plenty of walking by the sea when they get there.

3.21 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Yvette Cooper)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) on securing this debate and on choosing a subject that is of such importance not only to his constituents but to many people across the country. I also thank other hon. Members for their excellent contributions this afternoon. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) and many other hon. Members here on their work as part of the seaside and coastal towns group of MPs. They have undoubtedly done much to raise the profile of seaside towns and the complex issues that they face.

We know that many seaside areas face common problems and issues. First, peripheral location can be reflected in weaker transport links, which can lead to problems in attracting new businesses, especially manufacturing, and inward investment. Secondly, changing trends in tourism, as described in some detail by the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders), have moved faster than local infrastructure. However, visitors still flock to the British seaside. In a summer such as the one we have just had, the British seaside comes into its own. Nevertheless, people seek different kinds of accommodation and breaks. Often, the accommodation provided has been historically developed and does not suit the expectations and demands of tourists today.

Thirdly, as many hon. Members have said, employment in seaside areas is often seasonal and low paid. That can lead to a low and variable skills base with problems in retaining and upskilling staff over time. That is one of the reasons why the Government are backing the establishment of the sector skills council for tourism. Fourthly, seaside towns attract a comparatively large number of people from the young and old age groups. That, combined with a high commuting population, can lead to high levels of non-employment and reliance on local authority services.

Those issues were explored in depth in the recent Sheffield Hallam report, which was conducted by many of the same people who were in the original coalfield taskforce. They examined 43 large and medium-sized seaside towns, and their report is a welcome analysis, which will help all of us to understand and tackle the problems of coastal areas. Two main things came out of the report. First, the traditional economic base of the seaside town is very much in place: significant numbers of visitors still go to the British seaside. In 2002, UK residents made 33.7 million trips, which were worth £4.6 billion. We have to recognise the changes in the nature of tourism, which remains a significant industry.

The hon. Members for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) and for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) both gave a strong account of the delights for tourists in their constituencies. I will refrain from discussing the merits of the different ice creams from the different areas, but if the hon. Gentlemen want me to sample the ice cream from their constituencies, I would be happy to do so. I would also be happy to visit the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac).

The nature of tourism has changed, but we should nevertheless be optimistic about the prospects for tourism in our seaside towns. The second important point made by the Sheffield Hallam report was that, unlike coalfield and other traditional industrial areas, seaside resorts have experienced strong population growth, not an exodus of people. Between 1971 and 2001, net inward migration to seaside towns increased their population of working age by 360,000; people want an attractive and enjoyable living environment.

However, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South made an important point: although there has been job creation in many seaside towns, inward migration has often outstripped that job creation. That can lead to problems of non-employment and underemployment, although the Sheffield Hallam report makes it clear that seaside towns as a whole do not suffer from a spiral of decline. Nor should we write off seaside tourism; that is important.

My right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury held a seaside town seminar for MPs from all parties on 1 July, following a request from my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South. On 18 September, an official seminar, in which many different Departments will be represented, will be held to discuss the Sheffield Hallam report; I believe that my hon. Friend will be chairing that seminar. The Chief Secretary will host a further seminar in December. Given that so many hon. Members have raised funding issues, and given the discussions in the run-up to the 2004 spending review, I can certainly say that the right host has been chosen for the seminar.

However, I would sound a note of caution on the issue, raised by many hon. Members, of ring-fenced funding. We get pulled both ways; every group or organisation wants ring-fenced funding for their area or concern, but equally everybody argues that we should get rid of ring-fenced funding and give local areas and organisations more flexibility to make local decisions about the way in which resources are spent. We are keen to promote greater local decision making, particularly by regional development agencies.

We recognise that there are significant issues that seaside towns have in common; we also have to recognise that there is a wide variety of issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes talked about the housing problem facing her constituency—low housing demand and its consequences. Meanwhile, the hon. Member for North Cornwall referred to high housing demand and high prices. So seaside towns also face very different issues; it is clear that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. For that reason, we are not convinced that a seaside trust would be an appropriate vehicle to manage the difficulties faced by such towns. However, I am keen that we should continue to look at the issues and have further discussions with the seaside group of MPs.

We need to ensure that regional development agencies, which are well placed to take a local strategic look at the problems facing seaside towns, continue to work with regional tourist boards and with local councils. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell) that local authorities are a critical factor, and have an important role to play. We need to ensure that they look not only at tourism issues—which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams) says, are extremely important—but at other areas of employment and job growth as well.

The social exclusion unit is conducting a project that is looking at the barriers to jobs and enterprise in deprived areas and at some of the huge variations that exist between areas. One of the area studies that it is doing is at a seaside town; I will ask the unit to look particularly at whether there are seaside factors involved in the wide variation in employment and non-employment levels.

Hon. Members have made a series of important points about housing, particularly about the HMOs, which I do not have time to address, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd that we need licensing of HMOs. We want mandatory licensing for HMOs that are of three stories or more and occupied by five or more people, and we want to give powers to local authorities to take further action. There is obviously a wide range of issues in seaside towns that need to be addressed. The broad programme of regeneration and neighbourhood renewal programmes that we have in place across the country forms an important building block, but clearly we have further to go. I look forward to working with seaside MPs to determine what further steps we can take.