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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): Order. We must move to the next debate.

2 Dec 1998 : Column 818

Seaside Towns

11 am

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): Having begun life as watering holes for the wealthy, many of our seaside towns first developed with the coming of the railways. Their greatest expansion came when workers won rights to annual holidays. Seaside resorts were the perfect destinations for a week of rest and relaxation. They have depended on tourism ever since.

Over the past 30 years, the type and number of holidays taken has changed. In the mid-1960s, the majority of people took one holiday a year in the summer months, when factories and other large employers closed for a week or two. Most people had a week's holiday at the seaside, because foreign holidays were beyond their purse. Many holidaymakers would travel by train, although increasing numbers arrived by car, often exhausted after a long journey on congested roads. The activities available to holidaymakers were more limited than they are today. Sitting on the beach, walking along the prom and taking in a show were the normal holiday activities.

The number of days of paid leave has steadily increased and the disposable income of many families has risen. A massive overseas package tour holiday industry has put foreign holidays within the reach of most of the population. Fortunately, many people take more than one holiday a year. Their main holiday may be abroad, but second and third holidays are usually taken in Britain. The number of second holidays taken as short breaks has grown by 50 per cent. in the past five years.

With the development of the motorway network, the car is often the easiest way to travel to a destination in Britain. People can now travel further for day breaks or short stay breaks. They can also return home more quickly, which has reduced the number of overnight stays, particularly when the weather turns nasty.

The seaside towns of Britain can be found all around the coast. Despite being miles apart, in most cases, they share similar characteristics and face similar problems. They fall into three broad groups: heritage coast areas, traditional seaside towns and smaller seaside towns. Heritage coast areas are highly valued for their amenities and have developed seasonal leisure industries and various alternative life style enterprises, together with holiday homes. Traditional seaside towns dominate their area and date from the 19th century or earlier. They are characterised by a large elderly population and higher than average deprivation. Smaller seaside towns are similar to traditional seaside towns, but the main resorts are less dominant in the area and there is a larger rural hinterland.

There are many measures of deprivation, including unemployment, children in poverty, housing, amenities, overcrowding, educational participation and attainment, benefit dependency and crime rate. The traditional seaside towns have some of the worst figures in the country, but the smaller seaside towns have some of the lowest levels of deprivation.

The difficulty in trying to assess the problems of seaside towns is that the areas are often characterised by a mix of deprived and affluent areas. The districts of Brighton, Bournemouth, Great Yarmouth, Hove, Thanet and Torbay are all among the 20 per cent. most unequal

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in England. In such cases, it is clear that pockets of deprivation are being concealed by their proximity to areas of affluence. My constituency contains five of the 12 local authority wards in the south-west that have been classified as deprived. I shall concentrate on the large, traditional seaside towns, such as my constituency, because they are the areas with the problems that the Government have overlooked.

The typical seaside town is a high retirement area, with the majority of its inhabitants being economically inactive. There will be above average levels of unemployment and below average levels of income. Poor housing and crumbling assets typify most, but not all, seaside towns. However, all have to cope with the consequences of global warming and are on the front line in the battle to prevent coastal erosion.

Mr. Ronnie Fearn (Southport): Many of the seaside resorts with cliffs and beaches suffer from coastal erosion, but the Government give nothing through the standard spending assessment to cover that. My constituency has 12 miles of sand and sandhills, most of which is a site of special scientific interest. The lack of Government funding to help cope with that is another nail in the coffin of seaside resorts.

Mr. Sanders: My hon. Friend makes a good point. The standard spending assessment does not take into account the year-on-year work of local authorities in protecting their coastline. Only when there is a major natural disaster does the Bellwin scheme come into effect. All local authorities in seaside areas have to dig ever deeper into their budget to cope with such problems. The Government do not give the necessary support for that.

Seaside towns are end-of-the-line towns--places that people go to for what they offer rather than to get somewhere else. The exceptions are some, but not all, ferry ports and some south coast towns on major east-west road routes. However, even those towns share the characteristics of the others and suffer from the same problems, although less severely.

Seaside towns could be described as 180 degree local economies, whereas inland communities are 360 degree local economies. They have hinterland on only one side, while the sea faces them on the other. Those with the most severe economic difficulties are, inevitably, a long way from the main centres of economic activity and are geographically on the periphery.

Many seaside towns are a mixture of urban and rural, deprived and affluent, residents and visitors. Their main industry is tourism, which is one of the fastest-growing economic activities in the world--but not, sadly, in our coastal tourist resorts.

Some 38 per cent. of British residents opting to take their main holiday in Britain choose a traditional seaside destination. The market is worth an impressive £4.2 billion. In 1996, more than 110 million day visits were made to the UK coast. The number of visitors has declined, but figures for their expenditure show a real-terms rise over the past 10 years.

However, that is only part of the story. The figures do not separate tourism spending in seaside resorts from the growing number of inland attractions and markets across

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England. They do not recognise the fact that local tourist spending does not stay in the local economy because of the growth of nationally owned entertainment centres, pubs, hotels, retailers and superstores, where once locally owned businesses rang up the tills.

Meanwhile, overseas tourism has grown and grown. Although there is little that we can do about the British weather, we should look again at the other problems that go against the seaside holiday as opposed to a foreign holiday. Many of our larger resorts are doing that--bringing in investment to new or renewed attractions, investing in improved bathing water standards, raising standards of service and accommodation, finding and winning niche markets. Most of all, they are diversifying their local economies--or perhaps I should say that they are trying to diversify them.

Diversification has become crucial. Little more than one third of holiday expenditure by the British stays in Britain. Since 1980, the figure has fallen by 50 per cent. At least one foreign holiday a year is the norm. Official figures show that, of 46 million people from Britain travelling abroad in 1997, 29.1 million said that their reason for travel was for a holiday. Most people live closer to their regional airport than to a seaside coastal resort.

The market that remains brings problems, particularly in the 1990s, when tourism is seasonal and changing. The seasonal nature of tourism affects many of the employment problems in seaside towns. Casual labour and part-time jobs are available during the short, and shortening, summer season. During the rest of the year, unemployment is widespread. Those seaside towns that have managed to get into the world of business travel have enjoyed one of the biggest growth areas in the British tourism market. However, even those towns holding conferences, exhibitions and trade fairs have bridged only a small gap between the summer and winter months and remain over-reliant on tourism.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): On the extensive market in business tourism, is my hon. Friend aware of the considerable discrepancy in Government grant aid to Wales, Scotland and England? Government grant aid per head of population is 25p for England--the figure shows no sign of increasing--whereas it is £4.81 for Scotland and £6.36 for Wales. That discrepancy, which is likely to increase after devolution, will make it extremely difficult for seaside resorts such as Newquay in my constituency to market new facilities.

Mr. Sanders: My hon. Friend's figures speak for themselves. The West Country tourist board is today holding a reception in the House to re-emphasise the fact that there is a disparity between England and the other parts of the United Kingdom in the amount of money that can be spent on promoting tourism.

Tourist accommodation has also changed. The market has moved from guest houses and small hotels, which used to be locally owned--and so were re-investors in the local economy--to caravans, camping and holiday homes; the bulk of visitors' spending money now ends up in the tills of superstores, whose profits do not necessarily find their way back to the local economy.

The traditional bucket-and-spade seaside holiday is not in decline, but people can now travel by air to resorts in Europe, in Florida and further afield, which, given our

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climate, has led to a decline in the number of people who holiday in our coastal resorts. Although the number of visitors continues to be impressive, their lengths of stay and real spend--the amount of money that stays in the local economy--is in decline, which has been as devastating to the economies of seaside towns as the closures of large factories or plants are to inland local economies. The difference is that, for seaside towns, the decline has been occurring over 25 years rather than in one hard blow. The implications are the same; the difference is that there is no specific Government help or support.

Most of the larger seaside towns have to deal with a market that is in decline. There is an over-capacity in tourist accommodation, but owners of hotels and guest houses cannot obtain planning permission to change the use of their properties. To satisfy their lenders, they are forced into a tariff war with their competitors, charging rates that minimise profit margins. Some turn to longer-term occupants on housing benefit, which changes the nature not only of their business but increasingly of the streets in which they are based.

The number of housing benefit claimants increased nationally by 27 per cent. between 1988 and 1995, yet that figure is dwarfed by the increase of between 80 and 100 per cent. in seaside towns such as Torbay, Blackpool and Scarborough--I notice that the hon. Members for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) and for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Quinn) are in the Chamber. That increase is the result of an inadequate housing system and a decline in the number of bed-and-breakfast customers.

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