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Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that there is a wholly new dimension to that problem in my constituency, particularly in Teignmouth? People are applying for change of planning use on their properties so that they can attract the refugees from Europe. Are not the implications for the social and financial structures of the area so great that the problem cannot be left in a vacuum? The Government must make a public policy decision to determine how to cope with those pressures in constituencies such as mine and his.

Mr. Sanders: I agree. The problem confronts a number of constituencies such as Thanet and others on the south coast, although it is beginning to affect the south-west.

Housing can be a huge problem in seaside towns. My local newspaper recently published a report headed "Low pay, high home prices", which described the

A survey into the state of Torbay's housing stock found that almost 3,600 dwellings were unfit for human habitation and 8,300 households were in need of essential repairs. Too many grotty bedsits and flats are hiding behind the affluent image of the Victorian seaside hotels and villas. Exactly the same picture can be found in Brighton, Margate, Hastings and any number of similar resorts. That is a consequence of changes in the tourism market and the Government's failure to recognise our special problems.

The housing that has been built is out of the reach of the two thirds of would-be movers who earn lessthan £12,500 a year, which is not enough to get a

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first-time buyer's mortgage on a terraced house in my constituency. We must consider giving local authorities more powers to require developers to build properties that match local needs. Money for the most deprived areas of seaside towns could be raised through charging second home owners the full council tax.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): The hon. Gentleman has referred twice to Thanet and once to Margate, which I represent. He will understand that those towns have a particular problem with asylum seekers, which my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) mentioned, and with dole-on-sea claimants. One of the reasons for the problem is that, as the hon. Gentleman said, not enough money has been spent on refurbishing property. Does he agree that there is a case for a strong policy to enable small guest house owners and hoteliers properly to refurbish their properties and to turn them back either into single homes or into flats? That would mean that they did not have to let them to economic migrants but could let them as good, affordable housing.

Mr. Sanders: I agree. Part of the problem lies in the fact that VAT is levied on renovations but not on new build. Planning law needs major reform; local authorities must have greater powers in determining what can occur. As the hon. Gentleman may know, grants for renovation are available in Scotland and Wales but not in England.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes): I share Torbay with the hon. Gentleman and represent half of it--

Mr. Sanders: Twenty-five per cent.

Mr. Steen: The best 25 per cent., if I may say so. The hon. Gentleman has mentioned second homes, but less than 3 per cent. of homes in the area are second or holiday homes. Is not the problem the 90,000 new houses that will be built in Devon, which the Liberal Democrat county council and the Liberal Democrat unitary authority are supporting? That development will bring 30,000 further households into Devon, but the hon. Gentleman has not mentioned it.

Mr. Sanders: I am not sure that that has anything to do with the problems of seaside resorts. The figure approved by Devon county council is substantially less than the figure that is being imposed by the Secretary of State, so the hon. Gentleman's complaint should be addressed to central Government, not to the local authorities. Perhaps he will join the Liberal Democrat campaign for numbers to be locally derived rather than imposed from the centre, as happened under the previous Government, too.

Unemployment in seaside resorts remains higher than the national average. The United Kingdom average was 4.7 per cent. in October, yet the rate is well above that in many seaside towns--8.7 per cent. in Grimsby and Brighton, Pavilion, 7.9 per cent. in Great Yarmouth, 7.2 per cent. in St. Ives, 5.7 per cent. in Cleethorpes, Scarborough and Whitby and 6.6 per cent. in my constituency of Torbay. Those figures are only slightly lower than those for the inner cities; in some cases, they are higher.

Seaside resorts have a large elderly population, which is in many ways an asset--elderly people contribute to voluntary organisations, clubs and societies that would

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collapse without them. However, the numbers have effects for which local authorities, businesses and health and social services cannot compensate. A large proportion of the elderly population are on fixed incomes--which, in real terms, are declining incomes--so the amount of money circulating in the local economy is suppressed. The extra pressures on local health and social services are not fully compensated for in Government grants and the jobs associated with caring for the elderly are poorly paid. As the number of retired people is expected to increase over the next decade, the Government need to deal with those issues.

Fundamentally, the seaside towns' problem has been that although they have had to promote tourist attractions in the most positive manner to win their annual influx of visitors, it has been a veneer. In economic terms, the truth is that all large seaside towns hide severe problems behind a facade of palm trees, flower beds and smiling, happy holidaymakers. The Government must realise that resorts have specific problems that must be addressed.

In the past, Governments in Europe have recognised declining and restructuring traditional industries, and have funded inner cities and rural areas to assist their economic regeneration. However, new tourism markets have developed which, in most cases, have won some of the business that traditionally came to resorts. We have had a double whammy. Our economies have been in decline because of overseas competition while Europe and the UK Government have funded other areas and made them into our competitors.

My local authority is organising a conference next week, backed by the British Resorts Association, titled "Resorts--Sunset or Sunrise?" It will be tourism-related, but local authority representatives from across the country will be discussing the common problems faced by resorts, what they can do collectively to improve matters and what the Government and Europe could do to assist. This is a timely conference because, in a recently published UK nomenclature of units of territorial statistics--NUTS III--gross domestic product rankings list, with which the Minister will be familiar, four of the worst 11 districts were traditional large seaside resorts. I have no doubt that the conference will call for our special problems to be recognised by the Government, and for tangible support to help the economic regeneration of coastal resorts.

We do like to be beside the seaside, we do like to be beside the sea. Our resorts are still wonderful places to visit and holiday in. In fact, they have more to offer the visitor today than ever before. However, for people who live in resorts all year round, there is a sense that economic prosperity has passed them by, that other areas with similar problems receive assistance and that we must be thankful that we live on the coast--as if that were compensation for the poorer and declining quality of life faced by my constituents, and those of many other hon. Members. It should not be this way, and I urge the Government to give us the recognition and the support that we deserve.

11.22 am

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South): I congratulate the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders), not only on securing the debate--which is, as he said,

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timely--but on the incisive and comprehensive way in which he presented an analysis of the problems of seaside towns.

The crucial point on which to start is that such problems are, to a large extent, problems in common. Since becoming a Member of Parliament, I have met local government representatives from other seaside towns--as well as from my own--and I have found that many of the problems, such as those caused by high mobility and a transient population, are shared. In future, local authorities in seaside and coastal areas may find it more fruitful to network with authorities that are geographically more disparate than their closer counterparts inland but which have broadly similar problems.

We are discussing a long-standing problem. I have referred on another occasion to Dean Acheson's comment about Britain having lost an empire but not yet found a role. That comment dates from the era of Suez, when many of the problems of seaside towns that the hon. Member for Torbay articulated began. We are not looking at a problem that suddenly appeared, but one which is rather like the veneers on the seaside fronts which have cracked and peeled after years of exposure to adverse elements.

The problems include towns with an aging infrastructure. At the turn of the 20th century, Blackpool invested ambitiously in large building projects. Now, we are paying the price of maintaining them. Other areas with regency or 19th century frontages have similar problems. We have a problem also with the imbalance of accommodation, and the enormous demands in recent years on small guest house and bed-and-breakfast owners to install en-suite and other facilities--mostly without Government support.

We have heard about changing holiday patterns. It is worth saying that seaside and coastal economies are complex, and that many of the employers and activities along the coast which supported and endorsed seaside economies, such as fishing, have also had their problems. They have added to the difficulties faced by seaside towns. As the hon. Member for Torbay and others have said, that has resulted in problems such as the maintenance of holiday accommodation and the growth of unlicensed houses in multiple occupation. In turn, that poses a threat to the attractiveness of the resorts and to the ability of hoteliers to maintain their properties.

The impact on public health has not been appreciated fully. In a town such as Blackpool--this can be replicated in many other places--the combination of an elderly population with young, transient, larger-than-average people coming to look for part-time work, often with young children, adds to the pressures and strains on local health authorities. Another problem may be particular to Blackpool--due to the large number of visitors we get--but may be shared by other resorts. It is, simply, the number of holidaymakers who have accidents--mostly minor, but some major--and who then become a strain on the local hospital and health services. No account is taken of that when budgets are allocated.

I have referred to the need to recognise the problems created by high mobility and a transient population in seaside towns. Those should be reflected more positively when standard spending assessments are considered--particularly the pressures placed on social services and education. One must consider how we define such

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problems, and the hon. Member for Torbay put his finger on it when he said that those of many seaside towns are a complex mixture. The way in which current statistics are compiled is not always helpful to seaside towns when pressing their case.

One specific example is the impact of the travel-to-work area. My constituency has a number of people employed by British Aerospace at Warton. That expands my local travel-to-work area to take in parts of Lancashire and parts of the Fylde area which have low unemployment. As a consequence, the statistics for the Blackpool travel-to-work area are not indicative of the levels of deprivation and the problems in the town centre. I hope that the Office for National Statistics will take that into account in future.

During the off-season, the central wards of Blackpool can have male unemployment levels of between 12 per cent. and 15 per cent. Female unemployment is lower, but the figures are much less reliable because many women who take on part-time work during the season do not register when the season ends. Many people who live in seaside towns, are particularly badly off in terms of car ownership, and therefore depend on public transport. Blackpool, for example, has the lowest level of car ownership in the north-west.

I am describing a combination of problems of decay and neglect, but there is one common theme; to use the cliche of the moment, we require joined-up thinking from the Government. The problems of seaside towns must not be seen as merely problems for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, but as problems that must be addressed by all Departments. That is one of the reasons why I was particularly pleased to get the social exclusion unit from No. 10 to visit Blackpool recently to look at a range of problems.

No matter how much money, effort and enthusiasm are put into the promotion of tourism in our seaside towns, it will be as nothing unless we get the basic infrastructure into a shape that is satisfactory to residents as well as attractive to visitors.

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