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Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford): As a Blackpool Member, would the hon. Gentleman agree that his plea for the Government to consider fully the town's problems has been more than adequately dealt with by his party, which has kicked Blackpool in the teeth by no longer holding its conference there?

Mr. Marsden: It is a shame that the generally high tone of our debate has now been lowered to a partisan level. We have every confidence that our conference will return to Blackpool in the near future. The reason why we could not go to Blackpool goes to the heart of some of the difficulties that we are talking about: there is a problem with the infrastructure of the Winter Gardens; many seaside towns suffer from decaying infrastructure. It ill behoves the hon. Gentleman to make such partisan points, when his party slashed the English tourist board's budget by about £8 million, introduced crippling interest rates in the early 1990s and produced the recession that put many small hotels and bed-and-breakfast accommodation out of business.

The Government are making progress; they must produce a stable economic framework and infrastructure for seaside towns. Most important, over the past

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18 months, they have taken tourism seriously and have recognised that there is a problem. The tourism strategy will be produced towards the end of the year.

There are difficulties with seasonal employment, and the Department for Education and Employment has addressed them, but I believe that seaside towns will benefit economically from many of the Government's measures, and especially the new deal, which the British hospitality industry estimated could create between7,000 and 10,000 jobs in the leisure and tourism market. If that can be achieved, along with the increase in quality that I believe the national minimum wage will help to ensure, we will begin to make some progress.

Much remains to be done. Hon. Members will be well aware that coastal pollution must be tackled. The problem is complex, involving not only the discharge of untreated sewage. Consumers must not be hit by water companies with the full increased costs that will be incurred. We must also improve public transport links to seaside towns--as the hon. Member for Torbay said, we are out on the periphery--and it is important to revitalise the hotel and business stock.

The hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) referred to some of the problems with asylum seekers and refugees, and I hope that the matter will be taken up with the Home Office as part of an overall strategy. It would certainly help if the Government considered sympathetically the possibility of abolishing the single room rent for under-25s, which has a serious effect on small businesses and hotels employing young people during the season on relatively low pay, because when the season ends their income drops considerably and the hoteliers and guest house owners are faced with a terrible choice: to take an enormous drop in income from rent or to put the young people out on the streets.

The Government should consider revising business rates in the light of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions consultation paper. Many small businesses in seaside towns feel that they suffer disproportionately under the present regime, and a system whereby a tranche of turnover was exempted, or with a low band, would undoubtedly be beneficial.

The new opportunities fund offers possibilities. If it can help to renew green-field areas, perhaps it can do the same for sandy ones. One of the problems with seaside towns is that they have a great mass of infrastructure which is essentially aesthetic, designed to attract visitors. Piers, arcades and other such structures do not get the funding that they deserve.

It is good that from 1999 the European Union structural funding will take on board the possibility of helping seaside towns. We in Blackpool have been fortunate enough to benefit from single regeneration budget funding, and I recently opened a high-quality foyer house in multiple occupation in the centre of the town. That is precisely the sort of project for which SRB funding should be used but, as the secretary of the British Resorts Association said in his excellent paper on coastal resort regeneration,


Mr. Alan Campbell (Tynemouth): Is my hon. Friend aware that, according to House of Commons Library

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figures, less than 5 per cent. of the money allocated by the previous Government in SRB rounds 1 to 3 went into coastal towns, and less than 3 per cent. in round 4? Does he agree that that says a great deal about the previous Government's lack of support for coastal towns, and that it would be helpful if the Government were to consider including coastal towns specifically in future SRB guidelines?

Mr. Marsden: I thank my hon. Friend for bringing that information into the public arena. It is extremely important for those criteria to be taken on board in SRB bids. The new regional development agencies could take on board not only the particular problems of seaside towns but the contributions that they make to rejuvenating wider areas and acting as a magnet for employment. For example, Blackpool undoubtedly acts as a catchment area, bringing people in from the wider area of Fylde; Brighton and Hove perform the same function for east Sussex; and there is a similar effect in north Wales.

The RDAs must take on board the strategic need and consider the whole question of structural funding. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Torbay gave a plug for the conference that will address some of the issues next week.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): Clearly, some of the hypothecated funding can be useful, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that seaside towns such as Worthing and many others depend mainly on the funding available to their local authorities and county councils? Is he as apprehensive as I am that the rate support grant to be announced later today will draw money away from seaside towns and put it into inner cities? Will not that be more damaging than the possibilities offered by the single regeneration budget?

Mr. Marsden: I do not have a crystal ball, so I cannot say what the announcement on the standard spending assessments will contain. Whatever the outcome, it is important that we all recognise that many of the problems that seaside towns face, the hon. Gentleman's constituency among them, are replicated in inner cities.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): The hon. Gentleman should examine the record. He suggests help for the south-west in places such as Weymouth and Portland, but he should ask the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) about that. The hon. Gentleman was the only Labour Member in the south-west when the previous Government gave help to those areas, and he was embarrassed when the Labour party voted against it.

Mr. Marsden: I can only speak for myself, but I would never be embarrassed by any help given to Blackpool, provided it came from a legitimate quarter. It is clear from the debate that seaside towns face complex problems, and we need a holistic response. The Government have made a useful start, and I praise the work of Ministers in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, especially the new Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting, who has taken an energetic approach to the issue. I urge the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning and his colleagues to carry through that joined-up thinking

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into the various initiatives that we need to consider. Most seaside towns made their mark at the end of the 19th century by a combination of enlightened municipal government working with dynamic local entrepreneurs. That buzz and excitement can be recaptured, but that requires the support, backing and understanding of central Government.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): Order. Before I call the next hon. Member, I remind the House that this is a relatively short debate and a number of hon. Members wish to catch my eye. Unless contributions are brief, several hon. Members will be disappointed.

11.43 am

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): I congratulate the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) on raising an important issue and doing so in a non-political way. I had hoped that that was how we would approach the matter, but we heard a silly comment from the hon. Gentleman who is wearing a red tie and sitting beside the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden)--[Interruption.] I am told that I mean the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell), but I have never seen him before. He said that, under the Conservatives, the amount of money given to seaside towns was low, but that was because of the rules on travel-to-work areas, not the nasty Conservative Government.

My constituency of Southend-on-Sea is a lovely place to live. The Government put the borough forward for assisted area status, which was unfortunately turned down by Commissioner van Miert, who cut 10 per cent. off the Government's applications, because our unemployment rate was based on travel-to-work areas. The Government then advanced parts of Southend for what are called objective 2 grants, but that application was turned down by Commissioner Millan on the basis that Southend was not an industrial town. If the hon. Member for Tynemouth considered the issues instead of trying to make silly, critical points, we might be better able to help the seaside towns.

We must consider carefully five points that are common to seaside towns. The first is that of jobs. In Southend, where I have lived with my family for 18 years, we have high unemployment. In one ward, Milton, in the centre of town, the unemployment rate is 25 per cent., compared with the national average of 4.7 per cent. In my constituency as a whole, unemployment for men is more than 10 per cent. Other seaside towns also have high levels of unemployment, whether under Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat Governments. However, the crucial point is that almost all seaside towns are part of larger inland areas in which unemployment levels are much lower. The seaside towns are denied benefits and grants because they are in travel-to-work areas and thus eliminated from consideration. I hope that this Government, and future Governments, will consider the possibility of making grants available to areas smaller than travel-to-work areas. It is scandalous, and contrary to common sense, that areas with high unemployment cannot be considered for help because of the rule on travel-to-work areas.

I am sure that most people in Southend-on-Sea, which is represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) and myself--we always

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agree on everything--would be glad if all subsidies could be stopped tomorrow, but we object when massive amounts of cash go to areas with far lower rates of unemployment and fewer problems. In Southend, we often debate the Hertfordshire problem, and the boss of the local further education institution has terrible rows with me on that issue. He says that we must live in the real world and employ consultants to try to get money from every source possible. He points out that Hertfordshire people are very clever and get massive grants for deprivation and unemployment although there is hardly any in the area. He says that we should learn from that and start making our case properly. However, my point is that--if we are to have grants, subsidies and such things--we should reorganise the system so that seaside towns with areas of high unemployment can be considered.

The second common point is social problems. The Minister of State will be aware that Southend-on-Sea has a happy council. The Labour party and the Liberal Democrats have a majority of one over the Conservative party, so the situation is tight. A few weeks ago, the majority parties had to close three of our old folks' homes--not because they wanted to or because they are nasty socialists or nasty liberals but because we do not have enough cash to keep them going. In the local hospital, the use of many beds is blocked, because the council cannot afford to provide accommodation in retirement homes. Seaside towns face a concentration of social problems that are not taken into account in the financing of local government. As the Minister of State will be aware, other areas dump their social problems in seaside towns such as Southend, because we have a lot of bed-and-breakfast accommodation and houses in multiple occupation. That means that we have more than our share of social problems. Our local director of social services has told me that we are still short of £2.5 million for our budget this year. That is not because the council is stupid or corrupt, but because we have a larger concentration of social problems. I hope that the Minister will bear that point in mind.

The third problem is transport. Because seaside towns tend to be at the end of the line, they also tend to be left out of road programmes. If the Minister of State visited Southend, he would see that we have horrendous traffic congestion. One large area at one end of the town, Shoeburyness, has many employment problems. Two major sites are being made available by the Ministry of Defence for development, but it is difficult to arouse interest in the properties because it is very difficult to get out of Southend from Shoeburyness. In the rush hour, it takes 40 minutes to do so and at other times it takes 25 minutes. I hope that the Government will realise that a bypass, for example, would make a dramatic difference to towns at the end of the line, such as Southend. Governments of all parties tend to concentrate on the centre of England, and of Scotland, and they do not bear it in mind that seaside towns have particular problems.

Fourthly, I want to refer to regional government. Southend has had the pleasure of escaping from Essex county council because we felt that Chelmsford was too far away. Although Chelmsford has a superb Member of Parliament, we felt that the council did not take our interests fully into account. We were happy to establish an independent republic of Southend-on-Sea, although, sadly, it is not outside the Common Market.

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Having escaped, however, we resent the fact that, without people noticing it--which is the saddest fact of all--a new regional government system is being established. Our regional centre will be based in Cambridge, with a massive, costly structure. I constantly receive lots of paper--invitations to dinners, lunches, meetings, conferences--listing lots of things that regional government will be interested in doing. I believe, however, that regional government is being imposed simply because the European Union wants it throughout its whole area. That is sad and costly nonsense. I hope that the Government will carefully consider what good regional government can possibly do, not only for seaside towns but for other areas.

Finally--I have taken just over six minutes, Mr. Deputy Speaker--the Government are having a wee think about the lottery. We are distressed about the lottery. Southend has the longest pier in the world, of which we are very proud. It has a superb train, and it is very exciting to look at it. Yet the ridiculous lottery keeps giving lots of money to clapped-out piers on the basis that they are of historical interest. I am sure that there are some exceptions to that, but Southend objects strongly that although our pier is a sound, going concern, nothing seems to be done for it.

Southend is a great place to live, and if the Minister doubts that, he can read the figures published by the Department for Education and Employment yesterday, which show that our education results were 2.5 per cent. above the English average, despite our serious unemployment and deprivation. We are proud of that, and of many things in Southend. If the Government must keep establishing new organisations and giving out subsidies, they should let us have our share, although we should be happier if there were no such subsidies at all. [Hon. Members: "Oh."] I can assure Labour Members that that would be good for us.

Southend has achieved a great deal of which the town is proud. I hope that the Government will bear in mind that it, like other seaside towns, has high unemployment, a concentration of social problems and serious transport problems that are not being taken fully into account. I hope that the Government will approach those problems not by blaming the previous Government, or by saying how wonderful they are themselves, but by taking serious, urgent and sensible action, as proposed by the hon. Member for Torbay in his excellent speech.


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