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10.35 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble): I congratulate the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) on securing this debate. He has eloquently explained the problems of Southend and even more eloquently set out its attractions. He has tread that very careful line between praising an area and recognising its problems.

It is widely recognised that, despite its many attractions, Southend has a number of very long-standing problems. The district ranks among the most deprived in the east of England in terms of income and employment. Southend's unemployment rate stands at 4.2 per cent, which compares unfavourably with the east of England average of 2.1 per cent. and a United Kingdom average of 3.2 per cent.

The problems, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, are rooted in structural weaknesses in the Southend economy—principally its overdependence on tourism, fishing and certain types of financial and business services, which are all in decline. Recent plans to redevelop Southend's former gasworks site by building a 15-bedroom hotel and houses have been axed, and a local manufacturer has announced the redundancies of 33 people.

I should, however, like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to Southend-on-Sea council and other local and regional agencies—the hon. Gentleman mentioned some of the individuals involved who deserve credit—for tackling the problems with exemplary vigour and imagination. I congratulate the council on its successful campaigns for some Southend wards to be included in the east of England objective 2 programme—I recognise the resentment that some feel when their wards are not included in a funding area—and for the whole of Southend to be included in the Thames gateway, which has been extended to include south-east Essex and which will be an important driver for the regeneration of the area.

The objective 2 programme provides a tremendous opportunity for Southend and other needy areas in east England. Over the seven years from January 2000 to December 2006, almost £100 million of European grants will be available to objective 2 areas in the east of England, supporting projects to the value of more than £260 million.

Southend-on-Sea council and its partners have come together in a local area group for the Southend-on-Sea objective 2 area, which will oversee the preparation and submission of bids. The partnership's vision is that, by the end of the objective 2 programme, Southend-on-Sea will be known throughout the east of England and beyond as a vibrant and different area that is an attractive place in which to live, work, shop and spend time and—hopefully—money.

The partnership has already bid successfully for its first major objective 2 project: a £17 million Southend sea front, high street and pier-enhancement project. That will be supported by a £5.4 million grant from the European regional development fund. The project will transform the

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appearance of the town's central corridor, from the gateway entrance in Prittlewell through the high street and along the 2 km pier, which is being restored following the disastrous fire of a few years ago.

Works to be undertaken as part of the project include a heritage trail, cycle paths, the creation of a series of themed quarters in the high street and the removal and replacement of unsightly and out-dated features. Southend is already visited by 1.6 million people a year. The aim of the project is to increase that number substantially, and I am sure that it will have the hon. Gentleman's strong support.

Two other major bids are at an advanced stage of preparation. The first is the Milton "investment in learning" project, which will provide community facilities on the new South East Essex college campus in Milton, with the aim of stimulating demand for learning and skills development and delivering business support to local enterprises. The second is the "advance, learn and live" project of the Southend Association of Voluntary Services, which will provide additional facilities for the association's centre in Alexandra street, offering volunteering and training opportunities to people who feel disengaged and marginalised, including the long-term unemployed. As the hon. Gentleman said, Southend also benefits from objective 3 funding which has made a significant contribution to the local economy in a number of ways, through projects totalling £812,151.

The hon. Gentleman specifically mentioned the problems of the fishing industry. I shall now address that and discuss the details of the project about which he is particularly concerned. The coastal area around Southend was designated as a PESCA area under the previous European Union community initiative programme—the hon. Gentleman might be familiar with PESCA, which I am told is not an acronym. In addition to the nationally acclaimed cockling industry based in Leigh-on-Sea, the area is known for its stocks of a wide range of fish and shellfish subject to the EU quota system. Local fish merchants, supermarkets and restaurants purchase some of the catch, but the vast majority of locally caught fish is exported.

The fishing grounds of the Thames estuary are under considerable pressure as a result of EU restrictions. Within the area, the number of fishermen has declined and the retail price of fish has increased, to the disadvantage of the consumer. Fish farming and, more recently, genetically modified fish have affected consumer confidence. I am aware that the fishing industry has been suffering serious decline. One positive outcome, however, is the way in which fishermen have pooled their resources and expertise in a partnership approach to tackling the issues that they face and the challenges facing the industry. The fishing community has considered how to embrace new technology, new ideas and innovative ways to diversify and compete in today's market, and to maintain the skills that have been passed down the generations.

The fish restocking project is a good example of that. It has been discussed and developed during the past 18 months, with the support of the hon. Gentleman. It is regarded as an innovative project that would address the issues of fish stocks. It involves removing the eggs from caught fish, allowing the larvae to grow in controlled conditions and releasing the juveniles back into the water, so helping to provide adequate fish stocks for local

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fishermen to catch. The project also offers an opportunity for scientific research into the development of fish larvae, tagging of young fish and measuring their rate of growth, the distance they travel and the number that are subsequently caught in local waters.

The fish restocking project will increase the number of harvestable fish in the area and enhance opportunities for fishermen to make a living in a way that does not involve GM fish or fish farming. It will also enable complementary industries to prosper, including marine engineering and transportation. In addition, the scientific research associated with the project has educational and tourism potential, and it will enhance the town's image. Once the immediate target of increasing stocks of Dover sole has been met, there is a prospect of turning to turbot and lobster.

Discussions have taken place between the fish restocking project partnership and officials at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. They have identified a question about the project's eligibility for the financial instrument for fisheries guidance scheme: the nub of the issue is whether the project constitutes aquaculture, which is excluded from the scheme. DEFRA officials understand the issues and are working hard to resolve them in the near future. I know that they have been supportive in pointing out issues relating to eligibility and have identified areas where more information is needed for a bid. I understand that the project partners decided not to submit a bid in June as a result of those problems, but I strongly encourage them to continue discussions with DEFRA and to explore fully flexibilities in the scheme. The next round of bidding will close at the end of September this year, which allows time for partners to discuss issues and to submit a formal bid. I assure the hon. Gentleman that DEFRA will do all that it can to help them in the bid process. It is also sensible for those concerned with the project to consider alternative avenues and sources of funding by, for example, talking to the East of England development agency.

Despite the problems with that project, there is good news about the regeneration of Southend. Plans to renovate and improve Southend pier were unveiled in May and a new pier entrance should be ready in June 2002. A £2 million programme to re-deck the fire- damaged pier head should be finished by December 2002. There are two major developments at Shoeburyness, which is at the eastern periphery of the borough, both of which are former Ministry of Defence ranges and are considered crucial to the regeneration of the area. One development, at Shoeburyness garrison, will result in 600 jobs as the result of the creation of a mini-town comprising 465 new homes, a school, shops, leisure centre and health centre. Moreover, 150 new jobs were created by London Clubs International, which opened a new Casino at the Kursal building earlier this year.

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We are taking action to improve local transport for Southend. Communications are good; the A127 and A13 trunk roads link Southend to the national motorway network via the M25, which is 20 minutes' drive from the town. However, both trunk roads are overloaded and we are contributing £14.5 million to the borough council's scheme to improve passenger transport and reduce congestion on the A13 and A127. In addition, Southend received an increase in transport block funding of £4.6 million for 2001-02, against funding of £2.3 million in the previous financial year.

Southend is now receiving funding under the fifth and sixth rounds of the singe regeneration budget programme. In the fifth round, Southend received more than £1.8 million of SRB money for a £3.758 million seven-year scheme that is aimed at identifying and developing solutions for the deprived wards of Milton, Victoria and St. Luke's. Projects include a community information and learning centre; improving educational attainment and health awareness; and addressing the needs of minority and vulnerable groups. In the sixth round, Southend received £3.75 million of SRB money for a £27 million seven-year scheme aimed at providing information on learning, education and skills through community capacity building and community renewal projects and a mental health project.

Those were substantial amounts of money from a wide variety of sources, both from the Government and Europe. I am sure that they will greatly enhance the regeneration of all of Southend which, of course, will benefit all its constituents. The hon. Gentleman can take much comfort from the fact that his constituents are getting a large slice of regeneration funds, even though there are difficulties with the project in which he has a particular interest. Clearly, it is an emotive subject because of the area's traditional connections with the fishing industry.

However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that I have taken note of his comments on the problems for the fishermen at Southend, specifically the fish restocking project. I know that Southend is in receipt of large amounts of regeneration funding, which should have a huge impact on the area. Once again, I should like to take the opportunity to encourage the project partners to work with DEFRA officials on a bid for September. I assure the House that the Government office for the east of England is well aware of the difficulties surrounding the project and of the hon. Gentleman's interest in it; it will work with partners to ensure that all of Southend can make best use of the opportunities offered it by the funding and initiatives that I have mentioned.

In conclusion, I again congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising this subject. I am sure that, with his skilled advocacy on behalf of his constituency and town, Southend will truly realise its full potential.

Question put and agreed to.

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