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6.33 pm

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I take it that the hon. Gentleman has the agreement of the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) and the Minister to participate in the debate.

Mr. Foster: I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) for obtaining this important debate. I am grateful also to the London Members who made it possible for more time to be spared for it.

What my hon. Friend said about her constituency in the north-west applies equally to my constituency in the south-east. Seaside resorts have special problems and, like her, I brought them to the attention of the House in my maiden speech; both of us have been battering on about it ever since. Much has been done, and I want to acknowledge that the Government have addressed many of the social issues and the symptoms of the deprivation that exists in many of our areas. But we need to acknowledge that seaside towns are unique in this special regard; they have a 180 deg catchment area. The economic success of an area is thus limited by a factor of 50 per cent. compared with areas with a wider catchment. That creates difficulties. Furthermore, our transport systems are frequently inadequate, which makes matters worse. That is certainly the situation in Hastings and, to some extent, Rye.

The lack of economic activity and low wages over many years has resulted in social problems. Older people have moved to the area. In itself that is a good thing but,

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sadly, they have a low income—certainly, they did in the past. It was always said that if people had money, they went to Bournemouth; if they did not have quite as much, they went to Hove; if they were a bit hard-up, they went to Eastbourne; but if they ended up in Hastings, they were really poor. I suspect that that is a particular problem in my constituency rather than in Morecambe, but all seaside towns face the problem, or challenge, of an elderly population who are often without economic strength. We see the consequences of that in our seaside towns.

The Government have successfully addressed the symptoms: for example, the minimum income guarantee is especially successful in helping the aged in my constituency to make ends meet. There is help through programmes such as the education action zones or cash benefits for low-paid families such as the working families tax credit. Like the sure start and neighbourhood renewal schemes, all those social benefits have brought significant changes to my constituents during the past four years.

However, in a sense, we are improving the social well-being of residents of seaside towns rather than providing the economic gains that are needed before we can make a leap forward. For example, although there have been improvements in my constituency, we remain the 28th poorest town in Britain. When a south-east town, only 60 miles from London, is the 28th poorest town in Britain, we have to ask why, after all that Government aid, we have failed to improve our relative position.

The answer is simple. To improve the lot of individuals is good and proper and we are grateful for it, but we need to improve economic benefits through the infrastructure to attract private-sector investment. In my constituency, a great opportunity was lost when the Government decided not to build a bypass, which would have brought wider benefits—not only by creating confidence among the business community but by safeguarding our seafront. The town is unique in Britain because its main trunk road trundles along the seafront, past its hotel, going through seven conservation areas. However, I pass on—the decision has been made so there is little purpose in bemoaning its effects.

The balance in the Government's consideration was wrong: the environmental argument was so strong that the economic argument was set aside. That is always a problem in seaside areas, because they are beautiful places. They are usually surrounded by a wonderful hinterland—as they are in my hon. Friend's constituency and mine. That is great and we appreciate it, but we have to balance the environmental cost with the economic gain. I hope that no other constituency will suffer as Hastings and Rye did from a decision that appeared perverse. None the less, we move on.

Transport is essential. Not only do we need roads for our seaside towns, we need public transport so that we can get to them. We need transport so that people can go to work elsewhere if there are no local jobs. I work in this place, but it takes me two hours to get here on the train every day—only 60 miles. That is probably a combination of Railtrack, Connex and a lack of investment over many, many years.

People need to be able to visit our seaside towns. If we do not have proper rail services, they cannot do so. I emphasise the infrastructure argument advanced by my hon. Friend. Hastings is not unique in its transport

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infrastructure difficulties; many seaside towns suffer from the same problems of inaccessibility. That is an important factor.

We also, in Hastings and Rye in particular, suffer from many other deficiencies, such as the lack of a higher education institute, which results in a work force with low skills. A package of measures is required. Seaside towns are not unique, but they are special in that many of them suffer from the same basket of disadvantage.

I do not want us to so improve the social infrastructure in seaside towns—especially Hastings and Rye—that we become a university for misfits. I do not mean that unkindly, but there is a risk that that could happen. We have plenty of cheap accommodation. As we improve the lot of our residents through our social programmes, those people improve. That is of course what it is all about, but there is no economic benefit because there are no jobs for our residents, so they move on. The space becomes available and more people move in with social problems similar to those that we have solved for other people.

That cycle is not unique to Hastings and Rye. It happens in many towns, including Brighton, and it may well happen in Morecambe. Although we want to benefit those with disadvantage, we want our community to gain from the investment in the individuals whom we so aid.

In conclusion, I am looking for a Minister-level taskforce for seaside towns. The needs of seaside towns are difficult, because they are numerous but they are perhaps not complex, because we know what they are. I am not criticising the Government, who have done much already, but if we could persuade them to take seaside towns even more seriously and get together a ministerial taskforce to focus on their specific needs, that would be a means by which Government could really demonstrate joined-up thinking and government and aid us all to a better life.

6.42 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Dr. Kim Howells): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) on instigating the debate. She has done her constituents a great service, as she certainly has since she was elected to this place. In highlighting the special difficulties that we find in coastal resorts and seaside resorts, she reminds us all of how important those towns are. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) is in the Chamber; I am sure that he is present because he is very interested in the debate, and many others could draw illustrations similar to those drawn by my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale in highlighting the special difficulties of seaside resorts.

I was slightly worried that my hon. Friend, in comparing those resorts with coalfield communities, was in danger of talking down the great potential of seaside towns. Many seaside towns, including Morecambe, are experiencing great difficulties at the moment, but they still have something that the coalfields certainly do not have in the aftermath of colliery closures: the sea and beautiful scenery. Their raison d'être was to provide a holiday for people.

Geraldine Smith: Yes, we have the sea, the views and natural beauty, but we need attractions. We need indoor

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attractions that families can use. We need decent infrastructure. We need decent road and rail links to get people to seaside resorts. Most seaside resorts are pretty isolated; they have the sea on one side and access to them is poor. Such improvements are essential to ensure that we attract tourists. After all, attracting tourists is our core industry, just as mining was the coalfield communities' core industry.

Dr. Howells: My hon. Friend took the words out of my mouth. We should also remember that in 1999, about 100 recognised seaside resorts generated £6 billion of income, which is well over 15 per cent. of the total income generated by tourism in this country—we do not have the exact figures yet as the tourism industry is a little slow in producing them, which is a big problem. The resorts accounted for 2.1 million domestic holidays, for more than 40 per cent. of all holiday trips and nights away and for about 200 million domestic day trips. Those figures exclude visits by overseas visitors.

The resorts are still phenomenally important generators of income and employment. My hon. Friend is right to say that they could do even more. She was also right to point to the need for inter-departmental action on the issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster) also pointed that out when he talked of the problem with the bypass decision. It was an important decision and it will have a long-term effect on the town.

I sympathise with my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale. I took my family to north Devon this year. If I climb the mountain above my house in Pontypridd I can see the shoulder of land above Ilfracombe, but when I set off to drive to 10 miles south of that shoulder of land on a Saturday morning in the middle of August it took me four and a half hours—breaking the law, I could probably have driven to Italy in that time. It was unbelievable. She is right to highlight the great problem caused by the lack of good communications and the problem of getting to the resorts. We should be able to get to them more easily and that is one of the great tasks that we face.

A range of sources of funding already exist as my hon. Friend knows and they are being tapped by a number of resorts. It is important that they continue to do so and that they can identify those sources of funding. The prime source has been the single regeneration budget. I am told that there have been 35 successful bids by coastal areas worth £172 million—28 per cent. of the total SRB round 6 awards. It is important for resorts to understand that if they can come up with imaginative and coherent proposals, the money is there to be used.

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