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Dr. Julian Lewis: In spite of what my hon. Friend said, Opposition Whips are allowed to intervene, fortunately. I recently asked the Minister for Local Government how many letters he had received requesting the introduction of regional government in the south-east, and the answer was not a single one.
Mr. Atkinson: There we are. That is rightthe British people are not at all anxious to go down that path.
Regional government in the north-east has been a monstrous distraction. The northern assembly, which has taken on a self-appointed role as a campaigner for regional governmentfunded, of course, by the taxpayerwould do far better to concentrate on regenerating the region and addressing bread-and-butter problems such as under-achievement in education. That is what the people of the north-east want; they do not want regional government consisting of another talking shop, full of Labour cronies.
Mr. Anthony D. Wright (Great Yarmouth): I am very pleased to be able to contribute to this debate, because the regeneration of disadvantaged areas is certainly crucial to the people of Great Yarmouth, whom I represent. My comments will probably mirror what could be said of many other seaside resorts around the country.
If this Government are to be judged, as they should be, on whether they deliver improvements to the quality of life of those in greatest need, Great Yarmouth is precisely the type of place in which they must deliver such improvements. It gives me no great pleasure to say that Great Yarmouth suffers from one of the highest unemployment levels in this country, and from some of the worst social deprivation. There are a number of reasons why, some of them historical, and others more connected to the present. Among the historical reasons are the ending of the herring fishing industry, and the decline of the traditional seaside holiday destinations in the face of competition from cheap foreign package deals. Although the offshore oil and gas industry remains a major employer in the borough, it is a mature industry, rather than the rapidly growing enterprise of the 1970s.
A shortage of skills in certain areas definitely numbers among the current reasons for economic and social deprivation in Great Yarmouth. All too often, local employers in the engineering sector have told me that they have had to look far beyond Great Yarmouth for employees with the necessary training and qualifications. However, in my view the single biggest factor negatively affecting Great Yarmouth is its totally inadequate transport infrastructure. Great Yarmouth is often referred to in terms of its peripherality, which is both real and perceived, but the fact is that poor transport links are severely hindering economic development and job creation in the town, and there is an urgent need for real improvements. I shall return to that issue later in my speech.
Before I talk about the Government initiatives that have already helped the regeneration process, and their future role in regenerating my constituency, I want to describe the current situation there. Hon. Members will be aware of the travel-to-work-area method of measuring unemployment. According to figures released by the Office for National Statistics for December 2001the most recent figures availableGreat Yarmouth had an unemployment rate of 6.6 per cent., the third highest travel-to-work-area rate in England. There, as in other towns with a large seaside holiday industry, unemployment peaks in the winter months and falls in summer.
Recent history has shown that the unemployment rate in Yarmouth usually reaches its maximum in February. When this month's figures are eventually released, we may well regain our unwanted spot at the top of the English league table for unemployment. The borough had the unwelcome distinction of being top of that table between December 2000 and March 2001. The availability of short-term summer jobs removes a number of people from the unemployment statistics who return a few months later. That undoubtedly masks the true picture of long-term unemployment in the borough.
It is now widely acceptedI certainly believe it to be the casethat unemployment and economic deprivation have a direct causal link to social problems. The
Those problems were highlighted by the national index of multiple deprivation drawn up by the then Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions in 1998 and in 2000. This study examined 8,414 borough council wards in England, using the following indicators: income deprivation; employment deprivation; health deprivation; education, skills, and training deprivation; housing deprivation; and geographical access to services. In the overall ranking, the borough of Great Yarmouth was the fifth most deprived borough in England, placing it alongside the worst and most deprived of the major inner-city areas that have been well documented today. In fact, I have often heard Great Yarmouth described as the equivalent of an inner-city area, but without any of the surrounding suburbs.
The situation regarding deprivation in education, skills and training is particularly acute in Great Yarmouth. Half the council wards are in the bottom 10 per cent. for education nationally, and one fifth are in the bottom 1 per cent. Our Regent ward is rated the 19th most deprived ward in England, out of 8,414, and Nelson ward is rated 37th. Great Yarmouth also has problems in areas that were not used as indicators in the DETR's study, such as drugs, crime, high rates of teenage pregnancy and environmental concerns such as litter, rubbish in the streets and abandoned cars.
I want to draw to the attention of hon. Members the disparity between Great Yarmouth and other parts of East Anglia. Much has been said recently about the disparity between regions, particularly in the context of the north and south. But a classic example of how these disparities can exist on a smaller scale within regions is the comparison between Great Yarmouth, Norwich and Cambridge.
When I draw attention to the economic and social problems of Great Yarmouth, I sometimes feel that people think I am exaggerating. After all, Great Yarmouth is part of East Anglia, and it is widely accepted that East Anglia is a relatively wealthy region with high employment and a good standard of living. However, the latest unemployment figure for Great Yarmouth is 6.6 per cent. of the population, while the figure for the county of Norfolk is only 2.6 per cent. and for East Anglia as a whole, 2.2 per cent. In other words, unemployment in Great Yarmouth is three times the rate for the rest of the region.
Conditions in the city of Norwich, only 20 miles from Great Yarmouth, are very different. Norwich is a booming city that has had hundreds of million of pounds of inward investment in the last few years and is renowned for its quality of life. A further 50 miles south-west is the city of Cambridge, whose economy is growing almost exponentially and threatening to overheat. While Great Yarmouth is the fifth worst borough in England in terms of social deprivation, Cambridge ranks 204th on the same list. I do not for a moment begrudge Norwich and Cambridge their success, but the contrast between them and nearby Great Yarmouth is indeed stark.
Having spoken of the present situation in Great Yarmouth and its regional context, I also want to consider what has happened in the recent past. From the outset, it must be said that things have improved significantly in the past few years, particularly in respect of employment. For example, in January 1997, the rate of unemployment in the borough stood at more than 10 per cent., as opposed to 6.6 per cent. today. There is no doubt that the Government's new deal programme has been a major factor in reducing unemployment in Great Yarmouth in the past few years.
It is far harder to quantify the figures across the range of indicators for social deprivation. None the less, I am hopeful that when the next study is carried out by the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the situation in Great Yarmouth will have improved.
As for education, where Great Yarmouth has had particular problems, I am happy to say that exam and test results for pupils across the borough last summer showed a step forward in quantity and qualitya tribute to both the pupils and their teachers.
The situation is far from one of doom and gloom. I wish to pay tribute to the support and resources that Great Yarmouth has received from the Government to help alleviate some of the problems that we face. The funding comes in a variety of guises, with the largest single grant being the £4.5 million that the borough received from the neighbourhood renewal fund. I know that the "no strings attached" nature of the grant was appreciated locally and that discussions are under way as to how this large sum of money can best be spent.
Another Government initiative from which Great Yarmouth has benefited has been sure start. Funding started in 1999 and has already been extended until 2004, making a total cash injection of £4.2 million. Initial research has shown that sure start in Great Yarmouth is already succeeding in its goal of working in a new way with families who have children under four to give them the best possible start in life. Next week I will be attending the opening a new £500,000 nursery on one of Great Yarmouth's most deprived estates, which is part of the sure start initiative.
Only this week it was announced that from April 2005, Great Yarmouth's education action zone will become an excellence cluster. As a result, it will receive about £1.8 million a year in funding, compared with the present total sum of £150,000. Those in charge of the education action zone are particularly pleased with this early commitment, as it allows them to plan for the long term.
There has been some controversy over the achievements of education action zones in some parts of the country, but the one in Great Yarmouth has been a great success. Key stage 3 and 4 results are now higher than the national average, attendance levels have improved at many schools and 80 per cent. of pupils have shown measurable progress in reading. The Great Yarmouth education action zone has also been successful in setting up partnerships with a number of local businesses for sponsorship and workplace training.
I have highlighted three major funding boosts that Great Yarmouth has received from the Government, but there have been many others. They have included assisted area status and single regeneration budget moneys for Regent, Nelson and Colholm and Lichfield, three of the
We have also received one of the largest grants for closed circuit television in response to the need to reduce crime. It has been a huge success, and I hope that more bids from other parts of my constituency will be looked on favourably by the Minister at the appropriate time.
The borough has benefited recently from a number of major lottery funding awards, such as that given to Tower Curing Works, a museum that will celebrate Great Yarmouth's rich maritime heritage. Heritage regeneration has also been boosted by grants from the heritage economic regeneration strategy and the town heritage initiative. These, together with a range of public and private funding partners, have paid for the Nelson museum, a major new attraction which will open on the town's south quay in April.
Finally, there have been funds from Europe in the shape of objective 2 and objective 3 grants. For example, £771,000 was given in October last year under objective 2 towards the Innovation Centre, a high-quality and high-tech centre for the energy industry, currently under construction on the South Gorleston business park.
Improvement must come from within the area, and that is happening in Great Yarmouth. Perhaps the single most important example is the development of the Great Yarmouth outer harbour. Should the project go ahead, it will undoubtedly safeguard thousands of jobs in Great Yarmouth and, I hope, create hundreds of new ones. The scheme has been talked about for more than 30 years, but today I believe that it is closer to becoming a reality than at any other time.
A company called EastPort has been set up to drive the project through. It is talking with four private operators which have tendered to run the ferry service from Great Yarmouth to Holland three times a day. The bulk of the cash for the project will be raised by the private sector, with some money coming from public sources. I am pleased that the Government have agreed that public funding for the outer harbour can be considered, so long as certain conditions are met.
Great Yarmouth is closer to Amsterdam than to London, and the port has a long history of trade with Europe and Scandinavia. Development of the outer harbour will, I hope, be a catalyst in establishing Great Yarmouth as a gateway to Europe as well as creating new jobs in a regeneration area.
The sea front partnership is another important local initiative. That joint bid, under the heading "InteGreat Yarmouth", is intended to invigorate and upgrade the town's seafront and town centre, improve the local environment, and stimulate tourism. It is a comprehensive plan that covers building improvements, traffic management, public spaces, the beach, the town centre's heritage, the environment, and information and communications technology. A funding package of £32 millionagain both public and private moneyhas been proposed, and it will, if it goes ahead, provide a massive boost for tourism and the Great Yarmouth economy.
Those are two of the major local projects but there are many others, including the Great Yarmouth recommissioning partnership, a body formed to try to
The Scroby sands wind farm project is another exciting local development. It will provide up to 38 wind turbines on a sandbank about two miles off the Great Yarmouth coast. The plan is already well advanced, and if the scheme goes ahead, it will be the largest offshore wind farm in Great Britain, generating clean, green power and creating new jobs.
In spite of Great Yarmouth's serious problems, much is being done, both by the Government and by the people of the area. An issue remains, however, that could be characterised as a spectre at the feast. Our transport infrastructure is one of the most important matters that the Government must address if they are to help with further regeneration. For many years, Great Yarmouth has been the largest seaside town and resort not to be connected to the national motorway network by a dual carriageway. That is exacerbated by the fact that the rail connection between the town and Norwichthe nearest cityis mostly single-tracked.
Improvements have been made to various parts of the road network over the past few years, but the overall picture is patchy. One section of the network has become a cause for significant local concern. The dualling of the section of the A47 that links Acle with Great Yarmouth, commonly called the Acle straight, is probably the single biggest issue facing the area. Discussions about dualling that stretch began in earnest in 1971: today, it remains a single carriageway. The overwhelming majority of my constituents feel that that is not good enough.
The Acle straight is about eight miles long. It is not much different today than it was when it was built in the 19th century. It is particularly narrow for an A road, and it is banked on both sides by water-filled dykes. It is totally inadequate for the volume of traffic that uses it. Regrettably, its safety record over the years has been poor. Judging the distance and speed of oncoming vehicles is notoriously difficult because the road is so straight and because it has no landmarks on either side to act as reference points. Accidents on the Acle straight are not a lot more common than on other roads, but when they occur, they are often head-on crashes that result in death or serious injury.
The terrible safety record is not the only concern about that stretch of road. Delays are commonplace. That is particularly true in the summer months at the height of the tourist season, but it happens at any time. The overwhelming opinion of the people of Great Yarmouth is that the report commissioned by the Government from the consultants Maunsell failed to draw a sensible balance between environmental concerns and safety, economic regeneration and social concern. Huge weight was given to the marshland environment beside the road, but little to the population of 90,000 people. I have received 177 letters about the report from people in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk and further afield. Of those, 175 supported dualling the road, and two were against it.
Among the supporters of dualling the road are all the local authorities in Norfolk as well as the local chamber of commerce and Norfolk police authority, which believes
Recently there have been further developments. At its meeting on 17 January, the east of England local government conference considered the issue and instead of endorsing the consultants' report in full called for further studies to consider the economic, social and environmental impact of dualling the Acle straight. Although the prospect of further delay is frustrating, I generally support that decision, because any study that objectively considers all these matters cannot fail to support dualling. I will do all that I can to continue making that case, and I hope that when the matter finally reaches my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, he will come to the same conclusion.
Much has already been done to regenerate the town of Great Yarmouth but sadly there is still much work to do. There is no better place for that work to start than on the Acle straight and the development of our new harbour.