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7 Jun 2007 : Column 159WH—continued

Those of us who went out and about canvassing five or 10 years ago recognised the names and the households as we went down a street. Yes, there was turnover, but we would probably recognise the vast majority of people.
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Now, in some of the streets where most of the buy-to-let is happening in Cleethorpes, there will be several changes every year of the residents in the houses. Information comes through to me from the local authority about alterations and I think, “Oh well, that house has changed again.” In some streets, almost half the people could be described as a transient population.

A problem particular to Cleethorpes and some other parts of the country is that many of the properties are leasehold houses. That has kept the house prices low, but it has an impact on people who have lived in the properties for many years and paid their mortgage off. Because the big house building period in Cleethorpes was in the early 1900s, the 99-year leases have been running out and people have found that they do not own the property because it is leasehold. That has had a serious impact on our housing market. Some people are having to sell very cheaply because there is no lease left, which is leading to the buy-to-let.

Sir John Butterfill: There is a similar situation in Bournemouth, where there is a very high proportion of leaseholds—the freeholds are mainly owned by two major estates—but the people who live in those areas are enthusiastically using the leasehold enfranchisement legislation, the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Act 2002, either to buy the freeholds or to obtain new long leases. Why is that not happening in the hon. Lady’s constituency?

Shona McIsaac: As someone who sat on the Standing Committee that considered the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Bill, I welcome many of the changes that the subsequent Act brought about; indeed, I put some of those changes into the Bill. That legislation has made it much easier for residents in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and mine to extend their leases.

The reason why many people do not take advantage of that legislation is probably to do with the type of people who live in those areas. In the part of Cleethorpes where most leasehold properties are, many people do not have post-compulsory, school-age qualifications. There is some ignorance, much as I try to let people know about the legislation through leaflets and advice surgeries. The problem is purely down to fear and ignorance. However, it does cost money, and many people simply do not have the money to pay surveyors to give estimates of what it will cost to buy the freehold.

People either do not know about the legislation, or they feel that they cannot afford to take advantage of it. Things are not as bad as they were, but it is particularly difficult to get that knowledge to people, especially given that freeholders, frankly, do not want folk to know about it. That is a problem. I try to tell everybody, “Enfranchise, enfranchise, enfranchise.” I tell people, “Buy it: you might think that it is expensive, but it is better than losing your home.” I thank the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill) for making that point, because I have now put another advert on the record telling my constituents, “Buy your freehold.”

On Government strategy, I shall not use such strong terms as the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), because I am such a Government loyalist,
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but I am sorely tempted to use similar language. Instead I shall say that I was somewhat disappointed by the Government’s weak response. It was fragmented and did not seem to be a coherent response. Is not that typical of the whole approach to coastal and seaside towns? Perhaps we would have been more surprised if it had all fitted together and been coherent, because so many Departments have responsibilities for such towns.

Let us consider the issues that have been raised today: we have discussed transport, work and pensions, health and education. The Minister who will respond to the debate is from the Department for Communities and Local Government, but the Department of Trade and Industry also has an input because of its role with regional development agencies. We are talking about life—people’s lives and people’s towns—so every Government Department is involved in this issue. I was disappointed with the Government’s response to the report, but my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South and I, and other hon. Members present, have been banging this drum for an awfully long time, so perhaps we should not have been surprised by the response.

I want to discuss RDAs and their input. The RDA with which I work has the wonderful title: the Yorkshire and Humber RDA. The Humber is a river and although Cleethorpes is in Lincolnshire, Lincolnshire is not mentioned. As there is only a tiny bit of Lincolnshire in the RDA, we are, again, on the fringe; the vast majority of its work focuses on Yorkshire. I have read about all the wonderful innovation, and, yes, there has been wonderful innovation in places such as Leeds, but we are still on the fringe. The psychology of the RDA is to put us to one side. Yet again, we are at that end-of-the-line place.

For those reasons, I have my doubts as to whether RDAs are an appropriate vehicle with which to tackle the common problems of seaside and coastal towns. I shall give hon. Members an example to illustrate my point. A few years ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) did some work on former fishing ports, many of which are, of course, still coastal towns. We tried to track down Government money that had been allocated to RDAs for the regeneration of former fishing ports, and discovered that it had been divvied up almost equally across the RDAs, including London. The RDAs then spent that money, which was meant to be tagged for specific purposes, in many different ways. In one region, we discovered that it was used to put new lampposts somewhere not remotely near the seaside. When money is earmarked, can we guarantee that when it has been filtered through all the relevant organisations it will get to its intended targets? I have worries about that.

I shall try to end on a positive point. One positive point is that Cleethorpes is a most wonderful place, and save for Tory MPs who are trying to campaign, anyone is welcome to come and have a nice wee break there. As we are next to Grimsby, our fish and chips are probably the best in Britain.

Hon. Members will recall that I raised this matter with the Prime Minister yesterday, because the debate was coming up today. I must admit that the wee bit of sniggering from those who do not represent coastal towns did not go down terribly well. Although he is
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going to be around for only a couple more weeks, I shall remind hon. Members what the Prime Minister said, because it might be good to repeat his comments to a future incumbent. He said:

Having rubbished the Government response to the report, I must say that I thought that a better response than anything in the Government response. It is a shame that the Prime Minister is off, because with that attitude, we could have worked on him a wee bit more.

It has been wonderful for us to discuss the problems of our coastal towns. Yes, they are all very different, but we have come together today to share our concerns about the problems in our constituencies.

Janet Anderson (in the Chair): A number of hon. Members would still like to speak, but if Members restrict their speeches to less than 15 minutes, we should just about manage to get everyone in. I am sure that hon. Members want to give the Minister plenty of time to respond.

3.57 pm

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): I am sure that as a former Tourism Minister, you must be tempted to intervene in this debate, Mrs. Anderson. I hope that the Minister will respond to the last point made by the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) by commenting on the fair proportion of the £20 billion that is set aside for regeneration. If we get that sort of news at the end of the day, it will be very welcome.

The report has clearly got people talking seriously about coastal towns. As Oscar Wilde said, there is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about—and we are certainly being talked about. We have been talked about on “You and Yours” and on a Trevor McDonald show that I caught, on which the Select Committee report featured prominently and Southport was shown quite favourably. Few Select Committee reports make it on to Trevor McDonald’s show.

Apart from the profile of this issue having been raised, I question what other results there have been. The Government’s response has been disappointing, and that disappointment has been echoed by organisations such as British Resorts and Destinations Association, which has commented on it. To be fair to the Government, however, they have had some sort of conference and have given support to deprived wards in particular areas.

Dogging the Government’s thinking—and, to some extent, the Select Committee’s—has been the question of what thematic solutions apply right across the piece for all coastal resorts. Both the Committee and the Government recognise that there is a great variety of seaside resorts, which might be why they both rejected the idea of an individual, dedicated seaside or coastal fund. That is not a bad tack to take, because seaside
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resorts differ enormously in size—one could compare Brighton and Whitstable in that regard. One might also compare Southport and Whitby in terms of accessibility, Blackpool and Bournemouth in terms of current economic success and Hastings and Cromer in terms of types of economy. The housing profiles, resident bases and educational opportunities in those towns all differ.

The report makes a fair case to suggest that there are generic problems that are solved more or less adequately in different places. Some problems might not be universal and might be a consequence of the fact that the towns concerned are seaside towns. Although such problems might not be totally peculiar to seaside towns, the fact that the towns are by the coast is the prime cause of those problems.

The fundamental thing that goes against all coastal towns is that they are not in the middle of a radial catchment area—50 per cent. of what their residents look at is sea and fish, if they are lucky enough to have fish in the sea off their coast. That has two important consequences: it often affects the location of public investments, such as hospitals, which should arguably be in the middle of dense population centres, and it affects the location of private investment, because industrial and commercial operators look hard at the catchment area for any investment that they make. Those highly desirable public and private facilities, which are good for any town, often follow commercial and public service models and are set up in centres of population. Most coastal resorts are not centres of population in that sense, so they face problems in keeping public facilities and attracting inbound investment apart from leisure investments, from which they have had particular success.

Coastal towns are invariably at the end of a transport link, on which they are highly dependent. Those links are often appallingly inadequate, given the nature of the economy, the demands of citizens and so on. A lot of seaside resorts grew up in the railway age. In many cases, the railway is either no longer there or no longer useful, so those towns are left with a somewhat inadequate road. It frustrates local councils and local people when their perfectly reasonable pleas for better communication are dismissed because their towns do not happen to be regional priorities or because the funding is simply not there.

Although we complain, the coast remains extraordinarily attractive, which is a big plus. At times, there is an enduring call to all human nature to go to the coast. Unfortunately that call is seasonal and, sometimes, it is to the coast of the Mediterranean, the Iberian sea or elsewhere, which leads to all the problems that we have discussed. Employment fluctuations have always been there to some extent in seaside resorts.

There is an element of decline in many resorts, and there is the problem of spare capacity. Accommodation that was once for visitors who stayed some time is now sometimes filled with benefit clients and the like. We saw a good deal of that in Margate, where we saw the problems that it is experiencing. Not every resort has such problems, however. I was told the other day—the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) will
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confirm this—that Southend has a university, so many places that might formerly have been occupied by holidaymakers are now occupied by students. That solution is not available to many other seaside towns.

There are other problems that are consequential on being a seaside town but are not a necessary consequence, which to some extent invalidates the Government’s response. The Government have dismissed some of the Select Committee’s findings by giving general statistics. They suggest that economic fluctuations in employment are not very different from those that one might find in many inland towns. If one aggregates the figures for all seaside towns, including those for the really successful ones such as Brighton, I am sure that one can come up with some such stat, but some seaside towns that are in decline are severely affected by precisely the problems that we have identified.

The Government should also concede—I do not think that they have hitherto—that because of the environment of coastal towns, they attract a large number of retired or otherwise economically inactive people, which puts an additional burden on social services departments. That is insufficiently recognised, which has been the case for a long time.

The fundamental point, which we all want to address, is that to solve the problems as they crop up in coastal towns, we need central Government, RDAs, transport and health authorities and policy makers in general to recognise that there are generic problems and problems that are peculiar to, or typical of, coastal towns. Such problems do not necessarily have a single solution—it is not a case of casinos all round for everything to come right—but there are good solutions for most resorts that have not gone too far down the path of decline. However, those solutions cannot be implemented without a degree of sensitivity from the policy makers.

The Committee Chairman made the point, albeit in a less full-frontal manner than I will, that solutions cannot be implemented without a certain amount of tough political leadership locally, and another member of the Select Committee also made that point. The management of change in a seaside resort, or anywhere else, is fairly tricky, because one is dealing with a volatile political environment. We have only to look at the local election results in—dare I say it—Blackpool, Torbay, Bournemouth and Eastbourne to see what a volatile political environment it is. Seaside towns are difficult places in which to manage change.

One of the most discouraging events that the Committee witnessed in the south-west happened when we went to Exmouth. We found that it had solutions to its problems, but zilch political leadership to deliver any of them, so it was in a state of paralysis. There has to be an absence of paralysis, and there has to be dynamism and a vision of how the resort will regenerate. The community and the other agencies have to buy into that vision.

Support from other agencies is not always as helpful as it might be. VisitBritain was mentioned earlier. On a trip to France with the Select Committee, I picked up a brochure entitled “Guide to the North-West”. I looked to see whether my resort was mentioned in glowing colours, and I found that it did not feature on the map, although the squirrel reserve half a mile down the road did. Some mills in Oswaldtwistle that I had never heard
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of—I had never actually heard of Oswaldtwistle—were also mentioned. I was deeply puzzled, as I am when I go abroad and find that London, Stratford-on-Avon and bits of Scotland are the only things to which foreigners who come here are generally directed.

Regeneration is a difficult business, and it is a rollercoaster ride for anyone who embarks on it. A major regional attraction will open this month in my resort. It will be called Splashworld, and I am happy to put in a plug for it here. As I go back to my resort, I shall see cranes around the town, which testify to the building of new hotels, a conference centre and so on. I do not share the views of the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) about Blackpool Pleasure Beach, which last year, cynically, stupidly and in trust-destroying fashion closed its Pleasureland operation in Southport, leaving the site semi-vandalised. Within weeks, there will be renewed activity on that site and international marketing of a prime opportunity. I seek to bring home the fact that for most towns, seaside regeneration is struggle. It is a tough ride, but I hope that the report will help people to go on that journey.

4.8 pm

Sir John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West) (Con): Although Bournemouth is often considered to be one of the most successful seaside towns in the country, it is not without its problems and it did not achieve its position without many courageous actions on the part of the local authority and others. Many people think that Bournemouth is a very prosperous resort, but the present Government have identified West Howe, in my constituency, as one of the 20 most deprived areas in the United Kingdom. That often surprises people.

I do not wish to dispute statistics with my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), but my constituency also has one of the highest—if not the highest—concentrations of elderly people. I am talking about extremely elderly people. My oldest constituent lived to be 116; I went to his 116th birthday party, accompanied by most of Europe’s television and other media. He claimed to be 118, but his 92-year-old son said, “No, dad is getting on a bit and he is beginning to lose it. He is actually only 116.”

There was a saying among some of our colleagues that Bournemouth was the place to which people came to die and then forgot why they had come there. When I was first elected for Bournemouth, West, some 24 years ago, the town was not the thriving place that it is now. I shall not try to claim much credit for the transition, but the town was fairly typical of seaside resorts: it had an ageing population; it had little industry and commerce outside the tourism industry; and it was suffering the same problems caused by the decline of the traditional family bucket-and-spade holiday as most other resorts. Its future did not look terribly bright.

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