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7 Jun 2007 : Column 165WH—continued

Bournemouth has been fortunate because its borough council, under successive administrations, has courageously taken difficult decisions. The decision to build the Bournemouth international conference centre and subsequently to refurbish it at the cost of many millions of pounds was very courageous. Some political opponents campaigned, particularly among
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elderly residents, on the basis that the centre was a waste of their money and would not benefit them. In fact, it has made the town extremely successful and very much to the fore in obtaining major conferences, such as the Labour party conference that will be held later this year. We look forward to welcoming the Labour party to Bournemouth once again.

I should also cite the decision to expand our education facilities. When I was first elected, Bournemouth had the Dorset institute of higher education, which had about 1,100 students. That later became Bournemouth university, which now has 12,500 students. That has made a tremendous difference to the feel of the town. Bournemouth also has about 10,000 students of English as a foreign language. Other than London, Bournemouth is the biggest centre in the United Kingdom for such students.

We have encouraged some major financial services companies into Bournemouth. I played quite a big part in that. I was involved in the decision by JP Morgan to come to the town—we were talking about Chase Manhattan then. That has increased the financial services employment in the town enormously. Such things can be done. Financial services fit well with tourism and do not conflict with it. Where local authorities are prepared to spend the money on making a town attractive, success can be the reward, although it is difficult to obtain.

As the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) and others have said, most of the constituencies of the hon. Members present have a large elderly population. Those people usually come to our areas with fixed incomes, which often fall, particularly when one of the partners dies and the surviving spouse is left to live on a much diminished income. There is a great deal of hidden poverty in most seaside towns. As the Committee’s excellent report has indicated, that fact is inadequately recognised by Government in terms of the support that can be given to local authorities. It is a courageous local authority that embarks on substantial public expenditure of the type that is needed to maintain the position of a town as a seaside resort, knowing that much of the burden will fall on people who are not well able to afford it without Government support.

Similarly, the report was perceptive in identifying the problems—we all have experience of these—caused by people coming to towns, particularly on a day basis. When I was first elected, the only way a seaside town could get recognised in respect of Government support was on the basis of bed nights for foreign visitors: if we could encourage enough foreign visitors and prove to the Government that we had received that many foreign visitors, we would get a bit more money.

First, I argued, “What about persuading English visitors to come here rather than go abroad?” When we were successful in that respect, I asked, “What about all our day visitors?” There is no doubt that day visitors impose a huge additional burden on local authorities, on our local health service and on our other local services. At the height of the summer season, the greater conurbation of Bournemouth goes from dealing with 500,000 people to dealing with more than 1 million. That imposes huge burdens on everyone, not least the police.

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Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend, who is making a good case for Bournemouth, which has done very well. We must also consider the impact of youngsters who want to have a night out and drink in the centre of town. That puts burdens on the local police authority and Bournemouth borough council.

Sir John Butterfill: My hon. Friend is right. Although some might not agree, Bournemouth is in some ways fortunate for having supposedly become the clubbing centre of southern England, after London. All sorts of young people appear for the day, for the night or for a little longer, some of whom are scantily dressed. They enjoy themselves in the town until the wee small hours of the morning, and sometimes beyond. That imposes a huge burden, despite bringing a lot of business and spending power to the town. I would not say that we should do without it, although some of my more elderly residents might think that it would be well dispensed with.

The criteria that the Government use to consider how support should be given to seaside towns are not fair. The day visitor allowance has been abolished under the present Government—an extraordinary decision. Although Bournemouth might be able to sustain that loss to a degree, it might be a death knell for many other seaside towns. It does not help us in creating an environment in which we can attract not only UK visitors but overseas visitors. We attract such visitors in increasing numbers, thus benefiting our balance of payments greatly.

Interestingly, the language schools contribute substantially to the number of our overseas visitors. I am not just talking about the young people who come, because some people meet their future husband or wife in such places and subsequently come back on honeymoon and then bring their children back on family holidays. That is a noticeable phenomenon, and we undervalue it at our peril, leaving aside the enormous economic benefit that we gain from the language schools, and the employment and prosperity that they bring to the town.

I welcome this excellent report. I should apologise because I was meeting the President of Namibia when this debate began and I therefore missed the opening part of the speech by the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey).

Dr. Starkey: It was brilliant.

Sir John Butterfill: So I gather. The hon. Lady has done an excellent job, and I hope that the Government will listen. It is very important that they do so.

May I conclude by citing the chairman of the Bournemouth tourism management board? He says:

4.19 pm

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I, too, apologise for missing the first few minutes of the excellent speech by the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Milton
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Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey). I did not intend to speak in this debate, but I have been urged to do so, not in order to join the voices of those Parliamentary Private Secretaries who want to dish it to the Government, but to make some observations arising from the various points that have been raised. I was late because I was with the representative of the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi, but that does not outdo meeting the President of Namibia—[Interruption.] I believe that he has a bit more money than Namibia.

I do not want to outdo colleagues, but Worthing has the oldest population in the world, if not the universe—4.6 per cent. of Worthing’s population are not just pensioners, but are over the age of 85. I recently went to a 106th birthday party—not quite 116—and was regally entertained with the largest glass of sweet sherry that I have ever had in my life, and some interesting entertainment. I thought that people came to Worthing to die, and then forgot, and that the apocryphal graffiti at Victoria station says, “Dover for the continent; Worthing for the incontinent.” I shall not go into that.

The serious point is the enormous pressure on the local infrastructure, particularly the health service. I shall not repeat health debates, but in south-east England the pressure that older people place on the health service is considerable. A 75-year-old requires twice as many visits to or from the doctor as a 65-year-old, yet the captitation payment in the health service does not acknowledge the additional age-related costs. The older population is disproportionately concentrated in seaside resorts, particularly along the south coast in Bournemouth, Worthing and the coastal resorts of Kent.

The references to Margate are interesting, and I see from the Select Committee’s report that the Committee visited Margate. I am delighted that the serious problem of looked-after children being dumped there was also mentioned. I made a speech about that this morning at a conference on looked-after children. Disadvantaged children who have had traumatic experiences are often dumped at the opposite end of the country from the place they are used to. That does them no favours, and they are often left to run riot.

A couple of years ago, a chief inspector in Worthing told me that 28 per cent. of his crime figures for one month related to half a dozen children in independent children’s homes—we now have 10 such homes in Worthing. The problem was not necessarily the individual homes, but the effect of clustering them. If the children are not properly looked after, it is not fair to local agencies or the police who must pick up the problems, or to local residents who must suffer the problems. Most of all, it is not fair to the young people whom we have already failed to fail them again by putting them in those areas.

I quoted Lord Utting earlier because many years ago, back in the ‘90s, he produced a report saying that young people who go into the care system should remain as close to home as possible, unless there is a good reason for them to be given a completely clean break and taken to a place of safety away from traumatic family experiences, and that preferably they should have kinship care. I have visited independent homes in my constituency, which often offer good-quality service, but children from inner-city London, Somerset and other urban towns are dumped in seaside
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coastal resorts or rural areas in West Sussex, and are like fish out of water. The experience is disorienting for them and we are doing them no favours.

That happens in many coastal resorts, such as Margate, although I read a little while ago that because of the perceived problem with hoodies, whom we love dearly, a group of pensioners in Margate had got together—they were dubbed the gangster grannies—and went around wearing hoodies so as to make the wearing of them so uncool that young people would not want to wear them to make themselves seem intimidating, which is interesting counter-intuition.

Another problem in coastal towns, certainly in Worthing, is identity crisis. As the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) said, they are often towns that grew up because of railway links, and they prospered because they followed the success of Brighton’s royal patronage. Worthing became an alternative to Brighton, and coastal towns became upmarket seaside resorts, but were later often hit by poorer times. Some places, such as Cleethorpes and Blackpool, served as holiday resorts for midlands industrial towns where everyone took their holidays at the same time.

What are those towns now? In the age of low-cost flights, when it is cheaper to fly to Torremolinos than to take the train from London to Brighton or from Leeds to Cleethorpes, their role is not so clear. Are they still seaside resorts with a future? I believe that they have a future, but the competition is far greater. Are they retirement towns? In places like Worthing, there is clearly a dominance of people who have retired there, and they are often incoming retirees. Many people retired to Worthing from Essex because they went to Worthing for their holidays when they were children, and then retired to the south coast that they knew. However, nearby towns in my constituency—Shoreham and Southwick—consist of people who have lived there for generations. There is a great contrast in the populations.

Are coastal resorts business towns? For three years running, Worthing had the extraordinary accolade of being the most profitable town in which to do business in the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) and I are at a loss to work out how that was calculated. We think that because GlaxoSmithKline has a large division in Worthing its worldwide profits were predicated into the calculations; thus, Worthing turned out to be the most profitable town. However, we have a thriving business community, as does Brighton—the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) mentioned that. Are the south-eastern coastal towns business towns, or are they on the fringes as commuter towns? I do not know the answer. Many local people—Worthing is not atypical in this respect—really do not know the answer.

Some towns have been very successful. A few years ago, some coastal towns, such as Brighton and my birth town of Eastbourne along the coast, got together to work out what they wanted their identity to be. With the council, the chamber of commerce, business, the hotel industry, and the movers and shakers they decided that they wanted to be upmarket conference towns, for example, and appealed to the conference business. A common theme among many coastal towns is an identity crisis.

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I agree that many coastal towns need strong leadership and someone to bring together strong local movers and shakers to take them forward, out of the time warp in which many of them have been stuck. That can be done, but it needs Government support. They do not need the Government to lead the way, but they need the Government to provide support. The Government have been good at identifying areas of social exclusion in inner cities and sometimes the rural poor, but coastal towns have missed out, and they need help because of their special circumstances.

I would guess that all our constituencies—we have heard this today about coastal towns—have enormous contrasts between neighbouring wards. In my constituency, I have wards that are in the top 10 per cent. in terms of deprivation next to wards that are of average or just above average affluence. Depending on how the geographical boundaries are drawn, if the two are bunged together they come out as having an average rate of poverty or affluence, so some pockets of poverty are overlooked, which masks the situation.

Places such as Worthing, Brighton, Hastings and Cleethorpes used to be fishing towns, but the fishing fleets have gone. We did not see the money that was supposed to help them out, but the last vestiges remain of what used to be prosperous fishing towns. Shoreham harbour in my constituency is the closest cross-channel harbour to London, but reflects only a shadow of its former glory in years gone by.

There is a problem, particularly in the south-east coastal areas, with transport. When I go to Blackpool for party conferences, the journey by car is swift, and travelling within Blackpool to one’s hotel is not too bad. However, travelling to Worthing, Eastbourne, Brighton, Chichester and Hastings by road can be a nightmare. The train service to Brighton is a good one, but as soon as one arrives at the south coast and turns right, it becomes a nightmare. I have many big manufacturers in my constituency, including GlaxoSmithKline, British Oxygen and B&W Loudspeakers, but a place at the end of a line where there are very poor road infrastructure links surrounded by residential areas is not obviously the best place to run a manufacturing business.

Mr. Marsden: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges Blackpool’s good road links, and I do not dispute anything that he says about the problems with roads in the south-east. However, there is another side to the coin. Getting to Blackpool by road from London may be relatively easy, but getting to Blackpool by public transport is anything but. That is a legacy of the failure of 1970s Conservative Governments to invest in the west coast main line, and sadly, of our general problem over the past 20 years in making Governments of all hues recognise the importance of public transport—in particular the railway network—to seaside and coastal towns.

Tim Loughton: The hon. Gentleman has had 10 years to do something about it, but let us not go there, because we have built up a cross-party consensus in the Chamber.

Transport to many coastal towns, and particularly to the south because of the population density, is not good. When we in the south-east are told that the region stretching from Milton Keynes—the constituency of
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the Chairman of the Select Committee—to Dover, the Isle of Wight, Sussex, Berkshire and so on, which is amorphous and incohesive, is to be the powerhouse of the European economy, and that central Government must impose housing development on us, many of us have reservations. However, everybody will have reservations if we do not have the infrastructure to support that development.

The number of new houses that my constituency is being forced to take is ridiculous given the geographical limitations of the sea to the south and the downs to the north. We simply do not have the spaces for those houses, and we certainly do not have the infrastructure for getting to and from them, let alone to and from the companies for which the people living in the houses are supposed to work.

We are dealing with a double-edged sword. The A27 is probably the biggest car park in the south of England. One can drive from Newcastle all the way down south on dual carriageway or motorway until one reaches my constituency when it changes into single-file traffic on a major trunk road. It is crazy putting more and more cars arising from the extra house building on to that road; it is a double-edged sword. Our biggest weapon for combating inappropriate further developments at the foot of the downs is by saying that the roads cannot sustain them. That is the biggest factor enabling us to reject some of the developments on appeal. However, we want infrastructure, investment and everybody to have a good quality of life, so that they can retire to Worthing or bring up their families in Worthing, Shoreham or another town in East Sussex.

Brighton is a thriving place and a big town of 250,000 people, but it has its problems. I visited a Brighton school that was dubbed the third worst in Britain a few years ago. At the school, which is in a particularly depressed part of Brighton called the Whitehawk estate, there is some really good stuff going on, and an entrepreneurial headmaster is bringing about change. Brighton is the drugs capital of the United Kingdom, and there has been a great deal of downside to its prosperity and the life that has been put into it.

However, Brighton is just a city, and although I am not trying to undermine the place, it has gobbled up the lion’s share of investment, particularly social investment, from the Government. Much regeneration money has quite rightly gone into cities because of their problems, but it has done so to the exclusion of neighbouring towns and villages, which also have big problems. They do not qualify for that help because they do not have economies of scale or the same quantity of problems, and they do not get the help and regeneration that they need.

A scheme that worked really well and that the previous Government strongly championed was the single regeneration budget. One did not need to be a big city or a big deprived estate to qualify for it. The SRB did a lot in my constituency and along the Sussex coast in pockets of deprivation to help to upgrade the more downmarket business estates, to regenerate the town centres that had lost out to out-of-town shopping centres and to bring up the standard of the housing. It worked very well, because it was not big-budget stuff, but it had a big bang for its buck.

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My final point is about coastal erosion. We have benefited greatly from the Environment Agency, I am glad to say. We got £20 million to fortify the coastal defences from Shoreham to Worthing, where we are vulnerable and below sea level. I am grateful for the Environment Agency’s far-sightedness, which enabled us to do that work. The trouble is that because of the pressure on budgets for coastal defence work, and because the problem a few years ago was not coastal but river defences, when the city of Chichester, the town of Lewes in Sussex and other market towns throughout the country flooded badly, a great deal of money that would have gone into coastal defence work had to go into river defence work in our towns. There is a competing equation, and towns are losing out on coastal defence work that is essential if we are to defend them from the effects of global warming.

The debate has raised a range of interesting coastal town problems. I am not one to bleat and say, “Why aren’t we getting more help?” because ultimately local people, enthusiasm and entrepreneurship, and the flexibility to adapt to new times, markets, customers and interest, are the future of our coastal towns. However, the Government must at least recognise that coastal towns have diverse problems. They are not inner cities with enormous estates that suffer from all sorts of deprivation; they are not rural ex-coal mining or ex-tin mining communities that have specific problems; and although many parts of north-west Sussex are close to affluent rural areas, many parts of south-west Sussex are not. It does not mean that they are without their problems.

We want to solve the problems ourselves. We need greater co-ordination and we parliamentarians can be the catalyst for much of that change, but it would help if the Government recognised the problems and responded rather more positively and proactively than they have to the Committee’s otherwise excellent report.

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