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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 10 October 2007

[Dr. William McCrea in the Chair]

Economic Regeneration (Blackpool)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Watts.]

9.30 am

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to be here and to speak under your chairmanship, Dr. McCrea, and I look forward to the debate.

I always think that I am extremely fortunate to be one of the Members of Parliament for Blackpool and one of the four Members of Parliament for the Fylde coast. Blackpool has been at the centre of this country’s tourism and popular culture for the best part of a century and a half. Wherever in the country I go to meetings or meet people, virtually everybody has heard of Blackpool and virtually everybody has an opinion about it—those opinions may vary, but they are intense.

Seldom, however, has Blackpool been more in the news than in the past year. Our present regeneration predicament and our future hopes—like those of seaside and coastal towns in general—have taken centre stage in a national debate about regeneration. The casino advisory panel’s controversial recommendation in January that east Manchester should be the site for the super-casino sparked an extraordinary chain reaction and campaign of support. That was true not only in Blackpool and across the north-west, with an 11,000-signature petition being handed in on the steps of No. 10, but in both Houses of Parliament. That culminated in the House of Lords’ rejection of the panel’s recommendation at the end of March, and the momentum of debate and argument on the subject has scarcely slackened since.

There was a major Select Committee report on seaside and coastal towns in the spring calling for new Government initiatives, which was followed by a Westminster Hall debate. There were the Prime Minister’s remarks at Prime Minister’s questions in the summer, which spurred the major review of regeneration needs that is now under way at the Department for Communities and Local Government. There is also the report by the Blackpool taskforce, which involves all the local and regional agencies and which was set up as a result of the then Secretary of State’s concession in the heated Commons debate on the issues raised by the casino order that was published last month. In September, we also had the survey report on gambling issues in the United Kingdom over the past 10 years. In addition, we will shortly have a major English Heritage conference on regenerating seaside towns. Finally, of course, we are having this hour-and-a-half debate.

My comments today are made on the basis not only of my 10 years’ experience as a Blackpool MP and my nearly 18 years’ involvement with the town, its issues and arguments, but of my role as the honorary president of the British Resorts and Destinations Association and the chairman of a Back-Bench group of Labour seaside MPs. Over the past 10 years, I have seen that the
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economic regeneration problems that Blackpool faces are unique and great. Blackpool’s contribution to tourism and leisure in this country has been great, but our problems, difficulties and opportunities echo what other seaside and coastal towns need. Coming from such a town himself, the Minister will well understand that, and I am delighted to see other Members from other seaside and coastal towns here today.

Let me emphasise straight away that there is no churlishness in my introducing this debate. I recognise that there has been significant central and regional government support for Blackpool’s regeneration over the past seven years and I am grateful for that. It is worth briefly reminding people of what that support has included. Some £15 million went into work on phase 1 of Blackpool’s central corridor, and those who come to the town today will see a regenerated and imaginative central corridor, with its famous climbing towers. We have had seafront reconstruction, with £68 million—a major sum—from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs now being spent on renewing the sea wall and offering other opportunities. We have received significant funding of £10.8 million under the local enterprise growth initiative. There has been money for the new urban regeneration company, which will receive £7 million gross in year 1 and £17 million in year 2, and, of course, there are moneys under the single regeneration budget programme. I might also add, although this is not strictly Government funding, that we have received welcome funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund to regenerate Stanley park, which is one of Blackpool’s major assets, although it has been underused and underexploited in recent years. Finally, the Government announced only last week that they would completely renew and support the development of the lighting programme across Blackpool, which involves £30 million to £31 million.

As I say, I am therefore not at all curmudgeonly about what has been done—indeed, I very much welcome it—but the problem in Blackpool is daunting in scale, systemic and has developed over three decades, if not longer, as Professor Fothergill and others have documented. One could spend an enormous amount of time talking about the process that has brought us to the difficulties that we have today, but I just want to pick out one or two fairly obvious points.

First, there is the systematic decay of Blackpool’s late 19th and early 20th-century infrastructure. I am talking not only about the infrastructure of significant public buildings or areas such as the Winter gardens or the piers, but about promenade and street features, for which it is difficult to obtain lottery grants and which often do not fall within a particular remit. Later, I will talk a little about the trams, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) will want to say more about them. For the best part of 50 years, however, no money whatever was put into the infrastructure for Blackpool’s trams.

Of course, other, more powerful forces have driven Blackpool’s decline and problems. Perhaps the major one, which has affected other seaside and coastal towns, has been the loss of the solid one or two-week holiday market. The change in holiday patterns is well understood. I have used this analogy before, and I hope that I am not wearying those hon. Members who have heard it before, but Dean Acheson once said that Britain after Suez had
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lost an empire but not yet found a role. Blackpool and many other seaside towns have obviously lost the empire of solid one or two-week holidays, and it will not come back, at least not in the same format. At the same time, although it is not a question of such towns’ not yet having found roles—indeed, they are all energetically looking for them—the challenge in terms of Government funding and support is great.

One thing that is not often understood is the impact of skewed demography on Blackpool’s services for residents and visitors. Like many seaside and coastal towns, we have higher-than-average numbers of younger and older people, and that puts a particular strain on what the town can spend on those people. The influx of 10 million to 11 million visitors a year also puts an enormous strain on services. Incidentally, the Government do not yet recognise the need for additional formula funding, and that is certainly true of health spending. Such pressure on local authority funding reduces the amount that local authorities, including those outside Blackpool, can spend on renewing infrastructure and promoting tourism.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and pay tribute to his work in securing the debate, and for his work with the Labour group of seaside MPs. Is he arguing for ring-fenced funding from central Government, similar to what was made available to steel and coal communities, and rural and inner city communities?

Mr. Marsden: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I pay tribute to him, also, for his work in highlighting the similar problems of Welsh seaside towns. The situation is different from what he referred to, in the sense that the coalfield and steel areas were affected by the fairly immediate and dramatic loss of a mono-industry. However, there are similarities. I know that the Government have thus far found it difficult to find an appropriate ring-fenced formula, but there are merits in considering some elements of what was done in relation to the coalfields taskforce. I certainly think that the Minister’s Department needs to look more positively at the issue of an overall regeneration taskforce than its response to the relevant Select Committee report suggested.

The final point that I want to make about funding—I do not want to be too technical—is that seaside towns such as Blackpool suffer from the so-called pepper-pot principle of deprivation. We have severe deprivation in certain areas of Blackpool, but it is in pockets. One of the problems with Government and European funding and grants is that, historically, because of the practice of averaging out across a borough or larger area, we have not attracted the sort of funding that we need in that respect. That is an important issue.

The scale of the challenge is identified by Blackpool council in its response of 5 September about the taskforce to the Minister’s Department. The executive director of regeneration, Jackie Potter, said that, unlike other areas, which are often struggling with single industrial market failures, Blackpool’s case is more complex as it is the compound effect of coastal resort decline and socio-economic and housing market failures. She went on to
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say that the action plan was therefore designed to tackle these failures and drive regenerations on multiple fronts, based on an understanding that investment solely in developing the economy would not deliver the change required, and that a programme of housing renewal in isolation would not address the underlying causes of market failure. Likewise, she said that it would be crucial to reshape the town’s image to attract a more dynamic population and labour force. She went on to say that that means renewal of the town as a resort, with conferences, attractions, accommodation and infrastructure, regeneration of the town centre as a strong sub-regional centre—that involves retail, education and commerce—and intervention in the housing market.

As I have already said, a problem in the past has been that figures have not picked up the deprivation. However, one or two snapshot figures will remind the Minister and colleagues of the scale of the problem. Official figures describe 29,000 of Blackpool’s residents—a fifth of the population, and obviously a larger proportion in relation to the working population—as income deprived. Three of Blackpool’s assessment zones, which are smaller sub-ward zones, for elderly people’s living standards, are within the most deprived 3 per cent. nationally; 29 of the 94 sub-ward areas in Blackpool, amounting to almost a third of the whole, are within the 10 per cent. of most deprived areas nationally. Blackpool is rated by the Minister’s Department as the 24th most deprived English local authority out of 358. My final statistic is that all 94 of Blackpool’s sub-ward classes are within the most deprived 40 per cent. for ill health and premature deaths nationally.

The challenge of sustaining and building a community is also affected by transience. I do not have much time to talk about transience today. It is a major issue in other seaside and coastal towns. I shall give one example. In schools in two or three of my wards in the centre of Blackpool, the turnover on the school roll can be between 30 and 40 per cent. a year. That is the result of internal transience—people moving around within the town—as well as people coming from outside. One might say, “Well, that is very bad, but how does it affect economic activity and regeneration?” It affects them substantially because it builds up pressure on schools and teachers, and historically it has tended to lead to low skill levels, lower than average achievement and low levels of economic activity. Whatever we do in Blackpool, we need to get the balance right between civic renewal and the needs of the visitor economy and local economy.

There have been major steps in the past 10 years—I pay tribute to the previous Labour administration of Blackpool for this—by way of a new sports centre, a new business enterprise centre, and the building up of local institutions, such as area forums and police and community together meetings. Blackpool has won a series of awards, culminating three or four years ago in an award from the Minister’s predecessor Department, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, for the top sustainable community in the country, Grange Park.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, my near neighbour, for giving way, and I apologise for the fact that owing to Select Committee duties I shall not, sadly, be able to stay to the end of the debate. Does he agree that, given the scope and scale of the problems that he has so
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eloquently outlined this morning, and the impact that Blackpool has on the whole Fylde coast economy, it will require the concerted effort not just of Blackpool council but of the councils of Wyre and Fylde, working together, to try to reach a genuinely lasting solution?

Mr. Marsden: The right hon. Gentleman is right and, in a spirit of cross-party consensus, I pay tribute to the support that he and his colleague, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace), have given me and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood on this issue. Of course, what affects Blackpool affects the whole of the Fylde coast. The good news, as the right hon. Gentleman has suggested, is that co-operation is developing between the councils in the area.

What I have described is the reason why, since 2000, debate in Blackpool on how to become a strong, viable, sustainable economy has been a central issue, from the first suggestions of a casino development that were put forward by Marc Etches, the former managing director of Leisure Parcs—to whom I pay tribute for his sustained interest in the regeneration process—to the ideas coming forward for future use of the three piers and the Winter gardens and, finally, the major master plan that was produced in 2003, designed to address so many of the issues, which was instrumental in the setting up of ReBlackpool, the urban regeneration company. That has the distinguished international planner Sir Peter Hall as its chair, and an energetic chief executive in Doug Garrett.

We realised from the beginning that infrastructure investment alone was only a means to an end, and that is where the casinos came in. There was a need for an economic motor. Whatever people’s views are on casinos and where we now go with that issue, the means-to-an-end argument must be clearly understood. The renewal of Blackpool involves, at its heart, the search for a new force—the development of an adequate and sustainable economic generator that will not just initiate but also maintain a virtuous circle of investment, profit, skills and jobs. Without it, even the most visionary schemes of design and planning cannot deliver the full and final renewal that 21st century Blackpool needs.

Blackpool has had a glorious past because its energetic and innovative inhabitants understood better than almost anyone else the business of mass leisure, but we can have a glorious future only if the new forms of leisure and attraction have a viable business sense behind them. That, and no other reason, is why my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood and I, the members of Blackpool council—nearly all the town’s councillors of all political parties—and most of the major business organisations in the town, supported the idea of casino-led regeneration; it was the only big enough project in the past six years to be potentially on the table with guaranteed bids from multi-million pound enterprises, and the resources to make it happen. However, that does not rule out, nor has it ever ruled out, the options of alternatives or additions to the project, as long as those pass muster in the down-to-earth and pragmatic arena in which Blackpool’s entrepreneurs have always had to contend.

That is why the casino advisory panel’s comments and recommendations were wrong in January, and why its report was shredded by the House of Lords Merits
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of Statutory Instruments Committee. Outside observers, including Rachel Cooke and James Collard, who wrote excellent articles in The Observer and The Times respectively last August, have understood that if there were to be such a regenerative force, Blackpool would be the place for it. That is why the people of Blackpool were not prepared to take the decision lying down and why we received such a strength of support in the Lords and in the House. Again, I wish to pay tribute to Lord McNally of Blackpool, who led so ably our views and who has been a tireless representative of the town in the Lords and elsewhere.

I do not expect the Minister to go beyond what the Government have already said on the issue, or to offer a review on the issue of the casino regeneration, but he needs to understand the passion and determination that united all but one council member and the vast majority of people in Blackpool, and which brought 11,000 signatures to Downing street. Those signatures were of people not only from Blackpool, but around the north-west. A recent poll in the Blackpool Gazette, which has been tireless in arguing the case for regeneration, showed that the majority still believe that casino-led regeneration might have an important part to play. The Government have a job to convince us that there are alternatives.

The Government have responded to the controversy. The previous Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport set up a taskforce an 25 March. The Prime Minister understands our problems, as do others. He gave a personal commitment to finding a solution as recently as the press conference on Monday. The regeneration review set up on 11 July as a response is in the Department for Communities and Local Government. The taskforce to which I referred presented a series of options to the Minister at the beginning of August—I am sure that he will mention that in his speech.

The Minister needs to understand that there is frustration and anxiety resulting from the fact that progress on the matter has been slow. It is now six months since the super-casino debate and three months since the Prime Minister’s announcement. The council has received detailed written requests from and has provided information and background to the Department for Communities and Local Government, but no meeting with officials or the Secretary of State has been fixed. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood and I wrote to the Secretary of State in August. The message to the Minister from the people of Blackpool and the broader north-west area is that we urgently need some movement on the issue.

I shall give one example of why that is so. The best part of three years ago, we submitted a bid for the major renewal of the tramway—I am sure that my hon. Friend will say more on that issue. We have jumped through various hoops and we have had some funding for the tramway’s basic renewal, but we have not had a decision from the Department for Transport. Council officials now say that the delays have affected their ability to complete the project on budget and on time. If a decision is not made by that Department soon, the funding schedule might slide, and the project might not be completed until 2012. I appreciate that that is not within the Minister’s or his Department’s direct competence, but it indicates the need for it to liaise with other Departments to look at what can be done.

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The taskforce submitted a broad range of proposals. It said at the beginning, and rightly so, that the existing plans would not on their own be enough to provide comprehensive regeneration. In fact, it produced a range of alternative plans and suggestions, including investment in higher education and the housing market, which could go a significant way to addressing some of the regeneration issues. However, at the heart of the matter is the need to give top priority to increasing visitor numbers and to the regeneration of the tourism economy. Blackpool could diversify but, like other seaside towns, its peripherality of 180° means that it will always have greater challenges. A Communities and Local Government Committee report—I pay tribute to that Committee’s Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey)—made many of those points and they were debated in the House in May.

The Government need a greater sense of co-ordination on such matters. I am not in favour of setting up meetings with civil servants for the sake of it, but I shall repeat what I said in this Chamber four months ago: without some form of co-ordination between Departments—it is currently led by the Department for Communities and Local Government—and without a sense that people are getting out of their silos, we will not make the progress that we need to make.

Some things have been done. I pay tribute to the Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), who in her previous ministerial post brought together groups of civil servants from the various Departments concerned, but we need a more sustained mechanism, not only for Blackpool, but for other seaside towns.

Blackpool’s regeneration must involve making it an attractive town for people to live in as well as for visitors. It includes getting the townscape right and valuing its heritage. I put forward a number of ideas on how we could do that in a speech to the civic trust in August. I am repeating what I have said on various occasions when I say that an imaginative Government approach to lowering VAT on repair and restoration, and an imaginative package of incentives for businesses to free up space above their premises for low-cost, low-rent accommodation, would make a big impact. Those things are in the air and, as I mentioned, next week an English Heritage coastal towns conference will look at the options open to towns such as Blackpool and at the issues of sustainable heritage, community and economy, which are linked.

At the end of the day, we come back to the question of the economic motor. We need to have one to sustain the virtuous circle. In practical terms, we in Blackpool are in little doubt about what we need. We need a new conference centre, an upgraded tramway system and better direct transport links, an upgraded skills base, and significant retail and new enterprise investment. They are all urgent priorities. We might be able to build a conference centre, but we will not be able to sustain it without income and investment. The question of how and from where we get those things takes us back to the reason why there was such passion and interest in the idea of a super-casino.

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