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Mr. Jack: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is still more than a glimmer of hope and that Blackpool can remain attractive? The pleasure beach attracts some 7 million people a year, which should give hope to any other enterprise that wants to be a part of Blackpool’s regeneration plans that there are still a reasonable number of people around to participate.

Mr. Marsden: The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and has given me the cue for what I was about to say. People in Blackpool are not sitting back passively and do not simply expect sums of money or master plans to descend from Government. We have imaginative ideas for retail outlets, restaurants and entertainments, and we have submitted an imaginative bid to a lottery fund with the aim of building the people’s playground along the seafront, but we need some form of incentive to bring in outside investment. That is why the Government need to take seriously the idea of Blackpool having some sort of special status as an investment zone.

We are not passively sitting back. For the past seven years, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood and I, the other Fylde MPs and many others have been at the heart of the debate and plans. I am proud of the passion, enthusiasm and dogged insistence of the people of Blackpool. Those things are reflected in the work of ReBlackpool, the regeneration company, the hoteliers and the StayBlackpool organisation, and of the pleasure beach, which has an amazing family history featuring 100 years of investment and innovation in the town. An active civic trust promotes heritage trails and conservation, and the heads of sixth forms and of the Blackpool and the Fylde college are fully aware of the crucial role that further and higher education expansion can play in Blackpool.

We have the support of the Northwest Development Agency. We have a commitment to raising quality among the hoteliers—the No. 1 guest house in Blackpool was recently named the top bed and breakfast in the country. We have a bid in for the theatre museum from the Victoria and Albert museum to come to Blackpool, with exciting ideas to put it in the Winter gardens. There is the people’s playground project. We are not just waiting for the lottery decision; we are going ahead with the St. Chad’s headland. Those who know of them may be interested to know that we recently had a highly successful one-off free concert by the Kaiser Chiefs, and what is still the greatest light show on earth—the illuminations—will be packing people in as a result of a combination of the activities of Dr. Who and Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen.

Blackpool has always had to renew itself. It had to renew itself in the early 20th century to meet changing tourism and other patterns. It did so then through a combination of enlightened public funding, local government funding and private entrepreneurship. That model is still relevant for the 21st century. Blackpool is not looking for a handout from Government or a succession of subsidies, but we are looking for a leg up. We are not looking just for warm words; we are looking for proper liaison, proper co-ordination, a proper response to the taskforce report and a sense of urgency at the heart of Government about how that needs to be addressed. I look to my hon. Friend the Minister and his Department to be at the centre of that argument and to begin to provide some of the solutions.

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Several hon. Members rose

Dr. William McCrea (in the Chair): Order it may be helpful if I say to hon. Members that I am minded to commence the winding-up speeches no later than 10.30 am.

10.1 am

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): I welcome the opportunity to make a brief contribution to this important debate and, indeed, to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) on securing it. May I also take the opportunity to say how hard he and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) have worked on behalf of the residents of Blackpool? It has been a pleasure to work with them over the past 10 years on the Labour seaside group, which lobbies for Government funding for coastal resorts. I hope that we can work together for many more years.

As a near-neighbour of the Blackpool constituencies—I am just a bit further up the coast—I am well aware of the problems that Blackpool faces. Morecambe, like Blackpool, suffered greatly in the 1980s owing to British people taking foreign holidays rather than holidaying in our seaside towns as they had previously done. Guest houses fell out of holiday use and became surplus to requirements. The run-down properties were often purchased by absentee landlords who looked for tenants wherever they could find them. Probation services, social services and mental health agencies saw opportunities to house their clients cheaply, especially with council housing being sold off at that time and in short supply.

Chris Ruane: My hon. Friend has hit on a key point for seaside regeneration, which is housing. Our Government, the Labour Government, have introduced a national licensing scheme, which has cut down on the ability of slum landlords to make money out of misery. What does my hon. Friend think the impact would have been if such a scheme had been introduced 20 years ago? Would it have halted the decline of slum properties in seaside towns?

Geraldine Smith: Of course such a scheme would have made a huge difference, but there was a lack of interest and investment in coastal towns throughout that period and pockets of deprivation developed that could match anything in our inner cities. Towns such as Blackpool and Morecambe did not wish to advertise their problems too widely, as they were, and still are, in the business of attracting tourists.

Although it is true that the tourism market has changed, with many British people taking their main holiday abroad, there is still huge scope for growth in the short break market and in relation to second holidays. However, to attract tourists, infrastructure needs to be improved greatly. We can see at a glance the difference that a Labour Government have made to our inner cities—I am thinking of cities such as Manchester and Liverpool—with fantastic regeneration projects going ahead, costing tens of millions of pounds in some cases. It is time for the Government to make the same commitment to coastal towns regarding regeneration.

Although I fully accept that people living in seaside towns, in common with the rest of the country, have benefited from the investment in health, education,
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extra policing, a stable economy and so on that a Labour Government have provided, much nevertheless remains to be done in our resorts, not least to tackle the enormous amount of sub-standard housing that still exists.

My own local council, along with English Partnerships, is well aware of the problems and is examining ways of dealing with them. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister whether he could in the near future visit Morecambe—

Chris Ruane: And Rhyl.

Geraldine Smith: And Rhyl, to see some of the important work that is taking place and some of the things that we have already done to turn run-down former guest houses in a state of dereliction into fantastic homes for families in a shared-ownership scheme, which fits so well with Government policies.

I place on the record my thanks to Stephen Matthews, the project director for urban renewal on Lancaster city council, and to Paul Spooner of English Partnerships for their hard work, vision and commitment to addressing these very difficult issues.

If I may, I would like to refer to a letter that I have received from Stephen Matthews that sums up the problems that exist not only in Morecambe but in our resorts generally and on a very large scale in Blackpool. He informs me that

Dr. William McCrea (in the Chair): Order. May I gently remind the hon. Lady that the debate is directly on the economic regeneration of Blackpool and that although there are wider issues and certainly there is
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reference to Blackpool, other hon. Members also want to speak? Therefore, I just gently ask the hon. Lady to remember the time.

Geraldine Smith: I was making the point that the same problems exist in Blackpool and in other seaside resorts with the poor housing stock, but of course I will take advice and move on.

Referring back to the scheme that I mentioned, I sincerely hope that it is allocated the necessary funding and is rolled out both in other parts of my constituency and in other resorts such as Blackpool.

Finally, to end on a high, I am pleased to congratulate one of my constituents, Mr. Ian Hughes, who has produced a national-award-winning design for a 21st-century pier. His concept is called the Beachcomber. It is a marina development with numerous attractions and facilities for locals and visitors. The award will be presented at the British Urban Regeneration Association conference in Blackpool on 31 October. I wish him every success with that exciting and innovative project, and I wish my colleagues in Blackpool every success in their quest to bring about the regeneration of what is still Britain’s premier seaside resort.

10.10 am

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) that I remember spending holidays in Morecambe as a child. I understand her concerns and welcome her support for Blackpool in this debate.

I congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) on securing this debate, which is important. He and I have spoken in the House on many occasions on behalf of our town. The regeneration of Blackpool is vital to those of us who live there, as well as to our visitors, and it sends a signal to seaside resorts throughout the country. Although it is about Blackpool, this debate has wider ramifications.

I live in Blackpool. I love living in Blackpool. It is an exciting place—that is why people come to visit and to live there. My hon. Friend and I must maintain a delicate balance between recognising that the town has problems and saying that it is also a smashing place with lots of really nice parts. He and I represent residential suburbia—1920s and 1930s houses. Many people either choose not to work in Blackpool or cannot find jobs there—they travel down to Preston and Manchester, and all over the place—but come back to Blackpool to live by the sea. It is lovely. A couple of weeks ago, I was on North pier watching the final of the international fireworks competition. It was brilliant. Walking back home along the promenade with the illuminations shining amid hundreds of people was a marvellous experience for me, as I live in the town, and equally so for the many visitors.

A lot of exciting developments have taken place in Blackpool recently, most of them funded by central Government and most—in fact, I think all of them—in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Can I put in a plea for my constituency as a postscript to this debate? However, the developments in the town centre and in Blackpool,
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South benefit my constituency as well—for instance, the Government’s investment in our sea defences and the promenade. South beach is beautiful now. The central promenade is being developed, and exciting proposals have been made for a people’s playground. The central gateway for people driving into the town from the motorway opens up Blackpool and makes it much more pleasant for them, and the Hounds Hill shopping centre is being redeveloped.

For me, one of the most exciting proposals is the Talbot gateway development, which will reconfigure the railway and bus stations. The first thing seen by anybody arriving in Blackpool by train is—I shall not mince words—the horrible old bus station. It is not a welcoming sight. It is proposed to knock it all down and open up the view from a new transport interchange, so that people getting off the train will see the tower and what Blackpool has to offer. They will have a new vision. My question to the Minister is: when will it happen? I know that the council has signed contracts with the developers and the Government have given it the resources to purchase the land in order to facilitate the development, but I am getting impatient. I want to see it happen tomorrow, the day after or some time soon, please.

All those developments are part of the master plan developed by the previous Labour-controlled authority, but supported by all political parties on Blackpool council. The key to the master plan’s development was casino-led regeneration. I endorse everything that my hon. Friend said about it. The casino was the driver for regeneration—a £400 million project using private-sector money that would have included a new conference centre, hotels, entertainments, shops and restaurants. It would have been a whole new experience to bring new visitors into Blackpool. They would have spent money, and that money and the casino company’s profits would have helped in turn to make the conference centre sustainable. I challenge anybody to name a conference centre that supports itself. They are all subsidised, either by local authorities or by private-sector organisations. We need a new conference centre in Blackpool. Much as I love the Winter gardens—the Emperor’s ballroom is a marvellous setting in which to stand and speak from the platform—we need a modern, up-to-date conference centre to attract the conferences that used to come to Blackpool. I shall discuss that at the end of my contribution.

Without the engine to drive our regeneration, even though the Government are investing huge amounts in our infrastructure, we do not have private-sector new product to attract people into the town. We must remember that Blackpool’s regeneration affects the whole Fylde coast, a point made by the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack). If Blackpool gets it right, that will help his constituency, the Wyre district, the whole Fylde coast area and well into Lancashire.

Not only does Blackpool’s regeneration help neighbouring districts; it depends on them, for one reason if no other—the availability of land for further development is constrained in Blackpool. We must work with our neighbouring authorities to identify land that can be used to provide employment, and continue our regeneration. I am pleased that the three Fylde coast authorities are working together. They are moving toward a strategic policy alignment and are developing a multi-area agreement, which is exactly what we need.

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Blackpool’s regeneration is not just for visitors, to give them new entertainment; it is also for residents. It is a chicken-and-egg situation. Many of my constituents have money to spend, but do not spend it in Blackpool town centre. They do not go shopping in town centre shops. If they did, it would help regenerate the town centre. We must regenerate the town centre to ensure that people who live in Blackpool feel confident going there, as well as to provide a better visit for tourists.

I re-emphasise the point made by my hon. Friend. A lot of people in Blackpool are investing in their businesses. The pleasure beach has been mentioned, and people continue to enjoy visiting the tower, the piers, the zoo, the model village, our seafront and the Grand theatre. I attended an excellent production of “South Pacific” there. It is a beautiful setting. We must consider how we can make the town centre more attractive as part of the regeneration package. My hon. Friend mentioned the detailed report produced by the taskforce, which is to be congratulated on coming up with a Blackpool solution to the complex Blackpool problem. I look forward to the Government’s detailed response.

One of the key elements of the taskforce report is that if we are to diversify and regenerate, we have to do something about the skills base in the town and about employment land. Some interesting suggestions were made in the report about supply-side interventions to improve the skills base and employment. However, there are also problems with transport, and in the limited time that I have left I shall concentrate on those. I also want to say one or two things about the challenges facing the town.

Despite all the developments of which I have spoken, and the fact that the Fylde coast economy contributes £3.9 billion to the gross value added of the central Lancashire city region, the GVA and employment declined between 1990 and 2005. More than a quarter of our working population are economically inactive.

I believe that the Government should look again at the report of the Select Committee on the Department for Communities and Local Government, which highlighted the fact that a disproportionate number of people are on sickness or incapacity benefits in our seaside towns. The Government’s response was to dismiss the report, but they should not. We have a pathways to work pilot scheme to help new claimants, but there are many existing and former claimants.

Chris Ruane: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. On that specific point, is she aware that there is a city strategy pilot specifically aimed at seaside towns? It is one of 15 city strategies across the UK, and it is aimed at Rhyl. It is about getting people back to work.

Mrs. Humble: I was in the Chamber when my hon. Friend made that point earlier this week. I thought then that Blackpool wants one of those.

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