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10 Oct 2007 : Column 81WH—continued

The Select Committee report mentioned seasonal labour. The Government’s response was dismissive, yet when the lights are turned out in November, about 950 people will be going to the jobcentre. It is like a major business closing down; tourism is an industry. What we need from regeneration is a 52-weeks-a-year economy. We do not have that now, even though many people try desperately hard to ensure that hotels stay open for as long as possible. There are real issues about how to
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encourage our businesses, but that will have to wait for another day because I want to refer briefly to transport.

It is essential that we get the money for the tram. The tram transports not only visitors, but people to work. My constituents in Fleetwood get on the tram to travel to work in the hotels along the promenade. The tramway serves some very deprived wards in Fleetwood and in Blackpool. It has been calculated that if the tramway was to close—God forbid—we would need 45 more buses every hour to transport the 3.4 million passengers who use it. One can imagine the gridlock on the promenade!

Investment in the tramway is key, but so is investment in the A585, the trunk road from the M55 to Fleetwood that skirts Blackpool. We need investment in the A585 to open up more land for economic development as part of Blackpool’s regeneration. Again, I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Fylde. He and I have worked closely together on that issue. The road starts in his constituency and ends in mine, and runs alongside Blackpool technology park. If we want more development there, we have to ensure that traffic can move on that road. At the moment, the traffic gets stuck, and we do not want that.

I quickly move on to the casino. It is a key point. What other organisations are queuing up to spend £400 million in the centre of Blackpool to bring in new visitors? I am waiting to hear. We want a new product for our visitors. If we had one that generated the income to support a conference centre, I would welcome it. However, the majority of people in Blackpool still think that the casino is the only product that will give us that.

I want Blackpool to have a new casino so that I can welcome colleagues from all political parties to an up-to-date, new conference centre that will give them the facilities that they need. That will bring back all the other conference trade and give us a 52-weeks-a-year economy. It will ensure that our visitors enjoy their stay, that our residents have jobs, and that they can enjoy the town centre and shop there. Blackpool could then satisfy their needs and the needs of our visitors.

Dr. William McCrea (in the Chair): As I said, I will be commencing the wind-ups at 10.30 am, but I want first to give the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) the opportunity to speak.

10.26 am

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): I hope, Dr. McCrea, that you will allow me some leeway in describing the successes in my constituency and my home town and how they could benefit Blackpool. I shall drop Blackpool’s name into my speech as often as I can.

I shall concentrate on two key issues that were mentioned by many of those who have spoken—the need for a focus, especially in seaside towns, on joined-up governance. It was a key Labour catchphrase in 1997, but it has drifted a little. We need that focus back, especially in seaside towns. I mentioned earlier in an intervention the importance of housing in the regeneration of seaside towns. Many residents have poor health, so health provision is important; and education and skills are key to raising the skill levels so that the people in those towns can get good jobs in their local communities.

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The Department for Work and Pensions has city strategies aimed at getting people on long-term sickness or incapacity benefit back into work. Another key issue is that of policing. People will not come to the town if they feel that it is not safe for them and their families. My plea to the Minister is for joined-up governance for Blackpool, Morecambe and Lunesdale, and Rhyl and Prestatyn in my constituency.

The other need is for ring-fenced funding for seaside towns. I tabled a parliamentary question between seven and eight years ago asking how much the Government had given them. They have been very generous to rural communities in times of crisis and with general subsidies—tens of billions of pounds—and tens of billions have been given also to the coal communities that have suffered with the pit closure programme of the previous Governments. Steel communities—I refer especially to Shotton in north Wales—suffered the biggest layoffs in British industrial history, with 8,000 workers sacked in one day. Such communities have received billions of pounds, as have inner-city areas.

The problems in our seaside communities are just as great, and we need that level of funding to be targeted in our direction. In my area, in Rhyl and Prestatyn, we have managed to get objective 1 money—the highest level of European funding—and that has primed local projects. It makes a difference. It can tilt the balance towards investment in marginal cases. If money was ring-fenced for Blackpool, we could market the town and development sites and attract developers. Focus and ring-fenced funding are the key.

Much has been said today about physical investment in transport, casinos and regeneration. We should also consider the people who live in those communities. In Rhyl, six or seven years ago, I set up an employment group, like my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden), whose constituency had 29,000 people unemployed or low-paid or suffering poverty. I looked at the figures for my constituency and in most of the 32 wards in Denbighshire unemployment had virtually disappeared. Some 50 per cent. of unemployment in the county of Denbighshire was in two wards: Rhyl west and Rhyl south west, which is where I grew up. We need to crack that concentration of poverty and the Department for Work and Pensions’ city strategy pilot projects will provide some of the answers. If the Minister is co-ordinating that project will he take a careful look at the city strategy in Rhyl? I formally invite him to visit my constituency as although many of the functions of regeneration in my constituency are devolved, such as health, housing and education, issues dealt with by the DWP and policing are not.

10.30 am

Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Dr. McCrea.

This has been an extremely interesting debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) on painting such a clear picture of the difficulties that he believes Blackpool faces. I also congratulate his colleagues on giving him excellent support. I shall pick out a couple of things he said that struck a chord with me. He mentioned pepper-pot poverty and
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the fact that small pockets of deprivation are often surrounded by areas of comparative prosperity, which means that a broad-brush statistical approach by the Government does not give him aid or comfort. That is probably a familiar issue to many hon. Members with constituencies across the country and it is certainly familiar to those with constituencies in the north-west. I hope that the Minister will go a step further than anyone else on the Government Front Bench and acknowledge the problems created by such an approach, particularly in Blackpool, but also elsewhere.

I was also struck by the hon. Gentleman saying that Blackpool does not see itself as a victim and that it has always done its best to look after itself. We should congratulate the council and civil authorities in Blackpool on their work, as well as those MPs who have ensured that that is the case. The hon. Gentleman asked for some specific information from the Government and I hope that the Minister will respond to that. I noted that he referred to the impact of a 17.5 per cent. VAT rate on renovations. In a town such as Blackpool it is central to regeneration that existing buildings are brought back into profitable and full use. A situation in which it is cheaper to pull a building down and build a new one at a zero rate of VAT rather than renovate an existing one and pay a 17.5 per cent. rate of VAT is clearly an anomaly that needs to be addressed, not just in Blackpool but elsewhere.

The hon. Gentleman was honest in saying that Blackpool is a place that everyone has heard of and about which everyone has an opinion, not all of which are entirely positive. Blackpool has a proud history, has been the premier resort of the north of England for a long time, and has worked hard to extend its appeal. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Blackpool illuminations and of course there are also other aspects. Blackpool is fighting hard to maintain its role in the north as a tourist centre, but it needs help. It is a victim of changing lifestyles. If it is cheaper to fly to Florida than catch a train to Blackpool, it is understandable that many people should go to Florida and not to Blackpool, whatever its comparative charms may be. I made my first visit to Blackpool in 1968 when it was pouring with rain and I could not see the top of the tower because of the mist. Again, if it is a choice between a train to Blackpool or a flight to Florida, one can see why people sometimes make a choice adverse to Blackpool.

On a serious note, any visitor to Blackpool recognises that there is a desperate need to upgrade things such as transport links, leisure amenities, and conference facilities. I have attended conferences for three different organisations in Blackpool and I underline the point made by Labour Members that there is a need to tackle deficiencies in conference facilities. Accommodation for visitors no doubt needs to be upgraded but, as the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) said, accommodation for those living in Blackpool also needs to be improved. The shortage of social housing and the poor quality of private rental accommodation has been mentioned and the Government have been asked questions about that by those hon. Members who have spoken so far, to which I hope the Minister will respond. The comprehensive spending review was empty on what will happen and what funding will be provided by the Government in relation to those matters, so I should like the Minister to comment on that.

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Obviously, we could not have a debate about Blackpool without referring to the casino and I do not want to rehearse that issue again. However, for perhaps almost a decade Blackpool put its hopes for funding regeneration almost exclusively in the casino basket, which has turned out to be a bit of a gamble. Whatever the merits of having a mega-casino in Blackpool, it is fairly clear that it will not happen. The casino advisory panel noted that such a casino

It is true that there would be economic benefits of £400 million, but there are pros and cons related to that. The social impact would be ambiguous, which is no doubt why the Prime Minister said

That is why I do not want to concentrate my remarks on asking to have the casino back, but on asking what the Government will do to honour what the Prime Minister believes is the way forward for Blackpool. The Minister now has an opportunity to give an update on the action that will be proposed. It is clear that we can expect something special in the Minister’s reply and I want to give him plenty of scope for that. The Prime Minister also said:

I want to hear exactly how the Minister’s Department and the Secretary of State are responding to the challenge of the situation and the challenge given to his Department by the Prime Minister.

There is plenty of advice about what the Government might do. Indeed, the hon. Member for Blackpool, South and others have described some of the things that could and should be done to regenerate Blackpool. I received a briefing, as I am sure have other hon. Members, from the Noble organisation, which is a major player in the Blackpool leisure economy. It describes itself as being one of the UK’s leading leisure businesses with interests in Blackpool and it has welcomed the switch in thinking away from a new mega-casino to investment funded through a new conference centre. I do not regard myself as an expert on economic regeneration—particularly not in Blackpool—but when a major investor and player in Blackpool offers such advice, it should be listened to. Noble has told me that it

As I said, those of us who have experienced existing conference facilities would certainly support that.

What will the Secretary of State do to honour the Prime Minister’s pledge to Blackpool that there is active planned help for regeneration? Where is the report on the options that are being considered by the Government? In addition, as has been mentioned, can we be assured that there will be a joined-up interdepartmental Government response that links up the investment needed in transport with investment from the Department for Communities and Local Government via the local authority and that the key issues of planning and housing investment will also be linked?

Does the Minister agree that an urgent priority has to be to get a new conference complex built to the highest
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international standards? Does he accept the argument put by many hon. Members and many commentators that investment should be made not only in the economy and infrastructure but in the housing market to tackle the underlying issues of deprivation? The town has spent perhaps seven or eight years getting further and further into what has turned out to be the cul-de-sac of relying on the casino for regeneration, so what assurance can he give that solid, practical help with regeneration will come from the Government? When will it be forthcoming and when can we expect to hear some solid announcements of fact to settle Blackpool’s difficult situation?

10.40 am

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to see you, Dr. McCrea. We go back a long way, and it is very nice to be under your chairmanship this morning. Like all colleagues present, I welcome the debate and thank the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) for securing it and for the way in which he presented his case; it was informative and he was very straightforward about Blackpool and its pluses and minuses. I am sure that much of what he had to say would be common ground between us all. However, we now know the way to get things done by the Government. If I were to stand here and give a commitment to £2 billion of investment in a new conference centre, within a week it would be Government policy. Tempted though I am—

Mr. Marsden: Please, go ahead.

Alistair Burt: Encouraged though I am to go down that road, the heart attack that it would give my hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor would not be similarly welcomed, so I shall not do so.

Contributions from other colleagues have been similarly informative and generous. The hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) spoke. I visited the Midland hotel recently and saw the work that is being done there, and that will be an exciting new destination in her constituency. The hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) described well the attractions of the constituency and of her end of it. I agree with the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) that when we talk about regeneration we should concentrate not solely on the physical, but on the human, too. He was right to pick up on that point, which was also made by the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell).

We all have an affection for Blackpool, produced either by years of experience as politicians or by childhood memories. I was born and brought up in Bury, and visits to Blackpool were occasional but much enjoyed. My parents might have preferred Southport and Lytham, but I loved Blackpool and it has always been good to go there. We all feel keenly and in a particularly special way about Blackpool being such a great and important resort. We all feel very keenly its irrelative decline and want to do something about it.

Since the turn of the millennium, that decline has been quite sharp. There has been a sharp fall in visitor numbers—Blackpool Pleasure Beach Ltd. calculates it at perhaps 7 per cent. a year—accompanied by similar declines in the length of stay and visitor spend. There
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have also been problems about the spread of houses in multiple occupation and the difficulties relating to young people, drugs and violence and the stags and hens element of an evening economy. Such problems have always been a part of Blackpool, but they are perhaps overemphasised now. There is a general tiredness about the place and it needs revitalisation.

The problems are twofold. First, they are those of a coastal town, and secondly, they are those of Blackpool in particular. I echo many of the comments on coastal towns that the Minister has heard this morning. The Select Committee’s good report on the subject received a disappointing response. Some attempt to move towards a cross-departmental group would be good. The Government were rather light in not recognising the particular problems of employment and benefit issues in coastal towns, and I think that the disinclination to undertake any specific research into the common problems of coastal towns resulted in a missed opportunity. In response to what he has heard today, perhaps the Minister will be able to take that point back to his colleagues and we might see some progress.

Sir John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems is that the way in which the revenue support grant is structured is not always very helpful to us? For example, there have been cases regarding transport in which additional moneys are conditional on the provision of bus lanes, even in places where they are not wanted. The biggest thing that affects all the coastal towns, including my constituency of Bournemouth, has been the abolition of the grant for day visitors, which used to be part of the revenue support. The removal of that has been acutely damaging to Blackpool, Bournemouth and all the other major resorts.

Alistair Burt: My hon. Friend’s point is well made, and it is exactly the sort of thing that was picked up by the coastal towns report, which could well be usefully considered by a cross-departmental group that considered those specific problems. I hope that the Minister will be able to take that back as something constructive from this constructive debate.

A number of agencies are working on Blackpool’s specific issues and concerns. I congratulate the British Urban Regeneration Association—BURA—on its work. It has its own seaside towns network. I met its members recently, and they are very up on those concerns. I have also recently spoken to David Cam of Blackpool Pleasure Beach, to Doug Garrett, the chief executive of ReBlackpool, and to Peter Callow, the new Conservative leader of the council after the party’s stunning success in the May local elections, perhaps on the back of the disappointment of the casino decision.

Interestingly enough, the resilience of the town and the area was shown in the response to the casino decision. The Government have been quite generously treated by colleagues on the other side who might have been really cross. It is not the Minister’s fault, but there is real concern about the decision and the incomprehensible parallel decision that the casino should go to Manchester. However, that is water under the bridge for now and we must ask what can be done in response. The issue is about what will provide the catalyst for regeneration.

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