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I spoke to Peter Callow, the leader of the borough council, which feels that three particular pledges that emerged from the aftermath of the decision, relating to a conference centre, the revitalisation of the tramways and perhaps support for a museum—the Victoria and Albert museum is thinking about doing something in the area—might be concrete responses to the disappointment that is felt. The borough council’s determination to clean up Blackpool and to make it a destination not only for tourists, but for those who work there and want a good quality of life—the point made by the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood—will be important. I welcome and congratulate the borough council on its drive to do that.

What sort of things will make a difference? I talked to David Cam of Blackpool Pleasure Beach, recognising the importance of the beach to the economy of the area, and he made the point that revitalising the promenade is not sufficient in itself. Sea defences schemes have been promulgated down the coast—I went to have a look at what is happening in Cleveleys; it is really good, and I know that it is extending down the coast. However, on its own the promenade is not enough. David Cam made the point that the regeneration of New Brighton, which was envisaged many years ago, did up the prom very well but its hinterland could not be regenerated because there was not the catalyst to bring people in, and its sad decline as a resort was never reversed.

Perhaps it would be interesting to consider having a regeneration zone set aside for economic development in the Blackpool area as part of the response to the taskforce. That could involve the investors who lined up behind the casino scheme, who were there to do something in Blackpool and who recognise that the Government’s role is to clear the pitch and to provide basic investment. Such a process should then allow the private sector, using its own judgment and skills, to come in and ensure that there is a sustainable economic case for development so that it does not continually rely on Government assistance—something that Blackpool would not wish and would not need to do. A combination of ensuring the best possible opportunity to place a convention and conference centre, revitalisation of the tramways and a specific regeneration zone enabling some of the other clearance work that needs to be done in Blackpool might be a useful way to proceed.

We are interested in the possibility of regeneration zones, although I shall not say too much about that in case it, too, appears in the Government programme at some stage. We want more powers to be returned from regional bodies to local authorities, so that those authorities can begin to have more of a whip hand in such decisions instead of relying on regional bodies, and Government relationships with regional bodies, in order to make decisions.

Our tourism taskforce will report later in the year. It is interested in what has been happening in Blackpool and other coastal towns and will make specific proposals at that time. In general, however, I think that the affection for Blackpool felt throughout the House and across political parties is real. That affection is based not just on sentiment, but on the good quality of life and the tremendous skills that it has. Everybody wants to see it revitalised, in which the Government and private sector can play a part. I hope that enough has been said this morning, and in various reports since the casino decision,
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to give the Government a sense that they could do something to make up for the mistake that they made some months ago.

10.50 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): May I say, Dr. McCrea, what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship for the first time? I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) on securing the debate, and other hon. Members who have contributed.

I commend my hon. Friend’s efforts, and those of other hon. Friends, in promoting the regeneration of the area and especially their commitment to improving the conditions, prospects and quality of life for their constituents, and for visitors to Blackpool. Over the past 12 months, Blackpool has been in the news for a variety of reasons, particularly the casino. That was due in part, I think, to the high quality of parliamentary representation that hon. Members here today provide to the people of Blackpool, Morecambe and Fleetwood.

T he Government recognise that Blackpool has faced deep-seated and long-term deprivation, with severe social and economic challenges over many decades. In many ways Blackpool’s problems with poor health, drugs, alcohol, poor housing, low educational attainment and high crime rates mirror those of many inner-city areas. As has been said throughout this debate, however, Blackpool, as a coastal town, faces other significant problems. Many coastal towns have suffered a gradual decline over the last 50 years with a transient population, falling tourist numbers and the closure of hotels and guest houses.

Blackpool is having to address a long-term cycle of neglect and underinvestment in the resort. But it is not all doom and gloom. I have taken real pleasure from the manner in which hon. Members, and particularly my hon. Friends, have handled this debate. It would have been very easy to feel bitter and resentful, and to say that everything is going down the toilet. However, as we have heard, Blackpool is a great place and has improved a lot over the last decade. There is the ambition to improve further still.

As in my own area of Hartlepool, some people like to slag off the area in which they live. In the era of globalisation, in which investors can go anywhere in the world they like, the first things that they will look at are press cuttings and how people talk about the area in which they live. If people are constantly running down an area, I do not think that others will choose to invest there. However, the dignified, resilient and ambitious manner in which my hon. Friends have promoted Blackpool—recognising the challenges, but showing what a great place it is to live in—is true testimony to the calibre of hon. Members here today.

There is an increasing recognition of the importance of Blackpool at local, regional and national levels. Local partners are rising to the challenge and there are encouraging signs of progress. Investment in local schools and health services has resulted in improvements in school performance and improved health and life expectancy for Blackpool residents. The quality of the local environment is improving with cleaner and safer streets and public spaces. There is a solid base, therefore, on which to build the economic regeneration of Blackpool.

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Before I go into greater detail about Blackpool I shall touch on another matter. Hon. Members have mentioned the broader issue of coastal towns. As a Member who represents a coastal town, I would like to comment on that for a moment. The Communities and Local Government Committee report on coastal towns was incredibly useful and informative. However, I think that we have heard today that Blackpool suffers from unique problems, and I would be very reluctant to have a one-size-fits-all approach to coastal towns. My coastal town difficulties will be different from those of Blackpool. I have been to Bournemouth and Brighton recently. They are very different as well. That one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate.

Mrs. Humble: The Select Committee report did not ask for a one-size-fits-all approach, but recognised the complexity of coastal towns. It clearly said that coastal towns that are also historic seaside resorts have particular and shared problems. Will the Minister look at those former seaside towns and their problems, and liaise with colleagues? This is not a matter just for him. Other Departments need to work together and look at the specific issues in those towns.

Mr. Wright: My hon. Friend makes a very strong point and I agree with a lot of what she said. The Government are reconsidering their response to the Select Committee’s report on coastal towns, in the light of representations made to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government by the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey).

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) is absolutely right to say that a cross-departmental approach is the right one to take. My Department is currently working with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the regional development agencies. We are working with them on cross-cutting policy issues affecting coastal towns in order to see whether current co-ordination arrangements at national and regional levels can be improved. As I have pointed out, as a Member representing a coastal town, I am very keen for those cross-cutting initiatives to take place.

My Department is also developing a regeneration framework as part of the follow-up to the sub-national review of economic development and regeneration in order to identify the kinds of places where regeneration activity might best be focused. I think that it is entirely plausible that those could include coastal towns.

In an Adjournment debate before the recess on the Select Committee’s report, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South suggested that officials could meet a few times a year to discuss an agenda put to them by bodies such as the British Urban Regeneration Association, in which I know that he has an interest, and the British Resorts and Destinations Association on coastal town regeneration and renewal. I think that there is value in that suggestion and that that level of engagement could be important. We are currently seeking the views of other Departments on that matter.

An awful lot of points have been covered in the debate, and I pledge to write to hon. Members who have participated if I do not get everything across that I
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would like to. I shall turn to the Blackpool taskforce. Following the decision not to grant Blackpool a regional casino licence, the Government committed £1 million to the Blackpool taskforce, which was set up in March this year to look at long-term regeneration plans for the town. Representatives from Blackpool council, the Northwest Development Agency, English Partnerships, the Government office for the north-west, the urban regeneration company, ReBlackpool, and Business Link Northwest, as part of the regional development agency, have developed an action plan for Blackpool which was presented to the Government in August of this year. In preparing for this debate, I was incredibly impressed by the proposals in the action plan. I really enjoyed reading it and would like it implemented as much as possible.

The action plan complements the north-west regional economic strategy and the regional spatial strategy, and proposes a vision for Blackpool to be developed around three themes: revitalising business and enterprise, transforming access, infrastructure and the environment, and creating sustainable communities. Officials from across Departments with an interest in the programme put forward by Blackpool have had some extremely useful discussions with the urban regeneration company and with the council to follow up the report. We are now actively considering our response and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has said that she will meet the taskforce for a further discussion, which we hope will take place shortly. And as my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South said, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has played a key role. He has taken a personal interest and wishes to be closely involved.

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The taskforce report encapsulates a way forward that covers both activity under way and new projects that could contribute to changing and broadening the economic base of the town and to addressing some of the most deprived areas within it. We recognise that this programme, which covers many of the issues that I had hoped to touch on—I do not think that time will allow me—depends for its success on a co-ordinated effort across a range of local and regional partners and within government; I stress that there has been very active discussion on the taskforce report across all relevant Departments. The response from the council and the urban regeneration company has been extremely helpful in demonstrating the connections between different elements of the taskforce programme.

The projects are being looked at in the round so that, for example, the relationship between improvements to further and higher education in the area, the renewal of the town centre and housing—a major interest of mine—is addressed properly. My Department is ensuring that all the taskforce recommendations are considered and we are looking at the sensitivity of timing on some decisions, including the tramway, which has been mentioned today.

However, it has been made very clear today that there has been some frustration with the level of progress and the pace of change. Given the importance of ensuring a co-ordinated response, I shall go back to my Department and others and stress the importance of ensuring that progress is made and continues to be made. That is a major priority for my Department and for other Departments, and it has the personal endorsement of the Prime Minister, which I do not think will be ending. I give my pledge on that.

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Local Government

11 am

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): Before I say a few words about this democratic issue, perhaps I could dedicate the debate to one of the finest parliamentary democrats, John Garrett, who sadly passed away just a couple of weeks ago. He was an inspiration to many of us in the House, and I hope that this debate conforms to that long tradition.

The Prime Minister devoted his first White Paper to the governance of Britain, and he devoted his first speech to the House as Prime Minister to the topic of the new democratic settlement. He also promised the

I know that the Minister—keen to ensure that the Prime Minister’s wishes come to fruition—will take those words very seriously.

On the other side of the argument, Simon Milton, who runs the Local Government Association, has called for a “constitutional convention”, which I presume would grow out of the proposed concordat between local and national Government. What is certain is that any local power worth the name must be the right and property of local government, not of the centre. Local power that is loaned by central Government—by edict or even by parliamentary statute—is a sham, because it can be taken away just as quickly as it can be offered. Only Britain has such a dysfunctional political system that does not recognise local autonomy. Other western democracies take for granted independent local government that is backed by constitutional guarantee and genuine financial autonomy. Professor Michael Genovese, one of the foremost scholars of presidential politics, said recently, quoting Jefferson:

Those words are as true today as when they were first coined.

As a result of genuine local democracy, people will benefit from activity and involvement locally, making a serious difference to the quality of life in our local communities. Given the reduction of local government over recent decades to little more than an agent of central Government, this proposal would amount to the largest denationalisation ever undertaken and the restoration to the public of their ownership of their own local government.

The centralisers in British politics have had their day. Whatever success they may or may not have had nationally over the past 40 years, they have delivered neither economic nor social progress locally. I speak not only as an MP but as the chair of a local strategic partnership. We see short-term finance, interference, distortion of local priorities, people spending much of their time bidding or working to protect their jobs, and a plethora of schemes and bodies to circumvent local democratic decision making, which is barely understood by anybody but a new cadre of local professionals.

Successive Governments have occasionally served dainty hors d’oeuvres of localism, but the main course has always been the same—a stodgy, lumpy stew of targets,
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orders and inspections that have been force-fed to local councils by central Governments of all political complexions. I hope that the concordat will offer us not more amuse-bouches but a completely new menu for local democracy.

Almost every business and every other democratic nation has concluded that the economic complexities in modern society are way beyond the capacities of a command economy. They not only speak the language of decentralisation, devolution, local budget holding, participation, and teamworking, but deliver its promises. The European charter of local self-government was signed by our Government, but its spirit still needs to be given form. Only the United Kingdom, and England in particular, stays stuck in a command-style politics that died with Leonid Brezhnev elsewhere in the world. That style is at its starkest and most wasteful in the central control of local government. It robs communities and individuals of the ability and ambition to run their own lives, and it has atrophied political parties of all colours. We know that that has happened throughout the United Kingdom, whatever else we pretend,

Free local democracy will provide more diversity and independence in our political system, in turn leading to more creativity, sensitivity and innovation throughout our society and economy. The mere removal of some of the worst excesses of centralism, such as ending the capping of local spending, democratising quangos, releasing capital receipts and adding a drizzle of “localist” jargon, has not been enough. We must put local independence beyond the reach of central Government, and admit that the gentleman in Whitehall—even if it is a Labour gentleman and a very good friend of mine—does not know best. Petty interference from the centre must be denied any legal or financial basis, and local government must be given unchallengeable legitimacy. That must be done in two ways.

Ambition must be at the heart of the concordat that the Government are to negotiate with local government. It should be able to slot easily into its rightful place in a written constitution, when that day comes, and the vision must be powered by the Prime Minister above all. Local government must be a part of the vision that he has outlined for a new democracy. It must be driven by local government leadership, which needs to get off its knees and argue for two fundamental principles of its own freedom.

First, to guarantee local authorities’ independence, they must be created in law as independent and sovereign entities. They would then be able to undertake, as of right, all the duties and functions for which they are elected locally. That power should be further guaranteed by a legally enforceable definition of subsidiarity in the European constitution. I shall not veer into the debate about the constitution, but it would be nice to have one, and, if we had one, to define subsidiarity so that it could defend British local government in the same way that it seeks to defend it in the other European Union nation states.

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