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6 Oct 2008 : Column 110

The lift to get senior citizens up the cliff connects Clifton terrace with Western esplanade; unfortunately, it is expected to be out of service for another year while works are done. It was built in 1912—again, this links in with the Olympic games—and it is one of few lifts of its type in the country. The council refurbished the lift two years ago, with a helpful £1.8 million Heritage Lottery Fund grant. However, the cost has risen by £400,000, because of new European regulations that classify the lift as a cable car, rather than as a railway. That will necessitate a re-examination of the lift mechanism and paying costly consultation fees. I know that that is not the Government’s fault. There is a new European regulation in place, but if we do not comply with it, we will never get our lifts. Again, I ask the Minister to look into the matter and to find out whether there is any way in which assistance can be given, perhaps through European funding.

Another point that I wish to raise with the Minister is the silting-up of the Thames estuary in Leigh-on-Sea. A number of fishermen and women in Leigh depend for their livelihood on cockling and on catching Dover sole, but the Thames estuary has become increasingly silted. A project to try to solve that problem would be very expensive. Perhaps the Minister could consider the issue.

Earlier tonight, I was invited with colleagues to the Royal Opera House to enjoy a number of brief performances. During the evening, it was announced that Thurrock, the other unitary authority in Essex, is benefiting from a scheme run by the opera house to try to bring the arts, which are of course expensive—and, some would argue, elitist—to more challenging parts of the country. The opera house has set up a wonderful workshop in Thurrock. I seized the opportunity and sought out the gentleman in charge of the Royal Opera House’s education project. He tells me that he will work with Southend-on-Sea borough council and the local college to see whether we can develop the arts in Southend. The Minister will know of a number of famous actors and actresses from the area. A Southend girl won an Oscar last year with her portrayal of the Queen. We have many famous singers, dancers, sculptors and painters, too; there is a real gathering of cultural excellence in Southend.

Let me come on to the point of this Adjournment debate on the regeneration of Southend. Southend was once a very popular seaside resort. It attracted people for holidays of a weekend or a little longer. The Minister knows only too well of the difficulties that Southend and other resorts have experienced. We cannot do anything about what some people regard as the unreliability of our weather. We cannot do anything about the impact of competition as a result of cheap flights—or what were cheap flights—which have meant that the world is becoming increasingly smaller. However, Southend and other seaside towns have basically lost their place in the market as resorts. We have decided to try to reposition ourselves. At the heart of that are the leisure and cultural opportunities that I mentioned. However, Southend also wants to position itself as a centre of learning. The South East Essex College of Arts and Technology in Southend has joined in a partnership with Essex university, and that partnership is having a wonderful effect locally. I thank the Government for any assistance that they have given us thus far, but I would welcome any further assistance that the Minister and his Department could give.

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I have claimed, over the years, that Southend is the finest resort in not only the country, but the world. Which Member of Parliament worth their salt would deny that? The joy of experiencing the moving picture that the Thames estuary produces is quite unique, and it will be celebrated when we enjoy the Olympic games in 2012. However, Southend really does need help with regeneration. The area that I represent has the highest number of senior citizens in the country; that is why we are in the “Guinness World Records” book for holding the greatest gathering of centenarians in the country. Those senior citizens want to enjoy the town today, but they have at the back of their mind how it used to be. With a little bit of help, I think that our former glories will return. I have every confidence that the Minister will do all that he possibly can to assist Southend with its regeneration.

9.24 pm

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) on securing this debate so soon after our return from the recess? Having spent two months thinking of lots of things to say, and given the hours that one could spend talking about Southend, I thought I had to pare my contribution down to five minutes, only to find that I have the luxury of a little more time. It is a great position for someone who is so passionate about Southend to be in, but I will limit my comments and not take up all the available time and detain the Minister too long on his first full day in office. Ministers come, and Ministers go. In the case of some Ministers, they come and go, come and go, and come again. However, being made a Privy Councillor is something that people cannot take away from someone. The Minister will always be a right honourable Gentleman, and it is good to have him here to reply to the debate.

I hesitate to disagree at the outset with my colleague, but the title of the debate gives me some discomfort. I represent Rochford and Southend, East, but as soon as I talk about Southend, everyone in Rochford writes to me and says, “What’s wrong with Rochford?” I will not stray, however, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and test your patience. The other problem that I have with the debate concerns the other word in the title—there are only two words, so it seems rather churlish—which is “regeneration”, as it suggests something that is done to an area, rather than by an area. It has connotations of the public sector, a master plan, a right way forward, and a process that is planned and ultimately reached. However, if one looks at Southend’s history, some of the best changes have been organic and have been achieved bit by bit. Some of the worst things in Southend have been planned: the ’70s tower blocks that were built, with old Victorian housing smashed through. Parts of the town centre were ripped out and destroyed to provide new, progressive, modern buildings, so I am a little concerned when we talk of regeneration that we may repeat past mistakes. Personally, I prefer the term, “investment”, not only by the private sector but by the community, which should invest not just its money in the town but its time, community spirit and so on.

Under the term “regeneration”, Southend council quite rightly wants to make Southend a better place to live, work, visit and indeed to invest in. If we achieve all
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four things we will achieve regeneration—a term I dislike somewhat. Another term mentioned by my hon. Friend that has been bandied about is “partnerships”. Everyone seems to be working in partnership, and it has almost become incestuous. We cannot be sure who are the different parties in the regeneration debate. I will illustrate that point for the Minister by citing an excellent development that I fully support. The university of Essex came to Southend, and, I walked through the site with the opening party, which was quite large—not only were there dignitaries and a member of the royal family but everyone who had participated in the project. Representatives of some 15 organisations were wandering through, and when we unveiled the plaque, there were about 15 different logos representing people who had put money in. One lady who was wandering round said, “You know, James, actually, it was us who pump-primed all of this.” Their logo was not even on the board.

When one drills down into the question of what those organisations were, quite often they were the Department for Communities and Local Government in one guise or format or another. Everyone was saying that they pump-primed the university: they put in a little bit of money and achieved a great deal of change. I asked them a question, “How much did the whole thing cost?”, but very few people knew. In fact, no one was able to tell me. I am sure that I could have probed the issue further. Interestingly, however, when I spoke to a third of those 15 or so donors, no one appreciated the overall cost or how much Government money had been put in. No one appreciated how much DCLG money had been put in. They were just proud that they had pump-primed the investment.

I worry that as part of the regeneration process, it is conceivable that we end up spending more money than we need to. It is also conceivable that we spend it on the wrong thing. One of the problems with all these partnerships is that there is a democratic deficit. There is a lack of linkage between what the people of Southend want and what all the organisations want. To a degree, Southend council got into an unholy alliance of necessity with a number of partnerships, because that is the only way to get money out of the Government. They played the game, but is it right? Are the rules of the game right? Is the structure of funding right? I assert to the Minister that it is not right, it is confusing and there is a democratic deficit. One of the things that he can do, not just for Southend, but for other areas in the country, is to give the process a good shake-up.

In our area there is Thames gateway. No one I know describes themselves as living in Thames gateway. Thames gateway does not even exist. Southend exists. People say they come from Southend, from Prittlewell, from Essex or from the east end. Nobody has ever told me they come from Thames gateway. It is not a defined area of community spirit.

I am extremely concerned about central Government taking assets into national hands, even with the acquiescence of a local council, to pump-prime some type of investment. That seems to be completely the wrong direction of travel. For example, English Partnerships took a large share in the car parks in Southend, in the hope that it would get private sector development money to develop those car parks, provide car parking space and develop the town centre. The Government should be helping to push money down, not pull money out.

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I want to be brief, but I want to touch on some of the points that my hon. Friend made. The errors in the census, which predates my election, are crucial. Those errors cost Southend £7 million every year. If the Minister takes away one thing from my contribution, will he please look at the figures again? The Government will probably not want to look all the way back to the last census, but we must make sure that we get the census right for areas such as Southend, Slough, Manchester and the City of Westminster, which do not easily fit into an existing box. It is difficult to measure those populations.

Southend airport is an excellent airport. I have mixed feelings about its rebranding. It is now called London Southend, as seems to be the fashion with airports across the whole of the United Kingdom. Southend airport is a decent airport that is looking for extra money to expand. I ask the Minister to look at the 2012 Olympics and speak to his colleagues about London City airport, which may well have to close for security reasons. If it does—it would be a sensible decision to close London City—Southend airport needs the investment now rather than in three or four years so that it can be leveraged for the Olympics.

I agree with my hon. Friend on transport infrastructure. We need a decision on Priory crescent as soon as possible. Almost any decision is better than the present prevarication, waiting and uncertainty. We need consistent, joined-up government. HMRC was mentioned. Not only are those 400 jobs moving away, but new public sector jobs cannot be created in Southend because the south-east is deemed an affluent area and under the Lyons review, new jobs cannot come into largely affluent areas such as the south-east and the east of England. That ignores the clear pockets of poverty in Southend, which are largely clustered around the very same buildings that provided a great deal of part-time work and temporary work—exactly the type of work that was getting people off benefits, into the working marketplace, then off benefits entirely and into full-time jobs.

Lastly, I shall mention two issues. The first is the driving test centre in Southend. This might seem a trivial point but it is symptomatic of the Government moving services away. Southend has an expanding population and an expanding youth population, given the university, yet the Government have taken the decision to close Southend driving test centre. They held a consultation and ignored it. The consultation seemed pretty pointless, because the Government had made the decision already, and I must admit that I wondered aloud in my office, asking rhetorically, “What on earth is a consultation?”

My research assistant, taking that more as an instruction than a rhetorical question, did some research on what a consultation is. Evidently a consultation is a consultation only if the decision is not predetermined. I have documents that have been leaked to me that say not only that the decision was taken, but that planning permission was granted and that the site was being built before the consultation took place, moving Southend driving test centre out of Southend and into a bigger centre near Basildon, which is a problem experienced elsewhere.

Finally, let me reiterate the point about business rates on empty properties. There has been a boom in the demolition business in Southend. Some of the buildings were ugly and needed to be demolished; indeed, it is good that they have been demolished. However, there
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were many buildings that were important to Southend’s history. There were lots of buildings that were largely unoccupied, but partially occupied by small businesses, which have had to move out and suffer all that disruption. I am not entirely sure whether what has happened in Southend is the same as elsewhere in the country or whether the Government’s intentions have matched the consequences. I urge the Minister, in his dealings with other areas, to see whether the consequences of raising business rates on empty property have been adverse, particularly in regeneration areas.

9.36 pm

The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): I congratulate both hon. Members who have spoken on their kind words and pay tribute to them for the tone in which they put the case for their constituencies and their town. We are fortunate to have more time than is generally the case for these end-of-day debates. I congratulate the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) on securing this debate. It should surprise no one that he was first in line for the Adjournment debate on the first day back. He has a formidable reputation as an advocate, and not just for his current constituency—I notice that he even managed to work in a reference to Basildon, which has been ably represented since 1997 by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela E. Smith).

In many ways we are picking up from where the hon. Gentleman’s previous Adjournment debate on the regeneration of his area a couple of years ago left off. We can see significant progress since then, which he was good enough to recognise. The new university of Essex campus in Southend is important for, as he put it, repositioning the town. We have seen a local area agreement signed between the Government and Southend, together with the agencies with which the council works. The priorities set by that agreement included improving Southend’s image, raising the level of activity in the local economy and raising aspirations in the local area. We have also seen the beginning of a public consultation on a new home for Southend’s Saxon king artefacts.

A new location has also been found for Southend United football club, at Fossett’s Farm. As I also follow a team in the lower divisions of the football league, let me in passing congratulate the team on its victory at the weekend, although I note that Yeovil were down to nine men at the end of the game. Nevertheless, three points are three points.

There is also the wider regional view, which is important to the town. The recently published east of England spatial strategy identifies Southend as one of the important centres for development and change, particularly in skills, transport and wider regeneration or investment, as the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) argued. The strategy is important in the longer term, because it places Southend in the Essex part of the Thames Gateway and the drive to see an extra 55,000 jobs in that period, as well as setting out the ambition of a significant number of new homes in the area, which will also be needed.

The Government have tried to give support where we can—not only in the local area agreement but in backing the local strategic partnership, Southend Together—to opportunities that are in the area and for the area. I
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share the reservations expressed by the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East about the term “regeneration”. Sometimes it has meant something that has been done to an area, having been drawn up by agencies outside the area, rather than something that has been done by an area for itself. The local strategic partnership now plays an important role in ensuring that the future of Southend is determined in Southend, drawing on support from outside the area—from within the region and from Government, where it can—while nevertheless fashioning its future for itself.

After studying this matter, I believe that in many ways we are on the cusp of an important period, in which there will be significant opportunities to promote Southend’s advantages as a location close to London and connected with the 2012 Olympics, to make maximum use of its assets as a seaside town and of its pier, and to promote Southend—as the borough council is doing—as a place to visit and to live, work and invest in.

I welcome the description of the hon. Member for Southend, West of himself as a wholehearted supporter of the Olympic games. As he explained, Southend has been selected as a pre-games training camp, and was included in the guide distributed to the nations competing in Beijing. It has also been designated as a Paralympic training camp for a number of sports. I will certainly alert my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Olympics to his vision for the use of the pier as part of the Olympic ceremonies, and to his enthusiasm for his town to play a part in the Olympic games.

However, it has been recognised in the debate that, despite the fact that Southend is a town with many attractions, it is also a town with serious pockets of deprivation, hence the need for the investment that we are discussing. Before I come to the question of regeneration, however, let me deal with some of the specific points that have been raised in the debate.

The second reservation of the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East about regeneration concerned the plethora of partners that can sometimes be involved. I am not saying that he is wrong, but when we look at the need for investment and regeneration across the piece, we see that it can be a complex business. It involves much more than just the need for a new building or for physical regeneration, and often requires the contribution, and the alignment of plans, of a number of different agencies. Nevertheless, in our regeneration efforts around the country there is undoubtedly scope to reduce the complexity of the arrangements. That has been part of the thinking behind bringing together the new Homes and Communities Agency under the Department in which I am a Minister, so that it can become possible for areas such as Southend, and their councils and local agencies, to have a single conversation with the Government about their plans and their case for future investment. I hope that we shall see the process becoming a little more straightforward, now that the agency has been established under the very able leadership of Sir Bob Kerslake.

On empty property relief, I have to say that I did not entirely follow the argument of the hon. Member for Southend, West. He said that there was a shortage of office space in Southend and that the empty property relief was causing the problem. Part of the rationale for
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removing the relief is that it increases the incentives or decreases the disincentives for rapid re-letting or redevelopment. That, together with recognition that the relief cost the taxpayer £1.3 billion a year, was the nub of the case for making changes to the empty property relief. Given that pressure on public spending and concern about other taxation were so strong, it was difficult to justify that level of public subsidy for property owners who were keeping their properties empty. Although we keep all tax regimes under review, we stand by the case for introducing those changes. As the Minister responsible, working closely with the Valuation Office Agency and local authorities, I have been able to assess their impact. We are now about six months into the financial year in which they were made, but we are keeping a close eye on them.

On population, it is difficult territory and it has also been well tilled, not least by the hon. Member for Southend, West. When the 2001 census was published in 2002, there were obvious discrepancies, particularly in some areas, with the mid-year estimates. That led to the Office for National Statistics doing a substantial study in 2004 to get to the bottom of those difficulties. I believe that 32 different areas, including Southend, were examined and that adjustments were made to the mid-year estimates in respect of about half of them. The hon. Gentleman has debated the issue several times and he will remember that, unlike in the areas where adjustments were made, there was no evidence for doing so in the case of Southend.

Until a little more than a year ago, I was the Minister responsible for the ONS for two years, so I was heavily involved in the preparations for the next census. The ONS is taking a number of important steps to ensure that any apparent or arguable flaws in the 2001 census will not be evident in 2011. I hope that we will ensure that, as the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East urged, the 2011 census is soundly based so that we do not have to confront similar difficulties. Looking back over the decades, the difficulty of conducting censuses is compounded by the fact that our communities are not only much more diverse, but very much more mobile. That makes the census a difficult technical challenge to undertake.

Having been the Minister responsible for Customs and Excise before Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs came along, I am aware of how important Southend is to the service. The reduction in the number of posts planned for Southend is smaller than in some other areas. As I understand the plans, most of the reductions will be achieved through natural wastage.

On cliff slippage, I am grateful for the recognition that the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), helped out when she was a Transport Minister.

I will look further into the European regulations on whether things are classed as cable cars or railways and try to find out whether something in the application is making things more difficult than they need to be. I cannot promise, however—I do not want to raise expectations—that there will be any more central Government money to help if the finances are squeezed.

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