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May I come to the question at the heart of the debate, which is the regeneration and future of Southend? As the hon. Member for Southend, West made clear very
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powerfully, there are some structural weaknesses in the Southend economy, which in the past relied principally on tourism and certain types of financial and business services. Although estimates show that more than 6 million visitors go to Southend each year—making a substantial input to the economy and the jobs base that relies on such visitors—it is clear that that is increasingly difficult to rely on, particularly in view of today’s tastes and some of the problems we have seen this summer with the British weather.

Looking at the figures, a second structural weakness that strikes me is the skills base of Southend. The figures for what in the jargon is level 2 and what to the rest of us is the equivalent of five good GCSEs show that Southend lags behind the national level. That has been clearly recognised by the council and the agencies that it works with as one of the priorities to tackle through the new local area agreements.

In tackling the structural weaknesses, there is physical regeneration and the softer regeneration that is required. Let me deal with the physical first. At the heart of the matter—what, in a sense should be the answer to the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East—is the fact that Renaissance Southend should be the locally led way to harness the concerns and potential investments from the public and private sectors towards a vision for the future of Southend that is brought together, agreed and agreed locally. Some of the work on the master planning has started, as has work on some of the assembly of land. Work has also started on some of the repositioning or rebranding of Southend.

As the hon. Member for Southend, West argued, Southend is more than simply a seaside town, but something new is needed for the new era. The redefinition of Southend as a town, based around investment in education—partly to deal with the structural problems that I mentioned and partly to give the town a lift and a new direction—is an important element, alongside the cultural profile that the town is also trying to raise. Trying to make the town a cultural and commercial centre for the region is an important part of the future. The £20 million newly opened campus for the university of Essex is clearly pivotal to that, providing not only education facilities, but a business development centre and an innovation centre, alongside the commercial space.

I do not think that this has been mentioned in the debate, but the ambition to link further education with the new higher education facility is important in encouraging rising aspirations and a sense for many young people locally—indeed, older people as well, but particularly the next generation—that what is provided in Southend offers the possibility to achieve the qualifications and skills levels that are lacking in the town. The investment
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of £52 million in the South East Essex college building at the heart of the town centre is a big part of that. The use of education and culture offers a new direction that marks Southend out as different from other towns in the region.

On the cultural side, there are recent projects such as Metal, the artists’ laboratory, which is creating a new headquarters in Southend-on-Sea. I have mentioned the proposed new £35 million Saxon king museum and cultural centre, and I must say that I was not aware that Helen Mirren hailed originally from Southend, but that is clearly a potential asset for the town.

On Priory crescent, the borough council is poised to submit to the Department for Transport a major scheme business case on the pressure point of its junction with the A127 at Cuckoo corner. The hon. Member for Southend, West may want to make local inquiries about that, but that is my understanding. If that is submitted, Ministers will give it full consideration alongside the other calls on central transport funding. However, I will ensure that his views are registered and part of the consideration that Transport Ministers bring to bear should that case be submitted.

I have mentioned the physical side—the structural weaknesses—and, in passing, the social side of improvements in investment, and that is where the requirement for the aligned effort of a number of agencies comes into play in any bid to regenerate an area. In identifying the five most important factors in making their neighbourhood a good place to live, residents did not choose big investment in regeneration of buildings and facilities, but chose instead the level of crime, heath services, clean streets, education provision and decent housing. No single agency can help to solve the problems posed by each and every one of those five challenges and improve standards entirely on its own. For instance, the effective collaboration of different agencies in Southend led to a 20 per cent. reduction in crime compared with four years ago. That is a notable success and beyond the targets set locally for that work.

The aim is to make Southend a good place to live, work, visit and invest in. It has some strong natural advantages, including a good location and the potential of the 2012 Olympics to drive some of the new ambitions. There is no doubt that Southend needs a fresh direction—a repositioning, as the hon. Gentleman described it. There is no doubt that its future is more promising than its immediate past. As a Government, we will work to support the plans of the local authority, and the agencies alongside it, in whatever way we can to secure that aim so that Southend does indeed recapture, although in a different way, some of its former glories.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Ten o’clock.

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