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10.58 pm

Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) has the honour to represent the town of Southend-on-Sea, which I can say without fear of contradiction is the finest seaside resort along the Thames estuary. In its heyday, going back to Victorian times, it was enjoyed by east-enders, not only for day trips but to spend long weekends there. Sadly, in 2010, British holidays are not quite as popular as they used to be, primarily because the cost of air travel is greatly reduced and we often cannot entirely rely on our climate.

Southend is probably no different from any other coastal resort in having fewer people in jobs, higher levels of benefit claimants, and more people in poor health and with worse transport links than their inland counterparts. That is very common among coastal resorts. However, Southend is trying to re-establish itself as an attractive and vibrant seaside town for visitors and residents alike, and it is blessed with superb leadership from Councillor Nigel Holdcroft, who is the council leader, ably supported by his deputy John Lamb. We also have an excellent council chief executive, Rob Tinlin, who is supported by a superb team of officers.

We are perhaps not quite in the strong funding position that we would have hoped for, because the last census was somewhat lacking in rigour. The Minister will understand that we intend to ensure that the next census is absolutely accurate, because the last one basically left off 20,000 people, which was very damaging in funding terms. However, I am delighted to say that a £25 million investment package will mean four new regeneration schemes. One is City beach on Marine parade, in my hon. Friend's constituency, which will be launched on 7 January.

Congestion and weak transport infrastructure are challenges for the town, and the other three key development projects will significantly reduce congestion and journey times. Work on the Victoria gateway, again in my hon. Friend's constituency, will start in March. The other two projects are in my constituency. One of the worst bottlenecks in the town is at Cuckoo corner, where £5 million improvement works will begin in April. It is hoped that when the improvements are completed, there will be a reduction from the 400 minutes a day of congestion that is experienced at peak times. The final piece of work, which will be started shortly, is at Progress road, a key section of the main arterial route into Southend. Those are positive schemes that my hon. Friend and I welcome, but there are further bottlenecks at the Bell and Kent Elms junctions with the A127, and I hope that in due course there will be some improvements.

The Minister will be only too well aware of the expansion of Southend airport. Most residents welcome the fact that there is an airport in Southend, but since its current owner, Stobart, put in plans to expand it, there has been some debate in the town about the benefits of the suggestion. I believe that the council will examine the proposals on 20 January. For my own part, I feel that to satisfy all residents' concerns there should
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be a public inquiry, but I know that the Minister cannot say anything about that and that it is a matter for the Secretary of State at the end of the day.

The council has invested £5 million in the third phase of improvements to the A13, which is one of the town's main arteries and is also subject to bad congestion. Although Government funding was received for the first and second phases, for which we were very grateful, nothing was provided for the third phase, which covers the area from the entrance boundary with Essex to a third of the way into the town centre.

I should tell the Minister that the decision not to extend the c2c and National Express contracts on our two rail links is creating uncertainty, particularly as there are negotiations under way with c2c and Network Rail regarding parking and redevelopment. I would be grateful if he had a word with his colleagues about the delay in that.

I am delighted to tell the House that throughout the summer, Southend enjoyed a relatively high level of tourism, and the local authority produced an attractive programme of events for tourists to enjoy.

I had the privilege of chairing proceedings on the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Bill, and I am a keen supporter of the games. Southend is bidding to become the United Kingdom's capital of culture for 2013, and several projects are under way that can only help the overall regeneration of the town. The international arts organisation, Metal, has come to Southend having renovated the grade II listed building, Chalkwell hall. I attended its launch at the end of September. It was a great occasion and a celebration of the town. Many events were held there, and that has done a great deal to boost morale.

We hope that, in the longer term, Metal will encourage creative businesses to set up in the town, helping us to become a regional centre for the creative industries. I was delighted that, before Christmas, the Heritage Lottery Fund awarded Prittlewell Priory museum a grant of £1.3 million. The grant will fund repairs and refurbishment, as well as creating new displays and a new external building, thus creating even more space for new displays. The project will also add new signage, trails and publications to connect Prittlewell priory with the surrounding area and landscape. The refurbished museum will tell the story of the priory from its monastic days to its life as a Victorian house, as well as that of the wildlife of the park. In addition to Southend council, the Friends of Southend Museums and the Cory Environmental Trust have pledged sums to match fund the lottery grant. That is all good news.

We are delighted that Hadleigh, which is close to my constituency, will be a venue for the 2012 Olympic mountain bike events. In addition, many venues locally would make an ideal base for hosting teams from smaller visiting nations. For example, I recently had the privilege of opening Eastwood school's new, wonderful, first-class sports complex. That would be an ideal site for one of the smaller nations to use as a base camp.

There will be a state-of-the-art swimming facility and a world-class Olympic-sized diving facility at Garon park. The council has invested £14 million to ensure that Southend residents, as well as visiting teams in training for the 2012 Olympics, can enjoy the facilities. In addition, other key swimming facilities in the town at Belfairs and Shoebury in my hon. Friend's constituency
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will be refurbished. I know that I speak for all local residents when I say that we are looking forward to the Olympic games. We certainly intend to ensure that Southend is at the heart of the celebrations.

Given Southend's waning popularity as a destination for weekend visitors, we have tried to direct its energy towards the twin activities of becoming the centre of culture for the east and becoming a centre of learning. We have a wonderful college, which has joined forces with the university of Essex under the excellent leadership of the principal, Jan Hodges. It was opened in 2007, and we have a marvellous campus, with performing arts, a business school and health and human sciences. Recently, we joined forces with Basildon and Thurrock. We welcome the fact that Southend is the lead in the partnership, but are somewhat disappointed that there does not seem to be funding for a single campus for South Essex college. Until there is additional funding, we will have a split-site campus, which is not ideal.

The Minister knows only too well that Southend has suffered a blow through job losses. HSBC has closed its card-processing facility, and 750 local jobs have been lost. I know that I speak for my hon. Friend when I say that we are concerned about the rumours of further job losses at Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs site in the town-the numbers working there have already been reduced. Further losses would certainly be unwelcome.

Finally, the pier regeneration is very important. As the Minister knows, Southend pier is the longest in the world and the town is famous for it. We were very disappointed recently about it. We had been given the impression that we were to be given funds to develop and restore the pier given that it has had three fires, and we invested £36,000 on a design competition because we were encouraged to do so by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, but unfortunately our bid was unsuccessful. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport announced only £5 million of major projects when it was expected that there would be £15 million. Was that why the decision was delayed by four months?

About two years ago, a DCMS Minister was good enough to give us money to help deal with the cliff slippage that we suffered in Southend. The Department for Transport provided £1 million in the last financial year for emergency stabilisation in the west of Southend in Belton Hills and by Leigh railway station. Any further support the Government could give would be very welcome.

In conclusion, we are very grateful indeed for the help that has been given thus far for the regeneration of Southend, but any further help would be very much welcome.

11.11 pm

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) on securing this debate and look forward to the Minister's reply, given that he recently enjoyed a visit to Southend and the surrounding area. I ask three things of him: to count correctly, to fund directly, and to get the infrastructure right.

Counting correctly relates to the census. The failure to count 20,000 people in the 2001 census costs Southend £7 million each year, so counting correctly is the most
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fundamental single thing the Minister could review when considering the future prosperity and regeneration of Southend.

Secondly, on funding directly, I say candidly that there are far too many organisations with their fingers in the pot. We have extremely good directly elected councillors, and they should be allowed to get on with the job of spending the money as local residents desire, rather than the money going through an alphabetti spaghetti of acronyms and quangos. Frankly, those not only add little value, but are sometimes destructive of the value the council could add. I ask the Minister to get rid of some of those organisations and to fund everything directly.

Finally, on infrastructure, living in Southend sometimes feels like living on an island in the corner of Essex. We need to speed up traffic along the A127 and A13. The sea-to-sea rail line has been award winning, and despite the problems that National Express has had elsewhere in the eastern counties, I urge the Minister to consider awarding the contract and franchise to the existing management of the line, who have been absolutely fabulous. Given our road infrastructure problems, I would be very disappointed if the existing management of the sea-to-sea railway were not involved in the longer- term franchise for the line.

11.13 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Shahid Malik): It is a pleasure to engage in this debate under your stewardship, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I congratulate the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) on securing the debate, which is on a subject that is important to him, his constituents and others living in Southend. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) on his contribution.

As I was sitting on the Bench earlier, a number of Ministers who have had the same responsibilities asked what debate I was here for. When I told them that it was on the regeneration of Southend, three of them said, "I've done that in the past." That is testament to the hon. Gentleman's commitment to his constituents and their well-being-and that goes for the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East as well.

It has been just over a year since we last had a debate about regeneration in Southend, and there has been much progress since then, as I saw when I visited in September. Since my visit I have been a big fan, as I was incredibly impressed. The hon. Member for Southend, West mentioned leadership, and I was impressed by the leadership and the partnership at work in Southend. I am very aware that partners in Southend have been working hard to ensure that the town becomes a thriving regional centre, with culture and commerce at its heart, and that it is seen as an exciting place to live, work and visit.

One of the most impressive things I saw was the education hub of South East Essex college and the university of Essex in the town centre. Those developments have attracted multi-million pound investment and brought many benefits, including employment opportunities, supporting learning and raising skills levels, and transforming the street scene with more young people living in and around the town centre.

5 Jan 2010 : Column 148

I also note the comment made by the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East about counting. I am not fully aware of the issue, but I will get back to him with more information about the census. The issue was also raised by the hon. Member for Southend, West.

It is not surprising to find that regeneration features strongly in the recent comprehensive area assessment for Southend, published last month. The assessment recognises the important role that regeneration has played in transforming the town and highlights not only the education hub but other developments such as Pier Hill, Hamlet Court road and the network of 11 children's centres, many of which are located in the central areas of the town that I saw on my visit.

Importantly, Southend's regeneration has not simply been about bricks and mortar; it has also been about people, businesses and communities. It is about instilling confidence and encouraging people to join in and helping them feel in control of what goes on in their town. It is therefore important that we build on this success and exploit the potential within Southend. The local strategic partnership, Southend Together, has a shared vision to

Partners have been working together very productively to deliver that vision, and I was pleased to meet many of them during my visit last year. I mean that very sincerely.

There are also significant opportunities to promote the advantages of Southend's location close to London and the 2012 Olympics; to become both a nationally and internationally recognised centre of educational and cultural achievement; to make maximum use of its physical assets including the seaside and the magnificent world record-breaking pier; and to promote Southend as a place to live and work, as well as to visit. It is very good news that Hadleigh Farm has been selected as the venue for the mountain bike events in the 2012 Olympics. I know just what an inspiring venue it will be, with an amazing view across the Thames estuary-Constable country at its best.

I am sure that hon. Members will agree with me, however, that along with such opportunities, Southend, like many other seaside towns, still faces a number of real challenges, and the hon. Member for Southend, West alluded to many of them. It has significant pockets of social and economic deprivation, mainly centred in the Milton, Victoria and Kursaal wards, all of which rank in the top 3 per cent. of most disadvantaged wards in the country according to the indices of multiple deprivation.

Southend has of course not been immune from the effects of the global economic downturn, as the hon. Gentleman highlighted. It has some of the highest unemployment rates in the east of England. The claimant count in November 2009 was 5 per cent. compared with 3.4 per cent. for the region. It was 50 per cent. higher than the same time a year earlier, although unemployment has stabilised in recent months.

The hon. Gentleman was right to mention the airport. Certainly when I was there, there seemed to be a consensus among the regeneration leadership that it could be a good thing. However, he was right that it would be inappropriate at this stage for me to comment, given that it is likely to come before my Department and the Secretary of State in due course.

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The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the urban regeneration company for Southend, Renaissance Southend Ltd, which brings together all the public and private partners in the area and the central area master plan, looking at the potential for redeveloping the town centre and improving the commercial seafront as a visitor attraction and destination.

The East of England Development Agency is supporting Renaissance Southend Ltd through core funding, as well as working with it and the council. It has invested more than £30 million in Southend over the past five years, most recently-I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has already touched on some of these-on projects such as the £5 million redevelopment of the former Clifftown United Reform church into a state-of-the-art facility for the teaching, training, rehearsal and performances of the East 15 acting school students, and the new student accommodation and car park on London road, which promises to be a striking landmark for the town. It is obviously a bold design and certainly will be a talking point.

Both hon. Gentlemen have talked about the need to ensure that there is one Southend-in the sense that at the moment the various funding agencies perhaps cause confusion. I hope that they will be reassured that the new "single conversation", which has already begun between the Homes and Communities Agency and Southend partners on all aspects of housing, infrastructure and regeneration, will reduce some of the complexity.

The HCA carried out a reprioritisation exercise in September 2009 for projects provisionally identified for funding in the Thames Gateway delivery plan. I am pleased to say that Southend did well out of that reprioritisation, with seven out of 10 potential projects placed on the high priority list for funding, which is testament to the hard work of stakeholders and the project teams. Six of those now have funding agreements in place or near to completion, providing more than £9 million of funding, in this and the next financial year, for a mixture of public realm projects and studies of development potential.

Southend's role as a cultural and educational centre is being supported by partners in a number of ways. I am pleased to say that we have recently agreed to the merger of South East Essex college and Thurrock and Basildon college, which will help provide a wider range of curriculum and progression opportunities, further strengthening the education offer-something that is obviously critical given where we are in the economic downturn.

Hon. Members will recognise Southend's aim to become not only the cultural capital of the east of England, but the UK capital of culture in 2013, with its recent bid "Southend's Got Front". As the hon. Member for Southend, West mentioned, the recent opening of Chalkwell hall, the new home for Metal, will provide a low-carbon space that can be used as a power house for creativity in the community and far beyond, allowing artists to develop their talent and ideas.

The City Beach project, of which the hon. Gentleman is aware, with public sector funding of £7 million, will bring urban design improvements to the central seafront and public realm, based on enhancing the promenade, improvements to the sea wall and the installation of architectural lighting.

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