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I am not going to detain the House by talking about what is happening at Cuckoo corner. It used to be shared with my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East, but is now mainly in my constituency. There has been some concern from local residents about what is happening with that particular development.
The proposed expansion of Southend airport is welcomed in some parts of the town, but not in others, where there is some concern. Most of that concern is felt in the area that I represent. I think that the matter needs to be handled extremely carefully.
We are blessed with an excellent council leader, Councillor Nigel Holdcroft, an excellent deputy, Councillor John Lamb, and a first-class chief executive, Rob Tinlin. I think, however, that had my hon. Friend the Minister been canvassing with me in my part of Southend before the recent local elections-we were, of course, delighted to increase our majority on the council-he would have observed real concern on the doorstep about the expansion of the airport, which people expect to cause extra noise and congestion and to have an additional impact on the environment in Southend West. During the general election campaign, I told my constituents that I was discussing pollution and the environment with one of the European Commissioners. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to pass my message of concern to our hon. Friends in the Department for Transport.
A particular cause for concern, about which I hope my hon. Friend will have something to say, is the shedding of civil service jobs over the past two years, mainly from Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. We in Southend are not in a receiving zone; neither are we London, but we are seen as being essentially London. Jobs are at risk, because thus far they have been moving to the midlands and the north. Our town's economy is very fragile, and we really do need those jobs. I cannot emphasise that enough to my hon. Friend.
I understand that the Homes and Communities Agency has frozen most of its housing assistance packages today. Southend has significant amounts of land with housing consents lying vacant under private ownership, which is blighting the town and undermining investment confidence. Examples are the old laundry building in Leigh Broadway at the east end of the town-which I represent-and the old laundry building south of our excellent grammar schools. Will my hon. Friend see what he can do to assist the freeing up of some of those sites for housing development?
The Dartford crossing will always be a disincentive to access and investment in south Essex and Southend, especially if the present Government proceed with the last Government's proposals to sell the crossing. We need to keep it in public ownership and to seek better tolling solutions.
I suppose that the showpiece of the Gracious Speech was the proposal to create new academies. I ask my hon. Friend to convey to the Secretary of State for Education and, in particular the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb)-who visited Southend a few weeks before the general election to meet heads-that it would be useful for us to have some sort of steer on what the new quangos are intended to do.
I have already touched on local and regional quangos. I understand, although my hon. Friend the Minister may correct me, that it is proposed that the regional
development agencies in the south should form sub-regional economic partnerships. I believe he has suggested something the size of Essex as a likely partnership size. That would be difficult for Southend, as the county council would inevitably dominate the agenda, and the pressure would be for it to reflect rural Essex rather than our rather-dare I say-brasher parts of the county. I hope that a partnership could be devised for the south of the county and perhaps he could suggest to the Secretary of State that we could pilot such a partnership scheme in the south of Essex. The council would be keen to be involved in any number of pilot schemes.
The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon)-the Fisheries Minister-is keen to visit Southend and although my hon. Friend here today does not need to visit Southend to see it for the first time, I ask that, in his new ministerial capacity, he visit Southend so that we can show him what we are talking about.
I end with some issues of great concern to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East and myself. We were disappointed-I am not being churlish-about the funding regarding the pier, which is an icon. I had the privilege to chair the Committee that considered the Olympic Games Bill and I am keen that Southend should be involved. At Hadleigh, we will have the biking event and there is a training opportunity for divers and swimmers at Garons. Eastwood secondary school in my constituency has a wonderful training facility for one of the smaller national squads. But I am excited by the prospect of Southend pier being involved in the opening and closing ceremonies. I understand that we are not going to compete with the drummers in Beijing and that we will have a number of opportunities for celebration. I hope that Southend will be involved in that. Any help my hon. Friend can give to the pier would be gratefully received as would any help that could be given with regard to the cliff slippage. If there is any money in Europe for the dredging of the Thames estuary for cocklers and fishermen, that would be also greatly welcome. In addition, I was privileged to attend a session at Blenheim school at which volunteering was being piloted.
All of us in the House recognise that these are tough times and that there will be little money available. However, I ask my hon. Friend to do all he can to assist Southend council in getting a fair deal in terms of the moneys that are available.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Robert Neill): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) on securing the debate. It is well known in the House that he is a doughty and persistent advocate for Southend, for his constituency and for his community. I know that that also applies to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (Mr Duddridge), who I am delighted to see is present in the Chamber.
I thought there was a particular irony that the dramatis personae of the debate should be who they are, because my hon. Friend is correct; I am not without a personal connection to Southend. My wife served as a councillor
and, indeed, as mayor. I hope that I shall be forgiven for saying that she observed that my election to represent Bromley and Chislehurst had enabled her to live every Essex girl's dream: to wake up in Kent. It is an area that I have known for many years and I have much sympathy with the points that have been made. I have had the opportunity to see at first hand the transformation in Southend.
I am well aware that the council has been at the forefront of that transformation, working with its partners to ensure the town becomes a thriving regional centre with cultural and commercial activities at its heart. I am also aware of the user improvements made within the council itself. The fact that it recently almost won an award for the most improved council is testament to the progress made under the leadership of Councillor Nigel Holdcroft and chief executive Rob Tinlin and the excellent team of council members and officers who support them.
The education hub of South East Essex college and the university of Essex located in the town centre has been at the heart of this transformation. These developments have not only changed the look and feel of the town centre, but have attracted multi-million pound investment, such as the completion of the Palace hotel refurbishment, new investment in the Royals, new premises for Barclays bank in the high street-which is shortly to be opened by distinguished persons-and a new occupier for Woolworths, which was one of the stores that, sadly, was lost from the town centre.
As part of this transformation, considerable additional funding has been provided to Southend, not least £25 million made available to carry out a number of transformational projects to improve the town and seafront. These include the city beach project, transforming the beachfront for residents and visitors, and improvements to the sea wall and the installation of architectural lighting. I hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West says about the cliffs and I will, of course, ensure those concerned take those points on board. I am not sure I am the person best equipped to deal single-handedly with the cliff slippage, but I will do my best to make sure that the issue is kept on the agenda.
There have also been improvements to Priory crescent and the bottleneck at Cuckoo corner, which is well known to many who visit or live in the town, and at Progress road. There have been improvements to the link between Victoria railway station and the town centre, with a major public transport interchange created. All these improvements should, I hope, help realise the ambition of the council and its partners to make Southend an exciting place to live, work and visit. It is important that partners continue this transformation and exploit the significant opportunities, not least, as my hon. Friend said, those offered by Southend's location close to London and the 2012 Olympics, its physical assets at the seaside, such as the pier in particular, and the education hub, which can become a nationally and internationally recognised centre of educational and cultural achievement.
As my hon. Friend said, Southend and its immediate neighbours are already playing a part in the 2012 Olympics, with nearby Hadleigh Farm as the venue for the mountain
bike events, and there has been good news with the letter of intent from the British Olympic diving team to use the state-of-the-art Garons Park facility as a pre-games training camp. The recent merger of South East Essex college and Thurrock and Basildon college will also help to provide a wider range of curriculum and progression opportunities, further strengthening the education on offer.
However, my hon. Friend is right to observe that, like many other seaside towns, Southend still faces a number of real challenges. It has of course felt the effects of the global economic downturn. It has some of the highest unemployment rates in the east of England and it has significant pockets of social and economic deprivation, particularly in the Milton, Victoria and Kursaal wards in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East. All of them rank among the most disadvantaged wards in the country, although I know they are very ably represented by their councillors, not least by the newly elected Councillors Maria Caunce for Milton ward and Louise Burdett for Kursaal ward. Indeed, I will be in Southend tomorrow to attend the wedding of Councillor Maria Caunce to my old friend Peter Fitzgerald-and perhaps I can be cheeky and take this opportunity to wish them well.
Southend has also suffered from having relatively low economic productivity, and that point has links to the skills profile, which needs addressing. Issues relating to the structure of the economy also need to be dealt with, and there are only a limited number of routes in and out of the town because of its geographical location. I accept that all that has an impact on the town's performance.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West raises the matter of the rail franchise, and I acknowledge the concerns about that. A consultation, which ended on 19 April, was held with interested parties and the general public in order to develop the prospectus and invitation to tender, and the matter is now with my colleagues at the Department for Transport. If he thinks it would help, I shall ask its Minister of State to provide him and my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East with an update on progress. We are committed to having a modern transport infrastructure for the economy and, thus, to granting longer rail franchises. That will give operators the incentive to invest in the improvements that passengers want.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West raised, in particular, the issue of the census and the shortfall in funding. I appreciate the matter, because he has raised it before, as I have done on behalf of many London residents and so I understand where he comes from on this. The Office for National Statistics carried out a comprehensive piece of work in a number of areas in relation to the last census and did not make changes in Southend. I hope that he will be reassured that we intend the 2011 census to build on recommendations and the learning gained on the basis of representations made by a number of organisations. Next time, the ONS will seek to maximise the overall response rate and will ask local authorities to provide data from alternative sources to assist them with the quality assurance process. I hope that that will provide the chance for us to have a sounder statistical basis.
I wish also to touch briefly on the Government's commitment to decentralisation and localism. We made it clear in the Queen's Speech that cutting the budget
deficit and restoring growth remains the Government's first priority, which inevitably means that difficult decisions will have to be taken both nationally and locally. Naturally, those will have an impact on the amount of money available to support local authorities in future. However, we are committed to strengthening the capacity for self-help for local authorities through our proposals for building a strong and fair society through the reform of the public services and encouraging social responsibility. To that end, we will promote the radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government and community groups through a decentralisation and localism Bill. It will give councils more power over housing and planning decisions-my hon. Friend referred to that-and will include a comprehensive review of local government finance. Fairness, accuracy and transparency must clearly be key factors in that review.
We have already announced that we will remove the ring-fencing around £1.7 billion of funding to local government, and we have made a commitment that we will not reduce the £29 billion of non-ring-fenced formula grant for local authorities in 2010-11. Both those decisions will allow councils greater control of spending decisions and maximum flexibility to deliver efficiencies and focus their budgets on their residents' needs and priorities. We will also give councils a general power of competence,
which will give them an explicit freedom to act in the best interests of their residents and voters, and we will provide incentives to deliver sustainable development, including of homes and businesses. All that will give local authorities and their partners greater flexibility to tackle the important factors identified by residents in making their area a good place in which to live.
Southend is a place with a bright future. Changes are being made, and I shall take on board and act as messenger as best I can on the points raised in relation to the airport, the civil service, regional development agencies and other matters. Part of our prospectus for taking decentralisation forward involves constructive joint working between local authorities and their neighbours. Southend, with its bright future, is well placed to deliver on that, and it is fortunate to have the doughty advocates that it does in my hon. Friend and its local councillors. My Department will, of course, work constructively with them and their community, as we will do with other communities, to offer a better future for his residents and all in this country.