Future of Seaside Towns - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:57 pm on 1st July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Further & Higher Education) 5:57 pm, 1st July 2019

My Lords, it is a privilege to present this report to your Lordships’ House. I have greatly enjoyed chairing the Lords’ seaside regeneration Select Committee. It is not often in politics that you get to report on something close to your heart, with a primary purpose of wanting simply to contribute to improving the lives of people and places. Noble Lords who know me will know that I went to school in Clacton, a town famous only for being invaded by mods and rockers in the 1960s and having a pop festival nearby at Weeley in 1971. I moved from that seaside resort to Brighton, a major seaside resort, and was then confronted with the observation by Keith Waterhouse that I lived in a place that was probably best known for helping the police with their inquiries.

On the report, I want to start with a few thank-yous. I give my thanks to the Lords’ team who supported me throughout the year, including the clerks: Matt Smith, Chris Clarke and Beth Hooper, ably backed up by Robert Cocks. I also thank Dervish Mertcan, who did our communications, and the Lords outreach team. I give special thanks for the work and thought put in by our special adviser, Nick Ewbank, and thanks too to the committee’s members, most of whom are here this evening. They gave generously of their time. Of course, I also thank the local authorities and public bodies which made all our visits possible and hugely interesting. Finally, I give a big thank you to the people who welcomed us to their communities, provided us with the evidence and ideas, and gave witness to the issues facing the seaside and our coastal communities.

The report stands as more than a wake-up call to those involved in government, locally and nationally. Why is that? It is because it needs to. More than a decade ago, a Commons committee pointed up the problems and issues facing coastal communities and, while some measures seem to have been put in place, much of what was said and recognised as issues has been ignored. During the intervening period, with a few notable exceptions—Brighton, Bournemouth and, yes, Blackpool—many of our seaside towns and communities have gone backwards, when they ought to have been moving forwards. If action is not taken soon to reverse the decline of many of the communities the report covers, the problems associated with them will become intractable and irreversible. The resentments that have led to a sense of these communities feeling left out and left behind in our nation’s story will become permanent.

We can either move towards “Seaminster”, our mythically reinvented, regenerated place, or move into only a spiral of decline, disconnection and community failure by the sea. Given our innate love of the seaside, which all in the UK share and generally celebrate, that would seem a major failure of public policy and a waste of a precious, protective, glorious national asset—our coastline. I take it as a given that we have not all fallen out of love with the British seaside and so did our Lords committee. We discovered that sense of place on our visits, and a passion within the communities we travelled to. The report is all about finding a renewed sense of purpose for the seaside and a route map. None of this comes without a cost but, with leadership and a vision for the future, we believe that the UK seaside can be transformed and be a place for dreaming and fun, and a place to be—as both home and host.

So what did we find? Our report was addressed over a year; we came to our conclusions just after Christmas, and published in April 2019. We heard from 52 oral witnesses and received over 120 written submissions on a range of issues that affect our coast. We were clear that the inquiry could not be conducted within the confines of Westminster. We wanted to ensure that the voices of the people who live and work in seaside towns and communities helped shape our inquiry. That is why the committee travelled the country, visiting six different seaside areas, to give people living on the coast the opportunity to tell us about their issues and concerns.

However, during our visits we also saw many examples of where communities have found solutions to the challenges they face, and have reinvented themselves through effective leadership and partnership work, utilising the unique assets that seaside towns have. For too long, these communities have been neglected. They should be celebrated as places that can provide attractive environments for visitors and residents alike. Our report, therefore, made the following recommendations.

We observed inadequate transport connectivity, holding back many coastal communities and hindering their economic potential. We asked for a detailed review of the coastal transport network to assess where the greatest socioeconomic benefits can be realised through improvement to transport links. We commented on the need for improved digital connectivity, presenting a significant opportunity to overcome the challenges of peripherality that persist in coastal areas. The committee felt that the provision of high-quality broadband in coastal locations should be a priority.

We commented on limited access to education, particularly to FE and HE institutions, and how that curtails opportunities for young people in many coastal areas. We considered that greater scope for flexible access, such as online, part-time and distance learning, should be part of the solution, and we recommended that the Government produce ambitious proposals for how this can be achieved. We commented on the cost of post-16 transport, as an impediment to accessing educational opportunities. We recommended that the Government fund relevant local authorities to provide full public transport costs for post-16 year-old students.

Poor-quality housing was among the significant problems reported by residents of seaside areas. We therefore recommended a package of measures to tackle issues related to housing, including measures to address the perverse financial incentives to offer poor accommodation. Recommendations around easing the pressures on inspection and enforcement regimes, and measures to support more regeneration of existing housing, were offered. We commented on local enterprise partnerships. They should have a clear role and responsibility to support seaside regeneration where it is most needed. LEPs can and should help depressed seaside towns to build their visions through local industrial strategies.

Beyond 2021, the committee felt that the coastal communities fund should be focused on projects that aim to encourage sustainable place-based approaches to regeneration. We recommended that the Government should secure town deals for Blackpool and other deprived seaside towns. We strongly supported determined action between Government and local government to tackle the root causes of deprivation. Finally, we felt that a variant of enterprise zones specifically designated for coastal areas could offer seaside towns a package of interventions to meet the challenges of peripherality, poor connections and the difficulty of attracting private investment and businesses to those areas.

The Government’s response was helpful in some ways, but rather disappointing in others. However, at the beginning, it recognised that,

“coastal communities are comparatively more deprived and on average underperform economically in comparison to other areas”,

and that, despite investment to date,

“there is more that needs to be done by Government and all stakeholders”.

I think all noble Lords can sign up to that. We welcome this recognition, as it speaks to our core assertion that, although many of the features of deprivation are common across other areas of the country, some seaside towns are labouring under disadvantages. Many have seen a decline in their traditional core industries, most notably domestic tourism, but also fishing, shipbuilding and port activity. Much of the economic activity is linked to seasonality, and their location on the periphery of our country—literally at the end of the line—places them on the periphery of the economy, bringing consequential social problems. The case we made, based on the evidence we received, is that what makes these areas distinct is the combination of industrial decline and geography, and that it is this combination of challenges that warrants dedicated attention and special intervention and support for those communities.

However, although the Government’s response acknowledges that coastal communities are at a particular disadvantage, sadly it failed to give its support for many of the targeted interventions suggested by our report. The response indicates that the Government will act on some of our recommendations, including around transport costs for young people, accessing education and apprenticeships, and considering a town deal for Blackpool; and that they will consider the points we raised on coastal flood risk investment decisions, as part of the preparation for the next flood and coastal erosion risk investment programme, due to start in 2021. We clearly welcome these commitments.

The short introduction to the Government’s response emphasises existing efforts to improve seaside towns, referring to the role of the 146 coastal community teams in providing coastal towns,

“the opportunity to think about what makes them distinctive”.

However, we were clear that, to tackle the persistent issues faced by seaside towns, action and support is needed at all levels, from Government downwards and the community upwards. We welcome the Government’s commitment to reinstate the cross-Whitehall official-level meeting, which we hope will help provide a more strategic approach to coastal communities’ policy-making. There was, however, no detail provided on when these meetings would commence, how regularly they would occur—they have not occurred for nearly 10 years—and what format they might take. A meeting in Whitehall is not a solution to the problems experienced by people living by the coast.

LEPs are tasked with playing a central role in determining local economic priorities and undertaking activities to drive economic growth and job creation, improve infrastructure and raise workforce skills within the local area. They should, therefore, have a significant role to play in the regeneration of seaside towns. However, we heard widespread concern that LEPs, in their focus on job creation and economic improvement, tend to favour building on known successes rather than tackling more problematic areas. We saw a significant opportunity, in the development of local industrial strategies, for LEPs to have a renewed focus on promoting economic growth in seaside towns and for greater collaboration between LEPs that cover coastal areas. We were, therefore, disappointed to see that the Government’s response failed to acknowledge either the concerns raised by the committee about the support offered by LEPs to seaside towns or our recommendation for how this support could be strengthened.

Our recommendations on housing included a comprehensive package of measures aimed at tackling the distinct housing issues residents of seaside towns feel. These relate to the prevalence of poorly managed HMOs. The Government’s response listed the tools that local authorities can use to tackle problem HMOs but failed to take into account the evidence we highlighted that suggested that local authorities in some areas feel that they do not have the resources to use those tools effectively.

Our report made a range of recommendations on higher and further education, highlighting the fact that limited access, in particular to FE and HE institutions, is severely restricting opportunities for young people living in coastal communities.

We welcome the Government’s positive response on post-16 transport. We will be interested in the outcome of the plans laid out in the response for action at ministerial level to address the question of how to ensure that young people are not deterred from taking up apprenticeship opportunities due to travel costs.

We urge the Government to take note of the concerns the committee highlighted as to how well the apprenticeship scheme functions in some areas and sectors with high levels of seasonal employment.

Our report highlighted the shared prosperity fund as a key opportunity to help support coastal business development, particularly in sectors that are often fundamental to seaside towns, such as tourism and retail, and to tackle deprivation in those coastal communities. We recommended that any future plans around the operation and priorities of the fund must set out a clear indication of how our deprived communities will benefit. We also recommended that coastal local authorities must be consulted on how the fund might support regeneration in their areas. The response indicated that the Government,

“would welcome the views of coastal communities on how the UK Shared Prosperity Fund can deliver coastal regeneration, including responses from local authorities and Coastal Community Teams”.

It would be helpful if the Minister could outline how the Government intend to ensure that the views of those living in coastal areas will be heard in this process and how those views will impact on policy development.

With regard to town deal and enterprise zones, we welcome the Government’s commitment to consider a town deal for Blackpool. We feel strongly that support for struggling seaside towns such as Blackpool should involve a strategic approach between national and local authorities and LEPs to address the more intractable economic and social challenges that are causing persistent disadvantage.

The committee recommended that enterprise zones in seaside towns could offer these areas a package of place-based interventions, including financial and practical benefits for business location that could support long-term, sustainable change. As part of this, we also made a plea for arts-led regeneration, which we think the Government have ignored to a greater degree. The Government’s response suggested that there were no plans for additional enterprise zones, and listed programmes such as the coastal communities fund and the coastal revival fund as measures already in place. Although these funds provide a welcome source of support for coastal towns, the report is clear that deprived coastal areas would benefit from a distinct package of measures aimed at promoting local economic activity to ensure that long-term, sustainable improvements can be achieved.

The report stands as a critique of current public policy, in so far as it exists, on coastal communities. It points to the real problems that continue to exist and have worsened over recent years in health, housing, economic prosperity, transport disconnection and education. It is a shocking fact that over the last seven years educational aspiration in coastal communities has regressed, with 27% fewer young people from coastal areas getting into university and no evident signs that training and apprenticeship opportunities have taken up the slack. Social mobility is lowest in those communities. There is real sense that seaside areas, the end-of-the line places we all love, are missing out on the wealth generated in our metropolitan centres and heartlands. Residents of such areas feel left behind. Given that some 4 million people live on the coast and that the coast is a major tourist opportunity for the nation, we need urgently to reverse many of the trends bedevilling coastal prosperity and social inclusion. Our report is a starting point and a way forward. I beg to move.