Future of Seaside Towns - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:14 pm on 1st July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Smith of Hindhead Lord Smith of Hindhead Conservative 6:14 pm, 1st July 2019

My Lords, it was an honour to serve on the Select Committee on Regenerating Seaside Towns under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton. I pay tribute to the hard work and assistance of the committee’s excellent clerks and staff. I must make reference to my various interests, as set out in the register, relating to the hospitality industry, since part of our deliberations related specifically to the important role which that industry plays in the life of many seaside resorts. I will limit my contribution to making just a few points and shall do so as promptly as possible, even with the luxury of an untimed debate.

The evidence we received during our work revealed that seaside towns faced three particular areas of challenge: the economy—jobs—infrastructure and education. During one of our evidence sessions, the economist Fernanda Balata from the New Economics Foundation said that what makes coastal communities different is their unique asset: the coastal and marine environment that surrounds them, and living in a 180-degree context. If policies could acknowledge this one priority, it would go a long way to creating better policy-making and support for coastal communities. It was these challenges and opportunities that the committee recognised and which were set out in our wide-ranging report, which covered so many different subjects, from health to housing and education to entertainment. Clearly, the problems of Blackpool are not shared by Bournemouth. That is not to say that parts of Bournemouth are not in need of assistance, but there is no single silver-bullet solution to every issue.

Part of the Government’s general response to our report was:

“The Government will have invested almost £227 million in the Great British Coast by 2020 through dedicated programmes like the Coastal Communities Fund and the Coastal Revival Fund, to help generate jobs and boost businesses and bring iconic or at-risk heritage and community assets back into economic use. This investment is having tangible results in our coastal towns”.

I acknowledge that our inquiry found that significant amounts of public funds were being spent. The problem I felt was that we found it difficult to establish how many jobs had been created and in what way businesses had been “boosted” as a result of these significant investments of taxpayers’ money. Could the Minister come back to me on the percentage contribution to the local economy in terms of jobs and business support which these funds have provided so far?

Cutting through some of the negative statistics that the Select Committee heard in relation to the social and economic position of many, but by no means all, seaside towns, and avoiding the frustration I personally felt at the somewhat casual responses received to questions as to how public funds were being deployed, one positive aspect of assistance which had made a difference to other struggling towns was the establishment of enterprise zones as part of the Government’s wider industrial strategy to support businesses and enable local economic growth. The Government mentioned enterprise zones in their response to our report, but I believe I am right in saying that in the list of current enterprise zones there is only one that could help a seaside town: Great Yarmouth.

I hope that the Government will consider further in the future my proposal that they might establish specific seaside town enterprise zones, or “seaside zones”. Seaside zones, like other enterprise zones, would give clear financial benefits from day one. Seaside zones could be more specific in terms benefiting the hospitality industry, for example, which is one of the largest employers in the seaside economy, accounting for around one in seven jobs, as well as focusing on infrastructure and broadband to help develop business growth. Will the Minister undertake to look again at this proposal?

I also propose that the way in which enterprise zones are currently awarded is thought through. The bidding process by its nature tends to advantage those towns which have a plan and a certain amount of leadership, rather than perhaps those towns which are in most need of the benefits of a zone. Are there any plans in the pipeline to review how enterprise zones are awarded? Will more seaside towns be considered in the future?

At the start of our report, details of the regeneration of New Brighton’s Victoria Quarter are detailed. The committee was struck by this substantial seaside town project being undertaken by a privately funded scheme. While its ultimate outcome is unknown, the early signs of success are evident and we were impressed and persuaded that the project’s characteristics were worthy of amplification. Indeed, they chimed with many of the elements of successful regeneration that we had already identified.

Daniel Davies, whom I know personally in his role as chairman of the Institute of Licensing, has financed this scheme under Rockpoint Leisure. He set out the familiar background of his home town. New Brighton had been a quintessential Victorian seaside town, flourishing until the 1960s. However, a decline in tourism combined with a range of other factors had seen the town’s fortunes dwindle and its image suffer. Mr Davies explained that evidence suggested that the seaside towns which have seen most success in shaking off a negative image are those which have identified their special character and unique selling points. This did not, however, demand reliance on a generic seaside image, which is outdated in some respects and can be unattractive to a large part of the population who consider the whole world to be relatively accessible as a destination. Instead, people need a reason to visit their seaside towns and their motivation should not be dependent entirely on tourism.

On the specifics of the project in New Brighton, the proposal was to provide small, affordable business units and shared-space rental opportunities to encourage small, independent businesses and start-up ventures. The company has now acquired seven premises within the district of the town. All were previously closed and in varying states of dilapidation. Two hospitality venues and a retail venue are currently trading, with a further two hospitality concepts set to open later this year, in addition to a creative hub. To date, the scheme has created more than 100 jobs, with a large proportion of those recruited coming from the local area. Employment numbers are set to rise in 2020.

Much of this success has been due to entrepreneurial skill and the fact that a private individual has been prepared to invest money, but Rockpoint Leisure has also attracted partners in the public sector, harnessing local pride and energy to produce a theme of improvement and stimulating dialogue between all stakeholders to promote community engagement. Much can be learned from this New Brighton venture, which would clearly be an ideal candidate to qualify as a seaside zone if such a zone could be considered. Private and public partnership schemes seem to be the best solution. When the private and public sectors are not engaged with each other, the rate of long-term success would appear to be low.

As we said in our report, visionaries made the seaside what it was. We still have the same entrepreneurial spirit within those communities. We need to harness that energy and local pride and combine it with effective investment from local and central government to deliver once again the needed improvements. In that way we can educate everyone who either does not know or has forgotten about the extraordinary quality of life and leisure time that can be had again beside the seaside, beside the sea.