Future of Seaside Towns - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:23 pm on 1st July 2019.

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Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Liberal Democrat 6:23 pm, 1st July 2019

My Lords, my full title is Lord McNally of Blackpool and I am a member of the Blackpool Pride national advisory board and chairman of the Fleetwood Trust. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, both for his introduction to this debate and for the collegiate and constructive way in which he chaired our committee. I think that we sometimes think of the noble Lord rather as parliamentary enforcer from his days as Chief Whip in the Labour Party, but he led us with great good humour and only a minimal tendency to remind us of what he termed Brighton’s “golden age”, which seemed to coincide with his own leadership of Brighton council in the 1990s. I echo the thanks offered by both the noble Lords, Lord Bassam and Lord Smith, to our clerks and advisers as well as to Nick Ewbank, our specialist adviser, Beth Hooper, our policy analyst, and Robert Cocks, the committee assistant.

Sarah O’Connor, writing in the Financial Times in November 2017, stated:

“Blackpool exports healthy skilled people and imports the unskilled, the unemployed and the unwell”.

Our report shows that that could have been written about many of our seaside towns. They faced a collapse of the old seaside holiday industry based on boarding houses for the families of the workers of industrial Britain. That collapse was compounded by a straitjacket of a benefits and housing policy which almost incentivised the slum landlord and burdened seaside towns with a concentration of social problems which, by their very nature, accentuated the spiral of decline.

Our report makes strong recommendations about the need for flexibility in national policy so that local authorities could offer bespoke solutions to the social and economic challenges they face. We also call for longer, more strategic assistance rather than a series of short-term, small-impact, penny-packet initiatives.

During our travels, we saw some bold and successful regeneration initiatives, often based on cultural investment, such as the Turner Contemporary at Margate and the Tate at St Ives. At Clacton and Skegness, we saw how investment in sea defences could be used to enhance the tourism offer. We received a wide range of evidence about the importance of transport links and investment in high-quality education and training as well as better digital connectivity. It was encouraging to see on our visit to Skegness how Butlin’s was prospering by providing themed weeks and weekends for specific target audiences —something that could be imitated by other resorts. It was also good to see the Butlin’s company fully committed to a training programme for people wanting to make a career in the leisure industries.

Our report gives the opportunity for a well-co-ordinated, focused approach to the problems facing our seaside towns. As an example of the collegiate approach fostered by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, when the committee started, the noble Lord, Lord Smith, and I were rather at opposite ends of the spectrum, with me looking to public intervention and him espousing private initiative. By the end, I think we were in close agreement that the partnership he mentioned in his speech is necessary for success, as, too, is the kind of initiative he cited in respect of New Brighton, where an individual with a commitment to the locality and a vision for the future can make an enormous difference.

Given its previous success, changes in holiday patterns together with the decline of the historical industrial base meant that Blackpool had a harder fall and was left with bigger problems. It is the very severity of Blackpool’s problems which caused me to argue that giving Blackpool specific and concentrated help was not special pleading. Success in Blackpool could provide the template for dealing with similar problems in other coastal areas. Nor is Blackpool simply holding out the begging bowl. As we found when the committee visited the town, a strong partnership between the private and public sectors is having a major impact on investment and facilities. I look forward to the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Valentine, whom the Prince’s Responsible Business Network drafted in to give help and advice. She has just finished her term there having had a tremendous impact on local attitudes.

We have seen in Blackpool new hotels, a new conference centre and new leisure attractions, including a new museum to celebrate Blackpool’s unique place in the history of our entertainment industry. This morning, I heard about a plan for a national entertainment academy in partnership with Blackpool and The Fylde College and Lancaster University’s creative arts department. That kind of vision means that Blackpool is very close to the tipping point between being part of the problem of our seaside towns and providing a template for their success.

At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th in Blackpool, a partnership between a progressive local authority and far-sighted entrepreneurs created 20th century Blackpool, with the building of the tower, the tramway, the Pleasure Beach and the illuminations. I believe a similar partnership now exists. That is why the committee supported the suggestion of a town deal for Blackpool. By blending existing work with new commitments from partners and government, a town deal for Blackpool would deliver a strong, holistic response to the town’s needs.

As well as a positive Whitehall response, we must also ensure that government really is joined up, so that one department is not undoing the good work being done by another. For example, will the Minister press the Ministry of Justice to make an early decision on relocating Blackpool courts? MoJ delay is delaying the release of £300 million of private sector investment and the creation of 1,000 new jobs via the Blackpool Central leisure development, in which the courts still squat. Can we have an early decision from the Cabinet Office, the DWP and the Ministry of Defence about the consolidation of Civil Service jobs in a new Civil Service hub in Blackpool town centre? That consolidation should include retention by the Ministry of Defence of the Norcross-based Veterans UK unit, which has been serving the social and medical needs of veterans for three generations. Individual departments have to look at the social implications of what they are doing, not just do a tick-box exercise. That will bring civil servants together in what looks like a logical suggestion but will have a devastating effect on an area such as Blackpool, which had and still has a massive concentration of civil servants’ departments. I think I have told the House before that the first job I was ever offered, when I was 16, was in the land registry in St Annes. Who knows where I might have ended up if I had joined then? Probably at the land registry in St Annes.

One of things the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, did, in his collegiate way, was to offer us all an opportunity to write a little block in the report. Noble Lords will have seen that my piece is not about Blackpool but about Fleetwood. That is in part because, during our deliberations, the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, convinced me that the well-being of our ports should also be of concern. In my piece, and in the evidence we received when visiting Fleetwood Dock, we outline the problems that have hit Fleetwood over the past 40 years: the loss of the deep-sea fishing industry, the rail link and the ferry services to Ireland and the Isle of Man. These came on top of the other factors hitting seaside towns, already identified. Following the committee’s visit to Fleetwood, I accepted the chairmanship of the Fleetwood Trust, a charity formed by local church, community and business leaders to restore the old and derelict Fleetwood Hospital as a community hub meeting social, health and community needs. It is a good example of a community making its own weather, and I put on record my thanks for the advice the noble Lord, Lord Mawson, gave us, drawing on his own vast experience, not least in Bromley-by-Bow. Associated British Ports owns a large expanse of derelict land around the old dock area and it is essential that the company shows social and corporate responsibility, as well as its profit motive, in discharging its responsibilities in determining how that land is developed.

Joined-up government and good private and public partnership, are the essentials of regeneration success, which is why I worry about the plethora of bodies one has to negotiate with. Is this a matter for Whitehall or the LEP, for the county council or the local council? In the 1960s there was talk of a city of the Fylde between the Ribble and the Wyre. Certainly, it will need a sense of vision and a certain generosity of spirit between the Fylde coastal bodies to maximise the benefits of any central government initiative. I put on record here my thanks to the Prince’s Trust and the Prince’s Responsible Business Network for the help they have given both Blackpool and Fleetwood in this respect. I was less impressed, on our visit, by the Duchy of Cornwall. We were shown a very impressive housing estate, but I did not leave Cornwall with the feeling that the Duchy was showing the kind of leadership I had expected in the area. Likewise, the Crown Estate could show a lot more responsibility, considering its interests in seaside assets.

I give the last word, however, to the estimable Sarah O’Connor of the Financial Times. Following our report she wrote a second article, reflecting on what we had said, in which she said:

“Real solutions to the problems would include more long-term funding for health, education and social care in seaside towns that reflect the complex needs of living there; physical and digital infrastructure investment; and power and resources for local people to reform their economy and housing markets”.

I could not agree more. We are about to have a new Prime Minister. The Duke of Wellington, when he became Prime Minister, came out of his first Cabinet meeting and said that it was all “Talk, talk, talk”. I think we need a little more from the new Administration. I prefer Churchill’s “Action this day”.