My Lords, in speaking to the report by the Select Committee on the future of seaside towns, I wish to focus on two aspects of our inquiry which had most significance for me. I was a somewhat wayward member of that committee, absent unavoidably from several of its sessions and unable to join many of the specific visits, so I pay tribute to the unqualified concentration brought to the committee not only by its chairman, the consistently committed and well-informed noble Lord, Lord Bassam, but by its diligent and focused members and its excellent and sympathetic staff.
First then, education. I had the chance to chair an afternoon round-table discussion among schoolchildren in Skegness. They loved their home town. They were lively, enthusiastic and hopeful for their futures. But problems soon became evident. All seemed well enough until they began to plan for their jobs. Skegness is not alone among seaside resorts in lacking adequate higher education opportunities. What is more, transport to reach the nearest such opportunities is poor and costly for young people. Rail connections are few—Beeching devastated Lincolnshire. People struggle to get from Skegness to the county town of Lincoln. There is an hourly bus service that takes two hours. From Mablethorpe, the journey—five buses a day—also takes two hours, with a change of buses at Louth, or there is an hourly service via Skegness, taking three hours and two minutes. These lengthy times are all within one county.
In its evidence, Bus Users UK highlighted the problems this creates for young job searchers across the country. Some 23% of 18 to 24 year-olds responding to its survey cited the lack of a suitable bus service, often aggravated by local authority cuts, as a key barrier to finding jobs. Our report found that inadequate transport connectivity is holding many coastal communities back and recommended that the Department for Transport prioritise improvements to the coastal transport system. Unfortunately, the Government’s response is feeble, throwing the responsibility back to various local authorities. Our further suggestion that the Government fund local authorities to provide full public transport costs for post-16 students in coastal communities had slightly more success. We were referred to the 16 to 19 year-old bursary fund and the intention to launch a consultation on how it might one day help with transport—by which time it will of course be too late for the young people round the table in Skegness.
Their chances of higher education need major attention—we have seen the difference that the University of Sussex made to the economy of Brighton. Of course, that is not going to happen in many seaside resorts, although the chance of having outlying hubs of learning from inland universities should not be dismissed. It is all the more important that online, part-time and distance learning get strong government support—suggestions endorsed by the recent findings of the Augar report on post-16 year-old study. This would of course be enhanced if the Government seriously addressed the shortcomings in the availability of wi-fi in many communities. We were discussing this six years ago when I sat on the Communications Committee. Progress is sluggish. Why?
My second interest is in the arts and entertainment. I recently had the pleasure of presenting Worthing with the pier of the year award—I am one of the patrons of the National Piers Society. At that event, the mayor emphasised how much the pier and its theatre contributed to the town’s identity and appeal. This is so for the approximately 50 piers around England and Wales. Many of them are thriving: Cromer, Clacton, Southend and Deal are all enjoying new investment. Individual entrepreneurs—the kind of people referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Smith—take a personal delight in making them a success. Councils are keen to help but struggle to find funding. Piers remain a ready-built, attractive and popular destination for thousands of visitors. They deserve more support from heritage funding.
More broadly, we heard how the arts in general help to regenerate and rejuvenate a coastal resort. The south coast is known for what the Arts Council has referred to as its string of pearls: art galleries stretching along the south coast from Margate, Hastings and Bexhill to Eastbourne, are all thriving. Artists looking for affordable studios are coming in increasing numbers to such seaside resorts and are themselves becoming a hub of cultural activity. St Ives is perhaps our most celebrated and long-term success. Margate is another. Deal is growing in popularity too. It is a spontaneous social movement that is making such resorts more popular in general.
It is a given for investment by the Government, and they can already see the benefits such investments are bringing. I urge them to grasp the opportunities so evident in this field, seize the day and make seaside resorts the destinations we want to visit in ever greater numbers.