Future of Seaside Towns - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:52 pm on 1st July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Knight of Weymouth Lord Knight of Weymouth Labour 6:52 pm, 1st July 2019

My Lords, like other members of the committee, I thank my noble friend Lord Bassam—briefly, but with feeling—for the wonderful way in which he chaired the committee, and I thank the staff and the other members of the committee for giving me an enjoyable nine months exploring this subject and for a useful report that does the House some credit. It is also a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Best, who brings his great expertise in housing and saves me from having to talk about it, because he has said it all. As a committee, we all had his insights from his visit to Blackpool. I want to underline his comments for the Minister, who I could see was listening carefully, and who I hope will pass those insights back to the department.

Around two years ago, my son told me that he had received messages on Facebook from his former classmates at Wey Valley School in Weymouth. They had left 10 years prior to that. There was an attempt to get a class reunion going, using a private group on Facebook. Fergus said that this gave him a chance to find out what all his classmates were doing. He said that everyone who, like him, had done A-levels over the hill in Dorchester had now gone on to university and left Dorset, and they were not coming back. I asked about the others. The person who had instigated this was one of the more enterprising young men in his class, and, like all the other enterprising men who were still in Weymouth, he was a personal fitness trainer—the enterprising job of choice. The other young men, who were slightly less enterprising, were dead, in prison or on benefits. The young women who did not get over the hill to do A-levels in Dorchester were all mums with two or three kids, and they did not have a class reunion, because £10 was more than they could afford for an evening out.

That told me a story, fairly graphically, of the social mobility problem in a town such as Weymouth, where, incidentally, as the report says, all the secondary schools are now in a below-average Ofsted category and are struggling. It has reinforced a sense that we need to focus more on community-level social mobility rather than just focusing on what education can do for individuals. At heart, that is what this committee was trying to get at. To achieve that, you need more population diversity than we get in a place such as Weymouth, where those struggling with disadvantage are to some extent crowded out statistically by an elderly, asset-rich population; they have their own problems, which I do not want to belittle, but they skew some of the statistics. That community and others like them around our coast also need economic diversity, away from the old bucket-and-spade, stag-night economy into something that, in the end, offers graduate-level employment. We will not regenerate these places without an offer that will entice some of Fergus’s classmates back to Dorset, or people like them back to Weymouth.

The problem is that these places are on the periphery of the economy and their problems are dispersed. My noble friend Lady Bakewell talked about the string of pearls—whatever they are, they are a string of issues. If they were concentrated together, we would all know about them a lot more. To some extent, they are concentrated in Blackpool, which is why the media picks on Blackpool unfairly. But that dispersal makes them easy to ignore. How will we get those aspirational, graduate-level jobs and careers? It is about culture, decent coffee and places to get nice food, a night-time economy that suits such people, and—if they are then going to have families—decent schools and health facilities.

These areas have a positive offer for quality of life. There is a fantastic quality of life in Weymouth and those other communities around the country. They also have cheap housing, but that is also a negative, because that is what has brought in those rogue landlords the noble Lord, Lord Best, talked about. From my experience as a constituency MP in South Dorset, what follows for the people living in those concentrations of houses in multiple occupancy is a terrible quality of life due to neighbourhood nuisance caused by some of the problems of those places that spill out. The classic regeneration solutions of residential planning gain or getting an anchor retail development do not quite cut it because of the periphery and because in a lot of these places the land values are not there to drive much commercial development.

To my mind, the answer is around the place-based approach that the report talks about, but led by education. Of course, I am biased—your Lordships will be aware of my interests in education, particularly as I work for TES Global. But I see the future—we are talking about the future of these places, not the halcyon days of the past—and it is in human capital development. That is what education is all about; the future economy will value human capital. We need to build talent pipelines in these places and not have education systems that are funnels which filter people out. The disadvantaged will always lose out from that filter. Bear in mind what employers are now starting to do when they hire; they are moving away from filtering on the basis of educational qualifications and starting to use talent analytics to work out what people can do, not accepting certificates as proxies for what they can do. That presents opportunities as well as challenges for the established status quo of education.

Where should we go in education? First and foremost, we need to focus on adult skills. There are great talents latent in these communities that need to be brought back in through a proper adult skill system. I would love to see a return to individual learning accounts—obviously, on a fraud-free basis.

We need a revival of part-time higher education. What has happened to the Open University, thanks to the way the funding system has been constructed, is a tragedy for such places. We need decent connectivity so that online learning, such as FutureLearn, run by the OU, can help in those places. We need integration with further education. We need apprenticeship ladders into the sectors that can offer aspirational graduate-level employment, so that a degree apprenticeship can be developed for sectors such as tourism and energy production with a sense of pace.

We also need a balanced curriculum in our schools, because employers are frustrated by our narrow focus in the school system. There is an obsession with the academic, with cognitive development at the expense of social and emotional development. That comes from study of the humanities and creative subjects, from more application of knowledge as well as its development. That is what employers want. We see that in the UTCs—the Scarborough UTC is mentioned in the report—and some of the innovative higher education development in places such as Coventry and Scarborough. That is very much to be welcomed.

The Government will say—I have read their response—that they are doing some of that place-based work in education through the opportunity areas. I was disappointed by the copy-and-paste approach from the Department for Education in the government response. It read just like a bunch of lines to feed to Ministers for questions. Instead, we need something that tries properly to understand what the committee was getting at.

There is freedom to innovate and I would love to see that deployed in our coastal areas to build collaboration, more vertical integration between school and further and higher education, an opportunity to remodel our teaching workforce around a different, more practical curriculum, that workforce enhanced by technology and able to do things previously inconceivable pedagogically, because they are being fed the raft of information that technology can now give teachers in the classroom. That innovation—that freedom from regulation and the stranglehold of our accountability system—in places such as Weymouth, where all our secondary schools are fundamentally struggling, would be a real liberation and a basis for the sort of coastal challenge strategy that the committee is after.

All that needs leadership, and others have talked about the need for leadership vision. Teach First was kind enough to bring some teachers up to Westminster to meet us, and we met one from Weymouth, who has come back to Weymouth having been brought up there. That is the only reason she came back as a graduate: she came to work in that seaside town because that is where she grew up. She was familiar with it, she knew about the quality of life, she knew she could get cheap housing and had already bought her first house. She was an example of the great offer for professionals, but she came back only because there was public sector employment.

We can get this right for seaside towns. We have a hugely divided nation at the moment. We need to give people on our periphery hope. If we can get it right for our seaside towns, we can get it right everywhere. Let us deliver the place-based approach and devolve power to leadership—be it private, voluntary or public sector—in those places so that they can get on and lift their communities.