Future of Seaside Towns - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:04 pm on 1st July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Beith Lord Beith Liberal Democrat 7:04 pm, 1st July 2019

My Lords, following the wise words we have just heard, I want to take you on a journey of nearly 500 miles from Weymouth to Berwick-upon-Tweed. I am fortunate to live in the beautiful, historic seaside border town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, and this valuable report examines many of the problems our town and many other seaside towns face.

We do not have the problem of a transient population and multi-occupied housing on the scale of Blackpool—I am fond of Blackpool from both childhood and party conferences, which I regret to say no longer happen there. I still have a great regard for Blackpool and recognise the seriousness of the problem. But we have all the other problems: seasonal employment, low wages, educational disadvantage, remoteness from medical services and the problems of being at the end of the road. In our case, the road is the A1, with still no plans to dual it the whole way to Berwick, although it is largely dualled on the Scottish side of the border.

I am glad that the report refers to what it describes as the 180 degrees factor. If you draw a circle to show the catchment area of a seaside town, the area on which it can draw from local trade, jobs and services is only a semicircle, because half of it is in the sea. In Berwick’s case, for public services, most of that semicircle does not count either, because it is on the Scottish side of the border and there is now an artificial barrier to access things across the border. That population is not counted in planning local service provision.

I must pay tribute to what local volunteers have achieved in making our town more attractive than ever to residents and visitors alike, drawing in public funding to do so. The Coronation and Castle Parks in Berwick have been wonderfully restored. The Maltings arts centre is a great cultural and entertainment asset, and the traditional Victorian resort amenities in Spittal have been beautifully restored and maintained through the work of the Spittal Improvement Trust.

That is what the report refers to as,

“the restoration and enhancement of the public realm and cultural heritage assets through capital investment”.

A lot of it has been done by volunteers and backed by local small business.

In this context, I mention another small Northumberland seaside town, Amble. It was a friendly but declining former coal mining and coal-exporting town, but now it is a lively and popular place to live and visit, with many small craft and food businesses, making Amble Harbour Village a growing attraction.

Berwick’s economy benefits greatly from tourism, probably much more than it did in Victorian times, particularly because of the large number of visitors in the caravan and holiday parks in and near the town and the increasing number of holiday lets, although they create housing problems of which the noble Lord, Lord Best, is aware.

Tourism can contribute even more if we get investment in underused attractions, such as Berwick’s early 18th century barracks. New funding initiatives such as the tourism deal and the Borders growth deal, a cross-border initiative, need to include not just very big projects near centres of population but projects in more isolated seaside towns, where a little can achieve a lot. I hope it is understood by the North East local enterprise partnership and the combined authority, in their bid for funding for a tourism zone in the region under the Government’s tourism sector deal, that those small communities need to share in those projects, because it all seems a bit remote from us. Northumberland County Council, in evidence to the committee, warned of too much emphasis on honeypot sites in VisitBritain’s work, with not much trickle-down to seaside towns.

However, the future of seaside towns is not just about tourism, important although it is: it is about deprivation, underprovision and lack of opportunity, and how we tackle them. It is about young people leaving the area because of our lack of opportunity, and consequently limited aspirations and low wages for those who remain—a point to which a previous noble Lord referred.

The only population growth in our area is from people who retire to the area, attracted by its beauty and lower house prices. Many are active contributors to the life of the community and to the very volunteer initiatives I spoke about earlier, but they cannot replace the lost generation of young people. In many areas, the presence of a university or college brings more young people into the area, some of whom stay, which in turn increases the opportunities and aspirations of local young people.

I cannot think of anywhere in England as far away from a university or further education college as Berwick-upon-Tweed. The report refers to limited access to education, in particular to FE and HE institutions, which severely curtails opportunities and dents aspirations for young people in some coastal areas. That is our story; it is very much what we experience. In paragraph 148 the report accepts that there is never going to be a bricks-and-mortar offering of higher education in every coastal town. No, but no town should be as far from such things as Berwick is. A higher education presence in the town, and a bigger further education presence—given that at present there are only elements provided by a distant college—would be hugely beneficial. We also need a new-build and newly administered high school. Academy status did not solve the problems of Berwick’s only post-13 school, and in some respects made it more difficult to secure the improvements needed. The target investment recommended in the report for secondary schools in seaside communities is certainly needed in Berwick.

Post-16 transport, which the committee refers to, has been a great problem for us. The only alternative to the local high school that became an academy is to go to a very distant further education college in Newcastle or Ashington. When the Liberal Democrats were running the council as a minority administration, we introduced free transport for those journeys. The next administration removed that provision, and it is time that we went back to dealing with the denial of opportunity that that means. There is no comparison between the position of someone within cheap or free daily travelling distance of further education and someone deprived by the very high cost of getting to a distant college.

Local authority funding in general affects the provision of so much in seaside communities. We all know how severely it has been restricted in recent years; it threatens many of the services on which we depend. Capital funding of projects has an important part to play in restoring and increasing the community assets of seaside towns, but it cannot replace the day-to-day funding needed to provide essential public services as well as to maintain and make use of those assets. There are few things more frustrating for seaside communities than to see restored facilities falling back into decline because the funding to maintain them or to promote continued activity in them has dried up.

We see similar issues in the National Health Service. We are awaiting a long-promised new hospital, but the issue for local people will be whether it is funded well enough to provide the widest range of health services that can be provided safely locally, since we are 50 miles from any of the main hospitals.

When you live in an attractive seaside town, you have great opportunities to enjoy the scenery and the presence of the sea, but that is not sufficient compensation if you need, and do not have, many of the opportunities and public and social services which, if you live in larger towns and cities, you can rely on or even take for granted. I do not think the Government’s response goes far enough in tackling these unfair disadvantages of many seaside communities.