Future of Seaside Towns - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:13 pm on 1st July 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Wyld Baroness Wyld Conservative 7:13 pm, 1st July 2019

My Lords, it was my pleasure, too, to serve on such a thoughtful and solution-focused committee. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, for chairing the Committee in such an open-minded and collaborative way. On a personal note, if your Lordships will indulge me, this was my first time serving on a Select Committee and I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord for his encouragement and support as I learned the ropes. I assure my Front Bench that I did my very best not to agree with him too often. Our clerks were absolutely first class and a pleasure to work with; I extend my thanks to them too.

The inquiry was important to me at a personal level, as someone who spent childhood weekends at Newbiggin-by-the-Sea—not quite as far up as the noble Lord, Lord Beith, but the proud north-east, all the same—and regular summer holidays in Blackpool. I know that I can never compete with the noble Lord, Lord McNally, in his love of Blackpool; but, when we went on our highly informative fact-finding trip last September, it felt like only yesterday that I was heading back to our guest house on Reads Avenue, on a high after meeting Keith Harris and Orville.

As the political world raged around us on all sides, it was a relief to focus in depth and in detail on ways to allow all our fantastic seaside towns to prosper. Some of them are really prospering, and thanks to excellent local leadership and innovative ideas have responded to change and remain exciting, dynamic places to be. Those that experience social and economic difficulties are certainly not lacking in things to be proud of, as we heard from some inspirational young people we met who were working in Blackpool Tower.

We have a balancing act to perform, here, as the noble Lord, Lord McNally, alluded to. We must not fall into the trap of pushing out solely negative messages: how utterly demoralising it is for young people growing up in towns that are talked about purely in terms of problems. Every town that we heard about or visited had many things to be proud of, including the way in which many of them are tackling difficult legacy issues. While Westminster and Whitehall too often talk in terms of strategies and processes, our most impressive evidence came from those with a people-focused approach. In the report we highlighted a dynamic GP in Fleetwood, who gave us a very impressive overview of a community public health campaign he had spearheaded with colleagues, which delivered tangible physical and mental health improvements for many local residents. What sticks in my mind is his insight into why it worked so well: because people were supported and encouraged to own their own improvements, they became the do-ers, rather than the done-to.

This, for me, is the key to turning around the communities that face particular socioeconomic problems. To be clear, it is not an abdication of responsibility on the part of government. On the contrary, it is about the need to be much clearer about and more focused on how and where support is given to towns. While I agree that Whitehall needs to be far more joined-up—although we say that in every debate we ever have—our recommendation that the Government reinstate a cross-Whitehall meeting about seaside towns comes with a caveat from me. Be very clear about what the centre can and cannot deliver. Take swift action where clearly needed. We have heard about a number of policy recommendations at a central level, all of which are sensible. But the Government’s job is to empower, rather than micro-manage, local communities; we can be more diligent, first, and then more creative in how we do that.

On diligence, I would like to see a much clearer evaluation of the outcomes of distribution of public funds and the plethora of strategies, deals and zones we have heard about. I support the point that my noble friend, Lord Smith, made about that. We often had to push too hard when we were taking evidence from departments and public bodies to get concrete examples of successful outcomes. A more joined-up, cross-government approach can address this, but lines of responsibility must be very clear: who is going to grip this? And of course, the political will must be there. I believe that it is, but we need to see direction from the very top of government from day one of the next Prime Minister taking office, whoever is chosen.

We can also be more creative, though, and work harder at thinking about policy from a people-centric approach. Of course, the committee addressed some critical issues such as housing, transport infrastructure and broadband, all of which are fundamental to unlocking potential within many of the towns we discussed. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Knight, pointed out, structural improvements will not by themselves turn around a lack of confidence in young people who have never seen anyone go out to work. Better broadband and transport links will not in themselves give a mid-life or older person the confidence to retrain, or give anyone the courage to try a new venture and achieve the entrepreneurial spirit we talked about. Hard policy interventions will not end the sometimes snobby attitudes to the hospitality industry which mean that young people do not know about the brilliant opportunities for fast career progression.

For that, we need campaigners, role models and an education system that has the resources, the space and the contacts to prepare young people and support older people to find and work for the best employers, and to aspire themselves to be the best employers. In their response, the Government recognised the need to attract outstanding teachers to seaside towns and set out a number of pilot initiatives on offer, albeit limited to certain subjects. I agree to some extent with the points that the noble Lord, Lord Knight, made: it did feel like a slightly piecemeal approach. I hope that the Government will act quickly to assess the success of the initiatives and extend them if they are demonstrably driving up numbers. I am by nature very cautious about calling for more taxpayers’ money. If ever there is a case for investment, though, it is in people who open up the world for others.

Of course, there is also an onus on local education and business leaders and other employers to work more closely together to provide exposure to opportunities in the world of work at an earlier age. Something that annoys me in politics and in debates such as this is when people talk about areas that are economically deprived and say, “There is real poverty of aspiration”. It is hard to aspire to something if you cannot even see what is on offer and how the world is changing. We should not believe that these people are any different from us or that they do not want better lives for their children; we need to open that world up to them.

On that point, we were forced to ask ourselves whether we are educating people to stay or to go. If we get things right, people will stay, or leave and come back, or leave—but, crucially, to be replaced by others who want to work in a vibrant, thriving community. In theory, the fourth industrial revolution should be a great opportunity to reinvent and revitalise: base yourself anywhere, set up a business in an area of great beauty, teach and bring up children by the sea, and stay close to your extended family, or come back to them. I urge the Government to pick up the pace because I genuinely believe that for our seaside towns, based on many of the inspiring local leaders and local people we had the pleasure to meet, the sky can be the limit.