Future of Seaside Towns - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:27 pm on 1st July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Mawson Lord Mawson Crossbench 7:27 pm, 1st July 2019

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, and the clerks for a very well-run committee. It was an enjoyable experience. We did some very useful digging into some of the issues faced by our seaside towns. It is one of the better committees that I have sat on. The amount of interest from local communities across the country and in the media was encouraging. The visits programme was particularly useful and instructive.

My colleagues and I have spent 35 years on the inside of the regeneration game. We have lived through and engaged with eight different Governments and tried with them all to be practical and pragmatic, building working relationships and making things work. In committees, we have not sat on top of the machinery, reading papers and looking down; we have purposefully placed ourselves in the middle of the machinery, and tried to join it up and make it work. We have the long view from the inside and the grey hairs to prove it.

We have also stayed focused in one housing estate in east London for all this time, so we have seen first-hand what happens as endless three-year policy initiatives pass through the poorest and most challenged communities in this country, with the latest bright idea from a Minister intent on making their mark. Of course, they never stay around long enough to see the consequences of their actions. We have many successful regeneration projects—some small, some very big—under our belts in the real world. The organic people-focused approach that helped us to get them there looks like the approach taken in the mythical town of Seaminster.

In Bradford we are bringing together with the local community a £22 million, 24/7, health, leisure, enterprise and community cluster development opposite the local teaching hospital in a mainly Pakistani area that has all the challenges we have been looking at in coastal towns. The Seaminster approach, or something similar to it, is one that we are trying to encourage. It starts with people and relationships rather than process, strategy and consultation so favoured by our civil servants.

It is interesting if you move beyond the usual ideological rhetoric that so often in practice undermines communities such as these and initiate an entrepreneurial culture focused on the principles set out in our report how quickly key players in the local community—the teaching hospital, the council, the business community—turn up at your door and start to create what we call a “sticky ball” that money, opportunity and people can start to stick to and connect with. We call that approach communities in business as distinct from a community in committee. I declare my interest as chairman of the Social Business Well North enterprises.

My reflections today are concerned with the inner workings of this regeneration machinery, the inside view. My colleagues and I have come to the conclusion that large parts of this government machinery are fundamentally not fit for purpose in a modern enterprise economy. The noble Lord, Lord Best, illustrated an aspect of this in his helpful presentation on housing. We have seen a lot of evidence that confirms this, yet on the ground in practice it seems that little changes.

The insights given to us by Chris Baron, the resort director of Butlins in Skegness, with his 500,000 visitors a year—the biggest private sector employer in the area—focused our minds. He told us of the key role his business played in supporting local employment, skills and training, and of his ambition for the company to offer more people more work across 52 weeks of the year. Yet recent changes in the national apprenticeship scheme were presenting real challenges. The basics of the scheme the Government had created did not work for him. I have heard this from other business people across the country. The latest national apprenticeship scheme—which could if it worked properly make a massive difference for the employment of young people in the town in an impressive business—was in practice preventing the very relationships that he needed to make it work.

We were also told by the public sector committee that we met in Skegness that there were real challenges working with partners at a national level; that national objectives, frameworks and guidelines did not always fit with local need; that there was a need for recognition of the length of time that development projects take and that those involved need to be able to plan over the long term. They of course failed to tell us, though, that every school in the town was in special measures. These disconnects are serious for the next generation.

A retired and disillusioned chartered engineer from Hornsea told us in his written evidence, which captured his frustration:

“We need our ‘stolen’ infrastructure to be restored before this area can be regenerated. Whilst as individuals we do our best, the local council does not encourage cooperation”.

Just after our report was launched I was rung up by a BBC journalist, Polly Weston, who had been given a brief to choose any postcode in the country and just turn up and see what was happening. She had landed in Ferryside, a small coastal seaside town in Wales. She had been listening online to our committee’s deliberations and was interested in the points I was making about the disconnects that were taking place across siloed governance structures, particularly in this case with regard to the Coastal Communities Fund. When I described our experiences over many years of the disconnects in the machinery she told me that this was exactly what was happening in Ferryside with the Coastal Communities Fund.

An academic who had recently moved locally was good at filling in government grant forms. He played the game and ticked all the boxes and secured a great deal of government funding. The programme, called the Patch, then takes you through the realities of what then happened on the ground as a consequence of this approach: namely, the wastage of money and the unintended consequences—a micro-story that you could replicate a thousand-fold across seaside towns. Polly told me how local people could not understand why money had been given for this rather eccentric project rather than supporting the struggling local school, for example. It turned out that the grant was from the Coastal Communities Fund, a joint initiative between the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Big Lottery to support projects that create new and sustainable—that is, long-lasting—jobs. This programme has spent £174 million on 295 projects UK-wide. It sounds excellent—except that, when Polly dug deeper, she found that it had not been evaluated and that the one and only project that those running the scheme could give as a successful example had already closed.

It is a classic example of the best intentions failing as a result of the assumptions made in the way it was implemented. Was it likely that civil servants and lottery officers would be able to pick successful entrepreneurs they often had not even met, in places they knew little about and probably had not even visited? I am sure that they all had lots of qualifications and degrees—but perhaps very little nous. It is the same mistake we make over and over again. You want to invest in a business in a small seaside town. How about getting experienced entrepreneurs to spend some time in it, get a feel for what is happening, what is what, who is making a real difference, spread the word and then invite people to come and pitch? We say that it is not about structures and processes. It is all about people meeting people and making judgments—on that basis primarily—and not on reports and papers. To me as a Yorkshireman it seems blindingly obvious and very straightforward, and I confess that I struggle to understand why anyone thought the approach taken with this fund—like so many others—would work.

We heard from the northern powerhouse initiative and the confident assertions of the Minister, Jake Berry MP, at the top of government; yet on the ground you hear a different story and real scepticism in our coastal communities that any of these fine words or money will get to them or make any difference, particularly in coastal communities and other communities outside our large northern cities. The LEP structures have clearly been a mixed bag when it comes to their effectiveness. Some say that many of them are neither local, enterprising or a good partner to work with—a mixed bag.

Another sad example is the difficulties the Heritage Lottery has got itself into by backing a charity to run Hastings pier, focusing on process rather than people and skills, I wonder whether the heritage assessors really knew about running a business on a pier. Did they get to know and assess the people who are going to run it or just focus on a business plan—which, as everyone who has ever run a business usually knows, falls apart on about day 10, and then you start again based on your actual experience rather than on assumptions. This is sad because it sets up people to fail and makes it harder it for the people who then have to try to turn things around.

The clues as to what we should do in the macro in our coastal communities are in the micro—in the opportunities we have seen. It is not about strategies, policies and research, so favoured by our civil servants. The modern world is all about people and opportunities. We have seen and met some of these amazing people who are doing this stuff—often despite rather than because of—in our coastal towns. We need to back them. We need to get behind the Lagoon project in Hull long term, or the approach of Hemingway’s multidisciplinary design agency, which told us that it transforms and cares about the detail as much as the big stuff: an important clue here. It believes in the power of culture-led regeneration and it achieves this through an inclusive process that it calls co-design. Wayne Hemingway was born in the coastal town of Morecambe and the Hemingway family home is by the sea. They say they have a stake in the coastline: another clue here.

However, how are these important traits weighted when it comes to government procurement? Very little, I suggest—yet they are in my experience an important key to success. Their passion was clear to the committee. The noble Lord, Lord Grade, rightly commented on it with some amusement. Their work in Boscombe, Margate and Morecambe is impressive. Jan Leandro of the Dreamland Trust said of them:

“It was like trying to paint with fog until Hemingway Design came along”.

There are many others like them. We have met them.

The engineers BuroHappold told us:

“The key thing that we have learned is that good partnership working takes time. Often it is about being on a journey for the long haul. Critical also has been our teams on the ground, working with local people who know the area and who understand the connections”.

More important clues here.

So what is the solution? How do we stop wasting so much taxpayers’ money, spraying resources at problems down these outdated silos with little care for the long term? If as parents we gave up on our children at the age of three, on the basis that three years should be old enough to deliver sustainable transformation, they would not reach adulthood and the evaluation would show that our method of procreation was clearly flawed and that we should stop. Yet the state is getting away with this and none of the present people putting themselves forward to lead this country seems to have even noticed the problem. Maybe because many of our political leaders are living their lives in the Westminster bubble and have little practical experience on the ground, and are aided and abetted by the media, they are asking the wrong questions or no questions at all about these important matters. Thus they are being found out by the electorate, who experience every day these realities.

We have seen clear clues as to what must be done. The 10 principles for successful regeneration are set out in the report and can be applied anywhere. Local leaders need to stop waiting and blindly following central government; they need to be encouraged to be bold and back the stones that roll locally. The clues are in the micro: stop looking upwards, look outwards. The Seaminster story is full of clues. It is organic, it is all about people and relationships and it is about partnerships. It is long term.

Finally, it is time to get practical, generate a culture that learns by doing, dump lots of ideology that does not work in practice and back a new generation of entrepreneurs in our coastal towns. It is time to understand, get inside these communities and let a thousand flowers bloom.