Future of Seaside Towns - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:53 pm on 1st July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Shipley Lord Shipley Liberal Democrat 7:53 pm, 1st July 2019

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester. The House should know that there has been no choreography between his speech and mine, but he referred to the 2,260 objectors to the closure of the Whitby lines and I was one of them. I attended each day of the hearing of the Transport Users Consultative Committee in the Spa theatre in Whitby. I shall not repeat the history of what happened, but I agree with the conclusion reached by the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, that for many seaside towns the closure of their railway lines mattered to their economic livelihood.

This has been a wide-ranging debate, inevitably reflecting the differences between large towns with universities and much smaller towns with less varied economies. I was not a member of the Select Committee, but my interest in putting my name down to speak stems from my formative years in a seaside town: Whitby. I am glad the committee paid it a visit. I go to Whitby regularly to visit and have been much impressed by the entrepreneurial spirit which has seen Whitby manage change over the decades from a visitor economy which was mostly dependent on week-long or fortnight-long seaside holidays to one in which shorter breaks themed as specialist weeks or weekends and day trips have become much more important. At the same time, the fishing industry has experienced a major downturn, like elsewhere, and yet there has been a resilience in the town and a lot of enterprising initiatives which I hope the committee heard about when it visited.

There are a large number of recommendations to the Government in this report, but inevitably government cannot do everything, so I shall say a brief word about the role of non-governmental organisations. First, I highlight the important role of the private sector in investing to expand local businesses, building on local products and local skills. It is partly a function of local enterprise partnerships, but I suggest that chambers of commerce could have a role in identifying what those development opportunities might be.

Then there are organisations, such as English Heritage, which through their publicity can help to market a place, not just themselves. In the case of Whitby this has been done particularly well, but there are many examples. There is then the Arts Council. I am very grateful for a very lengthy briefing it sent to those who were going to speak. It was instructive to read about the significant contribution the Arts Council has been making to seaside communities and that that contribution has been increasing. I am particularly pleased by the number of projects under its national portfolio and the budget that it has been able to support, so I simply say, “Let us have more of that”.

There is then the voluntary sector. Here I go back to railways. The creation and success of the North Yorkshire Moors Railway is an exceptional achievement that has been delivered with the vision and determination of a lot of local people following the Beeching closures. It demonstrates what can be done by local people.

There are then television and broadcasting companies which through drama productions can reinforce the attractiveness of a place to visit. I think of “Heartbeat”, but there are others which promote an area to encourage people to visit.

In the end, places must evaluate their strength and opportunities and propose actions through their local enterprise partnership for government and an English tourist board to build on.

On the issue of broadband, a number of points have been made about access to broadband. There is no doubt that what the committee’s report says is true. It is the case that business start-up rates are lower in coastal areas, so important recommendations are made. I observe that Cornwall, which has had Objective 1 status for 20 years, has much better broadband access. We now need a solution by place just as Cornwall has had. What will the Government do for other coastal areas to replicate what has been achieved for Cornwall? It requires planning.

I now move to funding issues. First, there is a three paragraph response from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government in the Government’s reply which talks about the next two years of local government spending and how priorities will be assessed. Many of these seaside areas are run by district councils. County councils will have the greatest funding pressures through the burden of adult social care and support for children’s services, which are two major pressure points. As district councils are responsible for most seaside towns—some are unitaries, but most are not—I would like to hear from the Minister exactly how the Government plan to address their funding.

That brings me to the shared prosperity fund. Paragraph 29 of the Government’s reply says:

“Details of the operation and priorities of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund are due to be announced following the Spending review which will take place later in the year”.

So far, so good. The problem here is that there are strong rumours that there will be no spending review this autumn and that it will be deferred for a further year. If the Minister is in a position to give us any further update on that, it would be helpful. The shared prosperity fund is an urgent issue for councils—and, if they are to administer the fund, local enterprise partnerships as well—as they need to understand the level of funding that they will get. I recognise that the Government have attempted to address some funding issues for coastal areas through the Coastal Communities Fund, the Coastal Revival Fund and coastal community teams. All these things help, but they are not a replacement for mainstream departmental funding.

That takes me to the Department for Transport’s cost-benefit ratios. I might be misremembering, but I think that Scarborough Borough Council claimed that the DfT fails to take into account seasonal variations in its formulae for leisure travel. That strikes me as an important consideration because places that are already strong tend to end up with a better cost-benefit ratio, as the gain will be quicker and faster and that of course appeals to the Treasury. Therefore, any comment that the Minister can give us on how the DfT allocates money will be helpful. Indeed, the Government’s response says that a rebalancing toolkit is being applied by the Department for Transport. If the Minister can say anything about what has been achieved with that toolkit, that too will be helpful.

I was going to talk about the housing issue and the local housing allowance, but the noble Lord, Lord Best, has done such a magnificent job on it that I cannot add anything. I hope that the wording I see in the Government’s response means that they plan to do something about that.

Finally, I want to say a word on educational provision. We must note the lower achievement in coastal communities at key stage 4. That has the impact of lowering aspiration and engagement in higher education. I used to work for the Open University. We did a lot of work in supporting students in the more geographically remote areas. Access to higher education in coastal areas has been affected by the worrying fall in part-time study since 2011-12. Therefore, the committee’s recommendation for more flexible approaches and flexible access to online, part-time and distance learning has to be part of the solution. In the words of the Open University, it is essential for future regeneration that local people do not have to “leave to learn”.

There has been quite a lot of discussion about place-based planning. I want to echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth. I think that he concluded by saying, “Let’s deliver a place-based approach”. It is terribly important to have said that because when you have departments that are based effectively in London operating with local enterprise partnerships, no government offices, and the silo workings of Whitehall, which the noble Lord, Lord Mawson, talked about, these things matter. Each place is different; they are not all the same, with the same problems and the same solutions. Therefore, the Government have to organise the targeted interventions that we need and deliver effective cross-departmental working, and I hope that we will hear from the Minister that they will do just that.