I begin by adding my congratulations to my “roomie”, my noble friend Lord Bassam, and his committee members on producing a fine, comprehensive and compelling report. The coverage it has received is due testament to its quality, and the Government’s response has shown consideration but a certain lack of commitment in addressing the proposals that it raises.
There is much to be done in these communities, left behind as they have been, and the report suggests that there is no single solution to their circumstances. The committee has identified some helpful themes to assist in finding solutions, including, as we have heard, superfast broadband, education facilities, infrastructure connections, affordable and good-quality housing and transport for post-16s. Seaside towns are places to live, work and play. All of life is here but the opportunities are somewhat lacking.
The UK’s economy is changing faster than at any time previously and this impacts on seaside towns on top of the demographic changes that have already brought about their disadvantaged circumstances. The seaside holiday is largely a thing of the past, as we all seek reliably warmer climates for our annual break. Shipyards and factories no longer close for a fortnight in the summer, unless it is unplanned, as was the case recently with car plants in the pre-Brexit trauma associated with diesel. We, and seaside towns, are becoming an almost universally service economy, as the former hardware store has become a cafe, the banks have become restaurants, and what was once a small industrial estate is now a hairdresser and a nail bar. The move away from a producer to a service economy is felt by seaside towns as much as anywhere.
In the committee’s report, and in particular in the Government’s response, a plethora of different initiatives is referenced as sources of funds and ideas for regeneration: the Coastal Communities Fund, tourism action zones, the local government finance settlement, the Department for Transport, the Stronger Towns Fund, travel packs for 16 and 17 year-olds, and the high street task force. All have a contribution to make but there seems to be one omission that I want to talk about, and that is the Big Local. I want to explain its impact on the place next to where I live—central Whitley Bay.
The Big Local initiative began in 2009. It identified about 100 places, or communities, that could benefit from financial input to stimulate community regeneration. These were not whole towns or cities; rather, they were localised parts of places where deprivation levels were high on all indicators. One million pounds would be available to each of these Big Locals over a 10-year period to activate local people to identify issues and find solutions to the problems. The initiative established four target outcomes for them: that they should be better able to identify target needs and take action in response to them; that people should have increased skills and confidence to continue to be able to respond to needs in the future; that a community should make a difference to the needs it identifies; and that people should feel that theirs is a better place to live.
There were not, and are not, many rules relating to the Big Local, other than that local people must be in charge and responsible for identifying issues and solutions. In Whitley Bay a fledgling group of local citizens came together and committed to research the issues that concerned local people and what they could do about them. Eventually this became the Big Local plan and in 2012 they were ready to begin work on implementing it. Broadly, they divided into two streams of work—one to do with the people and the other to do with the place.
People initiatives were based on working with people and included: setting up the Big Local shop, described as a portal for social inclusion; an annual carnival celebrating all that is life in Whitley Bay, annually bringing thousands of visitors to the town; and Small Sparks, a small grant scheme to help local people with ideas that will improve their area, such as planting and so on, on a small level.
For places they used a local landscape architect pro bono to produce an environmental master plan, using visuals to show local people and others what their area could look like if the streets and seafront were improved. These were often based on low-cost initiatives, such as changing street furniture, co-ordinated colour schemes, areas for planting and improving local parks. Now, six years on, the plan sets a context for improvements funded by both the Big Local and the local authority
The Whitley Bay Big Local coincides with the local authority committing to major infrastructure projects such as the Spanish City on the seafront, which incidentally was an iconic place in Mark Knopfler’s childhood but had become dilapidated and abandoned since the 1970s. The Big Local has good relations with other agencies. The North Tyneside authority has been very supportive but not intrusive; senior officers and members have provided information and engaged in dialogue. At regular strategic partnership meetings, the Big Local meets with local authority, police, health service providers et cetera.
Other community organisations provide a range of services and support to the Big Local. Citizens Advice, Barnardo’s, SALTo arts group and a local credit union have all supported initiatives or provided advice when it has been sought. This is groundbreaking community regeneration, which puts people at the decision-making and action centre of addressing the issues of their communities. In central Whitley Bay a corner has been turned; local people confirm that it is a better place to live and to visit. The regeneration continues and will continue to benefit the community. The Whitley Bay Big Local has recently registered as a charity and is in the process of planning for when the funding from the community fund may run out.
I never thought I would say this, but it is to David Cameron’s credit that he committed to this initiative and recognised that solutions to problems can and should be found by those who have most to gain from them: people living in local communities. I am grateful to Simon Underwood and Alan Dickinson from the Whitley Bay Big Local for meeting me in preparation for these remarks. I have a couple of questions for the Minister. First, is he aware of the work of the Big Locals and, if so, why was it omitted from the response to the report? Secondly, it seems that funding for the Big Locals by the community fund will run out in three years’ time. Is there any chance that this could be continued?
“Life is gay in Whitley Bay” was a slogan used to promote the place in the 1960s. I do not know about that, but a lot of pride has certainly been restored to the place.