Future of Seaside Towns - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:12 pm on 1st July 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Whitaker Baroness Whitaker Labour 8:12 pm, 1st July 2019

My Lords, under the enthusiastic and committed chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Bassam, assisted by high-calibre clerking and expert advice, this committee delivered a strong challenge to the Government to unify and target their assistance to our coastal communities. Some that we looked at, such as Brighton, Margate and Folkestone, had made a good start on reinventing themselves after the decline of their traditional tourism and other industries. But the picture was patchy and uneven, and such national and regional support as there was seemed not fully to take into account either the main potential assets of being coastal or its structural disadvantages. The seaside does indeed have unique assets, as my noble friend Lord Bassam said. The report has focused on the potential for tourism, and this is certainly one.

I recall the words of the late Lord Rees-Mogg—I do not often quote him, I know—in a seminal article in the Economist when he was editor. He said:

“The arts are to Britain as sunshine is to Spain”.

That is to say, we do not have the predictable sunshine which drew so many British tourists to the Costa Brava when cheap flights became available, fuelling much of the downturn for south-coast resorts, but we do have an asset—I say this following the inspirational remarks of my noble friend Lady Bakewell—which continues to draw visitors from all over the world: our arts and our heritage. The Arts Council is well seized of the point that enhancing the cultural offer is an ingredient of economic growth but it was our view that other public funding streams, some large, some small—arguably too small—should, apart from being better co-ordinated, take better cognisance of this element.

The sea confers other prospects for growth. I applaud the work of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, with Fleetwood. Ports and all the ancillary tasks that support shipping and sailing are key to trade. We are a trading and exporting nation and have been so since the Beaker people came over from the European mainland to contribute their desirable tools and artefacts. We have continuously evolved skills in marine cluster capacity, we are very well placed to lead in environmental energy of all kinds on our shores, and we can mine the minerals of the sea as well as fish from its depths. But we do not lead in energy nearly enough.

We have lost out to competition from nations with better-supported industries and have not targeted our economic planning to develop our coastal towns to get there. There are declining ports all over the UK, some of which combined tourism with the fascination of a working port. I think of Ramsgate, at least as charming as regency Brighton in its smaller way, which has lost much of its port capacity and not had the cultural investment which has so improved Margate and Folkestone. Yet it once combined a busy port with an active and popular visitor economy. My own nearest town, Newhaven—I declare unremunerated interests as president of the coastal communities team and patron of various local entities—was once a most fashionable departure point for the continent, as well as a busy manufacturing town. I should add that the regeneration it is now undertaking has a large, locally owned cultural element.

What is it that continues to impair the resurgence of so many coastal towns? I think there is at least one underlying answer, and several contributory ones. The underlying factor is the transport problem, referred to so eruditely by my noble friend Lord Faulkner. The seaside has only half the circumference of towns in the interior, and this has never properly been compensated for. Good connectivity of all kinds is essential for trade and optimal transport, for the movement of goods and people. Earlier Beeching cuts and omission from mainline direct routes, the decline of bus transport and insufficient broadband capacity have all contributed to decline.

Our report covers several contributory factors and of these I would single out two which would make a substantial difference, with knock-on good effects, both relating to quality: better built environments and better education. The importance of the built environment in attracting investment, as well as enhancing the lives of its inhabitants, cannot be overestimated. Our seaside towns have suffered from planning—or, rather, the hollowing-out of planning capacity—which has often made them ugly. The quality of housing has been poor and the public realm has been impoverished. The middle management and technical personnel which durable investment needs do not want to move to unattractive places, and there is a resulting lack of demand for better services.

The higher skills which could retain those advanced industries that the coast needs, and has the raw materials for, have not been made a feature in those towns where they could be of most benefit. Young people have left to pursue tertiary education for better-remunerated work and have not come back. Too many of those who remained, often fond of their seaside, have put up with lower-quality jobs or unemployment. It all adds up to a great missed opportunity. We have recommended properly targeted public support at national and local level, which recognises at last the unique potential of our seaside towns, enhances their attractiveness, and gets them growing again.

How have the Government risen to this challenge? Their response is, as far as it goes, positive. They acknowledge the potential and the missed opportunities. I think they have focused rather narrowly on the former tourist resorts, in the work on population transience, for instance. In general, there is not enough of the targeted approach which would really transform the assets and the disadvantages of being on the coast. One size does not fit all. Towns such as Whitehaven need their own kind of support, at least as much as the resorts of the south. Perhaps this will develop, as the most welcome undertakings to reinstate the cross-Whitehall meetings on coastal communities and the new high street task force get going.

Finally, the Department for Education needs to be especially welcoming to educational provision aimed at lifting those skills levels and fostering, in particular, high- level attainments which relate to maritime potential. Also, transport connectivity in and out of seaside towns needs a special analysis and action programme. This would have a ready welcome in these needlessly suffering communities. Can the Minister assure us of these measures?