My Lords, it was a pleasure to be on this committee. We looked at a wide range of issues and there was always constructive debate, ably chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam.
Flaubert’s Madame Bovary says:
“Doesn’t it seem to you … that the mind moves more freely in the presence of that boundless expanse of sea, that the sight of it elevates the soul and gives rise to thoughts of the infinite?”
We were reminded in our committee visits of the beauty of the British coastline, and the variety of our seaside towns, which all have the potential to be enriching places to live. But these places, far from Westminster, suffer particularly from our overcentralised bureaucracy. Most have multiple challenges which are ill served by a central government that finds cross-departmental working awkward. At its worst, well intended government departments come up with short-term and siloed approaches to problems which they do not fully understand.
That is why I am a strong advocate of more strategic and planned relationships between towns and central government. In the report, we suggested that this might take the form of town deals—mutual agreements to tackle complex challenges over the long term. These should be based on town leadership, which draws on the different perspectives and skills of the private, public and voluntary sectors. Indeed, I have spent the past two years working on behalf of Business in the Community in Blackpool, creating just such an approach, so I feel particularly qualified to comment on that town.
I have another quote, this one from “Albert and the Lion”:
“There’s a famous seaside place called Blackpool,
That’s noted for fresh air and fun”— and that still applies. The resort has 18 million visitors a year, a new five-star hotel, the UK’s first double-launch rollercoaster, a fantastic tram service and a hotel where Elvis Presley never leaves the building—not to mention the Blackpool Tower and “Strictly Come Dancing”, too.
However, Blackpool also has the greatest concentration of deprivation in England. There are more looked-after children than anywhere else; secondary school ratings are significantly below average; and the male suicide rate is the highest in the country. It is not that people are born deprived; many locals live happy, healthy and fulfilling lives. It is because around 5,000 people every year arrive to live in slum conditions in the inner area. Let me tell you who the tenants are—mostly from Wigan, in this case—of just one building that I visited recently, where the police have been called 130 times so far this year. One is a heavy drinker. Three have serious mental health problems. There are five empty flats: one tenant is currently in mental hospital; two flats await someone from prison and a local hostel; one was deserted by a Liverpool family, who left all the children’s belongings; one was raided for drugs; one has a tenant on remand for armed robbery. This level of support through social services, the hospitals and the police is simply unsustainable.
Housing benefit of over £80 million a year is spent in this area, allowing landlords to make returns of up to 20% by housing the nation’s most vulnerable. There is no limit to the number of people housed and no quality control beyond fire and safety hazards. People who arrive with little hope, separated from their local support network, end up with less. So let me suggest some specific areas where joined-up government could help.
First, the Department for Work and Pensions could pay housing benefit at a rate that corresponds to the quality of accommodation, and refuse to pay for homes that are below any sense of common decency. I hear many arguments about why this is impossible but, as we heard earlier from my noble friend Lord Best, one solution is to shrink the area over which local housing allowance is set.
Secondly, if primary legislation is required to solve this problem, so be it. But at the very least, might the Government consider some sort of housing zone for the inner area of Blackpool—with the most concentrated deprivation in England—where, over 10 years, we could together work through how to tackle the issues there? Beyond the housing issue, there is a planned £300 million regeneration project at the Central Station site, where everyone bar the law courts has agreed to move off the site.
Thirdly, the leases are finishing on several local government buildings. Their activities could be combined in a proposed civil service hub for thousands of jobs, which would provide year-round footfall for the local high street. But the big prize for Blackpool would be a town deal, so that we can support economic development and sort out the chronic housing situation.
Let me return to some other issues, shared by seaside towns, where co-ordinated government action could help. The opportunity areas could last for much longer, giving them time to nurture the skills and well-being of young people who lack confidence and resilience. Transience is a common factor, and I welcome the Government’s commitment to investigate its cause and effect. Finally, investing in digital connectivity could compensate for physical isolation and enable our coastal towns to flourish as the new meccas for a healthy work/life balance.