Future of Seaside Towns - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:27 pm on 1st July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Shutt of Greetland Lord Shutt of Greetland Chair, Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 Committee 8:27 pm, 1st July 2019

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of this committee and pay tribute to its chairman, the other members and the clerks and advisers who have assisted us. It has been a united group and this is no minority report. There is also unity in debate today. I want to be the ninth person to mention Blackpool this evening but I have, as a declaration of interest, to let your Lordships know that I am a director of the Cober Hill guest house in Cloughton, Scarborough—this is just to balance the other side of the Pennines, along with the other two Yorkshire speakers.

The report was published on 4 April and happily, for once, we got a government response before the end of June. It is also interesting that we have another response, in that the industrial strategy’s tourism sector deal has been published. As part of what I say, I shall pull from that as well as from the government response.

We had the tremendous good fortune to make our various visits, and to see success and sadness. This report is evidence-based, and issues of concern were tourism, the public realm, the wider economy beyond tourism, ports, transport, the digital economy, education in schools, further and higher education, housing, health, coastal erosion and flooding, and the end of the line, not just for the railway—if it exists—but for other factors.

I will endeavour to summarise what other noble Lords have said a little. We had a splendid introduction by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam. The noble Lord, Lord Smith, had the idea of seaside zones. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, built on the introduction and referred to coastal erosion. The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, as a Peer was concerned about piers, as well as education. The noble Lord, Lord Best, gave a detailed account of why our recommendations on housing should be supported. The noble Lord, Lord Knight, talked of his family story, quality of life and education. The noble Lord, Lord Beith, referred to the coast in his former constituency of Berwick-upon-Tweed, and the whole business of local government and its expenditure. The noble Baroness, Lady Wyld, spoke about Blackpool and Fleetwood, the doctor we met in Fleetwood who was doing such good work, and empowerment and education.

The noble Lord, Lord Pendry, spoke of his time in east Kent. Interestingly, he mentioned the idea of a Cabinet post for tourism. Tourism and the seaside are clearly linked, so it makes one wonder. So much of what has been said today has been about coastal towns and the seaside specifically, yet the Government response has been, “It’s just another part of everything else we do”. The noble Lord, Lord Mawson, spoke about nous—I am rather in favour of that—and getting away from the Westminster bubble.

The noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, now a Deputy Speaker, spoke from his other place about railways and commended the part that I, happily, put into the report. I was particularly interested in his story about the Whitby lines. I can also say that the former Liberal candidate for Scarborough and Whitby, Richard Rowntree, who fought the seat twice in the 1960s, was firm in his support for those railways. That we now have one of the most successful heritage railways, the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, is down to what Richard Rowntree got up to after standing down as Liberal candidate for Scarborough and Whitby.

The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, also spoke about Whitby and his involvement there, the role of NGOs and, again, concern about local government and a place-based approach. The noble Lord, Lord Lennie, told us about Big Local and referred to Whitley Bay. I recall going on a school trip to Whitley Bay as a teenager, so it is interesting to learn what is happening there now. I remember sailing down the Tyne, and then getting on a double-decker bus to Whitley Bay, where we had fish and chips. The noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, spoke of the strong challenge we set, referred to her work in Newhaven, and ports and transport, including the humble bus. The noble Baroness, Lady Valentine, spoke about short-termism and referred a lot to her work in Blackpool. She gave a vivid reflection of what she had seen in Blackpool and heard about in a building there, HMO deprivation and the Government taking life slowly with the court premises that may be moved in the centre of Blackpool.

The government response, regrettably, is selective. Rather than saying that they agree or do not agree with these proposals, it is more a musing on what our report said. The response does not say that the Government highly agree with this and disagree with that. There is no real clarity. There is one point of clarity, which has been referred to a couple of times. The committee referred to the cross-Whitehall official-level meeting, which the Government said they agree with, but that is no wonder given that this was a full toss given to us by the government Minister, who had gleaned that this cross-departmental working was closed down four years ago. No wonder the Government now come back saying that they will reinstate it. How splendid, after a four-year gap, that the different sections of government are now willing to talk to one another. That is progress.

Almost concurrent with the government response, we have seen the tourism sector deal published. It consists of more musing, including several items suggesting that the private sector is busy at work in the council towns. One item worth mentioning is that a bedroom count has been made showing that 130,000 extra bedrooms are now planned to be built in the next five years, 75% of them outside London. This is expected to provide for a 23% increase in visitors by 2025. This is very useful information.

I said that the government response was selective. Recommendation 54, on page 25 of the report, says:

“It is vital for the future prosperity of smaller seaside resorts that they have the opportunity to benefit from national tourism campaigns, and from nationally provided research and support, to help to develop their tourism products”.

There is no response to that.

Our committee got a pretty poor response from our witnesses representing VisitBritain, and no wonder we got no response from the Government. Happily, we can now look at some of the other figures from the tourism sector deal report. Page 47 of the report says that 35% of Brits—that is how we are all described—holiday at an English seaside destination, according to 2017 figures. That is 35% of the population, not 35% of holidaymakers. However, only 10% of overseas or inbound visitors reach the coast, yet a third of inbound visitors include a visit to a park. What is VisitBritain doing to increase the dismal 10% of overseas visitors who visit the seaside? Can it be persuaded to tell overseas visitors that there is more to the UK than London and Stratford? The hoteliers, whom we have heard about, need some tourism signposting to fill the 75% of the beds that will now be built outside London.

I regard the Government’s response to our report as complacent. The committee report suggests action on several fronts, yet the response is musing. As for the tourism sector deal, there is little new. Tourism deals get a mention. There is a competition, but no word of the prizes, which are to be awarded in March 2020. Mark this however: competitors for the tourism deal are advised that any bid should,

“not require substantial transport infrastructure investment to facilitate”.

Yet we highlighted transport infrastructure as a significant concern in both our evidence-taking and our report.

I have one final thought, particularly now that the Benches opposite have filled up a little. Another competition is going on as we speak: that between Hunt and Johnson. Bearing in mind the promises made by the pair of them daily of extra government resources, should not some noble Lords opposite invite them to the seaside towns or perhaps give Mrs May a late prime ministerial walk on the pier before the farewell expenditure programme is laid?