Future of Seaside Towns - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:40 pm on 1st July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Wales) 8:40 pm, 1st July 2019

My Lords, I cannot possibly concur with the idea that those on the Front Benches opposite look in the slightest bit bored; they have shown an alarming interest in everything that has happened up to now—I say that only because I am going to get my blows in in a moment and I want to soften them up. I am truly grateful that this offbeat subject—for it is not central to the thinking of government at this time or in the public domain—has been brought before us in this focused way and for the wide variety of contributions that have added to the interest of the occasion, with many of them being made by members of the committee. Having been born by the sea, I am delighted that the seaside has commanded this level of report and recommendation.

However, I have been struggling for some kind of controlling idea—something that will allow us to pull all these heterogenous things together. When it is the northern powerhouse, we can strategise; we can have the high-speed train going up and the major cities that we want to bring together. We have some idea of gravitas, critical mass, economic goals and so on. We have a strategic idea that allows us to do our thinking. However, when it comes to the scattering of all these seaside communities right around the coast, it is much harder to create a picture of them. The formula-based approach has been referred to more than once, which I guess is what it has to be. Each one will raise its own questions, offer its own possibilities and demand its own attention. I can see things happening only in that sort of way.

Even when we have recognised the difficulty of having a controlling concept, we must then look at the fact that it is not just a question of getting people to come to the seaside for two weeks in August again like it used to be, or even tarting up what was once nicely done and has now fallen into desuetude; it is multifaceted, and the factors will vary place by place.

Certainly, one aspect of this integrated picture that I see for each place will involve transport and broadband. That is mentioned very clearly in the report. I cannot see how there can be a solution to the problems of seaside towns that does not give attention to adequate transport links. I taught in a place called Lampeter, and they shut the railway line—doubtless this Beeching stuff—the minute after I had taken the last train; I could not get home again afterwards. It undoubtedly caused a number of townships to wither away out there in Cardiganshire.

So transport is key and we have to find a way to look at each place and say how the needs of that place are served from the transport point of view. There will be various solutions according to the township, and the same with broadband. It ought to be possible for start-ups to happen in these distant places just as easily as at the Old Street roundabout if broadband is good. My daughter runs a very competent consultative business from the south of France with her computer. Before that she did it in Cambodia, and before that she did it in London. It is the same business—on her lap, at her kitchen table—and she has clients all over the world. So I cannot see why Whitley Bay cannot do the same—or, if I may add my voice to the Blackpool chorus, Blackpool either. They are fundamental, it seems to me, and they are adequately presented in the report.

Similarly, housing has been eloquently attested to by the noble Lord, Lord Best, whom we hear on this subject from time to time, as have health and education. My noble friend Lady Bakewell talked about human capital, about educational needs and skilling people. I had a few remarks to make about the arts, but she said it all so I will not, except that I would like to include in my remarks the fact that Cleveland has a wonderful pier. Shame on her that she did not mention it. Piers are an extraordinary characteristic of our seaside towns that make each one different from every other one. All in all, I would say that we have a collection of seaside towns to rival anywhere in the world. All those aspects are important, as are the private and public financing and support for these things. It is not one or the other; it is both.

It is marvellous that a committee of this House can bring the noble Lords, Lord Smith and Lord McNally, together in what sounds like an abiding friendship, seeing the world in the same way. If all those aspects are important—and all are mentioned in the report—and if it is difficult to have a controlling idea to hold all that stuff together, we can only pity the Government as they try to respond to all this in a coherent way. I think that there is a lot of good will in the response, but it would perhaps have taken a chapter per town to respond in a way that would have satisfied us. So I do not think that the Minister should have come here expecting to have an easy ride tonight, because he is attempting a very difficult task.

So much for all that. I have to say that I have been confused by all the different initiatives: the Coastal Communities Alliance; the Coastal Culture Network; Creative People and Places; this, that and the other. I do not know how they all work together—I do not know whether they do all work together. I do not know how they outbid one another or compete with one another, or what we can pull from them. Or is it that, as one contributor to this debate said, if they get help from this, it is at the expense of losing something from that?

I was not able, from reading all this stuff, to build my picture. Possibly in my remarks noble Lords are sensing the disaggregation that is the result of my failure to master the brief—but Blackpool certainly stood up and asked to be counted. I do not want to repeat points, but perhaps the Minister would answer the question about the Civil Service jobs in the centre of Blackpool and the Ministry of Justice possibly relocating the courts. If those buildings and operations stand in the way of a potential coherent response to the needs of Blackpool, we should have a response to those questions.

I do not think I have seen it said anywhere, but this report concerns England, does it not? The devolved Governments look after their own stuff, so I am going to introduce something which I may need special pleading for. I sat next to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, on the tube and he told me about Fleetwood and the visit he made there. He said that Burry Port is held up by the people of Fleetwood as an example of what can be done. I could not resist the opportunity to say that in this debate.

Burry Port shares many characteristics with Berwick. When I grew up in a brickyard, my neighbours on one side were the smelting companies—zinc, copper, lead and silver—there was a soap factory on the other and there were power stations in front of and behind me. There were endless rows of trucks taking anthracite coal to the docks, where the gantry cranes would load the coastal shipping to all parts of the British Isles. If I were brought up in the same place now, I could see the fishing boat-bobbing sea—it is 200 yards from where I grew up. My dear friends, for anybody who has not been to Burry Port, may that be the one thing you take away from this debate.

Also in that far-flung part of the British Isles, with perhaps more coastline than any other, are Cardiganshire, Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire. There is also that wonderful educational institution that I have just fallen in love with: the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, which has campuses in Swansea, Lampeter and Carmarthen and incorporates working relationships with further education, skilling people to be beauticians, farmers or craftsmen as well as taking degrees and higher degrees.

Unless we move innovatively towards those co-ordinated and multifaceted responses to these terrible problems of the modern age, which refuse to be captured and defined, we do not have a chance. The seaside towns of our country are a challenge to us. They are an essential characteristic of who and what we are; each demands to be looked at in its own right and we will do ourselves a great service in the eyes of our fellow countrypeople and the world if we can find a solution that brings beauty back to those places that are now faded and speak more of yesterday than today.