I am pleased to see you in the Chair this morning, Mr Chope. I am delighted to have secured this debate, which I hope will give the many Members with an interest in the subject an opportunity to highlight the numerous challenges that coastal towns and resorts face and the opportunities in which they want to take part.
It needs to be recognised that work on coastal towns was done during the previous Parliament, particularly by the Coastal Communities Alliance led by Lincolnshire county council, and by the Communities and Local Government Committee, which was chaired by Dr Phyllis Starkey. I am sure that Mr Marsden, who has just taken his place, will recall that the previous Government's initial response to the excellent Select Committee report was hopeless and that they had to come back with another response. Also, the academic research of Professor Steven Fothergill of Sheffield Hallam university, particularly his benchmarking study, has informed much of the debate on coastal towns.
During that period, several hon. Members, some of whom are here this morning, some of whom are not, took a particular interest in the issues that affect coastal towns. There is no doubt that there was a general feeling in many coastal towns, particularly in England and Wales, that the previous Government sidelined them and did not give them their fair share of resources or put them at the forefront of policy thinking and policy making.
I am proud to have in my constituency Skegness, which is one of the country's most famous seaside resorts. Members may not be surprised to hear that, according to Saga, it is the number one place in the UK to retire to. It is still a popular family tourist destination, with 600,000 visitors each summer and 26,000 caravans on the east Lincolnshire coast. I am pleased to report that, unlike some other historic coastal towns, Skegness is still a thriving success. It achieves that by continuing to attract visitors, from the UK in particular, but also by its private and public sectors working together, with excellent locally led innovation and entrepreneurial flair making a significant contribution.
Skegness is not alone. Most of Britain's coastal towns have many positive features, including attractive scenery, excellent leisure activities and some significant Victorian and Edwardian buildings, but they are also significant and important economic bases. The population of our coastal towns is approximately 3.1 million, which is more than the total population of Wales. Members may be aware of the recent report produced by Professor Fothergill's team, which concluded that 210,000 people are employed in tourism alone in coastal towns-more than are employed in the UK in the pharmaceutical or motor industries, or in radio and television combined. Economic activity in coastal towns contributes £3.4 billion to the UK economy. It is clear that such towns are assets, not liabilities, and need to be treated as such.
I am delighted to see Members here from all corners of the UK, but it is important to remember that, despite there being commonalities among coastal towns, each one is different, and each faces its own unique set of challenges. I am sure that other hon. Members will wish to highlight some of those that pertain to their constituencies.
It is important to set out some of the key challenges that are common to most coastal towns. The first is that they have severe pockets of socio-economic deprivation. Twenty-one of the 88 most deprived authorities are in coastal areas. There are high levels of benefit dependency: 15.2% of the working-age population in coastal towns claim benefits, compared with 12.6% across the rest of the UK. The average incapacity claimant rate in seaside towns is well ahead of the English average. There is poor housing stock in many of our coastal towns, with 50% described as "non-decent" compared with approximately 30% elsewhere.
Coastal towns face significant environmental challenges such as rising sea levels, storm surges and eroding coastlines. There are low levels of employment: the average unemployment rate is significantly higher in coastal towns than it is elsewhere. Those complex and interrelated issues need to be addressed in a co-ordinated and comprehensive way.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for securing this debate. My constituency includes Formby and parts of Crosby and Hightown, which are coastal towns. Among other things, the Sefton coastline is characterised by its 20 miles of sand dunes. He mentioned the environment, which is an important issue to my constituency and to that of my neighbour, Dr Pugh, who is also here today. Does Mark Simmonds agree that it is vital to continue investment in, support for and investigation of adequate sea defences for coastal towns?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that critical intervention. He is right to highlight the importance of maintaining coastal and flood defences not just in his constituency but throughout the whole of the UK. I cannot give him the assurance that he is looking for, but I am certain that he and other hon. Members on both sides of the House will lobby vociferously to ensure that coastal defences are maintained. There is a big question about the efficiency and effectiveness of the Environment Agency, which sometimes hinders local schemes and solutions to such problems, and that needs to be looked at carefully.
In the short time since the coalition came to power, it has had a positive impact. Some of the policies that have been put in place and changes that have already been made will have a positive impact on coastal towns. For example, reducing the threshold for national insurance contributions and, as outlined in the Budget, reducing corporation tax, particularly for small companies, will have a particular resonance in many coastal towns, and the promised help for Britain's tourism industry through reinstating favourable tax rules for furnished holiday lettings will avoid a significant detrimental impact.
Most significant of all are the coalition's proposals to scrap regional strategies and regional development agencies and to devolve decision making and power to local authority level, thereby allowing decisions to be made at that level-in effect, returning decision making and power to coastal local authorities rather than distant RDAs and other quangos that did not really understand the importance of coastal towns and the complex issues involved. I very much hope that that will not be seen as a role for the public sector only, but that the private, voluntary, charitable and social enterprise sectors, which I believe have a significant role to play, will be stimulated.
One of the key messages that I want to get across this morning to the Minister is that although many coastal towns recognise that they must play their part in sharing the burden of reducing expenditure that will inevitably come from the Government's difficult decisions, they must not take an unfair share of the burden. We all accept that there will be tough spending settlements for local authorities, Government Departments and Executive agencies, but we need to ensure that they do not have a disproportionate, negative impact on many of our coastal towns.
When large Departments have to make cuts fairly deeply and relatively quickly, the tendency is to cut out all the smaller centres of service provision and concentrate on the larger centres. That works against rural communities and coastal towns. Does my hon. Friend agree that, although we recognise the severity of the situation and the need for speed, Ministers need to give local people the opportunity to deliver the savings and find a way of doing so that does not denude coastal towns and rural areas of the services on which they depend?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful, important point. I understand that the Government direction of policy is to do exactly what he requests, in that decisions should be devolved down to the lowest possible level and those who really understand the needs of each community. One significant fault of the previous Government was that they regarded centralised decision making as the solution to many of these problems and they lacked understanding of the needs of and changes in specific local communities and how to reflect those.
I should like to trot through five specific areas that I think that the coalition needs to focus on if we are to improve the lives of those who live and work in and visit our coastal communities. First, on economic diversification, we need to find ways of putting the economic heart back in our coastal towns. Only a few years ago, coastal towns were not only people's holiday location of choice, but the gateway to the empire, with goods leaving and coming into the country from many ports; but far too often, that economic dynamism has gone. Too many of our coastal towns are now magnets for the long-term unemployed, those on benefits and people with long-term medical conditions. More must be done to diversify the economic base of our coastal towns.
Understanding the macro-economic constraints, we need to put in place medium to long-term strategies to encourage business to locate and create employment in our coastal towns, creating economic diversification. An obvious example of that would be the establishment of green technology companies, particularly those connected to green energy generation. My hon. Friend Peter Aldous is particularly passionate about that work in his constituency.
The second area is funding formulae, which were the subject of significant debate in the previous Parliament. The independent National Audit Office should be tasked with examining the funding formulae to ensure that coastal towns and regions receive their fair share, albeit that perhaps it will diminish, of resources for public services. The formulae should reflect the visitor numbers to particular areas. I found the starkest example of that problem in Blackpool, where the vast majority of some 18,000 people a year who visit its walk-in health centre do not come from that town, yet Blackpool primary care trust, which is responsible for the centre, currently receives no extra money. There are similar problems in Skegness and elsewhere. There is a double whammy in funding for coastal towns because of the elderly and vulnerable population and the large number of visitors.
Thirdly, there are high levels of benefit dependency in coastal towns-significantly higher than in other areas. The Government are planning some innovative work on benefit culture that will incentivise people to come off benefits and get back into work, and ensure that work pays and that people are not better off on benefits. The Government may like to consider piloting some of these schemes in our coastal towns.
Fourthly, many coastal towns are blighted by poor-quality housing stock and many have high levels of houses in multiple occupation. Local authorities must retain the flexibility to deal with HMOs and prevent their development in localities where they are not wanted or where there is already over-supply.
Fifthly, many coastal towns' public services are overstretched as a result of their demographics, limited catchment areas and poor transport infrastructure. If I could ask the coalition to focus on one area, it would be improving public health in coastal towns, where there are higher rates of alcohol abuse, smoking and teenage pregnancy. There are 74.8 conceptions per 1,000 girls between 15 and 17 in Blackpool, compared with the national average of 42.6. I accept that that is an historical statistic, but it still makes the point.
I urge the Government to work alongside not just the traditional local authorities with responsibility for health, but the broader charitable and voluntary sector, which has a significant role to play. I am sure that all hon. Members agree that in all coastal towns there are a significant sense of community and people who want to make a difference. There is a direct correlation between poor public health and high rates of people on incapacity benefit further down the line.
I should like the Minister to make a commitment. The previous Government set up a cross-departmental working group to pull Departments together on all the various aspects of that issue. I want to ensure that that working group continues and that it will focus particularly on coastal towns. Although that might sound administrative and bureaucratic, there is no doubt that cross-departmental working can lead to achievements. Perhaps the best example of that is the Office of Life Sciences, which has made a significant contribution to promoting the interests of the British pharmaceutical sector.
Many other hon. Members wish to speak, so I will draw my remarks to a close. There are many significant issues relating to coastal towns that I have not had time to mention, including communities running facilities; raising educational aspiration and achievement; the performance of the Environment Agency and flood defences; the importance of the public realm in attracting people to coastal towns; and support for the elderly, who are attracted to retiring to the coast. Too often under the previous Government coastal towns were ignored and marginalised, despite one or two Labour Members fighting to change that perception. I hope that the coalition will not make the same mistake. Coastal towns have a significant contribution to make. They need to be reinvigorated and focused on by central and local government.
I commend my hon. Friend Mark Simmonds on securing this important debate.
I shall focus primarily on inter-departmental working, which my hon. Friend mentioned, because it is so important that we have joined-up thinking on coastal towns. If hon. Members will indulge me, I will deal with this matter mainly with reference to my constituency of Great Yarmouth, as others can speak for their own.
Great Yarmouth highlights exactly why coastal towns are so important, how diverse they are and why it is vital to tie together essential improvements in infrastructure-both transport and communications-and recognition of the tourism industry and the niche industries that some of our constituencies deal with. Companies in my constituency supply the defence industry and have dealings with the oil and gas industries. Obviously, being so close to what was the largest offshore wind farm in Europe, some of them are involved with renewable energy, with new wind farms to come. My constituency also suffers from coastal erosion, as do other hon. Members' constituencies.
To see real economic growth we need improvements in transport infrastructure-both road and rail-and in broadband, so that companies looking to take advantage of niche industries can communicate. Broadband is an important tool.
As has already been mentioned, tourism is often undervalued, yet it is one of the most cost-effective industries, through which employment can be increased in constituencies such as Great Yarmouth. More than 5,000 people in Great Yarmouth are employed in the tourism industry, which is worth about £500 million to the economy. Given that my constituency is the second largest seaside resort in the country, we feel that we play our part in the economy. We cover the whole remit: from straight tourism and seaside tourism, to the Norfolk broads and stately homes-something we share with my hon. Friend Peter Aldous. We also cover bingo and gambling, including horse racing and dog track racing.
We have offshore oil and gas, and there are renewables to come, but we suffer, as I said, from a huge amount of coastal erosion. A clear, transparent policy on coastal erosion is needed. None of us here and none of the residents in our constituencies genuinely believe that we can protect every inch of coastline: neither the economy nor nature allows for that. There is certainly a need for transparency and clarity about what we can do, and a need to ensure that the money the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and other Departments can put into dealing with coastal erosion is spent on protecting the coastline. A rough estimate is that during the past four or five years, the previous Government's pathfinder and other schemes spent almost £500,000 on reports on Great Yarmouth, which often led to other reports with not a single bit of work being done to protect the coastline.
Scratby, which my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness has seen, is a key area that needs work to protect its coastline. Most of the necessary coastal erosion protection could have been finished with the money that went into more and more reports. The previous Government spent £200,000 in areas such as Great Yarmouth just before the election, coincidentally-I am sure that it was not intended to be an election tool. At the same time, they were penalising such areas-Great Yarmouth has a new deep water outer-harbour that can service our country-with a port tax. We must get away from that mixed-up thinking. We must send a clear message and be honest about what we can do to protect out coastline from erosion.
I will not speak for long because I know that other hon. Members wish to contribute. I have highlighted why cross-departmental work is so important. The Department for Communities and Local Government is important in allowing local authorities to look after residents by removing the regional spatial strategy, and by allowing council tax and business rates sometimes to move back to local authorities to allow those authorities to move forward. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport covers tourism and gambling, which are important for areas such as Great Yarmouth. DEFRA is important in dealing with coastal erosion, as is the Department for Transport for transport links, and DCMS for broadband. The Department of Health is also important in the context of the cost to our health service and our economy as a whole of the levels of alcohol consumption often associated with visitors to such constituencies.
All those Departments have a vital part to play in constituencies such as Great Yarmouth and coastal constituencies throughout the country. The most important request that I can make to the Minister today is for cross-departmental work at official and ministerial level to ensure that our coastal towns, which can provide so much in moving our economy forward, developing new renewable energy industries and developing our tourism industry even further, can work together to achieve that growth for our own communities and the wider country.
I thank my hon. Friend Mark Simmonds for introducing this subject and for being a strong champion of coastal towns and the issues and challenges facing them. As many hon. Members have said, coastal towns have different and unique characteristics, and it is important to examine and address them in policy terms. South Thanet is one of the most beautiful parts of the country-I am sure that other hon. Members will claim that for their constituencies-but it is the 64th poorest district in the country, which is not exactly the usual profile of the south-east. We have the highest number of looked-after children in the south-east. Two wards have more than 80% of privately rented properties and most tenants are housing benefit recipients, and 39% of our economy is in the public sector. Some 15% of the private sector probably supports that public sector investment. That is a precarious economic model looking into the future.
During the past 13 years, despite many years of a booming economy, Thanet has not benefited proportionately to the rest of the south-east. In some areas, deprivation has significantly increased. With the difficulties that we face, we cannot build on, or support ourselves through, the previous economic successes of the past 10 years. The economic profile inland is totally and radically different, which I know is the same for many of my colleagues with seaside constituencies. Canterbury has a significantly different economic and social make-up from Thanet, Dover or Hastings and Rye.
During the past 13 years the previous Government pumped millions of pounds into my area. That was well-intentioned, but the result was an increase in deprivation. There were top-down assessments of what was needed, little or no involvement of the community, and outreach workers who had no knowledge of the area; and an increasing number of projects focused on deprivation attracted more deprivation to our area.
As a man of Kent, I am familiar with Thanet and the problems in Ramsgate that the hon. Lady described well. I understand her point, but cutting money is not the way to deal with the problem. Other hon. Members have called for cross-departmental co-operation, but pulling the plug disproportionately-that is what is on the table at the moment-will not solve the problem. I agree that money could be better spent and that lessons could be learned from the past, but I hope the hon. Lady agrees that we need continued investment, not cuts at a time when the private sector-
I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but in many ways the money that was invested in our area was an incentive for deprivation, not aspiration. We need a different approach.
Another aspect of the previous Government's endless expenditure of money with little delivery for coastal towns was regeneration partnerships, which lasted for a short period and then came to an end. There was never any follow-through. Coastal towns need a consistent policy framework and consistent work to develop their economic potential. What they do not need is short-run, small projects that capture a headline, or eye-catching initiatives that do not deliver on the ground. That is what happened too often.
I absolutely agree. We had many short-term projects. My area of Kent ended up as a centre of excellence for deprivation, which was a result of money being deployed from the centre with little community involvement. I am talking not about less funding but funding that incentivises new businesses and builds a stronger economy, with a sense of future and aspiration.
We have become a magnet for vulnerable people. I was talking to a young couple who had been sent to Thanet from Rochester to ensure that they received all the services they needed, having kicked their drug habit. They looked to Thanet to provide them with rehabilitation and services such as mental health support. Many parts of the south-east, such as London and Kent, use some of our seaside towns to receive people with such issues. It is important to address those issues, but they should be addressed by the local authority in question. We cannot be a centre of rehabilitation services for the whole of the south-east.
My message is clear and important. Our NHS trust and our GPs are there to support our own community. We are there to support others when we can, but we must not have incentives or investment that further attract people, when we have ever-less capacity to ensure that we can support them into the economy with the necessary jobs.
We also have a problem with looked-after children from out of the area that has not been addressed in the past 13 years. Charities have been clear about the impact on those children, who come from as far away as Birmingham, Hounslow and Richmond, which may be two and a half to three hours away from where they are located, in Margate, Ramsgate or Broadstairs. That is not good for children and it is not right for them to be brought up in such places, away from their extended families. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education has made a clear commitment that he will enforce the guidance that looked-after children should not, except in extreme circumstances, be located more than 20 miles from their original local authority.
I am pleased that we are looking at the issue of housing benefit, because in my area, if someone owns a house in multiple occupation, they can receive a return of between 11% and 14% on their investment due to the low property prices. An equivalent HMO in Westminster-I do not know how many there are-would make a return of between 5% and 7%. We cannot have a system where the returns in coastal towns are so high that those places become a magnet for HMOs and landlords who are attracted to the cheap property prices.
I will add a word of caution. If housing benefit is to be universally reduced, we must take care to ensure that seaside towns with their low property prices and cheaper living costs do not once again become a magnet for those on benefits who come from outside the area.
I am from Redcar, and on Thursday there is a planning hearing about having HMOs-which will involve secure accommodation for people on bail, remand and so on-in the heart of our resort. There will be massive financial returns for the people involved, but my concern is about the planning and the fact that even though local residents and the local authority would prefer not to have those hostels built in that place, they have little power to do anything about it because of the planning laws put in place by the previous Government.
The Minister for Housing recently announced that we are to give local authorities the opportunity for targeted selective licensing. I will urge my council-as I am sure other hon. Members will urge theirs-to ensure that HMOs undergo a severe and rigorous licensing process so that we start to create a deterrent, and so that seaside towns do not become a dumping ground for many different social problems.
May I chide my hon. Friend a little? One of the great-and rarely remarked on-legacies of the last Labour Government was that they built so few houses. There was a tremendous increase in housing need and vast increases in council waiting lists. I would hate to see councils remove the one possibility for people to have a home and roof over their head because of the popularity of the local area. That is a result of the failure of the last Government and we must address the issue at its root. We must not ruin things before we do that.
My concern is specifically with housing stock. My constituency has enough housing, but it is in an incredibly bad state and there are a lot of empty properties that need to be brought back into the housing stock. One would not want to keep a dog in some of the flats I have been into. The neglect and lack of responsibility that some-not all-landlords have shown towards their tenants is not acceptable. More houses need to be built, but I would like to see a lot of empty houses brought back into the housing stock in a safe and adequate condition.
On the upside, there are great opportunities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness has discussed during this debate and at many conferences, tourism is one of the most effective ways of stimulating small businesses and ensuring a greater number of start-ups, and not just specifically tourist-sector businesses. Tourism brings in foreign currency, spurs new businesses in associated companies and supports our high streets. It offers our less-skilled work force more jobs. Therefore, we must ensure that the domestic tourism agenda and the small business sector are seen as important drivers of the recovery that we badly need in our coastal towns.
I am delighted that following a parliamentary question, the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend Mr Prisk-he was in the Chamber recently-has agreed to meet a delegation of MPs and to focus on how we can boost the tourism sector. We need a clear set of policies to accommodate the vulnerabilities of our seaside towns. I believe that the coalition Government will put those policies in place and ensure that that we are not left, yet again, at the end of the line.
It is a pleasure to sit under your chairmanship, Mr Chope, and having heard your instruction, I shall be very brief indeed.
Rather than list all the possible ills of public health and social deprivation found in my constituency, I shall focus on two topics-both thematic-in what I hope will be the first of my many contributions on this subject. I shall make a comparison between the coastal towns represented by hon. Members in the Chamber today and the experience in the rust belt of America-those aging industrial towns in the mid-west that, after their primary industries declined sharply in the middle of the century, had to go through a reinvention, a renaissance, almost a renovation.
A report was produced by the Brookings Institution, which is a centre-left think-tank. I do not always read centre-left think-tank publications, but on this occasion I thought it was worth while. The report, "Restoring prosperity", it is worth reading in full. When I read it, I see my constituency and, I suspect, those of other hon. Members. That report states:
"Suffice it to say that each forgotten city has been accused of being the regional or even national 'capital' of one social ill or another. Such stories have a profound and harmful impact on the city's collective mindset because they shape how local people see themselves. According to...a professor of American Studies at Youngstown State University, residents of highly stigmatised cities have 'come to expect failure.' This is a vicious cycle because as individual and collective expectations about the city consistently diminish, citizens become less hopeful and less likely to engage in civic affairs, thus decreasing civic capacity and governing capacity. They are also less likely to demand adequate city services and less likely to question other forms of dysfunction. Many people lose the recognition that things can change, that they could effect change-even those who work in local government".
That is a bleak portrait of the situation in which we find ourselves, but I recognise elements of that description in my town of Blackpool. I do not say that with any pleasure.
For many years, people in Blackpool have suffered blow after blow after blow, not least the decision on the casino, which seemed to symbolise the fact that the Government had turned their backs on the town. I returned from Wembley a few weeks ago on a chartered train that the football club had hired for us. It was a six-hour trip with no air conditioning; the carriage was boiling hot, but full of happy people who, for the first time in a good few years, were displaying what I would call civic pride. Their team had got into the premiership and at last something good had happened to their town. That had not happened because of something that the state, the Government or the council had done. It was part of something that the community had done and because of a football club that enjoyed terrific community support. There were more people going to Wembley than could be crammed into the Bloomfield road stadium. People attended from across the Fylde coast.
In the two minutes I have left, I shall not focus on what the Government could or should do, although I welcome having a dedicated Minister responsible for tourism, as well as the fact that the threat to furnished holiday lets has been diminished and the way in which public health is to be promoted through the council and social care functions are to be brought together through changes to the PCT and the council. Although the report by Professor Fothergill, to which my hon. Friend Mark Simmonds referred and which highlighted the importance of employment in seaside tourism, was a very important statistical document, it was not a toolbox, which is what we now need. We need a range of policies from which local communities can choose what is best for themselves. We perhaps need less central Government prescription and less stigmatisation. It is important to have these debates, but each time that we have one, it almost underlines the fact that coastal towns are seen as a problem. I almost start to tear my hair out at that.
Reading the Sunday papers, my heart sank when I read the comments of Janet Street-Porter, a lady for whom I generally have a lot of time. She is a very well qualified architect-not many people know that-and her views on 20th-century architecture in particular are fascinating and spot-on. However, when she heard that Blackpool was to apply for world heritage status, a bit of metropolitan sophistication seemed to come across her and her eyebrows raised somewhat. She described it as "bonkers". She stigmatised the town yet again and said that when she next visited, she would bring a picnic. I shall say one thing to her: when she does bring her picnic up to Blackpool, could she please get in touch with me? I would happily take her round Blackpool and show her many nice places where she can have a picnic, many nice places where she can eat, and many nice places-including one in the constituency of Mr Marsden, which has the nicest bed and breakfast in the country, in my view-where she can happily stay.
All Members of Parliament, when we talk about our seaside towns in this Chamber, need to focus not just on the negative things where we come top-I am talking about bad social consequences, social ills, deprivation and so on-but on the good things that happen. That is why it is good that in a debate on coastal towns, I can talk about the great opportunities that Blackpool will have in the next year in the premiership. Let us focus on the good things that happen in our seaside towns, not just on the negatives. I hope what when we next debate seaside towns, I can report back on Janet Street-Porter's visit. Given that I have a few minutes less than I had hoped for, I shall leave it there.
I congratulate Mark Simmonds on starting this important debate. One of the more useful things that I did in the previous Parliament was persuade the unwilling Chairman of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government to do a report on coastal towns. I guess we could describe it as a relatively seminal report in so far as it provoked a number of other measures. We discovered, as hon. Members have already exhibited, that not all seaside towns are the same, but there is a family of problems that most of them appear to have.
One of the problems is transport. Most of the towns evolved in the age of the train; often, they have now lost the train and badly need a road now. There is a lack of quality employment, or a lack of the right mix of employment, and in many seaside towns wage levels are surprisingly low. There are the housing problems to which hon. Members have alluded, particularly in connection with HMOs. Laura Sandys might be aware that housing legislation on HMOs has been tightened up quite recently, but councils often lack the resources to administer and police such measures. There are issues that I think will affect the constituency of my hon. Friend Stephen Gilbert with regard to licensing, nightlife and precisely what that does to a resort's family environment.
In many resorts, there is clearly a severe demographic imbalance. I remember that one of the more disturbing aspects of our Select Committee inquiry was the discussions that we had with youngsters, some of whom I think lived in Kent. They were talking about leaving their resort and took that as axiomatic-when they got employment in the future, they would not work locally.
Of course, there is also the problem of coastal erosion, although coastal erosion is a mixed bag. Bill Esterson, who spoke recently about the loss of his coast, might be aware that almost on the same night that the material was lost from his coast, it appeared on mine. If any hon. Members are short of a bit of beach, please come to Southport and we might be able to help you out.
We found that lacking in many seaside resorts-this was a general conclusion-was a clear vision of where they were going and the political will to deliver on that. People ought not to underestimate the difficulties of managing change in seaside resorts with a largely elderly population. However, in the inquiry we did find many instances of genuine success and successful regeneration. I remember visiting Whitstable, where the regeneration seemed to be almost entirely based on fish, but as it is extraordinarily tasty and the restaurants are good, that seemed to be a very successful model. As I am sure many hon. Members know, Southport has become a classic resort. Other resorts were not quite certain of the direction in which they were going-an example of that was Margate: one lobby in the town wanted the old seaside environment to be recovered and restored, whereas another looked towards cultural developments associated with the artist Turner and more highbrow appeal.
Complementary to the report, and something that made an important difference to people's thinking, was the BBC programme "Coast". It started as an Open university, rather anoraky sort of thing, but it ended up being phenomenally successful and opened the eyes of many people to what the English coast offers.
Despite what we have heard today, the upshot all that activity was relatively positive. The Government, having first ignored the Select Committee report, came back a second time when asked to do so by a persistent Chairman and put some money on the table. I am referring to the Sea Change money, which I think amounted to a pot of £60 million. There was much activity in and around this place; there were many conferences; the relevant all-party groups sprang to life and there was much talk about the regeneration of the seaside. Then, come the election, there was even more activity. A lot of political attention is always paid to coastal towns, because for some peculiar reason, they end up being political battlegrounds. In fact, quite a few coastal towns-happily not my own-changed hands at the last election; I am thinking of Eastbourne, Hastings and others. Post-election, however, surely we have everything to gain by acting collectively over the next five years, because-strangely enough, in these dark and recession-ridden times-there is a great deal of hope around.
We are experiencing a genuine increase in inbound tourism in this country. It is a no-brainer for the Treasury that if it encourages inbound tourism, that is a win-a plausible win-in terms of the balance of payments and taxation. That is not a vain hope, because the Sheffield Hallam study, which the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness referred to, showed that in many places there is considerable scope for regeneration and genuine economic progress.
There are genuine concerns as well, though. One of the big problems for coastal towns, emphasised in the Conservative paper, "No longer the end of the line", is transport. That is a big issue for many places-Southport, Hastings and all sorts of places. Looking at what is happening to the national budget at the moment, very few of us can be optimistic that the bypass that was always going to be built will appear soon. Also, there is the loss of the regional development agencies and the construction of the embryonic local enterprise partnerships. Those may be dominated by urban interests, and funding that might be regarded as coming our way might go elsewhere. I would welcome the Minister's view on what will happen with the Sea Change money.
Before the election, all parties promised much. The Conservative pamphlet, "No longer the end of the line", promised lottery funding for private piers. I think that we have to recognise that that probably will not happen, but the Conservatives did emphasise a new approach to local transport, which I think in constrained times we might want to consider. They also promised, or talked about, business rate discounts, which are certainly worthy of investigation.
The key test will be how the Government manage the reduced funds and, in particular, what happens to the Sea Change money. Those of us in a seaside community, if I can describe us in those terms, do not want to go back to square one, but at the moment it is not particularly clear what the next steps will be. The debate initiated today by the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness has done an enormously good job in focusing the Government on the fact that there needs to be a plan for the next steps. We need a degree of strategic thinking. That has gradually evolved and, in the future, it needs to be built on.
It is a pleasure to take part in the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mark Simmonds on doing so much to highlight the needs and interests of coastal towns by producing the report "No longer the end of the line" and through his efforts today. Not only is he handsome and charismatic-he particularly liked that phrase when I asked him what I could say about him-but he has made a fine speech and he does a fine job on behalf of coastal towns.
Rather like my rugged friend, coastal towns sometimes fail to recognise all their qualities, but they are in fact tremendous, positive centres. To pick up on the point raised by my hon. Friend Paul Maynard, we really need to celebrate coastal towns and what they do. As my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness said, they employ many people and they are great centres. Although there are issues about houses in multiple occupation and other aspects of housing, coastal towns often provide relatively low-cost housing, and they have acted as havens that people can live in and enjoy, albeit that that was the result of the previous Government's failure to build houses elsewhere.
Overall, coastal towns are tremendous places to live, and the people who live in them love them. Sometimes they get a bit down, because coastal towns can be a bit inward looking; they can slag themselves off and see themselves as not being tremendously interesting or dynamic, and young people often look to leave. However, it is easy for people in coastal towns to underestimate the strength of what is on offer and their economic future, and I agree with what other hon. Members have said in that respect.
Given the state of the public finances that we have inherited from the previous Government, it will fall more than ever to local people-town councillors, county councillors and entrepreneurs-to step up to the mark. The Government are constrained in what they can do to promote coastal towns, and they need, most importantly, to get out of the way of entrepreneurs who want to make money and to build businesses, profits and employment. The incoming coalition Government have therefore done a number of things significantly to boost coastal towns, as has been said.
I want, however, to focus on an essential component of a successful seaside town economy-the amusement arcade. Colleagues smile, which I am sure is partly because they have enjoyed time in amusement arcades and because of the quintessential nature of such places. However, arcades are an important part of what is on offer in coastal towns; they provide a focus, and many retailers around them rely on the footfall that they bring with them.
Typically, arcades are small family businesses, and many have been operating for generations. The traditional amusement arcade machine sector is extremely fragile, and there has been a tremendous loss of jobs over recent years. The sector has experienced an average 21% reduction in revenues since
Recent arcade machine manufacturing figures give an indication of the future for arcades. If arcades do not invest in new machines and do not replenish and renew their offer, they will be less attractive, so the manufacturing sector acts as a real indicator of their future business. Recent manufacturing figures indicate that annual machine production-that production takes place in this country and is an important employer-has fallen from 55,000 machines a year to 12,000. Two associated companies have been forced into liquidation this week, so we need action, and we need it soon.
William Clark, a constituent, was born in a flat above the Withernsea amusement arcade that his father opened 50 years ago, and he now runs 28 arcades in Yorkshire. He told me:
"We had 500 employees 3 years ago. Now we are down to 220. Three to four years ago I spent £1.4 million on new equipment. Last year it was £100,000...The cause of this was the provisions of the Gambling Act"- which was brought in so thoughtlessly by the previous Government-
"preventing amusement arcades from having £2 stake machines. If the intention of this was to ban these machines, why are they still allowed in bookmakers, a far harder gambling environment?"
Why did the previous Government pick on family amusement arcades and boost hard gambling centres in betting shops?
Mr Clark says that owner-operators are an integral part of the local community and economy. As small business owners, however, they are hit disproportionately by the weight of regulation. He says:
"The new regulation and bureaucracy is forcing owner-operators out of business. I pay approximately £70,000 in regulatory fees alone."
That is because of the quango that regulates this area. The coalition promised to do something. Mr Clark says:
"David Cameron said before the election that he supported the reintroduction of the £2 stake machine. We are asking for the government to deliver their promise. If they got their finger out Seaside arcade operators could benefit this summer."
There are so many issues on which we need long-term thinking and vision. However, on this issue, which is absolutely at the heart of the business community, employment and what is on offer in coastal towns, which depend on tourism, the Minister could do something soon, and I ask him to do so.
I will try to be brief and not to repeat what other hon. Members have said. I congratulate my hon. Friend Paul Maynard because he hit the nail on the head in terms of my responsibilities in the town of Fleetwood. However, I should add that, although a recent study somehow missed Fleetwood off and instead included it in something called Greater Blackpool, anyone who has ever been to Fleetwood will know that Mr and Mrs Fleetwood do not regard Blackpool as either greater or a part of them. That, however, goes to the core of the issue.
Fleetwood is a 19th century town. It was once at the end of the west coast main line, and we actually have a North Euston hotel. The main line train from London used to come to Fleetwood to take the fish back to Billingsgate. The fishing industry was knocked out in the '60s and '70s. Since then, the town has somehow lost its heart. Today, what is left of the fishing industry-the inshore boats that face problems in other hon. Members' constituencies, too-faces the consequences of the difficult balance that the Government will have to strike in terms of renewable energy. The fishing boats of Fleetwood are being laid up as a result of an increase in the number of wind farms on their territory. There is also a lack of any statutory compensation, and I find it incredible in this day and age that, even though fishermen are usually a one-man business, they have to negotiate compensation themselves when wind farms go up on their fishing grounds. I hope that that will be addressed nationally, and I know that other hon. Members feel the same way.
My hon. Friend Mark Simmonds raised other issues. There is real potential in coastal towns. For example, Fisherman's Friend is an internationally recognised company in Fleetwood that exports to more than 100 countries. We also have a fish processing industry. Believe it or not, great articulated lorries come to Fleetwood from Hull, Brixham and all around the country night after night because of the skills of certain processing families, whose products are then transported out of Fleetwood to major hotels and restaurants. Those companies could expand and they say that they could take on more work.
Do hon. Members realise that we export 50 tonnes of whelks to Korea every year? Apparently, whelks are an aphrodisiac in Korea, and I would ask hon. Members to try them. [Interruption.] My experience of whelks is not too happy, I must say.
There was certainly a lack of success.
I disagree to some extent with my hon. Friend Mr Stuart, who talked about freeing up businesses and deregulation. All of that will help, but even though our businesses can take on new people, we do not have the transport system. A railway line still exists, but there is no railway service on it. We have one major road-the A585-which is not dualled. We have actually got a tram and we are the end of the tram line from Blackpool, but the tram is not working at the moment because it is being upgraded to a supertram. The supertram may help with some aspects of tourism in the town, but there are inevitably delays to major projects and the repeated delays to the scheme-I hope that the Minister will take a look at it-have led to businesses closing down. They cannot wait that long.
What we need is, I think, the same for many coastal towns. The projects in question are not big infrastructure deals such as high-speed rail. Small investment is needed, but that small investment could in some towns-particularly, as Dr Pugh said, when it is for transport-bring extra jobs and release potential.
I congratulate Mark Simmonds on securing an important debate so early in the new Parliament. I have represented a coastal seat in the north-east since 1997 and I am pleased to find what genuine understanding new Members have. Let me warn them, however, that their predecessors also understood the problems of seaside towns, but without action to satisfy the huge demands of local residents and visitors there is a price that may be paid.
If I understood Paul Maynard properly, he was talking about some specific policies for seaside towns that might be implemented locally, as opposed to the more generic issues such as housing and health that we tend to discuss. I agree with him very much. I also agree with Dr Pugh that the first thing that seaside towns need to decide is what they are for. That is an important first step.
I wanted to make some brief remarks in the debate so that I could add a certain balance to some of the comments that have been made. As far as I am aware the previous Government did not sideline seaside towns. The pleas from the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness and others for a continued joined-up approach across Departments is evidence that that Government took seaside towns seriously. In 2010, whatever the problems of seaside and coastal towns-they remain great-they are nothing compared with those of 1997. The previous Government at least began to try to come to terms with the changes to the economy, which happened in a slow process over two or three decades. Those changes were not like a factory closure, in which thousands of people are made unemployed; they took the form of the gradual decline-in some cases the death-of seaside towns.