Coastal Towns (Government Policy)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:49 am on 20th July 2010.

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Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee 11:49 am, 20th July 2010

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 1 September 2007, and a lot of that dates back to the Gambling Act 2005, although, to a small extent, it also reflects the impact of the smoking ban and the downturn. Every week brings further business closures and redundancies, damaging local economies, communities and tourism. The British Amusement Catering Trades Association estimates that at least 216 arcades have been lost, representing 1,350 jobs.

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.