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Tourism (Exmoor)

Volume 403: debated on Wednesday 9 April 2003

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Kemp.]

7.8 pm

Like many people, I have listened very carefully to the Chancellor's Budget speech. He did not have much in the way of surprises, did he? I did not hear him mention tourism once. In Somerset, however, we will give him a muted cheer for freezing excise duty on cider, which is most important as it keeps us going, but I am afraid that that was our lot. Perhaps he needs a break. So rather than waiting for the next reshuffle, may I earnestly recommend that the Chancellor take a holiday on Exmoor, and soon? I can guarantee him a warm welcome. Indeed in some parts of this beautiful corner of England, he may be the only tourist; and in many ways, that may be his fault.

Perhaps the Minister can exert some of his legendary Welsh charm on the Chancellor. I understand that the Minister has enjoyed many happy holidays in the west country not far from Exmoor, and occasionally on Exmoor, so he is already an expert. Perhaps the Chancellor could let off some steam on the splendid west Somerset railway. What about a day-trip to Willaton—a very pretty place—which is literally the crossroads to the moors, or to Watchett, where Samuel Taylor Coleridge was inspired, as he gazed through the window of a pub, to write "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"? Many things go on in my constituency, thanks to cider. Perhaps the Chancellor could potter out to Porlock, which has a picturesque waterfront and one of the steepest hills in the country. Perhaps he could visit the proud town of Bridgwater, home to the annual spectacular firework carnival, which is attended by 150,000 people. It is by far the best in Britain and the biggest lit carnival in the world. Eat your heart out, Rio!

I cannot let my hon. Friend get away with mentioning only places in his constituency. He has obviously forgotten Dulverton and other beautiful villages that are well worth visiting, such as Withypool with its royal oak, and Winsford, which also has a royal oak.

I thank my hon. Friend, who has worked hard on Exmoor, especially during the foot and mouth crisis, which affected us all. His attempts to help so many people on Exmoor have been exemplary.

Although the places I have mentioned are trying hard to win back visitors for the benefit of the whole area, the problem is the simple question of money. Tourism is the only viable major trade for most of Exmoor. In Minehead, Butlins is the biggest employer, employing 2,300 people at the top of the season, serving 9,000 clients a week. Thankfully, Butlins has managed to keep its end up despite the battering that tourism in the area has received. During the foot and mouth crisis, it bussed people on to the moor and did a phenomenal job by making a video to highlight the plight of the west country.

Tourism has been battered by a vicious double whammy. First, the area was out of bounds for months because of foot and mouth disease, and then the Government—under pressure from their Back Benchers, who are not representative of rural Britain and certainly not of Exmoor—decided to kill off hunting. I shall not revisit the moral arguments about hunting, but it remains a fact that many people, rich and poor, young and old, regard it as a vital sport. They travel from all over Britain to hunt on Exmoor. There are stable yards, farriers and hotels that rely on that aspect of the tourist trade, and many hundreds of jobs are at risk. Some of those jobs have already vanished under the mounting threat of an outright ban.

I could take the Chancellor to Dulverton, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Flook), where one of the main hotels for the whole of Exmoor has shut, because of the threat to hunting. I could introduce the Chancellor to decent, honest folk who run high quality bed-and-breakfast establishments and are now slaves to their overdrafts, just so that they can keep going. They never really recovered from foot and mouth. The flood of tourism has slowed. It is not yet a trickle, but things are much more difficult. Unfortunately, the Government appear to have turned off the taps of support, now that foot and mouth has gone away.

Scores of decent people are trying desperately to win back trade. I have been impressed by everyone employed by the national park, which covers my constituency and that of my hon. Friend. They have used their imagination well to encourage new visitors. I must also mention West Somerset district council, which is the smallest authority in England, with a budget of only £4 million. It balances its books—something of which the Chancellor would be proud—but given everything that it has to do, it cannot keep money aside to assist the vital industry of tourism. The council has looked after the moors in a forthright and heartfelt way, and it sets an example to which every council in the country should aspire. The council needs more money and that is not its fault but the Treasury's.

The Minister will no doubt reply by describing efforts to help Exmoor in glowing terms. He may mention the input of Business Link, which has public funding to try to improve trade after foot and mouth. That is fair enough, except that so many businesses are on their last financial legs. The problem with Business Link assistance is that it can come too late in many cases, and can offer bizarre help. What is the point of telling a beleaguered café owner who has had no custom at all during foot and mouth and who has a bank manager breathing down his neck that what he really needs is a properly structured business plan? That is patently ludicrous. By the time he has got a plan together, the business will have gone.

Public funds to alleviate foot and mouth were channelled through the South West regional development agency, which was then chaired by Sir Michael Lickiss; an accountant, picked for the job by Downing street, who has recently, and thankfully, left his job. Sir Michael's reputation in Somerset can be measured on the head of a pin, leaving room for thousands of participants in the Bridgwater carnival. I note that you can't keep a man down. He is now heading the English Tourism Council; two days a week at, I am told, £45,000 a year. Who wants to be a millionaire? Perhaps somebody coughed when he was answering questions at his interview.

A couple of months ago, we had a meeting with the Minister for Rural Affairs and Urban Quality of Life, attended by myself, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton and representatives of the national park and the district council. We tried to find a fair compromise on the Hunting Bill before it was presented to the House. I and many others were approached for advice, and we were told that if Exmoor lost the legal right to hunt deer, public money would be made available.

The Minister was not trying to buy our support, but he obviously recognised that the wide economic impact of a ban would be catastrophic. The right hon. Gentleman never gave precise figures, and because the proposal was not before Parliament, we never expected him to do so. However, the clear implication was that large sums of money could be found to help Exmoor.

The money could have been filtered through the RDA—by then no longer under Sir Michael's control—or other bodies, but the RDA was the obvious one. It seemed to be a sensible solution to a difficult problem, as stag hunting and hare coursing were the only two activities for which the Government were seeking an outright ban. Sadly, I do not think that the money is still on offer. We saw nothing in the Bill, and neither I nor my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton have had other approaches on the matter. Will the money filter through near to Exmoor if it does come? I wonder. My constituents, and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton, will feel let down on the matter. I wonder whether the Minister will shed any light on this point.

The Minister can absolve himself of any blame on that score and deny all knowledge of negotiations conducted by his colleagues at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. However, therein lies a fundamental mistake in the Government's attitude to tourism. I have a horrible feeling that the philosophy is, "It's not my problem, guv." Tourism is the number one industry in so many parts of the south-west; it is our lifeline. Yet, under the Government, tourism seems to be an after-thought. Luckily the Minister did not shake his head at that point; perhaps we are making ground.

If tourism is so important, why is there not a Secretary of State for Tourism, with his own Department? Instead, it just a part of another Ministry, at the bottom—dare I say it?—of the food chain in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. I had almost forgotten that tourism was a part of that Department. No offence was meant.

Here we are on the eve of Easter, the normal start for the tourist trade in west Somerset, with the opening of Dunster castle, Dulverton and many other areas of the moor, which looks absolutely beautiful at the moment. If you want to get away from it all, you can always come down to Exmoor in the Easter break. But the tourists have gone away and we must get them back.

Our constituents do not want sympathy; they want help. Almost like a petitioner, we ask the Minister, "Please give us some idea of your thoughts, as we need input." If the Chancellor is looking to kick-start rural economies—something about which he so proudly boasted—surely this is one of the most important things that he can do. Giving money to the Eden project and others has been useful in objective 1 areas, where half the money is provided by the Government. That is fine, but in Exmoor—where little is provided by the Government because of objective 2 funding—we need help.

Every rural strategy meeting we have had, through the Curry report, the Dearing report and others, has come up with many ideas, but we are waiting for solutions. We do what we can in our constituencies. My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton and I visited the Exmoor tourist association, where we spoke. The people there are passionate believers in the moor. There is no straight road to the national park, but it does very well and fights very hard. I know that the Minister will agree with that, given his experience with Ilfracombe. The hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) has also been a great advocate of the moor.

On behalf of constituents, however, I plead with the Minister to give us a chance. I hope that he will give us what help he can. If he gives us the ammunition, we will fire the guns to bring people back to the moor. One more event like the foot and mouth outbreak could damage irreparably everything achieved by all the work and effort and time devoted by so many very small businesses in the area. People on Exmoor and in the surrounding areas have only one chance, and that is tourism.

7.20 pm

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) on raising this important matter in today's Adjournment debate. The hon. Gentleman is right to talk up the virtues of Exmoor and of the coastline where the moor tumbles into the Bristol channel. It is one of the most spectacular coastlines in the country, and I confirm that it has very steep hills. I remember toiling up from Porlock Weir, which has a very good pub called "The Ship", if I remember rightly—although on that occasion remembering rightly was very difficult. There is no question but that Exmoor is a remarkable part of the world. It is one of Britain's great wildernesses.

The hon. Gentleman is right, too, to urge people to visit Exmoor this Easter. It is a great place, and he has put his finger on something very important—that Britain's great tourist areas such as Exmoor will work their way out of the lingering effects of foot and mouth only by getting tourists to visit. I very much admire the way in which the hon. Gentleman framed his argument, but I was sorry to hear him talk so disparagingly about Sir Michael Lickiss.

I can tell the hon. Gentleman—I have never told the House this before—that, when I was given the privilege of taking on the job of Tourism Minister, I looked around the whole of Britain for a model. I wanted to find out how we could get more value from the money going into tourism. I found that the south-west was among the best areas in that regard, if not the best. Cairns Boston and Malcolm Bell of South West Tourism had developed a working relationship with Sir Michael and the regional development agency, partly as a result of the terrible blight that was foot and mouth. I wanted that model to be replicated across Britain.

In part, the south-west model appealed because, London aside, the area probably attracts more tourism than any other in Britain, with the possible exception of Cumbria and the lake district. However, it is certainly one of our premier areas, for lots of reasons. I hope very much that the hon. Gentleman reassesses Sir Michael's contribution, as he was operating under very difficult circumstances.

I took the tourism job in June 2001, right in the middle of the foot and mouth crisis. It was a terrible experience. I remember going to Exmoor for the first time. People just wanted to sit down and talk to me about what the outbreak meant for their businesses which, very often, were lifestyle businesses, as the hon. Gentleman noted. For instance, people might have put their retirement money into a bed and breakfast or a little hotel, the entire existence of which depended on the open path running alongside.

I agree that we have learned the lessons of the period. God forbid that it ever happens again but, if it does, I hope that we would handle it better than previously. Having seen so many images of cows with their legs stuck in the air on burning pyres with black smoke crossing the landscape—not generally on Exmoor, but often in the south-west—I then went around the world trying to persuade people to come back to Britain as a great place to visit. The hon. Gentleman is right to remind us that those lessons are there to be learned and that those mistakes should not be made again.

I shall not bore the hon. Gentleman or other hon. Members with endless statistics about the south-west, but it is a remarkable success story. Indeed, the area needs to be. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the particular difficulties of businesses on and around Exmoor, but he could have talked about the effects further down the peninsula, in Cornwall, of the decline of the mining industry. Many years ago, when I used to go down there on rugby tours, it felt like a wealthy area. When I went back in the late 1990s, I was shocked by the change that I saw in the hinterland areas that had suffered the effects of the running-down of some of their basic industries. The fact that Cornwall won objective 1 funding is in many ways a bad thing. The hon. Gentleman is right to talk about the fragility of much of the economy and the centrality of tourism. As he suggested, even in areas where we assumed that the most important industry was agriculture, tourism was more affected in terms of jobs and revenue.

The Minister has wandered off down into Cornwall, which, as he knows, is quite a long way from Somerset. In my constituency, as in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger), we can see large parts of south Wales. I am not sure whether people in Pontypridd can see Exmoor. I am always struck by the fact that Wales has a rather munificent £8 per head spent on it in terms of tourism, whereas we in England get only 24p per head. When can the Minister speak to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to try to get that huge disparity reduced? That would help Exmoor quite remarkably, because there are only several thousand people there, and on a per head basis they get, by comparison, almost nothing to help in attracting tourism to Exmoor.

That was a fine, if brief, speech in the form of an intervention. The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. It is true that divvied up, so to speak, public expenditure per tourist is much higher in Wales and in Scotland than in England. If one looks at the reverse of that, as one must, the number of visitors to England is phenomenally higher—partly because of London, of course—and the spend is hugely more than in Scotland and Wales. The bigger spend per head of population is partly something that we have inherited as a result of the game of catch-up that those tourist boards have been playing. Despite the fact that Wales and Scotland are full of magnificent tourist attractions, they have a long way to go in terms of convincing people to visit them, wonderful though they are.

We need to remember that the great majority of inbound tourists to this country come through London. The regions of England as well as the nations of Wales and Scotland have never worked hard enough to find out how to use London as a more productive gateway and to persuade people to visit such places as Exmoor. London has not been proactive enough in encouraging those types of gateway partnership, to use a cliché, to get people down there. However, this debate was initiated by the hon. Member for Bridgwater and I will not go into that subject now.

The hon. Gentleman highlighted the most difficult accommodation cases. It is often a question of accommodation, but some terrific initiatives are up and running—private-public initiatives to raise the quality of accommodation. Last year, 2 million people visited Exmoor, which is a tremendous number. The businesses in the area have realised in a big way, certainly since foot and mouth, that we must make that number sustainable. We have to keep those visitors coming back and they have to want to come back.

The hon. Gentleman was right to highlight the difficulties that some people face just to stay in business. However, as he knows, there is also some great accommodation in Exmoor—some of the best to be found anywhere in the country, not only because of the views and the location, but because of the way the staff treat people. One always gets a great welcome in the area. We cannot emphasise that enough.

As well as looking to the Government to advertise the delights of this country and persuading visitors who go to London and the other tourist honey pots to visit the slightly more remote areas, which is a difficult job, we must ensure that when they get there they have such a good time that they want to keep going back.

It is a Catch-22 situation in many ways. The hon. Gentleman made a joke about the way the Small Business Service might turn up to help the business. He said it was lunacy for someone from the service to come along and say, "What you need is a much better-structured business plan," or whatever. He is right. There must be more immediate help than that. I would like to think that there often is. I am sure that he would also admit that in many cases a good business plan would not come amiss. It might help the business to access the help that is available. Often, that is a mystery to such businesses and they will not try to tap the potential help that is there for them because they see it as being too bureaucratic and involving too much red tape. Perhaps they are hostages to fortune. I do not know.

I have become sceptical. I think that the situation often depends on the business. In some of the best cases, a personal link has been forged between the business and the agency. Sometimes, it is all down to personalities. It would be nice if we could find a formula that would avoid the necessity for personalities to become involved, but all too often that is the case.

The Exmoor national park authority receives a total of £3.32 million from the Government, and it has been given an extra £260,000 for 2003–04—a rise of 8.5 per cent. Those figures include the sustainable development fund of £125,000 in 2002–03 and £200,000 in 2003–04.

The hon. Gentleman has told us about some of the virtues of the park. A dedicated park authority was set up in 1997 to conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the area, and to promote opportunities for the public understanding and enjoyment of its special qualities. From my dealings with the tremendous people who are involved in the north Devon partnership, I know that they realised, long before the Government, that there were changes in the way that people take holidays nowadays and in the length of break they want. Those changes often lead to the development of niche markets.

Exmoor has great potential for such developments; for example, cycling, although not necessarily up Porlock Weir hill. People could cycle down it, perhaps—very carefully. Other holidays could involve horse riding and walking.

On my last visit to the area, I managed to upset a few people by saying that we need to think about families. Parents might want to do some walking on a beautiful moorland ridge, but their children might not. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) is a great walker and I am sure that he has enjoyed time on Exmoor, possibly walking along the coastal path, which is one of Britain's great treasures, but teenage kids might not want to do so. Teenagers might think that it was the worst possible nightmare.

The hon. Member for Bridgwater mentioned Butlins at Minehead. That company has been extremely imaginative and has understood the need for a good mix of attractions. The national parks need to consider such ideas. The prospects are exciting. For example, there could be architecturally adventurous but discreet water centres where parents could park their kids. Parents and children could all do what they wanted, without spoiling the unique attractions of places such as Exmoor.

I welcome the debate, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are very much aware of the pressures on businesses on Exmoor. We shall continue to do everything in our power to try to help them.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes to Eight o'clock.