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Southend (Regeneration)

Volume 450: debated on Monday 9 October 2006

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

Regeneration was never an issue in the years that I represented Basildon because of the development corporation and the new town commission, which were entirely responsible for the vibrant economy that we all experienced then. What a contrast life is in Southend, where assistance is urgently needed with the regeneration of the wonderful seaside town, part of which I represent, together with my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge).

Tonight I will be focusing primarily on the programmes of structural, economic and cultural development in Southend. However, the main goal underlying regeneration must be to capture and embed the town’s sense of identity. Hence the projects in the most visible and central areas of the town, including Victoria avenue, the high street and the seafront will be at the forefront of the educational, retail, office, culture and leisure initiatives planned for the future. Critical to this will be the use of the council’s land assets and a corresponding need to ensure that there is a deliverable strategy that also takes into account parking and transport needs and the sad issue of cliff slippage in Westcliff.

My own constituency of Southend, West, encompassing parts of Westcliff and all of Leigh-on-Sea, is often seen as being quite separate from the hub of Southend’s main town centre, but their fortunes are inextricably linked under Southend unitary authority, sharing the same public amenities, transport infrastructure, culture and leisure facilities, and, most importantly, a desire to see Southend thrive in the 21st century. Therefore, tonight I very much want to address some of the problems facing Southend. For instance, in the constituency that I represent of Southend, West, Leigh creek sadly needs dredging, which would take a considerable amount of money, but if it could be done it would help the cocklers and local fishermen.

There is no doubt that a major part of Southend’s revival will be its re-establishment as an attractive and vibrant seaside town for visitors and residents alike. Peter Hampson, who is a director of the British Resorts Association, has blamed transport policy for neglecting train routes to seaside resorts, noting that train fares to coastal towns are often more expensive than a flight to a European destination—we all realise that cheap flights will not continue for ever. In order to compete seriously with overseas locations, seaside towns need to offer the public more than nostalgia. As Professor John Lennon of Glasgow Caledonian university has noted:

“To be viable, seaside resorts have to diversify. It’s no good offering just one visitor attraction and expecting visitor numbers to rise.”

Holidaymakers have become more sophisticated and demand more from seaside resorts.

Southend’s early growth derived from its success as a fishing port, but that was overtaken in the late 19th century by internal tourism as rail infrastructure grew. Towards the middle of the previous century, the town diversified with local industrial and office economies. More recently, those sectors have declined in the town as commuters have made use of the two mainline stations, which connect to London. Despite the comprehensive rail network, Southend still suffers some of the worst traffic congestion in the eastern region, and public transport does not meet all needs at the moment.

Sustainable development must be the priority in the regeneration of Southend, which means continual inward investment building on the high number of business start-ups and investing in affordable housing for key workers and local people, which is controversial. Tourism has a major role in the town’s economy, and projects such as the redevelopment of Southend pier following, for the third time, a fire will be central to the town’s fortunes. That seasonal industry can thrive only in the presence of other strong local enterprises. I am delighted to say that Southend has been identified as a major regional centre in the Thames Gateway plan with an emphasis on culture and education, but we will need significant investment from outside the town if it is to fulfil that potential. Southend’s unsuccessful and perhaps controversial bid for a regional casino has been well documented. The important point is that Southend wanted a leisure complex, which would have benefited the town enormously.

In addition to attracting more people to Southend, it is essential that we continue to provide first-class public services for our constituents. For example, there was recently a successful world record attempt in my constituency for gathering together the greatest number of people aged over 100, and the ageing population has increasingly put public services in the spotlight. We are very fortunate to have Southend University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, which is reaching all its clinical targets while balancing its books, but other areas, such as social services, are currently under desperate pressure.

One problem that continues to undermine Southend borough council’s spending capacity are the woeful financial settlements awarded to it after the 2001 census, which miscalculated the town’s population by 20,000 people. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East and I had an unsatisfactory meeting with the Office for National Statistics, which was not followed by any movement, and local residents are suffering as a consequence. The Government grant to the council was reduced by £7 million, which has resulted in a 2 per cent. increase for 2006-07 compared with the national average increase of 3 per cent. That matter is a great concern for local residents.

The errors that led to the Government’s funding shortfall to Southend have needlessly damaged public services and the town’s faith in its council, which has had its hands tied on finance. Despite those setbacks, however, I am determined that the town should fulfil its place as the cultural hub of the Thames Gateway, a successful centre of learning through the expansion of the university of Essex Southend campus, a key location for transport and, importantly, accommodation during the Olympic games and a lively tourist destination that people from outside the area want to visit and of which local residents can be proud. Local identity has been pivotal for several regeneration success stories in the UK in terms of providing a sense of place. For instance, Newquay, Southport, Brighton and Blackpool have all established their identities very successfully.

Southend has been identified as the centre of culture and leisure in the Thames Gateway. As part of that project, the Government are looking to create 13,000 new jobs and several thousand new homes in Southend by 2021. The plan envisages that growth being achieved through employment-led regeneration to produce a more sustainable balance between housing and employment, with growth targets carefully calculated in an attempt to reduce out-commuting.

Renaissance Southend was incorporated as a private limited company on 18 March last year in response to the need for regeneration. Its objectives are to assist, promote, encourage, develop and secure regeneration in the social, physical and economic environment of Southend-on-Sea. The high street benefits from two mainline rail stations serving a large number of local stations within the immediate and adjoining urban areas. It also has good proximity to the seafront and a high number of seasonal visitors. However, although work is being undertaken to redevelop Victoria plaza, the quality of retail outlets on offer is generally not ideal for a town the size of Southend and reinforces the impression that residents generally may wish to shop elsewhere, which is very sad. In addition, despite Southend’s being reported as the “safest” place in the country to live in a crime survey earlier this year, there is a general perception that the high street is unsafe after shopping hours, which is largely exacerbated by pedestrianisation. I do not think that Southend high street has ever recovered from the loss of a major store called Keddies.

The diversity of the high street has recently been enhanced by the relocation of South-East Essex further education college. Work has also commenced on the next phase of the university of Essex campus, with a new enterprise and innovation faculty. A further phase of the university’s expansion will be the redevelopment of the Palace hotel, which is going great guns at the moment. It will be used as a conference and business training centre and is due to be completed in late 2007 through a £14 million grant from the Government’s sustainable communities fund, for which Southend residents are very grateful, and £1.5 million from the East of England Development Agency. Accommodating the further growth of the University of Essex and South-East Essex college will help to establish the centre of Southend as a cultural hub that could also include a new public and university library, and possibly even a performance and media centre. In addition, Prospects college, a privately run vocational training establishment, has already secured funding for the acquisition of a new site and is putting together funding for the construction of new premises that will significantly enhance vocational skills and training opportunities, particularly for construction-related trades.

The town is accessed by two principal east-west roads—the A127 and the A13. While the former is primarily an access route for commercial traffic to the main employment areas, it still suffers from severe congestion during peak hours at a number of junctions. Southend’s road network is not fit for purpose—the result of historical underfunding by all Governments. The employment-led regeneration objective of Thames Gateway South Essex will be severely constrained without investment in the arterial roads, and there is no evidence as yet that that will be forthcoming. The aforementioned budget shortfalls following the 2001 census forced Southend borough council to cease its subsidies to the two bus operators in the town, which in turn led them to axe all loss-making routes. That has been most harshly felt in the areas of Eastwood and Belfairs, and it has particularly affected senior citizens.

However, our transport problems in Southend will not be solved simply by diverting people on to public transport—commercial vehicles must be able to access businesses in the town too. The strategy for Southend’s regeneration must therefore include wide-scale plans for overhauling our road network. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East might want to mention the Ministry of Defence site in Shoebury. There are also issues regarding the Priory crescent development, which has not yet been signed off. Apart from that, there appears to be no commitment to any other major transport infrastructure for the town to support growth and regeneration.

Southend airport, which is run by Regional Airports Ltd. has planning permission for a new terminal and rail station plus a current application for an adjacent park-and-ride facility. It recently published a masterplan following the principles set out in the airports White Paper. It reflects its current business plan objective to increase passenger numbers to 1 million people per annum in the next four to five years. Of course, that is again rather controversial.

The local partners who are engaged with Renaissance Southend have worked hard to develop strategies aimed at overhauling the structural and cultural amenities in the town. Those strategies must tackle the town’s ailing tourist industry by re-establishing well-known landmarks such as Southend pier. However, as I said earlier, we cannot rely on a single modern monument and nostalgia alone. More active intervention is imperative. Local residents welcome any tangible and sensible assistance in the regeneration of Southend.

I congratulate my colleague, neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). I should like to make four points.

First, I reiterate my hon. Friend’s point about the 2001 census. Several meetings were held with Ministers in good faith to try to resolve the problem but it persists. Every time that the Government try to redistribute money via local government, Southend gets a poor deal. I hope that the Under-Secretary—an Essex Minister—can shed some light and perhaps even a ray of hope where other Ministers have failed to shine.

Secondly, there is a democratic deficit in relation to Southend and Essex—and, I suspect, in relation to regeneration generally. We have Thames Gateway South Essex, Thames Gateway, a Whitehall tsar for Thames Gateway, the East of England Development Agency, the regional assembly, the county council, the unitary authority and now Renaissance Southend. There is a confusion of regeneration organisations. There are some very talented people in those organisations but I believe that the structures are dysfunctional. The further we move money away from individual members of the public towards either pan-national organisations such as the European Union or regional organisations or quangos, the more poorly it is spent.

Thirdly, I want to consider infrastructure and Priory crescent. I would greatly appreciate it if the Under-Secretary updated the House on the dualling of Priory crescent. The decision about whether we should dual has been controversial in Southend. However, the matter has been through a public consultation and it would be wrong, having gone through it, and given the need to improve east-west communications, for the road building not to go ahead. I look to the Under-Secretary for an update about the funding and some assurance that protesters will not block the democratic right of local people to dual that road.

Fourthly, let me look forward to Southend 2012. There is an enormous opportunity to give Southend’s position leverage in the region as we approach the Olympics. We have the campus of the university of Essex and we have the airport, as my hon. Friend said. Southend would be an ideal place to base an Olympic team. Let me refer to Members’ interests: Southend United made a donation to my party before the election. It was a case of the blues supporting the blues and I reciprocate on Saturdays. Southend is building a 20,000-seater stadium, which I support. That is a possible venue, not for the Olympics, but for a training camp and general training.

There is so much opportunity. I look forward to hearing from the Under-Secretary how she and the Department will step up to that enormous opportunity. I am sure that she wants to do that.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government
(Angela E. Smith)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) on securing today’s debate, which gives us the opportunity to examine the continuing significant work on regeneration in Southend. I am pleased that he recognised the work that is continuing on jobs, skills, culture, education and infrastructure.

I have a fondness for Southend. The hon. Gentleman mentioned his time in Basildon. When he was Member of Parliament for Basildon, I was the Labour candidate for Southend, West, where I lived for many years. We waved as we passed one another when I returned home to Basildon. So it is interesting for me to be here today, replying to this debate.

The Communities and Local Government Committee is taking evidence on coastal towns and on the issues facing those towns. That will be valuable in determining the issues that are generic to a number of such towns. Southend faces a number of problems that are caused largely by structural weaknesses in the local economy, and by an over-dependence on tourism, on fishing and on certain types of financial and business institutions. Southend needs a mixed economy, and I am pleased to see the increase in tourism that has taken place since 1998. It might be helpful to look at the figures. In 1998, tourism was worth just over £135 million to Southend. By 2004, the figure had increased to £217 million. That is a great achievement, but we need to see economic regeneration as a whole.

Southend is often regarded as a leafy, affluent seaside town, but there are pockets of deprivation and economic inactivity, mainly centred around the Milton, Victoria and Kursaal areas in the constituency of the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge), which border the sea front. To improve the lives of all the people in Southend, we need not only to improve the physical infrastructure but to create an environment in which the economy can thrive. Education is particularly important in that regard.

Both hon. Members referred to the census figures, which have caused certain difficulties. Numerous representations have been made between the council, local MPs and the Office for National Statistics. We appreciate the concerns that have been expressed, but the Government set their grant allocations based on the best information available, which comes from the ONS. I appreciate that correspondence on this matter is ongoing, and the Minister for Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas) has met MPs and members of the council to discuss the issue. I understand that the ONS has invited Southend to participate in a project on improving migration and population statistics. That project will look at the areas of migration that have caused concern to the council and to local MPs, and I hope that the work will provide an explanation and help us to reach a solution.

The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East mentioned the revenue support grant. Southend received a net increase of 2.2 per cent. in formula grant in 2006-07, and will provisionally receive 2.7 per cent. in 2007-08. Council tax was increased by 4.9 per cent. While the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Southend, West are discussing these matters with the ONS to see whether any progress can be made, they might also like to look at the Audit Commission’s “use of resources” assessments that formed part of its comprehensive assessment work. Southend’s use of resources and providing value for money in 2005 received a score of two out of four, so perhaps there is room for Southend council to make some progress there. The Department would of course be happy to help in that regard.

Speaking as someone who loves Southend pier, I was sorry to hear, a year ago today—it was my husband’s birthday, so I remember the date well—that the pier had been attacked by fire for the third time in living memory. I am pleased to report that the pier reopened in August 2006, however. Hon. Members might be interested to note that, between December 2005 and June 2006, more than 44,000 visitors came to the pier. That is a tremendous achievement, and it shows just how popular an attraction the pier is. I also recommend a visit to the wonderful pier museum to anyone who visits the pier. It is right, however, not to see the pier as the sole attraction, and the work that has gone into supporting the Pier Hill redevelopment, involving nearly £6 million in Government and European money, has had a significant impact in that regard.

The role of Renaissance Southend in the regeneration programme is important to the town as a whole, and I was disappointed in the comments of the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East about a democratic deficit. It is important to bring together the public and private sectors in this programme. I know that Renaissance Southend is keen to work with Members of Parliament, and I understand that both the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East and the hon. Member for Southend, West have met its representatives. It is also working closely with the local council, and it is engaged in stakeholder workshops. Last week, it undertook an audit walk through the town centre with invited members of the public. It is also planning more continuous, conventional forms of engagement. The work that it is doing to develop the town as a cultural and educational centre, and the work that it is doing for the university, will be conducted with all partners being involved. I understand that the council is closely involved with the board of Renaissance Southend.

I was delighted by the enthusiasm for the Olympics shown by the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East. I share his commitment, and Essex has a tremendous amount to gain. Obviously, the focus will be on east London, but geographical proximity means that we can benefit enormously through such things as the image of our area internationally, the tourism economy and the growth that we will see in business and transport services, skills and jobs. All those will be important to us.

The Department is closely involved with the Olympic steering committee, and will look at the games and the legacy to see how we can benefit, as well as the whole Thames Gateway group. I am happy to keep the hon. Gentleman informed on those issues, given his commitment, but there is a great advantage for the whole of Essex, including Southend, which will benefit.

Both hon. Members mentioned road improvements in the Priory Crescent area. Part of that is the development between the A127 and Cuckoo Corner areas, which is being considered. Approval was granted by the Government in the 2000 local transport capital settlement, and the Department for Transport contributed £14.5 million. Southend council came back to say that additional money was required, because the project was more expensive than was first thought. In June, the council requested additional funding, not just for road improvements, but for a bus passenger transport corridor. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is looking at this issue and expects to make an announcement shortly.

Another issue that is worth mentioning, and both hon. Members referred to it, is tackling crime and antisocial behaviour. Southend is a safe place to be. It is one of the safest areas in the country, but there is no doubt that the people of Southend—a MORI poll recorded a figure of 81 per cent.—want crime and antisocial behaviour to be tackled better.

On Friday and Saturday nights, about 13,000 young people move around the clubs and pubs in the Southend area. About 60 per cent. of crime in the borough is committed between 10 pm and 4 am in the town centre and the adjacent streets. The Government have allocated £232,000, which is a great deal of money and which includes £25,000 to tackle antisocial behaviour, to the Southend crime and disorder reduction partnership. There is also £133,000 for a family intervention scheme and £1.6 million from the neighbourhood element of the safer and stronger communities fund.

That is all having an effect, and I must tell hon. Members that violence against the person, sexual offences, robbery and theft of motor vehicles have all decreased in the last 12 months. There is a very strong message: we are not prepared to tolerate antisocial or yobbish behaviour, and the Government are putting their money where their mouth is to try to tackle those areas.

There are major development opportunities in the Southend area that can make a difference, but if we really want to make a difference to the economy, we have to tackle education opportunities as well. The campus of the university of Essex has already been mentioned. This is a £52 million investment in South East Essex college, right in the heart of the town centre. The state-of-the-art campus of the university of Essex at Southend will provide educational facilities, a business development centre and an innovation centre alongside commercial space. We anticipate that it will create up to 800 jobs in Southend.

There is also support for the establishment of a trust school at Thorpe Bay, which will bring a failing school out of special measures and create a major new vocational training centre. There are funding opportunities, as pump-priming funding has also come in to support work on Pier Hill. As part of the commitment to establishing Renaissance Southend, the East of England Development Agency has pledged to spend an average of £3 million to £5 million a year in the Southend area.

Southend airport also has the potential to contribute more to the economy of Southend. It has aspirations for growth of about 1 million passengers a year by 2012.

In conclusion, it is important that we look forward. As both hon. Members said, Southend has the potential to be a major hub of prosperity in the region. Given the way in which people are working together in the primary care trust, police, council and Renaissance Southend, I hope that the slogan when I lived in Southend, “Southend-on-Sea, the place to be”, will come true again for Southend. There are challenges ahead, which I would not underestimate, but I hope that the hon. Gentlemen will be reassured that the support from the Government, ongoing activities, plans and investment are there to make Southend’s prospects much brighter in the future.

Finally, it is worth noting that in Yours magazine’s survey of the best places to live and retire to, Southend-on-Sea came top. The magazine said that it was a “bargain” retirement location with a low violent crime rate, and a home to seven miles of award-winning beaches, with more than 80 parks and open spaces and lots of activities for older people. The editor of Yours said:

“Southend-on-Sea may not be the average person’s idea of an idyllic retirement town but it’s got everything older people really need.”

We want to work with Renaissance Southend, Southend borough council and Members of Parliament to ensure that it not only has everything that older people need but the jobs, homes and infrastructure that all people need. I welcome the support of the hon. Members, Southend borough council and the Renaissance partnership to ensure that we achieve that.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o’clock.