Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Watts.]
It is a great pleasure to be here and to speak under your chairmanship, Dr. McCrea, and I look forward to the debate.
I always think that I am extremely fortunate to be one of the Members of Parliament for Blackpool and one of the four Members of Parliament for the Fylde coast. Blackpool has been at the centre of this country’s tourism and popular culture for the best part of a century and a half. Wherever in the country I go to meetings or meet people, virtually everybody has heard of Blackpool and virtually everybody has an opinion about it—those opinions may vary, but they are intense.
Seldom, however, has Blackpool been more in the news than in the past year. Our present regeneration predicament and our future hopes—like those of seaside and coastal towns in general—have taken centre stage in a national debate about regeneration. The casino advisory panel’s controversial recommendation in January that east Manchester should be the site for the super-casino sparked an extraordinary chain reaction and campaign of support. That was true not only in Blackpool and across the north-west, with an 11,000-signature petition being handed in on the steps of No. 10, but in both Houses of Parliament. That culminated in the House of Lords’ rejection of the panel’s recommendation at the end of March, and the momentum of debate and argument on the subject has scarcely slackened since.
There was a major Select Committee report on seaside and coastal towns in the spring calling for new Government initiatives, which was followed by a Westminster Hall debate. There were the Prime Minister’s remarks at Prime Minister’s questions in the summer, which spurred the major review of regeneration needs that is now under way at the Department for Communities and Local Government. There is also the report by the Blackpool taskforce, which involves all the local and regional agencies and which was set up as a result of the then Secretary of State’s concession in the heated Commons debate on the issues raised by the casino order that was published last month. In September, we also had the survey report on gambling issues in the United Kingdom over the past 10 years. In addition, we will shortly have a major English Heritage conference on regenerating seaside towns. Finally, of course, we are having this hour-and-a-half debate.
My comments today are made on the basis not only of my 10 years’ experience as a Blackpool MP and my nearly 18 years’ involvement with the town, its issues and arguments, but of my role as the honorary president of the British Resorts and Destinations Association and the chairman of a Back-Bench group of Labour seaside MPs. Over the past 10 years, I have seen that the economic regeneration problems that Blackpool faces are unique and great. Blackpool’s contribution to tourism and leisure in this country has been great, but our problems, difficulties and opportunities echo what other seaside and coastal towns need. Coming from such a town himself, the Minister will well understand that, and I am delighted to see other Members from other seaside and coastal towns here today.
Let me emphasise straight away that there is no churlishness in my introducing this debate. I recognise that there has been significant central and regional government support for Blackpool’s regeneration over the past seven years and I am grateful for that. It is worth briefly reminding people of what that support has included. Some £15 million went into work on phase 1 of Blackpool’s central corridor, and those who come to the town today will see a regenerated and imaginative central corridor, with its famous climbing towers. We have had seafront reconstruction, with £68 million—a major sum—from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs now being spent on renewing the sea wall and offering other opportunities. We have received significant funding of £10.8 million under the local enterprise growth initiative. There has been money for the new urban regeneration company, which will receive £7 million gross in year 1 and £17 million in year 2, and, of course, there are moneys under the single regeneration budget programme. I might also add, although this is not strictly Government funding, that we have received welcome funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund to regenerate Stanley park, which is one of Blackpool’s major assets, although it has been underused and underexploited in recent years. Finally, the Government announced only last week that they would completely renew and support the development of the lighting programme across Blackpool, which involves £30 million to £31 million.
As I say, I am therefore not at all curmudgeonly about what has been done—indeed, I very much welcome it—but the problem in Blackpool is daunting in scale, systemic and has developed over three decades, if not longer, as Professor Fothergill and others have documented. One could spend an enormous amount of time talking about the process that has brought us to the difficulties that we have today, but I just want to pick out one or two fairly obvious points.
First, there is the systematic decay of Blackpool’s late 19th and early 20th-century infrastructure. I am talking not only about the infrastructure of significant public buildings or areas such as the Winter gardens or the piers, but about promenade and street features, for which it is difficult to obtain lottery grants and which often do not fall within a particular remit. Later, I will talk a little about the trams, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) will want to say more about them. For the best part of 50 years, however, no money whatever was put into the infrastructure for Blackpool’s trams.
Of course, other, more powerful forces have driven Blackpool’s decline and problems. Perhaps the major one, which has affected other seaside and coastal towns, has been the loss of the solid one or two-week holiday market. The change in holiday patterns is well understood. I have used this analogy before, and I hope that I am not wearying those hon. Members who have heard it before, but Dean Acheson once said that Britain after Suez had lost an empire but not yet found a role. Blackpool and many other seaside towns have obviously lost the empire of solid one or two-week holidays, and it will not come back, at least not in the same format. At the same time, although it is not a question of such towns’ not yet having found roles—indeed, they are all energetically looking for them—the challenge in terms of Government funding and support is great.
One thing that is not often understood is the impact of skewed demography on Blackpool’s services for residents and visitors. Like many seaside and coastal towns, we have higher-than-average numbers of younger and older people, and that puts a particular strain on what the town can spend on those people. The influx of 10 million to 11 million visitors a year also puts an enormous strain on services. Incidentally, the Government do not yet recognise the need for additional formula funding, and that is certainly true of health spending. Such pressure on local authority funding reduces the amount that local authorities, including those outside Blackpool, can spend on renewing infrastructure and promoting tourism.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and pay tribute to his work in securing the debate, and for his work with the Labour group of seaside MPs. Is he arguing for ring-fenced funding from central Government, similar to what was made available to steel and coal communities, and rural and inner city communities?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I pay tribute to him, also, for his work in highlighting the similar problems of Welsh seaside towns. The situation is different from what he referred to, in the sense that the coalfield and steel areas were affected by the fairly immediate and dramatic loss of a mono-industry. However, there are similarities. I know that the Government have thus far found it difficult to find an appropriate ring-fenced formula, but there are merits in considering some elements of what was done in relation to the coalfields taskforce. I certainly think that the Minister’s Department needs to look more positively at the issue of an overall regeneration taskforce than its response to the relevant Select Committee report suggested.
The final point that I want to make about funding—I do not want to be too technical—is that seaside towns such as Blackpool suffer from the so-called pepper-pot principle of deprivation. We have severe deprivation in certain areas of Blackpool, but it is in pockets. One of the problems with Government and European funding and grants is that, historically, because of the practice of averaging out across a borough or larger area, we have not attracted the sort of funding that we need in that respect. That is an important issue.
The scale of the challenge is identified by Blackpool council in its response of 5 September about the taskforce to the Minister’s Department. The executive director of regeneration, Jackie Potter, said that, unlike other areas, which are often struggling with single industrial market failures, Blackpool’s case is more complex as it is the compound effect of coastal resort decline and socio-economic and housing market failures. She went on to say that the action plan was therefore designed to tackle these failures and drive regenerations on multiple fronts, based on an understanding that investment solely in developing the economy would not deliver the change required, and that a programme of housing renewal in isolation would not address the underlying causes of market failure. Likewise, she said that it would be crucial to reshape the town’s image to attract a more dynamic population and labour force. She went on to say that that means renewal of the town as a resort, with conferences, attractions, accommodation and infrastructure, regeneration of the town centre as a strong sub-regional centre—that involves retail, education and commerce—and intervention in the housing market.
As I have already said, a problem in the past has been that figures have not picked up the deprivation. However, one or two snapshot figures will remind the Minister and colleagues of the scale of the problem. Official figures describe 29,000 of Blackpool’s residents—a fifth of the population, and obviously a larger proportion in relation to the working population—as income deprived. Three of Blackpool’s assessment zones, which are smaller sub-ward zones, for elderly people’s living standards, are within the most deprived 3 per cent. nationally; 29 of the 94 sub-ward areas in Blackpool, amounting to almost a third of the whole, are within the 10 per cent. of most deprived areas nationally. Blackpool is rated by the Minister’s Department as the 24th most deprived English local authority out of 358. My final statistic is that all 94 of Blackpool’s sub-ward classes are within the most deprived 40 per cent. for ill health and premature deaths nationally.
The challenge of sustaining and building a community is also affected by transience. I do not have much time to talk about transience today. It is a major issue in other seaside and coastal towns. I shall give one example. In schools in two or three of my wards in the centre of Blackpool, the turnover on the school roll can be between 30 and 40 per cent. a year. That is the result of internal transience—people moving around within the town—as well as people coming from outside. One might say, “Well, that is very bad, but how does it affect economic activity and regeneration?” It affects them substantially because it builds up pressure on schools and teachers, and historically it has tended to lead to low skill levels, lower than average achievement and low levels of economic activity. Whatever we do in Blackpool, we need to get the balance right between civic renewal and the needs of the visitor economy and local economy.
There have been major steps in the past 10 years—I pay tribute to the previous Labour administration of Blackpool for this—by way of a new sports centre, a new business enterprise centre, and the building up of local institutions, such as area forums and police and community together meetings. Blackpool has won a series of awards, culminating three or four years ago in an award from the Minister’s predecessor Department, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, for the top sustainable community in the country, Grange Park.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, my near neighbour, for giving way, and I apologise for the fact that owing to Select Committee duties I shall not, sadly, be able to stay to the end of the debate. Does he agree that, given the scope and scale of the problems that he has so eloquently outlined this morning, and the impact that Blackpool has on the whole Fylde coast economy, it will require the concerted effort not just of Blackpool council but of the councils of Wyre and Fylde, working together, to try to reach a genuinely lasting solution?
The right hon. Gentleman is right and, in a spirit of cross-party consensus, I pay tribute to the support that he and his colleague, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace), have given me and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood on this issue. Of course, what affects Blackpool affects the whole of the Fylde coast. The good news, as the right hon. Gentleman has suggested, is that co-operation is developing between the councils in the area.
What I have described is the reason why, since 2000, debate in Blackpool on how to become a strong, viable, sustainable economy has been a central issue, from the first suggestions of a casino development that were put forward by Marc Etches, the former managing director of Leisure Parcs—to whom I pay tribute for his sustained interest in the regeneration process—to the ideas coming forward for future use of the three piers and the Winter gardens and, finally, the major master plan that was produced in 2003, designed to address so many of the issues, which was instrumental in the setting up of ReBlackpool, the urban regeneration company. That has the distinguished international planner Sir Peter Hall as its chair, and an energetic chief executive in Doug Garrett.
We realised from the beginning that infrastructure investment alone was only a means to an end, and that is where the casinos came in. There was a need for an economic motor. Whatever people’s views are on casinos and where we now go with that issue, the means-to-an-end argument must be clearly understood. The renewal of Blackpool involves, at its heart, the search for a new force—the development of an adequate and sustainable economic generator that will not just initiate but also maintain a virtuous circle of investment, profit, skills and jobs. Without it, even the most visionary schemes of design and planning cannot deliver the full and final renewal that 21st century Blackpool needs.
Blackpool has had a glorious past because its energetic and innovative inhabitants understood better than almost anyone else the business of mass leisure, but we can have a glorious future only if the new forms of leisure and attraction have a viable business sense behind them. That, and no other reason, is why my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood and I, the members of Blackpool council—nearly all the town’s councillors of all political parties—and most of the major business organisations in the town, supported the idea of casino-led regeneration; it was the only big enough project in the past six years to be potentially on the table with guaranteed bids from multi-million pound enterprises, and the resources to make it happen. However, that does not rule out, nor has it ever ruled out, the options of alternatives or additions to the project, as long as those pass muster in the down-to-earth and pragmatic arena in which Blackpool’s entrepreneurs have always had to contend.
That is why the casino advisory panel’s comments and recommendations were wrong in January, and why its report was shredded by the House of Lords Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee. Outside observers, including Rachel Cooke and James Collard, who wrote excellent articles in The Observer and The Times respectively last August, have understood that if there were to be such a regenerative force, Blackpool would be the place for it. That is why the people of Blackpool were not prepared to take the decision lying down and why we received such a strength of support in the Lords and in the House. Again, I wish to pay tribute to Lord McNally of Blackpool, who led so ably our views and who has been a tireless representative of the town in the Lords and elsewhere.
I do not expect the Minister to go beyond what the Government have already said on the issue, or to offer a review on the issue of the casino regeneration, but he needs to understand the passion and determination that united all but one council member and the vast majority of people in Blackpool, and which brought 11,000 signatures to Downing street. Those signatures were of people not only from Blackpool, but around the north-west. A recent poll in the Blackpool Gazette, which has been tireless in arguing the case for regeneration, showed that the majority still believe that casino-led regeneration might have an important part to play. The Government have a job to convince us that there are alternatives.
The Government have responded to the controversy. The previous Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport set up a taskforce an 25 March. The Prime Minister understands our problems, as do others. He gave a personal commitment to finding a solution as recently as the press conference on Monday. The regeneration review set up on 11 July as a response is in the Department for Communities and Local Government. The taskforce to which I referred presented a series of options to the Minister at the beginning of August—I am sure that he will mention that in his speech.
The Minister needs to understand that there is frustration and anxiety resulting from the fact that progress on the matter has been slow. It is now six months since the super-casino debate and three months since the Prime Minister’s announcement. The council has received detailed written requests from and has provided information and background to the Department for Communities and Local Government, but no meeting with officials or the Secretary of State has been fixed. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood and I wrote to the Secretary of State in August. The message to the Minister from the people of Blackpool and the broader north-west area is that we urgently need some movement on the issue.
I shall give one example of why that is so. The best part of three years ago, we submitted a bid for the major renewal of the tramway—I am sure that my hon. Friend will say more on that issue. We have jumped through various hoops and we have had some funding for the tramway’s basic renewal, but we have not had a decision from the Department for Transport. Council officials now say that the delays have affected their ability to complete the project on budget and on time. If a decision is not made by that Department soon, the funding schedule might slide, and the project might not be completed until 2012. I appreciate that that is not within the Minister’s or his Department’s direct competence, but it indicates the need for it to liaise with other Departments to look at what can be done.
The taskforce submitted a broad range of proposals. It said at the beginning, and rightly so, that the existing plans would not on their own be enough to provide comprehensive regeneration. In fact, it produced a range of alternative plans and suggestions, including investment in higher education and the housing market, which could go a significant way to addressing some of the regeneration issues. However, at the heart of the matter is the need to give top priority to increasing visitor numbers and to the regeneration of the tourism economy. Blackpool could diversify but, like other seaside towns, its peripherality of 180° means that it will always have greater challenges. A Communities and Local Government Committee report—I pay tribute to that Committee’s Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey)—made many of those points and they were debated in the House in May.
The Government need a greater sense of co-ordination on such matters. I am not in favour of setting up meetings with civil servants for the sake of it, but I shall repeat what I said in this Chamber four months ago: without some form of co-ordination between Departments—it is currently led by the Department for Communities and Local Government—and without a sense that people are getting out of their silos, we will not make the progress that we need to make.
Some things have been done. I pay tribute to the Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), who in her previous ministerial post brought together groups of civil servants from the various Departments concerned, but we need a more sustained mechanism, not only for Blackpool, but for other seaside towns.
Blackpool’s regeneration must involve making it an attractive town for people to live in as well as for visitors. It includes getting the townscape right and valuing its heritage. I put forward a number of ideas on how we could do that in a speech to the civic trust in August. I am repeating what I have said on various occasions when I say that an imaginative Government approach to lowering VAT on repair and restoration, and an imaginative package of incentives for businesses to free up space above their premises for low-cost, low-rent accommodation, would make a big impact. Those things are in the air and, as I mentioned, next week an English Heritage coastal towns conference will look at the options open to towns such as Blackpool and at the issues of sustainable heritage, community and economy, which are linked.
At the end of the day, we come back to the question of the economic motor. We need to have one to sustain the virtuous circle. In practical terms, we in Blackpool are in little doubt about what we need. We need a new conference centre, an upgraded tramway system and better direct transport links, an upgraded skills base, and significant retail and new enterprise investment. They are all urgent priorities. We might be able to build a conference centre, but we will not be able to sustain it without income and investment. The question of how and from where we get those things takes us back to the reason why there was such passion and interest in the idea of a super-casino.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is still more than a glimmer of hope and that Blackpool can remain attractive? The pleasure beach attracts some 7 million people a year, which should give hope to any other enterprise that wants to be a part of Blackpool’s regeneration plans that there are still a reasonable number of people around to participate.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and has given me the cue for what I was about to say. People in Blackpool are not sitting back passively and do not simply expect sums of money or master plans to descend from Government. We have imaginative ideas for retail outlets, restaurants and entertainments, and we have submitted an imaginative bid to a lottery fund with the aim of building the people’s playground along the seafront, but we need some form of incentive to bring in outside investment. That is why the Government need to take seriously the idea of Blackpool having some sort of special status as an investment zone.
We are not passively sitting back. For the past seven years, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood and I, the other Fylde MPs and many others have been at the heart of the debate and plans. I am proud of the passion, enthusiasm and dogged insistence of the people of Blackpool. Those things are reflected in the work of ReBlackpool, the regeneration company, the hoteliers and the StayBlackpool organisation, and of the pleasure beach, which has an amazing family history featuring 100 years of investment and innovation in the town. An active civic trust promotes heritage trails and conservation, and the heads of sixth forms and of the Blackpool and the Fylde college are fully aware of the crucial role that further and higher education expansion can play in Blackpool.
We have the support of the Northwest Development Agency. We have a commitment to raising quality among the hoteliers—the No. 1 guest house in Blackpool was recently named the top bed and breakfast in the country. We have a bid in for the theatre museum from the Victoria and Albert museum to come to Blackpool, with exciting ideas to put it in the Winter gardens. There is the people’s playground project. We are not just waiting for the lottery decision; we are going ahead with the St. Chad’s headland. Those who know of them may be interested to know that we recently had a highly successful one-off free concert by the Kaiser Chiefs, and what is still the greatest light show on earth—the illuminations—will be packing people in as a result of a combination of the activities of Dr. Who and Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen.
Blackpool has always had to renew itself. It had to renew itself in the early 20th century to meet changing tourism and other patterns. It did so then through a combination of enlightened public funding, local government funding and private entrepreneurship. That model is still relevant for the 21st century. Blackpool is not looking for a handout from Government or a succession of subsidies, but we are looking for a leg up. We are not looking just for warm words; we are looking for proper liaison, proper co-ordination, a proper response to the taskforce report and a sense of urgency at the heart of Government about how that needs to be addressed. I look to my hon. Friend the Minister and his Department to be at the centre of that argument and to begin to provide some of the solutions.
Several hon. Members rose—
I welcome the opportunity to make a brief contribution to this important debate and, indeed, to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) on securing it. May I also take the opportunity to say how hard he and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) have worked on behalf of the residents of Blackpool? It has been a pleasure to work with them over the past 10 years on the Labour seaside group, which lobbies for Government funding for coastal resorts. I hope that we can work together for many more years.
As a near-neighbour of the Blackpool constituencies—I am just a bit further up the coast—I am well aware of the problems that Blackpool faces. Morecambe, like Blackpool, suffered greatly in the 1980s owing to British people taking foreign holidays rather than holidaying in our seaside towns as they had previously done. Guest houses fell out of holiday use and became surplus to requirements. The run-down properties were often purchased by absentee landlords who looked for tenants wherever they could find them. Probation services, social services and mental health agencies saw opportunities to house their clients cheaply, especially with council housing being sold off at that time and in short supply.
My hon. Friend has hit on a key point for seaside regeneration, which is housing. Our Government, the Labour Government, have introduced a national licensing scheme, which has cut down on the ability of slum landlords to make money out of misery. What does my hon. Friend think the impact would have been if such a scheme had been introduced 20 years ago? Would it have halted the decline of slum properties in seaside towns?
Of course such a scheme would have made a huge difference, but there was a lack of interest and investment in coastal towns throughout that period and pockets of deprivation developed that could match anything in our inner cities. Towns such as Blackpool and Morecambe did not wish to advertise their problems too widely, as they were, and still are, in the business of attracting tourists.
Although it is true that the tourism market has changed, with many British people taking their main holiday abroad, there is still huge scope for growth in the short break market and in relation to second holidays. However, to attract tourists, infrastructure needs to be improved greatly. We can see at a glance the difference that a Labour Government have made to our inner cities—I am thinking of cities such as Manchester and Liverpool—with fantastic regeneration projects going ahead, costing tens of millions of pounds in some cases. It is time for the Government to make the same commitment to coastal towns regarding regeneration.
Although I fully accept that people living in seaside towns, in common with the rest of the country, have benefited from the investment in health, education, extra policing, a stable economy and so on that a Labour Government have provided, much nevertheless remains to be done in our resorts, not least to tackle the enormous amount of sub-standard housing that still exists.
My own local council, along with English Partnerships, is well aware of the problems and is examining ways of dealing with them. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister whether he could in the near future visit Morecambe—
And Rhyl, to see some of the important work that is taking place and some of the things that we have already done to turn run-down former guest houses in a state of dereliction into fantastic homes for families in a shared-ownership scheme, which fits so well with Government policies.
I place on the record my thanks to Stephen Matthews, the project director for urban renewal on Lancaster city council, and to Paul Spooner of English Partnerships for their hard work, vision and commitment to addressing these very difficult issues.
If I may, I would like to refer to a letter that I have received from Stephen Matthews that sums up the problems that exist not only in Morecambe but in our resorts generally and on a very large scale in Blackpool. He informs me that
“English Partnerships have made a submission to the Central Programme Review Group at the Treasury in respect of their proposed investment in Chatsworth Gardens in Morecambe’s West End.
As you know, the West End suffers from a complex range of socio-economic issues including extreme unemployment, low incomes and the highest crime levels in the District of Lancaster. The Chatsworth Gardens site area falls within the 0.5 per cent. most deprived Super Output Areas…across England. It is clear that there is a relationship between the socio-economic decline and the housing stock that is typical of the legacy commonly left in declining coastal resorts. The site contains 3-5 storey former bed and breakfast guesthouses which are now used as poor quality privately rented Houses in Multiple Occupation…These currently generate substantial returns for landlords in the West End with ‘high yields’. At the same time they are fuelling social, economic and environmental deprivation and decline and continuing the negative image that currently exists of Morecambe.
The project involves removing around 70 poor quality and inappropriate properties, providing 172 residential units and redeveloping with an innovative new build scheme of 101 purpose-built high quality homes including family housing. All of the new housing will be for private sale not renting. The project will reduce HMO’s and private renting and will bring about a completely different type of housing choice for owner occupiers that would not be delivered without public intervention. In simple terms the project is about taking out inappropriate housing supply that is driving decline and putting back new modern quality homes that will help to stabilise the local community and encourage further private sector investment.
Because of the significant cost of site assembly due mainly to the need to acquire private and often high yield properties, there is a significant cost-value gap on the entire project. This makes the scheme look expensive when considered in purely unit cost terms. The Council and”—
Order. May I gently remind the hon. Lady that the debate is directly on the economic regeneration of Blackpool and that although there are wider issues and certainly there is reference to Blackpool, other hon. Members also want to speak? Therefore, I just gently ask the hon. Lady to remember the time.
I was making the point that the same problems exist in Blackpool and in other seaside resorts with the poor housing stock, but of course I will take advice and move on.
Referring back to the scheme that I mentioned, I sincerely hope that it is allocated the necessary funding and is rolled out both in other parts of my constituency and in other resorts such as Blackpool.
Finally, to end on a high, I am pleased to congratulate one of my constituents, Mr. Ian Hughes, who has produced a national-award-winning design for a 21st-century pier. His concept is called the Beachcomber. It is a marina development with numerous attractions and facilities for locals and visitors. The award will be presented at the British Urban Regeneration Association conference in Blackpool on 31 October. I wish him every success with that exciting and innovative project, and I wish my colleagues in Blackpool every success in their quest to bring about the regeneration of what is still Britain’s premier seaside resort.
I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) that I remember spending holidays in Morecambe as a child. I understand her concerns and welcome her support for Blackpool in this debate.
I congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) on securing this debate, which is important. He and I have spoken in the House on many occasions on behalf of our town. The regeneration of Blackpool is vital to those of us who live there, as well as to our visitors, and it sends a signal to seaside resorts throughout the country. Although it is about Blackpool, this debate has wider ramifications.
I live in Blackpool. I love living in Blackpool. It is an exciting place—that is why people come to visit and to live there. My hon. Friend and I must maintain a delicate balance between recognising that the town has problems and saying that it is also a smashing place with lots of really nice parts. He and I represent residential suburbia—1920s and 1930s houses. Many people either choose not to work in Blackpool or cannot find jobs there—they travel down to Preston and Manchester, and all over the place—but come back to Blackpool to live by the sea. It is lovely. A couple of weeks ago, I was on North pier watching the final of the international fireworks competition. It was brilliant. Walking back home along the promenade with the illuminations shining amid hundreds of people was a marvellous experience for me, as I live in the town, and equally so for the many visitors.
A lot of exciting developments have taken place in Blackpool recently, most of them funded by central Government and most—in fact, I think all of them—in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Can I put in a plea for my constituency as a postscript to this debate? However, the developments in the town centre and in Blackpool, South benefit my constituency as well—for instance, the Government’s investment in our sea defences and the promenade. South beach is beautiful now. The central promenade is being developed, and exciting proposals have been made for a people’s playground. The central gateway for people driving into the town from the motorway opens up Blackpool and makes it much more pleasant for them, and the Hounds Hill shopping centre is being redeveloped.
For me, one of the most exciting proposals is the Talbot gateway development, which will reconfigure the railway and bus stations. The first thing seen by anybody arriving in Blackpool by train is—I shall not mince words—the horrible old bus station. It is not a welcoming sight. It is proposed to knock it all down and open up the view from a new transport interchange, so that people getting off the train will see the tower and what Blackpool has to offer. They will have a new vision. My question to the Minister is: when will it happen? I know that the council has signed contracts with the developers and the Government have given it the resources to purchase the land in order to facilitate the development, but I am getting impatient. I want to see it happen tomorrow, the day after or some time soon, please.
All those developments are part of the master plan developed by the previous Labour-controlled authority, but supported by all political parties on Blackpool council. The key to the master plan’s development was casino-led regeneration. I endorse everything that my hon. Friend said about it. The casino was the driver for regeneration—a £400 million project using private-sector money that would have included a new conference centre, hotels, entertainments, shops and restaurants. It would have been a whole new experience to bring new visitors into Blackpool. They would have spent money, and that money and the casino company’s profits would have helped in turn to make the conference centre sustainable. I challenge anybody to name a conference centre that supports itself. They are all subsidised, either by local authorities or by private-sector organisations. We need a new conference centre in Blackpool. Much as I love the Winter gardens—the Emperor’s ballroom is a marvellous setting in which to stand and speak from the platform—we need a modern, up-to-date conference centre to attract the conferences that used to come to Blackpool. I shall discuss that at the end of my contribution.
Without the engine to drive our regeneration, even though the Government are investing huge amounts in our infrastructure, we do not have private-sector new product to attract people into the town. We must remember that Blackpool’s regeneration affects the whole Fylde coast, a point made by the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack). If Blackpool gets it right, that will help his constituency, the Wyre district, the whole Fylde coast area and well into Lancashire.
Not only does Blackpool’s regeneration help neighbouring districts; it depends on them, for one reason if no other—the availability of land for further development is constrained in Blackpool. We must work with our neighbouring authorities to identify land that can be used to provide employment, and continue our regeneration. I am pleased that the three Fylde coast authorities are working together. They are moving toward a strategic policy alignment and are developing a multi-area agreement, which is exactly what we need.
Blackpool’s regeneration is not just for visitors, to give them new entertainment; it is also for residents. It is a chicken-and-egg situation. Many of my constituents have money to spend, but do not spend it in Blackpool town centre. They do not go shopping in town centre shops. If they did, it would help regenerate the town centre. We must regenerate the town centre to ensure that people who live in Blackpool feel confident going there, as well as to provide a better visit for tourists.
I re-emphasise the point made by my hon. Friend. A lot of people in Blackpool are investing in their businesses. The pleasure beach has been mentioned, and people continue to enjoy visiting the tower, the piers, the zoo, the model village, our seafront and the Grand theatre. I attended an excellent production of “South Pacific” there. It is a beautiful setting. We must consider how we can make the town centre more attractive as part of the regeneration package. My hon. Friend mentioned the detailed report produced by the taskforce, which is to be congratulated on coming up with a Blackpool solution to the complex Blackpool problem. I look forward to the Government’s detailed response.
One of the key elements of the taskforce report is that if we are to diversify and regenerate, we have to do something about the skills base in the town and about employment land. Some interesting suggestions were made in the report about supply-side interventions to improve the skills base and employment. However, there are also problems with transport, and in the limited time that I have left I shall concentrate on those. I also want to say one or two things about the challenges facing the town.
Despite all the developments of which I have spoken, and the fact that the Fylde coast economy contributes £3.9 billion to the gross value added of the central Lancashire city region, the GVA and employment declined between 1990 and 2005. More than a quarter of our working population are economically inactive.
I believe that the Government should look again at the report of the Select Committee on the Department for Communities and Local Government, which highlighted the fact that a disproportionate number of people are on sickness or incapacity benefits in our seaside towns. The Government’s response was to dismiss the report, but they should not. We have a pathways to work pilot scheme to help new claimants, but there are many existing and former claimants.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. On that specific point, is she aware that there is a city strategy pilot specifically aimed at seaside towns? It is one of 15 city strategies across the UK, and it is aimed at Rhyl. It is about getting people back to work.
I was in the Chamber when my hon. Friend made that point earlier this week. I thought then that Blackpool wants one of those.
The Select Committee report mentioned seasonal labour. The Government’s response was dismissive, yet when the lights are turned out in November, about 950 people will be going to the jobcentre. It is like a major business closing down; tourism is an industry. What we need from regeneration is a 52-weeks-a-year economy. We do not have that now, even though many people try desperately hard to ensure that hotels stay open for as long as possible. There are real issues about how to encourage our businesses, but that will have to wait for another day because I want to refer briefly to transport.
It is essential that we get the money for the tram. The tram transports not only visitors, but people to work. My constituents in Fleetwood get on the tram to travel to work in the hotels along the promenade. The tramway serves some very deprived wards in Fleetwood and in Blackpool. It has been calculated that if the tramway was to close—God forbid—we would need 45 more buses every hour to transport the 3.4 million passengers who use it. One can imagine the gridlock on the promenade!
Investment in the tramway is key, but so is investment in the A585, the trunk road from the M55 to Fleetwood that skirts Blackpool. We need investment in the A585 to open up more land for economic development as part of Blackpool’s regeneration. Again, I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Fylde. He and I have worked closely together on that issue. The road starts in his constituency and ends in mine, and runs alongside Blackpool technology park. If we want more development there, we have to ensure that traffic can move on that road. At the moment, the traffic gets stuck, and we do not want that.
I quickly move on to the casino. It is a key point. What other organisations are queuing up to spend £400 million in the centre of Blackpool to bring in new visitors? I am waiting to hear. We want a new product for our visitors. If we had one that generated the income to support a conference centre, I would welcome it. However, the majority of people in Blackpool still think that the casino is the only product that will give us that.
I want Blackpool to have a new casino so that I can welcome colleagues from all political parties to an up-to-date, new conference centre that will give them the facilities that they need. That will bring back all the other conference trade and give us a 52-weeks-a-year economy. It will ensure that our visitors enjoy their stay, that our residents have jobs, and that they can enjoy the town centre and shop there. Blackpool could then satisfy their needs and the needs of our visitors.
I hope, Dr. McCrea, that you will allow me some leeway in describing the successes in my constituency and my home town and how they could benefit Blackpool. I shall drop Blackpool’s name into my speech as often as I can.
I shall concentrate on two key issues that were mentioned by many of those who have spoken—the need for a focus, especially in seaside towns, on joined-up governance. It was a key Labour catchphrase in 1997, but it has drifted a little. We need that focus back, especially in seaside towns. I mentioned earlier in an intervention the importance of housing in the regeneration of seaside towns. Many residents have poor health, so health provision is important; and education and skills are key to raising the skill levels so that the people in those towns can get good jobs in their local communities.
The Department for Work and Pensions has city strategies aimed at getting people on long-term sickness or incapacity benefit back into work. Another key issue is that of policing. People will not come to the town if they feel that it is not safe for them and their families. My plea to the Minister is for joined-up governance for Blackpool, Morecambe and Lunesdale, and Rhyl and Prestatyn in my constituency.
The other need is for ring-fenced funding for seaside towns. I tabled a parliamentary question between seven and eight years ago asking how much the Government had given them. They have been very generous to rural communities in times of crisis and with general subsidies—tens of billions of pounds—and tens of billions have been given also to the coal communities that have suffered with the pit closure programme of the previous Governments. Steel communities—I refer especially to Shotton in north Wales—suffered the biggest layoffs in British industrial history, with 8,000 workers sacked in one day. Such communities have received billions of pounds, as have inner-city areas.
The problems in our seaside communities are just as great, and we need that level of funding to be targeted in our direction. In my area, in Rhyl and Prestatyn, we have managed to get objective 1 money—the highest level of European funding—and that has primed local projects. It makes a difference. It can tilt the balance towards investment in marginal cases. If money was ring-fenced for Blackpool, we could market the town and development sites and attract developers. Focus and ring-fenced funding are the key.
Much has been said today about physical investment in transport, casinos and regeneration. We should also consider the people who live in those communities. In Rhyl, six or seven years ago, I set up an employment group, like my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden), whose constituency had 29,000 people unemployed or low-paid or suffering poverty. I looked at the figures for my constituency and in most of the 32 wards in Denbighshire unemployment had virtually disappeared. Some 50 per cent. of unemployment in the county of Denbighshire was in two wards: Rhyl west and Rhyl south west, which is where I grew up. We need to crack that concentration of poverty and the Department for Work and Pensions’ city strategy pilot projects will provide some of the answers. If the Minister is co-ordinating that project will he take a careful look at the city strategy in Rhyl? I formally invite him to visit my constituency as although many of the functions of regeneration in my constituency are devolved, such as health, housing and education, issues dealt with by the DWP and policing are not.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Dr. McCrea.
This has been an extremely interesting debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) on painting such a clear picture of the difficulties that he believes Blackpool faces. I also congratulate his colleagues on giving him excellent support. I shall pick out a couple of things he said that struck a chord with me. He mentioned pepper-pot poverty and the fact that small pockets of deprivation are often surrounded by areas of comparative prosperity, which means that a broad-brush statistical approach by the Government does not give him aid or comfort. That is probably a familiar issue to many hon. Members with constituencies across the country and it is certainly familiar to those with constituencies in the north-west. I hope that the Minister will go a step further than anyone else on the Government Front Bench and acknowledge the problems created by such an approach, particularly in Blackpool, but also elsewhere.
I was also struck by the hon. Gentleman saying that Blackpool does not see itself as a victim and that it has always done its best to look after itself. We should congratulate the council and civil authorities in Blackpool on their work, as well as those MPs who have ensured that that is the case. The hon. Gentleman asked for some specific information from the Government and I hope that the Minister will respond to that. I noted that he referred to the impact of a 17.5 per cent. VAT rate on renovations. In a town such as Blackpool it is central to regeneration that existing buildings are brought back into profitable and full use. A situation in which it is cheaper to pull a building down and build a new one at a zero rate of VAT rather than renovate an existing one and pay a 17.5 per cent. rate of VAT is clearly an anomaly that needs to be addressed, not just in Blackpool but elsewhere.
The hon. Gentleman was honest in saying that Blackpool is a place that everyone has heard of and about which everyone has an opinion, not all of which are entirely positive. Blackpool has a proud history, has been the premier resort of the north of England for a long time, and has worked hard to extend its appeal. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Blackpool illuminations and of course there are also other aspects. Blackpool is fighting hard to maintain its role in the north as a tourist centre, but it needs help. It is a victim of changing lifestyles. If it is cheaper to fly to Florida than catch a train to Blackpool, it is understandable that many people should go to Florida and not to Blackpool, whatever its comparative charms may be. I made my first visit to Blackpool in 1968 when it was pouring with rain and I could not see the top of the tower because of the mist. Again, if it is a choice between a train to Blackpool or a flight to Florida, one can see why people sometimes make a choice adverse to Blackpool.
On a serious note, any visitor to Blackpool recognises that there is a desperate need to upgrade things such as transport links, leisure amenities, and conference facilities. I have attended conferences for three different organisations in Blackpool and I underline the point made by Labour Members that there is a need to tackle deficiencies in conference facilities. Accommodation for visitors no doubt needs to be upgraded but, as the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) said, accommodation for those living in Blackpool also needs to be improved. The shortage of social housing and the poor quality of private rental accommodation has been mentioned and the Government have been asked questions about that by those hon. Members who have spoken so far, to which I hope the Minister will respond. The comprehensive spending review was empty on what will happen and what funding will be provided by the Government in relation to those matters, so I should like the Minister to comment on that.
Obviously, we could not have a debate about Blackpool without referring to the casino and I do not want to rehearse that issue again. However, for perhaps almost a decade Blackpool put its hopes for funding regeneration almost exclusively in the casino basket, which has turned out to be a bit of a gamble. Whatever the merits of having a mega-casino in Blackpool, it is fairly clear that it will not happen. The casino advisory panel noted that such a casino
“would be useful to manage decline, but not to reverse decline”.
It is true that there would be economic benefits of £400 million, but there are pros and cons related to that. The social impact would be ambiguous, which is no doubt why the Prime Minister said
“I’ve said I feel there are better ways of regenerating those areas and that's what we're looking at at the moment”
That is why I do not want to concentrate my remarks on asking to have the casino back, but on asking what the Government will do to honour what the Prime Minister believes is the way forward for Blackpool. The Minister now has an opportunity to give an update on the action that will be proposed. It is clear that we can expect something special in the Minister’s reply and I want to give him plenty of scope for that. The Prime Minister also said:
“the Secretary of State for Local Government is co-ordinating the work about what we can actually do... to help…which I accept has specific challenges it has to meet in the near future”
I want to hear exactly how the Minister’s Department and the Secretary of State are responding to the challenge of the situation and the challenge given to his Department by the Prime Minister.
There is plenty of advice about what the Government might do. Indeed, the hon. Member for Blackpool, South and others have described some of the things that could and should be done to regenerate Blackpool. I received a briefing, as I am sure have other hon. Members, from the Noble organisation, which is a major player in the Blackpool leisure economy. It describes itself as being one of the UK’s leading leisure businesses with interests in Blackpool and it has welcomed the switch in thinking away from a new mega-casino to investment funded through a new conference centre. I do not regard myself as an expert on economic regeneration—particularly not in Blackpool—but when a major investor and player in Blackpool offers such advice, it should be listened to. Noble has told me that it
“Welcomes the Government's plans to support further regeneration in Blackpool, support which, in our opinion, would be best focussed on new conference facilities.”
As I said, those of us who have experienced existing conference facilities would certainly support that.
What will the Secretary of State do to honour the Prime Minister’s pledge to Blackpool that there is active planned help for regeneration? Where is the report on the options that are being considered by the Government? In addition, as has been mentioned, can we be assured that there will be a joined-up interdepartmental Government response that links up the investment needed in transport with investment from the Department for Communities and Local Government via the local authority and that the key issues of planning and housing investment will also be linked?
Does the Minister agree that an urgent priority has to be to get a new conference complex built to the highest international standards? Does he accept the argument put by many hon. Members and many commentators that investment should be made not only in the economy and infrastructure but in the housing market to tackle the underlying issues of deprivation? The town has spent perhaps seven or eight years getting further and further into what has turned out to be the cul-de-sac of relying on the casino for regeneration, so what assurance can he give that solid, practical help with regeneration will come from the Government? When will it be forthcoming and when can we expect to hear some solid announcements of fact to settle Blackpool’s difficult situation?
It is a pleasure to see you, Dr. McCrea. We go back a long way, and it is very nice to be under your chairmanship this morning. Like all colleagues present, I welcome the debate and thank the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) for securing it and for the way in which he presented his case; it was informative and he was very straightforward about Blackpool and its pluses and minuses. I am sure that much of what he had to say would be common ground between us all. However, we now know the way to get things done by the Government. If I were to stand here and give a commitment to £2 billion of investment in a new conference centre, within a week it would be Government policy. Tempted though I am—
Encouraged though I am to go down that road, the heart attack that it would give my hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor would not be similarly welcomed, so I shall not do so.
Contributions from other colleagues have been similarly informative and generous. The hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) spoke. I visited the Midland hotel recently and saw the work that is being done there, and that will be an exciting new destination in her constituency. The hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) described well the attractions of the constituency and of her end of it. I agree with the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) that when we talk about regeneration we should concentrate not solely on the physical, but on the human, too. He was right to pick up on that point, which was also made by the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell).
We all have an affection for Blackpool, produced either by years of experience as politicians or by childhood memories. I was born and brought up in Bury, and visits to Blackpool were occasional but much enjoyed. My parents might have preferred Southport and Lytham, but I loved Blackpool and it has always been good to go there. We all feel keenly and in a particularly special way about Blackpool being such a great and important resort. We all feel very keenly its irrelative decline and want to do something about it.
Since the turn of the millennium, that decline has been quite sharp. There has been a sharp fall in visitor numbers—Blackpool Pleasure Beach Ltd. calculates it at perhaps 7 per cent. a year—accompanied by similar declines in the length of stay and visitor spend. There have also been problems about the spread of houses in multiple occupation and the difficulties relating to young people, drugs and violence and the stags and hens element of an evening economy. Such problems have always been a part of Blackpool, but they are perhaps overemphasised now. There is a general tiredness about the place and it needs revitalisation.
The problems are twofold. First, they are those of a coastal town, and secondly, they are those of Blackpool in particular. I echo many of the comments on coastal towns that the Minister has heard this morning. The Select Committee’s good report on the subject received a disappointing response. Some attempt to move towards a cross-departmental group would be good. The Government were rather light in not recognising the particular problems of employment and benefit issues in coastal towns, and I think that the disinclination to undertake any specific research into the common problems of coastal towns resulted in a missed opportunity. In response to what he has heard today, perhaps the Minister will be able to take that point back to his colleagues and we might see some progress.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems is that the way in which the revenue support grant is structured is not always very helpful to us? For example, there have been cases regarding transport in which additional moneys are conditional on the provision of bus lanes, even in places where they are not wanted. The biggest thing that affects all the coastal towns, including my constituency of Bournemouth, has been the abolition of the grant for day visitors, which used to be part of the revenue support. The removal of that has been acutely damaging to Blackpool, Bournemouth and all the other major resorts.
My hon. Friend’s point is well made, and it is exactly the sort of thing that was picked up by the coastal towns report, which could well be usefully considered by a cross-departmental group that considered those specific problems. I hope that the Minister will be able to take that back as something constructive from this constructive debate.
A number of agencies are working on Blackpool’s specific issues and concerns. I congratulate the British Urban Regeneration Association—BURA—on its work. It has its own seaside towns network. I met its members recently, and they are very up on those concerns. I have also recently spoken to David Cam of Blackpool Pleasure Beach, to Doug Garrett, the chief executive of ReBlackpool, and to Peter Callow, the new Conservative leader of the council after the party’s stunning success in the May local elections, perhaps on the back of the disappointment of the casino decision.
Interestingly enough, the resilience of the town and the area was shown in the response to the casino decision. The Government have been quite generously treated by colleagues on the other side who might have been really cross. It is not the Minister’s fault, but there is real concern about the decision and the incomprehensible parallel decision that the casino should go to Manchester. However, that is water under the bridge for now and we must ask what can be done in response. The issue is about what will provide the catalyst for regeneration.
I spoke to Peter Callow, the leader of the borough council, which feels that three particular pledges that emerged from the aftermath of the decision, relating to a conference centre, the revitalisation of the tramways and perhaps support for a museum—the Victoria and Albert museum is thinking about doing something in the area—might be concrete responses to the disappointment that is felt. The borough council’s determination to clean up Blackpool and to make it a destination not only for tourists, but for those who work there and want a good quality of life—the point made by the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood—will be important. I welcome and congratulate the borough council on its drive to do that.
What sort of things will make a difference? I talked to David Cam of Blackpool Pleasure Beach, recognising the importance of the beach to the economy of the area, and he made the point that revitalising the promenade is not sufficient in itself. Sea defences schemes have been promulgated down the coast—I went to have a look at what is happening in Cleveleys; it is really good, and I know that it is extending down the coast. However, on its own the promenade is not enough. David Cam made the point that the regeneration of New Brighton, which was envisaged many years ago, did up the prom very well but its hinterland could not be regenerated because there was not the catalyst to bring people in, and its sad decline as a resort was never reversed.
Perhaps it would be interesting to consider having a regeneration zone set aside for economic development in the Blackpool area as part of the response to the taskforce. That could involve the investors who lined up behind the casino scheme, who were there to do something in Blackpool and who recognise that the Government’s role is to clear the pitch and to provide basic investment. Such a process should then allow the private sector, using its own judgment and skills, to come in and ensure that there is a sustainable economic case for development so that it does not continually rely on Government assistance—something that Blackpool would not wish and would not need to do. A combination of ensuring the best possible opportunity to place a convention and conference centre, revitalisation of the tramways and a specific regeneration zone enabling some of the other clearance work that needs to be done in Blackpool might be a useful way to proceed.
We are interested in the possibility of regeneration zones, although I shall not say too much about that in case it, too, appears in the Government programme at some stage. We want more powers to be returned from regional bodies to local authorities, so that those authorities can begin to have more of a whip hand in such decisions instead of relying on regional bodies, and Government relationships with regional bodies, in order to make decisions.
Our tourism taskforce will report later in the year. It is interested in what has been happening in Blackpool and other coastal towns and will make specific proposals at that time. In general, however, I think that the affection for Blackpool felt throughout the House and across political parties is real. That affection is based not just on sentiment, but on the good quality of life and the tremendous skills that it has. Everybody wants to see it revitalised, in which the Government and private sector can play a part. I hope that enough has been said this morning, and in various reports since the casino decision, to give the Government a sense that they could do something to make up for the mistake that they made some months ago.
May I say, Dr. McCrea, what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship for the first time? I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) on securing the debate, and other hon. Members who have contributed.
I commend my hon. Friend’s efforts, and those of other hon. Friends, in promoting the regeneration of the area and especially their commitment to improving the conditions, prospects and quality of life for their constituents, and for visitors to Blackpool. Over the past 12 months, Blackpool has been in the news for a variety of reasons, particularly the casino. That was due in part, I think, to the high quality of parliamentary representation that hon. Members here today provide to the people of Blackpool, Morecambe and Fleetwood.
T he Government recognise that Blackpool has faced deep-seated and long-term deprivation, with severe social and economic challenges over many decades. In many ways Blackpool’s problems with poor health, drugs, alcohol, poor housing, low educational attainment and high crime rates mirror those of many inner-city areas. As has been said throughout this debate, however, Blackpool, as a coastal town, faces other significant problems. Many coastal towns have suffered a gradual decline over the last 50 years with a transient population, falling tourist numbers and the closure of hotels and guest houses.
Blackpool is having to address a long-term cycle of neglect and underinvestment in the resort. But it is not all doom and gloom. I have taken real pleasure from the manner in which hon. Members, and particularly my hon. Friends, have handled this debate. It would have been very easy to feel bitter and resentful, and to say that everything is going down the toilet. However, as we have heard, Blackpool is a great place and has improved a lot over the last decade. There is the ambition to improve further still.
As in my own area of Hartlepool, some people like to slag off the area in which they live. In the era of globalisation, in which investors can go anywhere in the world they like, the first things that they will look at are press cuttings and how people talk about the area in which they live. If people are constantly running down an area, I do not think that others will choose to invest there. However, the dignified, resilient and ambitious manner in which my hon. Friends have promoted Blackpool—recognising the challenges, but showing what a great place it is to live in—is true testimony to the calibre of hon. Members here today.
There is an increasing recognition of the importance of Blackpool at local, regional and national levels. Local partners are rising to the challenge and there are encouraging signs of progress. Investment in local schools and health services has resulted in improvements in school performance and improved health and life expectancy for Blackpool residents. The quality of the local environment is improving with cleaner and safer streets and public spaces. There is a solid base, therefore, on which to build the economic regeneration of Blackpool.
Before I go into greater detail about Blackpool I shall touch on another matter. Hon. Members have mentioned the broader issue of coastal towns. As a Member who represents a coastal town, I would like to comment on that for a moment. The Communities and Local Government Committee report on coastal towns was incredibly useful and informative. However, I think that we have heard today that Blackpool suffers from unique problems, and I would be very reluctant to have a one-size-fits-all approach to coastal towns. My coastal town difficulties will be different from those of Blackpool. I have been to Bournemouth and Brighton recently. They are very different as well. That one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate.
The Select Committee report did not ask for a one-size-fits-all approach, but recognised the complexity of coastal towns. It clearly said that coastal towns that are also historic seaside resorts have particular and shared problems. Will the Minister look at those former seaside towns and their problems, and liaise with colleagues? This is not a matter just for him. Other Departments need to work together and look at the specific issues in those towns.
My hon. Friend makes a very strong point and I agree with a lot of what she said. The Government are reconsidering their response to the Select Committee’s report on coastal towns, in the light of representations made to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government by the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey).
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) is absolutely right to say that a cross-departmental approach is the right one to take. My Department is currently working with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the regional development agencies. We are working with them on cross-cutting policy issues affecting coastal towns in order to see whether current co-ordination arrangements at national and regional levels can be improved. As I have pointed out, as a Member representing a coastal town, I am very keen for those cross-cutting initiatives to take place.
My Department is also developing a regeneration framework as part of the follow-up to the sub-national review of economic development and regeneration in order to identify the kinds of places where regeneration activity might best be focused. I think that it is entirely plausible that those could include coastal towns.
In an Adjournment debate before the recess on the Select Committee’s report, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South suggested that officials could meet a few times a year to discuss an agenda put to them by bodies such as the British Urban Regeneration Association, in which I know that he has an interest, and the British Resorts and Destinations Association on coastal town regeneration and renewal. I think that there is value in that suggestion and that that level of engagement could be important. We are currently seeking the views of other Departments on that matter.
An awful lot of points have been covered in the debate, and I pledge to write to hon. Members who have participated if I do not get everything across that I would like to. I shall turn to the Blackpool taskforce. Following the decision not to grant Blackpool a regional casino licence, the Government committed £1 million to the Blackpool taskforce, which was set up in March this year to look at long-term regeneration plans for the town. Representatives from Blackpool council, the Northwest Development Agency, English Partnerships, the Government office for the north-west, the urban regeneration company, ReBlackpool, and Business Link Northwest, as part of the regional development agency, have developed an action plan for Blackpool which was presented to the Government in August of this year. In preparing for this debate, I was incredibly impressed by the proposals in the action plan. I really enjoyed reading it and would like it implemented as much as possible.
The action plan complements the north-west regional economic strategy and the regional spatial strategy, and proposes a vision for Blackpool to be developed around three themes: revitalising business and enterprise, transforming access, infrastructure and the environment, and creating sustainable communities. Officials from across Departments with an interest in the programme put forward by Blackpool have had some extremely useful discussions with the urban regeneration company and with the council to follow up the report. We are now actively considering our response and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has said that she will meet the taskforce for a further discussion, which we hope will take place shortly. And as my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South said, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has played a key role. He has taken a personal interest and wishes to be closely involved.
The taskforce report encapsulates a way forward that covers both activity under way and new projects that could contribute to changing and broadening the economic base of the town and to addressing some of the most deprived areas within it. We recognise that this programme, which covers many of the issues that I had hoped to touch on—I do not think that time will allow me—depends for its success on a co-ordinated effort across a range of local and regional partners and within government; I stress that there has been very active discussion on the taskforce report across all relevant Departments. The response from the council and the urban regeneration company has been extremely helpful in demonstrating the connections between different elements of the taskforce programme.
The projects are being looked at in the round so that, for example, the relationship between improvements to further and higher education in the area, the renewal of the town centre and housing—a major interest of mine—is addressed properly. My Department is ensuring that all the taskforce recommendations are considered and we are looking at the sensitivity of timing on some decisions, including the tramway, which has been mentioned today.
However, it has been made very clear today that there has been some frustration with the level of progress and the pace of change. Given the importance of ensuring a co-ordinated response, I shall go back to my Department and others and stress the importance of ensuring that progress is made and continues to be made. That is a major priority for my Department and for other Departments, and it has the personal endorsement of the Prime Minister, which I do not think will be ending. I give my pledge on that.