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Regeneration (Southend)

Volume 480: debated on Monday 6 October 2008

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

It might seem like only yesterday, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that we had the summer Adjournment debate, but it was actually quite a long time ago and an awful lot has happened since then. I want immediately to congratulate the Minister on his elevation to membership of the Privy Council. It is an honour that is well deserved, and I wish him well with his deliberations as a Privy Councillor.

This Adjournment debate concerns the regeneration of Southend. Of course, those people who have had the delight of visiting Southend might say, “Why on earth does it need regenerating?” I say to the Minister that it certainly needs some assistance in the regeneration process that it is undergoing, but I want to thank all those who have given assistance thus far. Given the very difficult times in which we are operating, we need a great deal of assistance with our regeneration process in Southend, but saying that is in no sense to be churlish or not to thank the Government and all the agencies for their assistance thus far.

We are blessed with an excellent council in Southend, ably led by Councillor Nigel Holcroft and his deputy, Councillor John Lamb, and we have a first-class chief executive, Mr. Robert Tinlin. However, in advertising that he is a first-class chief executive, I do not want anyone to try to entice him away from Southend, because he is doing a very good job for us. The council has decided that the overarching rationale for regeneration in Southend from its perspective is to make the borough as a whole a better place to live, work and invest in, and to visit. The council, along with the various partners, is working towards that end. It has decided on a delivery plan comprising three points—an economic development and tourism strategy, a regeneration framework, and a central area master plan.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) will, with the Minister’s permission, be able to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as I believe that he will probably make some more detailed comments about the regeneration process. I shall not waste the House’s time tonight by going into detail about each of the partners with which Southend’s council is operating. I simply say to the Minister that it is working with a lot of partners, and in these difficult economic times we need co-ordination, because it is confusing for my hon. Friends and my constituents to work out where the help is originating. I know that the Minister will not have time tonight to respond in detail to the various points that I shall make, but I hope that he will reflect on the fact that too many agencies are involved in the delivery process. Such a situation involves some sort of bureaucracy and that will be expensive.

I shall briefly raise many points. I know only too well of the Minister’s experience as a Treasury Minister, so I say to him that one of the most important issues for the council in terms of the success of Southend’s economy is the lack of fit-for-purpose office stock and, consequently, employers are frustrated in their demands. The council believes that the Government could assist in one immediate way: by stopping the recent application of business rate tax on empty, redundant buildings. The effect of the tax has been the demolition of buildings that would otherwise have been partially let to small businesses. I know that he does not have a blank cheque and that this issue is a nationwide one, but if ever he has the time and opportunity to visit Southend—we would welcome a visit from him—he could see at first hand how that particular policy, despite the best of intentions, has had an adverse effect on Southend.

My hon. Friend won his seat of Rochford and Southend, East in 2005. Before that, I had been devastated by the impact of the 2001 national census. I have raised that matter on many occasions in the House and I have had meetings with councillors, officials and the people responsible for the national census. I found all the arguments unconvincing; how could it possibly have been claimed that Southend’s population had reduced by 20,000? According to that national census, Southend’s population reduced from 180,000 to 160,000, but that was simply not possible. Anyone living in Southend knows that its population has increased, but the Government have to work within their own guidelines and, as a result, we received £7 million less than would otherwise have been the case. This was a very serious issue, although I shall not bore the House by going over the arguments that I have advanced on many occasions. I simply say to the Minister that a New Local Government Network report published on 20 August bore out the council’s assertion that the population was underestimated by between 16,000 and 20,000 because of

“poor-quality information on households, high rates of population mobility and a growing reluctance to fill in official forms.”

Not one person was prosecuted for not filling in the census form. It is without doubt the case that, far from falling, the population in Southend is growing. However, we suffered financially from the national census.

On a positive note, I had the privilege of chairing the Committee on the London Olympics Bill. Of course, I had to remain impartial, but now I am free to say that I am a wholehearted supporter of the Olympic games. I was born in the east end of London, and seeing what is happening there now gives me great joy. I am determined that, in 2012, Southend will be at the heart of the Olympic games. Southend is on the London boundary. Indeed, the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) would claim that his constituency is the boundary, but Southend certainly has a good claim.

I have listened carefully to what the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has said about our plans for the opening ceremony. We will not try to compete with Beijing—we do not have 2,012 people to bang drums for a start—but it is a splendid idea that the various towns in London will help to celebrate the games. My dream is that the pier in Southend, which is the longest pier in the world, will somehow be used in the opening and closing ceremonies. The pier would provide us with a unique opportunity to show the rest of the world, against the background of the wonderful River Thames, the joy that everyone feels as a result of our having the Olympic games in 2012. I will bang on and on about that, just as my former colleague who represented Bournemouth, East used to bang on about the millennium bug and computers.

The British performance in the Olympic and Paralympic games was wonderful, whether one is interested in sport or not, and we should all take pride in that. I am therefore very excited by the prospect of having the games here in 2012 and I am delighted that Southend and Essex county council are working with the Government to ensure that we are involved in the celebrations. I hope that the Government will give us a little more help to promote the top-class diving facilities that we are developing at Garon park. They will include a 10 m platform, which will be the only one in the east of England, and it will be used as a practice site for Olympic divers. Southend has produced some successful Olympic divers, and this will be the best facility in the country. It will be a wonderful training site, and I hope that we can attract some of the visiting countries to use the facilities as their base.

It is also excellent news that the mountain biking events will take place at Hadleigh castle, which is just on the border of Leigh-on-Sea in my constituency. Local residents are very excited by the opportunity. It is probably too late to change, but I wish that we could have had the sailing off Southend, as well as other activities based there, such as women’s football at the new Southend football stadium, which will be ready in about 18 months. The Minister will be pushing at an open door in terms of Southend’s enthusiasm for the Olympic games. I hope that he will regard Southend as part of London, albeit on the cusp of the city.

The new swimming and diving pool in Garon park in Eastern avenue is due to be opened in 2010 and Southend council has set aside £10 million for the project. It will provide a valuable diving training site for our local athletes. The Warrior square pool will be demolished and we will have a wonderful facility at Garon park. Southend has had three Olympic divers in recent years and 20 international divers from both junior and senior squads. The council thought, as one has to specialise in some area, that that would offer a good opportunity to do so. Any help from the Government would be greatly appreciated. It will not be a 50 m Olympic pool, however, but a 33.3 m one, as my old constituency, Basildon, has the 50 m pool. I hope, given that Basildon is quite near to Southend, West, we will be able to link up there to celebrate the activities of the swimmers, too.

The need to attract international swimming teams is particularly acute following the closure of the 50 m pool at Crystal Palace. I am delighted that Garon park has been selected as a pre-games training camp and I hope that we can build on that. I am absolutely delighted that we have also been designated a Paralympic training camp for boccia, goalball, sitting volleyball, wheelchair fencing and wheelchair tennis. Southend council is working very closely with Essex county council to promote that in whatever way they possibly can.

I have already mentioned the pier. Sadly, we have not had one fire on Southend pier, nor two fires, but three fires, and that is very regrettable. I do not know whether the Minister has ever had the opportunity to visit the end of Southend pier on the train, but it is a wonderful leisure facility. Obviously, to have suffered three fires is pretty devastating and any extra assistance that we could be given to help with the regeneration of that Victorian pier would be greatly appreciated. For instance, the rotten decking urgently needs repairing and we are desperate for financial support. If any assistance could be given, through whatever funding, towards repairing the deck, that would be greatly appreciated.

I am very grateful for the assistance that has been given recently in improving some of our road networks, such as the A12 and other roads, but I want to make a few brief points about Priory crescent. Before my hon. Friend became the Member for Rochford and Southend, East, that became a contentious local issue. In summary, we are talking about traffic congestion in Southend. There is a very famous park called Priory crescent and it was deemed that a road widening scheme should be embarked on. Local residents became upset because that would have meant cutting down some very old trees and a number of houses would have been blighted as a result of the scheme. A number of campaigning individuals have set up a camp on site and have been there for a number of years. The argument about the scheme has gone on and on. Given that money is very tight at the moment and that widening the road would be very expensive, I would have thought that it was advisable for the Department to reflect on the project.

The Minister might not have time to say much about it this evening, but it would be helpful to say that we need to look again at that project. The scheme is expensive, but for it to have hung over local residents for so long is, to say the least, very unhelpful indeed.

The road improvement schemes that are welcome, because the Government awarded £4 million to the council to improve Southend’s roads, include the resurfacing of Kenilworth gardens in Westcliff, Chalkwell esplanade and Elm road in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East. A cycle route from Chalkwell avenue to the seafront will also be embarked upon. I am very grateful for that.

Given the Minister’s time in the Treasury, he will be aware of the reorganisation of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. In Southend, we have very few large employers, and HMRC is a very important employer in the town. The announcement that 400 jobs would be cut over the next three years, which would cause a 20 per cent. reduction in the Southend work force, is absolutely devastating. That decision seems rather bizarre, given what the different agencies that help the regeneration of Southend have said about employment prospects, and it would be a devastating blow to the local economy. I simply ask the Minister to look again at that proposal.

I will not get into arguments tonight about housing in Southend, because there is no land to build on in my constituency. It is not an issue in Southend, West; it is more of an issue for my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East. However, I want to touch on other issues very quickly, one of which is cliff slippage. Again, if the Minister does not have time to respond now, perhaps he will write to me. A few years ago, the cliffs in Southend began to slip. One of the things that we are very strong on in Southend is the parks department’s planting of the cliffs—absolutely magnificent—but unfortunately, we suffered a mile-long slippage. One of the Minister’s colleagues was helpful and responsible for allocating some money for the restoration of the cliffs, but we need more, because the cliffs have continued to slip and dealing with that has proved more expensive than we expected.

The lift to get senior citizens up the cliff connects Clifton terrace with Western esplanade; unfortunately, it is expected to be out of service for another year while works are done. It was built in 1912—again, this links in with the Olympic games—and it is one of few lifts of its type in the country. The council refurbished the lift two years ago, with a helpful £1.8 million Heritage Lottery Fund grant. However, the cost has risen by £400,000, because of new European regulations that classify the lift as a cable car, rather than as a railway. That will necessitate a re-examination of the lift mechanism and paying costly consultation fees. I know that that is not the Government’s fault. There is a new European regulation in place, but if we do not comply with it, we will never get our lifts. Again, I ask the Minister to look into the matter and to find out whether there is any way in which assistance can be given, perhaps through European funding.

Another point that I wish to raise with the Minister is the silting-up of the Thames estuary in Leigh-on-Sea. A number of fishermen and women in Leigh depend for their livelihood on cockling and on catching Dover sole, but the Thames estuary has become increasingly silted. A project to try to solve that problem would be very expensive. Perhaps the Minister could consider the issue.

Earlier tonight, I was invited with colleagues to the Royal Opera House to enjoy a number of brief performances. During the evening, it was announced that Thurrock, the other unitary authority in Essex, is benefiting from a scheme run by the opera house to try to bring the arts, which are of course expensive—and, some would argue, elitist—to more challenging parts of the country. The opera house has set up a wonderful workshop in Thurrock. I seized the opportunity and sought out the gentleman in charge of the Royal Opera House’s education project. He tells me that he will work with Southend-on-Sea borough council and the local college to see whether we can develop the arts in Southend. The Minister will know of a number of famous actors and actresses from the area. A Southend girl won an Oscar last year with her portrayal of the Queen. We have many famous singers, dancers, sculptors and painters, too; there is a real gathering of cultural excellence in Southend.

Let me come on to the point of this Adjournment debate on the regeneration of Southend. Southend was once a very popular seaside resort. It attracted people for holidays of a weekend or a little longer. The Minister knows only too well of the difficulties that Southend and other resorts have experienced. We cannot do anything about what some people regard as the unreliability of our weather. We cannot do anything about the impact of competition as a result of cheap flights—or what were cheap flights—which have meant that the world is becoming increasingly smaller. However, Southend and other seaside towns have basically lost their place in the market as resorts. We have decided to try to reposition ourselves. At the heart of that are the leisure and cultural opportunities that I mentioned. However, Southend also wants to position itself as a centre of learning. The South East Essex College of Arts and Technology in Southend has joined in a partnership with Essex university, and that partnership is having a wonderful effect locally. I thank the Government for any assistance that they have given us thus far, but I would welcome any further assistance that the Minister and his Department could give.

I have claimed, over the years, that Southend is the finest resort in not only the country, but the world. Which Member of Parliament worth their salt would deny that? The joy of experiencing the moving picture that the Thames estuary produces is quite unique, and it will be celebrated when we enjoy the Olympic games in 2012. However, Southend really does need help with regeneration. The area that I represent has the highest number of senior citizens in the country; that is why we are in the “Guinness World Records” book for holding the greatest gathering of centenarians in the country. Those senior citizens want to enjoy the town today, but they have at the back of their mind how it used to be. With a little bit of help, I think that our former glories will return. I have every confidence that the Minister will do all that he possibly can to assist Southend with its regeneration.

May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) on securing this debate so soon after our return from the recess? Having spent two months thinking of lots of things to say, and given the hours that one could spend talking about Southend, I thought I had to pare my contribution down to five minutes, only to find that I have the luxury of a little more time. It is a great position for someone who is so passionate about Southend to be in, but I will limit my comments and not take up all the available time and detain the Minister too long on his first full day in office. Ministers come, and Ministers go. In the case of some Ministers, they come and go, come and go, and come again. However, being made a Privy Councillor is something that people cannot take away from someone. The Minister will always be a right honourable Gentleman, and it is good to have him here to reply to the debate.

I hesitate to disagree at the outset with my colleague, but the title of the debate gives me some discomfort. I represent Rochford and Southend, East, but as soon as I talk about Southend, everyone in Rochford writes to me and says, “What’s wrong with Rochford?” I will not stray, however, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and test your patience. The other problem that I have with the debate concerns the other word in the title—there are only two words, so it seems rather churlish—which is “regeneration”, as it suggests something that is done to an area, rather than by an area. It has connotations of the public sector, a master plan, a right way forward, and a process that is planned and ultimately reached. However, if one looks at Southend’s history, some of the best changes have been organic and have been achieved bit by bit. Some of the worst things in Southend have been planned: the ’70s tower blocks that were built, with old Victorian housing smashed through. Parts of the town centre were ripped out and destroyed to provide new, progressive, modern buildings, so I am a little concerned when we talk of regeneration that we may repeat past mistakes. Personally, I prefer the term, “investment”, not only by the private sector but by the community, which should invest not just its money in the town but its time, community spirit and so on.

Under the term “regeneration”, Southend council quite rightly wants to make Southend a better place to live, work, visit and indeed to invest in. If we achieve all four things we will achieve regeneration—a term I dislike somewhat. Another term mentioned by my hon. Friend that has been bandied about is “partnerships”. Everyone seems to be working in partnership, and it has almost become incestuous. We cannot be sure who are the different parties in the regeneration debate. I will illustrate that point for the Minister by citing an excellent development that I fully support. The university of Essex came to Southend, and, I walked through the site with the opening party, which was quite large—not only were there dignitaries and a member of the royal family but everyone who had participated in the project. Representatives of some 15 organisations were wandering through, and when we unveiled the plaque, there were about 15 different logos representing people who had put money in. One lady who was wandering round said, “You know, James, actually, it was us who pump-primed all of this.” Their logo was not even on the board.

When one drills down into the question of what those organisations were, quite often they were the Department for Communities and Local Government in one guise or format or another. Everyone was saying that they pump-primed the university: they put in a little bit of money and achieved a great deal of change. I asked them a question, “How much did the whole thing cost?”, but very few people knew. In fact, no one was able to tell me. I am sure that I could have probed the issue further. Interestingly, however, when I spoke to a third of those 15 or so donors, no one appreciated the overall cost or how much Government money had been put in. No one appreciated how much DCLG money had been put in. They were just proud that they had pump-primed the investment.

I worry that as part of the regeneration process, it is conceivable that we end up spending more money than we need to. It is also conceivable that we spend it on the wrong thing. One of the problems with all these partnerships is that there is a democratic deficit. There is a lack of linkage between what the people of Southend want and what all the organisations want. To a degree, Southend council got into an unholy alliance of necessity with a number of partnerships, because that is the only way to get money out of the Government. They played the game, but is it right? Are the rules of the game right? Is the structure of funding right? I assert to the Minister that it is not right, it is confusing and there is a democratic deficit. One of the things that he can do, not just for Southend, but for other areas in the country, is to give the process a good shake-up.

In our area there is Thames gateway. No one I know describes themselves as living in Thames gateway. Thames gateway does not even exist. Southend exists. People say they come from Southend, from Prittlewell, from Essex or from the east end. Nobody has ever told me they come from Thames gateway. It is not a defined area of community spirit.

I am extremely concerned about central Government taking assets into national hands, even with the acquiescence of a local council, to pump-prime some type of investment. That seems to be completely the wrong direction of travel. For example, English Partnerships took a large share in the car parks in Southend, in the hope that it would get private sector development money to develop those car parks, provide car parking space and develop the town centre. The Government should be helping to push money down, not pull money out.

I want to be brief, but I want to touch on some of the points that my hon. Friend made. The errors in the census, which predates my election, are crucial. Those errors cost Southend £7 million every year. If the Minister takes away one thing from my contribution, will he please look at the figures again? The Government will probably not want to look all the way back to the last census, but we must make sure that we get the census right for areas such as Southend, Slough, Manchester and the City of Westminster, which do not easily fit into an existing box. It is difficult to measure those populations.

Southend airport is an excellent airport. I have mixed feelings about its rebranding. It is now called London Southend, as seems to be the fashion with airports across the whole of the United Kingdom. Southend airport is a decent airport that is looking for extra money to expand. I ask the Minister to look at the 2012 Olympics and speak to his colleagues about London City airport, which may well have to close for security reasons. If it does—it would be a sensible decision to close London City—Southend airport needs the investment now rather than in three or four years so that it can be leveraged for the Olympics.

I agree with my hon. Friend on transport infrastructure. We need a decision on Priory crescent as soon as possible. Almost any decision is better than the present prevarication, waiting and uncertainty. We need consistent, joined-up government. HMRC was mentioned. Not only are those 400 jobs moving away, but new public sector jobs cannot be created in Southend because the south-east is deemed an affluent area and under the Lyons review, new jobs cannot come into largely affluent areas such as the south-east and the east of England. That ignores the clear pockets of poverty in Southend, which are largely clustered around the very same buildings that provided a great deal of part-time work and temporary work—exactly the type of work that was getting people off benefits, into the working marketplace, then off benefits entirely and into full-time jobs.

Lastly, I shall mention two issues. The first is the driving test centre in Southend. This might seem a trivial point but it is symptomatic of the Government moving services away. Southend has an expanding population and an expanding youth population, given the university, yet the Government have taken the decision to close Southend driving test centre. They held a consultation and ignored it. The consultation seemed pretty pointless, because the Government had made the decision already, and I must admit that I wondered aloud in my office, asking rhetorically, “What on earth is a consultation?”

My research assistant, taking that more as an instruction than a rhetorical question, did some research on what a consultation is. Evidently a consultation is a consultation only if the decision is not predetermined. I have documents that have been leaked to me that say not only that the decision was taken, but that planning permission was granted and that the site was being built before the consultation took place, moving Southend driving test centre out of Southend and into a bigger centre near Basildon, which is a problem experienced elsewhere.

Finally, let me reiterate the point about business rates on empty properties. There has been a boom in the demolition business in Southend. Some of the buildings were ugly and needed to be demolished; indeed, it is good that they have been demolished. However, there were many buildings that were important to Southend’s history. There were lots of buildings that were largely unoccupied, but partially occupied by small businesses, which have had to move out and suffer all that disruption. I am not entirely sure whether what has happened in Southend is the same as elsewhere in the country or whether the Government’s intentions have matched the consequences. I urge the Minister, in his dealings with other areas, to see whether the consequences of raising business rates on empty property have been adverse, particularly in regeneration areas.

I congratulate both hon. Members who have spoken on their kind words and pay tribute to them for the tone in which they put the case for their constituencies and their town. We are fortunate to have more time than is generally the case for these end-of-day debates. I congratulate the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) on securing this debate. It should surprise no one that he was first in line for the Adjournment debate on the first day back. He has a formidable reputation as an advocate, and not just for his current constituency—I notice that he even managed to work in a reference to Basildon, which has been ably represented since 1997 by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela E. Smith).

In many ways we are picking up from where the hon. Gentleman’s previous Adjournment debate on the regeneration of his area a couple of years ago left off. We can see significant progress since then, which he was good enough to recognise. The new university of Essex campus in Southend is important for, as he put it, repositioning the town. We have seen a local area agreement signed between the Government and Southend, together with the agencies with which the council works. The priorities set by that agreement included improving Southend’s image, raising the level of activity in the local economy and raising aspirations in the local area. We have also seen the beginning of a public consultation on a new home for Southend’s Saxon king artefacts.

A new location has also been found for Southend United football club, at Fossett’s Farm. As I also follow a team in the lower divisions of the football league, let me in passing congratulate the team on its victory at the weekend, although I note that Yeovil were down to nine men at the end of the game. Nevertheless, three points are three points.

There is also the wider regional view, which is important to the town. The recently published east of England spatial strategy identifies Southend as one of the important centres for development and change, particularly in skills, transport and wider regeneration or investment, as the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) argued. The strategy is important in the longer term, because it places Southend in the Essex part of the Thames Gateway and the drive to see an extra 55,000 jobs in that period, as well as setting out the ambition of a significant number of new homes in the area, which will also be needed.

The Government have tried to give support where we can—not only in the local area agreement but in backing the local strategic partnership, Southend Together—to opportunities that are in the area and for the area. I share the reservations expressed by the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East about the term “regeneration”. Sometimes it has meant something that has been done to an area, having been drawn up by agencies outside the area, rather than something that has been done by an area for itself. The local strategic partnership now plays an important role in ensuring that the future of Southend is determined in Southend, drawing on support from outside the area—from within the region and from Government, where it can—while nevertheless fashioning its future for itself.

After studying this matter, I believe that in many ways we are on the cusp of an important period, in which there will be significant opportunities to promote Southend’s advantages as a location close to London and connected with the 2012 Olympics, to make maximum use of its assets as a seaside town and of its pier, and to promote Southend—as the borough council is doing—as a place to visit and to live, work and invest in.

I welcome the description of the hon. Member for Southend, West of himself as a wholehearted supporter of the Olympic games. As he explained, Southend has been selected as a pre-games training camp, and was included in the guide distributed to the nations competing in Beijing. It has also been designated as a Paralympic training camp for a number of sports. I will certainly alert my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Olympics to his vision for the use of the pier as part of the Olympic ceremonies, and to his enthusiasm for his town to play a part in the Olympic games.

However, it has been recognised in the debate that, despite the fact that Southend is a town with many attractions, it is also a town with serious pockets of deprivation, hence the need for the investment that we are discussing. Before I come to the question of regeneration, however, let me deal with some of the specific points that have been raised in the debate.

The second reservation of the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East about regeneration concerned the plethora of partners that can sometimes be involved. I am not saying that he is wrong, but when we look at the need for investment and regeneration across the piece, we see that it can be a complex business. It involves much more than just the need for a new building or for physical regeneration, and often requires the contribution, and the alignment of plans, of a number of different agencies. Nevertheless, in our regeneration efforts around the country there is undoubtedly scope to reduce the complexity of the arrangements. That has been part of the thinking behind bringing together the new Homes and Communities Agency under the Department in which I am a Minister, so that it can become possible for areas such as Southend, and their councils and local agencies, to have a single conversation with the Government about their plans and their case for future investment. I hope that we shall see the process becoming a little more straightforward, now that the agency has been established under the very able leadership of Sir Bob Kerslake.

On empty property relief, I have to say that I did not entirely follow the argument of the hon. Member for Southend, West. He said that there was a shortage of office space in Southend and that the empty property relief was causing the problem. Part of the rationale for removing the relief is that it increases the incentives or decreases the disincentives for rapid re-letting or redevelopment. That, together with recognition that the relief cost the taxpayer £1.3 billion a year, was the nub of the case for making changes to the empty property relief. Given that pressure on public spending and concern about other taxation were so strong, it was difficult to justify that level of public subsidy for property owners who were keeping their properties empty. Although we keep all tax regimes under review, we stand by the case for introducing those changes. As the Minister responsible, working closely with the Valuation Office Agency and local authorities, I have been able to assess their impact. We are now about six months into the financial year in which they were made, but we are keeping a close eye on them.

On population, it is difficult territory and it has also been well tilled, not least by the hon. Member for Southend, West. When the 2001 census was published in 2002, there were obvious discrepancies, particularly in some areas, with the mid-year estimates. That led to the Office for National Statistics doing a substantial study in 2004 to get to the bottom of those difficulties. I believe that 32 different areas, including Southend, were examined and that adjustments were made to the mid-year estimates in respect of about half of them. The hon. Gentleman has debated the issue several times and he will remember that, unlike in the areas where adjustments were made, there was no evidence for doing so in the case of Southend.

Until a little more than a year ago, I was the Minister responsible for the ONS for two years, so I was heavily involved in the preparations for the next census. The ONS is taking a number of important steps to ensure that any apparent or arguable flaws in the 2001 census will not be evident in 2011. I hope that we will ensure that, as the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East urged, the 2011 census is soundly based so that we do not have to confront similar difficulties. Looking back over the decades, the difficulty of conducting censuses is compounded by the fact that our communities are not only much more diverse, but very much more mobile. That makes the census a difficult technical challenge to undertake.

Having been the Minister responsible for Customs and Excise before Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs came along, I am aware of how important Southend is to the service. The reduction in the number of posts planned for Southend is smaller than in some other areas. As I understand the plans, most of the reductions will be achieved through natural wastage.

On cliff slippage, I am grateful for the recognition that the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), helped out when she was a Transport Minister.

I will look further into the European regulations on whether things are classed as cable cars or railways and try to find out whether something in the application is making things more difficult than they need to be. I cannot promise, however—I do not want to raise expectations—that there will be any more central Government money to help if the finances are squeezed.

May I come to the question at the heart of the debate, which is the regeneration and future of Southend? As the hon. Member for Southend, West made clear very powerfully, there are some structural weaknesses in the Southend economy, which in the past relied principally on tourism and certain types of financial and business services. Although estimates show that more than 6 million visitors go to Southend each year—making a substantial input to the economy and the jobs base that relies on such visitors—it is clear that that is increasingly difficult to rely on, particularly in view of today’s tastes and some of the problems we have seen this summer with the British weather.

Looking at the figures, a second structural weakness that strikes me is the skills base of Southend. The figures for what in the jargon is level 2 and what to the rest of us is the equivalent of five good GCSEs show that Southend lags behind the national level. That has been clearly recognised by the council and the agencies that it works with as one of the priorities to tackle through the new local area agreements.

In tackling the structural weaknesses, there is physical regeneration and the softer regeneration that is required. Let me deal with the physical first. At the heart of the matter—what, in a sense should be the answer to the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East—is the fact that Renaissance Southend should be the locally led way to harness the concerns and potential investments from the public and private sectors towards a vision for the future of Southend that is brought together, agreed and agreed locally. Some of the work on the master planning has started, as has work on some of the assembly of land. Work has also started on some of the repositioning or rebranding of Southend.

As the hon. Member for Southend, West argued, Southend is more than simply a seaside town, but something new is needed for the new era. The redefinition of Southend as a town, based around investment in education—partly to deal with the structural problems that I mentioned and partly to give the town a lift and a new direction—is an important element, alongside the cultural profile that the town is also trying to raise. Trying to make the town a cultural and commercial centre for the region is an important part of the future. The £20 million newly opened campus for the university of Essex is clearly pivotal to that, providing not only education facilities, but a business development centre and an innovation centre, alongside the commercial space.

I do not think that this has been mentioned in the debate, but the ambition to link further education with the new higher education facility is important in encouraging rising aspirations and a sense for many young people locally—indeed, older people as well, but particularly the next generation—that what is provided in Southend offers the possibility to achieve the qualifications and skills levels that are lacking in the town. The investment of £52 million in the South East Essex college building at the heart of the town centre is a big part of that. The use of education and culture offers a new direction that marks Southend out as different from other towns in the region.

On the cultural side, there are recent projects such as Metal, the artists’ laboratory, which is creating a new headquarters in Southend-on-Sea. I have mentioned the proposed new £35 million Saxon king museum and cultural centre, and I must say that I was not aware that Helen Mirren hailed originally from Southend, but that is clearly a potential asset for the town.

On Priory crescent, the borough council is poised to submit to the Department for Transport a major scheme business case on the pressure point of its junction with the A127 at Cuckoo corner. The hon. Member for Southend, West may want to make local inquiries about that, but that is my understanding. If that is submitted, Ministers will give it full consideration alongside the other calls on central transport funding. However, I will ensure that his views are registered and part of the consideration that Transport Ministers bring to bear should that case be submitted.

I have mentioned the physical side—the structural weaknesses—and, in passing, the social side of improvements in investment, and that is where the requirement for the aligned effort of a number of agencies comes into play in any bid to regenerate an area. In identifying the five most important factors in making their neighbourhood a good place to live, residents did not choose big investment in regeneration of buildings and facilities, but chose instead the level of crime, heath services, clean streets, education provision and decent housing. No single agency can help to solve the problems posed by each and every one of those five challenges and improve standards entirely on its own. For instance, the effective collaboration of different agencies in Southend led to a 20 per cent. reduction in crime compared with four years ago. That is a notable success and beyond the targets set locally for that work.

The aim is to make Southend a good place to live, work, visit and invest in. It has some strong natural advantages, including a good location and the potential of the 2012 Olympics to drive some of the new ambitions. There is no doubt that Southend needs a fresh direction—a repositioning, as the hon. Gentleman described it. There is no doubt that its future is more promising than its immediate past. As a Government, we will work to support the plans of the local authority, and the agencies alongside it, in whatever way we can to secure that aim so that Southend does indeed recapture, although in a different way, some of its former glories.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Ten o’clock.