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Seaside Town Regeneration

Volume 501: debated on Tuesday 1 December 2009

Nowhere in the United Kingdom is further than 70 miles from the sea—it has been a much loved resource for holidaying Britons over the years—yet our coastal towns, once famous holiday destinations, have suffered a steady decline over the past 25 years. Our seaside towns have not benefited from the urban renaissance of the past decade, and the national regeneration initiatives have overlooked the problems that they face.

The recent recession, ironically, has seen a resurgence in the popularity of our seaside resorts. Statistics from Visit England show that in July 2009, the number of holiday trips taken by UK residents to England was up by an impressive 40 per cent. compared with July 2008. Despite the latest revival, the Government’s understanding of coastal issues is poor and, as a result, regeneration efforts are badly co-ordinated across many Departments, which have a role to play in the process.

The significant urban focus in the Government’s regeneration and renewal agenda has exacerbated the challenges for coastal areas, as opportunities to invest, aid and restructure seaside towns have simply been overlooked. Even when funding opportunities, such as the single regeneration budget rounds, the neighbourhood renewal fund and the neighbourhood element of the safer and stronger communities fund, are made available, they have not been adapted to take account of the specific characteristics of seaside towns.

As the Communities and Local Government Committee’s inquiry into coastal towns demonstrated, a complex range of issues faces such areas, including changes in tourism trends, the seasonality of the seaside economy, frequent high levels of deprivation, coastal erosion, physical isolation and high levels of immigration of older people and emigration of younger people, which places pressure on social and community services.

Tourism is vital to the UK. Deloitte has estimated that the wider worth of the visitor economy is £114 billion, and that tourism attracts £20 billion a year in overseas earnings. It employs 8 per cent. of the work force and represents at least the fifth largest sector of the national economy. However, over the past 10 years, the UK’s growth in inbound tourism has underperformed compared with global competitors. National statistics indicate that if we had grown our international visitor economy at a rate that matched the increase in world tourism over the same period, the additional visits would have generated £3.2 billion more annually for the economy and 75,000 extra jobs. Does the Minister concede that that is a serious missed opportunity?

All British seaside resorts were developed as tourist destinations in the years after the first world war. The accommodation constructed at the seaside was, when built, better than what most people had in their homes. It was modern, and resorts were, by the standards of the time, exotic places. However, by the 1970s and 80s, continental resorts had developed, and over the past 30 years, the traditional bucket-and-spade tourism industry declined in the face of competition from low-cost European package holidays.

Resorts cannot rejuvenate their tourism appeal without analysing which areas of the towns are crucial to tourists and then engaging in a determined programme of improvement and renewal. Initiatives for reinvigorating our seaside towns ideally should come from local authorities with private participation, with the Government setting a framework that enables that. Seaside destinations tend to have significant infrastructure costs in excess of those that are borne by an inland area. The maintenance of coastal defences and the increasing risk of flooding—never more appropriate for those of us who have seen the front page of today’s edition of The Times—are just two examples of the enormous threat to inward investment and development, particularly from the private sector, which is reluctant to go into areas that might be threatened by coastal erosion or flooding.

For too long, there has been a lack of recognition of extra infrastructure burdens faced by seaside resorts. Instead, they are left to the local authorities to fund and, with squeezed budgets, are often forgotten, overlooked or put simply at the bottom of the “to do” list. Yet it is only after the public realm infrastructure receives investment that the private sector will be willing to invest.

It would be appropriate now to declare that my wife has recently become the owner of a holiday-let property in Cornwall. The hotel building allowance has been curtailed or removed within the tax system, which is ever more complex, expensive to comply with and demanding on cash flow. In April’s Budget, the Chancellor announced the potentially devastating changes to the tax rules governing the letting of furnished holiday property in the United Kingdom.

In the south-west, we have the greatest proportion of holiday letting accommodation and the change in the taxation will really threaten that industry. While the self-catering sector is an increasingly significant component of the UK holiday market, generating revenue of £1.8 billion per annum or almost 13 per cent. of all UK domestic holiday expenditure, property owners will from April 2010 face a greater tax liability in operating their holiday letting businesses. Along with budget hotels, camping and caravanning, the sector is one of the growth areas of the UK tourism industry.

The Treasury estimates that changes to the furnished holiday lettings rules will damage the tourism industry by just £20 million, yet research by the Tourism Alliance suggests an overall reduction in tourism spend of £200 million and a loss of 4,500 jobs in rural and seaside economies. At a time of recession and unemployment, what are the Government playing at by introducing such punitive measures?

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. The tax system is disadvantageous to the UK tourism industry, particularly as at the moment our major competitors, Germany and France, are reducing further their VAT rate on hotel accommodation.

I shall continue on taxation specifically, but overall both the countries to which the hon. Gentleman alluded are backing their tourism industry in a way that our Government are not. I hope to give the Minister an opportunity to deny that and explain why I am wrong.

One of the Government’s core goals for their tourism responsibilities under the Development of Tourism Act 1969 has been to increase the quality of tourism products and services to make the UK tourism industry internationally competitive. Not only will changing from 100 per cent. relief on capital expenditure to the proposed 10 per cent. wear and tear allowance mean that the quality and quantity of the fittings provided will be reduced and there will be a lower level of maintenance, but immediate barriers to entry are being created, owners of holiday lettings companies could go out of business, and, ironically, farmers previously encouraged to diversify into tourism activities and holiday lets will now be disincentivised by the very Government who encouraged to them to take such action in the first place. If ever there were a lack of joined-up Government thinking, that is it. Nor has the change in taxation legislation been subjected to rural proofing, as the Government promised would happen to new taxation legislation.

Will the Minister take the opportunity of the debate to respond to the Federation of Small Businesses, which today in the papers has called for the Government to “Give us a Break” in respect of the changed legislation? He will no doubt be aware that the chairman of the FSB called for that, and I look forward to his response to the debate.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has not given tourism the attention that it needs and deserves. Tourism is ignored by Departments that have more clout in the great scheme of things. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is simply not seen within the Government as a defender of tourism's interests or a natural consultee. As current trends are showing greater personal responsibility towards individual carbon footprints, and altered holiday choices based on ecological rather than purely financial priorities, the error of the Government's ways in changing FHL rules can only be brought more sharply into focus.

English tourist destinations now have a fresh advantage over their foreign competitors, and an opportunity to capture new markets. The coastal holiday experience can satisfy sustainable lifestyle aspirations, offering locally and organically produced food, and health benefits associated with outdoor activities in the natural environment. The Government are being presented with opportunity after opportunity to take advantage of trends and changes in behaviour, attitudes and spending habits, yet time and again, those chances are squandered.

Transport infrastructure is another key issue that limits seaside regeneration. The Government’s failure to deliver on major transport projects for seaside destinations significantly affects their growth and competitiveness and adds cost to every journey. Coastal areas suffered disproportionately under a previous Labour Government as a result of the Beeching axe when branch lines such as the one to Sidmouth in my constituency were cut. The Government must now ensure that all tourist centres are well served by public transport to reduce as far as possible the use of individual vehicles. It must be accepted that tourism involves transport, which needs to be made not only ecologically friendly but cost-effective for the traveller.

It has been evident over the past 15 years that, rather than sitting in endless traffic jams on their way to the seaside, UK residents have chosen to fly to overseas destinations, at the considerable expense of our seaside communities and economy. The Government must step up to the plate and address that matter urgently. Specific problems affecting tourism also include the inconsistent level of support made available for tourism development by the Government and their agencies. That includes support for marketing destinations, the development of skills appropriate to 21st century destinations, and business growth. There appear, however, to be encouraging developments in that regard, with the British Resorts and Destinations Association and Visit England currently developing a seaside resorts futures document, which will emanate from the new England strategy in 2010. Yet the funding provided to Visit England is only £13 million and about to be cut significantly. That is a pitiful amount and resources must be increased so that they are commensurate with the size of the task.

Central Government should give coastal towns an opportunity to address their decline and renew and improve their tourist facilities. Customers increasingly demand quality of service and facilities, and coastal towns are well placed to meet that demand, in part because of their high quality historic fabric. For visitors who have come to enjoy the beauty of the coast, but need a base to stay overnight, a built environment that matches the quality of the natural environment is essential, and the development of a high quality hotel and leisure sector can help stimulate a modern visitor economy.

The Government must also play their part by reducing the burdens of red tape and bureaucracy. The planning system needs to become less process orientated. The local development framework and regional spatial strategies have been too long in their formation, and that leads to unnecessary tensions between planning authorities and developers and investors. I am cynical about the regional spatial strategy and welcome my party’s pledge to get rid of it. There is a need, particularly in current circumstances, to ensure that the public sector works to facilitate development and not delay it.

Bed-and-breakfast premises are particularly vulnerable to the increased regulatory burden. Guidelines are urgently needed for local enforcement officers in fire regulations and food hygiene to ensure that they carry out their enforcement duties proportionately, in a genuinely risk-based way, and not in a way that places a disproportionate compliance burden on small businesses. Fire regulations, in particular, affect a number of bed-and-breakfast owners in my constituency. I have tabled several parliamentary questions about the matter, and wonder whether the Minister has received similar representations, and what his opinion is.

Marinas, which have an important role to play in local regeneration schemes, are also burdened by red tape and regulation. That needs to be explored, particularly in the south-west. There is no marina between Portland and the constituency of the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders). There is nothing along my coast, and the Government would do well to consider a marina initiative.

Heritage can be a dynamic resource for regenerating coastal towns. The restoration of historic buildings to accommodate new uses can stimulate new economic sectors, such as arts and cultural industries. Examples include the successful restoration of the De La Warr pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, the development of Tate St. Ives, Bournemouth square, the Whitby abbey heritage centre and the Tern project in Morecambe. Offering visitors a broader range of attractions, with significant increases in spend and overnight stays, has a knock-on effect on retail and restaurants in the area. The Royal Oyster Stores restaurant in Whitstable has, for example, been particularly influential in fostering a market of high-spending visitors from London, who come to eat at the restaurant and then enjoy the shops, galleries and sea front in the rest of the town. The recently diversified local economy brings all-year-round tourism, ensuring a more stable economy and better job security for local residents. A similar experience has occurred in Cornwall with Rick Stein’s restaurants in Padstow, Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen Cornwall at Watergate bay, and most recently the Hix restaurant in Lyme Regis, which I was lucky enough to try for myself.

Central Government investment in culture, arts and heritage is a vital and innovative way of creating a diversified and sustainable seaside economy. I should, therefore, welcome the Government commitment of £45 million over three years to a sea change fund. Indeed, as the shadow Minister for Plymouth, I was heartened by the £100,000 to help develop plans for relocating the Plymouth arts centre down on the Hoe. However, tourism is not a by-product of outreach, cultural-grant programmes, which are not a quick-fix solution.

Investment is probably the key issue holding back seaside regeneration. The lack of awareness and appreciation of the problems associated with seaside destinations has led to poorly conceived policy interventions such as the sea change programme, while the incentive structures associated with the regional development agencies have tended to focus the investment on easy-win structural projects, rather than tackling the more difficult underlying social issues, which hold back growth and development in such areas.

As a result of decades of decline and neglect, many seaside destinations suffer from high levels of deprivation. According to the Communities and Local Government Committee report, 21 of the 88 most deprived local authorities are in coastal towns. Such problems require urgent central Government intervention, so that those destinations can move forward.

In addition, the out-migration of younger households, to which I alluded earlier, and the growth in the care home industry have created a demographic imbalance, putting a higher burden on social services. In fact, 21 per cent. of residents of seaside towns are over 65, compared with the national average of 16 per cent. Efforts must be made to draw young people back to coastal areas. In Falmouth, a new further education campus is diversifying the local economy, increasing employment and vitality in the town. Student numbers at the campus are expected to reach around 30,000 and will provide a major boost to the local economy. That is exactly the type of innovative regeneration of coastal towns that is needed. I would like to see more colleges in coastal towns dedicated to training young people in the needs and requirements of the hospitality industry.

The extraordinary, abandoned fiasco of the Government’s casino policy almost suggested that the only panacea from Government to address the ills of a seaside town’s deprivation would be to bung a casino in the middle of it. At the time I had the honour of being the shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and we put that one to bed for them. The policy seemed to serve no other purpose than simply costing time, money and effort on the part of all the authorities that bid.

The Treasury should now concentrate on working with the industry to improve the existing amusement machine licence duty system to deliver efficiencies for Government and business. The maximum jackpot levels for amusement machines should be reviewed, remembering that higher jackpots would mean higher levels of duty.

In order to succeed and flourish, seaside destinations must be year-round attractions, and one of the greatest challenges is to extend the tourist season. One of the most important factors in achieving that is the development of the meetings and conferences industry. In the 1970s and ’80s most of the major seaside resorts were significant players in the conference market, but with investment being ploughed into our former industrial cities from the 1980s onwards, competition to the resorts grew in parallel with the decline and impoverishment of their infrastructures. Over the past 20 years, we have witnessed a number of resort destinations pulling out of the conference market altogether, because their offering is no longer appropriate to the market’s needs, while others are struggling to remain competitive. If seaside resorts are to continue to be successful, the necessary investment must be made in the transport and local infrastructures that support business tourism.

Obviously, the major player in any effort to rejuvenate seaside towns and provide the necessary cultural injection is local government. However, local authorities are not always able or inclined to take a meaningful lead in the area, owing to funding restrictions and the lack of incentives to promote tourism. Tourism promotion is a non-statutory function for local authorities and, with increasing pressure on budgets, it tends to be the first activity that is cut. Given the inconsistent understanding of coastal issues and the pressure on public finances, there is increased need for local government to be encouraged to adopt entrepreneurial approaches to the use of its assets and the range of its powers to take things forward.

There is no dedicated national policy statement relating to coastal towns and that must be changed. For many years, until the mid-1960s, our seaside resorts were a major destination for domestic tourism. Since then the financial and physical decline of what were once attractive holiday destinations has simply been overlooked. Many coastal towns are surrounded by some of the most outstanding natural environment Britain has to offer. In my own constituency of East Devon, not only are there beautiful beaches but the Jurassic coast, a UNESCO world heritage site. We should rightly be proud of our natural and historic assets, and respect them as a worthy part of the future and our 21st-century tourism appeal.

A 2006 study for the World Travel and Tourism Council predicted that on present trends the UK would lose a further fifth of global market share over the next 10 years. One of the reasons for the unfulfilled potential of tourism and our coastal towns is the Government’s failure to appreciate how important those towns are to the UK, and particularly to England.

I hope that the Minister will use the time remaining to answer some of the questions and not simply say that what I have proposed requires increased money and that the Opposition are committed to spending no extra money, because that would be a cheap run for him. I hope that he will be worthier than that. I concede that some of my proposals would cost money, but others would be cost-neutral and require only a commitment by the Government that hitherto we have not seen. The clock is ticking on the Government, but it is not too late in the day for them to give some kind of demonstration of their commitment to the restoration of our coastal towns.

Although I enjoyed the culinary tour of the coastal towns of England that the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) gave, I will disappoint him. What I found extraordinary and disappointing about his speech is the fact that, although Westminster Hall debates are normally non-partisan and constructive discussions about people’s concerns, today we heard calls for more spending on regeneration, more access to finance for coastal areas, more colleges, more students, more spending for transport, tourism and Visit England, and at the same time lower taxes. He might think this unworthy, but he should try coming here to explain that.

What the hon. Gentleman has done is set out eloquently the Opposition’s approach to economic policy in general, which is to make all sorts of commitments while calling for lower taxes and not explaining how any of them will be paid for. It has certainly been disappointing to sit here and listen to a party political rant dressed up as a serious discussion of his constituents’ concerns.

I will try to deal with some of the points that the hon. Gentleman made, but if I miss anything I will ensure that he receives a letter on the subject. He is right that seaside towns have an important role in regional and local economies, along with other towns, cities and communities, and we want them to thrive and prosper. Many seaside towns are desirable locations and many people want to live there—not only those reaching retirement age, but younger people—because they offer an attractive environment, a good quality of life and varied opportunities for leisure and recreation.

Seaside towns are still important holiday destinations. Despite the diatribe of complaints to which we have just been subjected, in July alone domestic tourist trips nationally were up 20 per cent. on last year’s figures, and seaside towns will clearly have benefited from that.

It is difficult to generalise about seaside communities, given their very different economic, social and physical circumstances. There are big contrasts in the issues they face. There are resorts on the south coast, such as Bournemouth, Brighton and Poole, where the housing market and local economy are more buoyant and diverse, but which are still affected by changing trends in tourism. Others, such as Blackpool and Scarborough, have greater dependence on the traditional seaside tourist economy. Some areas have a high percentage of houses in multiple occupation, sometimes in poor condition. Some areas have strong and successful ingrained tourism industries while others have a declining tourist trade. Some areas, such as Brighton and Southend, have large numbers of people commuting to London, and others have higher numbers of people on benefits.

All those features present different challenges and opportunities for different communities, and clearly there is no magic bullet for every area and no simple solution that can be imposed from the centre. Instead, solutions can emerge only from detailed knowledge and understanding of the challenges and opportunities faced by each resort.

Over the past two years, the Department for Communities and Local Government has funded two studies of larger and smaller seaside towns, undertaken by Sheffield Hallam university. Those have explored in depth the socio-economic issues facing individual seaside towns and the need for better evidence to inform the wider debate. A key conclusion of those studies is that our seaside communities still have strong appeal and great potential. There is no doubt that those areas are changing and improving the quality of their services to residents, tourists and visitors alike.

The Government support seaside towns through a range of mainstream policies to boost their performance and to deliver improvements in services for their communities. As for overall financial support, we have delivered the first ever three-year settlement for local authorities and fulfilled the Government’s promise to provide financial stability to local government, which has been more important than ever over the past 12 months.

On 13 November, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government announced additional funding for recipients of working neighbourhoods funds to enable them to do more to reduce persistent unemployment. Some of the most deprived coastal authorities, including Blackpool, Great Yarmouth and Hastings, will benefit. The Future Jobs Fund is creating jobs, apprenticeships and training opportunities for young people in Thanet, Brighton and Hove, Cornwall and other coastal areas. The Government’s increased support to the regional improvement efficiency partnerships is helping councils in coastal and other areas to meet their local targets and priorities. In the south-west, for example, the RIEP is undertaking work on asset management and economic development and regeneration.

Despite the very real and often severe problems faced by many seaside towns, we can be confident about their future if all those involved—central Government, local government, the private sector, and regional and local partners—work towards a common goal to maximise their opportunities.

Regional development agencies are helping to ensure that seaside towns in their regions achieve their full economic potential through their regional economic strategies. A single regeneration budget, about which the hon. Gentleman complained, is now part of the single budget for RDAs and benefits coastal communities as much as anywhere else. All coastal RDAs now have regional economic strategies that take account of coastal and seaside towns. The RDA for Yorkshire and the Humber, for example, has a renaissance towns and cities programme that includes several seaside towns, including Bridlington and Scarborough. The RDA for the south-west has supported seaside towns from the market and coastal towns initiative, so I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s argument that coastal communities have not benefited from any of the additional expenditure that the Government have delivered.

To make RDAs even more effective, we are bringing together their economic role and the spatial planning function in single regional strategies. Those will help to ensure that economic development, housing, planning and transport are better aligned towards achieving sustainable economic growth to benefit all parts of a region, including the coast.

Since 2003, RDAs have included tourism in their corporate plans and regional economic strategies, both as an activity in its own right and mainstreaming it into their other economic considerations. RDAs are also working closely with regional tourist boards in the development of regional economic strategies, drawing on their wealth of knowledge on how seaside resorts fit in with the regional tourism economy.

In addition to their strategic responsibility for and investment in tourism, RDAs are aware of the interdependence of seaside resorts and their rural hinterlands, and should work with resorts to take advantage of their value.

Through multi-area agreements, a number of coastal authorities and their partners are taking a much more active role in leading economic development and regeneration at a sub-regional level. Of the 15 MAAs signed since July 2008, eight include coastal authorities. The Bournemouth, Dorset and Poole partnership, for example, is focusing on improving skills levels, transport and sustainable growth. The Fylde Coast partnership, which covers Blackpool, Wyre, Fylde and Lancashire county, has a focus on coastal infrastructure, tourism, skills and the public realm.

Some coastal towns have established economic development companies to increase capacity to deliver economic regeneration. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Plymouth City Development Company was launched in 2008 and is working in partnership with the city council, the private sector, the South West of England Regional Development Agency and the Homes and Communities Agency to ensure that public spending can be used to deliver the city’s ambitious plans. That demonstrates a number of the ways in which this Government are working with partners, including the RDAs, right across the country to improve services and increase expenditure in coastal communities.