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Southend (City Status)

Volume 523: debated on Monday 14 February 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Stephen Crabb.)

I am fortunate, on Valentine’s day, to be able to describe to the House the merits of Southend being granted city status next year. In the bid, I am supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois). As they are both Government Whips, however, they are unable to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker. So on this occasion, it is I alone who will be speaking on behalf of Southend.

Southend is asking the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) to be its Valentine tonight. I know only too well that he does not have the power to say tonight, “Yes, Southend can be a city.” Obviously, I understand that. Nevertheless, given that I was involved in the previous bid in 2002, I thought that it was right to put down an early marker. It would also be useful if the Minister were to set out exactly what considerations are involved.

Let me start from the beginning. The biggest advocate for Southend being granted city status is my own mother, Maud. God willing, she will shortly be celebrating her 99th birthday. She lives near the Olympic stadium in Stratford, and she is, in every sense, an east end girl. When she was bringing me up, it was a wonderful treat to travel to Southend-on-Sea. My children would laugh at the idea that going to the British seaside was a wonderful treat; they would probably expect to go round the world, and might not even be satisfied by that. In those days, however, to go to Southend was a great joy. I have childhood memories of going there to see the longest pier in the world, having the excitement of travelling by train out along the Thames estuary, enjoying Rossi’s ice cream, going down to the old town of Leigh and having cockles, mussels and shrimps. All those things left a great impression on me. Probably my strongest memory is of going to the amusement arcades along the golden mile in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East. My mother is privately leading the charge for city status for Southend.

The “Oxford English Dictionary” defines the word “city” as simply being

“a large town or other inhabited place”,

but it distinguishes a city as being

“a title ranking above that of ‘town’”.

According to such definitions, Southend-on-Sea certainly meets the very basic defined requirements to call itself a city.

I have googled quite a lot of stuff about cities, I was surprised to discover that there are only 66 cities in the United Kingdom and that—shock horror!—there are none in Essex. How is it possible that the biggest county does not have a city? I do not want to fall out with my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East and my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford—I will not fall out with the former; the latter is considering putting in a bid for his own town to become a city—but it is absolutely staggering that there is no city in Essex.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will not be able to tell the House tonight whether a town in Essex other than Southend has put in a bid, but if Southend is the only town to do so thus far, as seems to be the case, I think that speaks for itself. There are many complex requirements involved in a town becoming a city, but it would be fair to define a city as a cultural and economic hub with a large, diverse local community and an area in which communities and businesses seek to centralise their interests.

As far as culture is concerned, Southend is awash with it. I was at the annual dinner of the Essex yacht club on Saturday. The original guest speaker was unable to fulfil the engagement, so at relatively short notice we brought in a “stand-in”—a chap called Paul Carslake. He had an electric spray-on-paint device and created the most wonderful drawings I have ever seen by using a microphone and holding the spray. It was just incredible. He auctioned one his works of Michael Caine. This chap is famous: he has done stuff for the Rolling Stones and has travelled all over the world. He provides just one example of talent from absolutely nowhere.

We all know about the famous actors and actresses in Southend—starting, of course, with Helen Mirren, but we are awash with them, as there is also Lee Mead. As I say, we are awash with talent of every description: actors, actresses, singers, dancers, painters, sculptors—the whole gamut can be found in Southend. In every sense, then, we fulfil the cultural criterion.

Like most seaside towns, Southend faces many challenges. It is not as popular as it used to be to spend holidays in English seaside resorts. Nevertheless, Southend has repositioned itself as a centre of learning. We have the wonderful new Southend-based university of Essex; we have magnificent schools in the town; and we have a language college—and it is all bringing in a good deal of income to the town. We are also awash with small entrepreneurs as well as larger businesses, adding still more value.

We have a diverse local community from all parts of the world, bringing different cultures to the town. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East and my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford will confirm with a nod that relations between the cultures in Southend are extremely good indeed, with no problems at all.

I believe it would be hard to differentiate Southend in its everyday life from any other British city. I do not want to upset colleagues, but I have looked carefully at a few towns that have become cities and I cannot see how Southend fails to meet the criteria, because it has every bit as much going for it—and more! That puzzles me.

The Queen’s diamond jubilee will be celebrated next year. As the Minister will no doubt tell us, it has been announced that, as part of the national celebrations, a bidding process will be opened to bestow the honour of city status on areas whose bids are successful. As I have already told the Minister, who kindly replied to confirm it, Southend is bidding for city status.

Why does Southend want to become a city? It would have a significant impact on the morale of the local communities and would give the local economy a major boost during a difficult time for business and individuals alike. A key theme of the bid will be the projection of the community’s views of Southend, highlighting in particular its vibrancy and ambition. Furthermore, our bid will champion the various successful aspects of the town, celebrating the thriving local businesses in the area, its wonderful cultural and volunteering communities, the massive regeneration projects to improve pedestrian and road safety while giving Southend a modern and clean feel, the growing education sector and the fabulous local schools that the town boasts and its diverse and multicultural population.

I had the privilege of chairing the Committee considering the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Bill. Given that I come from the east end of London, as I mentioned, I am very excited at the prospect of the Olympic games. Hadleigh, the neighbouring area to Southend West, will host the bike events, which is good news. At the moment, Southend is actively seeking to attract international teams to choose Southend as a base for their training camps. I am delighted to tell the House that so far we have had visits from team representatives of Sri Lanka and the Philippines, with more to follow. I hope to attract international interest because we are only 40 miles from where the Olympic camp will be based and because we have wonderful facilities. The visiting teams were given a first-class presentation at Eastwood school, where there are marvellous sports facilities. Belfairs high school, which is being refurbished, will have wonderful facilities that will be unveiled later in the year.

Only a few weeks ago, Mark Foster, another Southend lad—well known because he is very tall, has won a few world championships, has competed in the Olympics and has appeared on “Strictly Come Dancing”—opened our new swimming pool, which features the best diving facility not just in the country but in the world. It also has a dry area. I think that international teams who are proficient in that sport will consider Southend very attractive as a base for their training camps. I hope that I have given the House a sense of the wonderful facilities that we have there.

In many ways, Southend-on-Sea already has the look and feel of a modern British city, but there is no sign saying “Welcome to the city of Southend”, and that is what I want to see. Southend is a town to be proud of, and it should be celebrated as such. In towns up and down the United Kingdom, during tough times like these, we sometimes need to remind ourselves of the greatness of where we live. If we are declared to be a city, that moment alone will lift the hearts and spirits of everyone. Last week we suffered a terrible tragedy when Trevor Bailey, who lived in my road and was a wonderful cricketer, lost his life. He served in the second world war and gave much for his country in every sense, and he would have been the first to support Southend and its community in the bid for city status.

I should add that I represent the part of the country with the most centenarians. Southend, which has appeared three times in “Guinness World Records”, contains a range of senior citizens who would be absolutely delighted if we were granted city status.

The recognition of Southend’s greatness, locally and nationally, would have a real impact on the civic pride felt by local communities. Evidence from previously successful bids has shown that city status can lead to a reduction in antisocial behaviour—in graffiti, for instance—and can increase aspiration among communities, and aspiration in itself can lead to higher attainment and economic activity.

Southend has achieved a great deal over the past five years. It has improved social housing to meet the needs of the local population. It has also improved adult community care, children’s services, education at all levels—from Sure Start centres to the university—and the area has been regenerated, including roads and public spaces. Its population of 164,000 is the largest in the east of England. Let me repeat to my hon. Friend the Minister that I am puzzled by the fact that it is not already a city.

Southend is seen by many as a hub for learning, culture and business. It has superb transport links to the surrounding areas and to London. We have nine railway stations, two bus companies, vastly improving road networks and an expanding airport. Only last Friday I visited one of the hangars at the airport to observe a number of apprentices at work, and I know that the skill that they have already acquired in refitting some of their planes is truly remarkable.

Southend has facilities to accommodate members of all religious faiths in its strong multicultural community. It provides outstanding educational opportunities, catering for everyone and anyone. As I have said, Southend has a large campus for the university of Essex specialising in drama and the arts, a regionally renowned adult community college, four outstanding grammar schools, and a generally excellent education service. Southend certainly has strong academic credentials. The principal of South Essex college, Jan Hodges, has done a magnificent job in all she has achieved for the college.

The town is a hub for the arts and culture, with one of the largest regional theatres in the Cliffs Pavilion. We also have the renowned Focal Point art gallery and museums with collections of national importance. Saxon remains were found in Priory park. They are being restored and will eventually be displayed in a suitable museum. We have a cultural events programme, including an annual carnival along the seafront. We have a thriving local music and visual and performing arts scene, and the internationally famous “Metal” which is based in Chalkwell park in Southend, where we invite artists from all over the world to share their skills with local artists. We have an annual festival, and “Metal” links in with the Royal Opera House in dance and theatre. Therefore, culture and the arts in Southend are second to none.

Unlike many seaside towns, Southend has a varied economy, enjoying a vibrant entrepreneurial culture, global companies with bases in the town, innovative and cutting-edge companies, and some of the best performing stores in the region in both the high street and the sought-after boutiques in Leigh-on-Sea. My predecessor, the late Lord Channon, used to take Princess Margaret along the little boutiques there, so impressed was she with that shopping area.

Southend has some outstanding historical architecture throughout the town, including the world-famous mile-long pier, which is being restored, the beautiful Regency architecture in the Clifftown conservation area, the historic fishing village in Leigh-on-Sea and the award-winning Pier Hill development. Southend is steeped in history and is proud to showcase the beautiful architecture, with the new designs, including the Pier Hill development, fitting seamlessly into the town.

The profile of Southend will be raised significantly with a successful city status bid, thus changing the perceptions of Southend not only for the local population but also throughout the country—if those perceptions are in any sense negative. The economy of Southend will also benefit significantly if the bid is successful. Raising the profile of Southend in such a positive way will enhance the activities that are pursued in Southend, setting a positive example that will lead to securing further inward investment into the town. City status will appeal to foreign markets in particular.

One of Southend’s key economic sectors is tourism, and it will also receive a significant boost. There is often greater interest in visiting a city than in visiting a town. City status will give Southend the opportunity to highlight everything it has to offer to wider audiences, enabling the town to secure more vital income from tourism.

Southend has benefited from the significant regeneration projects that have been carried out, yet there are still ambitious plans for the town. With the reductions in public sector funding, new avenues need to be explored in order to secure investment for the town. A successful city status bid will not only raise the profile of the plans for the new museum and the redevelopment of the pier, but will also enable a successful fundraising effort among trusts and foundations. These projects will in turn generate more income and job opportunities for Southend and go a long way to enhancing civic pride and aspiration among local communities.

I am puzzled by the fact that there are 66 cities, but not one in Essex. I am puzzled that Southend, whose population of 164,000 and growing is the biggest in Essex, is not already a city. On every count, Southend meets the criteria for city status. I very much regret that our bid in 2002 was unsuccessful, but a decade later I hope that this Minister will accept the wish that Southend wanted me to pass on to him tonight, which is that he be Southend’s Valentine.

It is tempting to begin by saying, “With an offer like that, how can one possibly refuse?” However, I will have to disappoint my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Mr Amess), at least on the immediate offer to be Southend’s Valentine.

The Government have noted with pleasure the considerable interest of towns throughout the United Kingdom in entering the competition for city status to mark the Queen’s diamond jubilee in 2012. My hon. Friend has certainly used his opportunity to explain to the House the considerable merits of Southend, and that is entirely understandable. Clearly, if he ever ceases to be a Member of Parliament, he will be able to get a job as a senior tourism officer for his borough, given that he set out a kaleidoscope of things it has to offer. Other hon. Members will have noted this Adjournment debate and those whose constituencies are bidding for city status will doubtless seek an opportunity of their own, so you will have many more interesting bids to hear about, Madam Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend used this opportunity not only to set out Southend’s case for city status, but to remind us that Southend provides a number of training opportunities for Olympic teams. He used this debate to set those out and remind other countries of the opportunities for them in his constituency.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand the reason why I have to disappoint him, which is that Ministers must remain impartial in this competition. Indeed, during Prime Minister’s questions the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) tempted my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to support the campaign for Ballymena in County Antrim to win the competition. Although my right hon. Friend recognised the powerful case that had been made, he, too, had to remind an hon. Member that Ministers must remain neutral. That is the reason why I have to decline my hon. Friend’s kind invitation on this Valentine’s day.

The reason fairness is so crucial in this competition is that this competition does not have any criteria in the usual sense of that word. City status continues, in this country, to be an honour granted by the sovereign—nowadays, following a competition—as a rare mark of distinction. Reasons for success or failure in these competitions are never given, and city status is not and never has been something that towns claim by ticking off a list of hard and fast criteria. The reason for that is fairly obvious. As we see when we look at a list of cities, any attempt to draw up a list of criteria would run into difficulties immediately. Some cities in the UK are large and some are small. Some have conspicuously attractive and well laid out city centres, whereas that applies less to others. Some have wonderful cathedrals, universities, airports, underground systems or trams, and some may lack those physical features, but boast a vibrant cultural life. My hon. Friend not only drew attention to the physical characteristics of his borough, but spent some time setting out its cultural attractions.

Will my hon. Friend allow me to add something? I forgot to say that when Southend approached me about the bid, I immediately said, “Fine, but we don’t have a cathedral.” We have a number of churches that could perhaps be cathedrals, but will my hon. Friend confirm that a town does not need a cathedral to become a city?

I can confirm that. There is no checklist of criteria that people can tick off to qualify. The guidance for entries to the competition is on the diamond jubilee pages of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport website. It lays out the type of information that towns bidding in the competition should include. They should give a flavour of the town and should lay out its interesting features and why it should become a city, as my hon. Friend has done this evening. The Government have said that we would like city status—and a lord mayoralty or lord provostship under the parallel competition among existing cities—to be conferred on a vibrant, welcoming community with an interesting history and a distinct identity. Those are the characteristics we have set out, but there are no hard and fast criteria. It is for towns to put together bids that spell out what makes them special.

If a town considers that it deserves to be granted city status, it should look at the guidance on the Department’s website, and if it confines its case to the broad limit of 100 pages set out in the guidance its entry will be welcome. All valid entries received by the closing date of 27 May 2011 will be carefully and fairly assessed on their merits. The Government look forward to receiving strong entries from a variety of local authorities, including Southend, and to announcing the new city in early 2012.

My hon. Friend said that his mother Maud is a champion of Southend’s bid for city status and that she will celebrate her 99th birthday soon. Whatever happens with Southend’s bid, I look forward with him to his mother’s receiving a communication from Her Majesty the Queen on her 100th birthday in 2012. So, whatever happens, there will be something to celebrate in Southend for my hon. Friend and his mother Maud.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.