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Inward Investment: Southend

Volume 594: debated on Friday 20 March 2015

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

I am grateful for the opportunity to share with the Minister a few issues concerning the constituency represented by me and my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge). My hon. Friend has had one or two health problems recently, and is only half the man he was, but I am delighted to tell the House that he is now well on the road to recovery and is active in the constituency again. I am delighted to have him by my side today. Ministers are not able to take part in such debates from the Back Benches, but I have discussed with my hon. Friend the issues I wish to raise. He has given me full permission to speak for the end of the town that he represents.

Southend West—I have to be parochial first—has a population of 89,150 people. I am delighted to tell the House that since May 2010 there has been a 53% reduction in unemployment. It is absolutely incredible, when I think of the days I used to represent Basildon and how high unemployment was then, to have that reduction in just five years. I am also delighted to tell the House that youth unemployment has fallen by exactly the same amount, 53%. We have 3,065 businesses in Southend West, which is 310 more than we had in 2010. Interestingly, the median gross weekly pay is £560 a week, which is £40 more than in the rest of the United Kingdom.

One reason why I go on about how wonderful Southend is as a seaside resort—it is not just the best in the country, but the world—is the fact that in the past year more than 6 million tourists have visited the town, which is absolutely incredible.

I am delighted that the Minister visited Southend and oversaw the signing of the city deal. In those days, we had a Conservative-controlled council. Last year, the Conservatives lost control and were reduced to just 19 councillors. My understanding is that all the other parties have joined forces to vote against the Conservatives. There are nine Labour councillors, 13 independents—three in my constituency and 10 in the constituency represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East—five Liberals and five UK Independence party councillors. As far as the five UKIP councillors are concerned, I am somewhat confused. As I understand it, four of them have been expelled and no longer take the whip. Whether there is one or five, who knows? Whatever party banner they stand under, I am told they vote against the Conservatives.

I am, I have to say, actually rather glad that we had this coalition Government. Those who know me will recall that I was dead against my party going into coalition with the Liberals in 2010, just as I was dead against having a fixed-term Parliament. I have always thought the Liberals are much closer to the Labour party, so I am very pleased that in Southend they have found their natural home, with their five councillors now in coalition with all the other parties. To be fair to the new council, it has only been in control for a number of months, so it is very difficult for anyone to judge them on the tangible things they have achieved. I did just glance at headlines in a local newspaper that stated that the council had put council tax up by 1.95%, put up car parking charges and removed 55 litter bins, but I am sure it must have done some good things as well, and perhaps there are reasons for that.

I want to refresh the House on what investment we have managed to get from the Government thus far, but I warn my right hon. Friend the Minister that I am going to ask for further help. I do realise there is only a week to go, but a day in politics is a long time, so I am quite optimistic that my right hon. Friend will be standing at the Dispatch Box saying yes, yes, yes. Ahead of my right hon. Friend’s visit to Southend, he said:

“Southend has the potential to be a driving force for growth in the South East. It is a great place for businesses to locate, expand or start-up. To help achieve that potential, local business and civic leaders told us they wanted to give much better support to small and medium-sized businesses. I am delighted to be able to say ‘yes’ to that proposal which is a big boost for the economy of Southend.”

My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East and I were at the signing in March 2014.

As a result of that deal, the town has benefited from two tranches of funding. First, Southend was able to bid into a £32 million pot of regional growth fund money being held by Lancaster university to design and deliver a range of business support programmes meeting local needs and to develop a growth hub, which is the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’s desired conduit for providing business support delivery. This was much welcomed. The council was awarded a considerable amount of money—£1.8 million—from the fund to deliver business support and a growth hub, and I am delighted to say that the work is now under way. Three business support programmes are being delivered, along with grants, innovation vouchers, workshops and events. A team funded by the RGF and employed to undertake business engagement for the programme has delivered the grants programme. The grants, available to small and medium-sized enterprises, offer 30% of total project cost, provided that the project is creating or safeguarding jobs—the other 70% of investment must come from the private sector. I am delighted to say that to date the council grant panel has awarded 79 grants totalling £1,132,846, which is magnificent and a vital contribution to the town’s economy, creating 295 jobs, which is above the target of 192, which is brilliant, and safeguarding 330 jobs—the target was lower.

A second funding allocation of £651,000 was for capital works to convert the top two floors of the old central library building into a business incubation centre. Happily, I understand that the centre opened just this week—I saw a splash in the local paper—so the seeds that my right hon. Friend the Minister sowed, in the nicest sense, a couple of years ago have grown and prospered. That funding matched the funding the council had invested in converting the lower floors into the new home for the Beecroft art gallery, which I have visited and is absolutely magnificent. The funding was allocated on the basis that Southend enjoyed an entrepreneurial culture but also had a lot of churn, with high business start-up and closure rates. It was therefore identified that investment in affordable accommodation and business support would assist with sustainable business growth. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East and I have many constituents who will benefit from this opportunity.

Southend has also received £800,000 for the continuation and roll-out of the growth hub across the South Essex local enterprise partnership. Growth deals are a new way of running the economy, for the first time bringing together housing, infrastructure and other funding into a single pot put directly in the hands of local authorities and businesses to spend the way they know best. Thanks to the £8 million grant under the growth deal, improvements made to the A127—a road that my hon. Friend and I use all the time—will help to create better access and egress to and from Southend, supporting the airport, the airport business park, the town centre and the area east of the town’s businesses. I am delighted to say that the airport business park has also received £3.2 million of funding for developments within the joint area action plan. The Secretary of State for Transport recently visited the centre, and Lord Heseltine was there at the start of the week speaking about opportunities for investors.

Southend has also benefitted from £6.7 million of funding for non-transport investment to bring forward jobs and homes in Victoria avenue, which is badly neglected and in need of restoration. A further £1 million was allocated to Southend as part of the local sustainable transport fund investment, with the Kent Elms junction and the Bell junction both requiring major upgrades to overcome two critical bottlenecks creating major difficulties for business into and out of the town. To help us with those projects, the council will be given £4.28 million for each junction—a considerable investment. To assist with infrastructure and essential maintenance work, there is £7 million-worth of grant, and for general improvements and maintenance around the town the council received funding as part of the growth deal. In total, the council will have received some £34.5 million from the Government —this coalition Government—for these infrastructure improvements.

Pinch point funding worth £170 million was announced in the 2012 autumn statement. It aims to remove bottlenecks on the local highway network that are impeding growth. This fund reflects the Government’s commitment to supporting economic growth by tackling barriers on the local highway network that may be restricting the movement of goods and people. In Southend, for improvements to the A127 and required improvements to the Tesco roundabout—completion is expected by the end of the month—the council has received a grant of £3.3 million from the Department for Transport’s local pinch point fund. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East for lobbying hard to get a sizeable amount of that money.

Some £9 million-worth of investment has been given to refurbish Southend police station. I can tell the Minister I was there two days ago with our hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims. It is wonderful to see how this tired ’60s building is going to be transformed. The police will be moving out of the old building into Westcliffe police station for about 18 months. They are going to be provided with wonderful accommodation with all the new technologies to help them ensure that Southend residents are kept safe. There will be a new custody suite with 30 cells provided.

The Forum is an iconic building. In future, it will be a centrepoint like Trafalgar square and Big Ben when every new year starts. Later in the year, a member of the royal family will formally open it. For this, £27 million-worth of enterprise has been delivered jointly by Southend-on-Sea borough council, the university of Essex and South Essex college. It is a magnificent facility.

The Priory is a wonderful jewel in the crown of the constituency I represent. Here, investment has come from the Conservative administration in the Priory park and museum, which tells the story of its former residents, dating back to the monks of the 13th century. As I say, it is a wonderful facility.

I end with a begging bowl, hoping that the Minister might be able to help us with more. The pier is the most famous pier in the world and the longest one. However, it requires major investment to strengthen the main structure to be able to meet modern standards of engineering—not to mention the fact that fire has broken out on three occasions. It needs to be designed to take the weight of buildings to expand the offer for people to visit. It will then become a major tourist opportunity.

The council invested in improving the supporting structure on one section to allow the new Royal pavilion to be brought down the River Thames and placed on the end of the pier. It is a wonderful facility, and such things as weddings and conferences take place there. I have to tell the Minister that we need more money—in the region of £2 million to £3 million, I am told.

The council has arrested the cliff slippage where the bandstand stood without Government funding, and has made it fit for the commencement of a new purpose-built museum and art gallery, which is needed within the town so we can securely house the Saxon Prince find from Prittlewell, Southend. Archaeologists excavated the site in 2003—I know that the news is all about King Richard, but we had archaeological findings in 2003 when we discovered an undisturbed seventh century chamber grave beneath a mound. It was described it as “the most spectacular discovery” of its kind during the past 60 years. About 110 objects were lifted by conservators. At the moment, these artefacts have to be housed in the London museum and cannot be viewed in our own town of Southend. The estimated cost for the museum is between £15 million and £20 million. Further work is needed to arrest the cliff slippage—I hope we can get it from the European Union—and for that we need £40 million.

Southend is absolutely crying out for a marina. Years and years ago, under the leadership of the late great Norman Clarke, one of the finest council leaders ever, we missed our opportunity to get one by just one vote. We have had wonderful leadership of the town under former Councillor Nigel Holcroft and the present leader of the Conservatives, John Lamb. They very much want a marina. Southend is the gateway to London from the continent, but visiting yachtsmen cannot stop because we lack marina facilities, which, with the right investment, would greatly enhance the attraction to visitors. This would also help London yachtsmen to shelter and have a departure port on their way to the continent. It could also be a port of call for visiting boats. This type of facility will also enhance the business opportunity within the yachting fraternity by creating many varied businesses. We need about £40 million for that.

Funding is needed for improvements on the A13 as well, for which we need about £3 million. We also need to improve the flood defence between Chalkwell and Leigh—not to mention the area my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East represents. With the sea level rising, this would protect the wonderful c2c railway. At the same time, the cycleway could be completed all the way from Chalkwell to Shoeburyness, in order to build on the Olympic legacy. Some £7 million is needed for that.

Funding for dredging Leigh creek is needed to help my local fishermen—we need £300,000 for that—and funding is required to complete phase 2 of the City beach development, which will cost between £2 million and £3 million.

My hon. Friend and I are very pleased with the support we have had thus far from the Government, and we are pleased to see the magnificent Victorian seaside resort gradually restored. That is why we are the alternative city of culture in 2017. We are doing extremely well, but more needs to be done to ensure that Southend reaches its full potential and becomes one of the top tourist destinations in the world. Further investment in Southend will get even more people into jobs, encourage the creation of even more new businesses, attract even more tourists, and help appeal to private investors and developers.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) on securing this debate, and it is fantastic to see our friend and colleague my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) restored to health and back with us today. They are both real champions for that wonderful town of Southend, and my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West was unduly modest in not recognising their roles in securing the investments. As the Minister responsible for the city deal and the growth deal I know that the advocacy for Southend from both of them was essential to getting the investment in and the deals signed. The success Southend is enjoying is a reflection of their efforts over the years.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West referred to some of the remarkable statistics. Southend has seen a 53% cut in unemployment, which is remarkable by any standards, but it does not surprise us because I have long known, as have many other Members, that Southend has a very special entrepreneurial spirit, and when economic opportunities are available we can rely on the people of Southend to avail themselves of them with alacrity. That is one reason why we were so keen to forge this city deal and to make sure there was support for the small businesses that we knew were going to be created and which would create jobs in the numbers that they are doing now. As my hon. Friend attested, there are many encouraging signs of real confidence in Southend at the moment. The investments and innovations he listed are all contributing to that resurgence.

It was in part as a result of the representations of my hon. Friends that Southend was offered a city deal. The first wave of city deals was offered to the eight biggest cities outside London by population. They were finalised in September 2012. That programme was acknowledged as a success, and there was some demand to extend it to other parts of the country. So in October 2012 we did precisely that, inviting 20 cities and their wider areas to negotiate for a second wave of city deals. Fourteen of those cities were selected based on the size of their population, as the first wave had been, but we wanted to recognise the backing that is appropriate and due to cities that are not as big as the large industrial ones but are, nevertheless, growing strongly. Of course, a growing city has its own demands and needs for investment. So Southend was chosen as one of those six. Population growth usually indicates that a place has something going for it, as more people want to live there than before.

The city deal programme is about transferring resources previously tied up in Whitehall into the hands of local people and reflecting their local priorities. That is the proposition of city deals. My hon. Friend mentioned the signing of the city deal in Southend, and I was delighted to sign it. I still have my copy here with me; it has the signatures of Nigel Holdcroft and Peter Jones, the chair of the local enterprise partnership. It was a very promising day, and I am thrilled that what was promised has turned into a reality, exactly as my hon. Friend said. Support has been provided for the growing number of businesses, mainly small and medium-sized ones, in Southend and across south Essex. It is appropriate that when a business is founded and is growing, it should benefit from help and advice from people who have been there before and can share some of that experience. It is also important that there should be incubator space—premises in which growing businesses can locate. Those were the elements of the city deal and, as he said, the Southend growth hub is now being used as the model for business support right across the south-east and beyond. It is seen, correctly, as being very successful.

The city deal in Southend, as with those elsewhere, has uncorked a new spirit of municipal purpose; the idea that everyone locally should join the attempts to revive the local economy is absolutely as things should be. My hon. Friend mentioned the scheme to transform some of the rather tired old buildings along Victoria avenue, close to the centre of Southend, many of which are no longer fit for purpose. Investment there can provide opportunities and locations for businesses. Like him, I was delighted to read in the Southend Echo in recent days that the transforming effect of the deal is remodelling those buildings to satisfy housing demand and provide premises for businesses. It is clear even in these early days that the city deal process is proving good for Southend; it is having a major effect, empowering local businesses and civic leaders to back their aspirations to create more jobs in that very important town. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends for their advocacy.

But we have gone further than that. As my hon. Friends know, we have built on the city deal experience and embarked on an even greater enterprise, through agreeing with all 39 of England’s LEPs growth deals that transfer even more money and powers from central Government to local areas. The south-east local enterprise partnership covers a large area and naturally has one of the largest allocations of local growth funding. So far, nearly £500 million has been devolved to that LEP. The growth deal is being signed today—possibly even as we speak—in Purfleet by the chairman of the LEP. The funding comes into effect from April—in other words in just a few days’ time.

In July 2014, we announced a package that comprised significant transport infrastructure spending. As my hon. Friends the Members for Southend West and for Rochford and Southend East have said—they have both been advocates of this—the connections around south Essex and in Southend in particular are important. If we are to have jobs as never before and businesses are to be created in larger numbers, people need to be able to get to work and to get around the area. Southend is a critical anchor at the eastern end of the Thames Gateway. The growth deal commitments include upgrades to both the A127 and, over the longer term, the A13.

Specifically in Southend, the growth deal will extend the Southend and Rochford growth hub and will further invest in the Victoria avenue gateway. Some £3.2 million has been committed to develop the business park adjacent to the airport. We recognise the very positive effects that regional airports can have on economic growth. London Southend airport has certainly been a success. With more than 1 million passengers a year, it has scooped industry awards for growth.

I wish to emphasise that we have allocated only about two thirds of the £12 billion of funding that is available under the local growth fund. When it comes to the requests of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West—I was confident that he would come to those in his speech—whether it be for the pier or for other transport improvements, the growth deal is an ideal vehicle in which to deliver them. The negotiations for the next phase of growth deals will take place shortly after the general election if, as I hope, we are returned to continue this very important programme. They offer the opportunity for many, if not all, of the proposals that my hon. Friends mention, and they should make a vigorous case for them in the negotiations. The money that was in Whitehall is available to be invested in Southend and in Essex more generally.

I hope that, with the good sense of the electorate in Southend, both of my hon. Friends will be returned in style to this House to continue their magnificent advocacy for their great town, and that we can proceed with this amazing momentum that has established itself in Southend, confident that there is much more to come.

The future for Southend is bright. I think it was Sir John Betjeman who famously said of the pier:

“Southend is the pier; the pier is Southend.”

There is much more now to Southend than the pier, marvellous though it is, and I want to see the area go from strength to strength. I thank my hon. Friend for his warm words. I am delighted that he has been able to bring my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East into this important debate today. Between them they have made a signal contribution to the prosperity of Southend during this Parliament, and I hope that they will have the chance to do so in the next one.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.