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Inward Investment: Southend

Volume 596: debated on Monday 8 June 2015

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

Although it is a little disappointing that there is not a packed House to listen to what I have to say about Southend, from looking around the Chamber I can see that we have the quality. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister for Communities and Resilience on being re-elected as the MP for Rayleigh and Wickford with a huge majority, and my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) on similarly being re-elected with a large majority.

I could not be more pleased that my right hon. Friend will reply to this debate. He is only too well aware that there are not too Members left who can recall a Conservative majority Government. He and I worked together in the constituency of Basildon. During that time, we managed to change the public perception of Basildon, and it became the magnificent town it is today. We managed to turn round some negative things: with two days to go, we stopped the closure of the accident and emergency unit; we stopped the destruction of a silver birch forest; we saved three secondary schools from closure; and we got 10,000 council houses, which had been sold, repurchased because of clay heave.

I mean this in the nicest sense possible, but I say to my right hon. Friend that now there is a Conservative Government—and we are blessed with a Speaker who believes that every Member of Parliament elected to this place is equal, and that all our voices will be heard—I am absolutely determined that this Conservative Government, whom I support, will act not only on behalf of my constituents in Southend to make it an even better place than it is, but on behalf of the country. In future, I do not expect Ministers just to pay lip service to what I am asking them to do; I expect action, and tonight is the start of the action. At the end of this short debate, I hope that my right hon. Friend will see to it that Southend is granted city status.

In the position he now occupies, my right hon. Friend is following my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), now the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), now the Chief Whip, who both responded to such debates when we were in the coalition Government. Now we are a Conservative Government, I fully expect city status to be granted to Southend. In every respect, Southend qualifies to be a city. It certainly has its own distinct identity.

Southend’s local authority has no overall control. There are 22 Conservatives, constituting far and away the largest party, and the Labour, Liberal, Independent and UKIP councillors have joined together to prevent the Conservatives from controlling the authority. Quite how that works from a philosophical point of view I do not know, but there is no doubt that the Conservative council did a magnificent job in restoring the fortunes of Southend. We enjoy excellent communication and transport links, and the A127 and A13 have been upgraded. The most recent development, of which my right hon. Friend is well aware, is the extension of the Tesco junction along the A127, which has had to deal with congestion caused by employees at the RBS site and the Tesco Extra store—and, now, with the presence of London Southend airport. The extension has greatly relieved the congestion in the area.

I am not sure that constituents understand the constraints that affect Ministers. Ministers cannot ask questions or initiate debates, but I have discussed a number of points with my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge)—who is also the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs—and our views on the local railway lines are very similar. For instance, c2c is absolutely magnificent. When I was the Member of Parliament for Basildon, it was known as the misery line. It is now known as the happy line, and I congratulate it on that.

However, my hon. Friend and I have some concerns about the Greater Anglia railway line. I recently made a public journey on the line with the chief executive. I was very frank with him: I said I thought it was a rotten service. The prices were too high, and the rolling stock was clapped out. I asked what he was going to do about it. The Secretary of State for Transport has now opened up a bidding process, and I understand that three companies are involved. I hope that, as local Members of Parliament all of whom enjoy, or suffer, this particular rail service—there is just one station in my area, namely Prittlewell—we shall be consulted as the bidding process continues.

If I hear another colleague say that London Southend airport is fantastic, I shall respond by saying that there is a very good side to it, but also a slightly challenging side, because the aircraft take off and land in my constituency, and not all the residents who were there before the airport expanded are entirely delighted about the increased noise. Nevertheless, I entirely accept that last year it dealt with more than a million passengers. I do not know whether my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) has flown from the airport.

My right hon. Friend must be one of the few Members who have not.

The airport now has five airline operators: Flybe, easyJet—I do not know whether Kate Moss was on a flight from Southend recently—Adria Airways, SkyWork Airlines, and Volotea. It is very popular, and it is bringing investment of all kinds into the town.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East and I are absolutely delighted that Southend United won the recent play-off and have now been promoted to the first division. I must confess that, when we were losing one-nil, the Member of Parliament for Southend West decided to leave two minutes before the end of the match. I was walking down Wembley way when I heard huge cheers, and discovered that Southend had equalised. I thought that it was too late to turn back. When I reached Stratford station, I managed to find the result on my mobile phone: we had won seven-six on penalties. That was a magnificent achievement for Southend United, and is another good reason for Southend to be declared a city.

My hon. Friend recently had the pleasure of visiting a company called Surgical Holdings, a family run business that manufactures and repairs surgical equipment for private and public hospitals. The repair of surgical instruments saves the NHS thousands of pounds, but my hon. Friend has told me that if the company continues to expand it will save even more money for the NHS.

There has already been tremendous investment in Southend. Under the coalition Government, 310 new businesses were created in Southend West alone. We now have a magnificent £3 million conference centre at the end of the pier. The longest pier in the world, it was brought down the River Thames on sailing barges. It is a wonderful thing for Southend to have. During the marvellous years of the Conservative council under the wonderful leadership of former councillor Nigel Holdcroft and Councillor John Lamb, who is now the leader, we received £2.5 million in funding as part of the city deal—I know the Minister is well briefed on that issue—and £34.5 million for infrastructure projects as part of the growth deal, including upgrades to the Kent Elms junction and the Bells junction. We received £800,000 funding for the continuation of the roll-out of the growth hub across South Essex local enterprise partnership.

My hon. Friend and I have recently been contacted by the leader of Essex County Council. It has a proposal that is being opposed by Southend council, which believes that the focus should be on achieving the best economic result rather than organisational changes. We are still to have meetings on that issue to find out what will be in Southend’s best interest. I would certainly like to see the joint Anglia Ruskin, Southend and Rochford Business Park for medical excellence, which is in the vicinity of the airport, developed even further. This would be a major regeneration project to provide major development opportunities for innovation in medical technology.

We now have probably the best library in the country at the Forum. This is a marvellous extension of Essex University and a member of the royal family will open the building later this year. I hope that in years to come we will not just be celebrating the new year at Trafalgar Square and outside the House of Commons, but having the countdown at the Forum in Southend.

There is the problem of cliff slippage. The council has not used any Government money to tackle it. Having a picnic on the cliffs and looking across the wonderful Thames, people would think they were in the Mediterranean. The River Thames presents us with the most wonderful gift: a moving picture. If there is any way that the Minister and those in other Departments could find more private investment to deal with clay slippage, our constituents would be very grateful.

At the top of the cliff, there will be a new purpose-built museum to house securely the Saxon prince find at Prittlewell. In 2003, archaeologists excavated the site and discovered an undisturbed 7th century chamber grave beneath a mound just 100 yards from the entrance to Priory Park. This is a wonderful find. I hope the development of a new museum at the Thames will be supported by the Government. It has gained support from a number of agencies, including the British Museum, Thurrock Council and the Royal Opera House at Purfleet.

One of the many things that would make me happy as a result of this debate would a marina in Southend. Many years ago, when Norman Clarke and Norman Harris were the leader and deputy leader of Southend council, the proposal fell by just one vote. The last attempt to have a marina was in 2008. It would be an enormous attraction and a wonderful facility for local residents. It would provide a destination and a departure port for vessels from the upper limits of the Thames and Medway, with passages to the continent, the coast of Britain or further afield. The marina would be the jewel in the crown in achieving city status.

At the weekend, I had the privilege of attending Thames Estuary yacht club, which is an amazing development. Two years ago, it had only 130 members. Some 76 members volunteered to build this wonderful facility on the Thames estuary. The clubhouse cost £200,000, and now people are queuing up to join.

Southend pier is the most wonderful experience anyone could enjoy. It is not just about Rossi’s ice cream, cockles, mussels and winkles; it is about the wonderful experience of going out on one of the trains to the end of the Thames. It is like walking on water. Any investment the Government might direct our way further to boost the pier’s regeneration would be greatly welcomed.

We have found a shipwreck of international importance off Southend dating back to 1665. It is well preserved and second only to the Mary Rose. It was apparently part of the fleet that brought Charles II home in the late 17th century and is currently on the “heritage at risk” list. It would be great if a billionaire gave us some money to help with that investment opportunity.

Leigh-on-Sea is the most wonderful area anyone could have in their constituency. It is home to many thriving businesses, including Fancy Nancy, who is doing extremely well at the moment. However, the Leigh creek needs dredging, which costs about £200,000 to do properly. I am also slightly concerned about the activities of DP World and their effect on the Thames estuary.

Southend will be the alternative city of culture in 2017. This is going to be a much bigger event than that surrounding the official city of culture, but if we are to be the alternative city of culture it would be useful if we were actually a city. We have been recognised as a centre for excellence in terms of culture with the purple flag award, an accolade that only 31 towns and cities have received. We have a village green music festival, folk festivals and a gathering to rival the V Festival, and I pay tribute to Metal, the culture organisation, and, in particular, to David Stanley and his music project, a life-changing organisation enabling people with learning difficulties to demonstrate their great gifts. I am delighted to tell the House that they will be performing at the London Palladium, although unfortunately I have just had a phone call from Bruce Forsyth to say that he cannot be with us because it clashes with father’s day, which I think takes precedence. We will, however, have some of the Tiller Girls there. This will be happening on Sunday 21 June at the London Palladium.

Southend is getting a sculpture done by someone called Rod Steward—not the pop artist—to mark the process of Southend becoming a city. I hope his application to the Arts Council will be successful.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to share with the House just what a wonderful place Southend-on-Sea is. It is probably the finest seaside resort not just in the country, but in the world. My right hon. Friend and other Ministers have the power to respond positively to what Members are asking for in their constituencies. If he wants to make me happy, I hope he will do everything he can to ensure that Southend receives the investment it warrants and that it is declared a city.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) on securing this debate. As he has already told the House, we have known each other and been friends for many years, so I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate him on his knighthood and on being re-elected with such a healthy majority at the general election a few weeks ago. I am also pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) in his place. I congratulate him on his re-election. It is good to see him in good health tonight.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West has, as is customary, done an excellent job of promoting Southend, and rightly so. He listed some significant achievements of which Government and local partners can be proud. Southend is a key part of the Thames Gateway, which provides one of the biggest opportunities for investment in the UK and remains a very high priority for this Government. I am pleased to have been appointed Minister with responsibility for the Thames Gateway.

South Essex has received some significant private sector investments in recent years—for example, the £1.5 billion investment in the new London gateway by Dubai Ports, in which the Prime Minister and UK Trade & Investment played key supporting roles, and the £100 million-plus investment in London Southend airport by Stobart. They give some idea of the scale of economic growth in the area.

Specifically with regard to Southend, I believe there are many encouraging signs of a new confidence in the area, on the back of which private sector investment is already following. National arts organisations such as Metal, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West referred, are championing and helping local artists from their base in Southend, helping to drive the arts sector locally. Metal puts on the annual village green festival in Chalkwell Park, which now attracts 40,000 visitors a year—and is growing. The Forum, in Elmer Square in the heart of Southend, opened in late 2013. It is an excellent facility where residents can access the combined resources of the municipal library, the University of Essex and South Essex college libraries—a very innovative approach. The relocated Beecroft art gallery is now housed in the old library building on Victoria Avenue with the new enterprise centre—the base from which business support services will be provided through the city deal-funded growth hub.

All these are positive signs of resurgence, as indeed is the successful promotion of Southend United to league one, after winning a nail-biting play-off at Wembley. A few moments ago, my hon. Friend gave us some insight into what happened. In football terms, Southend is literally “on the up”.

The Government have also been playing their part in the city deal. Eighteen months ago, my right hon. Friend, now the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government signed off the Southend-on-Sea city deal, capitalising on opportunities to increase entrepreneurship and innovation, and realise Southend’s full potential. The key ambition at the heart of the city deal is to transform the centre of Southend in order to make it a more attractive place in which to invest. Over time, the Victoria Avenue gateway to the town centre will be remodelled. The city deal will have a catalytic effect, signalling the Government’s confidence in Southend.

As part of the city deal, the Government contributed £1.8 million for the direct business support programme and over £650,000 of funding for the central library redevelopment. This is creating incubator space for up to 10 businesses at any one time, supporting over 100 jobs. It will lever in private sector investment, with over £4 million secured so far, and will provide direct business support for small and medium-sized enterprises across the south Essex area. Over 3,000 businesses have been engaged so far and over 170 assisted to improve performance. John Lamb, the Conservative deputy leader of Southend council at the time, said:

“Government is showing confidence in what we are achieving in our town”.

I know that city status is a subject close to my hon. Friend’s heart. The awarding of city status is part of the royal prerogative, and royal charters have tended to be awarded to mark significant occasions such as the millennium or royal jubilees. As with individual honours, there are no published criteria, but issues that are considered include the history of a town, its vibrancy, identity and community—all areas, to be fair, where Southend has a strong case to make. In recent years, the Cabinet Office has run competitions and sought bids, but we do not know when the next process might be, although I have to say that my hon. Friend’s intentions are now well and truly on the record. When there is next an opportunity to bid, I am sure that he and indeed our hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East will be very firmly at the front of the queue.

Building on the city deal experience, the Government have agreed growth deals with all of England’s 39 local enterprise partnerships. The South East LEP has one of the largest allocations of local growth funding—so far, £488 million has been committed through to 2021. For Southend, which remains a critical anchor at the eastern end of the Thames Gateway, the growth deal has committed £35.6 million to A127 improvements, which is on top of funding previously approved. A number of junctions along the route, including at Bell and Cuckoo corners and at Kent Elms, will be improved, and I am sure that all south Essex residents will be grateful for those improvements. The Government are also investing £6.7 million to develop the Southend growth hub and to help improve the area around the Victoria Avenue gateway to Southend, which I mentioned a few minutes ago. Growth deal expansion has also committed £3.2 million to the development of a 55-acre business park adjacent to London Southend airport, as part of the Southend and Rochford joint area action plan—the JAAP as it is known—and I pay tribute to those two authorities for their co-operation to make that a reality. I recognise the positive effect regional airports can have on economic growth and London Southend airport has certainly been a success—over 1 million passengers a year, scooping industry awards for growth and for service.

The Government have also very recently announced the three companies selected to tender for the renewal of the East Anglia rail franchise, which includes the Liverpool street to Southend Victoria line. Those three competitors are Abellio Greater Anglia, FirstGroup East Anglia, and National Express East Anglia trains. That process will begin in earnest when invitations to tender are issued in August, and we expect the new franchise to operate from October next year, which should benefit Southend commuters travelling to London—who, indeed, do deserve an improved service.

We have already seen new private sector investments on the back of this new-found confidence in Southend: a refurbished Palace hotel, a decision just the other evening to green-light the Marine plaza development, and an exciting proposal, with significant support from the coastal communities fund of about £1.2 million, for a new lagoon. Perhaps it will also be possible to see the marina development, which I know my hon. Friend has felt passionately about for some time.

We should not rest on our laurels, but the future for inward investment remains bright. It is important as we go forward that Southend capitalises on these opportunities. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor used his first speech after the election to announce a new round of devolution deals and city-county deals. This represents a further opportunity for Southend to work with its neighbours and take greater control of its own economic destiny, to build on the many advantages that it has and to work with the private sector to deliver the skills, jobs, businesses and investment that the country needs.

My hon. Friend made much of Southend’s cultural advantages and a recent report from Warwick University business school claims that nationally the creative sector is growing at four times the rate of the economy as whole, so Southend can expect to benefit from its growing specialisation in this sector.

The attractiveness of Southend, of which the cultural offer is a key component, means that people want to relocate there, which in turn is leading to clear interest from the private sector in investing in Southend, in businesses and in new housing. These are all advantages Southend has been successful in exploiting over the past few years and we have every reason to believe it will continue to do so for the benefit of the town and its residents. They will have no firmer champion in trying to exploit those advantages than my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West. He has put the Government on notice tonight that he intends to be tenacious in promoting the interests of his constituents. We already knew that, as he has been doing that for over 30 years. Nevertheless, we cannot say we have not been told.

I believe the future for Southend is a positive one. I thank my hon. Friend again for his warm words and his recognition that this Government have helped to lay the foundations for the future growth and prosperity of Southend. We can fully expect my hon. Friend and his neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), to continue to keep us up to the mark in making sure Southend remains a wonderful place in which to live and work and a wonderful resort where people can take time on holiday—where they can enjoy the cultural advantages it has to offer and where they can enjoy themselves with their families.

For all these reasons, I believe Southend has a wonderful future, not least as it is represented by two excellent Members of Parliament.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.