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Eden Project: Morecambe and the North-West

Volume 661: debated on Thursday 6 June 2019

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

I will give a very condensed history of my beautiful Morecambe and Lunesdale seat, and particularly of Morecambe itself. According to the excellent book “The Lost Resort?” by Roger Bingham, Morecambe gets its name from the Vikings—it means “pleasant view” or “pleasant bay.”

Morecambe has seen its fortunes ebb and flow over the past 100 years. It is fair to say that Morecambe was on the decline 20 years ago. After the two nuclear power stations were built—the tourism industry was kept buoyant by the workers building the power stations—there was a sudden collapse in the local economy. Fast forward to 10 years ago and the dilapidated Midland hotel was bought and completely rebuilt by Urban Splash, which did a fantastic job. That art deco gem still has three iconic Gill murals, one on the ceiling.

Adjacent to the Midland hotel is the Winter Gardens, a beautiful Edwardian theatre that, again, has seen worse times but is now back on the mend due to the efforts of the sadly late Evelyn Archer. She was a leading light in keeping the doors of the Winter Gardens open, despite it having no heating system.

The Friends of the Winter Gardens have restored the theatre to a point where it can put on shows again. Great thanks should go to Professor Vanessa Toulmin, who took over from the legendary Evelyn Archer. The group has raised money over the years and, dare I say it, I enlisted a couple of my friends, David Hasselhoff and Bernie Marsden from Whitesnake, to give their support.

Fortunes are increasing due to the copious Government funding that has been pumped into Morecambe since 2010, but we need more. Opposite the Winter Gardens, and at the side of the iconic Midland hotel, is an area that we refer to as the Bubbles site, which is where the lido used to be a long time ago. The site has attracted the attention of Cornwall’s Eden Project, which wants to make a marine-based project in Morecambe to rival anything that Europe and the Eden Project itself have to offer.

Since becoming an MP, my intention has always been to bring Government investment into Morecambe, which was previously starved of investment. People could not get to Morecambe directly, so they had to go through Lancaster. I am grateful to the Government for helping me to secure £130 million, or thereabouts, for a link road that completely transformed the area. It is estimated that for every £1 that has gone into the link road over the past few years, £6 has been put into the local economy.

Such infrastructure programmes have to pay a dividend somewhere. Although I secured the funding to sort out the Greyhound bridge from Lancaster to Morecambe and the bypass coming in from the M6, we need something to bolster the area’s fortunes and reinvigorate Morecambe.

Morecambe used to have what I loosely call “kiss me quick” tourism. Since we have sorted out the sea wall defences with £40 million of Government funding, we have started to see a renaissance of tourism. We have started to see new hotel chains, including Best Western. That was unheard of only a few years ago. In fact, Morecambe is now starting to move above Lancaster in the league of prosperity, but we need something to secure Morecambe’s future.

Unbeknown to me until chamber of commerce manager John O’Neill told me, the quickest way to the seaside anywhere from the M6 is the Heysham bypass or the bay gateway—the link road that was recently built. Because of that, the Eden Project wants to come along. So we have to look to the future. What would Eden bring to Morecambe? Eden is a unique visitor attraction of regional and national significance. If it comes to Morecambe and it is planned, and if we can get Government funding, it can open in 2023. In the last Budget, the Chancellor approved £100,000—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)),

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

As I was saying, following the Treasury approval of £100,000 in the autumn Budget in 2018, an additional investment of £40 million to £60 million is needed. This has been sought and is closely linked to the wider industrial strategy of the region—not just Morecambe, but the whole north-west region. Eden north will be a catalyst to drive the regeneration of Morecambe and transform the local and wider north-west regional economy. We will want to have school visits coming to Morecambe to see the Eden centre, but by law you can only put a child in a car or a bus for two hours. If the Eden centre is in Morecambe, we will have a catchment area going from Manchester to Glasgow to York, as it would be quite central. Therefore, we would have an educational attraction that would benefit future generations and all generations coming along for the unique eco-tourism of the area. Since opening in 2001, the Cornwall Eden project has contributed £2 billion to the local economy of Devon and Cornwall—that is a huge local investment. As I have said, Eden north is an exemplar seaside town regeneration project for not just Morecambe, but the north-west; it will help out other coastal communities, leading the way for new projects.

From looking at the plans, it seems as though the Eden project north will be substantially better than the Eden project south; obviously, it will be much more modern, as 18-plus years have passed. I swam in that lido, so may I ask whether there will be a swimming pool at the Eden project for people such as me to go to?

I cannot say, but we will put the plans forward to Eden for my hon. Friend.

Eden north is compatible with, directly supports and is coherent with the recommendations made by the House of Lords Select Committee on Regenerating Seaside Towns and Communities, which was published on 4 April 2019 and so is extremely recent. Eden will be a high-quality, year-round attraction and wet-weather destination. It will be a crowd-puller that engages all ages and all generations, as my hon. Friend alluded to.

He is still a young man at heart; I know him very well and he is my good friend.

Importantly, market analysis has identified a catchment of 10.6 million people within two hours, as I have alluded to. This will support a visitor attraction where 760,000 people go to the project annually, with consequent direct and indirect economic benefits. It is a financially sustainable revenue-generating social enterprise that is an employment anchor for the region, with 518 long-term, direct and indirect jobs, helping unemployment in Morecambe to go down even further. It is a long-term project with a long-term value, and it is the economic answer to the £130 million investment from central Government on the M6 link road.

Eden will be a mixture of tourism and education to engage the public so that they feel a part of nature, not apart from nature. In particular, it will bring in a focus on the life and wildlife in the bay. Eden north will celebrate the unique scientific ecosystem of Morecambe bay. Eden in Morecambe will be an icon of health and wellbeing, and of regional culture—a natural wonder and curiosity. As my hon. Friend said, the proposals make the Eden centre look very impressive indeed: like glass mussel shells overturned and spreading out into the bay. It will be phenomenal and will create activities and facilities that will increase the understanding of Morecambe bay as an internationally significant site. It will bring back to Morecambe tourism the prestige that it richly deserves.

Eden will also bring with it an education offer that directly supports a place-based curriculum, in close partnership with all levels of education. A high degree of commitment has already been secured from educational professionals in Lancashire for a long-term education vision. Eden went to Lancaster University with this proposal nearly a decade ago, and here we are talking about it in the House of Commons. It is an accolade for Lancaster University as well as the Eden Project. The college has already struck a memorandum of understanding to provide educational facilities for future generations of the workforce, so that Eden will be equipped. I believe that will lead to the Aberdeen effect: our youngsters in Morecambe will be able to go to the Eden centres that are springing up all around the world, such as in China and America, as well as the one in Cornwall. The integration of research facilities and activities and the pioneering model of partnership between the community and academia can only be a good thing in my area, because we are moving from the old form of tourism into high-tech industries, as well as into a low-carbon economy with the power stations, and there is an eco-friendly jobs boost in the area.

At this stage of development, it is estimated that the proposal will cost circa £85 million to build, and £1 million has already been committed by four commissioning partners, with equal parts of around £250,000 each from Lancaster City Council, Lancashire County Council, Lancashire local enterprise partnership and Lancaster University. Of course, there is also the £100,000 coming directly from the Treasury. The work carried out by the Eden Project to date has been commissioned by Lancaster University, and has been supported by the Chancellor, Lancaster City Council and all the other partners I just mentioned.

As I alluded to earlier, the project will be located in a site of international environmental importance. Morecambe bay is designated as a Ramsar site, as it is the largest continuous inter-tidal area in Britain. It is also an area of special conservation and is in a special protected area.

My community needs Eden. This is a game-changer for us: it will make Morecambe the envy not only of the north-west but of all seaside resorts in the United Kingdom. I have already mentioned the prosperity that it would bring. Although we have had a lot of central Government money, we need more—around £40 million to £60 million. I know that it is a big ask in a time of austerity, but we have already had hundreds of millions from the Government, in a time of austerity, to produce an economic turnaround in Morecambe that is unrivalled in the north of England. I would like to see the money come from Treasury salami slicing. Ideally, it would come directly from the Treasury, although I am not sure that the Chancellor would see eye-to-eye with me on that. I thank him, though, for the £100,000 that he personally allocated to the project. The money could come from the budgets for the environment, education, communities, transport—from across the whole Whitehall sphere.

My constituency is beautiful—as the House knows, I am very proud of it. Morecambe is on the up, and has been for the past 10 years. Regeneration by this Government has fuelled a lot of miracles in Morecambe, but I am here in the Chamber looking for help. Help me to help my community, which deserves this. Help me to secure the jewel of prosperity that is Eden, to be fitted rightly back into the crown of the north-west that is my beautiful constituency, and my home: Morecambe.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, for my first time at the Dispatch Box. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) very much for securing this Adjournment debate on a subject about which he spoke so passionately, and in his usual inimitable style. It is a delight that he is present for my first time at the Dispatch Box.

I have only recently stepped into this role as the Minister for Arts, Heritage and Tourism, and I am delighted to have done so. I am very pleased to be kicking off with a debate on something in which I am personally so interested. It links tourism with many environmental issues and the beauty of our countryside. I am very well aware of how important the tourist industry is to the nation, and how important and significant the Eden Project could be.

I want to look at the value of tourism generally. It contributes a really significant £68 billion directly to the UK economy every year—around 4% of the UK’s gross value added. In the past three years, inbound tourism has hit record levels in the UK, with 37.9 million people visiting in 2018 and spending a significant £22.7 billion. I highlight that because the Economic Secretary to the Treasury is listening to me.

This is a really important industry that we can build on. Tourism is a really wonderful vehicle for spreading wealth across the country, and for reaching some of those parts that perhaps other things do not reach, particularly in more rural and coastal areas.

If we can get visitors out to the highlands of Scotland, the glens, the moors, the peaks, and the Somerset levels, we can do it through tourism. Tourism creates a great many jobs in this country as well. I have seen how important tourism is to the south-west, just as it is, and can be even more, to the constituency of my hon. Friend, as he pointed out very strongly. Tourism creates many opportunities for everybody.

Morecambe, of course, has a very rich tourism heritage, as we have already seen, and has a great deal to offer. I know that my hon. Friend is working hard to ensure that it can build on a strong and sustainable future. Things are looking very positive already. In 2017, visits to the north-west, in Lancashire, hit new heights. I recall going there back in the day, filming a number of television programmes. We based one gardening series in Morecambe, so I do know how much it has to offer and how very beautiful it is.

I was particularly interested to hear about the proposals for the Eden Project in the north-west. The original Eden Project, as my hon. Friend so eloquently explained, is in my region of the south-west, in Cornwall. Having been there filming on a number of occasions, I was completely bowled over by how magical it is and what it has done for the area, because it transformed an old china clay pit in quite a deprived area into this magical biome of plants. People can just walk through this journey of plants. The project has done so much for the local economy. Some 1 million people visited the project last year, bringing in, as my hon. Friend mentioned, an estimated £2 billion for the region. It attracted people not only from the south-west, but from all over the country and, indeed, from all over the world. The project has done a really good job in getting people down to the south-west, introducing them to a whole world of plants from the Mediterranean, the rainforests and Cornwall, and bringing people up close and personal with nature, which, I believe, my hon. Friend would like to do in the north-west.

The project showcases world-class horticulture and environmental sustainability and builds very strongly on education links, which my hon. Friend is keen to promote and support. Crucially, in tourism terms, it has helped to extend the season, so that visitors go not just in the summer but all year round; there is just so much on offer. That is one of the aims of the project in the north-west.

Eden Projects are extending around the world. Eden International is building projects in other places. Last summer, I went to Qingdao in the Shandong province with the China all-party group to see the building of another Eden Project on an eroded habitat originally used for salt. It is creating an enormous and beautiful Eden Project, which is based on the theme of water conservation. Again, it will transform the area, and that is the kind of thing that my hon. Friend is talking about. There have been great successes so far and there is an awful lot to think about.

My hon. Friend highlighted the fact that the Government have already given £100,000 to supporting the development of proposals for the feasibility study, and others have contributed towards that. Ministerial colleagues, such as the northern powerhouse Minister, have been very supportive so far, so that is all encouraging.

The project is of particular interest to me because it builds on the wonderful coastline and natural habitat. The Government are seriously trying to help with regeneration of coastal areas. A recent House of Lords Select Committee report on regenerating seaside towns highlighted the merits of projects such as the Eden Project in helping to regenerate coastal areas. We need to help them by getting people there at times of the year other than the summer. It is tremendous that private companies and investors are looking quite widely at opportunities for linking into the tourism potential across the length and breadth of Britain.

There are opportunities for tourism because it is a booming industry. International traveller numbers to this country are increasing. We are trying to attract even more travellers to our glorious isles and we want them to explore them widely. It is up to the UK to ensure that we have top-quality services to provide to our visitors—not just the best attractions but the best accommodation, transport, food, drink and even the digital links that suppliers use to sell their products, such as websites and so on. Linking into all these opportunities through green tourism can really help.

My hon. Friend touched on what is so special about the Morecambe area. It is an internationally renowned environmental area—a Ramsar site—and is the largest continuous intertidal area in Great Britain. It is a glorious stretch of not just sand, but mud and so on. It is great for wildlife and nature, and there are so many opportunities to be built on.

The Government have already demonstrated how they are building on these unusual and unique places and opportunities to up the tourist offer. We put £40 million into the Discover England fund, which has been working on certain projects. I happened to go to the round-up conference yesterday, to talk about how well lots of the projects have gone. It was my first speech in this role outside of Parliament. There are projects such as using Manchester international airport as a gateway for international tourists, and then ensuring that they spread northwards to the Lake district and Scotland, as well as into Wales, to experience all the exciting opportunities in those places such as the coastline, attractions and food—all of it. That is working so well.

Another project is Visit Lancashire’s “Discover more than just a holiday” project. People can do everything, from beekeeping courses to running courses and cycling tours. Lots of opportunities are being built on. The buzzing for the weekend programme led by Warrington Borough Council encourages travellers from Spain and Portugal to enter the country through Liverpool John Lennon airport and to explore that region. Similarly, the Great West Way is building on the structure of the Kennet and Avon canal and all its spin-offs—Bradford-on-Avon, Bath and further up to the 27 locks at Devizes. I do not know whether anyone here has ever tried going through those locks on a barge—one has to be quite fit. Of course, the cathedral city of Salisbury is also on the way, with the tallest spire in England.

On the coastal front, as well as the money given to the Discover England fund, which is going so well, the Government awarded the coastal communities fund £2.35 million this year to create major new attractions. I believe that much of that money went to Morecambe bay. I notice that it even funded the refurbishment of the Winter Gardens theatre’s heating system. That might not sound glamorous, but theatre audiences do need to be cosy and warm, so I am sure that will help.

The Secretary of State is well aware of the impact of tourism, and is working so hard with others on the proposed and very exciting tourism sector deal, which I can report is progressing well. I know that lots of people are listening out for what is going to happen with that deal.

The Minister sounds extremely enthusiastic about the idea of a north-west Eden Project. In fact, I know she is and I know that the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, although he is a Treasury Minister, shares her enthusiasm. Could the Government salami-slice the money and give a little each year so that come 2024 the £40 million to £60 million is there? Is that how they could do it, and would the Minister support such an idea?

Aha! The Treasury Minister is here listening, but I think that the money we have already had for the Discover England fund is working really well. It demonstrates the great value we can get from seedcorn money and the productivity it can generate, so I hope the Treasury Minister is listening. That is what we need to build on. There is enormous scope to do that, in Morecambe or wherever else, so it is a good point.

My hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale mentioned the lido. I do not think they will be bringing back the lido as part of the project—I swam in the one at Bridgwater before it shut—but I am sure there will be a lot of water in the Eden Project, if it ever gets going, because water is involved in plants in almost all the Eden Projects, so perhaps there might be an opportunity there.

In a world where environmental issues and sustainability are rising right up the agenda, the ethos of an Eden Project is going in absolutely the right direction. There is so much to build on, using nature and wildlife and all the benefits people get from that. I think my hon. Friend said he would like to see people being part of nature, which I thought was a very good way of putting it. That could be built into the project and bring so much benefit. His references and ambitions for increasing education and productivity, benefiting the coastal area, and all those things that such a project might bring, are highly commendable. I obviously cannot influence whether it actually comes to fruition, but this is absolutely the right place to raise it, so I thank him for doing so. I wish him well in his endeavours and look forward to hearing how it progresses.

May I congratulate the Minister on her ministerial maiden speech? I think she has left the House happy this afternoon.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.