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House of Commons Hansard
Southend: City Status
20 December 2019
Volume 669

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Marcus Jones.)

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For a moment, I was tempted to say, “Before the House adjourns for the Christmas recess, there are a number of points that I wish to raise,” but we have a title for this Adjournment debate. The House will not be surprised to hear that I am going to describe how, as the Prime Minister said just six weeks ago, Southend will become a city.

Before that, I want to mention three newly elected colleagues. Little did I think that the daughter of my first constituency chairman, when I was elected the Member for Basildon in 1983, would be sitting here now. I think that the parents of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire Dales (Miss Dines) are looking down from heaven, so proud that she has been elected.

I have had another big surprise. You will remember, Mr Deputy Speaker, that Ken Hargreaves, who was my best friend here, was the Member for Hyndburn. Peter Britcliffe used to run his office and stood twice for the seat, and his 24-year-old daughter, my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe), has been elected. I am sure that Ken Hargreaves is looking down from heaven with great pride.

Then there is probably the most extraordinary election result of all. Just three months ago, I was invited to Durham University. The motion was, “That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government.” I opposed the motion. We will not dwell on it, but for various reasons two parliamentary colleagues pulled out at the last minute, so a replacement had to be found, and that replacement was my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison), who has been elected at the age of 26. This is an extraordinary occasion for me. If I had more time, I would mention the 46 and 109 new colleagues, but I need to concentrate on the Minister.

I am not messing around. We have got it from the Prime Minister that Southend is going to become a city—and it will become a city. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) is present and we are absolutely united as to why Southend should become a city. It will not cost a thing, but I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that the enhanced status and ability to attract new investment will mean a great deal to the people I represent. That is why we want it.

How does a place acquire city status? Well, there needs to be a contest. We had a contest in 2011, 2002 and 2000. It usually takes place around a royal event. Now, the Duke of Edinburgh is going to be 100 in 18 months’ time and I am working on other royal events to see how we can fine-tune the timing. It would be great if it happened next year because it will be the centenary of the mayoralty of Southend, which runs between 2020 and 2021. Now that we have moved on from the horrible atmosphere we had in this place, we have to be positive. And what could be a more positive way to start than by Southend being declared a city?

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I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his hard work to ensure that Southend will achieve city status. Southend has many great things: a strong city centre, churches, a representative council, good education provision and excellent amenities. Like Lisburn in Northern Ireland, it will achieve city status and it is important that it achieves its goal. Well done to the hon. Gentleman for his hard work. I have supported him the whole time I have been in this place, and look forward to Southend getting city status. I might even get an invite to Southend when it gets city status; I hope so.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman, whom I regard as my friend, for his support.

Let me run through the list of reasons why Southend should become a city. First, there is the Music Man Project, which was the inspiration of David Stanley. He did not leave people with learning difficulties just to be looked after. He has absolutely transformed their lives through the power of music. The House can imagine my pride when these people with learning difficulties first performed at the London Palladium and then at the Royal Albert Hall, where my right hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt)—who was the Defence Secretary at the time—watched from the gallery. And it gets better: we have just sent a mission to Broadway and will now be taking our show, performed by people with learning difficulties, to Broadway. That is one reason why Southend should be a city.

Next, Leigh-on-Sea was voted the happiest place in the United Kingdom. Well, I was not so happy knocking on doors in the cold and dark there recently, so I suppose I am the one exception. We scored high for community spirit, opportunities to develop skills, good restaurants and shops. It is also the 150th anniversary of Southend rugby club. How good is that—to keep a rugby club going for 150 years with volunteers?

The marina, which will probably be in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East, is going to be fabulous. That is another reason that Southend should be a city. We have the longest pier in the world. You cannot build piers today, but there we are. A number of politicians have felt that they were walking on water. When they come to Southend, they really do walk on water—on the longest pier. We are also reinventing and reinvigorating the trains there.

During the election campaign, one or two issues were raised, but they can all be built into the case for Southend getting city status. All colleagues think that Southend airport is fantastic and very convenient. We are building a business park there, which will be excellent for regeneration. However, I have to say that it does cause nuisance and upset among people, especially when the two Amazon flights take off at 2.30 am and 4.30 am. There is also a difference in noise levels between easyJet and Ryanair, and an issue with air quality. We cannot keep having talks with the airport about section 106, so I want those matters changed.

Donkey’s years ago, when I was the MP for Basildon, I had a public row on TV with the chairman of British Rail. I was clapped when I came through the Division Lobby, and they said, “Good on you, David! He needed to be told.” Our railway was called the “misery line”, so we changed the owner. I wanted Richard Branson to have it, but we ended up with c2c, and I am disappointed. The card reading machines take ages, as I found this morning; it is stupid. The ticket machines are far too low down, and when the sun is glaring on to the glass, you cannot see the screen. I am sick to death of being redirected every other week from Fenchurch Street to Liverpool Street. We need something done about that.

Although I say to Conservative Members that we should forget renationalising British Rail, I am one of the few who was there when we privatised all these industries, and it was under the Blair Government that power was taken away from this place. We now need to make these organisations accountable, because that is where the problem is. We, the elected politicians, earn a third of the money that umpteen people in these unelected positions earn, and they need to be made much more accountable.

I turn to the national health service. The chief executive of the NHS said at the start of the campaign, “Don’t weaponise the NHS,” but what happened? It was weaponised, with all this rubbish about selling it to America, and particularly in my area and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East. I was at Southend Hospital this morning doing my impersonation of Santa Claus, and I met one of our wonderful consultants, Paul Guyler. The reorganisation of services between Basildon, Broomfield and Southend cannot continue unless they are clinically led. They are clinically led, but we need people to put their heads above the parapet, and we need the ambulance service to reassure us that when they are moving patients around, there will not be delays that could result in disaster.

On the environment and water quality, I think that the Thames estuary is getting cleaner all the time. I was standing on Bell Wharf recently, and a seal popped out of the water and starting clapping me—I thought, “There’s someone else who’s pleased with my re-election as a Member of Parliament.”

I turn to parking. I think, Mr Deputy Speaker, we have reached a stage in our lives where we know what all the problems are; it is the solutions we ask for. Perhaps all my new colleagues will come up with some new solutions. I represent a tiny urban area, and parking is a real issue. I am delighted to see in the Gracious Speech that the Government are going to put money in for potholes.

My hon. Friend the Minister should know that I am inviting ambassadors and anyone who is the head of a foreign embassy in this country to visit Southend. We have already had them from them Taiwan and Qatar. We are having them from India, the Maldives and all over the world. They want to invest in Southend, and that is another good reason why we should be a city.

There was very good news from the hospital that I visited this morning. I am pleased to announce that the hospital has decided to invest in a new surgical robot to undertake prostate cancer surgery. We had a launch here with the new charity Prost8. This will change the lives of so many gentlemen who are diagnosed with a prostate issue. It was so good that our new Speaker decided to go public, just as the former Prime Minister did, about being diagnosed with diabetes. Sometimes it is forgotten that we are human beings, and we suffer all the happiness and tragedies of other people. He will be a role model in that.

I am also pleased to announce to the Minister that we are going to offer patients across mid and south Essex out-of-hours emergency interventional radiology treatment, which is another good thing to happen. My hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) is no longer in her place, but the hospital in her constituency is going to have a new MRI scanner, which will help an awful lot of people.

I want to mention a few of the local authority’s projects. A successful procurement process has led to a partnership between the Better Queensway scheme and Swan Housing, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East. There is the second phase of The Forum, a partnership with South Essex College, supported by £6 million of funding from the local enterprise partnership. I have already mentioned the pier. A wheeled sports facility opened in the summer, and the SUNRISE project is a great example of co-design and co-production in the creation of ideas for a new London Road entrance to the high street.

The bid is working very well indeed. I have mentioned the airport business park and the 21-hectare site which will include the development of HQ-style office buildings. A planning application for the Seaway development has been submitted, and work is ongoing with Homes England and other partners to support the delivery of a significant pipeline of new housing across the borough. Digital infrastructure investment through CityFibre will ensure that Southend becomes a gigabyte city, and that all its households will have access to full fibre by 2022.

I could go on and on, but I am anxious to ensure that my hon. Friend the Minister has a little time in which to respond.

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Inverness, which is not in my constituency but which is in the highlands, became a city some years ago, and it has been a great success. Part of that success has been the establishment of the Inverness tartan. May I point out that Cornwall has its own tartan, and Suffolk has its special gingham plaid? I strongly suggest to the hon. Member, in the spirit of Christmas good wishes—and I salute his excellent speech—that he think about a Southend tartan.

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What a brilliant idea. I was not expecting that Christmas present. I thank the hon. Member very much indeed for his suggestion.

I know that the House has become tired of hearing me ask for city status for Southend—[Interruption.]—a little weary—but I am not going to shut up until it happens, so someone must stand up at that Dispatch Box and tell me when the competition will begin. I shall raise the matter at the next Prime Minister’s Question Time. We have achieved a wonderful majority. We may have forgotten how to govern, but we are the Government now. We have five years in which to make the most of the trust that we have been given by the British people, so let us start with Southend being made a city.

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Let me start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) on securing the debate. It is a pleasure to see that his neighbour and colleague my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) is also present.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West has managed to do something amazing by being both first and last. This is one of the first Adjournment debates in the current Parliament, and, as is traditional, he has also managed to get the last word in before the House rises for the recess. In July, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) will also recall, it was my privilege to reply to the debate on matters to be raised before the summer Adjournment. In doing so, I remarked that it appeared that the House could not rise for a recess without my hon. Friend’s pressing the case for city status for Southend-on-Sea—and here we are again. I attribute that not to any gift of prophecy on my part, but to the assiduity with which my hon. Friend pushes his case. It is no surprise that his perseverance is recognised by his constituents, and I am delighted to welcome him back to the House after he secured an increased majority and more than 59% of the votes cast. No wonder Leigh-on-Sea is the happiest of places in which to live, and no wonder even the seals appear to clap my hon. Friend.

As a Minister in the Cabinet Office and on behalf of the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith)—the Minister for the Constitution—I am delighted to be able to share with my hon. Friend and the House the process by which Southend, and indeed other candidates around the United Kingdom, may seek to achieve city status. As ever, my hon. Friend has also used this opportunity to speak about the many achievements, and also the aspirations, of Southend. He will forgive me if I do not respond in detail to each of the points that lie more appropriately under the remit of other Departments, but he has set out a clear set of priorities which I know will be flagged in the Departments concerned.

Among the many advantages of a decisive Government majority—as a former member of the Whips Office, I shall repeat that! Among the many advantages of a decisive Government majority, and a clear sense of stability and purpose, is the opportunity for constituency MPs to pursue single-mindedly their action plans for their communities. I know my ministerial colleagues and I can look forward to hearing a lot more from my hon. Friend over what I hope will be a long and productive Parliament.

As my hon. Friend is aware, city status is one of the civic honours granted by the Queen under the royal prerogative on the advice of Ministers. It is a rare distinction. Only 14 new cities were created during the 20th century. Indeed, since the 1970s there have been only five competitions, as a result of which a total of 13 towns were awarded city status, with each competition seeing an increase in applications. With the exception of the competition held in 2000 to mark the millennium, all were held to mark significant anniversaries of Her Majesty’s accession to the throne. I am sure my hon. Friend will understand the need to preserve the special status of such an honour by ensuring that competitions are held to mark anniversaries of sufficient significance. As my hon. Friend is very aware from his interaction with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, his determination on this issue is very much recognised. We will continue to consider when it might be appropriate to hold another city status competition. I know my hon. Friend is alert to possible opportunities and is certainly not shy in drawing them to the attention of Government, for which we are grateful.

Today there are currently 69 cities in the United Kingdom: 51 in England, seven in Scotland, six in Wales and five in Northern Ireland. Competitions are fair and open to protect the value of city status. There are no specific criteria against which progress can be measured, but entries are considered on the merits of their contents rather than on the standard of presentation. I appreciate why, with a population of 175,000, some 5,600 businesses and an economy valued at over £2.6 billion, Southend views itself as a suitable candidate, even before one takes into account its role as a transport hub, to which my hon. Friend referred, and as a tourist destination, amid many sources of justifiable civic pride. It is wonderful to hear again about Music Man and what a phenomenal success it is.

I know that Southend-on-Sea entered the 2012 city status contest but was, along with a number of other towns, unfortunately unsuccessful. Granting city status is purely about the honour, with no additional funding or powers attached to it, but I entirely understand my hon. Friend’s continuing endeavours to secure city status for Southend. We will never tire of his speaking about it in this Chamber—he is very wrong to suggest that that might be the case. I know he will continue to pursue the cause with great assiduity. However, I do want to take this opportunity to reassure him that, whatever its civic status, the Government are committed to investing in and supporting Southend, and the local area, on issues that matter to his constituents.

A colleague at the Department of Health and Social Care informed me that significant investment is already under way at Southend Hospital. Clearly, my hon. Friend was briefed on that in his role as Father Christmas only this morning. That includes the installation of new radiotherapy machines and—he referred to this—in particular the use of a surgical robot to undertake prostate cancer surgery. That is an important issue, which I recall my hon. Friend raising in the summer recess debate. Those improvements will greatly expand the availability of robotic surgery to patients suffering from cancer and will both reduce waiting times and give patients the option of receiving care in mid and south Essex who may otherwise have to travel outside the area for treatment. This will secure Southend Hospital’s position as a centre of excellence in cancer care and treatment for the people of Essex.

We are also investing in the local economy. In 2014, we signed off on the Southend city deal and put in funding of about £1.5 million towards a growth hub to offer support to local businesses. I trust that the ripple effect of that continues to benefit the local economy. Southend, which, as my hon. Friend mentioned, boasts the longest pleasure pier in the world, received some 367,000 visitors last year. Southend has also received £1.3 million from the coastal communities fund to expand tourism services. I understand that Southend has also benefited from funding from its local enterprise partnership, including £23 million for a new business park, to which my hon. Friend referred, adjacent to London Southend Airport. There will be many opportunities for Southend to seize as we achieve our exit from the European Union, opportunities stemming from our focus on the Thames Estuary 2050 growth board, to which the new chair, Kate Willard, was appointed on 30 October.

My hon. Friend raised concerns about the rail franchise and ticket machines. I know that he has raised those concerns along with the frustration of his constituents on a number of occasions. He will be aware of this Government’s commitment to end the complicated franchising model and to create a simpler, more effective rail system. I am sure that we can look forward to progress on that area.

I suggest that my hon. Friend take up with other Ministers the specifics of the section 106 agreement to which he referred. As an MP with a constituency in close proximity to Gatwick, I recognise some of the concerns that he has raised. I trust that he is aware of the Independent Commission on Civil Aviation Noise, which is a relatively new body, providing independent advice to the Government, including on how to improve public confidence and trust in the management of aviation noise. If my hon. Friend has not done so already—he may well have done this—I recommend a discussion with ICCAN, which he might find of interest.

In conclusion, I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. He is indeed a doughty champion for his constituents and his constituency. These last few minutes as one closes a parliamentary period would not be the same without his contribution on the issue.

Finally, may I thank you, Sir Roger, for your comments on behalf of the Speaker, wishing us all a happy Christmas? May I extend that wish on behalf of the House and the Government to you and to all the Clerks and the staff of this place who work hard throughout the year, but particularly over the past few days supporting new and returning Members, and I would like to wish everyone a happy Christmas.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.