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15 Nov 2001 : Column 1068

Seaside Towns

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Pearson.]

6.19 pm

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale): I am grateful for the opportunity to highlight once again some of the many acute social and economic problems that afflict seaside towns, to look at what action the Government have taken to address them and to consider what further measures need to be taken.

Having been raised in the seaside town of Morecambe, I witnessed its decline throughout the 1980s from a thriving, prosperous holiday resort to an area of high unemployment and social deprivation. The regeneration of our seaside resorts has therefore long been high on my list of priorities. Following my election to serve as the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale in 1997, a substantial part of my maiden speech to the House was devoted to that subject. Much of what I said about tourism and seaside resorts in general, and about my constituency in particular, has been echoed on many occasions by other hon. Members with similar constituencies. It may be useful to remind the House briefly of some of the points that I raised and use them as a benchmark to assess what progress has been made.

In 1997, I told the House that following the collapse of the domestic holiday trade in the 1980s, Morecambe was suffering from a wide range of social and economic problems. There was a huge stock of former guesthouses and hotels that had fallen out of holiday use and were being used as substandard houses in multiple occupation. The proliferation of HMOs had attracted a large number of socially disadvantaged and mainly transient people to the town, which had put an enormous strain on public services. High unemployment was endemic in several wards, and deprivation and social exclusion were widespread. Many of the resort's visitor attractions had closed and many others were on the verge of closure. Much of its infrastructure was old, decaying and in need of refurbishment. Access to the resort was poor, hampering efforts to attract new business. Those were the conditions that existed in my constituency, and in seaside resorts throughout the country, in 1997. Unfortunately, many of the problems that resorts faced then are just as acute or worse today.

In my constituency, squalor and splendour sit side by side. The high density of HMOs remains and continues to attract the socially disadvantaged into the resort. Many wards continue to harbour substantial pockets of social and economic deprivation among the worst in Lancashire. The resort's premier attraction, the Frontierland leisure park, has closed. The Bubbles leisure complex has also closed, and the resort still does not have a theatre. Occasionally, productions are put on at the Festival market hall, which necessitates the stallholders forfeiting their business to accommodate them. Shops in the main Arndale centre and surrounding area continue to become vacant with alarming frequency.

Access to the resort remains poor, whether by private car or public transport. Rail services are infrequent and, in the main, run only as far as Lancaster, where visitors to the town are required to change and frequently encounter lengthy delays. The ticket office and waiting room on

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Morecambe station are closed from early afternoon and, in inclement weather, passengers have to huddle under an open-ended shelter on the platform. After the ticket office has closed, no information is available to passengers about late-running or cancelled trains.

Bus services to the resort are also infrequent and often become entangled in the traffic chaos and congestion that pervade the Lancaster and Morecambe area. Those who travel to the resort by car experience similar difficulties. There is no doubt in my mind that poor access is the biggest single barrier to investment and the regeneration of Morecambe.

On a brighter note, a proposal to redevelop the Frontierland site as a retail park is being examined. A private developer is also attempting to renovate the Midland hotel, which was once the flagship of Morecambe's tourism industry. If either of those developments comes to fruition, it will give commercial activity in the town a significant boost.

Of course, the natural beauty of the area remains untarnished. But after decades of decline and underinvestment in its infrastructure, Morecambe—in common with many other seaside resorts—is still only at the stage of preventing further decline, never mind being regenerated.

Perhaps at this point I should make it clear that I do not lay the blame for the decline in resorts such as Morecambe at the door of the current Government, and neither do I accuse them of negligence or inactivity in advancing measures to remedy the problem. Nothing could be further from the truth: I firmly believe that, since coming to office in 1997, the Government have made enormous strides in getting to grips with the horrendous legacy that they inherited from the Tories.

Many seaside resorts now have access to funds from which they were previously excluded. My constituency is set to benefit from assisted-area status, as well as from objective 2 and single regeneration funding. The establishment of the resorts taskforce and the publication of the regeneration "Sea Changes" blueprint, which clearly sets out what needs to be done, constitute a major step forward, as does the multi-billion pound commitment to improve the nation's transport infrastructure that was announced in the Government's spending review. That undoubtedly will prove of great benefit to many seaside towns. The cross-departmental approach that the Government have adopted, given many of the problems of social exclusion in our resorts, is also soundly based.

Although I do not blame the Government for what has transpired in our resorts and commend them for what they have achieved so far, I do not want to give the impression that they can now sit back and contemplate a job well done. As far as I am concerned, they have taken a few small but significant steps down a long road.

The "Sea Changes" blueprint is only words on paper at the moment, and unless they are converted into action, they are meaningless. I should be interested in any details that my hon. Friend the Minister can offer of how and when the delivery of the huge amount of extra investment required to transform and modernise our resorts will be achieved.

I firmly believe that regionally based seaside regeneration delivery units need to be established to ensure that a focused, cross-departmental approach is maintained at local level. There is no doubt in my mind

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that, without such a focus, attempts to regenerate seaside towns will become patchy and over-bureaucratic, and that in general they will fall short of their targets.

To illustrate what I mean, I shall refer to a couple of things that are happening in the local authority that covers my constituency, namely Lancaster.

First, there is a long-standing bid to build a link road from the port of Heysham to the M6 motorway. There is almost universal acceptance at all levels of government that such a link is required, but there is a dispute about the routing of the road. I, the city council and the county council favour the western route, which offers the best prospects for economic development of the area. The northern route, preferred by the Government office of the north-west, appears to have a less adverse environmental impact, and accordingly the office has registered objections to the Lancaster local plan.

My concern is not that the office has objected to the proposed western route but that in doing so it stated that, although the western route would open up more areas for economic development, such developments were not part of the road's strategic objectives.

I believed that the Government had said that they would build roads for economic reasons and not just to relieve congestion, so I find the thinking of the Government office muddled and misguided. That is compounded when it is considered in conjunction with a bid submitted by Lancaster city council to establish an economic development zone.

The core of that bid is the industrial development of the Luneside site in Lancaster. The site is landlocked, with only limited access by minor roads. Government officials discovered how poor access was when they had to walk from the centre of Lancaster to inspect the industrial estate. It was just too difficult to reach by minibus, and the officials had to get out and walk there. Despite that, they have examined the EDZ bid and included it among the 10 high-priority schemes. It seems that the Government office is prepared to support the spending of millions of pounds on the development of the site but opposes the building of a road that would make it a viable proposition.

On Monday, I met Peter Styche who, until recently, was acting director of the Government office of the north-west, and asked him to reconcile those contradictory policies. Not only was he unable to give me a satisfactory answer, he appeared unable to give any answer whatever. Both the building of the motorway link and an EDZ are critical to the regeneration of Morecambe. I would be most grateful for any assistance that the Minister could offer in helping to resolve this matter.

In my opinion, the foregoing clearly demonstrates the need for a more focused approach to the regeneration of our resorts to ensure that the joined-up cross-departmental thinking that the Government adopt nationally is carried forward and implemented locally.

That leads me to my final point. Seaside resorts in recent years have suffered from a contraction in the domestic holiday trade similar to that experienced by mining communities as a result of pit closures. It is obvious that seaside resorts will require a similar amount of support and investment to that which the coalfield communities received if they are to be successfully regenerated.

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Serious consideration should be given to the establishment of a seaside regeneration trust, modelled on the coalfields regeneration trust, which will focus on and give impetus to the regeneration of our seaside resorts. I am aware that the Government are currently of the opinion that the economic and social deprivation caused by the decline of seaside resorts is not directly comparable to that suffered by mining communities as a result of pit closures. Indeed, the Minister confirmed that to me in a written response to a parliamentary question earlier this week.

I have to inform the Minister that I believe that the Government are wrong in their assumption. The collapse of the holiday trade, on which the economics of seaside resorts depended, had an impact on many resorts every bit as sudden and severe as that which occurred in the coalfield communities. The only real difference in circumstances is that when the collapse of the holiday trade occurred, we were saddled with a Conservative Government who were not prepared to do anything about it. Much of the resulting devastation still afflicts seaside resorts today and it will take much more than a pump-priming role by Government to renovate, modernise and improve the infrastructure of seaside resorts and enable them to diversify and rebuild their economies.

If my hon. Friend the Minister is in any doubt that this is the case, I invite him to visit my constituency at the earliest possible opportunity to see for himself just how much still needs to be done.

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