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12.39 pm

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson). His speech was an extraordinary cornucopia of subjects. I share his views about grab machines. I used to play them with great fondness as a child in Blackpool. His vision included references to James Bond and cocktail dresses. I think that he meant cocktail lounges, but perhaps it was a Freudian slip.

As the Member of Parliament for Blackpool, South, I have followed all aspects and all stages of the review with great interest. It has obvious implications for Blackpool, and several hon. Members have already mentioned them. It is right to make the point that many of the broader entertainment and leisure implications of the liberalisation proposals and the Government's response, which I welcome, could affect seaside and coastal towns more generally. I have been made well aware of that point in my position as president of the British Resorts Association and as chair of a Labour Back-Bench group of seaside and coastal Members of Parliament. Members of all parties representing seaside and coastal towns and local authorities in such towns have mounted a vigorous and rightly penetrating analysis of the issues involved and the Government's response.

Like other Members, I shall refer to amusement machines and gaming. The hon. Member for Henley entertained us with a vision of one-eyed bandits but, like the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) did in the Select Committee, I remember them as one-armed bandits. We are probably all from the same generation.

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The serious point is that such machines and grab or crane machines have been an integral part of the fabric of a seaside holiday for a long time. Therefore, the Government's acknowledgement of that in their response to Budd has been extremely welcome.

The Government have struck the right balance and noted the distinction that my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (Rosemary McKenna) also drew about the important role played by social and working men's clubs in charitable activities generally. Like other hon. Members, I have received representations on that point and I shall refer to one made by the Blackpool No. 1 working men's club and institute in Bloomfield road in my constituency. It said:

That is absolutely correct, so I pay tribute to the Government for their response and to my right hon. Friend the Minister for his robust and sensible approach to the issue.

Perhaps we view everything through rose-tinted spectacles, but I have a final point about crane machines. It seems to be more difficult to capture the fluffy toy or the watch than it did when I was a child. However, when I was a child and went to Blackpool, the objects may have been rather smaller and easier to grab. In fact, several small toys and novelties adorn the Marsden Christmas tree each year.

Dr. Pugh: Although we on are the issue of fluffy toys—a significant one for seaside resorts—does the hon. Gentleman accept that it is not in any way related to problems of gambling addiction as dealt with in the Budd report? People are not addicted to fluffy toys. If they are, it is not a problem with which we should unduly concern ourselves.

Mr. Marsden: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point, but he has not had the opportunity to examine the insides of my cupboards and closets. Therefore, he cannot be sure that he is correct about fluffy toys. However, I accept that he has made a legitimate point.

Several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), have referred to non-monetary prize amusement machines and expressed concerns about the proposal to reduce the maximum price of play and to reduce the maximum value of the prize. I shall quote a letter that I have received from Blackpool pleasure beach, which many people will have visited and will know is part of the history of popular culture and entertainment in Blackpool. Blackpool Pleasure Beach Ltd. makes the point that, if the proposed reduction were introduced,

over a long period. It continues:

The letter goes on to make the interesting suggestion:

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That is a sensible and thoughtful suggestion which the Government might consider.

The point is also made:

All those who have seen the Government's response would agree. However, Blackpool Pleasure Beach also says that it is not reasonable indefinitely to freeze the stake and prize levels for those machines. Some review mechanism for that process is suggested, and I would agree with that.

I turn to the main thrust, certainly as far as a town such as Blackpool is concerned, of the Budd report and the Government's response: the implications for resort casinos of the major deregulation and liberalisation of casinos. I suspect—I pay tribute to the publicity activities of Leisure Parcs Ltd. and the Blackpool challenge partnership in this respect—that there is hardly anyone in the land who does not know that Blackpool has been posted as the new Las Vegas. However, as at least one hon. Member has rightly said today, if we are to cross to the United States, there are other and perhaps better analogies to take into account. I shall mention two: Atlantic City and Biloxi, both of which, curiously, are the subject of films. Perhaps we can take heart from that for Blackpool.

The important point about Atlantic City and Biloxi is that they have achieved a degree of regeneration, having been significant resort centres that had lost a lot of their traditional market. Regardless of whether the entertainment that resort casinos might produce in Blackpool or elsewhere will be literally of Las Vegas stature in due course, the crucial question for us to examine is how we regenerate seaside towns such as Blackpool through that process. That is why we need to put four square the possible benefits of deregulation for local communities.

I sent a memorandum of evidence to the excellent Select Committee inquiry, which is still going on. Obviously, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) and I have talked to and heard the views of a vast array of people in and around the town since the proposals were first mooted. I said in the memorandum that one finds a small, quite vociferous lobby of people who are significantly opposed, mainly on principle, to the expansion and introduction of resort casinos. I accept, particularly as far as the Methodist Church and others are concerned, the principal basis of that objection and the concerns that flow from it, although I do not necessarily agree with it.

Another group of people have assumed, perhaps almost in a Pavlovian way, that resort casinos would be the answer to all our prayers and that the sooner that we get them the better. However, the vast majority of people, groups and associations in Blackpool—significantly including the vast majority of hoteliers, guest house owners, and so on—take the view that there could be great benefit from resort casinos but that we need to see the detail of proposals. That raises the problem of how the local community can benefit directly via a levy or hypothecation.

There has been much loose talk about emulating what Atlantic City has done, but it is not possible for us to do the same thing. The structures are entirely different. New Jersey and Atlantic City have a federal structure. We do

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not have a method by which we can use hypothecation in the same way or enjoy the control of funding that individual states can exercise. It might be that on the back of regional development, with possible elected assemblies in the north-west and elsewhere, there will be more scope for such a levy in five to 10 years time. However, we must consider what we can do now.

A local authority and the people making the proposals could reach a voluntary, though legally enforceable, agreement to the same effect. By earmarking a percentage of turnover, profit or a mixture based on a bottom line account, an annual payment could be made for community use from the income generated by such activities. That is a possibility, but the proposals in the Government's draft local government Bill for business improvement districts might provide a mechanism for a more structured approach. That view was shared by the leader of Blackpool council, Councillor Roy Fisher, who is also the chair of Blackpool challenge partnership. In written evidence to the Select Committee he said:

That is crucial for the people of Blackpool. All the surveys by the local newspaper and others have shown that the ability to produce a direct tangible benefit from resort casinos for local community projects is crucial to securing the support not just of the section of the town involved in tourism, but across the whole community, including the many people who do not have a direct interest in, or daily contact with, tourism.

The Bishop of Blackburn took the same view both in evidence to the Select Committee and in statements elsewhere. He is broadly in favour of the proposals for resort casinos and rightly draws our attention to the social concerns, but he also makes the point that we need a direct regenerative mechanism, as well as the other indirect benefits that might result from that.

We need something that will benefit local communities, but resort casinos also have to be seen in the context of developing a much bigger leisure package and providing greater opportunities for people who visit seaside towns such as Blackpool. That is the basis on which they will be welcome. As other hon. Members said, they will not be welcome if there is the same "pile-'em-high" collection of machines in gaming sheds, which is what has happened in Australia.

Professor Peter Collins, director of the centre for the study of gambling and commercial gaming at the university of Salford, also gave evidence to the Select Committee. He recently produced a report on the issue and said:

That argument is supported by the Blackpool challenge partnership and in the evidence to the Select Committee which cited the example of Australia, where the total

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liberalisation of the gaming laws led to the proliferation of high pay-out casino slot machines, which in turn made a significant contribution to increasing gambling addiction and social deprivation. The Government need to take that point on board when considering the detail of this matter.

Hon. Members have spoken of the importance of having a planning process that is flexible; for example, through the section 106 system, community benefits could arise from the development of resort casinos. If the process is not flexible, it will not be possible for local authorities, which make difficult decisions about planning applications, easily to ask for some of the benefits, such as education or health facilities, which may be constructed as part of a planning agreement for a resort casino.

There are weaknesses in the present planning process which need to be addressed. Again I draw on the evidence given to the Select Committee by the Blackpool challenge partnership. It said:

The partnership continued:

I believe that a figure of 5,000 machines is suggested. That needs to be considered in any legislation that is introduced.

There has been much talk in Blackpool about the town having pilot status in any resort casino process. The subject has been brought up with the Select Committee and the Minister. If that were possible, it would, in many ways, be desirable. It is all very well leaving these matters to the market, and it may well be that the market would eventually sift out those operations that did not conform to the broad model of the all-singing, all-dancing, family oriented casino which I and many others would consider the focus of resort regeneration. However, we do not need years of upheaval and eyesores while it does so. That point needs to be taken on board, whether there is a formal pilot status or whether we increase the ability of local authorities to take a holistic approach to planning, or preferably both.

Hon. Members may not be aware that it was intended that Blackpool tower would be one of a number of towers to be built all round Britain in the 1880s and 1890s. There was a sort of franchise system, and Blackpool took up the idea and ran with it. It may give us an idea of what we could do if we did not have a formal pilot scheme. Blackpool could, by default, be that pilot.

There is, however, an urgent need for Government action and for legislation. I am pleased about what has already been done by order, and I welcome the Department's commitment to the fight for a slot in the Queen's Speech. If planning authorities and bidders want to move ahead, it is important that we have early legislation.

As always, there must be safeguards. The £3 million for the Gambling Trust, as mentioned in the Budd report, and the initiatives that have been proposed by the British

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Casino Trust and BACTA are important. We must protect vulnerable young people, but it is important to remember what we are aiming for: a resort where perhaps only 10 or 15 per cent. of the floor space would be for gaming. It is a leisure experience, not primarily a gaming experience, that those of us in resort towns such as Blackpool seeking regeneration are looking for. The gaming sheds that we have seen in Australia would not provide that.

I want to make it clear that Blackpool is not putting all its eggs in the resort casinos basket. That has been made clear by the challenge partnership, the local council and a number of business leaders. There is an enormous amount of regeneration going on in the town and the challenge partnership is looking at a number of schemes. There are ideas for a "snow dome" and for "storm city". It is important to recognise that Blackpool, like other seaside towns, is already doing things to regenerate itself.

We have had major new art installations on the promenade and we had a modern statue called "Desire", which was supposed to embody the sexual frisson of a weekend in Blackpool—[Laughter]—and which came under the beady eye of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) during the general election campaign. We also have the world's largest glitterball, and a sea organ that will play various tunes in accompaniment with the tides and which is to be installed in the autumn. Future generations need not fear for lack of inspiration for new versions of "Albert and the Lion".

The winter gardens have had a major overhaul. The tower room and the ballroom, where generations of dancing couples glided elegantly, have been revamped. We have the Grand theatre, and major and elegant sea defences with ocean liner railings. We have a plan for an environmental centre and a solarium. There are major upgrades of the light rail system, based on the trams, and there is some diversification.

I could go on; no doubt Blackpool council's tourism department would like me to do so, but you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would call me to order—quite rightly. In giving that list, I wanted to focus on why resort casinos are potentially beneficial. In Blackpool, we need a big bang. We need a big initiative that will carry through all the other things that I have mentioned.

Like so many seaside towns, behind the facade of the wonderful experiences that people have on holiday, at party conferences and the like, Blackpool has problems. There is a decline in visitor numbers; we are the 32nd most deprived area of the UK; we have all the difficulties associated with seasonal employment, traditionally low pay and low employment; we have all the demands of demography, in terms of having a larger than average number of younger people and a larger than average number of older people, which puts enormous pressure on services in the town. We have all those things and we need to find a regenerative mechanism.

Of all the proposals on the table, the regenerative mechanism via resort casinos appears to me and to many others to be the best bet. The devil is in the detail and we need to get the details right. That I why I have dwelt at some length on the needs in terms of planning and a proper regulatory framework. This is not an impossible

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dream, although there are those who have been sceptical about talk of Pharaoh's Palace and various other possibilities for Blackpool on the back of resort casinos. It is worth remembering that we had the same sort of doomsayers at the turn of the last century when Alderman Bickerstaffe bought up the tower company's shares for Blackpool council.

If we are to have resort casinos in Blackpool, we want to ensure that it maintains the affection in which it is held and its almost mythic status in popular culture. I believe that we can do that. We can have a new golden mile and a new town of adventure, and there will still be all the excitements and the £1 for the first person to spot the tower from the train. However, that must be built on solid business, solid regulation, solid benefits for residents and tourists alike, and a recognition of the need for any liberalisation and deregulation of gaming to include concern for the most vulnerable.

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