Examination of Witnesses (Questions 103-121)
COUNCILLOR ROY FISHER, MR STEVE WEAVER AND MR PETER MOORE
TUESDAY 11 JUNE 2002
Chairman: Welcome. I was only the other day listening to Stanley Holloway saying, "There is a famous seaside town called Blackpool that is noted for fresh air and fun." Mr Wyatt will now find out how you reconcile the fun with the fresh air.
103. If I was a gambling man, I would bet on the Chancellor giving gaming resort licences or issuing them rather like 3G Spectrum. In other words, I would put out one for Northern Ireland, one for Scotland, one for Wales and another for England and I would go for the highest bidder. How would that affect Blackpool's position if it was issued in that way?
(Cllr Fisher) That is a very interesting and difficult question. We would be bidding for that particular licence. If that was put across that way, in a competition aspect, which is what you are suggesting, I am not sure if we would see that as a level playing field, quite frankly. We would have to take into consideration the issues that the Government would suggest that we would have to look at. We would have to see how much we could gain from the machines in Blackpool and we would have to put ourselves in the best position.
(Mr Weaver) I am not sure we would think it the best use of government policy to try and maximise the amount of money in terms of liberalisation of gaming. Our view is that liberalisation of gaming seems appropriate for the 21st century but it should be done in a way that adds value to other government policies. We think it is essential that it adds value to the regeneration of areas. Blackpool is a resort. It still has a large number of visitors but it is in need of regeneration. The fewer and bigger casinos and not the many proliferation has an opportunity for a regeneration impact on Blackpool and that should be the focus of government, using this legislation to add value to the Government policies and not just maximising the amount of cash that comes into the Treasury.
104. I am sure the poorer areas of the south-east, especially Margate and Ramsgate, would have the same view as Blackpool that there should not just be one resort; there should be an opportunity to bid. If you want an a priori position, you want a privileged position which at the moment the Government is not prepared to give you so if you do not get that privileged position what are the plans to regenerate Blackpool beyond just having a casino resort there?
(Mr Weaver) On the privileged position, we would take Professor Collins's point of view. It is essentially important to trial this liberalisation and we are not asking for just Blackpool to be a trial area. We think there are a number of areas where this could be trialled in, different kinds of areas, to see what the impact is.
105. Can you explain why it needs trialling? It seems to have been trialled in a number of countries around the world. I am a bit confused at the evidence there. Besides, that gives you 15 years at least to get your money back. That is a hell of a 15 year pilot, is it not?
(Mr Moore) It is a question of the interpretation. We all welcome the liberalisation. The laws really were archaic. It is a question of how it is introduced and how it is interpreted. My role at Blackpool is the regeneration of it. I chair the ETC Task Force looking at the decline of the British resorts in general and there have been a number of factors, structural and competitive. The opportunity to use gaming and gambling as a major regeneration catalyst is something that we think personally is very appropriate to Blackpool. The introduction of it without some kind of monitoring and control, which I am sure the Government would not do, could lead to no monitoring, no control, proliferation of the very kind of outlets that no one wants to see in this country and, from a regeneration point of view, a loss of impact. On the contrary, we would be saying not particularly in Blackpool, but it should be phased in. There should be some control. That makes sense. Fewer larger institutions, certainly in the beginning, would appear to be the route. That would give you the impact. One of the objectives we talked about was to try to stop the exodus of people going to places like Las Vegas, which I do not think we are going to do. We will not do it by a lot of pepper potting around the country. Rather, we should have the likes of the larger institutions, the resort casino hotel, which gives you a powerful marketing peg. It also gives you a very powerful regeneration peg. It is the kind of thing that will make people say, "Yes, this resort is worth going back to." It is only a catalyst but it is a proven powerful, economic regenerator and it can be controlled in the larger format.
106. That is not really an answer to my question. My question really was: what is plan B if you do not get a resort casino to regenerate what is a poor town? We would want it regenerated so what is plan B?
(Cllr Fisher) We have a master plan in process that will see the future of Blackpool well into the 21st century. We are currently advertising for people to come forward to give us their ideas on how they can see Blackpool moving forward to regenerate Blackpool and make it again the best resort in the country, which we believe it is. With regard to resort casinos, we believe we have to have an individual area piloted so that we can measure. A lot has been made of the social impact. We have to measure those social impacts before we go full blown on this particular process. We measure the social and economic impacts on a town like Blackpool with regard to resort casinos and bringing them in and perhaps we could go the whole way. We have started that process now and we have bid for moneys through the EDZ, the economic development zone, which we are hopeful of getting in the near future, so that is how we see our way forward.
107. Of the ten million that come every year, is that some people coming quite a lot of times because they like to come for the weekend or is it ten million new visitors? Are the figures complicated?
(Cllr Fisher) It is a mix.
108. What is the spend of the people who come for a weekend? What is the anticipated spend that you will need for the casino resort to work?
(Cllr Fisher) Statistics can tell us a lot. One says three-quarters of the people who live in Britain have visited Blackpool. I am sure that is not all at the same time. We would question the ten million. I think it may be slightly more than that. The level of spend in Blackpool is not as high as we would hope it would be. The town is in some state of decline, as all British resorts are. We have to find a way of making more people come to Blackpool and spend their money. We see this as a way of doing that. I could not tell you what the exact spend was. I am sure we could get you that information.
(Mr Weaver) We know we have to get visitors who are coming to spend more money. It is a fairly low level of spend from the visitors who currently come to Blackpool. We want attractions there that will bring people into Blackpool for longer periods of time, out of season, and they will spend more money than the current people do. The resort casino is one of the ways of doing this but it is not just a plan B; we do this or nothing else. It is part of a jigsaw. If it did not happen, there are other ways we can take Blackpool forward, but it offers a unique opportunity for us to take Blackpool forward quickly now.
109. I would recommend you talk to the people in Melbourne who can tell you exactly how many people come in a day, how much sun lotion is bought, how many pairs of sunglasses. They have very good statistics and I commend them to you. In Las Vegas, which we did visit, the turnover is 60 per cent entertainment and 40 per cent betting and they think it will go up on the entertainment and down on the betting. They are into their third generation of hotels. I have been several times because I have to go professionally to Vegas and we find that they have a new part of the world attached. It is New York one week; it is Venice the next. They move the hotel system round because they are quite flexible in the way in which they have planning space and they have a mayor interested in developing the entertainment side. If you only have one large complex, how do you change as the community wants to change? In other words, if you decide you want to just have an overall dome which is all weather, inside, like Paris Paris is in Vegas, with a hotel attached, when the mood moves, when people say, "I have done Paris Paris" or whatever you create, "I now want to go to something else", are you not stuck if you just have one?
(Mr Weaver) We are not just looking for one resort casino. We know we have had enough interest to satisfy the demand for more than one resort casino in Blackpool. Coming back to your first point about 60 per cent leisure and 40 per cent gaming, this is why we believe it is very important that the legislation does not go through in its current form. We would end up with a proliferation of gaming sheds, not adding any value to communities. There does need to be a clear definition of a resort casino, where large scale, big prize gaming machines can be because the added value of five star quality hotels, convention/conference facilities in that complex will be added to it and that is an important part of the regeneration. We are not interested in simple gaming sheds, which is the danger for Blackpool.
110. I understand the need for regeneration in Blackpool, visiting you every two years at least for party conferences, but I am not sure that will regenerate Blackpool. The experience in Atlantic City is that, before they started putting in the gaming halls, there were something like 1,000 family hotels and that has been reduced to 36 because people stay in these big complexes at the expense of all the rest of the infrastructure. What do you say to the poor B&B owner about your plans?
(Mr Moore) First of all, Atlantic City was dying on its feet before the advent of the resort casino hotels. The resort casino hotels have resulted in enormous regeneration in Atlantic City, regardless of the fact that in the first phase, 1979, they did it without any master plan. The difference between Atlantic City as a resort and Las Vegas as a resort is that Vegas, particularly in the Strip, the new development, did it to a cohesive master plan, which is precisely what we have here. In terms of Atlantic City, what you had was quite clearly market failure. You had small B&Bs which are simply not what the modern leisure seeker is looking for and facts of life have to come into this. We are not talking about a load of resort casino hotels; we are talking about a selective number which we believe will have a tremendous, catalytic force, because it is not enough to have three or four resort casino hotels. The resort of Blackpool must be regenerated in the round. It needs food and beverage; it needs retail; it needs quality accommodation and conference centres. We would want to learn from the pitfalls of Atlantic City. We want to learn from the success of Vegas. As Mr Wyatt said, it is 60/40 and a big part of that is entertainment and conferences.
111. Weather is all important. Disney in Paris has not been altogether successful because of the weather there. Vegas and Atlantic City enjoy reasonably long, hot summers and, in the case of Vegas, long hot winters as well, relatively speaking. You have the Irish Sea. What makes you think people are going to come to Blackpool even if you do have a super-douper resort?
(Cllr Fisher) We visited Vegas and Atlantic City. We left Vegas and it was 60 degrees; we got to Atlantic City and it was minus four.
112. It is always like that in Blackpool.
(Cllr Fisher) Absolutely not. In Atlantic City, the hotels had a 90 per cent occupancy rate all year round. In Blackpool a lot are something like 40 per cent so it has improved the occupancy rate in hotels and more people do go. It is a proven fact. It has shown that by the regeneration, by the resort casinos going into Atlantic City. What we found when we went to Atlantic City with regard to their planning laws was that they could have been better controlled. The legislation came in virtually overnight there in the mid-seventies and the planning controls were not quite as good as they could have been. With regard to the White Paper, the planning uses put on casinos, as suggested in the White Paper, we do not think are strong enough. We suggest that that should be beefed up. There should be more larger casinos because we have something like 30 premises in Blackpool currently that could form themselves into a casino without any change in their planning use and we would be able to license them. We have to have control over the planning use and that is something we would like to see in the legislation.
113. You mentioned earlier that you were going for more than one resort casino and you had had indications of interest of others. Within a 20 minute walk of the main front, how many spaces have you for some of these mega resorts?
(Mr Weaver) There are at least three spaces on the promenade now, one of which is there now, one of which would be there with very little development needed to make it happen and there is another one that could be built on the back of existing hotels.
114. Would you see them all within 20 yards of the front?
(Mr Weaver) Ideally, we want them on the front, within a defined space.
115. Even in Las Vegas, I was surprised that a lot of the major casinos are within walking distance of each other which by American standards is extraordinary. How many other spaces going in from the coast are there?
(Cllr Fisher) We are currently going through the local planning process and we are identifying leisure use areas. Within those leisure use areas, we would identify areas that could be possible for resort casinos. There are areas identified within Blackpool within walking distance of each other that could be used for resort casinos. Whether they would be or not is a matter for planning and environmental and transport issues as well. We would want environmental impacts and transportation studies as well, to see if that was a possibility.
(Mr Moore) It is a question of balance. The whole intention of the master plan is to get rid of ad hoc development. Blackpool and other resorts will not regenerate themselves without a cohesive plan, a helicopter view, and that will entail the mix of facilities looking at the weather. That is one of the things we are doing. We are aware that we are very seasonal but it can be done. Centreparcs did it 15 years ago. It is a question of covering and technology can do it. We are mindful of bringing this into a master plan.
116. When these businessmen look at whether or not they are going to go to Blackpool, are you going to invite them on a Friday and Saturday night when it is seriously dangerous to walk around Blackpool with all the, for want of a better word, yobs from every other major city descending on Blackpool for a good punch up?
(Cllr Fisher) I would take
Ms Shipley: You are talking about the Party Conference again.
117. No, Monday to Thursday. We do not meet at weekends.
(Cllr Fisher) I would have to take, not umbrage but I would disagree that it is dangerous.
118. It is difficult to get into a taxi without stepping into quite a lot of vomit. You ask some of the taxi drivers.
(Cllr Fisher) I would disagree with that. Certainly there are issues with regard to youth problems, not only in Blackpool but in other areas.
119. The major question is how are you going to discourage those large elements of mainly young lads coming in for a riotous night? How are you going to have these side by side?
(Mr Weaver) One of the ways that we are doing it through the master plan is zoning areas. So we will zone an area for young people, bars, which will be separated in terms of access from other areas. Blackpool is not just one resort, it is a number of resorts. There will be a physical separation through the master plan to allow young people. I have been in Blackpool on a Friday and Saturday night and I have not felt that unsafe. It is lively, it is raucous at times, certainly during the Party Conferences I have to say.
(Mr Moore) The objective is to raise the quality of the whole built environment. These hotels are coming in at £150 million, £200 million. The objective we have is to raise the whole quality of life and it is not, quite frankly, to continue with marauding hoards or whatever. That will change as the environment changes. It is attracting the profile that suits the experience at the moment. We are going to change the experience and with that we will change the profile of the guests coming.
Chairman: Chris, ask the final question but do not spoil that upbeat moment.
120. I do not know what to say now. When we were in Las Vegas we heard at some length from a rather bizarre councillor who told us about the planning issues in Las Vegas and how they found it was very important that any new buildings that were built, any new casinos, were completely compatible with what was already there on the Strip. We found it a bit difficult to know what could be compatible with what was already there because it was already incompatible with itself. He also said that they did not want anything that was tacky-tacky. Tacky was all right. How will you keep the whole planning process, because you have been talking about really significant amounts of money here where the planning decision, the yes or the no, will make a dramatic difference to a company's likelihood of success, how will you keep that clean from corruption?
(Cllr Fisher) Can I firstly ask was that councillor with an `s' or with a `c'?
Mr Bryant: I cannot remember now.
121. With a `c'.
(Mr Weaver) Why would it be full of corruption any more than any other decision on a major investment in a community in planning terms? I do not understand that. In terms of the Gaming Commission's role in ensuring that anyone who had a licence had the right kind of background and protection from criminality, that presumably would be a filter in the first place. If anyone was to introduce some legislation which involved some competitive tendering for licensing in areas then perhaps we could look at that. I do not see per se simply because it is a large amount of money for one particular kind of investment that corruption would be involved in the planning process.
Mr Bryant: I should say that I have clearly stayed in better hotels than Mr Flook.
Chairman: Thank you for that enlightenment, Chris. Gentlemen, I would like to thank you very much for being here. Your Member of Parliament is here to collect you and take you perhaps for lunch. Both of your Members of Parliament are here so that means they can certainly take you to lunch. Thank you.