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Tourism (Bedfordshire)

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

10.1 pm

Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): I am delighted that you are in the Chair tonight, Mr. Speaker. [ Interruption. ] I had prepared a one-minute speech for the benefit of Mr. Deputy Speaker, who was a Bedfordshire councillor in his previous life.

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady is addressing the House. Will hon. Members be quiet?

Mrs. Dorries: I have called for this debate today for a specific reason, and before I begin to wax lyrical about Bedfordshire in an attempt to attract the Minister to visit, I should explain why. Tourism in Bedfordshire supports 9,000 local jobs and contributes £465 million a year to the local economy. Tourism will be a key driver in moving our economy forward in the years ahead. Although the number of visitors arriving in Bedfordshire is on the increase, the amount that they are spending per visit is in decline, and we need to raise our game.

Bedfordshire is a beautiful rural county. We have an engaging history—a rich tapestry of adventure and steadfast defiance, as reflected in some of the county’s most famous sons such as the prison reformer John Howard, the anti-apartheid campaigner Archbishop Trevor Huddleston and, of course, the preacher and author of “The Pilgrim’s Progress”, the immortal tinker, John Bunyan, who was born in Elstow. All three of those famous Bedfordians have made such an impact during their time and beyond. I am sure that my Whip would concur that the fiercely independent spirit of these historical figures will live on in Bedfordshire for many years to come.

We have a diversity of different cultures. Over hundreds of years, many people, including myself, have moved to Bedfordshire and chosen to make it their home, a process which was begun by the Danes more than 1,200 years ago. Since then, a huge variety of different communities and ethnic groups have settled in the county ranging from Moravians, Irish, Africans, Italians—there are many Italians—Bangladeshis, Poles, Indians and Pakistanis to name but a few. At the time of the last census, more than 74 different ethnic groups were represented in the county’s schools alone. That richness in diversity gives the culture of Bedfordshire, and most notably the towns of Luton and Bedford, a vibrancy in terms of music, dance, food, language and fashion of which we can be justifiably proud. Luton international carnival is one of the largest carnivals in the country second only to Notting Hill carnival, and it attracts more than 160,000 visitors.

It is our diverse and attractive landscape, our engaging history and our rich diversity of different cultures that makes Bedfordshire a truly a great place in which to live and work and which to visit. Last month, I took part in a tourism tour of Mid-Bedfordshire during the first British tourism week and visited much of what is on offer to the visitor. If safari parks were star rated, Woburn would be a solid five, and the Duke of Bedford is developing a reputation for
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only doing something if it is done properly. The new play ark at the safari park is a testament to that. The way in which the animals are kept, unsupervised, and viewed is exceptional. I lived in Africa for some time and visited several game parks. Woburn safari park looks just like the bush landscape in Luangwa valley, such is the attention to detail.

In Woburn we also have the abbey, the deer park, the ridge, the shops, the walks, the lakes, the pubs—most notably my local, the Black Horse, where I am sure that my friends, Budge, Sue, Tom, Lottie, Jenny and Iain are all sat right now—the hotels, the tea shops and the rest that Woburn has to offer. I live in Woburn, and I would prefer it if no one came—I love it so much; it is so beautiful—but people have to work and live. We need to build on sustainable tourism that will provide jobs and encourage people not to travel long distances to work but to work in the area in which they live.

On my tourism day, I visited Ampthill park, the former hunting ground of Henry VIII, where a monument marks the site at which Catherine of Aragon was kept under house arrest during her divorce. Catherine’s cross will feature on my Christmas cards this year, with the sun right behind it at exactly 12 midday, casting an aura around the cross. That was followed by a visit to Houghton house, the shell of a 17th century mansion recently restored by English Heritage and reputedly the inspiration for House Beautiful in John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”. I moved on to Stondon motor museum, home to the UK’s largest private collection of motor vehicles, with a life-size model of Captain Cook’s ship, the Endeavour. The museum hosts many school tours. If classic cars are “your thing”, Bedfordshire is the place to visit. We have Elstow abbey and Marston Vale forest, perfect for those who love cycling and now providing the Bedfordshire breakfast before people start at a reasonable cost.

I have spoken only of what is on offer in my constituency. Bedfordshire has seven major tourist attractions, some of them world class, which between them secured 2.5 million visitors last year. I should mention Whipsnade wild animal park in Dunstable, located in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous).

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): I am listening to my hon. Friend with great interest and admiration. Does she agree that transport is a major issue for our major tourist attractions in Bedfordshire? The director of Whipsnade zoo told me this evening that on Easter Sunday even he was unable to get there, such was the amount of traffic stuck in the villages of Kensworth and Whipsnade. Can the Minister say anything to the Department for Transport or the regional development agency about helping to get better buses from our nearest local railway stations—particularly Luton and Berkhamsted—through to Whipsnade? That would make such a difference and help my constituents, who suffer from dreadful congestion on popular days at the zoo.

Mrs. Dorries: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I will go on to talk about how tourism can help to support the transport network in my constituency and in Bedfordshire as a whole.

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Despite these impressive attractions, there are many more opportunities to increase the value and importance of the tourism industry to our local economy. As the tourism strategy for the county states, despite what we offer,

For example, over the past five years tourism earnings in the county have remained static, and there is an over-reliance on the daily visitor market. Business tourism is also underdeveloped, and Bedfordshire must significantly raise its game if we are to take full advantage of the exciting opportunities that this sector of the economy offers. While there has been some modest growth in the number of visitors to the area—11.2 million per year at the last count—average expenditure by those visitors has been declining in real terms, in stark contrast to the rest of the region and the country as a whole, where it has increased.

As a Member of Parliament for a Bedfordshire constituency, it frequently frustrates me that even more people do not come to visit the county to explore and see what we have to offer. It is my ambition—shared with Bedfordshire county council, the district and borough councils, Bedfordshire and Luton economic development partnership, the East of England Development Agency and East of England Tourism—to achieve the following: we want more people to visit Bedfordshire, stay there for longer and spend more money there.

Indeed, if the Under-Secretary has not already been to Bedfordshire, I strongly encourage him to visit soon. I would be delighted to show him the sights and would welcome the opportunity of treating him to lunch in the form of a Bedfordshire clanger. In essence, we need more people to visit, stay longer and spend more money while they are there.

Why? The answer is simple: the growth of and greater investment in the tourist industry will have a variety of important benefits for local people and help drive the economy forward through additional inward investment. It will help to create more jobs. It will also help to support better facilities, especially in our rural areas. It will offer a wider range of events for local people and their friends and families to attend. It will also help to secure significant improvements in retail opportunities, the development of better transport links and other much needed infrastructure improvements, as my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire said.

As more people visit Bedfordshire, local residents will value and appreciate more of what we have, which will help to establish greater civic pride among the local population. From a sustainable point of view, that will also help to reduce in-out commuting, which is already significant and on the rise.

The 15-year tourism growth strategy, which the county-wide steering group presented, sets out what we need to achieve far more succinctly than I can. It states:

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That presents us with a great opportunity—and, indeed, a challenge—to secure the investment needed to achieve the many benefits that I mentioned a moment ago. That opportunity to make the most out of tourism for Bedfordshire—especially for local people—conveniently leads me to a proposal to locate a new Center Parcs village in Warren Wood, near Millbrook in my constituency.

As the matter is currently subject to an appeal through the planning process, I do not expect the Under-Secretary to respond directly, but I would like to take the opportunity to reiterate the reasons for my support for the proposal and the significant benefits that I believe it will bring both to my constituency and the county as a whole.

Center Parcs is, for some, among the most contentious of all the major issues in my constituency, and has attracted both supporters and protesters. Before I reached my opinion on the proposal, I listened to the views of a variety of people, such as local residents, parish and town councils, local councillors, as well as representatives of the local business community.

I also visited the Centre Parcs Longleat village in Wiltshire, which, I noted from yesterday’s edition of Bedfordshire on Sunday, was also visited by its editor recently. I do not know whom the editor met during his visit, but when I was there, I insisted on meeting Center Parcs employees and suppliers, so that I could see the product on offer at first hand. I also spoke to local villagers adjacent to the Longleat site, who objected when the original application was first submitted.

If Bedfordshire is to take full advantage and change its status from a “drive-through” county to a “drive-to” county, we need to show that we mean business. Center Parcs must not join the long list of “missed opportunities” for Bedfordshire. Our loss will be somebody else’s gain. The location of Center Parcs would send out a strong and positive message about our determination and willingness to change.

The creation of 1,400 new jobs—the equivalent of 900 full-time posts—will have a huge impact on the local economy and provide new opportunities for those seeking flexible employment, such as mothers with young families and others wanting to return to the workplace, in addition to a high number of managerial and skilled positions.

Limits on time prevent me from listing in more detail the many benefits that Center Parcs would bring, but suffice it to say that I am confident that, if successful in its appeal, the location of Center Parcs in Bedfordshire would help to address some of the longer-term issues that have been hampering the ability of our visitor economy to expand, and significantly help raise the county’s profile in a positive way, regionally and nationally.

The 2012 London Olympic games also provide us with a once in a lifetime opportunity to help put Bedfordshire on the map. I would like to take the opportunity to encourage the Under-Secretary to do all that he can through his role to encourage the tourism industry in Bedfordshire. In particular, will he lobby his ministerial colleagues to ensure that Bedfordshire receives the necessary improvements to its infrastructure, including investment in better transport links? Will he
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also lobby his colleagues to ensure that Bedfordshire maximises its opportunities and potential in regard to the 2012 Olympics and addresses its infrastructure capacity?

What reassurances can the Minister give me that Bedfordshire is high on his list for development as a tourist county? As John Bunyan famously said:

“Words easy to be understood do often hit the mark; when high and learned ones do only pierce the air.”

I hope that the Minister will not disappoint.

10.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Shaun Woodward): I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries) on securing this important debate. Mid-Bedfordshire is an important part of the tourist economy, and it was interesting to hear her note the importance of the area raising its game. It undoubtedly has significant potential to grow its visitor economy, and is capable of appealing to diverse tourism and visitor interests. It has a strong heritage and history, through its churches, country houses, villages, hamlets, market towns and many other visitor attractions. Indeed, I pay tribute to the hon. Lady, who made clear her commitment to British tourism week by visiting Woburn safari park, Ampthill park, Houghton house, Stondon motor museum, Marston Vale community forest centre, Elstow abbey, the moot hall and many other places too numerous to mention. This shows her commitment to the place that she has made her home and that she said that she had come to love.

Tourism is an important part of the UK economy. It is our fifth largest industry and generated some £85 billion in turnover in 2005-06. It employs more than 2 million people, directly and indirectly. My Department is fully committed to supporting tourism and, in partnership with the industry and the wider public sector, we aim to maximise the growth and productivity of the sector. The Department invests more than £50 million a year through VisitBritain for overseas and domestic marketing and, across the UK, tourism now receives an estimated £311 million a year in public funding—more than ever before.

Together with industry and the wider public sector, my Department has developed a clear, coherent policy framework for industry support and growth. This includes branding and marketing improvements led by VisitBritain, a new national skills strategy, work across Britain on driving up product quality through accommodation grading schemes, promoting investment including supporting better regulation, and the good practice guide on planning for tourism. Of course, better co-ordination of the £311 million a year is absolutely crucial. As the hon. Lady said, the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games will present the tourism industry not only in Mid-Bedfordshire but across the whole of the UK with its greatest ever opportunity, with direct benefits that we estimate will be worth more than £2 billion.

Since 2003, the responsibility has been passed to regional development authorities to deliver regional support for tourism. My Department and VisitBritain work closely with the RDAs to develop regional strategies and business support around marketing, skills, quality and, critically, sustainability. In that context, VisitBritain’s funding agreement with my Department includes a commitment to promoting regional spreads of visitor expenditure outside London. This
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year, the DCMS will invest £3.6 million in the RDAs through strategic industry support, and £1.9 million in the Greater London authority to help to promote the capital’s role as a gateway to the rest of the country.

The East of England development agency and the East of England tourism board have developed significant plans for tourism investment, focusing on strategic marketing, better intelligence, capacity building, product innovation and better skills. As the hon. Lady acknowledged, tourism is an important sector of the Bedfordshire economy, contributing some £465 million a year and supporting almost 10,000 jobs directly and indirectly. None the less, recent flat growth needs to be addressed.

The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) made an important point in principle about transport. Transport links are important, as is the recognition of the importance of tourism to the local economy. County councils have responsibility for some of these matters, however, and it is unfortunate to note that Bedfordshire county council reduced its spending from 2003-04 and again in 2004-05. I understand that its spending for 2005-06 now stands at zero. Mid-Bedfordshire’s spending on tourism was reduced from £284,000 in 2003 to £251,000 in 2004, and was cut to £163,000 in 2005. I think that some local authorities do not recognise the importance of tourism to the local economy, and the amount that it contributes to jobs both directly and indirectly.

However, a positive development is that both public and private-sector tourism stakeholders in Luton and Bedfordshire have put together a draft growth strategy for the long-term future of the area. In association with the county council, the Bedfordshire and Luton economic development partnership and industry, the East of England development agency is funding a tourism growth strategy for the county. A draft has been produced, and is currently out for consultation.

The so-called sub-regional strategy is linked to broader regional objectives. They include developing a marketing strategy to increase the value of tourism to the Bedford and Luton economy and broaden the visitor base; agreeing on a programme of skills training and development for the area with People 1st and the Learning and Skills Council; working with the private sector in product innovation, particularly self-catering residential meeting facilities, events and “green” tourism; supporting Bedford and Luton regeneration and advising on how best to maximise development in the interests of attracting visitors; developing a compendium of base data and conducting regular visitor satisfaction and perception surveys to monitor progress; and establishing a tourism partnership with local authorities and business to disseminate information and best practice.

Andrew Selous: Does the Minister’s Department liaise closely with the Department for Transport on some of the key transport issues raised by the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries) and me? I think that that is particularly important.

Mr. Woodward: We liaise closely with all Departments, including the Department for Transport, but the hon. Gentleman has raised an important issue, and if he writes to me about it I shall be happy to pursue it.

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