1 February 2024
Aldous calls for a strategic approach to unlock the potential of coastal communities

Peter Aldous calls on the Government to develop a national coastal strategy to make the most of coastal communities’ significant potential for job creation in the renewable energy, tourism, fishing and maritime sectors. Specifically, locally, he calls on the Government to adjust the Lowestoft enterprise zone boundaries, invest in education and skills and very importantly at the current time coastal defences. 

Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con)

It is a pleasure, Dr Huq, to serve with you in the Chair.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) on securing this debate and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting it.

Also, it is great to see the Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard)—here in Westminster Hall today, as well as the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft), who represents the Opposition, and the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar), who represents the Scottish National party. I have to confess that I was not really expecting to see them, which probably indicates the problem that we have, in that there is some uncertainty as to where the issue we are discussing—employment in rural and coastal areas—best fits. Actually, it is an issue for the whole of Government, and one of the points that I will hopefully make today is the systemic approach that we need, because there is always a danger that if we leave this issue to one Department, even though it relates to a whole host of Departments, nothing actually happens.

I believe there is enormous potential for job creation in rural and coastal communities. There are the obstacles that my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn outlined, but there are also tremendously exciting opportunities, and if we do not adopt that overall approach that I mentioned, we are in danger of not taking them.

The focus of my contribution today will be on the coast in my area, centred on Lowestoft, which is the principal town in the Waveney constituency, and the village of Corton in the north and the villages of Pakefield and Kessingland to the south.

In its October 2020 analysis of coastal communities, the Office for National Statistics split towns on the coast into two categories: first, seaside towns, with a tourist beach and visitor attractions; and, secondly, coastal towns, focused on ports and related industrial activities. I was about to say that the Lowestoft area is unique, in that we fall into both of those categories, but so does Ynys Môn, as my hon. Friend so greatly articulated.

In Lowestoft, we have a port founded on fishing and with a current focus on low-carbon energy, and a magnificent sandy beach. Lowestoft is also the gateway to the Norfolk and Suffolk broads, and to two of the most popular visitor attractions in the east of England: Pleasurewood Hills; and Africa Alive.

Like most coastal communities, we have challenges to overcome, but as I have already said there are also some great opportunities, which, with the right policies and the right seedcorn investment, we can unlock, primarily for the benefit of local people but also for the benefit of the whole of the UK.

I specifically highlight the opportunities presented by the UK’s transition to low-carbon and renewable energy sources, which puts Lowestoft and the whole of the East Anglian coast in the vanguard of the UK’s energy supply system. In 2022, East Anglia’s renewable and low-carbon energy portfolio powered the equivalent of 32% of UK homes. It is estimated that by 2035, that figure could rise to 90%. That dramatic transformation presents both the Suffolk coast and Lowestoft with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to drive inward investment, to create exciting and enduring careers, and to play a major role in delivering the UK’s net zero goals.

These are great opportunities not just in Lowestoft but all around coastal Britain, but, as I have mentioned, there are significant obstacles to overcome. Coastal towns are more likely to have high levels of deprivation, and I am afraid that is the case in Lowestoft. Many of the jobs are seasonal, leading to fluctuations in employment opportunities throughout the year. Limited infrastructure and poor connectivity hinders job creation; coastal communities are invariably at the end of the line. Climate change, floods and coastal erosion can have a devastating impact on communities and businesses, particularly in the tourism sector. That has been experienced in recent weeks all along the Suffolk and Norfolk coast, and I shall return to that subject in a few minutes.

The seedcorn investment made by Government in the Lowestoft area over the past decade or so makes an impressive list, and it will help sustain and create new jobs. The Gull Wing bridge over Lake Lothing in the middle of the town is nearing completion. The Beccles loop on the East Suffolk railway line has facilitated the reintroduction of an hourly service from Lowestoft to Ipswich. The Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science—the Government marine scientist agency—has new offices and a refurbished laboratory in the town. There is the energy skills centre at East Coast College. There are two heritage action zones, one focused on the High Street and the other on London Road South. In Lowestoft itself, CityFibre has installed a full-fibre broadband network. The Jubilee Parade seafront is to be redeveloped, and work is starting on the various projects in the £25 million towns deal, which will help regenerate the town centre and its surrounding area.

Private sector investment and job creation is following the seedcorn funding, with projects such as the ScottishPower Renewables operations and maintenance base in the Hamilton dock, and the Associated British Ports Lowestoft eastern energy facility. That investment is welcome, and will bring enduring and positive benefits. However, I will make a general observation on the enormous opportunity to create jobs in coastal Britain. Although there are a number of funds to support regeneration—and they are well listed—I sense that there has been a lack of strategic overview. More specifically, we have not realised the full benefit of two initiatives.

First, one of the enterprise zones set up in 2012 was the Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft enterprise zone. It has been incredibly successful in that it has created more than 2,000 skilled jobs and secured over £245,000 million-worth of inward investment. However, in Lowestoft, it is in need of some relatively minor adjustments to remove land that is not coming forward for development and replace it with land around the port that is ready for redevelopment. Unfortunately, the Government have been reluctant to sanction that change, which may well be because their focus is now on freeports and investment zones. I am due to have a meeting in the next few weeks with the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Jacob Young), who I think is the Minister with responsibility for enterprise zones, but I urge the Minister here today to reinforce that message and take it back to him.

Secondly, I go back to the coastal communities fund, which ran from 2012 to 2019. It was a great idea, but it was not set up on the right basis and has been discarded too soon. My criticism is that it provided relatively small grants scattered around the UK coast, whereas it should have focused on a smaller number of strategic regeneration projects. It was also wrong to close down the fund in 2019 and subsume it into other funds. A significant part of the income from the fund derives from the Crown Estate’s marine activities, which—in particular, the development of offshore wind farms—are providing opportunities for many coastal communities. The funds generated should be used to help the people in those areas, many of which face deprivation challenges, to realise the most of these opportunities, such as investment in skills and infrastructure.

Turning to skills, investment in education and training is vital if we are to make the most of the job opportunities that are emerging in coastal Britain. In the Waveney area, school performance has generally improved over the last decade. East Coast College is playing a vital role in enabling young and older people to acquire the skills needed in new emerging industries, and the University of East Anglia and the University of Suffolk are fully focused on the needs of local communities and the opportunities and challenges that the region faces. Challenges remain in raising overall attainment, improving special educational needs provision, and recruiting and retaining staff and teachers to work in what can be regarded as a periphery location—we come back to the problem of coastal communities being at the end of the line. An institute of technology would have provided a focus for meeting this skills challenge. It was disappointing that the local bid was not successful, and it is hoped that that omission can be corrected in the relatively near future.

In recent weeks, the threat of coastal erosion along the whole of the Suffolk and the Norfolk coast has come to the fore. It is starkly illustrated in the Lowestoft area, where the construction of the tidal barrage in the outer harbour is now on hold. The innovative Kessingland and Benacre flood defences scheme also has a funding gap, and the rapid erosion of the cliffs at Pakefield threatens not only nearby homes but Park Holidays UK’s adjoining holiday park. Proper coastal defences are vital to provide the private sector with the confidence to invest in new facilities, whether in the tourism, energy, fishing or maritime sectors.

It is not just a question of money; we need to speed up and simplify the process for assessing and approving coastal erosion and flood defence schemes. The floods budget for the six-year period from 2021 to 2027 has been doubled over the previous period to £5.2 billion. We are nearly halfway through this period; the money needs to be out of the door, and work needs to start on projects including the three I have mentioned. That will in turn leverage in the private, job-creating investment that we need.

As I mentioned, a lot of good work is taking place, but I sense that there is a need in Government for a change of mindset to view coastal areas as a great opportunity that, with the right policies and seedcorn investment, can create many well-paid and exciting jobs. Some good initiatives are being pursued, but to maximise their benefit there is a need for a strategic overview of the coast right from the heart of Government. Finally, we need proper investment in coastal defences.