1. News of 4 new rail strike dates 13-14, 16-17 December and 2-3, 6-7 January (essential two one week periods of disruption13 -18 Dec and 2 -8 Jan) and an overtime ban between 18 December and 2 January involving 40k RMT members and impacting directly on 14 train operating companies, serves to heap further pressure on already pressed retail, hospitality, leisure and tourism industries, over the critical pre-Christmas and New Year retail shopping period, and both the domestic festive hospitality and domestic tourism Christmas and New Year holidays. There will also be unwelcome visitor economy related impacts arising from a loss of still shaky commuter driven business and many travel related, staffing issues within the visitor economy itself. Rail is not of course ubiquitous but in those many places it does touch, in particular but not exclusively towns and Cities, it is a major driver of footfall, visitor numbers and, therefore, all manner of face-to-face economic activity. Recent pandemic inspired attitudinal changes now means that the cancellation of travel arrangement, for example, working from home, rather than battling through by other means, is now a far more accepted and logical response to any abnormal barrier to routine or indeed leisure travel.
While negations are ongoing and a suspension of the strikes are always a possibility, the likelihood of an early resolution of the underlying issues seem somewhat remote. The dispute is not simply about the headline wage claim but among other things: guarantees around retention of certain roles, manning levels, terms and conditions, pensions, job numbers and the avoidance of compulsory redundancies. We know from the content of the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail (2021), the creation Great British Railway as the new state owned company to oversee all rail transport in GB and their transitional team’s recent Whole Industry 30-year Strategy consultation, that the complex subsidised train operating franchise system, the separate rail infrastructure management arrangements and the not insubstantial pre-pandemic subsidy levels are all being reformed. This is a direct result of pandemic triggered and now still ongoing changes to previously well-establish and, until 2020, growing rail usage and improving revenue patterns.
Either, major adjustments are going to have to be made to reduce costs and/or raise revenues, or Government are going to have to accept the need to continue to subsides the existing complex mixed semi-privatised, semi-public sector owned, operated and controlled GB rail network, and all at a significantly higher cost to the public purse than it was pre the advent of covid-19. Whichever side of the argument between the workforce, train operators and Government your sympathies fall, it is now indisputable that at some point, something or someone is going to have to give ground.
The immediate and future fortunes our railways are a critical short, medium and long-term concern for tourism. Businesses can’t afford the fragile post-covid-19 recovery, already seriously threatened by a new and as if not more serious cost of living crisis, to take a potentially avoidable further knock over the key 2022/23 festive season. Nor can we afford to see this dispute rumble on, as it could, well into and beyond the main 2023 season; a domestic season that will almost certainly be one of the most difficult in living memory, due to a combination of: its proximity to the previous major crisis, spiralling business input costs, staff shortages, reduced discretionary disposable income, suppressed consumer demand and, let’s be frank, the continued, unexpectedly strong return of competition for the domestic tourism pound from domestic outbound market. The latter should now be viewed as a genuinely worrying import/export issue for HMG, particularly in a post BREXIT environment.
Beyond 2023, in an industry that is utterly reliant on the desire, the will and ability of the consumer to travel to the product to consume it and, faced with a perceived, urgent need to move away from fossil fuels and towards greater use of electric vehicles and in particular public transport, of which rail is by far the largest single domestic mass mover, we have an obvious vested interest. A vested interest in ensuring that rail in Great Britain retains the capacity, frequency, reliability, quality and the affordability necessary to sustain domestic tourism, retail, hospitality leisure and all those businesses that make up the ubiquitous, visitor economy in communities across the UK. Uncertainties around when and, in some circles even if, Great British Railways will take over, over-all management and control of almost all rail transport in GB is problematic, especially in current circumstances. The announcement by the then Secretary of State on 19 October, a week before the current Secretary of State for Transport was appointed, that the planned 2024 date for GBR to take control, would not now be met, due to a lack of Parliamentary time, is not really helping build the necessary confidence that there is a robust, properly resourced plan in place.
2. The Caravan and Camping Club have released a new report on the lifestyle and wellbeing benefits arising from camping. Produced by John Moores and Sheffield Hallam University its a fairly weighty piece of research that demonstrates that the benefits of camping go well beyond the traditional view that it is more affordable form of holiday making. For initial purpose it may suffice simply to read the summary at paragraph 1.4 at page 6. The report may be useful when assessing proposals to develop or support camping-based proposals. The full report and an abridged web version has been added to the BritishDestinations.net research library: https://britishdestinations.net/research-and-statistics/
3. Hot off the press Ministers have, as expected, announced that the “North East England will pilot a new £2.25 million scheme to restructure tourism boards” NewcastleGateshead Initiative will lead a partnership with Visit County Durham and Visit Northumberland in a 2/3 multi year agreement totalling £2.25m. Major boost for North East tourism as region is chosen for initiative to increase visitor numbers – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk) . It is worth reading the short announcement to remind ourselves what it is that Government are now aiming to achieve in England, rather than what we might have thought we gleaned from the original review’s recommendations, the Governments belated response to it, VE’s emerging implementation plans and/or the various views and interpretations that may have developed in the intervening period. It easy to lose sight of what is or isn’t planned, what it hopes to achieve and the implications, if any, for those that inevitably fall outside perimeters of the model being proposed and developed.
4. I have become aware that a number of additional hotels have been taken over in recent days and weeks to house asylum seekers, particularly, I believe in South, South East of England. This appears to have been a potential knee jerk reaction to the well-publicised problems of overcrowding at Manston and the spotlight this had cast on current numbers of asylum seekers arriving, inadequate accommodation arrangements, slow application assessment processes, backlog of decisions and problem with removal of those whose applications fail. The problem which is being reported to me is that it is being alleged that whole, or potentially more problematically part hotels, have been taken over at no notice and without any consultation with local authorities, NHS or other key services providers. This means that no provision has not been made for those services and no arrangements have been put in place to manage often locally contentious issues arising. Blindsiding key local agencies by national agencies apparently set only in resolving their immediate problems (embarrassment?) is at best unacceptable at worst it will leave local agencies unable to provide the appropriate care and potentially serve to ferment otherwise avoidable local tensions, among local residents and/or visitors.
In the medium-term (I.E. before the start of the 2023 season) the Home Office and its contractors have to be persuaded to recognise the unpalatable but unescapable truth that housing asylum seekers in hotels within recognised tourism destinations (often in the core tourism areas) has a significant detrimental impact on the wider visitor economy, which will ultimately cost HMG dearly. Asylum seekers are unable to work, they are unable spend and contribute to the local economy at a similar level as the visitors they will be displacing from hotels during the holiday season. Most controversially of all, however sympathetic to their plight the majority of holiday makers might be they do not in general expect to share their accommodation or its surrounding attractions with noticeable numbers of non-holiday makers. Housing asylum seekers in tourism destination with limited local services and inflated visitor demands doesn’t help asylum seekers and it doesn’t help the locals, visitors or critically the local visitor economy. While individual hotel owner might see this as money for old rope in difficult times, the wellbeing of the wider visitor economy and the destination’s survival during what is already likely to be a difficult year or more to come must be considered. There are categories of hotel and, in particular, typical hotel location where the visitors have only limited impact, positive or negative on the immediate local visitor economy and it is to these that the Home Office should now be looking.
It gives me no pleasure to raise these difficult and potentially contentious issue on behalf of some members but someone unfortunately must and I realise that at the local level that doing so is even more difficult that it is for me. If any other members have valid concerns that they wish to share with me, in confidence if necessary and that you would wish to see raised at a higher level, then please let me know ASAP.