I HAVE long argued about the need to diversify our economy and end our over reliance on seasonal low value employment, but that doesn’t mean abandoning tourism.
Far from it, there is still an expanding sector within the global tourism economy Torbay could be a part of.
High quality leisure and entertainment complexes are a growing part of the industry. These can be mobile, such as on cruise ships, or permanent features on land.
At their base will be quality and characteristic accommodation, excellent varied cuisine, high end retail, family and adult entertainment, leisure facilities, and for the larger complexes conference and exhibition space.
Imagine such a complex in Torbay, funded by private investment, accommodating between 1,500 and 5,000 visitors, operating 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year, creating several thousand permanent jobs directly and many others indirectly, offering other attractions and businesses in the Bay potential new customers when coaxed away from the complex.
Contrast this with the elected mayor’s plan to use taxpayers’ money to accommodate visiting cruise ships.
Since the suggestion of a third harbour was published in this paper, it has become the first unprompted topic of conversation for just about everyone I have spoken to in the Bay.
From shop assistants to shop owners, business people to council officers, not one had a positive word to say about it. Even a senior councillor told me the idea was daft, but his Conservative colleagues couldn’t persuade the mayor to drop it.
I suspect if I were to venture into Brixham the reaction would be even more opposed given the good people there have waited several decades for a northern arm at a 10th of the cost that could fulfil many of the things claimed for a third harbour wall at Torquay.
But is the idea as daft as everyone says, given there are very few others on the table that aim to create jobs and make use of our biggest natural asset, the Bay?
The case for a third harbour is built on three main arguments: 1) it would allow cruise ships to moor alongside and potentially attract more cruise ships as a consequence; 2) it will allow the creation of more marina space; 3) it will offer some extra protection for the existing harbour and waterfront against coastal erosion.
The economic benefits are based mostly on the first two arguments that it is claimed would bring an extra £2.6million and 150 jobs to the area. That might sound a lot, but it is about the same as how much Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer pay in business rates at The Willows, and fewer than either employ there.
Sadly for the proponents of the idea there is in my view a fatal flaw in their calculations that passengers would disembark and patronise local shops, bars and restaurants. Modern cruise ships have an array of retail units created to match the needs of the passenger, with offers to ensure they maximise their spend on-board rather than onshore.
Certainly when cruise line passengers are tendered into town they may well have to take refreshment in town before the tender leaves to take them back, but when the ship is moored to the harbour wall and they have already paid for their meals on board as part of their tariff, where will they go when they feel hungry, or it rains?
The extra protection from a new wall would certainly be beneficial, but this harbour isn’t going to protect the northern coastline of Torquay, where coastal erosion has already led to loss of valuable beach access with little prospect of affected beaches reopening without millions being spent.
I believe t is cost that will ultimately defeat this proposal. At an outlay of between £125million and £175million from tax-payers and council borrowing, the third harbour would cost more than the bypass, which only just secured after 50 years of hard effort.
It is also very doubtful that such a proposal would qualify for either European or UK Government funding as the main beneficiaries will be private companies running cruise ships and such a scheme would fall foul of competition law.
At a time when the mayor is cutting services to the vulnerable, I ask if it is sensible to spend £600,000 on a study he could conduct at no cost by talking to businesses and residents.
I said at the time of the mayoral election we needed a mayor for all the people, not just the haves and have yachts.
Surely it would be better to look at developing a new private sector funded resort complex on land offering all the facilities of a big cruise ship. It could accommodate a conference and exhibition centre which would reduce our subsidy to the Riviera International Conference Centre.
Depending on the size, we could create thousands of new all-year-round jobs in the Bay, and generate even more business for Torbay’s other attractions from the thousands of new visitors in the Bay every day rather than when a cruise ship chose to visit or the weather allowed it to moor.
An on-land facility would probably generate more in business rates alone than the financial benefits the mayor is claiming for his harbour idea, and all without burdening generations as yet unborn with crippling debts.