28 Oct 2015 : Column 158WH
James Heappey (Wells) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) on securing this important debate. I should declare a new interest, because I was recently appointed the chair of the all-party group for the UK events industry. This is a hugely important debate. I say that not only in my capacity as the chair of the all-party group, but as the MP for Wells. I have the pleasure of having the Mendip hills, the Somerset coast and the Somerset levels in my constituency.
There is enormous economic benefit to be had from outdoor recreation, and there are enormous health and wellbeing benefits as well. As a former Army officer who organised plenty of adventurous training for his troops, I would add that there are also values that come from outdoor recreation, which we should note in this debate: confidence, independence and a respect for nature and the environment.
The tourism industry in Somerset is worth £1.3 billion per annum. Some £623 million of that is made from day-trippers. Some come for the food and drink, some for the shopping and some for the attractions. Many of those are outdoors, such as Cheddar gorge and Wookey Hole. Many people come for the hills, the coast, the waterways and the caves. That is a hugely important part of our economy, and it is important that the Government support it.
The hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) said that nearly a quarter of a million people go hillwalking and climbing every month. That is worth £2.3 billion a year to the UK economy. I am therefore pleased to support the Walkers are Welcome campaign in Cheddar, and another that is getting under way in Burnham-on-Sea. Those will be really important initiatives as we seek locally not only to access some of the £2.3 billion walking and climbing economy, but to grow it by opening those activities up to new participants.
I make a plea to the Minister to push on with the investment in the south-west coat path. From the numbers I have seen, I understand that it might cost barely £500,000 a year to maintain, but that it would generate £435 million of economic activity. Those are encouraging statistics, which I hope the Minister recognises.
There are more activities beyond climbing and walking, all of which are worthy of mention. There are active cycling and sporting activities communities in my constituency and across Somerset. There is mountain biking, caving, sailing, pony trekking, fishing, canoeing and all sorts of other things besides. All those activities are relatively inexpensive for the Government or local authorities to support. Invariably the equipment is owned by individuals, clubs or businesses, but the Government and local government can play a role in meeting the small cost of marking routes, helping to market those activities and providing support, for example through local authorities’ various economic development and tourism departments, so that we recognise the outdoor recreation offering and promote it to the best of our abilities. If there is a way of incentivising businesses and clubs to commercialise further what they do, so that they can grow those industries, all the better.
When individuals or families come to Somerset to cycle, walk, climb or cave, that is great—that is two, three or four people who will buy a meal and perhaps stay overnight. However, the events industry is hugely important. When the Ten Tors is taking place on Dartmoor, every bed and breakfast and hotel is full; when the Three Peaks is going on, there is business across Wales, the Lake District and Scotland. Regularly, in my part of Somerset, there are amateur cycling sportives, which bring hundreds of cyclists from across the south-west to thrash themselves up Cheddar gorge—I know not why, but they do, and they spend money once they have finished. Such events matter enormously to communities and economies across the country, and I am keen to be an advocate for all they offer in my role as the chair of the all-party group.
It is important to mention the vital role played by search and rescue organisations, many of which are voluntary. In my constituency, the members of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, the Burnham area rescue boat, the coastguard, the cave rescue and the Mendip mountain search and rescue teams all make a commitment to keeping people safe without being paid, and they turn up at all hours of the day and night, in all weathers and in all terrains to do so. I admire them greatly for all that they do, and it is important, as we speak about the value of outdoor recreation to our economy, that we recognise that those people underpin others’ ability to pursue outdoor sports.
I commend to the Minister—I am sure she has already seen it—the “Reconomics” report, which is an excellent study of what outdoor recreation could mean for our economy. Outdoor recreation is hugely important financially and for our public health. As I said earlier, it is also about giving people values—independence, confidence and a respect for nature and the countryside. This is a pan-Government issue, and it would be great to see DEFRA working with the Minister to make sure that our AONBs, national parks and other areas of countryside and coast are properly resourced to meet the needs of the outdoor recreation industry. The bottom line is that we will get back far more than we spend, so this debate is hugely important, and I hope it means the Government will invest in this vital industry.