There is much to criticise in the government’s levelling up fund and its outrageous bias towards Conservative constituencies, not least the prime minister’s own. But there is one decision I applaud without reservation: the £50m pledged to bring the Eden Project eco-tourist attraction to Morecambe.
To understand why, we must return to 1993, when the Guardian dispatched a travel writer to the Lancashire riviera. Her verdict was brutal. “I wanted to say, sod the nuclear plants and the sewage, Morecambe Bay is still beautiful. Go green. Take a train to Morecambe. Skip those contrived heritage towns. Come and wallow in genuine Thirties style. But I can’t. Because Morecambe in the Nineties is a dump,” wrote Alison Rice.
I was 12 then, and had just started at Morecambe high school, one block from the windy promenade. It was a funny time to grow up beside the seaside. Cheap flights were yet to take off but package holidays had long since diverted middle-class visitors to sunnier climes, and so Morecambe had become a tourist destination for people who couldn’t afford to go anywhere else.
In 1993 Mr Blobby beat Take That to the Christmas No 1. In 1994, Noel Edmonds persuaded the local council that Morecambe’s beloved Happy Mount Park would be the perfect location for Crinkley Bottom, a Mr Blobby theme park. Blobbyland, as we all called it, lasted just seven weeks before closing its doors. It reportedly cost local taxpayers £2m after a protracted legal battle, during which councillors took Edmonds to task for such crimes as “the quality of the ‘Blobby suit’”.
The mid-90s also saw the arrival of the Polo Tower at Frontierland, a wild west-inspired theme park on the seafront where I had my first date, holding hands on the slippery slip. Essentially a giant advert for mints, its viewing platform promised visitors panoramic views across Morecambe Bay to the Lakeland hills. We thought it was rubbish. Nonetheless, the Polo Tower outlasted Frontierland, which closed in 1999, the year I left the Lancashire coast for good, and it lived out its final days as a mobile phone mast in disguise.
Across from Frontierland was Bubbles, a swimming pool with a fiendish wave machine, rumoured to have once ensnared a girl whose hair got stuck in the filters when she forgot her bobble. That was bulldozed too, along with the neighbouring Dome, where I saw my first proper gig (Blur, 1994).
With the notable exceptions of the much-loved statue of Eric Morecambe, unveiled by the Queen in 1999, and the art deco Midland Hotel, which reopened after a major revamp in 2008, the Morecambe of my lifetime has been a place that has lost, rather than gained. That’s why I throw usual journalistic cynicism to one side to welcome the Eden Project to the Bubbles site.
Four years after first asking the government for money, Lancaster city council has been given £50m to put a Lancastrian twist on the Cornish original. Housed under four mussel-shaped domes, the educational attraction promises to “reimagine the British seaside resort for the 21st century” via “groundbreaking immersive experiences that encourage visitors to be curious about the natural world”. If they can raise another £50m, it should open by 2026.
When it was first mooted in 2019, a local Labour councillor told me he would be willing to “do a deal with the devil” to get it done. Four years later, the devil has delivered. He arrived on the promenade on Thursday in the form of Rishi Sunak, who heralded Eden Project Morecambe as “a true example of levelling up in action”.
Roll your eyes all you like. This stuff will win the Tories votes, at least in Morecambe, where the incumbent, David Morris, currently has a 6,354 lead over Labour. That said, it remains to be seen whether an Eden bounce will return him to parliament when his constituents’ mortgages have soared and they can’t afford to heat their homes.
As a strategy for winning over the whole nation, however, it is laughably poor. Lavishing goodies on target constituencies while ignoring the unwinnable ones is a bad look, like a parent who doesn’t even try to hide which child is their favourite. Not just that, but pitting councils against each other in a rigged contest decided by faceless bureaucrats in London is centralisation of the worst kind.
Still: I can’t wait for my Morecambe Eden.
Helen Pidd is North of England editor of the Guardian