The Lords Select Committee on ‘The Future of Seaside Towns’ paints a familiar picture of what can happen to communities that get left behind in a two speed economy. Many of us watched in the 80’s as the Thatcher government ruthlessly deconstructed the industrial economy through a mix of privatisation, state disinvestment and plant closures. Taken together with a weakening of the unions left many former coal, steel and manufacturing centres purposeless and hollowed out. Change had to come but no thought was given to how the economy in these old productive centres could be reimagined and given a new economic purpose.
The fate of seaside communities could be seen as similar. In part of course their decline is linked to the change in the UK’s economic base and wider changes in peoples leisure and holiday choices. What we cannot afford to do is ignore those changes and the challenge they pose to our towns and cities. For that reason the issues covered in the recent House of Lords report are urgent.
What we found were communities that were disconnected by road and rail, and places that had poor digital connectivity too. This is a modern deprivation putting educational opportunity, business growth and service delivery at major disadvantage. Communities living on the edge that suffer from poor transport links are less attractive particularly to the younger economically more active part of the population.
Similarly they make studying and training harder too. If you live in Cornwall, Lincolnshire or parts of Yorkshire you face long slow often expensive journey’s just to access schools, colleges and universities. Little wonder then that since 2012 there has been a drop of some 27% of young people coming from these coastal communities into higher and further education. If I coastal communities are to have a future we need to tackle the question of access to the knowledge economy and our digital future. One solution will of course be to rethink what and how get the most from distance learning. A sector that has experienced the full blast of austerity cuts in the last ten years.
Our report calls for an array of remediation measures. These include the development of local industrial strategies, enterprise zones, town deals and a fair distribution of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund when it replaces EU regional funding. WE call for local councils leadership role to be encouraged along with a strengthening of the Local Economic Partnerships and new freedoms to raise capital for longer term infrastructure investment. Along the way while we acknowledge the value of the Coastal Communities fund we call for its reform and expansion.
One area where seaside communities are beginning to score well is in trying to bring renewed investment to the arts and cultural sector. Arts led regeneration in a number of areas has had a transformative effect, bringing new money and opportunities to places as different as Folkestone, Margate and St Ives. It cannot be a solution for all but it does show what can be done with a decisive intervention.
So what about the politics of the seaside? Are these communities that have left behind and feel ignored? There is some evidence of this and certainly our visits gave us that impression. With the exception of Brighton most voted Brexit in 2016. Given the decline of the local economies they form part of, and the retreat of public and private services supporting peripheral areas it is unsurprising that they did. They have this in common with many small towns and rural areas. Our proposals go some way towards addressing their concerns. This is however only part of the story, the decline of the seaside, its communities and it’s aspirations have been long in the making. Turning the seaside as the wonderful asset it is into a more inclusive part of national story will take time and a programme of investment and nurturing beyond the tempting quick fix Governments often favour.