The House of Lords report on ‘The Future of Seaside Towns’ published 18 months ago seems almost as relevant today as it did then. Much has happened in the intervening period. The Government announcement launching the Town Deals Fund in July 2019 with a 101 places invited to apply for up to £26m being a big event. Cynics might say it was an electoral gambit, perhaps it was but the funds are nevertheless welcome.
The list included plenty of seaside towns our enquiry focused on Penzance, St Ives, Whitby, Scarborough, Skegness, Blackpool and Margate among them. Others missed out like Clacton and Fleetwood somewhat to our surprise. The evidence we amassed made a strong case to tackle long term issues of disconnection, poor services, low levels of educational attainment, missing digital inclusivity and declining public realm.
The biggest impact on these communities since we reported of course is Coronavirus. There is now plenty of evidence to suggest that the UK’s left behind communities are going to suffer the most during the pandemic, further exacerbating the long-term trends of decline. The Covid lockdown had perhaps the most dramatic and sometimes most visual impact on seaside towns.
Communities relying on the summer boost to their economy lost half a summer. Then when it did arrive the nation suffered a ‘moral panic’ when people relaxed and flocked to previously empty beaches only to find all the tourist outlets unable to service their needs. We had the seemingly perverse reaction from places asking visitors not to visit and law enforcement trying to clear overflowing beaches and enforce social distancing.
When relaxation of the rules did finally arrive many traditional seaside resorts were ill prepared and struggled to make their traditional ‘offer’ match its promise. Some resorts reported a late surge in bookings and a mini boom in the staycation market stimulated largely in response to European travel restrictions and a patchwork of quarantine arrangements. The understandable nervousness in most EU countries of UK residents visiting when Covid had not been brought under control seems justified now that the second wave has taken off with record infection rates.
So where does this leave the left behind seaside communities? What sort of future will they face in the medium and long term?
For the immediate future much depends on how effective control measures are and where and when they are applied. The staycation boom may well take off again next year as uncertainty continues for the more ambitious travel plans people make usually between now and the early new year period.
How well our seaside communities can cope with its impact will be determined by how well the hospitality sector weathers the ‘stop’ ‘start’ nature of the Governments control measures. There is little doubt now that many of the hotels, pubs and restaurants that service visitors will go to the wall and be lost to the economy. It is not yet clear too what the effect on overseas will be of Covid and Brexit taken together.
However the Lords Report and findings were about much more than tourism and coastal areas. Our ambition was to stimulate a broader national debate about the value of the seaside beyond its bracing seafront. These are for the most part communities left out of the richness of the UK’s successful city regions. We made the case for increased investment, greater connectivity, statement place making that draws a younger demographic back to the coast and exploits those elements of its delights that are sustainable environmentally.
Covid in a perverse way makes the case for this even stronger. The Government has acknowledged the problem through the towns fund but has yet to come up with more than temporary solutions. The unevenness of the town deal programme and the lack of a national strategy behind its use will hamper the economic recovery of seaside towns. The investment itself is too patchy.
We have yet to understand what the UK Shared Prosperity Fund will bring by way of replacement funding for EU grants to our poorer regions. This at least provides a route away from arbitrary investment plans and might enable a fairer distribution of funding to depressed seaside economies. However, it will have to be more ambitious than the relatively small scale capital projects envisaged by the towns fund. This will inevitably be used to cover off public realm improvements, but are unlikely to bring the transformative change seaside communities recovering from Covid urgently need.