Labour needs a SeaWall Taskforce to win and deliver for coastal communities

Cllr Polly Billington, Endorsed by Labour Coast & Country for South Thanet

As a child, one of our family New Year traditions was to pile into the car and drive out of South London to the coast and eat fish and chips – in the freezing cold, bright, sharp, sunlight of an English seaside town. Whether it was Brighton or Worthing, Hastings or Margate, we would sit on a bench squinting into the sun, licking salt and grease from our fingers, coming up with New Year’s resolutions. 

This year my resolution chimed with my mum’s favourite card on the shelf at home: All I want for Christmas is a Labour Government. The truth is that making that resolution a reality means more than fish and chips in seaside towns: it means an electoral strategy that integrates those coastal communities. Day trips just won’t cut it.

The recent report by the Fabians “Breaching the SeaWall” underlined what anyone who has spent time campaigning in them understands: the path to Downing Street involves some hard work in fresh sea air, some new ideas and some tough conversations. Stacking up votes in cities won’t be enough as we know, so Labour’s approach to the SeaWall could make or break the prospects of a Labour government.  And that means places like South Thanet, where the seaside towns of Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate cluster at the most eastern tip of Kent.

This is a place that is fed up with the political notoriety of being where Nigel Farage stood in 2015. It’s changing fast too, but while this change benefits some, many others are left behind.

These towns, and others like them that were in day trip reach of London in the 70s and 80s, have become places Londoners and others have more recently sought to make their home. This has changed these communities a lot, and while it offers some electoral opportunities for Labour, without an understanding of what good outcomes would look like for communities at the coast, Labour will fail to deliver for the people in seaside towns who need a Labour government most. 

A chronic housing shortage doesn’t happen by accident and has many causes, but the impact is profound. The attractions of the sea pushes up house prices, and little new house building and even less council house building plus rampant AirBnB, means that people may flee the London housing crisis only to find themselves in the middle of (and accused of causing) another one. There is understandably resistance to homes being built that won’t be affordable to local people. Labour should be unashamed about regulating to improve the private rented sector, and building council homes. 

High speed trains might help people commute into London but are often unaffordable for those on low pay, meaning even connectivity runs at different speeds. Neglected public transport, like buses, mean people can’t access jobs or services they need. People have to go a long way to get something different or better. Yes, public ownership for railways but also locally controlled buses are the very minimum Labour should commit to secure support and deliver for communities beyond the big cities. 

While people come to the seaside for the fresh air and natural beauty, many are shocked by the deprivation that hides behind the genteel frontage away from the prom. A third of children live in poverty in Thanet, and that figure is rising. That natural beauty – and the essential for life water – is also under threat, polluted for profit. There have been 4 water outages in a month in Broadstairs, and all Southern Water offers is an apology.

I could go on.  As the Fabian report, and others have highlighted, too many of these coastal towns suffer many major private and public sector failures – of policing, the welfare state, job opportunities, access to justice, and simply keeping the streets clean. Neglect is visible and feels like a direct consequence of not being considered important. 

Labour already fights on these issues in more urban and city settings, so what is stopping us from securing the support of people in coastal towns in enough numbers to deliver? 

The reality is some of the solutions will need to be different – reflecting distances, travel times, lie of the land, lower population density, and of course the impact of the sea itself on coastal towns.  Do we have the fresh ideas, the delivery know-how and the community connection to come up with solutions that could work? 

I think we do. Labour can develop policies to address connectivity, the renewal of homes and town centres, provision of decent services, as well as meeting the huge challenge of climate change.

But policy on its own is never enough. This also requires an ability to organise and connect with communities locally and connect those insights with other places where there are similar challenges. Everywhere is unique but there is much more in common than we often admit. Labour in Worthing, where we now run the council, might have something to teach Labour-by-the-sea elsewhere. Sharing knowledge is a powerful thing.

My  suggestion to help make Labour on the Coast the norm – Labour’s SeaWall Taskforce. 

This should be commissioned by Sir Keir, led by a campaigner who knows what it’s like to campaign – and win – on the coast, bringing together parliamentary candidates, CLPs and Labour councillors across our coastal towns and associated seats. It should be given some resource and priority – much like Operation Toehold before 1997 – and be part of Labour’s electoral plan, including getting candidates in place sooner than later.  And, at the centre, someone dedicated to policy, to stress test national commitments for coastal towns (“Yes but will it work by the sea?). Labour’s Coastal Commitments should be shaped by the experience of those doing the campaigning and available for all candidates to access and promote.

Thanet has experienced some of the worst and most divisive politics in this country in recent years, with UKIP and the Tories setting people against each other. Labour’s focus needs to be on what we have in common: those that have chosen to live in a coastal community and those that have always been there. There is much that unites them. It is Labour’s job to demonstrate that, against those who would prefer to set them against each other. 

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