Lord Bassam: While our seaside cities rediscover their swagger, our towns are being left behind
The decline of the British seaside is far from inevitable or a permanent feature. But we need to invest in better connectivity and a more inclusive economic model that spreads wealth and opportunity, writes Lord Bassam
We all have a fascination for the British seaside and all that goes with it; no other nation quite reveres the seaside like we do. The advent, however, of cheap charter flights and cut-price package holidays from the 1960s onwards cast a long shadow over the Victorian and Edwardian legacy of the seaside as a holiday destination of choice for UK residents. Slow to respond, many of our premier resorts went into sharp decline.
In recent years the British seaside has begun to recover its interest and allure for visitors, tourists and day trippers alike. In truth, we Brits never fell out of love with our coastline. So as a timely reminder of this, the House of Lords decided to establish one of its year-long ‘task and finish’ select committees to look at what works to regenerate seaside and coastal economies. We report next March – just in time to face the new economic realities of post-Brexit Britain.
So how is seaside Britain faring? Although too early to be definitive, it is clear that rather like the rest of the country it has something of a two-speed economy. The bigger towns and cities – Blackpool, Brighton, Bournemouth and Scarborough – have rediscovered their swagger, while the smaller towns show a mixed and more nuanced picture of recovery.
The coastal communities that struggle are part of a bigger problem and sit with other areas that have never emerged from the decline and loss of traditional industries of mining, factory-based production, manufacturing, fishing and textiles. These so-called ‘left behind’ places also feature as victims of the decline and retreat of the state as a provider of secure employment, housing through local authorities, and regulation.
Couple this with austerity budgeting and a picture emerges of parts of Britain looking very vulnerable and struggling to cope with new challenges. This is especially true of those likely to be worst affected by climate change and susceptible to flood damage and extreme weather in coastal locations. Politically these are precisely the places that voted to leave the European Union and, ironically, are likely to struggle economically with Brexit.
Our committee’s inquiry has found interesting evidence to suggest that the decline of the British seaside is far from inevitable or a permanent feature. Blackpool last year recorded a continued growth in tourist numbers with over 18 million visitor nights; Brighton logged 11 million and rising, and Bournemouth 10 million-plus. Margate, too, is experiencing an upturn, along with Skegness and Scarborough. These are statistics that rival those of the ‘glory’ years of the seaside economy during the interwar period and up to the turn of the 1970s.
So what has changed for these towns and cities, and what makes for success? Largely they benefit from the enduring love affair we have with the sea and its delights, but mostly changing patterns of holidaying. Most households now have more than one break and spend time enjoying a trip to the seaside with long weekends and visits.
In terms of the modern seaside offer, our big resorts host more events and try to find year-round attractions to draw people in with their greater spending power. The more diverse the ‘experience’ the greater the potential market coastal communities can tap into. Some also trade on sustainable tourism and activity-based attractions.
None of this should hide the fact that seaside communities like the rest of Britain are suffering from chronic economic inequality, underemployment, poor skills training and low educational aspirations. One thing holding back even the most successful of our seaside towns and cities is a poor perception of the hospitality industry as a place to work and learn.
Finding the right formula to generate a more successful seaside community is complex. Stunningly successful projects like the Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate, the Tate St Ives or the revamped Blackpool seafront and modernised tram system show what can be done with imagination and investment in public and private concerns. But none of this can disguise the need for a more inclusive economic model that looks to spread wealth and opportunity more fairly to coastal communities.
I suspect our committee will look at how we get better connectivity between the successful city regions that act as the hinterlands to the coast. That may well mean we look afresh at transport links, making decisive economic interventions to aid coastal communities, the distribution of educational opportunities and poor-quality housing no longer fit for its original holidaying purpose.
The Lords Select Committee isn’t ducking the tough questions and we won’t avoid asking hard questions of government locally and nationally in leading the renaissance of one of our country’s great defining characteristics – a love of the seaside.
Lord Bassam of Brighton is a Labour peer and chair of the Lords Committee on Regenerating Seaside Towns and Communities