Levelling up: Torquay fears losing out to former ‘red wall’ areas
It might be grim up north, but it’s no picnic in some areas of the south-west as Torquay’s leaders insist the seasonal nature of local jobs and a shortage of social housing make the town equally deserving of investment, writes Kate Proctor
It was once a glamorous holiday resort where the stars of the 1960s would spend their summers, but despite the palm trees and miles of stunning golden sand, the resort of Torquay – and the wider area of Torbay it inhabits – is suffering problems more commonly discussed in connection to “left-behind” northern towns.
Those issues: low wages, a brain-drain to cities, a lack of good quality jobs and aspiration, an ageing population as well as child poverty, are felt just as keenly in the south-west as they are in former “red wall” areas.
Part of the English Riviera – which gets more hours of sunshine than anywhere else in the UK – the town has suffered from decades of neglect, not to mention the reputational damage done by the TV series Fawlty Towers (inspired by an eccentric Torquay hotelier).
But despite its struggles, the area is trying to reinvent itself as both a tourist destination and a town fit for the new century. If “levelling up” is about improving infrastructure, then it’s ticking a lot of boxes. It recently received £22m from the government’s Towns Fund to improve the harbour, a local park and the crumbling pavilion. It’s getting a new train station at Edginswell paid for by £8m from the New Stations Fund.
If the government is looking to spread its estate elsewhere in the country, it needs to not all be looking north
Five years ago the Kingskerswell bypass opened, which has taken hours off journey times to nearby Newton Abbot. The Singapore-based Fragrance Group is looking to open a multimillion-pound five-star spa hotel on the site of the derelict Palace Hotel. A £400m rebuild of Torbay hospital is under way.
Steve Darling, the Liberal Democrat leader of Torbay council, is adamant that new opportunities are needed if the place is to level up, but they must be year-round to balance out seasonal tourism-based work. The town is trying to reposition itself as a more middle-class holiday destination so the part-time, evening and weekend work will endure. However, he finds it frustrating the north gets so much attention when it comes to highly paid civil service jobs.
“It is an extreme worry of ours that there does seem to be this focus [on the north]. We’re hearing about part of the Treasury being located near Leeds, and actually in the West Country we need that investment of potential government departments being relocated here.
“If the government is looking to spread its estate elsewhere in the country, it needs to not all be looking north,” he said.
“The peripherality of seaside resorts is always a challenge. We need all-year-round jobs, and while we need to repurpose the tourist industry so that it’s covering the shoulder months, we’ve got to make sure other strains of our economy are thriving.”
Torquay does have a nearby electronics and photonics industry, which Darling described as being “bomb-proof” during Covid in terms of stability. South Devon College, which is given high praise, has laid on the exact electronic engineering courses needed to work in the field, and it also specialises in healthcare.
The Conservative MP for Torbay, Kevin Foster, agrees that part of levelling up must be creating a cycle from early years and into skilled, locally based work.
He said he wants to see a “pattern in the bay” of taking a child into nursery, perhaps from a family that’s had challenges, going on to primary and secondary school, and then making a seamless transition to college.
“It’s creating that little flow that we hope then creates some really talented people coming out the door. That is part of the levelling up agenda,” he said.
Other things that will unlock Torquay’s potential in the future are significant infrastructure spends, such as the Dawlish sea wall to protect the trainline from the destruction of powerful waves.
He jokes: “To see when the trains are running you have to check the tide times and the shipping forecast, as well as the train timetable … it’s not really the best message for investment into the region.”
However, despite the enviable spending on infrastructure, and a clear vision and symmetry between local leaders and educational institutions on upskilling young people, poverty levels are high. Torbay is the most deprived local authority in the south-west and one in three people in the area live in places that are in the top 20% most deprived in England.
It also has the second highest number of “looked after children” in England – only Blackpool is higher. Darling says children’s services have historically drained the council’s budget, though there may be a £7m underspend this year, and his council’s strapline is “turning the tide on poverty”.
Why are the levels so high? Insecure work, potentially. The seasonal nature of local jobs in the tourism industry means incomes can be unreliable and fluctuate throughout the year. There is also a shortage of social housing – less than half the amount of social rented housing available compared to the rest of England.
“What happens is the private sector steps in. While the majority are good landlords you do get some not-so-good landlords, and therefore you end up with a bit of a bedsit land,” said Darling.
Domestic violence rates recorded in 2019 were the highest in the south-west, and even higher than some London boroughs. The number of children on free school meals increased 20% since the pandemic started. On top of this, by 2030 one in three of the population will be 65 or over.
There needs to be investment in communities to get young people ready to be economically active
Jonathan Oliverio, chief executive officer of the Youth Genesis Trust, a youth work organisation typically working with more than 200 young people across the region a week, said the levels of looked after children are high, historically because a number of so-called “troubled families” were moved into the area under the misguided premise that living by the sea would be enough in itself to turn people’s lives around. There remains some quite entrenched deprivation and he said there are children in Torquay who will have not even visited the beach.
He said: “We talk about levelling up towns so there’s better and stronger economy, but it’s then about getting people there. A lot of people we work with struggle with their mental health and self-esteem. It’s coping with living with overcrowded housing. Aspirations are quite low.
“In terms of levelling up, as well as having a town plan, it’s a community plan that’s needed. Economic regeneration is great but I also think there needs to be some investment in communities to get those young people to the point where they are ready to be economically active.”
A tangible improvement would be affordable bus fares and a more frequent service, particularly the number 12 that crosses Torbay, he said. Sometimes the barriers to levelling up are smaller than anyone realises, he suggests.
“One of the things young people say is this affording to get around Torbay on a dayrider ticket. Having a really good road system is great but unless you can afford a car, it’s meaningless. This would be levelling up – more affordable transport,” he said.
Foster, who was elected as MP for Torbay (which covers Torquay and Paignton) in 2015, believes part of levelling up could be the relocation of jobs from London – the type that can be done from a laptop at home. Helpfully, the area has had decent broadband for several years.
He said: “This gives some real opportunities for high-value roles, and high-value people, not to spend two hours getting into the office. Or paying extortionate rent for a small flat because it happens to be around the corner from a particular location.
“You can work for your firm in London or as part of the civil service. Then shut your laptop down on a summer evening, 5 o’clock, and head out to Paignton beach.”
But even though “levelling up” is common government parlance, do local people really feel their area might be finding itself on an equal footing with the rest of the south-west, or other parts of the UK?
“I think it’s a bit of a turning point,” Foster said, with digging now under way at a Towns Fund project at Upton Park.
“Most people are a little cynical because there’s been numerous claims over previous times, and on a lot of funding streams pre-2010, Torbay didn’t normally feature very highly. [People think] is this just a flash in the pan.
“But there’s certainly a sense of things changing.”