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Our declining coastal communities need economic transformation

Blackpool Pleasure Beach (Alamy)

3 min read

England's coastal communities are in crisis.

The symptoms of decline in coastal areas are obvious: they are poorer, sicker, more crime-ridden and poorly housed than the rest of the country. The first step to solving these problems is to understand them. The first political party that does and comes up with a plan to address them can win a big political prize in the next election.

New research by Onward exposes the scale of England's coastal decline.

Average incomes are £2,800 lower than inland areas. Some areas are even further behind, like the South East, where the income gap is £4,600. Crime rates are 12% higher, with tourist hotspots like North Devon seeing 151% more offences than inland. Early, preventable deaths are 15% more likely on the coast. And housing is older and of worse quality.

Previous attempts to address these problems have failed to tackle the three root causes of the coast's decline: industry, seasonality, and demography.

The coast is 10% less productive than inland, and its economy is growing more slowly.

Part of this is due to its industry mix. The share of jobs in tourism is 25% - which are largely low-skilled and low-wage - compared to only a fifth inland. And while tourism offers a welcome boost to coastal economies throughout summer, it also brings with it social and economic challenges. Holiday homes mean a dwindling supply of housing for local people. The wave of tourism creates a summertime spike in crime and brings jobs more likely to be temporary and insecure. With fewer career prospects and little hope of finding a home, talented young people go elsewhere, leaving behind an older and sicker population.

The fortunes of coastal communities cannot be turned around overnight. But by focusing on these three underlying challenges, the government can start to reverse coastal decline.

Coastal areas must find a new economic purpose and shift their local economies away from unproductive sectors and low-level occupations. A few places have already started - South Tyneside is investing in offshore wind - but they need more help.

A new coastal economy transformation programme would commit up to £500 million to local leaders in three to five areas to help them grow the economy, build infrastructure and improve skills. The government should model the programme on the successful public-private partnerships in the USA, which revived the economic fortunes of deindustrialised and distressed cities.

A coastal surge fund is also needed to help embattled seaside police forces who can't cope when tourists descend en masse in the summer. Resources should be put directly in the hands of Police and Crime Commissioners to build seasonal resilience and reduce crime, benefiting residents and tourists.

There are too few clinical staff along the coast despite a higher rate of early, preventable deaths. A loan forgiveness scheme for medical students would help attract and retain healthcare workers in these communities. The government should cover their student loan repayments for as long as they continue to work at coastal NHS trusts, alleviating acute staffing pressures.

These steps are needed to bring the coast onto a more sustainable path.

If they do not, the political penalty will be huge.

Coastal communities are political bellwethers. At every election in the last four decades, the winning party has secured a higher proportion of seats on the coast than across the country. This forgotten electoral battleground will be decisive in the next election - both parties must give the coast a reason to believe in them.

Jenevieve Treadwell is a senior researcher at Onward.

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