What is it about the British and the seaside? So many Britons, especially older ones, cling on to an outdated romantic idea of halcyon summers past, spent walking along the promenade, sunning themselves on deckchairs, taking the sea air to the sound of a never-ending clatter of buckets and spades and children shrieking in the water.
Today’s reality is a colder, harsher one. Each year, fewer people visit those favourite old haunts during the summer, and for those who live in seaside towns all year round, the lack of footfall results in fewer jobs and fewer opportunities.
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“People struggle here, it’s a long old winter, mate,” Gaz told me in Blackpool. He was hawking a magazine called Gag Mag– operated on a similar principle to the Big Issue– on the stretch of the promenade between the town’s north and south piers. “People come here for the day and think, ‘Oh, what a nice place; everyone must be buzzing… All it is [is] zero-hours contracts.”
That was back in 2016, when I spent six bleak weeks living in Blackpool. I was already familiar with the difficulties of down-at-heel coastal towns having grown up in a small seaside town called Burnham-on-Sea, a sort of second-rate Blackpool on the South West coast. They had their differences, but they also had important similarities. Social breakdown was rife and drugs ubiquitous.
Little has changed. Drugs are still a massive problem and seaside towns have the highest rates of heroin deaths in England. I tried heroin at the age of 16, on the day my friends and I collected our GCSE results. We had flunked badly, and the future looked bleak. I guess we had hit the bottom: there seemed little point to anything anymore, and the drugs were simply an escape from reality, a chemical palliative to blot out the gnawing sense of despair and alienation.
There were three of us there that day. One of them was sectioned in his early 20s with paranoid schizophrenia after using cannabis. I have seen him only a handful of times since. The other went to prison aged 18. I was luckier; I got out.
I left some years after, along with a few of my friends, to go to university. None of us returned. To get ahead, you had to get away. Today, the lack of opportunity is still patently obvious, with jobs concentrated in the retail and service sectors. The number of people without qualifications there is higher than the national level.
It’s worse in Weston-super-Mare, just down the road from Burnham. In its heyday it hosted David Bowie and Pink Floyd at the Winter Gardens. These days, it is lucky to see second-rate tribute acts. In 2015, it ranked fifth in the country for people receiving Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) for a drug problem. According to figures from 2018, just under 6,000 children in the town live in poverty. The local North Somerset council is trying its best to play to Weston’s strengths, purchasing 24 beach huts in 2015 for the seafront at a cost of £65,000. However, even during the summer months most of the beach huts lie empty and unwanted.
These three towns are emblematic of many of our coastal resorts, most of which are suffering from deprivation, high rates of unemployment and low rates of pay, poor transportation, high levels of drug abuse and poor social mobility (West Somerset, which contains the coastal town of Minehead, is the lowest ranked district in the whole of the country in the Social Mobility Index).
The donkey rides, carousels and pink sticks of rock hide a multitude of problems. In Blackpool, a process of ‘regeneration’ has started, in an attempt to drag the town into the 21stcentury. The plan, according to locals, is to give Blackpool a “dynamic feel”. Hundreds of millions of pounds has been spent jazzing up the promenade along the famous ‘golden mile’.
But stroll only a couple of blocks away from the seafront, and you’re in a very different world. Central Drive is one of the most deprived areas in England. Half of the children in this part of town live in poverty. Formerly-fancy hotels now stand forlornly boarded up or split up into cheap bedsits; groups of ragged-looking men and women congregate outside the pubs and betting shops early each morning, ready to feed an addiction or assuage loneliness. This side of Blackpool is a long way from the town that was cheerily described in 1978 as an “abode of health and amusement”. And it’s hard to see how a “dynamic feel” might aid its recovery.
Part of the trouble, in towns such as Blackpool and Morecambe, is that many of these former hotels and boarding houses have been converted into cheap flats and bedsits, attracting more of the destitute to the towns. Speaking to the BBC in 2006, a journalist for a local newspaper described Morecambe as a “B&B ghetto” for people on benefits, whom local landlords were encouraging to come to the town for the guaranteed housing benefit.
It will be interesting to see, therefore, if any notice is taken of the House of Lords Select Committee on Regenerating Seaside Towns. It has called for improvements to be made to transport, housing and broadband, while urging politicians to improve access to further and higher education for young people. It describes how what was once the key selling point of seaside towns – their geography – is effectively now their death warrant: being “on the periphery of the country places them on the periphery of the economy”.
For seaside suffering isn’t only down to falling tourist revenues. Coastal towns – along with former industrial towns – have borne the brunt of Britain’s economic transition from an industrial to a service economy. Indeed, the Social Market Foundation found that average pay was £3,600 a year in 2016 – the year of the game-changing Brexit vote – in coastal communities.
These places badly want for things the government has the power to effect. And the challenges of what the report terms “peripherality” can, in part, be overcome by improving digital connectivity. Geography matters far less in an economy that is connected online. The trouble is, many parts of Britain – and many of its coastal towns – are not: Britain has some of the poorest levels of broadband connectivity speeds in Europe.
I’ve written, too, about the effect cuts to bus services are having in rural and coastal communities. Without frequent local services, employment opportunities are invariably limited.
Poor educational attainment is less easily fixed. A large majority of children at coastal town schools come from “high impact disadvantaged groups”, according to education statistician Dave Thomson – typically white British pupils – meaning that the impact of disadvantage is higher for them than for other disadvantaged groups.
This tallies with Ofsted’s 2013 20-year review of access and achievement, which found that since 1993, “the distribution of under achievement has shifted from deprived inner-city areas to deprived coastal towns and rural areas”. This educational apartheid is difficult to solve without will or major investment.
That’s why the government set up the Coastal Communities Fund in 2012 in a bid to create local economic growth. The fund is certainly seeking to address the right areas: the over-dependence in coastal towns on low-paid service jobs; declining and ageing populations; inadequate housing stock; poor transport connectivity. But with £40 million made available to applicants to spend between April 2019 to March 2012, the fund, according to the Committee report, is quite simply “too small scale to support sustainable regeneration”.
So where do we go from here? Britain’s political class doesn’t seem to be listening; it is mired in a seemingly endless debate that looks likely to go on for years to come. It is no small irony that many of those who voted to leave the EU come from towns like Blackpool – Blackpool itself voted overwhelmingly to leave. These people believed they were kicking back against an establishment that had neglected them for years.
But in doing so, they have kicked away the political will to address their plight. We need to talk about the plight of our seaside towns, or their decline will exacerbate the already yawning inequality divide between those on the periphery and those in the more prosperous parts of the UK. But then, we need to talk about a lot of things in Britain. And for the foreseeable future, we’re only going to be talking about one thing.