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Why Covid will batter seaside towns For Britain's coastal resorts, this will be a summer like no other

Blackpool is beloved, but ailing. Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Blackpool is beloved, but ailing. Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images


June 3, 2020   6 mins

It’s a cruel irony that England has been experiencing one of the sunniest springs on record during lockdown, and nowhere is this more deeply appreciated than in the nation’s seaside resorts, whose business is sunshine. On a socially distanced visit to Margate last week, the sand was golden, the sea sparkled invitingly, but the sea front was eerily quiet. The cafes, pubs and art studios in the picturesque backstreets of the historic centre were closed. Kids did wheelies on the empty promenade and the only people on the harbour wall were groups of teenagers with too little to do.

One never imagined that local authorities in major resorts such as Blackpool, Scarborough and Skegness would beg visitors to stay away; people whose careers have been dedicated to urging the English to discover the delights of the homegrown seaside on their doorstep, have been forced into a volte face. Coastal resorts are likely to lose ÂŁ7.9bn in revenue, according to evidence presented to the parliamentary select committee of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport in mid-May. That represents both revenue already lost because of the lockdown, and projected losses as businesses implement social distancing measures. The capacity of hotels and restaurants will have to be slashed; and the numbers of visitors to beaches, piers, promenades will have to be controlled.

For many coastal towns who welcome millions of visitors every year, this will be a summer like no other; the usual crowds in need of ice creams, fish and chips and fun will have to be marshalled in an unprecedented public order operation.

With the chances of a foreign holiday this summer slim, seaside resorts could face the tricky dilemma of unprecedented demand overwhelming reduced capacity. Already councils have had a taste of this. After the Prime Minister slightly eased lockdown in mid-May, telling people they could drive as far as they liked and even visit beaches, councils had to scramble to put in place social distancing measures. Headlines a couple of days later reported packed beaches in Southend and Bournemouth basking in the unusual May heat.

In Southend, councillor Kevin Robinson admitted that the minute Boris Johnson said the word ‘beaches’, every councillor’s heart sank; they had 48 hours to widen the promenade and hire marshals to ensure they could cope safely. Despite the volume of visitors, Robinson maintains that people kept to the rules; the photos of crowded beaches depended on the angle of the camera, and pictures from drones showed that people were spread out. Southend has a seven-mile long seafront, so they can cope better than some resorts, even if they attract thousands of London day trippers keen to escape the capital.

But that doesn’t reassure many local residents, anxious about higher infection rates in London and elsewhere; they lobbied councillors to keep the visitors out by shutting the sea front and beaches — which was physically as well as legally impossible. Southend was not the only place facing this balancing act; many coastal towns have an aged demographic, higher than average levels of chronic ill health and a large care home sector, placing them at increased risk from Covid-19.

Few people can be watching the R value more closely than the council leaders of England’s coastal towns. If reopening of socially distanced hospitality and hotels doesn’t go ahead on 4 July as currently suggested, some coastal resorts will be economically crippled with lasting impacts. The normal pattern is that July and August are the key months, clocking up a sizeable proportion of the towns’ annual turnover, with a third of the year’s visitors. While some coastal resorts have made strenuous efforts in the past couple of decades to diversify, others are effectively one-industry towns with over half of all employment tied up in tourism. The millions of pounds of visitor revenue that arrive every summer are the lifeblood of places like Skegness, Blackpool and Whitby.

In mid-March, just days before lockdown, I visited Skegness, and the town was gearing itself up for the season; decorators and maintenance workers were hard at work. The headlines were already alarming — on the seafront I took a panicked call from my daughter who feared she was infected with Covid — and it felt particularly ominous in a town obviously struggling already and which was utterly dependent on those visitors from Midland cities.

Already the early indicators are that coastal towns are likely to be the hardest hit economically of anywhere in the country. As unemployment soared across the country in March and early April, analysis by the Oxford Consultants for Social Inclusion found that of the ten areas with the largest increases in unemployment benefit claims, nine were coastal: Blackpool, Torbay, Thanet, Scarborough, Cornwall, North Devon, Tendring and Torridge. There have been predictions that 20-25% of hotels and bed and breakfasts will be forced to close. A quarter of businesses fear they won’t survive even if the season does go ahead in July.

Covid-19 is sharply exposing the deep seated economic precariousness of seaside resorts. Their plight represents a major failure of the political system. By a wide range of measures, they are among some of the most challenged communities in the country; pockets of deep deprivation have been overlooked for decades, argues Gordon Marsden who lost his Blackpool South seat in 2019 to the Tories. Since he became a parliamentary candidate in 1990, he has lobbied for seaside resorts to win in Whitehall the cross-departmental attention needed.

Studies in August 2019 found that five of the ten areas in the UK with the lowest average pay are coastal, and they also clock up the highest levels of personal debt. Jobs are poor quality, and often seasonal, with little opportunities for career development, and many seaside towns wrestle with above-average unemployment rates. Transient populations living crammed into houses which have been subdivided lead to high levels of problems such as crime, drug addiction and domestic violence. They have a disproportionate number of people on benefits, as well as with mental health issues, drug addiction and chronic ill health, according to the last census in 2011.

Two of the three local authorities with the highest prescription rates for antidepressants last year were seaside resorts: East Lindsey (which includes Skegness) and Blackpool. With this profile, comes some of the lowest levels of educational achievement; a report in 2016 argued that the distribution had shifted from inner cities to coastal and rural areas. Local authorities, particularly in south coast resorts and Blackpool have long argued that social services departments in big cities such as London and Manchester have used the cheap housing in coastal areas to relocate their cases. Torbay for example had one of the highest number of looked after children in the country in 2019; Weston Super Mare has the largest number of drug rehabilitation centres.

In the Eighties, concern was mobilised around the plight of inner cities, and deindustrialised regions; what got left out was the longer term, gradual decline of coastal resorts. When attention finally arrived 20 or so years later, many projects focused on culture — such as Margate’s Turner centre and Folkestone’s creative quarter — but gentrification could only ever be a part of the solution, and the investment was never comparable to inner-city regeneration projects; the results were fragile. Gentrification could work in places within easy reach of major cities but not in Great Yarmouth, Skegness, Minehead or Scarborough. In such places, peripherality proved a steep cost, with poor railway and road links. The success stories of Brighton and Bournemouth, which used higher education as a part of their regeneration strategy, dominated the narrative.

Seaside resorts, always as much rivals as allies, were keen to celebrate their successes; they wanted badly to change the public perception of rundown neglect, but perhaps that has contributed to how their plight has not attracted sufficient public attention and thus effective political engagement. A generation of marginalisation paid bitter results at the ballot box last December as many Labour coastal strongholds fell to the Conservatives.

Covid-19 is exposing all the fault-lines of British society. Rightly, much concern has been raised by the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on the BAME population, and alongside that, I would argue that there should be a comparable attention on coastal communities. Beyond this year’s immediate crisis, the question is whether with the right support they could finally look to a more secure future; could anxiety about foreign travel bring a rise in holidays at home? After millions have experienced homeworking in lockdown, could it prompt a change in lifestyle, moving away from expensive cities to the coast in search of homeworking beside golden sands and fresh sea air? The paradox is that these resorts are much loved; Blackpool has a staggering 19 million visits annually. The challenge is to translate that popularity and affection into flourishing local economies.

Last week, the quietness of Margate was all the more poignant because in recent years it seemed that the pretty historic town with its Turner Gallery had finally turned the corner and had launched in a new chapter of its long history: now its hard won recovery is thrown once more into question.


Madeleine Bunting is a writer and Visiting Professor at the International Inequalities Institute at the LSE. Her book, The Seaside, England’s Love Affair, will be published by Granta in May 2023

MBunting_

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David Waring
David Waring
4 years ago

Hmm poor white communities neglected yet again by the self appointed Liberal/left inteligencia.

rosalindmayo
rosalindmayo
4 years ago
Reply to  David Waring

yes

Michael Yeadon
Michael Yeadon
4 years ago
Reply to  David Waring

“White lives don’t matter”?

Neil John
Neil John
4 years ago
Reply to  Michael Yeadon

Apparently

Helen Wood
Helen Wood
4 years ago

In the case of Portsmouth which will be hit by Covid in the B and B and hotel trade and by a reduction in international students at the Uni…I would suggest a faster train link to London taking it from an hour 20 minutes to under an hour.
This would make it attractive as a commuter town for those unable to afford property prices in London but who have jobs there. Also it encourages retirees to lo cate there- retaining their access to the metropolis’s cultural activities.
Music festivals like Victorious are putting Pompey on the map as a great place for summer leisure along with farmers markets and food festivals…restuarants providing a more upmarket
eating experience based on fresh produce and seafood need to be encouraged as do boutiques and craft shops.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
4 years ago
Reply to  Helen Wood

You may not be aware Helen, that the reason the journey to Portsmouth is slower than that to Southampton, despite being a shorter distance, is that the line was built earlier, when locomotives were less powerful, and therefore had to take a more circuitous route to avoid gradients. The penalty of being an early adopter!
Journey times used to be shorter 20 years ago but were lengthened to give the train operators a better chance of meeting punctuality targets. It might be possible to take 10-15 minutes off the journey time if more home working leads to lesser demand and therefore fewer trains on the line.

Helen Wood
Helen Wood
4 years ago

I didnt know that Dougie.
Cheers. Helen.

Neil John
Neil John
4 years ago
Reply to  Helen Wood

Ah Smuff, an awkward to get to island, with a god awful ‘beach’, that comes from the Portsmouth girl sat next to me.
As for the uni, it might be good if less s-too-dense arrive and it drives the availability of rentable housing up, and the cost of renting down… Too many HMO landlords want easy student money and not to rent to local people.

Helen Wood
Helen Wood
4 years ago
Reply to  Neil John

Well Neil..Ive come to appreciate Pompey more since moving to London years ago. The walk along Southsea beach down to Old Portsmouth and Gunwharf is really pleasant..the pubs do some real Hampshire ales.
International students are a cash cow everywhere..but theyve built alot of Uni accomodation in Ports.for them.

Tom Hawk
Tom Hawk
4 years ago

Local councils have not helped themselves. They seem to have taken to the C19 regulations like pigs in shit enjoying every opportunity to impose restrictions and regulstions on order to force people to comply with their instructions. My town council, in conjunction with the local police community sergeant closed a road without going through the proper process. That is a criminal offence in its own right, but they were insistent they are in authority.

The overriding sense has been to impose lockdown as if that is the objective rather than the means. Thus when the PM announced an easing of restrictions, Councillor Robbinson’s (of Southend Council) heart sank. The council had had weeks to have everything ready, but it seems they were concentrating on imposing lockdown instead of preparing for when it finally came to an end.

Meanwhile, even though during lockdown the seaside towns are dying on their feet the Council operated parking Nazis are busy raking in cash flow, because they can. No one asks the hapless victim of a parking ticket, will this fine influence your decision about coming back, (to get stuck with another parking fine?)?

I suggest that Councils in our coastal resorts need a different attitude to visitors as a starting point.

Michael Reardon
Michael Reardon
4 years ago

Maybe some redirection of resources away from supporting the aviation industry to UK resort towns as we rebuild our economy. And continuing to diversify over time away from traditional tourism as there is no short cut.

ruthengreg
ruthengreg
4 years ago

Sorry to say but every industry is effected in much the same way as Seaside’s. Only the lucky few are not going to feel more than a pinch of this. I could be that few. Retirement yes I bored etc no theatre holidays but my income is unaffected. My daughter is in Teaching loads of problems but a job yes. My son is in global retail big worries.
I feel it only right and proper that for a time we pensioners should do our bit. I am not rich ex bus driver and we have a good life on joint pensions in 20k range I don’t see why I shouldn’t forgo the Pension triple lock for 5yrs.

Tom Hawk
Tom Hawk
4 years ago

Many years ago a Government Minister tried to describe our seaside towns as the pearl necklace in our heritage. I always thought it was a very apt description because it showed up the real weakness of seaside towns.

What is the most important part of a pearl necklace? Hint it is not the pearls, … It’s the string that holds the pearls in place. Without the string a pearl necklace is simply a handfull of stones that gets lost.

Seaside towns all suffer from the same physical problem. They are at the end of a dead end road where half the surrounding area is populated by fish and seafood. (Fish don’t buy much so they make bad customers). Many are also isolated by rivers on each side. So businesses have only half the potential custommer base as ones inland. On top of that business located in a seaside town has to travel past their competition to get to their customers. That puts them at an automatic productivity disadvantage. The only compensation is selling at a reduced price.

The solution is quite easy, but it won’t happen. A coast road that links coatal towns to each other and makes it possible to trade directly with each other.

Tom Hawk
Tom Hawk
4 years ago

Many years ago a Government Minister tried to describe our seaside towns as the pearl necklace in our heritage. I always thought it was a very apt description because it showed up the real weakness of seaside towns.

What is the most important part of a pearl necklace? Hint it is not the pearls, … It’s the string that holds the pearls in place. Without the string a pearl necklace is simply a handfull of stones that gets lost.

Seaside towns all suffer from the same physical problem. They are at the end of a dead end road where half the surrounding area is populated by fish and seafood. (Fish don’t buy much so they make bad customers). Many are also isolated by rivers on each side. So businesses have only half the potential custommer base as ones inland. On top of that business located in a seaside town has to travel past their competition to get to their customers. That puts them at an automatic productivity disadvantage. The only compensation is selling at a reduced price.

The solution is quite easy, but it won’t happen. A coast road that links coatal towns to each other and makes it possible to trade directly with each other.

tomscott444
tomscott444
4 years ago
Reply to  Tom Hawk

Try driving down the 27 in Sussex at 5pm and you will then understand why the local towns suffer so much. Big towns like Worthing and Eastbourne are connected by a road that is little more than a rutted cart track in places.

Kathy Lang
Kathy Lang
4 years ago

“of the ten areas with the largest increases in unemployment benefit claims, nine were coastal” Yes – but one of those nine is not a town but a whole county – Cornwall. The problems in farming and fishing, the major employers outside tourism, are seriously hit from other directions. And when the trouble covers so wide an area, the scope for “going elsewhere” is very limited. It’s a beautiful county with its own culture and customs too – but you can’t eat the view!