June 3, 2020

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 £7.9bn 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.