Holidaymakers can't keep Skeggy afloat. (Credit: Barry/In Pictures via Getty)

April 19, 2023   3 mins

In the bright spring sunshine, Skegness is preparing for the season. The smell of fresh paint churns into the stench of the fish and chip fat as it sizzles. The metal shutters protecting the seafront booths from the bitter North Sea winds clatter as they are rolled up. A few early visitors are about, the resort is stirring back to life, and with that comes a sense of optimism. Four million people visit this resort every year, swelling its usual population many times over. But despite the deep affection for “Skeggy”, the town is struggling.

Visitors simply aren’t spending enough money or staying long enough to ensure a strong local economy. Most are day trippers, or stay over in the sea of caravan parks which has now spread along the coast. As a result, Skegness is sinking into destitution.

More than 80% of the residents along this part of the Lincolnshire coastline live in areas categorised as in the 20% most deprived in the UK. Around a third have no or low educational qualifications, considerably below national averages. And 42% of the population, twice the national average, is economically inactive, due to either disability, retirement, or caring responsibilities.

This issue, however, isn’t confined to east Lincolnshire. A desperate combination of low pay, low productivity, low educational achievement and poor health is trapping coastal towns in a spiral of deepening poverty. Skegness is a long way from anywhere but the sea. Connections to medical services and further education often entail a trip to Lincoln, over 40 miles away. It takes the best part of two hours to get by car to Nottingham, and the train is no quicker. To make matters worse, local coastal economies are dominated by the two employment sectors — hospitality and care — which have the lowest pay and the lowest productivity. One in five coastal jobs pays below the living wage.

Like other English seaside resorts, Skegness is haunted by its glamorous past. It was once an elegant resort attracting visitors from London to its smart hotels, making a virtue of its bracing breezes for city dwellers in need of fresh air. In its park strolled men in three-piece suits and women in high heels, hats and frilly summer dresses. Then along came cheap flights and package holidays abroad, which devastated Skegness’s hotel-based economy. Since then, little thought or attention has been given to how to reinvent the English seaside resort.

While other deindustrialised regions in the Nineties and 2000s attracted government investment, small family businesses running coastal resorts were expected to make do and mend. After austerity ripped apart local authority funding — Torbay, for example, lost £200 million a year — coastal towns have been forced to compete for grants from pots of money such as the Town Deal. Often, outcomes are required within a three-year time-frame or even less, a short-termism which does little to enable the kind of long-term strategic reinvention of a tired seaside resort. Redoing a piazza to accommodate outdoor café-style hospitality, for instance, doesn’t begin to address despair and poverty crouching a few streets away.

The effect of poverty is borne out in public health. Coronary disease is particularly prevalent along the coast of England. And East Lindsey district — which covers Skegness’s coastline — has one of the highest rates of antidepressant prescription in the country, coming close behind two other coastal towns, Blackpool and Sunderland. Male life expectancy here is 10.3 years shorter than in wealthier areas of Lincolnshire, and for women it is 7.2 years shorter. It is a tragic inversion of the seaside resort’s therapeutic history. And as Chris Whitty warned in his 2021 annual report, “there will be a long tail of preventable ill health which will get worse as populations age”.

That time has already come. Young people are moving away to get jobs and training, and the retired are moving in. More than 30% of GP patients in Skegness and Mablethorpe are over 65, compared with the national figure of 18%. In the next two decades, the over-65s will increase by 44% and the over-85s by a staggering 116.6%.

There is already a shortage of care workers to look after this ageing population, and levels of unpaid care in Lincolnshire are among the highest in the country. Yet despite that need, coastal towns have proportionately fewer health professionals; recruitment and retention is obviously challenging in these run-down seaside towns.

The reality is that this stretch of Lincolnshire coast is facing some of the great social challenges of our time — an ageing society and abrupt economic change — with little government support. In the wider story of regional inequality and the Levelling Up agenda, the unique characteristics of coastal deprivation are repeatedly ignored or overlooked.

Perhaps it is fitting that the most famous son of the Lincolnshire coastline, Alfred Tennyson, abandoned the county of his birth, as many young people have today. He is more commonly associated with the Isle of Wight, where he went to live as a celebrated Victorian poet. Still, in one poem, he fondly remembers the bleak coastline of his childhood: “Yet though perchance no tract of earth have more/Unlikeness to the fair Ionian plain/I love the place that I have loved before.” As with Tennyson, perhaps the English can find a way to love Skegness again — before it is caught up in a tide of irreparable decay.

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