The Cleethorpes coast at the Greenwich Meridian line
The Cleethorpes coast, perhaps not as inspiring as some EasyJet destinations

It is one of those coincidences that as I was visiting family, thinking about the decline of my coastal home town the Centre for Social Justice was publishing its report Turning the Tide on the decline of coastal towns. I only came across it a few days ago, but it makes interesting reading and reflects a lot of my thoughts about the problems these towns face. (Today’s publication by the Office of National Statistics on deprivation in seaside resorts further illustrates the problem.)

There are huge differences between Wandsworth and the areas featured in the CSJ report (and indeed my home town), not least that we benefit from the opportunities that accrue from being in inner London. While not being complacent about the challenges faced here, it’s worth remembering that the areas we considered the most deprived in Wandsworth would be seen as fairly average in many of these places. However, as the report opens “cities have come to embody how we view modern deprivation and poverty. Yet some of the most pronounced disadvantage in our country exists away from the big cities.”

The report covers five coastal areas: Rhyl, Margate, Clacton-on-Sea1, Blackpool and Yarmouth. Yet they share a similar story highlighted in the case stories. They were all popular tourist destinations for much of the 20th century (in 1920 more than 1-in-10 of the English and Welsh population visited Blackpool) but cheap travel killed off the tourist industry in each.

What was left was a lot of cheap accommodation and bed-space, which started a vicious cycle. The cheap accommodation became a magnet for those with few other opportunities, several of the towns, for example, found themselves being advertised to prisoners on release. This began a cycle, with increasing numbers of people reliant on benefits moving in, property values dropped further still creating a cycle which resulted in a populations that had disproportionate high levels of ex-offenders and benefit claimants combined with disproportionately low aspirations and economic opportunities.

The problem for them is not affordable housing, it’s that housing is too affordable.

It’s exactly the idea I heard being proposed when I was up north, and exactly the idea I found bizarre. When there’s no shortage of residential property, why build even more in your most deprived area?

Where the report is lacking, however, is any sense of what successful coastal resorts have done to prevent such a dramatic decline. It acknowledges places like Brighton and its ‘Silicon Beach’ or Bournemouth and its financial sector, but doesn’t attempt to reflect on what made them attractive investments. It might just have been luck, geography would have played a part, but there would also be something else at play.

It’s easy to speculate that Brighton’s culture helped encourage the digital and creative sector to locate there. It’s harder to see Bournemouth’s attraction to the financial sector2. However, in both cases I suspect there was a strong element of the local authority creating a strong identity and business case–whether by design or not–that encouraged businesses to locate there.

It’s the vision thing. And just as it seems absent in Grimsby, it appears absent in each of the five areas in the CSJ case studies. The English tourist may still want to eat, drink and behave in exactly the same way on holiday as they do at home. But they want to do it with more sun and higher temperatures than this country can offer. These towns must know they can’t fight the climate and win, but they still haven’t identified the fights they can win.

The CSJ’s report focuses, unsurprisingly, more on the lessons of process that can be learned: how the benefits system might enable people to climb out of deprivation, how education opportunities can create aspiration, and how social reform can create stability and resilience in communities. Yet there are wider lessons that are applicable anywhere, the importance of a mixed community is one, as is a vibrant, and varied, property market.

Above all there has to be leadership and a sense of direction, creating a financial centre in Bournemouth must have seemed crazy, but it took someone to take the first step in that direction (I remember the idea of a diplomatic quarter in Nine Elms seemed fairly barmy once), because if the local leadership can’t offer a sense of purpose and aspiration, it’s hardly surprising the people living there don’t have one either.

  1. Jaywick in Clacton-on-Sea has the dubious honour of pipping East Marsh in Grimsby to the post to be the country’s most deprived area in 2010. 
  2. I worked in the back office for what was then Chase Manhattan bank when I first moved to London. It was a constant fear among colleagues that we might be considered ‘back office enough’ to be relocated to their Bournemouth offices.