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Turning back the tide in coastal communities

Seaside towns are among the poorest in the UK, and formulaic attempts to regenerate them are not working. Jamie Hailstone spoke to practitioners who are taking an alternative approach

When people think of seaside resorts, they tend to think of fish and chips, ice creams and amusement arcades.

But as a recent report by the Social Market Foundation revealed, Britain’s coastal communities are also struggling with low wages, economic growth and education.

The report showed five of the 10 local authorities in the UK with the highest unemployment rate for the three months to March 2017 were coastal.

And of the 98 local authorities on the coast, 85% had pay levels below the UK’s average in 2016.

The report was published on the same day that the government announced a £40m funding package to help coastal communities, but whether the additional money will help address some of the long-term issues facing Britain’s seaside towns remains to be seen.

We’ve not seen a development approach which has

taken into consideration what these towns want or need.’

Disconnected from opportunities

Fernanda Balata, who leads the coastal economies research at the New Economics Foundations said many of these towns have been ‘suffering from the decline of traditional industries, such as fishing and tourism’ since the 1960s and 1970s.

‘The truth is they never actually recovered,’ she told New Start. ‘Nothing has really replaced those jobs.

‘Coastal communities also have additional challenges,’ she added. ‘They are often remote areas, which sometimes it makes it harder to develop new sectors and it’s hard to recruit people to move to these areas’.

She cites Margate, which has moved beyond traditional economic thinking, by bringing arts and culture as a way to inject new life into the local economy.

‘I would say to a certain extent it has been a success, but the issue remains that these solutions are still not addressing the root problem,’ added Ms Balata. ‘There is not yet a development approach which has taken into consideration what these towns want or need.

‘I think local economic development needs to do better at engaging local people and making the most of assets in the community. A marine environment is a unique asset. It sets you apart from any other community.

‘And you need government support. They need to take the uniqueness of coastal challenges into account when they are developing industrial strategy.

‘You also need investment and funding. It’s hard for people who live on the coast to start new ventures, so communities often end up being dependent on capital, which comes from elsewhere to bring in the new jobs. But then the economic benefits do not stay locally.’

Underlying structural problems remain

The Turner Contemporary art gallery in Margate is often held up as an example of how the arts can bring regeneration and new life to a coastal town.

The gallery was opened in 2011 and celebrates the connection between the celebrated painter and the Kent seaside town.

Dan Thompson, an author and activist who has lived in Margate for several years told New Start ‘nobody can knock the effect the Turner Contemporary has had on visitor numbers here’.

‘But at the same time there has been a huge amount of investment in the old town in Margate, which meant buildings were refurbished and the public realm was improved,’ added Mr Thompson.

‘I wouldn’t want to prescribe regeneration meds to anyone’

‘There was proper master-planning, which meant when the Turner Contemporary opened, it opened in a beautiful place with an ecology of independent stores and coffee shops.

‘If you come to Turner, it’s a two-hour visit,’ he explained. ‘If you come to Turner and the regenerated old town, it’s a day or a weekend. It’s not just that putting a big, shiny art gallery fixes all the problems instantly. The arts-led work has to be embedded into the ecology of the place.’

Mr Thompson added Margate still has ‘incredible poverty’.

‘What we are seeing in Margate is the glossy, shiny stuff is having an impact, but it has not fixed the underlying structural problems. It hasn’t solved the reason why seaside towns are in trouble in the first place.

Start with local strengths 

‘It’s worth remembering that things like Turner started with one local standing up and saying I think we should celebrate Turner’s connection to Margate and I think opening a gallery would be the way to do that,’ said Thompson.

‘The absolute basis of any project has to be what is local,’ he added. ‘There’s no point assuming that because Margate has a contemporary art gallery, you should have a contemporary art gallery.

‘If you go back to the 1980s, there was a huge wave of people saying we’re going to regenerate seaside towns by building a marina. They thought “if we build a marina then rich people will turn up in yachts and spend money”. But actually, what we saw there is the one-size solution does not work everywhere. So, start with your strengths locally and what makes your place different, and work it out from there.’

Jess Steele from the Hastings Community Land Trust, commented that ‘people argue that the only way to make the place better is to import “millennials from London”’.

‘I want to be part of an alternative – neighbourhood improvement that explicitly protects against displacement,’ she told New Start.

The Hastings Community Land Trust has turned a nine-story former office block into a series of affordable flats, community space and workspaces, called Rock House.

‘I believe in bottom up development, DIY Regen and the genius of place, so I wouldn’t want to prescribe regeneration meds to anyone,’ said Ms Steele.

‘But I think the key is that many coastal towns have an excellent balance of quality of life and cost of living.’

She says seaside towns should focus on two key groups – young families and young creatives.

‘There are very few actual jobs in Hastings, so they need to be self-supporting. They need to be entrepreneurs. That means they need really good business support. That’s where we should focus our energy, so that people know that the seaside is the best place to be for setting down roots and setting up a business.

‘Thanks to particular economic and cultural histories, Hastings is a fantastically creative town,’ she added. ‘The more opportunities that young people have to express themselves creatively the more likely they will be to cherish the place. Many young people will move away to more exciting cities, and that’s as it should be. But in a connected socially marketed world, they are essential ambassadors. And anyway they’ll be back!’

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