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Levelling Up: “The perfect storm facing seaside towns warrants dedicated attention”

 

“Seaside towns, by which we principally mean coastal settlements that emerged as leisure and pleasure resorts in the nineteenth century, have been neglected for too long. They should once again be celebrated as places that can provide attractive environments for residents and visitors alike. What makes these areas distinct is the combination of industrial decline and geography. Their location on the periphery of the country places them on the periphery of the economy, bringing consequential social problems. This combination of challenges warrants dedicated attention and support.”

This is taken from the introduction of The future of seaside towns, a report from the Select Committee on Regenerating Seaside Towns and Communities: a fitting start to the unique challenges facing our coastal towns and resorts. The ‘perfect storm’ of challenges and issues that these places face make a compelling case for a ‘Levelling Up’ focus, particularly following the acute impact of the pandemic, coupled with the significant risk of devastation and threat to our infrastructure from climate change.

  • The challenges
    The defining economic characteristic of many seaside towns and coastal resorts is its visitor economy. There is a significant reliance on tourism as the key economic activity. This is naturally seasonal, which in turn presents a unique set of issues around health provision, skills opportunities, transport provision and businesses’ ability to recover from the impact of Covid-19 (particularly in retail, leisure and hospitality).
  • The Chief Medical Officer (CMO) 2021 annual report highlights the substantially higher burden of physical and mental health conditions in coastal communities. The health challenges of coastal towns are serious and the report shows there is more in common between them than their nearest inland neighbours. An ageing resident population, higher levels of economic inactivity (in some areas) and a recruitment crisis in health and social care combine to create a high burden of health challenges and inequalities. The spiral of deprivation is exacerbated by seasonal accommodation being available at low cost (especially out of season) and this makes it attractive to the lowest income groups and local authorities seeking to address aspects of housing and social care crises.
  • The blend of rural and coastal – on the periphery of the country – exacerbates the need for connectivity both in terms of transport and digital, with a lack of investment in infrastructure, accessibility and capacity. The agenda to decarbonise transport and provide electric vehicle charging will add to the challenges and place additional demand on existing infrastructure and utilities. The peripherality undermines the case for investment – any investment case tends to be for the town itself with no inter-connectivity spin-offs.
  • There is limited access to learning opportunities and a lack of employment opportunities in many of our coastal towns. This often disproportionately disadvantages young people and acts as a barrier to growth. Pupils in coastal schools are, on average, achieving 3% lower GCSE results than inland schools.
  • There is a need for additional funding to manage the threat of climate change particularly in relation to coastal erosion and flooding. At present, this is creating significant resource requirements locally and the risk impacts on investment opportunities.

The opportunities

  • Local authorities play a central role in regeneration efforts, leading partnership working between the private sector and other organisations. A good example has been the Towns Fund, a catalyst for investment as well as bringing together stakeholders focused on improving our places for the benefit of residents. This collaboration across the public and private sector is focused on the place, along with an in-depth understanding of the challenges, but is hampered by a requirement for allocating resources for bidding and then managing funds – funding is too focused on a challenge fund approach and the funding is not provided alongside resource for managing the activity.
  • The first round of the Levelling Up Fund focused on three themes: transport; town centre and high street regeneration; and investment into cultural and heritage assets. Working across government departments is critical to facilitate support for coastal businesses, with examples including:

- The role of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Tourism Recovery Plan in growing a dynamic, sustainable and world-leading tourism sector.

- The Independent Review of Destination Management Organisations by Nick de Bois.

- Department for Transport sustainability strategy, integrated rail plans and Bus Back Better.

- Cultural-led regeneration.

The silos differ according to spatial geography – but whether considering urban, coastal or rural economies the economic development approach is complicated by multiple departments with competing rather than complementary agendas.

  • Key recommendations from the CMO’s report include proposals for a cross-government national strategy to improve the health and wellbeing of coastal communities, incorporating key drivers such as housing, environment, education, employment and transport. The issues associated with coastal areas, in common with the Levelling Up agenda more widely, can only be addressed by a cross-department approach. Departmental silos are both understandable and perhaps necessary at a national level but they can be more easily addressed at a local level. Local authorities are uniquely placed to bring these agendas together as place-based geography.
  • Environmental challenges have been caused by the wider economy and their impact threatens the economy more widely. There is a need for greater national funding to address the issue rather than this widescale problem unfairly impacting on the budgets of some of the local authorities least able to afford the solution.

Lydia Rusling is Assistant Director for Economic Growth at South & East Lincolnshire Councils Partnership, and a member of the IED. This article was first published in Levelling Up: pre-White Paper perspectives from economic development professionals.

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