The last time a Conservative leader stood on Blackpool beach in conference season was when David Cameron posed for a windswept photo op with New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, back in 2007. That was more than two decades on from Thatcher’s 1985 Blackpool speech at the Winter Gardens, announcing that Britain was no longer the “sick man of Europe”.
When I visited the venue recently, a dog show was taking place, and the hall now has a dusty plaque – written in the past tense – which serves as an epitaph of a bygone political era: “This venue has witnessed keynote speeches from prime ministers and world leaders”. Meanwhile, the old fish and chip restaurants and bars along the seafront, where hacks used to booze with ministers, are now boarded up, and empty guest rooms are advertised at under £20 per night.
No wonder Conservative ministers and their army of 90 or so Spads (less than 100 actual MPs attended last year’s Tory conference in Birmingham) were – before Covid – heading off (again) to the suites of the Hyatt Hotel in Birmingham, a symbol of HS2 and “high-growth” future. Labour, meanwhile, had booked out the Liverpool Exhibition Centre.
But this anti-seaside politico discrimination needs to change. Next year, it might help if the PM was to holiday on the English coast, Mr Whippy in hand, rather than pitching a tent in a Scottish field. Why not support English Heritage by renting (sleeps six) the Coastguard House on Lindisfarne ? Or take one of The Landmark Trust’s 72 coastal properties ?
Our seaside communities have a unique set of socio-economic problems that have only been heightened by the pandemic. Instead of “levelling-up”, the divisions between rich and poor seaside communities have only got worse since 2020’s staycation summer. In August, I found myself on the north Norfolk coast. As I parked in the “overfill” field car-park along Lady Anne’s Drive to walk along Holkham beach, there were more Kensington and Chelsea 4×4 parking permits – and £100,000 horseboxes – on display than at a royal polo match. An eager parking attendant in Holkham estate uniform was on hand with a wireless credit card machine to take my £10 card payment for a beach stroll. All this was a far cry from the beach donkey rides I remember as a child, holidaying in Weymouth.
At The Hero, a swanky pub named after Nelson in the former fishing village of Burnham Overy Staithe, my three-year-old son emerged from a trip to the loo carrying a shiny beach football and a smart new pair of kids’ trainers. “They said I could have them,” he announced. When I checked this improbable idea, and that he hadn’t just grabbed them, the maître d’ confirmed that, yes, the shoes and beach ball had just been “left behind”, and nobody had been back to collect them. Finders keepers.
Out of balance
But it’s a very different story in coastal communities not on the so-called Norfolk Champagne Coast, or Cornwall (where David Cameron has bought a nice house). In areas such as Blackpool or Mablethorpe in Lincolnshire, the fishing villages have not been gentrified – caravan parks don’t count – and quality of life has spiralled down, rather than levelled-up.
Back in 2007, a parliamentary select committee concluded that “seaside towns are the least understood of Britain’s ‘problem’ areas”. Today, these issues have begun to be addressed thanks to two reports that have dug into the long entrenched issues which have allowed coastal towns to decline. The first Report of the Inquiry into Coastal Communities was published in 2017 by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Visitor Economy, followed this year in March by the House of Lords Report, The Future of Seaside Towns.
Boris Johnson needs to appoint a dedicated team to implement the recommendations of these two reports, plus findings in a pioneering research paper, Creating Coastal Powerhouses, published in 2016 – just weeks after Theresa May became PM – by the British Hospitality Association. Action point number one was that “The government should appoint a powerful seaside tsar to oversee the delivery of a Coastal Investment Strategy”. And yet to date, nothing has been done.
Covid-19 has created an obvious need for such a role. Many seaside communities – especially in Red Wall voter areas – are now on life support. For too long, politicians have preferred to stick their heads in the sand and do little. The cynical truth is that many politicians are reluctant to wade into the mess that successive governments have made of the welfare and housing benefit system, which is being so lucratively exploited by unscrupulous coastal town private landlords. The reason that landlords have no incentive to upgrade their “multi-occupation” houses is that the government have allowed a property system to flourish in which being a landlord in Blackpool will yield a higher return on your investment than in Belgravia. The Blackpool housing market is now driven by housing benefit, with an average gross yield of 40 per cent.
The furlough scheme will end just as many traditional seaside resorts close down for the season. Johnson should not be afraid of tackling the underlying raft of socio-economic, unemployment, crime and mental health issues facing coastal towns, which are the real reason that politicians have neglected seaside communities.
Blackpool holds up a grim mirror to the worst problems affecting coastal towns. Many people are running away from their challenging lives. The end of furlough – and people’s jobs – will see more of this. People often move to coastal resorts because these are the places where they were once happy as a child or teenager. They may have personal baggage – divorce, drink problems and debts – which they bring with them. They relocate from one coastal town to another, encountering new difficulties along the way – making it a deterrent for tourists and business investment. Prior to Covid, Blackpool received 8,000 new residents a year, of which around 85 per cent had to claim housing benefit.
This transience puts ever more pressure on local hospitals, police and schools. Some 60 per cent of new residents are single, and 65 per cent live in parts of the town that used to be popular with 1960s holidaymakers in Blackpool’s heyday.
Grass is greener
This brings me to another important but ignored reason our great seaside economies are in decline. It was not – as is often claimed – cheap fights and package holidays to Benidorm that killed off the bucket-and-spade holiday. Rather, it is the way that our new leisure resorts of Blenheim and Chatsworth, or the stately safari parks (not to mention the dumbed-down heritage theme parks of around 300 National Trust properties) have replaced the old Victorian seaside towns as daytripper resorts. Their grand sweeping avenues and parkland have become our new beaches and promenades. Designer ice-creams and tea rooms have now replaced the tacky rock-selling souvenir shops and arcades.
Between 1850 and 1900, most holidays were taken by train to seaside resorts. Today, more than 5.5m members of the National Trust travel by car to today’s new leisure resorts. The organisation is now concerned with turning away from its traditional heritage country-estate experience to creating outdoor nature resorts for its members. This can be seen in the National Trust’s latest advertising campaign; drive out of London on the A40 today, and you will see electronic billboards flashing with the message: “Everyone Needs Nature”.
The new wave
So what should Johnson’s new seaside tsar do to help make our seaside towns popular again with leisure-class, away-day tourists, as well as with staycation families – and also attract investment?
First, there should also be a review of the Housing Act (dating back to 1949) relating to “overcrowding” within residential buildings. Politicians should make new housing in coastal communities a priority, especially in maritime areas. The new Grimsby Town Plan led by the council and David Ross is an example of what is possible: transforming a neglected port into a vibrant community and engaging with its history, to create an environment where people want to live and people want to invest. Local authorities should be given low-interest government loans to convert empty commercial properties into good quality residential accommodation.
Compulsory Purchase Order powers should be given to councils – such as Blackpool – to eradicate often illegal multi-occupancy accommodation. It’s ironically for this reason that Blackpool has become something of a property hotspot, with house prices rising by 17 per cent recently. Still, the average price is still only around £130,000.
The job of this tsar should be to get people back to seeing the seaside as part of England’s great narrative history. Priority should go to mainstream heritage, residential, retail and tourist regeneration – especially coastal walking trails and annual heritage festivals. Regenerative arts projects and more annual themed festivals (not one-off anniversary) must be supported as seasonal features of coastal towns that bring visitors all year.
The success of various off-season Normandy festivals, from celebrating food and drink to the annual D-Day period festival commemorating the 1944 Normandy landings show what is possible (note, hotels need to be booked six months in advance). As a country, our coastal island history is the story of England. But we are not making enough of it. This serial festival mania – including the Rouen Armada Festival which gets seven million visitors a year – has economically rescued the Normandy seaside, including many former fishing communities that were dying.
Indeed, the best cure for Britain’s coastal communities is the healing therapy of heritage regeneration. Margate has seen an economic renaissance thanks to its new destination art museum, Turner Contemporary. Since Hull was made City of Culture, it has attracted more than £3 billion of investment.
Giving communities back their spirit of place – expressed through cultural regeneration that celebrates the Victorian history of great seafront architecture and heritage – is one solution. A forward-thinking civic vision that celebrates a sense of local culture and encourages self-identity can help revitalise our once-vibrant seafronts and give meaning back to broken seaside communities.
The seaside towns that have weathered recent economic storms are those that have re-invented themselves as digital creative capitals, such as Brighton and Margate. Indeed, according to a report by Tech Nation, 74 per cent of digital firms are now based outside London – and this is a trend that will only increase with more digital start-ups as a direct result of Covid. Bournemouth is now such a flourishing digital coastal powerhouse and creative hub that it far outstrips London in terms of sheer growth.