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Regenerating seaside economies
Local Government Chronicle – 28 May 2008

The credit crunch and environmental pressures could boost seaside towns - with proper marketing and investment, says Mark Smulian

Imagine a time machine has descended from the skies, scooped you up, and dumped you in 1958.

Trips to the British seaside can seem like that in places that got left behind when cheap overseas travel killed off the traditional week at the beach as most people's holiday choice.

Coastal councils sense they could benefit from the credit crunch and global warming, as lack of money and, to a lesser extent, environmental concerns drive people to reassess holidays at home.

But even if these factors do breathe new economic life into seaside towns, they still face problems that equal those in more obviously deprived industrial areas.

These were brought into focus last year in a report by MPs on the Commons' communities & local government committee, which noted that the government had "neglected the needs of coastal towns for too long" and that they were the least understood of _Britain's 'problem' areas.

The report won praise for its forthrightness, and after the government issued such an inadequate response that ministers, under a hail of criticism, issued an unusual second response that promised a Whitehall task force on the subject, the potential for long-term subsidy looks more promising.

Their problems vary, but the report noted factors common to all coastal towns: facing the sea, they only have half an economic hinterland.

Seaside problems

Most are distant from major economic hubs, have poor transport links, suffer from a prevalence of low paid and seasonal work, and their settings attract retired people who make heavy use of care services.

Seaside towns that want to grasp regeneration opportunities have the additional difficulty that there have been no specific funds designed for them. This means they have had to apply for money from schemes designed for inner cities or industrial decline.

Nicola Precious, coastal action zone manager at East Lindsey DC, which co-ordinates coastal councils' activities, is working with the as-yet-unnamed cross-departmental Whitehall group on seaside issues. These include the prevalence of multiple- occupation homes in resorts, ageing populations, migrant workers, climate change and health.

"We are looking at what could be done to spend differently, not even necessarily more," she says. "The idea is to get the coast recognised in the same way the coalfields were as a distinct place with specific needs, like the half hinterland and distance from economic centres."

Peter Hampson, chief executive of the British Resorts & Destinations Association, says that, with a bit of help, an economic downturn and global warming could benefit the seaside. "The general feeling is that the rise in environmental concern is having an impact on attitudes, and people think maybe they should not take holidays abroad so often, but look to domestic resorts instead," Mr Hampson says.

"You have to question their depth of understanding of environmental issues, but in commercial terms, what the hell?"

The initial stages at least of a downturn are "quite good for the domestic market and traditionally it leads to an increase because people who might have gone abroad stay at home".

But how can councils take advantage of this opportunity? "The difficulty with local authorities is that few have got specific marketing budgets," Mr Hampson says. "One of the frustrations is that when we do have an opportunity like this it cannot be exploited fully. If coastal local authorities were commercial bodies, they would be advertising very hard now."

Eddie Bridgeman, project manager of the British Urban Regeneration Association's Seaside Network, says some towns, particularly on the east coast, are developing successful eco-tourism. But whether these towns can cope with any visitor upsurge is "questionable", he adds.

Mr Bridgeman explains: "These towns have lots of traditional bed & breakfasts and small hotels, but not perhaps the standards people have become used to abroad.

"To be fair, it is difficult to adapt Regency and Victorian buildings. It could help if councils gave grants."

Mr Bridgeman thinks the best route to regeneration is to attract small businesses that complement tourism, such as creative industries. "The trick is to expand small businesses, which you can do in a place like the seaside where rents and business costs are relatively low," he says. "I'm a great believer that it is often creative younger people who drive change."

Hastings BC is seeking to lure these much prized bright young things by establishing a university centre. While it is managed by the University of Brighton, the centre is a standalone institution that teaches courses from a number of other universities, tailored to the local economy.

So far it has catered mainly to 700 local residents who could otherwise not have afforded, or would have perhaps considered, higher education. But the intention is to attract young people who will settle in the town, with 2,000 students by 2012.

The centre's spokesman Tariq Khwaja explains: "It's an important part of investment proposals for the town because we found the local skills base is an issue for businesses when they decide where to invest.

"There is quite a centre of creative industries here, and there may be courses offered in future not available elsewhere that will build on that and attract young people."

Margate

Margate too is targeting culture as a route to regeneration. The town is a victim of its long-ago success, says Derek Harding, programme director of Margate Renewal Partnership, which is backed by Thanet DC.

Margate has a lot of derelict land because it grew rapidly and too big over the last 100 years and was almost entirely a seaside economy, so as tastes changed it suffered. In the 1950s it drew two million visitors a year. That means there is now a lot of cheap accommodation and a glut of large guesthouses whose owners have had to do something to bring in money, Mr Harding says. That 'something' has been to take in vulnerable families and children by offering other councils competitive prices, _leaving Margate with large numbers of deprived and transient residents.

"We're working with the government to try to understand the supply route and stop councils sending people here, though we've no power to stop them," Mr Harding says.

"We want to stimulate investment in key large, vacant sites which were traditionally in leisure uses. There are a lot of public realm and environmental improvements targeting the creative sector."

The Turner Contemporary gallery, now being built, is the flagship of a strategy to use art to revive the local economy. Margate already has three private galleries and is providing artists' workshop space.

Mr Harding is however optimistic about the town and detects a new attitude towards domestic resorts. "People are starting to rekindle their love affair with the British seaside. We need to ensure the offer is as good as what you get in the Mediterranean, or on a city break. It will take time to improve."

The chill winds of economic downturn may blow visitors into Britain's seaside towns, but if they dislike what they find they will not come back.

Sea Change fund for regeneration

The earliest fruit of the select committee's recommendations is the Sea Change fund for regeneration through cultural projects, set up by the Department for Culture, Media & Sport.

Although it offers just 45m over three years, it has the distinction of being the first fund solely for seaside towns.

Manager Richard Russell says: "The idea is to encourage local authorities to look at ways to use culture to support seaside regeneration.

"Culture is quite a wide term and we do not want to limit what they suggest.

"We know culture has been used to support regeneration in cities such as Liverpool and Newcastle/Gateshead, but there is less experience in coastal towns, although they have quite a rich heritage of cultural activity."

Health inequalities

People often move to the coast to benefit their health, but an Improvement & Development Agency conference in May heard about work on the seaside's hidden health inequalities, driven by high proportions of elderly or vulnerable residents.

East Riding of Yorkshire Council found that around the resort of Withernsea some 2,650 people lived in static caravans. Their health was considerably worse than that of the general population.

An often poor physical environment meant falls and respiratory ailments were particular problems, with the latter at double the local level. Figures for long-term, limiting illness, obesity and smoking were also higher.

The council's health development manager Dave Pinder explains: "The worst health in our area is on parts of the coast, for example life expectancy is nine years shorter in Bridlington south than in some affluent inland communities.

"Very little work had been done on caravan dwellers. They were often viewed as temporary residents, but many were not. They had sold a house somewhere in inland Yorkshire and retired to a caravan but did not have much money. It was a bit of a mind shift to take that on board."