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Tide goes out for resorts
Planning – 23 March 2007

Coastal towns all around the UK face a multitude of unique pressures and may need a wide range of special measures to help them get back on their feet, maintains Mark Smulian.

Could experienced planners who want to make a name for themselves in regeneration be persuaded to swap the coalfields for candyfloss and pollution for the promenade?

England's coastal towns have been in decline, and a steep one in some cases, for decades. A report by the Commons communities and local government select committee (Planning, 9 March, p2) has found that they face deprivation, inward migration of economically inactive people, transient populations, low-quality housing and physical isolation.

None of these factors is unique to the coast. But the MPs conclude that "the combination of these characteristics, along with the environmental challenges that coastal towns face, does lead to a conclusion that they are in need of focused, specific government attention".

Coastal towns have been hit by a decline in holidaymaking and the use of vacated holiday accommodation by benefit claimants. They are isolated and have only half the economic hinterland of inland towns. Some are primarily ports. Places like Brighton and Bournemouth have added service industries, conferences and universities.

A few, like Deal and Budleigh Salterton, have never lost their moneyed visitors. But behind the pleasant environment all too often lies poverty, unemployment and an economic mix that has proved impervious to conventional regeneration.

The British Urban Regeneration Association has recognised the problem by setting up its seaside network project. "I welcome the Commons report for highlighting the issues, but it is all well and good saying the government must do something. Without pressure from us it will not happen," warns project director Eddie Bridgman.

"The focus of regeneration has been very much on former industrial areas and the core cities. We want to use this report to raise the profile of the seaside as an opportunity for regeneration, so that it will be seen as an exciting professional challenge for experienced planners," he explains.

Planners would certainly find plenty of calls on their skills. The committee believes coastal towns are "the least understood of Britain's problem areas". This lack of comprehension extends to the heart of central government, it adds, pointing to "a national policy vacuum" and a lack of co-operation between Whitehall departments.

"The variety of the challenges and opportunities for coastal towns makes it difficult to conceive of a national strategy that would be both an effective tool for delivery and sufficiently localised to reflect the diversity of conditions," says its report, calling instead for formal joint working by central government departments.

Any such set-up would need to bring on board the Department of Health and the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). Most coastal towns are characterised by high numbers of elderly people, while some urban councils have used resorts to place children in care. Both groups impose considerable strains on resources but contribute little to the local economy.

MPs lament government's knowledge gap

The committee calls it "unacceptable and extraordinary" that the government knows nothing about the disproportionately high increase in sickness and disability benefit in coastal areas, driven by inward migration of benefit claimants. It points out that most towns would benefit from following the example of those that have diversified their economies to iron out seasonal fluctuations.

This phenomenon appears to have gone unnoticed at the DWP, which failed to mention the subject in its evidence. This state of affairs is "suggestive of a wider lack of understanding in government of the specific employment patterns in many coastal towns", says the committee.

Coastal settings are attractive so lots of people want to move there. This trend has given coastal towns extremes of affordability. While some neighbourhoods feature good-quality homes accommodating relatively well-off retired people, other areas are characterised by low-grade private rented accommodation often aimed at claimants.

Regeneration in this setting is complex. There is often little land for building because of local geographical features, while people who have chosen to move to the coast often resist development. But if the government does not understand coastal towns, there are plenty of people who do.

One widespread impression is that they have high unemployment rates. But that is only part of the picture, the MPs found. Average employment levels differ little from inland towns, although some specific towns are badly affected. British Resorts and Destinations Association director Peter Hampson says the number of jobs has grown in many seaside towns but has failed to keep pace with population growth, meaning they never catch up economically.

He welcomes the report because he has long sought to persuade government that public policy does not fit coastal towns' circumstances.

"The allocation of resources does not recognise issues such as substantial in-migration of late middle-aged retirees who become elderly and so make demands on budgets but are not economically active," he argues. "An element of deprivation is also masked by wealth in towns that have been seen as genteel."

Hampson cites gives the example of transport, where projects tend to be assessed on the links they create. Since coastal towns often lie at the end of the line and "half their catchment area is fish", transport improvement proposals rarely look as good on cost-benefit analyses as inland ones.

The committee made two site visits during its inquiry - to Exmouth in East Devon and Margate in Thanet. "The number of people in jobs here is okay. But if you look at it in detail, the male part-time rate in Exmouth is three times the national average," says Karime Hassan, corporate director of environment at East Devon District Council.

"It is difficult to develop because of physical land supply issues and high levels of environmental protection," Hassan explains. "In classical regeneration practice you would attract developments, but these factors make that difficult, as does being at the end of transport links."

East Devon's other resorts illustrate the contrast between towns. Sidmouth and Budleigh Salterton are attractive Regency towns that have kept their rich patronage. But nearby Seaton, which grew as a cheap and cheerful holiday town, has seen visitor numbers plummet by 25 per cent in 20 years.

Lack of visitors leads to lower investment

"You get into a spiral of declining numbers, so there is also declining investment in attractions and wet weather facilities are almost non-existent," says Hassan. "Even when visitors do come, they do not stay overnight and they spend less." The council is trying to reverse these trends by marketing Seaton as the "Jurassic Coast Gateway".

Thanet Council chief executive Richard Samuel complains: "Not enough attention is paid to the coastal environment, which we pay to defend from being battered by the sea. There are no specific funds for this. If a cliff collapses we have to pay for it. We do it to protect inland areas but inland authorities pay nothing."

Alarm over climate change will make this issue more pressing. Samuel hopes the MPs' report will lead to a more sympathetic hearing in Whitehall.

Thanet has received high numbers of vulnerable adults and children in care, many placed by London boroughs to exploit cheaper accommodation.

This puts further strains on the local economy and creates a transient population that severely hampers regeneration efforts. Thanet's Cliftonville West ward has an average stay of just eight months by residents and 60 per cent private rented housing, six times the national avenge.

"The high turnover in population makes it very difficult to get interventions that work on schools, invalidity benefit, regeneration and economic initiatives," says Samuel. "Older people like to move by the sea and they tend to become ill or infirm. So you get a skewed population that is heavily dependent on public services."

Planners who fancy some sea air and spray in their faces will find plenty to occupy them on the coast. Programmes such as neighbourhood renewal and the New Deal for Communities have helped but do not fit coastal towns' needs easily. "We have to work with existing funding streams and try to join them at local level, but that is quite difficult if you are just a district council," laments Samuel.

MPS' RECOMMENDATIONS

- Coastal communities threatened by climate change should receive a fair and transparent national approach.

- Councils that place vulnerable people on the coast should take responsibility for the local financial consequences.

- More affordable homes should be provided in many coastal towns.

- The Department for Work and Pensions should investigate why so many benefit claimants move to the coast.

- The government should support a permanent network to spread best practice in coastal town regeneration.