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Resorts on the Rocks
Planning – 6 November 2009

Many seaside towns are now looking to a mix of cultural regeneration and higher education to tide them through the ongoing uncertainty over economic prospects and restrictions on public spending. Mark Smulian reports.

This was expected to be the "staycation" summer, when recession-hit Britons swapped the Spanish "costas" for the domestic coastline. Whether that happened remains a matter for conjecture, but the hope in coastal towns was that economic gloom would at least bring them some good fortune.

They certainly need it. The picture of deprivation, inward migration of economically inactive people, transient populations, poor-quality housing and physical isolation that the Commons communities and local government committee highlighted nearly three years ago is unchanged. The difference is that public sector funding is drying up and places whose regeneration depends on it will suffer, no matter who holidays there.

According to University of Sussex academic director of local and regional relationships Professor Fred Gray, it could be time for some lateral thought for planners in coastal towns. __His recent research for the South East England Development Agency on coastal towns' economic challenges concluded that culture and higher education can provide a viable partial substitute for unaffordable regeneration.

The report looked at Bognor Regis, Folkestone, Margate and Portsmouth - the latter a city with historical attractions rather than a conventional resort. They all suffer from high levels of economic and social deprivation, unfulfilled economic potential and significant environmental and built environment challenges, Gray observes. A common problem is the blight on fresh investment caused by concentrations of dilapidated former holiday accommodation in close proximity to their centres.

Yet cheap housing can attract people involved in creative endeavours and these towns show increasing levels of investment in cultural infrastructure and activity. "Creative and cultural businesses combine to make places more exciting and better to live in and visit, offer ways of engaging with communities in areas of multiple deprivation and provide some of the conditions in which a forward-looking business community can flourish," Gray observes.

Higher education is the other key ingredient. The two sectors feed off each other. "Students have become the new holidaymakers," Gray observes. They stay in coastal towns for at least 30 weeks of the year and spend substantial sums. They may get to like the town and stay on once they graduate, boosting the economy with an annual influx of well-educated people.

A Bournemouth University economic impact study found that the institution contributed 172.5 million to the local economy in 2007 and supported 1,055 jobs, while students spent 90 million a year in the area. The spread of the university sector to former polytechnics and colleges means that places such as Blackpool, Bognor Regis, Folkestone and Southend-on-Sea can now call themselves university towns.

Folkestone suffered economic disaster when ferry services to France ended with the opening of the Channel Tunnel. It has benefited from the opening of University Centre Folkestone, a joint venture by Canterbury Christ Church and Greenwich Universities that focuses on the performing and visual arts and creative industries. Located in Folkestone's creative quarter, it could "strengthen the educational, cultural and economic regeneration of this part of town", Gray suggests.

Bognor Regis is less disadvantaged but still needs to raise its education and skills levels. The Bognor Regis Regeneration Task Force, established by Arun District Council, acts as a single point of contact for external investors on planning and regeneration. Bognor has benefited from an improbable partnership between the University of Chichester, which plans a creative and cultural industries facility, and Butlins, which has carried out a 10 million refit of its Shoreline Hotel and Conference Centre.

Margate, which faces the worst deprivation in Gray's survey, has no higher education presence and is relying on culture to reinvent itself. Its two main projects are Turner Contemporary and Dreamland. Turner Contemporary will be the "high culture" focus, a new gallery devoted to modern art in one of the UK's most deprived wards. Dreamland, the iconic amusement park that closed in 2006, is due to be reborn as a heritage amusement park.

Gray concludes that the recession has "profound implications for coastal communities in particular because it endangers recent economic growth and threatens regeneration progress". Private investment is frozen or abandoned and planning gain has all but dried up as a source of regeneration finance, he notes.

"It is quite uncertain how soon, if at all, planning gain will begin to work again with sufficient return to enable lower-priority projects such as culture to benefit."

But he advises: "Cultural regeneration can continue to be promoted as an inventive, economical and socially cohesive means of delivering regeneration while more conventional commercial approaches are postponed or cancelled. The role of cultural activity as the provider of some of the glue that holds communities together may be more highly valued as the recession continues, people lose jobs, income and confidence and crime and antisocial behaviour begin to rise."

Artists, he points out, are used to working inventively and stretching the pounds with which they work. Artistic and cultural organisations "often move quickly, lightly and laterally in ways that more formal, statutory or quasi-statutory bodies cannot". He concludes: "A cluster of smaller-scale projects devised eclectically and driven by local creative passions has a dynamic and a potential for quick delivery and unexpected outcomes in ways that large-scale set-piece infrastructure almost always envies."

However, British Resorts and Destinations Association director Peter Hampson is sceptical about how far this approach can go. "There will be less public sector money in future, but I would be wary of relying on culture to fill that gap," he remarks. "There is a vital need to tackle housing and deprivation. The way seaside towns grew means that you tend to have the worst deprivation near the commercial centre. That has a deterrent effect on business and investment when dereliction is so alarmingly apparent."

He sees coastal towns' salvation in more traditional terms. "Anecdotally there is some evidence of the staycation, but surveys are only done a year later," he says. "People who have visited UK resorts tend to like what they see and come back. But whether they go in the first place is another matter because the image is far worse than the product itself. The issue is to get people who have grown up going abroad all the time to sample it."

Blackpool

Having once thrived as the north's main holiday resort, Blackpool is now the 12th most deprived area in England. It has the country's lowest male life expectancy and its centre is awash with bedsit accommodation of questionable quality. But the town now boasts a number of festivals and events that are taking it in a different direction. It is home to Carnesky's ghost train, an innovation in which actors recreate real events for passengers, and boasts arts spaces on top of its new coastal defences.

"We are becoming a centre for 'new variety', which is seen as cool," says Blackpool Council director of business development Alan Cavill. "We have the Showzam festival, which has novelty acts in the style of the 1930s to 1950s, contortionists and people who dress up strangely and sing. It's not Ken Dodd, it is retro stuff."

A new University of Lancaster campus is expected to host 4,500 students, many engaged in creative courses associated with the town's traditions in theatre, lighting, events and photography. "There is very much a university and cultural industries link. There is even a course in display lighting that draws on the illuminations, which are all made in Blackpool," says Cavill.

Southend-on-Sea

Southend-on-Sea, famous for the world's longest pier and its own Golden Mile of amusement arcades and attractions, is bidding to become the UK's first Capital of Culture in 2013, an ambition that may surprise those unfamiliar with the Essex resort.

Yet Southend's experience shows how higher education and culture can come together to drive regeneration. The town hosts an enlarged further education college and a University of Essex campus. Its bid builds on a number of arts festivals and attractions such as the annual free air show and the Metal arts and regeneration group's headquarters at Chalkwell Hall (Planning, 30 October, p16). There are 650 residential places in the town centre for students, who provide an out-of-season customer base for amusements, theatres, restaurants, pubs and cultural events. The location of the campuses next to the main station on the High Street has advantages, explains Southend-on-Sea Borough Council chief executive Rob Tinlin.

"It encourages the use of public transport and brings an extra bustle to the town centre. It has created a strong footfall there from students and staff and that has improved the evening economy," he notes. Southend has far fewer empty shops than comparable towns, he adds. "All the main stores that might appeal to students are opening here."