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Creative Potential
Planning – 6 March 2009

Scarborough is reaping the rewards of developing its cultural community as a key element in its programme to create a year-round economy for the resort, reports Mark Smulian.

Planners are always urged to involve the public in shaping policies. But few take this to the lengths seen in Scarborough. Winning the title of the UK's most enterprising town in the government's Enterprising Britain 2008 competition followed a decade of work to turn round the fortunes of the Yorkshire resort, which had been down on its luck.

Scarborough is a long way from any other major population centre, communications are poor and the traditional economic staples of fishing and tourism have been in decline for decades. By 2002, when it was named an urban renaissance town, unemployment was twice the North Yorkshire average and more than a third of residents lived in neighbourhoods that featured among the most deprived 20 per cent in the country.

The town faced other intractable problems. Negative or inaccurate public perceptions proved hard to shift. Scarborough Borough Council detected "a deep-rooted lack of confidence in the town's future among its residents", compounded by a brain drain of young people leaving to study and never returning.

In response the council, regional development agency Yorkshire Forward and local businesses and interest groups formed the Scarborough Renaissance Partnership. A community planning conference in 2002 led to the formation of Town Team, on which all the partners are represented. It meets regularly and is open to everyone who wants to participate. Action groups have been formed to deal with specific issues.

The overall programme was dubbed Waking Sleeping Beauty. "Some excellent documents arose from that conference. The community thought that it seemed more genuine than anything it had seen before so it decided that it would give it a go," says urban renaissance manager Nick Taylor, a former hotelier.

Taylor's job move was not as incongruous as it might appear, he insists. "Running big hotels, you think all the time about how to present them so they are places that people want to visit. It is a matter of applying that thinking to the whole town." What kind of business might want to come to Scarborough and why has informed the whole approach.

The council's planning and regeneration manager Pauline Elliott says one early decision was to integrate professional activities so the town's rebirth would be cohesive. "We use planning as a tool to deliver regeneration. I have worked in places where the two are quite separate. We have a joint department and planning officers are brought in early on developments so we have very detailed pre-application discussions."

Town Team has attracted 200 million of private investment, with 10 pulled in for every 1 invested by the public sector. The community is consulted early on through the action groups in the renaissance partnership. "This gets us input from people who would probably never respond to a statutory notice," Elliott explains.

The programme looked to the pleasant coastal environment and the high proportion of people engaged in creative industries as the two routes to rebuild its economy. "Their presence was hidden and hard to harness for economic improvement. We focused on the idea of a creative centre with web designers, artists, writers and so forth who could work anywhere but liked being here for the coastal lifestyle," says Taylor.

"Now we have a cultural quarter and an old museum converted into a centre designed to attract others who will make a similar lifestyle choice." It also helps that any investment attracted to Scarborough is likely to stay. Its location makes long-distance commuting impractical, so people who work in the town tend to live and spend their salaries there.

While the town is attractive to the growing short-break holiday market, Scarborough's hotels and restaurants had seen distinctly better days, which deterred potential visitors. To tackle this, the partnership set up an annual tourism awards scheme to encourage owners to invest in their businesses. "We use the results in promoting the town as a more upmarket venue than people perhaps think," says Taylor.

The council wants the revived tourism economy and the new creative one to mesh together. One example can be seen on the South Beach, previously home to what Elliott calls "traditional" seaside facilities. The Sandside area had declined along with the town's fishing fleet. The harbour has now been dredged and additional berths and facilities added, while the area's public realm has been improved.

These initiatives have brought some progress towards the overall objective of a year-round economy, Elliott claims. Taylor adds: "Sandside now has coffee bars and restaurants and has drawn in investors who would not previously have looked at Scarborough. The council put in free wi-fi, so you see people going down there to work. Some people finish work at 4pm and come down to the beach to surf."

October used to bring a marked dip in employment as tourist attractions closed down for the winter. But last year this phenomenon was absent, with no significant seasonal change recorded. Tourism still accounts for 18 per cent of local jobs but creative industries now exceed this at 19 per cent. Furthermore, Scarborough will be able to accommodate newcomers attracted by this growing reputation. Despite the credit crunch, the town has demanding targets for building homes.

The district is largely rural and bounded on one side by the sea and on the other by the North York Moors national park, which means that most development will be in Scarborough itself. Targets of 430 homes a year between 2004 and 2008 will be increased to 560 homes a year up to 2026. Fortunately, the bulk of the town's existing stock is in reasonable condition. Social housing does not show any significant dilapidation and is only blighted in one small area by the conversion of a clutch of old bed-and-breakfast hotels into multiple occupation.

Elliott says the next focus for regeneration will be on the town's lagging levels of educational attainment. "There are shortages both of basic skills and at the top end and we will engage with some areas of worklessness," she explains. The University of Hull's semi-autonomous outpost in the town teaches courses aligned with its emerging position in the creative industries, such as music technology, theatre, digital design and business management. It also takes advantage of its location to teach leisure and tourism management and coastal marine biology.

For the future, the town wants to add learning to its creative and cultural industries with expansion of both the university campus and the local college. The idea is to attract students in creative subjects and then retain them when they graduate, following the path proven by other university towns that a high proportion of graduates in the local economy significantly drives up prosperity. A particular emphasis will be on connecting people from the more disadvantaged areas so they can take advantage of the opportunities offered and the town can avoid the problems of an economic divide.

Scarborough beat 11 other finalists from each English region, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to win Enterprising Britain 2008. One of the judges, Peter Jones from the BBC's Dragons Den, says: "Scarborough is a town with enterprise in its blood. The Waking Sleeping Beauty name is apt. This is a town that has learnt to tap into its latent entrepreneurial talent and harness it with tremendous results."

Sector Strategy

Many towns talk hopefully about using creative industries as an economic driver. Since realising in 2002 that the sector was unco-ordinated and lacked clear strategic direction, Scarborough has turned aspiration into reality.

The Creative Driver Partnership is a public-private body set up to lead growth. Another organisation, Creative Coast, acts as a support network providing expertise and enabling businesses to keep in touch with each other, boosting efforts to rebuild the town's economic base.

A building that was once the home of the Sitwell literary family and later a museum has been refurbished as the Woodend project. The 5 million space accommodates 20 to 30 small businesses including designers, photographers, artists, jewellers and writers.

Writer Roger Osborne, who runs the High Tide local listings website from the centre, says: "It is a nice community. A lot of us have clients outside Scarborough and work via the internet. The number of people also means that there is now an audience if anyone puts on music, films or performances."

Another building, the Rotunda, has been extended and restored to serve its original purpose as a geological museum. The Spa conference and performance complex has been refurbished to attract larger events and work is nearing completion on a 32ha business park on the town's outskirts that is expected to generate 2,000 jobs over the next decade.