1.When we think of the seaside, what images does it conjure in our minds? For many of us, the seaside brings back fond childhood memories. Tinted with sepia, it provokes remembrances of endless sunshine, ice creams, funfair rides, slot machines, playing in the sand and skipping carefree into the water. The memory plays tricks of course and we edit out the parts we found disagreeable: the uncomfortable train ride, the poor food, being stuck in the back of a car that took forever to reach its destination, uncomfortable boarding houses, and sometimes wet and windy, unforgiving esplanades.
2.The seaside of the 1950s and 60s, with their last hurrah for holidays without a flight to a far-flung destination, is a place that no longer exists. The British seaside is now just one of a number of destinations we can choose to take a break. We might go there for a weekend, perhaps a long one at that, but less often for more than a week. When the opportunity arises for a foreign holiday in warmer climes, more often than not, we take it.
3.All of this leaves those of us who care for and love the seaside with a dilemma. What should we do with the town which in less complicated times built an infrastructure which expected the annual summer influx of holiday makers desperate to spend their savings over a couple of weeks by the sea?
4.Our Committee, in looking at the issues facing today’s seaside towns, visited many of the traditional old style ‘bucket and spade’ resorts to learn how they were coping and see how they were re-inventing themselves for the future. Our findings may surprise some readers but not others. In some places, we found new thinking and reinvention, in others a litany of regret and a paucity of ambition. Occasionally, we found both at the same time.
5.It would be wrong to characterise the seaside economy as a uniform entity. Some, like Brighton and Bournemouth, conform to a model of reinvention that is not available to all. As a city, Brighton is well connected to London, the south east and its airports, and has developed a diverse economy. The University of Sussex and the development of the University of Brighton bring 35,000 talented young people to the city. The concentration of a significant health sector, including a medical school, has added to the vitality of the place. Its knowledge economy, embracing the new digital sector and media world, has made the city an attractive place to form and grow a business. Add in a busy conference industry and seafront attractions, including the recent addition of the i360, and the city is buzzing. Bournemouth has similar advantages. A university, a glorious seafront, a booming conference trade and spin-offs from the academic world make it a very pleasant place to live and visit.
6.Blackpool has been working hard to turn around its fortunes, with a revamped seafront, investment in the trams (shortly to be linked to the rail network), a newly electrified direct rail link to London and investment in hotels. Merlin, a big investor in leisure activities, now operates the iconic Tower and its ballroom, and works with the local authority to provide an entertainment offer that appeals to millions. The last set of data shows Blackpool at the top of the seaside destination leader board, as measured by visitor nights, and by quite a margin with nearly 19 million, followed by Brighton at 11 million and Bournemouth at 10 million. Nevertheless, serious deprivation persists in Blackpool and it may be that a focus on tourism development has not always helped and may even have hindered regeneration efforts.
7.Regrettably, there are many smaller towns on the coast that have seen their unique selling point diminish. These towns, many of them intrinsically attractive places to live and work, are home to significant populations, provide holidays and short vacations for millions of UK residents and overseas visitors, but face profound economic and social challenges. Their sense of isolation and ‘end of the line’ feel has left small town, seaside communities overlooked and feeling unloved by the Government, local councils, service providers and businesses alike. We met many people in such communities who were delighted that, at last, someone was listening to their concerns and worries, and at least wanted to try and promote their interests.
8.Our report is not an all-encompassing manifesto for the seaside, but it does aim to set out a broad vision and present some ideas to help the process of regeneration that many local visionaries in our seaside communities have begun. For the most part, we want to avoid top down solutions imposed from Whitehall and afar. We argue that those best placed to build the seaside towns of the future are local people. They represent the seaside’s best hope. We met plenty of groups and individuals who simply wanted the freedom to grow and the right support, sometimes financial, sometimes not, to help them develop.
9.So, what is our vision for the future of the UK’s seaside towns, what part should it play in our island’s future?
10.We believe that for too long our seaside towns have felt isolated, unsupported and left behind. These communities want a share of the things that have made our country prosperous and successful. The seaside and our coastal heritage are part of our country’s greatest assets. Regrettably, the British seaside has been perceived as a sort of national embarrassment. We forget the value of its assets at our peril. It hosts great architectural achievements and a rich Victorian and Edwardian history. It accommodates more than 10% of the UK’s population, all of whom should have the same opportunities as those afforded elsewhere. It deserves our attention.
11.To see a renaissance in our coastal communities, a host of, often interlinked, areas of public policy will require consideration. We have identified the following elements as integral to the fulfilment of our optimistic vision for seaside communities:
12.Sustainable, successful regeneration is achievable, if we can create the conditions to enable investors to come forward. We need not be mesmerised by complexity. If cross-sectoral partnerships can be nurtured, if national and local government can remove impediments and provide a supportive environment, then local communities, their entrepreneurs and visionaries, can transform our seaside towns.
The English coastal town of Seaminster is hailed as a model of successful seaside regeneration. This mid-scale seaside resort, an hour and a half’s train journey from its nearest city, had been in a slow but steady decline since the 1970s, leaving much of its fine Victorian infrastructure neglected and unloved. As its once-thriving tourism industry shrank, lack of opportunity meant that young people headed inland for higher education and jobs. Most never returned, leaving behind an increasingly isolated and ageing population. Low productivity, under-investment in the public realm, and a cluster of former B&Bs converted on the cheap into poor quality Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs), all contributed to a complex web of social and economic problems, leaving Seaminster among the most deprived communities in its region.
Then, ten years ago, things began to change. A small group of local creative industry business owners and arts organisations started meeting regularly in the bar of a seafront hotel to network and socialise. By coincidence, a gathering of local hoteliers and tourism managers took place at the same time, and the two groups decided to join forces. Both were exasperated by the tacit approach of managed decline that public agencies had adopted, and both shared an abiding love for Seaminster. They loved its romance and its grit: the shabby little harbour with its much-depleted trawler fleet; the stubby pier with its illuminations and tatty amusements; the salty air and the stink of rotting seaweed on certain tides; the old rock shop and the famous Seaminster scallops. They recognised that, like most seaside towns, Seaminster was built on solid foundations: originally a place of health and wellbeing bringing respite from city life, it later became a liminal zone, where normal social rules didn’t quite apply – where fun, creativity, unconventionality and misrule had freer rein than elsewhere.
Crucially the local tourism businesses realised that trying to lure visitors back to a failing offer was a lost cause. They saw that they needed to bring the whole community along in a shared endeavour to re-make Seaminster as a great place to live, to study, to work and play, and to bring up a family. If they could get that formula right, they reasoned, the visitors would return.
Creativity, sustainability and wellbeing were put at the heart of the endeavour, both as a means of diversifying and growing the local economy, and as an accessible way of getting the whole community on board with the process of change. Local champions emerged, and a public debate was held in the local media about what the community’s priorities should be. Gradually, an ambitious plan was forged: multi-faceted, inclusive, building from the grassroots up. Jointly, the groups approached the local Council. Although hard-pressed financially, the Council agreed to put its weight - and a small amount of resource - behind the emerging vision for Seaminster’s renewal.
They reached out to the town’s diaspora, aiming to rope in people who shared their passionate feelings about the place. One such Seaminster émigré was a property writer on a national newspaper; she led a media campaign to raise the town’s profile. Another was a partner at an international bank, he persuaded colleagues and friends to join him in setting up a pension-based investment vehicle that went on to acquire several large, dilapidated wharf buildings in the harbour and convert them into creative workspaces, cafés and restaurants.
Dozens of small initiatives were welcomed and supported – the all-year sea-bathing group got an interest free loan to open a sauna on the beach; a local business sponsored the new Seaminster Marathon; walking and cycling groups were formed, as were reading groups, a ska music festival, a yarn-bombing collective and a film-making co-operative. The annual trawler race and town carnival were both reinvigorated and new events, including a biennial Festival of Lights and an annual Pirate Day, were introduced.
The Vice-Chancellor of the university in the nearest city became an enthusiastic supporter of the regeneration project. He persuaded the Local Enterprise Partnership and the Higher Education Funding Council to support a plan to make Seaminster a test-bed for sustainable innovation, with a task force piloting new ideas - a district heat network, a time-banking project, local purchasing schemes and affordable finance. The university launched a research observatory to monitor the impact of these and other projects on the local community. And thanks to a philanthropic investment, full fibre super-fast broadband was rolled out to all businesses, making Seaminster a magnet for digital and creative businesses in search of a balance between opportunity and the good life.
Importantly, the Department for Education agreed to extend the Education Opportunity Area it had already been planning so that it now covered Seaminster. This freed up the school curriculum, brought in technical skills for younger children and gave schools a broader mission than a narrow focus on results, leading to a significant impact on school standards and on young people’s aspirations. The university, the sixth form college and local businesses worked together to address the skills gap, and introduced flexible apprenticeships that worked around the seasonal nature of the local economy.
Now, young families have started returning to the town, attracted in part by low property prices. A range of heritage and cultural projects are underway, and new cafés and restaurants are occupying once-empty properties on the high street. A new spa hotel is in the offing. Even the taxi drivers have begun to talk the place up. The debate in the local media has shifted from: “Is our town dying?” to “How can we ensure local people aren’t being pushed out as Seaminster regenerates?” Seaminster’s problems are far from solved, but the long period of decline has retreated, and the town’s trajectory is unquestionably upwards.
But there’s a catch. To quote George Orwell in his famous essay about the perfect pub, the fabled Moon Under Water: “Now is the time to reveal something which the discerning and disillusioned reader will probably have guessed already.” There is no such place as Seaminster.
But the challenges identified here are shared by many of our struggling seaside towns. And the types of solutions put forward, whilst simplified and streamlined, have been found to work in places that have successfully regenerated themselves. The hallmarks are consistent: sound planning; partnership working; an inclusive, place-based, bottom-up approach; an emphasis on education, creativity, entrepreneurship and sustainability; and a focus on realising the exceptional quality of life that seaside living can uniquely offer.
13.We were struck by a substantial seaside regeneration project, known as ‘Victoria Quarter’, being undertaken in New Brighton on the Wirral.2 Its ultimate outcome is unknown, it is work in progress, but we are persuaded that the project’s characteristics are worthy of amplification; indeed, they chime with many of the elements of successful regeneration which we identify above.
14.Mr Daniel Davies, Chairman of the Institute of Licensing and an investor and entrepreneur who has personally financed the scheme, set out a familiar background. New Brighton had been a quintessential Victorian seaside town, flourishing until the 1960s. However, a decline in tourism thereafter, combined with a range of other factors, had seen the town’s fortunes dwindle and its image suffer.
15.The evidence suggested that, Mr Davies explained, “seaside towns that have seen the most success in shaking off the negative image … are those that have identified their own special character and unique selling points.” This did not, however, demand a reliance upon “a generic ‘seaside’ image, which is outdated in some respects, and can be unattractive to a modern demographic, who consider the whole of the world to be relatively accessible to them in destination terms.”
16.Instead, people need a reason to visit their seaside towns and their motivation “cannot be dependent upon tourism, or even the season.” Most seaside towns, Mr Davies argued, could “boast of something that is special and unique to them alone”, whether that be “a combination of inherent geography, history, geology and ecology, and a host of other factors besides, including created features, such as attractions and culture.”
17.In terms of the specifics of the Victoria Quarter project in New Brighton, Mr Davies explained that the proposal was to provide small affordable business units and shared space rental opportunities, in order to encourage small independent businesses and start-up ventures. These businesses would be “encouraged to cluster in symbiotic groups, and support and feed off each other; cooperating in terms of sharing their facilities and resources, and in terms of supplying one another with complementary custom.” Businesses were already signing up to occupy the Victoria Quarter, we were informed.
18.This retail offering was being coupled with enhanced food and drink amenities in the vicinity; the idea being to attract visitors to the Victoria Quarter “all day long, and turn day time trade into evening and night time trade, for a full day experience.”
19.Mr Davies stressed the importance of “the creation of energy”, something which was clearly observable in the Victoria Quarter. Long established businesses on Victoria Road “that have become, by their own admission, stale and jaded, have received an injection of optimism and enthusiasm by the influx of new businesses and the energy that they bring.”
20.In essence, the proposed regeneration of the Victoria Quarter was about harnessing the established phenomenon of the cluster effect. Mr Davies elaborated:
“Deliberate clustering is a solution, but this takes coordinated investment and positive planning, both private and public. Clustering benefits from coordinated activity between the businesses; cooperating and synergising their offers. This can be done by such means as themed days and events, and targeted, coordinated marketing, particularly through social media. Small and independent businesses are particularly good at doing this, and have a flexibility that bigger chains cannot enjoy. Small businesses do not have the layers of departments and bureaucracy to go through, and they can take immediate ownership of their ideas and make rapid decisions.”
21.In terms of the ingredients for the success of the project, Mr Davies identified a range of elements, which included:
22.Mr Davies concluded: “Many elements of the project can be analysed and used as a model of seaside regeneration, and although it is too early to say what the final outcome will be, the early signs are very good. In the spirit of communication and dialogue, the success stories of regeneration from all locations around the country need to be shared, so that lessons can be learned, and positive experiences replicated wherever possible.”3 We agree, as we do with Mr Davies’s emphasis on “planning, zoning and having a longterm plan. It needs a 10 or 15-year plan, not a sticking plaster.”4
23.As we were in the process of finalising our report, we received an update on the progress of the project.5 It would appear that strong headway is being made with the upcoming focus being on:
24.Over the coming year, we were told, the project hopes to see increases in:
And decreases in:
Ultimately, we hope that see the area grow into a bustling area where people work, live and visit - with lively, social streets and a thriving, happy community.”6
25.In the chapters that follow, we consider the public policy challenges that must be met to make our vision a reality, and to allow more places like New Brighton to seize the initiative and begin to improve their offering for visitors and residents alike. First, however, we briefly provide some background to our inquiry and explain how we have approached our task.
1 Anheier and Leat (2006): Association for the Study and Development of Community (2007) cited in Lankelly Chase, Historical review of place based approaches (October 2017) p 5: https://lankellychase.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Historical-review-of-place-based-approaches.pdf [accessed 6 March 2019]