Author Mark Richards

Many of the country’s poorest areas are in coastal communities – with new evidence emerging that living by the sea can be damaging for your health and your wealth. What – if anything – can the country do about it?

It is generally held that Scarborough in North Yorkshire was Britain’s first seaside resort. By the middle of the 18th Century, the bathing machines were being wheeled into the sea as the wealthy and the landed gentry ‘took the waters,’ convinced that they would magically cure whatever ailed them.

But if you go back in history, Scarborough loses its claim to fame – to Mersea Island in Essex, a seaside resort for wealthy Romans living in Colchester.

It was the development of the railways – starting around 1840 – that really led to the boom in seaside towns, making them accessible to the middle and working classes. The completion of a branch line led to rapid expansion in a small seaside town called Blackpool, as Lancashire mill owners closed their mills and the factory hands flocked to the seaside – and with the factories in different towns closing in different weeks the summer season was born. That was that: people would always want holidays and the future of the English seaside town was assured.

But nothing lasts for ever: package holidays arrived. Blackpool lost out to Benidorm. Then inland holiday destinations were developed: Skegness might be bracing – but if you had children to entertain on a wet day, Center Parcs was a lot more attractive. The summer season gave way to short breaks – and gradually traditional English seaside towns declined.

Today the situation is serious – far from ‘taking the waters’ because it is good for your health, a new report suggests that living in many seaside towns is both bad for your health – and for your wealth.

The report, from the Social Market Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank, has revealed that some of the poorest areas in the country are seaside towns – with five of the 10 local authorities with the highest unemployment (in the three months to March 2017) being ‘beside the seaside.’ These were Hartlepool, North Ayrshire, Torridge (in north Devon), Hastings and South Tyneside and Sunderland.

Not only are you less likely to have a job if you live at the seaside: if you do have a job you are likely to be less well-paid. Of the 96 local authorities on the coast, 85% had pay levels below the UK average in 2016. The SMF’s report suggests that average wages are £3,600 a year lower in these ‘pockets of deprivation.’

We all know of the link between low pay and poor health and not surprisingly, ten of the 20 local authorities in England and Wales with the highest proportion of people in poor health are coastal. These include some of the areas mentioned above – as well as Blackpool. Clearly, a walk on the Golden Mile a day does not keep the doctor away.

Why have coastal communities done so badly?

There are a variety of reasons – not least among them poor transport links and, by definition, a local area that is defined by the sea. Some seaside towns – Blackpool is a good example – have a motorway leading more or less straight to them. Others are far less well served by road and anyone who has ever driven to Great Yarmouth will know how interminable the journey is. I have done it once in my life and felt like I had been driving so long that Velkommen til Kobenhavn signs would be just around the next corner.

Coastal communities

If you’re in Nottingham then Derby, Leicester, Sheffield and the motorway system are all within easy reach. If you’re in Skegness, then Boston, Mapplethorpe and the North Sea are your potential markets. And your high-speed artery to the rest of the world is the A158…

In addition, many seaside towns are tied to the decline of traditional industries –, especially fishing. It is small wonder that many seaside communities voted so strongly for Brexit after what they felt was years of unfair competition from Europe.

An even more worrying trend for coastal communities is poor educational achievement – the two local authorities in England and Wales with the smallest number of over-16s holding at least level four qualifications (that is BTEC, NVQ and above) are Great Yarmouth and Castle Point in Essex. This means that if successful business does start in a coastal community they very often have to move inland to continue growing, simply because the pool of talent at the coast is too small.

Are any seaside towns succeeding?

Of course, there are. Brighton is the most obvious example, with a thriving creative and media economy as well as the traditional tourism industry. But Brighton is only 50 miles from London and 25 miles from Gatwick. Just 35 miles from Brighton (and 70 miles from London) is Hastings – highlighted by the SMF report as an area that is struggling, and illustrating very graphically that seaside towns can be pockets of deprivation in even the most prosperous regions of the country.

What is the Government doing about it?

The ‘tool’ which the Government currently uses to try and help seaside towns is the Coastal Communities Fund which – having launched in 2012 – has so far provided £170m for 278 projects around the UK. Typical examples include a new conference centre in Blackpool’s Winter Gardens and improvements to Southport’s pier.

Showing that he had no real grasp of the problems, Coastal Communities Minister, Jake Berry (the MP for Rossendale and Darwen, which is not a coastal community…) said, “This is looking like another record year for staycations [and] our new round of funding will attract even more visitors so that our coastal communities can thrive.” He added,

“Our coastal towns have a lot to offer all year round.” Hmmm… The Honourable Gentleman has clearly never been to Filey in February…

Yes, seaside towns may have had a reasonably good summer this year – bikes, car parts and roof box retailer Halfords has just reported like-for-like sales up 3.5% in the 20 weeks to August 18th, largely due to those ‘staycations’ – more and more British people opting to holiday at home thanks to the fall in the pound over the last 12 months.

But long-term, a ‘reasonably good summer’ is not the answer. If the pound strengthens post-Brexit, then everyone who took a staycation this year will be re-discovering the joys of a Greek beach. In the long term, British coastal communities need serious investment in training and transport links. The projected bill for phase 1 of HS2 has already soared to £48bn – the money provided by the Coastal Communities Fund since 2012 is 0.35% of that. There is something to think about as you sit in your deck chair under your kiss-me-quick hat…