By Mark Richards.

A House of Lords’ report has just suggested that poor broadband is harming the UK’s seaside towns. In truth, the malaise goes much deeper than that. So has the situation improved since we first wrote about it nearly two years ago? Or are the UK’s seaside towns really on the rocks…

Way back in the mists of time, in the Autumn of 2017 when people were still vaguely interested in Brexit and it would-all-be-sorted-out-soon anyway, we wrote about the decline of British seaside towns. Some of what we wrote then bears repeating:

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 non-partisan 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.

Has the situation improved since 2017?

In a word, no. If anything, it has got worse. In 2017 we pointed out a variety of reasons why seaside towns were doing so badly: poor transport links, the decline of traditional industries like fishing and poor educational achievement.

Since then, another factor has entered the equation: poor broadband connectivity. On Monday, we wrote about the 5G revolution and the opportunities it could bring to the UK, making the point that many rural areas in the UK – and, in particular, businesses in those areas, were suffering because of poor 4G connectivity. That an upgrade to 5G was useless if the phone companies decided it was not economically viable to connect you.

For ‘rural areas’ you can equally well read ‘seaside towns,’ with a new report from the House of Lords saying that seaside towns are being ‘killed’ by poor broadband. The Lords’ committee called on ministers to ‘support high-speed broadband in coastal areas’ saying ‘it would provide an opportunity to overcome the challenges of peripherality.’

Well, given that even Brexit seems to be second on our MPs’ priority list – an 11-day break over Easter is obviously at the top – you suspect that ‘broadband in Burnham-on-Sea’ could be a long way down the list.

I would simply repeat the point I made on Monday – broadband is about as essential as running water. Quite why successive governments have allowed the phone companies to decide which parts of the UK should or should not get broadband I have no idea.

Meanwhile, M&S is closing down…

When we first wrote about the decline of seaside towns back in 2017 there were plenty of dark clouds on the retail horizon. Now, it has started raining…

February brought news of the worst high street trading for ten years. Marks and Spencer’s are going to be closing more branches as they look to focus more on food and less on clothes. WH Smith is trading profitably at railway stations and airports – but not on the high street. Boots have announced that many of their stores are becoming unprofitable. Debenhams – even if Mike Ashley rides to the rescue – is teetering on the edge and if rural bank branches are closing at a record rate then seaside ones cannot be far behind.

Regular readers know that I live in Scarborough on the Yorkshire coast. Scarborough is a very long way from the most disadvantaged seaside town – it has a thriving creative community, a theatre with a worldwide reputation and is poised to benefit from the potash development on the North Yorkshire Moors – but over the next ten years it will face real challenges. The town currently has a Boots, Debenhams, M&S and WH Smiths. I cannot believe that more than two of those stores will still be open in 2030. One bank branch in the town centre has already closed: there are five others which must be vulnerable.

If I go 20 miles down the road to Bridlington, the future has already happened. M&S announced plans to close their store in the town last year: as town centres lose ‘anchor’ stores like this it makes it very difficult for neighbouring shops to survive. Inevitably that makes the town less attractive as a tourist destination, more shops close and the vicious circle intensifies…

Whitby Yorkshire UK - 25 June 2018: Looking down on Whitby through Whalebone sculpture

So what can seaside towns do?

If, however, I turn left out of my front door instead of the right, 20 miles takes me to Whitby. On a bright, sunny day Whitby is the quintessential English seaside town – when the rain is horizontal off the North Sea it is another matter, mind you…

Last time I went to Whitby – at the end of March – it was heaving. Smart little restaurants were springing up, the town has a specialist gin shop and it was almost impossible to find a parking place. What Whitby does have – which a town like Bridlington lacks – is a very strong identity.

You can tick off the main selling points of Whitby in a sentence. Close to the Moors – Heartbeat – Captain Cook – fishing port – fish and chips – Dracula – Goth festival.

Now clearly, Whitby got lucky when Bram Stoker had Dracula land there as opposed to Scarborough or Bridlington. No-one though wrote about the Goth weekend. It is now held twice a year and – like other small towns having food or literary festivals – it has really established a ‘brand’ for the town.

You’re on your own…

What is clear is that the UK’s seaside towns – whatever the House of Lords say – will get no real help from the government. So they are going to have to act independently: they are also going to have to act quickly. Online shopping is here to stay and the British weather is not going to suddenly replicate Southern Spain. The UK’s seaside towns may currently be on the rocks – but they are not yet out for the count.