AA decade ago, politicians and journalists were suddenly confronted with an issue that had always been at the edge of the national conversation: the dire state of England’s coastal towns, and their deep social problems.
The referendum that will pull us out of the EU is a few years away, but one of the key factors that brought it about is already clear: the rise of the UK Independence party, and a surge of grievances and complaints with especially the strong East coast roots. In 2014, the faded Essex resort of Clacton held a byelection which resulted in Tory turncoat Douglas Carswell becoming the first of two elected Ukip MPs. His new party is doing equally strong political business in the coastal towns clustering in Norfolk and Lincolnshire.
In the run-up to the vote for Brexit, areas such as Blackpool, Great Yarmouth, Canvey Island and Margate were among the most enthusiastic sources of support for the leave side. As Nigel Farage and his friends have said, many people in the cities are worried and angry about immigration. But as I know from repeated reporting trips, what they often talk about are things that Ukip rarely talk about: terrible public transport, poor housing, no opportunities for young people -on, and the local economy effectively died within half a year.
After the result, politicians and journalists continue a kind of guilty interest in the kind of “left-behind” places that look at the sea. But then, in view of the 2019 elections, there will be a change. The most vivid political stories suddenly seem to center on the old coalfields and former factory towns grouped by the so-called “red wall”. That ongoing story is accompanied by the so-called “blue wall”: Tory-held seats in the south of England where disaffected Remainers are looking to other parties. There were some difficult attempts to conceptualize a “sea wall” centered on the coastal constituencies, but they failed to take off: the situation of the coastal cities remained as clear as before, but they fell again on the political sidelines. .
Among many others, this is one of the stories running through a brilliant new book entitled The Seaside: England’s Love Affair, by former Guardian writer Madeleine Bunting. It is a travelogue, an impressive work of social history, a loving celebration and so much more. But a terrible English irony burns on almost every page: the fact that the places most of us still associate with fun, noisy entertainment and the healthful sea air are also full of isolation, misery and poor health.
Each chapter contains a sobering passage that relates basic truths. “Over 80% of residents in Skegness and Mablethorpe live in areas categorized as the 20% most deprived in England. Around a third of residents have no or low qualifications… The unique streets in Scarborough is translated into a terrible set of health statistics on diseases of despair: suicide in the town is 61% higher than the national average, and hospital admissions are 60% more high … Despite the success of Margate’s regeneration, parts of the town center are still one of the most deprived in the country; it has three places in the top half of the percentage of the index of extreme deprivation .”
What all these numbers show is the reality of living on the edge, in every sense. Coastal towns are often not only far from Westminster, but also on the periphery of local government districts, and therefore neglected even by their own councils. They tend not to have any institutions of higher education. And their public transport is particularly terrible: this week’s story about the nationalization of the failed train operator TransPennine Express, for example, is not only about Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester, but the places where terrible rail transport mixes of economic problems: Redcar, Scarborough, Cleethorpes, Hull, Grimsby.
Such are the consequences of a negligence that can be seen even when people in positions of power are in the mood to help. One of the most telling parts of last year’s leveling up white paper is a seemingly reflexive tendency to fold coastal areas into the general description of problem areas – “Areas of coastal towns and cities”, “former industrial centers and many coastal communities” – and thus underplay their specific issues. A similar sense of understatement surrounds the government’s £229m coastal communities fund. As one of the most damning parts of Bunting’s book explains, it was spread pathetically thin: £1.6m to refurbish the center of Bognor Regis, £1.4m for “a visitor center in Walton- on-the-Naze”, £1.2 m for Hastings’ new food court.
And then there are the government’s plans for so-called freeports, full of promises of thousands of new jobs. These deregulated, low-tax zones – still shrouded in secrecy – are the cheapest kind of innovation option, reflecting the old laissez-faire idea that if the state gets out of the way, it’s a ways open the way to dynamism and innovation. But without massive improvements in transportation, housing, training, education and everything else, the kind of employers who can offer more than low-paying, dangerous work will never rise. Besides, the plans focus on many existing commercial ports, not coastal communities as a whole: even if their supposed miracles happen, they won’t touch most of the UK’s coastline.
Elsewhere, there are glimmers of hope. The £28bn annual Labor party pledge to spend on new climate measures – which sit alongside other plans for government-led investment in deprived areas – has clear benefits for in coastal areas, especially because of the centrality of coastal plans. wind The promised “take back control” bill will increase the responsibilities of the local councils, and thus bring some decisions closer to the areas they will affect. But as always, more radical thinking might be a good idea. Within the central government, coastal communities should have their own dedicated minister. Groups of coastal cities should perhaps be grouped into federations led by like-minded mayors, and given responsibility for collective regeneration plans, along with the kind of considerable power of spending that politicians in Westminster don’t want to talk about.
Last summer, I was on a family holiday not far from Minehead, a coastal town on the edge of Somerset long associated with deprivation, scarce work opportunities and a sense of sadness about being cut off. It is indeed a gloriously situated place, not found in a strange headland, with an elegant wide main street and a beautiful beach. It is 60 miles from Bristol and about 40 from Exeter: when working from home, it can improve.
But apart from the steam trains that whisk tourists across the surrounding countryside, its 12,000 residents have no train service: the town’s station was closed in 1971. Like many other places, the choices are made in distant centers of power that condemn it to long years of stagnation and decay. Now, instead of exploring coastal towns one day and forgetting about them the next, shouldn’t we give them what they need?