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Flotsam and jetsam. Britain’s quiet coastal disaster

April 10th, 2018

They say that if the outer 50 kilometres of Australia were to fall into the sea, the population of that island continent would drop by 85%. Britain doesn’t have the large hinterland that Australia possesses, but if Britain were to be attacked by a giant cookie cutter from space, it’s not at all clear that some of the places crimped off would get any less attention than before.

The whole idea of going to the seaside is a relatively new idea. Brighton, Bournemouth and Blackpool are all sizeable places. All three were founded in their modern form in the wake of the Industrial Revolution.

For 100 years, the British seaside was a place of raucous excitement, a place of kiss me quick hats and sticks of rock. Then slowly it began to wane. Workers had for 51 weeks of the year contemplated seven days of sun, sea and sex. Package holidays to the Mediterranean allowed them to get more of all three elsewhere. So the country’s seaside towns began to be squeezed slowly.

What do you do if you want to turn round a town centred on an industry in long term decline? You can specialise. Many seaside towns have successfully done just that: for example, Padstow has become a food destination, Aldeburgh has become a music destination and Margate now trades surprisingly successfully on its art heritage.

It turned out that the middle classes were willing to pay for an artisan ice cream and stay in tasteful luxury as they did so, not worrying too much about the uncertainties of the British weather. That only worked, however, for places that had something extra to sell and that had a charm that extended beyond a sandy beach and a gaudy pier. You can’t make bricks without straw.

You can double down, looking to increase market share of a declining market. Blackpool tried this for many years. The difficulty with that approach is that at some point the market declines to a point where increased market share is no longer available.

Or you can go into different industries. Both Brighton and Bournemouth did this fairly successfully. Neither is now unhealthily dependent on tourism. But many tourist resorts are relatively remote, giving rise to serious problems of infrastructure and logistics. This is not a serious option for many places.

So while some seaside resorts made the transition, others did not. The social consequences have been unfolding for a generation. As a consequence of their low accommodation costs (all those empty rooms), many seaside towns have acquired a population who are too rootless to be Somewheres and too lacking in get-up-and-go to be Anywheres. These are Britain’s Nowheres.

There is concrete proof that misery does not love company. Blackpool and Skegness both feature in the top three areas of the UK for most antidepressants prescribed (twice the national average in Blackpool’s case). Seven of the top ten areas for heroin and morphine deaths are on the coast, including Blackpool, Thanet, Hastings and Bournemouth. Jaywick, just outside Clacton, has twice been named England’s most deprived area. Hastings and Blackpool both feature in the top five for suicide rates. Unlike most of the country, life expectancy is stalling or even falling.

Something clearly must be done. But what? Labour when it proposed supercasinos offered a policy with the potential to revitalise seaside resorts. But the policy was abandoned in the face of stiff opposition and since then the tale has been one of unmanaged decline.

I don’t have immediate answers. However, we shouldn’t confuse the problems of the places and the problems of the people who live in them. The people are much more important. The problems that many of the present residents of these seaside resorts have been brought with them. They may not be helped by staying in these coastal towns without jobs, prospects or support but their problems will still need addressing if they move elsewhere.

That said, towns do not have an inevitable right to survive. Three hundred years ago, few of these towns existed at all. With their purpose apparently past, perhaps Britain should be looking to dismantle them again in an orderly manner rather than just leaving them, and their inhabitants, to rot.

The sea has given and the sea takes. In the early middle ages, the city of Dunwich was England’s sixth largest city. But it was washed into the sea over the course of 80 years. Today, it is a tiny hamlet notable only for its fish and chip shop. As you play ducks and drakes on the beach, you supposedly can hear church bells ringing underwater. Meanwhile, around much of the rest of the coastline, politicians are playing ducks and drakes with the lives of Britain’s Nowhere Men.

Alastair Meeks