The English seaside was effectively destroyed as a destination for holidays with the emergence of package holidays and cheap flights in the 1970s. Successive governments have fought to find a solution for the regeneration of coastal towns since that time but it is fair to say that not much has been achieved.
But then what can be done?
There is no doubt that change can take place and you need only look at the renaissance of some of our post-industrial cities to recognise that.
One of the more interesting House of Commons Select Committee reports on the issue was the 2006 report that managed to assemble 13 Members of Parliament of which, curiously, only two actually represented seaside towns. The key findings were that the towns had high proportions of older people as the young left, they tended to have seasonal low wages and low skilled jobs and that housing was frequently of very poor stock and poorly maintained. You can only wonder what those living in seaside towns would have thought of a Parliamentary report that merely stated the ‘bleedin’ obvious’.
Regenerating any area is a long-term project and very tough to implement. Change is also something that alarms people. Good regeneration requires a mix of investment, new employment and housing. That can only be achieved by people being brave and taking risks to attract the best and break the mould of a town’s past. Regeneration needs to be planned; simply wishing it will happen by building homes is not enough.
New homes are important but you need capital and social infrastructure to make an area thrive, plus new employment and bringing wealth to an area is in some ways the most important factor contributing to the success of any regeneration.
There are some key things you can do to build a resurgence for the seafront
Having spent decades seeing the magnetising growth of cities the tide may be turning. The quality of education and the provision of services has changed a lot over the past two decades. Schools in London have gone from being some of the worst in the country to be amongst the best. What London families tend to worry about now are the ‘softer’ quality of life issues, such as air quality or the densification of boroughs. It is also the case that we are seeing the demise of the traditional office. According to the Federation of Small Businesses, small business accounts for 99% of all private sector businesses and 60% of private-sector employment in the UK and remote working and the internet have seen shared workspaces coffee shops grow as an office of choice.
All this has contributed to there being a net loss to London of families, in fact, 500,000 more people have moved out of London to the rest of the UK than have moved in from outside the capital. How seaside towns position themselves as a lifestyle destination choice for families is something they all need to consider. Of course, there is sometimes a naivety about the rural idyll and whilst some may be moving to the North Norfolk coast they still want a Pret A Manger around the corner. Growing the quality of life of seekers to a seaside town would attract investment which attracts more people.
Seaside towns have changed. The Victorian era was the nadir of the seaside resort for holidaying families. The wish for clean air, out of the cities, plus the ability to holiday near the sea were a major attraction and brought huge investment in Victorian seaside homes, many of which are still on the seafront of our major coastal towns. But these were all seasonal homes for city dwellers. Why reinvent what the Victorians knew, surely the best plan is to begin where they left off?
Second-home buyers are often seen as the scourge of villages and cities. Wealthy individuals buying flats for their pension has been a common sight in the major conurbations. Yet Government policy seems directed to destroying this type of investment. Maybe Government, like the Victorians, needs to do more to encourage the second seaside home. Instead of crippling Stamp Duty and punitive Council Tax rates maybe there needs to be the removal of Stamp Duty and a reduction in Council Tax. The former would encourage investment in a second home outside of the cities and the latter would help support it further although, of course, second homes equally do not consume as much as a home as a permanent residence. But this could also lead to a renaissance of seaside towns as second-home buyers invest in their homes, with the potential for holiday let businesses to spring up.
Instead of fighting this maybe we, like the Victorians, should embrace it.
There is one final thing we need to cover — the weather.
Put simply, the British weather is not comparable to the South of France. There is not much you can do about the weather but this is precisely the same predicament that gripped the Alps and their ski slopes over the last decade. What emerged is a policy of investment in Summer sports as well as Winter skiing. This decision has reinvigorated villages which often are only open for business three months of the year.
What does that look like for the British seaside? Well, firstly it does not mean end-of-the-pier entertainment and funfairs. Indoor leisure and spa facilities are growth areas where holidaymakers spend time investing in their health and well-being, something which is a priority for Government, after all, you are at the sea which the Victorians believed had the regenerative powers of salt. You don’t need sun and sand to get a tan or to keep fit, you can do that in other ways.
But the Victorians equally solved the weather problem by creating the beach hut — although there is, of course, an argument that Victorian modesty was the real reason for it (as an aside, beach huts are prized possessions today attracting huge prices on the market). What we do know is that if we give people incentives to buy homes in coastal towns then this will provide motivation for investors to put up cash for leisure facilities in those same towns.
It all sounds so simple, but to make something like this work we need to stop having governments that see incentivising behaviour as a way to tax more but can see that taxing less can also change behaviour — nudge, nudge.