Life on the edge

Coastal towns have been "left to rot"

7th February 2018

In 2016, the head of Ofsted called the Isle of Wight a poor, inbred “ghetto”. Our local paper, read by nine out of 10 Islanders, splashed the news, people signed petitions calling for David Hoare to be sacked and one enterprising local clothing company released a line of ‘Ghetto Island’ t-shirts. Days later, Hoare resigned.

Some of us were angry and some of us joked about Hoare having a point. But beneath the furore and the self-deprecating gags, people were hurt. Our little Island, not often in the news, was making national headlines as a place known for a “mass of crime, drug problems [and] huge unemployment”.

Recently, while telling an upper-middle-class, middle-aged London couple about what it’s like where I’m from, I recounted this story. Rather than the shock (or at least faux surprise) I expected from people I’d just met, one of them asked me: “But there is inbreeding there, isn’t there? I thought that had been shown?”

“Umm, maybe? I mean, probably,” I said, unsure what study he could be talking about but also guiltily recalling jokes we used to make about everyone in one particular village being related.

“But I thought there was some big research about it?”

Reader, I could not find any research on this.

Cocktail of issues

When you grow up somewhere city-dwellers visit on school geography trips or else have spent a week frolicking on the seafront with their parents, everyone has an anecdote, and an opinion, about your hometown. Such views range from vague ideas that all “pretty” holiday destinations are thriving, contented idylls, to scoffing images of the incestuous simpletons who choose to live somewhere that resembles a trip to the 1960s.

These reductive takes fail to account for the very real issues facing the coastal population. According to a 2017 report by the Social Market Foundation, seaside communities are some of the most deprived areas in the country.

Around 46% of children in Ventnor are living in poverty – that’s worse than Tower Hamlets

“Around 46% of children in Ventnor are living in poverty – that’s worse than Tower Hamlets, which is always singled out,” points out Isle of Wighter Jack Whitewood. “Our comparatively small population and rule-makers’ lack of ambition mean we are a low priority.”

Ross Wilkes, a 25-year-old preschool teacher who has lived on the Isle of Wight all his life agrees. “The Island is viewed as decades in the past with little progress.

“Job variety is still scarce and I can’t see that changing in the near future,” he adds.

Lack of employment opportunities is only one part of the cocktail of issues which leaves Britain’s seaside towns, on average, more deprived than the country as a whole. Half of the 20 local authorities with the highest proportion of poor health are on the coast, as well as five of the 10 areas with the highest unemployment rates.

Dreamland,_Margate
Dreamland in Margate, before its regeneration in 2015. Image: Chris Whippet

Professor Christina Beatty of Sheffield Hallam University’s Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research says a “holistic” approach is needed when examining the diverse issues facing seaside towns. Policymakers should consider “the nature of the housing stock, the nature of the jobs available and the nature of the regeneration into the actual fabric of the places” as well as education and hospitals, which can suffer from funding allocated on the basis of a population that often doubles in the summer.

Seaside towns struggle to attract and retain young people, who migrate to cities in large numbers after finishing school or university. As well as needing “serious investment”, Beatty says some of these communities need better marketing in order to “show people the positive side of what’s going on” in the area.

Towns must be “proactive about how they brand themselves to the wider area” to win new visitors and retain young people. Beatty points to Margate, on the Isle of Thanet, which has begun to swap its reputation as an isolated unemployment blackspot for that of a trendy commuter town and seaside getaway.

The 2015 regeneration of Dreamland, a vintage amusement park which opened in the late 19th century, and the creation of the Turner Gallery in 2011 have both attracted new visitors. But, even so, Beatty says you need only “travel five streets back from the front of the town” before returning to “quite deprived, quite poor and quite run down housing and concentrations of people that are out of work”.

Rebranding

Lauren Foad-Smith, a 25-year-old registered nurse, has lived in Margate most of her life and chose to return there after moving away to study at Exeter University. “I have been to a top university on the other side of the country and worked in Germany but I actually came back to Margate not only because I saw it as home but because I really love it,” she tells me.

“Margate regularly features in the newspapers and polls as a popular place to live and visit — they’ve done so much in the last 10 years. It is a stunning area and I think people who visit like it. We have the nice bit and the bad bit as with anywhere but it is a stunning place.”

Rebranding is a key part of Isle of Wighter Jack Whitewood’s mission as director of local arts hub Ventnor Exchange and festival Ventnor Fringe. “Despite its problems, I still believe the Isle of Wight has a huge amount of potential,” he says. “As an arts organisation, we have to balance commercial and social objectives and I guess we were attracted back not only by the opportunities but also the drawbacks which we see as challenges we want to help address.”

I hope we’ve shown that it is possible to create something different and for it to succeed

Jack, 27, was born and raised on the Island then decided to return to his hometown after attending university in London.  Ventnor Fringe, which he founded as a teenager, now attracts more than 300 performers per year, flooding the small seaside town of Ventnor with visitors from the mainland and beyond.

“I hope we’ve shown that it is possible to create something different and for it to succeed,” he says. “I think that’s very important to inspire more people to have the courage to begin their own business and projects. Hubs are formed by clusters of like-minded enterprises.”

Ross agrees that the area has untapped potential: “I’d like the Isle of Wight to be more celebrated for the arts. More could be done to expand and market to tourists and, with such a rich past in literature, photography and artwork, I think it would be a waste if they didn’t.”   

Investment

The greatest challenge for those tasked with tackling coastal deprivation is identifying which towns are in need of most help. After all, cities like Brighton, which benefits from a thriving tourism trade and a population including wealthy commuters working in London, have little in common with struggling communities like Hartlepool and Great Yarmouth.

Even for areas that have managed to avoid persistent decline, Professor Beatty warns that their attractiveness to out-of-towners can make them “victims of their own success”. Wealthy outsiders buying up second homes is putting pressure on Cornwall’s housing market and driving up rents, leading some parishes to prohibit part-time residents from buying new-build homes altogether.

Most of [my friends] live in caravans outside of the town as renting a place is so difficult

Marie*, who lives in Falmouth, would like to see a “complete ban” on second homes.  “There is a shameful lack of suitable housing down here and that which is available is often too expensive for the majority of young people, even those in full-time work,” she says. “I am one of the only people in my group of friends who live in an actual flat — most of them live in caravans outside of the town as renting a place is so difficult and often not worth the cost.”

blackpool
Blackpool is no longer the tourist destination it once was

Professor Beatty’s research focuses on identifying the diverse range of issues affecting the coastal population and identifying which towns are most in need of support. “If you go up to the likes of Skegness or some of those on the north or east coast then you’ll see that they’re smaller towns,” she explains. “They’ve been more reliant in the past on their seaside tourism, that’s part of their economic base. There might be less job opportunities and they’re often in parts of the country that aren’t doing so well generally.”

She highlights Blackpool as a “persistently struggling” area with a shortage of housing, large concentrations of benefit claimants and a colder climate that pushes many staycationers towards its southern competitors.

I think Blackpool has basically been left to rot

“People view Blackpool as a town for stag and hen dos or that place they go to on Strictly once a year now. I feel like it’s stuck in the Victorian times,” says James Smurthwaite, who grew up in the town but now lives in London. “The front is just tacky shops and garbage food. The promenade regeneration is really nice but it doesn’t seem to have filtered into the town itself yet.”

Teaching assistant Kim Millard agrees: “I think Blackpool has basically been left to rot — as with most of the North West, it’s a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. The government, and consequently its funding, is very London-centric with any excess going into the South East predominantly.”

The government has pledged to provide £40m to help tackle coastal deprivation, drawing from the coastal communities fund which has pumped £170m into projects around the country since 2012.

But, in reality, Professor Beatty says this is “not a lot of money” when taking on issues of this scale. “The mountain that some areas have to climb is tough,” she says. “If you think about how many seaside towns there are, how many of them have issues and how many could do with substantial investment, there’s just not the funding being put in place.”

*name has been changed

Original illustration by Elise Featherstone

7th February 2018