Some 40 or 50 years ago, the summer break at a guesthouse at one of the UK's seaside resorts was still a holiday destination norm. This year, the summer was the hottest on record and weeks of unbroken sun and heat, sparked a small revivial in interest in trips to the coast.
However, people fleeing to the coast to escape Britain's baking cities did not go to spend two weeks in the care of the traditional landlady who insisted that dinner was at 5.30pm sharp or not at all and turned them out of their rooms during the day. It is the day trip, short break, second holiday and conference markets that have saved Britain's resorts, and this is what the towns are now seeking to exploit.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that business was booming this summer at the main UK seaside resorts, according to British Resorts Association director Peter Hampson. However, one heatwave is not enough to revive towns that started to lose their captive long-term holiday market to package holidays abroad and cheaper air fares in the 1970s and which have been struggling to rebuild their economies ever since.
Some in the South East have adapted and become London commuter towns, but even these, almost without exception, have higher unemployment rates than their surrounding areas. Elsewhere, circumstances have often been tougher, and because few seaside towns are on the way to anywhere else they fall to the back of the queue for infrastructure investment.
Just before the heatwave burst onto an unsuspecting country, a team from Sheffield Hallam University released a lengthy report on the economy of seaside towns and what local authorities and others can do to revive them.
The association is pleased with the report's conclusion that the 43 main resort towns all have promising futures to some extent.
But Hampson warns that the report was widely misunderstood. Its message was rather more subtle than a simple description of an industry going into decline, he points out. While job growth in many resorts has been quite strong, it has been outstripped by the number of people of working age -never mind retirees - choosing to move to the coast for its pleasant environment.
Researchers Christina Beatty and Steve Fothergill discovered that in the past 30 years, 360,000 people of working age have moved to resorts, increasing the size of this group by almost 25 per cent. Between 1971 and 2001, the total number of jobs in the resort towns rose by 317,000.
Without these additions, the workforce in seaside towns would naturally decline, given their relatively elderly age profile.
"This is arguably the most surprising and important figure of all," say the researchers. "A reasonable assumption might have been that, in line with the erosion of the traditional tourist base, there would have been a fall in employment, or at best only modest growth. The substantial rise in employment over this long period shows emphatically that this has not been the case."
"The social and economic problems in resorts are akin to any other towns. It is not directly a decline of their core industry," says Hampson "There has been an assumption that tourism is a dying industry, but that is just not true. Job growth is being outstripped by people deciding to move to these towns."
He adds: "In seaside towns the assumption used to be that tourism was declining and that was the cause of unemployment. In fact tourism has done relatively well. There was also an assumption that many who move in are jobless people who just decide to be jobless by the sea. But that is not the case. People go there for all kinds of reasons."
Far from being the problem, says Hampson, tourism is part of the cure and a key factor in ensuring that resorts are constantly promoted and that income is reinvested in the industry. "Seaside towns have had hundreds of thousands of people visiting them," he points out. "It is not a flash in the pan. The resurgence of UK tourism is now about ten years old, but there are structural problems."
Most of these are related to transport. The peripheral location of seaside towns means they lose out on public transport and road planning decisions, says Hampson. Substandard road links also cause difficulty for commuters as well as holiday visitors, he adds. "This is important because where resorts are near population centres people like to live at the seaside and commute, but poor links prevent them getting in or out."
Housing is another major issue. Most resorts were built in the Victorian or Edwardian eras and consequently have a high proportion of the large houses typical of those times. When these ceased to be single homes they became the guesthouses that were popular for holidays in the middle of the 20th century.
They have been adapted to uses that need large properties, but these are not generally positive ones for local economies. "Large properties have become houses in multiple occupation, nursing homes, bail hostels and homes for care in the community," says Hampson. "We are seeing attempts to bring them back into residential use, and some housing associations are looking into this."
In some cases the strength of the surrounding housing markets pulls up resort towns. Hastings, once notorious for northern-style problems of housing abandonment in the far South East, has suddenly picked up, driven by people buying seaside second homes or commuting. However, conversely, the availability of cheap rented property can attract benefit claimants to an area, which in turn has an impact on unemployment rates.
The most effective investments appear to be in public infrastructure, including public spaces. Resorts that have been able to carry out improvements in these areas have prospered. But councils usually need support from European structural funds to carry out work on the scale needed. "Our big hope is that the regional development agencies will recognise that all seaside resorts are worth investment," says Hampson.
Seaside towns have become more than holiday resorts and are now important destinations for people of working age in addition to their established role as retirement havens. Of course, they only became resorts in the first place because of their attractive locations, and this influx is partly a reflection of this, the Sheffield Hallam team discovered.
Its report makes a number of suggestions for improving the economic health of Britain's resorts, and in particular their employment prospects. It notes that unemployment is in most cases higher than in surrounding areas, although for seaside towns as a whole it is only a little above the national average.
Yet even substantial towns in the rich South East, such as Brighton, Bournemouth and Southend, have unemployment rates that exceed those of their surrounding areas. Migration outstripping job growth is one explanation, but the researchers also found that in most seaside towns benefit claimants find suitable former holiday accommodation to rent and that "the nature of the housing stock probably adds another layer to local joblessness.
"The trends in employment and migration suggest that Britain's seaside towns actually have quite a robust economy," the researchers conclude.
"This is perhaps not what might have been expected given the structural changes that have occurred in the tourist trade over the past 30 years."
Their evidence suggests that seaside towns have adapted surprisingly well, that reports of their death have been exaggerated and that they continue to have a distinctive role for in the British urban system. Britain is still packing its buckets and spades and heading for the coast, even if not to spend as long there as it did in the past. Give them a little care and attention and seaside towns will thrive.
- The Seaside Economy is available priced £20, from Sheffield Hallam University (tel) 0114 225 3073.
POINTERS FOR POLICY
- Although seaside resorts depended on one industry, their economies have not collapsed in the way that happened in former industrial towns.
- A large and viable seaside tourist industry supports between 130,000 and 160,000 jobs.
- Seaside towns have successfully tapped the day-trip, short break, second holiday and conference markets.
- Practical assistance and advice to small business and public investment are essential.
- Continuing efforts are needed to promote job creation in most seaside towns across a broad front to generate and sustain employment. Manufacturing, finance and business services should also be encouraged.
- There is no one size fits all approach. Some of the towns deserve greater priority, and more intensive assistance from central government than others.
EU FUNDS HELP ATTRACT VISITORS TO SEASIDE RESORTS
Southport, where the British Resorts Association is based, has European Objective 1 status because it happens to be in Merseyside rather than because the town is itself poor. EU cash has enabled Sefton Metropolitan Borough Council to provide a new sea wall and promenade, leisure centre and a miniature version of Alton Towers, which in turn has encouraged more hotels to open and has attracted increased private investment.
Steve Gale, tourism marketing officer for North East Lincolnshire Council, is looking back on "an excellent season, the best for 25 years" for the east coast resort of Cleethorpes. "We've had peaks and troughs in tourism over the past 20 to 30 years, but in the past five years we have bucked the trend a little and it has been increasing," says Gale.
North East Lincolnshire is very conscious of its market. Of Cleethorpes' 6.7 million visitors in 2002, 5.8 million came on day trips, almost entirely from the East Midlands or from South or West Yorkshire. With its trade in annual holidays almost gone, the resort is now geared to the day-trip market. It is benefiting from having gained blue flag status for the cleanliness of its water and foreshore.
The town also has unusually good transport links, with one exception.
"The M18 runs right up to the town and you can step out of the station and be straight onto the beach," says Gale. "But we don't get many visitors from further north because the £5 toll for the Humber Bridge is a psychological barrier." Cleethorpes plans to attack that market, currently catered for mainly by Scarborough and Bridlington, next season through special offers.
Another town where the day-trip market is crucial is Southend-on-Sea.
It is decades since anyone came on an extended holiday, but with east London less than an hour away by car or train the town can become packed on summer weekends. With 176,000 residents, it functions largely as a London commuter settlement, but tourism remains vital to its economy.
"We are the second biggest day-trip destination in the country," says David Garston, Southend-on-Sea Borough Council's cabinet member for economic development and regeneration. Among other things, the town has used its share of funding from the EU Objective 2 programme to build a new entrance to the world's longest pleasure pier, linking this venerable structure to the town's centre.
A seafront site that was once incongruously occupied by the town's gasworks is being transformed into a four-star hotel. Another unusual feature of Southend's seafront regeneration is the involvement of the University of Essex, which has bought a site in the town centre for a local campus and is now expected to buy a large Edwardian hotel overlooking the pier.
Torbay, which combines the resorts of Torquay, Paignton and Brixham in one local authority area, still has people coming to stay for a fortnight or more as well as its fair share of day trippers. "Tourism is worth £400 million to £500 million a year and is by far the largest part of our economy, but there is some diversification," says Tim Whitehead, Torbay Borough Council's director of strategic services.
Whitehead says that tourism has declined slowly since the late 1970s, when more people began to travel abroad. A conference centre built by the council in the 1980s has proved successful but was not part of a more integrated regeneration plan. That has changed with the Torquay Waterfront project, which has seen a revival and improvement of the whole harbour area which is drawing in private investment.
The £21 million project, which opened in May, is aimed at creating a setting that offers "sophistication, atmosphere and entertainment" based around a revived harbour surrounded by shops, hotels, bars and restaurants with a promenade, all floodlit at night. The council intends it to act as a stimulus for further growth and confidence in Torquay".