Most people in the UK will have a favourite seaside destination, often cultivated during childhood family holidays. Whether it comprises the garish delights of Blackpool or Margate or the relaxing offer of a fishing village, there is something for everyone on the coastline.
Yet many of our seaside towns have suffered a downturn in recent decades. The popularity of foreign package holidays, the decline of the fishing industry and cutbacks in naval funding have all had an effect. Together with a higher than average level of multiple-occupancy homes and weathering from salt-laden winds, this makes regenerating coastal towns a difficult proposition.
Recent noises from the government suggest that seaside towns are rising up the national political agenda. Last week, Commons communities and local government committee chairwoman Phyllis Starkey claimed that the latest ministerial line-up is looking more favourably at measures to reverse coastal decline (Planning, 19 October, p1).
English Heritage South East regional director Andy Brown suggests that this is because "the seaside as a resort and creative place is coming into vogue again". He believes that climate change concerns could mean that more people holiday in the UK.
But problems are not just restricted to declining tourist numbers and shabby appearances. The committee's inquiry on the needs of coastal towns, issued in March, highlighted the number of people in such towns on benefits. It found a 12.3 per cent rise in incapacity benefit, special disability allowance or income support claims since 1997, compared with a 2.2 per cent rise nationally.
The committee drew attention to the seasonal nature of work and the lack of affordable housing on the coast, fuelled by inward migration and second homes. The MPs called for the government to form a cross-departmental working group to tackle such issues, led by the DCLG.
"If the needs of coastal towns are to be met, government departments must develop an understanding of the issues facing their communities and work together to confront the challenges they face," Starkey insists. But this move was rejected by the government in its response to the committee's recommendations.
The government recognised the need to focus on coastal issues, yet it did not feel this was justification enough to set up a working group. But it admitted that "there may be more we can learn about common challenges affecting such areas".
More can certainly be done locally in terms of coastal regeneration, and this is where local heritage can play a part. According to a recent English Heritage poll of more than 1,000 people, 77 per cent of people agree that "the historic character of seaside towns is what makes them beautiful and enjoyable". However, more than three-quarters say many seaside towns are rundown, urging the government to invest more to preserve their local identity.
This heritage can be both an asset and a challenge. English Heritage chief executive Simon Thurley explains: "Investing in the historic core of seaside towns is the essential first step in revitalising communities and giving residents a home with a soul. The historic environment should be recognised as an integral part of the search for a strengthened identity and a better future."
Brown agrees that the regeneration benefits can only be achieved through a proper understanding of a town's history. "Our coastal towns are so different and each one has its own story to tell. The trick is to make sure that their distinctiveness comes through in regeneration."
While a national debate is a good start and Starkey is confident that an interdepartmental committee will be established, leadership remains vital. English Heritage wants more dialogue with local authorities to ensure that this occurs at ground level. Brown believes that its recent reports will be a springboard for action.
English Heritage has 230 champions in local authorities. Brown praises their work: "They can bring people together and make things happen in a way that we cannot do from outside. They create opportunities for us to offer support, but we must open the doors first."
Seaside towns are back on the national agenda. But it is at the local level where change is starting to happen. "We can see a number of places where the level of jobs is growing, people are staying and the tide is turning," Brown concludes.
Regeneration in Historic Coastal Towns and An Asset and a Challenge: Heritage and Regeneration in Coastal Towns in England are available at PlanningResource.co.uk/doc
- A proper understanding of the local area is needed to make better and more sustainable decisions.
- Investment in the public realm to retain character is important because high visitor numbers and a corrosive environment can quickly take their toll.
- A high-quality historic environment can successfully incorporate contemporary designs for shops, restaurants and cafes.
- Heritage leadership is vital to bring local groups together.
- Diversification is essential to avoid problems of seasonality or over-reliance on a single industry.