Cover Story: A holiday in a coastal 'ghetto'

It’s enough to make your candy floss weep

Traditionally, the summer months are when our seaside resorts burst into life and earn their bread, but a report into social deprivation from the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) has rather cast a cloud over the promenade. The towns concerned are not best pleased at being likened to post-heyday ghettos

By Mark Cantrell

From Housing magazine, September 2013

TALK about having sand kicked in the face. Regardless of how this year’s holiday season actually went, it’s not been a good August for certain of our seaside towns. After all, they were painted as an ‘archipelago’ of social deprivation – and that’s enough to put a frown on the face of anybody’s civic pride.

The towns in question – Rhyl, in Denbighshire, Wales; Margate in Kent; Clacton-on-Sea, Essex; Great Yarmouth in Norfolk; and Blackpool, Lancashire – found themselves the subject of a report by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), ‘Turning The Tide’, which said that they were struggling with the social costs of decades of decline – and not just their own.

Britain is spending almost £2bn a year on welfare payments to people of working age who live in these “once flourishing seaside towns”, the report said. Greater efforts must be made, it added, “to recapture the prosperity” of their bygone heyday.

Just to add to the woe, later in the month the Office for National Statistics (ONS) released its own statistical report into seaside towns to present a profile of England’s larger seaside destinations. Now, that let Rhyl off the hook, being a Welsh resort, but Blackpool and Clacton found themselves ranked among the three most deprived seaside destinations out of the 57 defined by the ONS. The other one was Skegness and Ingoldmells.

If it’s any consolation, at least the ONS just stuck to crunching the numbers and held off delivering any kind of commentary or judgement; it naturally leaves off that kind of thing. The CSJ, on the other hand, is hardly backwards in coming forwards when it comes to saying what it thinks. Well, it would be a funny kind of thinktank if it didn’t.

“Living standards in some of the UK’s best-known coastal towns have declined beyond recognition and locals are now bearing the brunt of severe levels of social breakdown,” said Christian Guy, the CSJ’s director. “We have found inspiring local people, services and charities working hard to turn things round but they are struggling to do this alone. Some of these areas have been left behind. We must ramp up efforts to revive Britain’s coastal towns, not just for visitors but for the people who live there.”

Measured on the main indicators of poverty – school failure, teenage pregnancy, addiction, absent fathers and lone parenting, and worklessness – the report said that the five resorts endured problems as severe as any deprived inner city area. It’s enough to make the thinktank’s former founder, now work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, choke on his Mr Whippy.

The CSJ said that in Rhyl, two thirds (67% in parts) of working age people are on out-of-work benefits. In Clacton, some 41% of adults are said to have no qualifications, almost double the national average for England and Wales.

Local employers are said to have complained of “major skills gaps” and were “forced to turn to migrant labour” because of the lack of skills or will among local residents. Of the 10 wards in England and Wales with the highest rates of teenage pregnancy, Great Yarmouth is said to have the highest. In some neighbourhoods, more than 40% of families with dependent children was said to have the highest rate of children in care – 150 per 10,000 which puts it far beyond the English average (59).

One running theme – maybe one should say ‘running sore’ was the impact of houses in multiple occupation (HMOs); the resorts had high levels of these, unsurprising given the role that guesthouses and bed and breakfast accommodation would have played in catering for tourists. However, as the demand for these declined, many were bought up by private landlords and converted into bedsit flats.
To turn the knife, as it were, the CSJ added that “poverty is attracting poverty”; not only are these resorts sinking under their own deprivations, but they are also becoming “dumping grounds” for the social problems of inland authorities.

“As employment has dried up, so house prices have fallen, and so less economically active people – such as single parent families and pensioners – have moved in seeking cheaper accommodation and living costs,” the report said. “Similarly, vulnerable people – such as children in care and ex-offenders – have been moved in as authorities take advantage of low-cost housing as large properties have been chopped into HMOs. Parts of these towns have become dumping grounds, further depressing the desirability of such areas and so perpetuating the cycle.”

But there’s hope, apparently. The report concludes that whilst the problems facing many seaside towns are “substantial” they are not “insurmountable”; they retain “considerable potential” as tourist destinations, though in this age of cheap air travel, they are unlikely ever to restore the vigour of their heydays, it added. If these resorts are to truly develop, then they need to build economies which are “dependent neither on tourism nor welfare”.

None of this has exactly come as news to the authorities in these seaside towns; they are not without their problems, and they know it, but there’s a certain world-weary indignation, you might say. The towns concerned might be down, but they’re not out. Indeed, this seaside quintet might argue they’re no more down than any inland town and city wrestling with the social fallout of modern Britain’s rampant inequalities and economic problems.

“This report is not a surprise and I doubt Blackpool residents would be surprised by it either,” said Councillor Simon Blackburn, the Lancashire resort’s council leader. “People living and working in Blackpool know only too well the challenges the town faces. We have a housing imbalance, which we are trying to address; in turn this will tackle some of the problems highlighted in the report.

“At Queens Park we are demolishing one-bedroom units to make way for family accommodation, and at South Beach the selective licensing scheme is doing vital work driving up standards of the private rented sector. At the moment, if you turn up in Blackpool with £50 cash and a bin bag full of possessions, you are able to find somewhere to live. This is a situation we want to change, but it will not happen overnight.”

If Blackpool’s council leader was not surprised, the leader of Tendring District Council certainly was – by the report’s naïveté, if it can be put that way. “I am surprised [the CSJ] are surprised about it being similar to inner city problems,” said Councillor Peter Halliday, whose local authority takes in Clacton-on-Sea. “We’re all living in the same communities with the same issues, the same social difficulties, the same employment difficulties. We’re no different to any conurbation across the spectrum in terms of pockets of deprivation and how we deal with it.

“The issues are the same [as elsewhere] compounded in the winter months when you haven’t got the crowds ‘drowning it out’. I do think it’s important that we focus on the positive because that will naturally bring confidence, and the more we focus on the negative, the more negatives we’ll have to deal with. The town itself is still a very pleasant place to live, work and bring up your family, just don’t be naive and think we haven’t got any issues, because we have – but we’re doing our best to sort them out.”

The leader of Denbighshire Council was a little less generous in his response, although to be fair, an article in the Sun newspaper had really stoked his ire – “Town on the dole” the headline screamed (11 August) – claiming that the unemployment rate in parts of the town (population circa 25,000) was even higher than the figure quoted by the CSJ (closer to 80%, as the paper put it).

Councillor Hugh Evans OBE, who is cabinet member for regeneration as well as the leader of the council, was less than pleased to read what he regarded as an article that focused on an “outdated viewpoint”, although he conceded that the CSJ report itself had a point.

“The recent report by the CSJ has rightly identified that, as with other seaside towns, less economically active people have moved into parts of Rhyl seeking cheaper accommodation, and vulnerable groups have ended up living in the same neighbourhood putting a substantial strain on local services,” he said.

“There’s a saying that what we focus on we make real, and perhaps what needs to change most of all is the pervading negative mindset of the few – at a time when the very fabric of the town is seeing vast improvements. If we continue to frame Rhyl as a bad place to live, then it will be despite the best efforts of the people and organisations who are doing their utmost to look to a brighter future.

“The decline we have seen in many, many towns across the UK has happened over a long period of time and for many different reasons. There is no quick fix but we are confident that we are on track to revitalise our town and we are already seeing the green shoots of progress.”

Seaside resorts, it seems, are being castigated for social problems they share in common with inland towns and cities; urban areas that are generally no more or less successful at dealing with such issues than their coastal counterparts, unless ‘dumping’ your social problems by the seaside counts as a successful strategy. In that sense, perhaps the seaside makes for a convenient distraction.

As for the bods from the CSJ, presumably, they aren’t planning any trips to the seaside anytime soon, but just in case – the seagulls have been primed and put on alert.

This article was first published as the cover story for the September 2013 print edition of Housing magazine and was subsequently re-published on the Housing Excellence website, 18 March 2014

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