Aerial view of Plymouth Sound

In September 2019, the city of Plymouth announced its intention to establish the UK’s first national marine park. Backed by influential climate change figures such as Lewis Pugh and Charles Clover – and the University itself – the Plymouth Sound National Marine Park is conceived as a way to better showcase the city’s environmental assets.

Already branded as ‘Britain’s Ocean City’, and with its maritime status further enhanced by the Mayflower 400 anniversary, Plymouth’s strategy of focusing upon its most marketable selling point makes clear sense. This is a city facing endemic challenges – a peripheral location and high incidence of deprivation in some of its areas, according to the latest Indices of Multiple Deprivation released in October 2019. By turning its gaze out to the sea, the city is looking to the blue economy to provide a solution as to how it might improve socio-economic outcomes and engender civic pride. 

In many respects, Plymouth is ahead of the curve when it comes to the national issue of our ‘seaside towns’. From Brighton to Blackpool, Morecambe to Margate, these locations are intrinsic to the British iconography, with a cultural contribution arguably as important as their economic impact via industries such as fishing and tourism. But research conducted since the turn of the millennium has painted a less-than-postcard-perfect picture of the health of these communities.

Despite a number of regional and intra-regional variations, social scientists have found evidence of increased deprivation in the majority of seaside towns across the three economic domains of income, employment, and education, skills and training. This can be manifested in a number of ways, such as a weak job market with high levels of seasonal employment and unemployment, high levels of sickness, and low levels of aspiration – which, in turn, can lead to an unbalanced housing market, transience and in-migration of vulnerable households, and localised multiple deprivation.

In essence, what social science has revealed is that a town’s economic performance is multi-dimensional and will be heavily influenced by the interplay of three different factors – economic, human and environmental capital.

Aerial view of Plymouth Sound
Aerial view of Plymouth Sound

The first, economic capital, refers to things that can be invested in or mobilised in pursuit of profit (or indeed, broader economic improvement). Inevitably, productivity is heavily contingent on transport infrastructure, telecommunications and high-quality business space – all tangible assets that we’re familiar with. Arguably, that is why superfast broadband has been of great benefit to the South West in overcoming issues relating to peripherality and facilitating a thriving tertiary sector that can flourish, and the lack of investment in our fragile railway has not. It is therefore of no surprise that the digital economy is one of the five pillars of Plymouth’s local economic strategy.

Human capital comes next, and presents a compelling association between the presence of highly qualified, enterprising and skilled people, and economic success. The theory is that educated, skilled residents are better equipped to adapt to changing economic circumstances, and more capable of taking advantage of economic capital to develop and nurture new industries. It’s why the University’s support for widening participation in general, and the creative economy in Plymouth in particular, is a key focus for the institution and the city. It’s also one of the underpinning differences why a Falmouth or a Brighton has a very different outlook to a Skegness or a Bridlington. 

The third strand, environmental capital, has a special significance for seaside towns, for it is the coast itself that provides the unique selling point. Penzance has its promenade and art deco lido set to the backdrop of Mount’s Bay; Newquay has its sandy beaches and surf culture; Sidmouth, its red cliffs, pebbled shoreline and genteel streets. By the same token, the environment can be a constraint, stymieing ambition and development, particularly for those towns in inaccessible locations.

What is fascinating about the proposed Plymouth Sound National Marine Park is the way it seeks to capitalise on the city’s environmental capital, and to bring about changes to economic and human capital. So, engaging new audiences with marine and maritime issues is laudable in and of itself, but it becomes a very powerful approach if it can inspire education, research and the development of relevant skills. Similarly, if health and wellbeing metrics can be improved through increased engagement with the blue environment, this can stimulate improvements in economic output. 

But the Marine Park also presents challenges for our civic leaders, not least because of the difficulties of managing the competing demands of its numerous stakeholders. For example, how will the ambition to promote the Navy be progressed alongside the desire to improve fishing infrastructure, the drive to expand the marine leisure industry, the wish to generate community benefits, and the need for conservation and environmental protection within Plymouth Sound’s natural amphitheatre?

Professor Sheela Agarwal is a researcher and lecturer in the Plymouth Business School, with a particular expertise in how structural change impacts and influences nations, regions and locations.