We need to talk about inequality and deprivation in coastal communities

Professor Sheela Agarwal is Associate Head of the School of Research and Innovation at Plymouth Business School. She was previously Head of the Department of Tourism and Hospitality. Her work covers themes relating to tourism and heritage and has had a particular focus on the socio-economics of seaside towns and coastal communities across the United Kingdom.

To find out more about her work, or to explore ways in which her work could contribute to policy development, please contact her by email.

 


With travel abroad more restricted during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, many Brits rediscovered the seaside. Seagulls, fish and chip shops, ice creams and slot machines conjure up images of the quintessential British seaside town. Coastal resorts, like Blackpool, Bournemouth and Brighton, feature prominently in our culture. Many resorts have their own distinctive character and history but, behind the illuminations and pastel-coloured buildings, people living in these communities can find life is anything but a beach.


In the doldrums

Many towns and communities up and down our coast face significant economic and social challenges today.

Some of the most deprived towns in the UK, such as Penzance, Hastings and Great Yarmouth, are beside the sea.


Long-standing structural problems have built up over decades. Many have suffered from years of Government underfunding as policy and investment have been focused on specific regions and the inner cities.

The coastline is one of our country’s most fragile environments; local authorities typically have to focus investment and resources to ensure these communities are properly defended from adverse weather, flooding and coastal erosion.

Despite this, many coastal towns have an outdated infrastructure; transport links are inadequate and broadband connectivity is poor, especially compared to that offered in urban areas. This discourages new businesses from starting up in coastal areas. It makes communications beyond the locality more challenging.

Travel to urban business and cultural centres can be difficult. This geographical isolation limits opportunities and impacts negatively on mental health.


These towns typically have an ageing population, poor healthcare facilities and a higher mortality rate. In Blackpool there is a difference in life expectancy of 13 years between the town’s most and least deprived areas. Attracting qualified medical staff and other professionals can be a problem. It is timely that the Chief Medical Officer is now looking at health inequality to identify the drivers of poor health within these communities.

With the loss of industries such as fishing and fish processing, communities have been left without viable economic alternatives to the visitor economy (which generally employs people seasonally, pays low wages, provides little job security and offers low-skilled work). Educational attainment is often low. Those that can, move away. Those who are left are more likely to live in social housing, in shared dwellings or houses of multiple occupation, often in low quality, badly maintained accommodation.


Neither fish nor fowl

In policy-making, our seaside towns are ill-defined, under-represented and under-researched. Many are left-behind communities in places that are largely forgotten. Assumptions are made that they are ‘all the same’ yet there is considerable economic diversity between seaside towns: between Brighton and Bude, Eastbourne and Exmouth.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how important it is to collect and analyse data to inform policy-making and investment.


The Office for National Statistics does not have a definition for coastal communities. There is now an urgent need to improve the data we collect on our coastal towns and, in future, to consider what data is required, why it is useful, how it can be collected and how it can inform policy.

Much more research is needed on these towns and communities to develop tailored, impactful responses to solve their challenges.


Many of these issues have remained unsolved because we lack the right data, and therefore the relevant understanding to inform the policy response. There is no magic bullet to solve these challenges and many towns need to be viewed on a case-by-case basis.


Navigating the future

In some areas, promoting or invigorating tourism has been overstated as a solution to local economic challenges. We think of holidays as fun times; sunny weather and happy memories can mask a whole heap of pain behind the sun, sand, sea and surf. These places have been left behind for multiple reasons: a complex amalgam of people- and place-related issues such as peripherality and migration.

The issues suffered by these communities have been exacerbated by the pandemic; policy responses such as the coronavirus recovery plan, levelling-up agenda, industrial, productivity and ‘building back Britain’ strategies need to tackle the problems suffered in these towns too.

We should build back in a way that is inclusive and accounts for these communities’ diverse composition.


Turning the tide

Coastal areas have historically had a fundamental role in trade and commerce. This is still true today. They provide an important national resource in terms of food production, aggregates and offshore energy. They also play a significant role in the visitor economy, with day visits to seaside towns contributing to around 17% of UK tourism in 2017.

Much recent effort has focused on the visitor economy, other sectors such as renewable energy offer potential for coastal areas.

More work needs to be done to improve the local skills provision and to boost employment opportunities.


The creative and cultural industries can play an important role in the regeneration of seaside communities and can support place-based approaches, particularly in the context of capital investment. An enhanced cultural offer helps create thriving communities where people are proud to live and businesses are keen to invest.

Coastal towns typically sit at the ‘end of the line’. In recent times, visitors have travelled to them specifically as a destination and there is little passing trade. Road and rail routes do not continue beyond or pass through seaside towns, harming their economic, social and cultural potential. With the right investment, and thoughtful, inclusive policy decisions based on up-to-date and comprehensive research, they can become vibrant places again.

Centre for Coastal Communities

Finding solutions to the challenges facing coastal communities

The challenges facing coastal communities are increasingly recognised, as new and worrying patterns of deprivation have materialised in peripheral coastal areas across the UK.

The University of Plymouth is one of the few UK Higher Education Institutions with a critical mass of academics with a proven track record of research on coastal communities.

Find out more about our research