Towards a coastal definition

Anecdotal evidence suggests that a resort town like Blackpool has more in common with Hastings, Skegness or Torbay than with Preston, 18 miles inland, and that the challenges facing Plymouth are more similar to those in Sunderland than Exeter. It is, however, difficult to compare the multiple drivers of coastal deprivation and economic performance, and to develop evidence-informed strategies to support the 'levelling up' of Britain’s periphery. This reflects both the lack of an official definition of coastal communities and the poor granularity of most publicly available data, which tends to be published at local authority (LA) or Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) level. Data at such levels mask internal diversity. It is only where administrative boundaries happen to be drawn around predominately coastal communities (such as Torbay, Brighton and Blackpool) that CCG and LA level data can throw light on the problems they face.

The challenge of defining coastal communities

In the absence of an agreed definition and typology of 'coastal communities', different studies establish their own criteria and units of analysis. Drawing on a socioeconomic dataset of 58 of the largest seaside towns, Professor Sheela Agarwal led a project which sought to understand why some coastal areas are economically 'lagging' while others are 'leading'. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has started to collate data for 169 coastal towns in England and Wales. Comprising 5.3 million people, these towns, however, exclude the residents of coastal towns and cities with populations over 225,000 in 2011 and coastal rural districts.

In devising their own categorisation, Dr Alex Gibson and Professor Sheena Asthana defined 'coastal' Lower Super Output Areas (LSOAs) as those which include or overlap built-up areas which lie within 500m of the 'mean high water mark' (excluding tidal rivers). Using this approach, the ONS dataset accounts for just over half of the 10.4 million people living in LSOAs that include a coastal foreshore. Thus, large swathes of coastal residents are missing from official 'coastal' statistics.

Adding to the complexity of defining 'coastal communities' is an understanding that any coastal community is part of a wider cultural landscape. Cultural landscape, as both a concept and in any specific place it represents, is in itself both multivalent and dynamic. Yet common to its multiple framings is that the cultural landscape is understood as the relationship between people and landscape, notably in how they both inhabit it and the meaning they place upon it, and simultaneously how that landscape comes to inform the cultural identity of the people who inhabit it. Important here is that any definition of coastal community is partly dependent on how people inhabit it and the meaning that that inhabitation and landscape co-jointly have for the people who live there and their sense of cultural identity.

Providing a solution

The problems that arise from the lack of an agreed definition and typology of 'coastal communities' have been acknowledged, not least by Professor Chris Whitty in his 2021 Chief Medical Advisor report. Against this background, one of the priorities of the Centre for Coastal Communities is to devise a robust methodology for classifying UK coastal communities that captures similarities and differences between their coastal geographies and economic and social ecological characteristics. To this end, we aim to incorporate wide-ranging coastal stakeholder voices in the design of a policy-relevant approach to classifying coastal communities and are also discussing with the Office for National Statistics steps towards developing a new coastal classification.

If you would like to feed into this process, please contact Professor Sheela Agarwal at or Professor Sheena Asthana at

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