Cllr Sally-Ann Hart is the Cabinet Member for Tourism and Culture on Rother District Council.

I am increasingly concerned at the impact the RMT and ASLEF strikes on Southern Rail and Govia Thameslink will have on economic activity in East Sussex, Rother District, and in my ward, Eastern Rother.

My concern is not only about the disruption to commuters, which is bad enough, but also the impact of the strikes on the poor. Rural, coastal Rother District is not an affluent region of the South East. On the Government’s Index of Multiple Deprivation, it ranks little above the national average with pockets of deprivation, and depends not inconsiderably on tourism for jobs and economic activity.

East Sussex Indices of Deprivation are used to analyse patterns of relative deprivation for small areas and to identify local need. These provide a ‘snapshot’ of conditions in an area, including income, employment, health, education, crime etc. Pockets of East Sussex, particularly within Eastern Rother Ward, Hastings and Bexhill are in the most deprived 10-20 per cent.

In England, rural tourism provides about £17 billion per year to the economy. In 2015, direct expenditure generated by tourism in Rother District was £238.1 million (similar to the level in 2014). Direct expenditure multiplies into £291.6 million worth of income for local businesses (through additional indirect and multiplier effects). This tourism-related expenditure is estimated to have supported 4,871 full time equivalent jobs in Rother. This increases to 6,836 actual jobs once part-time and seasonal employment is added. These jobs are not only in tourism, but in retail, catering and local government.

When you consider that out of a population of around 87,000, where approximately 33,000 are employed – 25,800 employed in Rother (with the balance commuting outside the area) – the proportion of jobs dependent on tourism is substantial. Based on Tourism South East Research Unit, total-tourism related expenditure supported 26.5 per cent of these jobs in Rother in 2015.

UK wide, tourism is recognised as an important part of the rural economy and has huge potential for growth, particularly in many deprived rural areas, where there is untapped potential to generate tourism-related economic growth and employment. In 2012, the Government brought in a £25 million package of measures to support the promotion and development of rural tourism. This formed part of a wider initiative to maximise tourism’s contribution to the economy, employment and to achieve growth in the sector.

Rother and Hastings have a huge amount to offer tourists and locals alike.  There are an abundance of natural attractions; our beautiful beaches – and glorious countryside for all sorts of outdoor pursuits. We have a wealth of historic towns, buildings and gardens. We have world-renowned art galleries, vineyards and attractions such as The Source skatepark in Hastings, as well as the truly pioneering centre for arts and crafts in Bexhill, the De La Warr Pavilion. To enhance this, Rother District Council works very hard, together with partners including the De La Warr, Hastings Borough Council, local businesses and community groups, to be innovative in boosting the tourist, arts and culture offer and local economy.

Events, festivals, and the like, attract visitors who, in turn, boost the local economy by spending locally, not only at the particular event. Local residents’ pride in their own community is important in economic development and regeneration. Events which target a community’s ‘USP’, such as the 1066 Battle of Hastings, promote a pride in our local communities. Rye Bay Scallop Festival or Wild Boar Week attract visitors to sample the delights of Rother’s sea and woods. Events promote a feeling of ‘working togetherness’ where individuals, organisations, local government and community groups come together to achieve an outcome. This improves collective knowledge, a sharing of ideas and best practice. This helps strengthen community cohesion. Organising volunteers to help put on a local event fosters a sense of pride, engages a community and gives the opportunity to help build it. Rother’s expanding events strategy has proved successful in attracting visitors to the area.

The success of all this hard work depends on the visitors attending. It is widely accepted that rural tourism is challenged by infrastructure, specifically transport and connections and restrictions to broadband access. Better transport to rural areas is required. As Rye, Hastings, Bexhill, Eastbourne and Brighton are all served by trains to and from London, transport should not be an issue for day and overnight visitors – but evidence shows that it is.

Sea Life Brighton reported a five per cent fall in visitor numbers in peak summer season when these should have been high. Brighton Pier management reported a 30 per cent drop in visitor numbers, attributed directly to the industrial action between Southern Rail and the RMT union. The rail dispute has been reported as hitting Seaford’s summer tourist trade. In July 2016, Eastbourne Chamber of Commerce wrote to Govia Thameslink warning that the disputes were causing significant damage to businesses in East Sussex. Despite the De La Warr Pavilion seeing a jump in visitor numbers for the financial year 2015/16 (430,000 – up 40,000 on the previous year), the management are very concerned at the impact the industrial action is having on visitor numbers for this current financial year.

Rother has enjoyed a steady year-on-year increase in tourism receipts, but statistics show that growth was flat in 2015, due to a fall in day trips. Day trip volume fell by 5% and day trip expenditure by 12%. It is believed that the fall in day trips in 2015 is a direct result of the Southern Rail industrial action, which started in 2015. I have no doubt at all that, when Rother tourism figures are available for 2016, we will see an alarming fall in overall visitor numbers. This is having a major impact on our local economy.

Our MPs, councillors, officers, businesses, individuals and community groups are consistently working hard in East Sussex, to develop and boost the local economy. We, and our residents, now urgently require help from Government Ministers, who need to be courageous and ruthless in their dealings with Govia Thameslink and the Unions before irreparable damage is done. It is clear that the industrial action is not really about pay, safety or hours worked. This is a politically motivated agenda, which needs to be stopped before the disease spreads.