By Martin Parsons
Yesterday the government announced a new Coastal Communities Fund worth around £23 million to support the economic development of coastal areas. Businesses, charities and other local organisations can submit bids to fund a range of projects which could include developing renewable energy, improving skills or even environmental protection.
The fund, which will start in April 2012 will be financed from 50% of the revenues of the Crown Estates marine activities. The Crown Estate owns virtually the entire seabed from the foreshore out to the 12 mile limit of UK territorial waters as well as half the beds of estuaries and tidal rivers. It obtains money from activities such as leasing the rights for renewable energy generation and licensing the dredging of sand and gravel from the sea bed.
The creation of the fund by is welcome news for coastal communities who were largely neglected by the previous Labour government. This neglect was shockingly revealed in a report on Coastal Towns produced by the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government in 2007. The Conservative Party began to address it in earnest with a report published in 2009 entitled ‘No Longer the End of the Line, Our Plan for Coastal Towns’ produced by Mark Simmonds MP. This week’s announcement of the creation of the Coastal Communities Fund is a further welcome step in the right direction.
The issues facing coastal communities can broadly be categorised into three groups of which this new initiative begins to tackle one:
- Economic – many of these are derived from what we could call the ‘half sphere problem’ – coastal towns have only half the sphere of influence for their businesses and for workers employment opportunities that inland towns have, simply because half of that geographical sphere is in the sea! However, they also often struggle with poor transport and communications infrastructure, with some rural coastal communities not even being able to get mobile reception let alone decent broadband. Lack of updated transport links to the rest of the UK is often another issue. In the last 30 years many businesses have relocated out of coastal towns because of the relative difficulty of getting goods to market. Coastal communities – including even large towns are often some of the most inaccessible places in the UK. For example, much of the East Anglian coast where I live, which includes large, towns such as Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth as well as remoter rural areas, is about two hours drive from the nearest motorway and an hour from the nearest dual carriageway link to the rest of the country. This is despite being only around 100 miles from London. Tradtional industries sucha s shipbuilding and fishing have collapsed, while seaside tourism in many resorts has suffered from the rise of air travel and cheap foreign holidays since the 1970s. This has led to declining visitor numbers, closure of hotels which often become bedsit land and urban degeneration with its associated social problems. The economic challenge for seaside towns is to either renew and reinvent themselves or face further decline (see ‘the Butler model' opposite)
- Demographic – a higher than average number of older people which leads to higher costs for local authorities, combined with the drift of younger highly qualified young people away from their home areas due to lack of professional jobs. The situation is exacerbated by the rise in second home ownership in many coastal communities that have pushed house prices beyond the reach of many ordinary local people. It is high time the government considered allowing local authorities to impose local stamp duty on the purchase of second homes in order to fund affordable housing.
- Physical challenges – such as coastal erosion and flooding. Currently the Environment Agency has the power to regulate sea defences, but has no statutory duty to undertake work to prevent coastal flooding or erosion itself. Consequently, with no local accountability, in many instances it actually prevents local landowners from investing in their own sea defences. It does so because it believes, perversely, that coastal erosion is actually beneficial in some rural coastal locations by providing sediment for other local beaches, something that is not supported by the scientific literature. Illustrative of the impact of such skewed thinking is the case of a landowner in the council ward I represent – who is losing 17 acres of farmland a year to coastal erosion. He is prepared to spend £200,000 of his own money on sea defences, but is not being allowed to. This 'regulate others but don't have to do anything yourself' status of the Environment Agency urgently needs reviewing and was potentially made worse by the 2010 Flood and Water Management Act which was rushed through at end of the last parliament without proper scrutiny. Section 38 of this allows the Environment Agency to actually create coastal erosion and flooding…
Thus the announcement of this fund goes someway towards beginning to address the first of these challenges, the economic issues. It is of course not designed to address all economic issues facing coastal comunities, there are many issues such as road building that only major government investment in infrastructure can tackle. It is nonetheless a helpful and welcome start.
However, there are three areas that the government will need to exercise care with as it sets up this fund.
1. The new fund should add to, not detract from existing coastal funding – such as that announced last year for sea defence.
2. The principle of priming the pump to help coastal communities help themselves is extremely welcome. However, this principle needs to extended – as I have argued previously to sea defence, allowing local landowners within certain limits to defend their own land against coastal erosion.
3. There is a potential conflict of interest in the use of Crown Estate revenues which will need to be closely monitored. The Crown Estate derives substantial revenue from licensing dredging, with increasing amounts currently (21%) of sand and gravel used in the construction industry coming from the sea bed since the 1960s. However, there has long been held to be a link between extraction of sand and gravel from the seabed and coastal erosion, which at least in the case of East Anglia has increased very significantly in this same time frame.
Nonetheless, the creation of this Coastal Communities Fund designed to prime the pump to help communities begin to help themselves is a very welcome small step in the right direction.