Matthew Greenwood is a researcher at the Centre for Social Justice.
As we pass from summer into autumn, now seems the right time to reflect on the staycation and its likelihood of, well, staying. I must admit, I’ve always found the concept of a ‘staycation’ a bit foreign because, when staying with my mother, I live by the coast in sunny Clacton-On-Sea. A great staycation is, then, just a trip home. And I can’t help but notice that, talking of “levelling up”, we could use some by the seaside too.
This was one of the key conclusions to be drawn from WPI’s recently released Levelling Up Index. It confirmed with numbers what we already know.
Great swathes of the Red Wall are in dire need of support, as indeed are the North East and parts of London but, alongside those areas, are their coastal partners – with Clacton-On-Sea, Hastings and Rye, and Great Yarmouth all ranking in the top 100 constituencies of need.
As our population ages, our seaside towns, as great retirement destinations, feel it most strongly. Such large and small towns have a burgeoning elderly population that is often leagues ahead of the national average.
For example, on average 25 per cent of the population of large seaside towns are over the age of 65, a whole seven per cent points above the national average, and it’s even more pronounced in small seaside towns. Unsurprisingly, the opposite trend is true of the working-age population, with 25-49 year olds making up about a third of our populations today, but only slightly over one in four in large seaside towns. That isn’t to say that there is anything wrong with being elderly – time passes for us all – but having too few working-age people to support the costs and health needs of an above-average elderly population isn’t a good mix.
This situation isn’t helped by the fact that almost all of those who can get out do so. Often, seaside towns do not possess a fruitful mix of Head, Hand and Heart jobs, and therefore those who do go to university rarely come back. A recent report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that six of the top ten areas that are most afflicted by graduate departure are by the coast, with familiar names such as Bridlington, Skegness, Grimsby and Clacton-On-Sea appearing, all of which lose over 30 per cent of locals who go on to university.
Those jobs that do exist in seaside towns are often undervalued and seasonal, due in part to the nature of the tourism trade. Accommodation and food services jobs in large seaside towns make up over twice the proportion of jobs they do nationally, and these are often some of the lowest paid.
Finally, dependency on benefits also poses a problem. Large seaside towns have consistently had a greater proportion of 16-64 year old residents claiming than the rest of the country, and this was particularly marked in 2020 when the pandemic brought the country to a sudden halt. In many of our seaside towns, such as Skegness, Blackpool, Margate, Newquay, Great Yarmouth and Clacton, over one in ten found themselves claiming.
All of this reduces average incomes and creates a low-pay economy. As a result, a great malaise rests over our seaside towns, and we have become so used to this fact that it is debated less than it should be. The Government’s Coastal Communities and Coastal Revival Funds have gone some way to offering support, but now is the time for more. So what should we do about it?
First of all, re-imaging seaside towns is vital if they are to have a strong economic base that isn’t subject to the changing tides of seasonal trade. Tourism is part and parcel of how we envision the coast, but to consider them museums of the past for the rest of the country isn’t good enough anymore. Tourism should and will remain a strong local employer in coastal towns, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think staycations are here to stay when international travel is often cheaper than train journeys here.
This doesn’t mean stuffing the place with graduates who remould towns into Zoom-On-Sea while pricing everybody who already lives there out in the process, but harnessing what is already in the community and complimenting it. The Government could consider using the levers built within Universal Credit to encourage people into work, and invest in further clusters of excellence to complement Ministers’ work on free ports, all the while supporting local people to upskill.
Expanding the Coastal Communities Fund and using it to support encourage such centres specifically in seaside towns could help. It could serve to support local talent to stay and encourage higher earners to move in, creating a stronger employment mix.
Indeed, as a recent report by the Centre for Social Justice argued, we can use our newfound powers over public procurement, now that we have left the European Union, to spend it better and account for areas with greater need. This diffusion of spending could be a lifesaver. Whatever we choose to do, something must be done, and the Government’s Levelling Up agenda offers the right opportunity to do it. In the case of seaside towns, the tide won’t turn on its own.