The ups and downs of seaside towns

by robertmcnicol

Hi both. This short piece in the Economist is interesting if somewhat light. It makes various claims – that poverty in seaside towns is due largely to the decline of Victorian industry; that better rail connections to London would make them better places; that New Labour art-regen projects don’t do enough to turn around a failing economy.

The piece is – perhaps unsurprisingly – London-centric. It is the towns in the south east of England (Hastings, Margate) that really trouble the author – not those northern seaside resorts which, presumably, one would expect to be a bit shit anyway. And it’s Folkestone’s new speedy rail link to London that has halted its decline – by making it a place more Londoners might want to go. And it’s Brighton’s connectivity to the big smoke that means that it’s buzzy and swish – the old Camden-by-Sea truism again.

Let’s dig a little deeper. Hastings and its near-neighbour Bexhill are indeed places that have suffered serious deprivation. Like most Victorian seaside resorts, there never was industry here; these were instead places that cleverly, over time figured out how to cater for the leisure needs of a wide variety of society.

St Leonard’s was originally laid out by James Burton, and later his son Decimus, in a whimsical style in the first half of the nineteenth century, a place for the wealthy to retire or write or have a holiday home in. They arrived by sea. Then, with the arrival of the railways, we get working people arriving – daytrippers and holidaymakers coming for the beaches, fine weather, piers and so forth. Bexhill’s Victorian industry was actually education; this was where the officers of the Raj sent their sons and daughters to the many boarding schools that became the town’s primary raison d’etre. Hence the still-ridiculously long railway platforms for the school trains that steamed their way from London each term. In the 1930s we get attempts by local government to regenerate. The outdoor pool in St Leonards, whilst large, was not unusual for a seaside town; Bexhill’s De La Warr pavilion is perhaps a more idiosyncratic intervention, and arguably the finest public building of that decade. Then we get the War, the collapse of Empire and the British class system, more access to overseas travel, Thatcher’s Britain and the decimation of local government. Seaside towns are now officially dead.

Brighton got by on the racecourse, murder, dirty weekends, saucy seaside postcards, mods, rockers, fish ‘n’ chips, gays. The rise of grunge music in Seattle in the 1990s saved Brighton and youth culture everywhere by making it cool to wear moth-eaten knitwear and mumble into a microphone. Or maybe it was the long-term investment in education – Sussex University in the 1960s, the gradual and commendable rise of Brighton Poly (now also a university) – that allowed the town to flourish late in the last century.

If seaside towns are poorly connected to London, it is a problem for Londoners or people who like London-things. Which is to say, people like me. Eastbourne folk don’t complain about not being able to get to London in under an hour because they actually rather like their gentle touring farces and going to church and watching women’s tennis. Bournemouth has an internationally-reknowned symphony orchestra. Connections to the big city for better-paying jobs are good for individuals and the tax man, but it doesn’t bring employment to the town. No-one thinks that Brighton’s a wonderful place because of its commuters. Indeed, they also have a nasty habit of forcing up house prices, so locally-employed people are forced to rent from private landlords.

Seaside towns are naturally constrained. The centre of town is never that – it’s always on the wet edge of the country. The centre of Brighton, geographically-speaking, is perhaps the unloved Withdean stadium, from which the Seagulls have recently, poetically, flown. Seaside cities, or – as I like to call them – ports, at least have useful shorelines unlike the gentle fronts of Eastbourne or Herne Bay or Deal or Worthing. At best the town can sprawl into the countryside behind or unspool along the coast, swallowing up retirement villages and fishing settlements and farming communities as they go, creating commuters of us all. Seaside towns have nowhere useful to go, hence the arguments over where to put things like new art galleries. The Bilbao-effect may be derided by every urban theorist (bar the indefatigable Richard Florida), but people are generally fine about having a new theatre or whatever – it’s the question of where it goes that causes the problems. Not on my beach.

The much-vaunted cultural regeneration donkey is a fun one to kick. But in truth it isn’t the only peg that New Labour tried to hang the hat of investment on: the Sea Space project in Hastings has seen 10 years of serious investment (a lot of it European funding. Just, you know. Worth saying) at a much less controversial level. Things like education buildings, offices, making the station usable for people with pushchairs and walking sticks. Which is to say normal people.Now the funding has dried up. No more European cash – that’s all gone to shore up the banks in Greece. Actually, it’s worse. The breath-taking cuts to housing benefit, local government funding, disability benefit, the NHS and every other decent thing we ever thought of mean that the impoverished won’t even be able to afford shelter in the dilapidated Victorian hotels of Warrior Square that we recently considered shit enough to house Albanian refugees during a glorious, shining decade when we disguised our meanness as a nation with leftover trinkets stolen from the future poor by a housing bubble that enriched only the already wealthy.

Our seaside towns are not laid low by their temporal distance from the wonder of London, or the dubious draw of minor galleries hoping to seduce the middle-class, or the collapse of the industrial economy of the century before last. It’s, of course, vastly more complicated than that. But what’s crippled so many attempts is the failure of political will to invest in education and employment for everyone. Or rather the success of a political will to take from those who have little left to give. And our complacency that means we’ve done next to fuck all about it.