Scarborough: Rebranding Britain’s most traditional seaside resort

This is a case study featured in our seaside report. Click here for the full report page

How can entrepreneurs ensure the seaside offers its resident population more than low skilled seasonal employment? Home to one of the fastest growing businesses in the North of England, talent is not only sticking around, but returning to Scarborough.

The train from York is jammed with excited children, asking, “Are we nearly there yet”. On the seafront, brightly coloured kiosks sell crab and chips. Children dare each other to run into the chilly water. Scarborough is in many ways the last bastion of traditional seaside holidays.

In much of Britain, they’re a thing of the past; in Scarborough, they are still the town’s bread and butter. The East Yorkshire town is consistently among the top five most popular destinations in the UK for domestic visitors. At the vast 413-room Grand Hotel on the seafront, rooms go from £29 a night, and occupancy rates hit an astonishing 90%.

Still, it’s not exactly the glory days. Back in the 1960s, Cilla Black would play six-week seasons at the Futurist theatre in Scarborough’s South Bay. Today, the Futurist is a 2,000-seat derelict eyesore.

“When the Police Federation conference came to town, it wasn’t a case of how many beer barrels to get in, but how many we could fit in,” laughs a former hotelier. Those five-day bookings for union congresses are a distant memory today.

Scarborough faces unique social and economic challenges, like many seaside resorts. The Barrowcliffe ward is one of the most deprived in Britain. In the cobbled old town, you can sometimes spot a pair of trainers hanging ominously from a lamppost, signalling that drugs are on sale nearby. The town’s remoteness – “42 miles from Britain down the A364”, smiles local manufacturing boss Alan Pickering – has made it a place where some choose to disappear, often from gang life in northern inner cities.

But as a traditional town, it has traditional values that are serving it well. A few years back, the Scarborough community came together behind a successful bid to be named as Britain’s – then Europe’s – most enterprising town. In a manner that’s missing in many resorts, local entrepreneurs and councillors work together for the greater good. There’s a small army of local volunteers who maintain the town’s handsome gardens now that publicly employed gardeners have been trimmed back in austerity cuts. And yes, this is a town where people maintain their front gardens. The sense of local pride is palpable.

Stuart McNiven’s private office has the town’s best views. Perched atop an 18th century toll house on the Scarborough seafront, the window to the right is filled by a fairground ferris wheel; to the left is the 2.5-mile Marine Drive, the Victorian promenade that skirts the Scarborough seafront. And 60 hazy miles straight out to sea, plans are in place for the world’s largest wind farm, at Dogger Bank.

McNiven, 56, is a man of Scarborough and a man of the sea. After attending Graham Sea Training School, he left the town at 16 to see the world. His first voyage was aboard a large crew ship set for Iran. At 29, he became the youngest captain in the British merchant navy. He believes he’s travelled to every country in the world.

McNiven is confident and very Yorkshire. It’s easy to see how he rose to the top of the marine industry, latterly with the Danish shipping giant Maersk where he led a team of 1,200. Having built a personal network in every corner of the world, in 2006 he left the corporate world to become an entrepreneur.

The first few years were rough for his new company, Dalby Offshore, which started off as a ship manager managing large offshore vessels. The global financial crisis caused his then bank, HSBC, to pull out of his sector at 24 hours’ notice. McNiven loses no opportunity to criticise the bank’s behaviour, and states there were times when he almost packed it all in to focus instead on his farm, pub and upmarket holiday cottage businesses.

Then, on January 13, 2012, everything changed. McNiven’s wife was watching Sky News when the news came through that the Italian cruise liner, Costa Concordia, had been wrecked off the southern coast of Italy. “You should come and watch this,” she called out.

Over the next few days, events moved quickly. McNiven had done a lot of work in marine salvage and, though “never in a million years did I think our little company in Yorkshire would get the contract”, he did happen to be close friends with Nick Sloane, the world’s number one salvage master. When the news broke, Sloane rang McNiven from New Zealand. Plans, proposals, submissions were put together in double-quick time. And then the call came through and, McNiven recalls, “we realised, bloody ‘ell, it looks like we’ve got the Costa Concordia.”

For two-and-a-half years, Dalby Offshore was the main subcontractor for the salvage operation, putting 40,000 tons of concrete and 20,000 tons of steel under the stricken ship. The contract turned out to be a game changer for Dalby Offshore, perhaps worth tens of millions to the company. It was the biggest commercial diving project ever, setting a world record for the number of commercial dives. At one point, McNiven organised for a butcher friend in Whitby to ship 20 tons of meat a week to the hundreds of workers working on the operation. It’s estimated that the total bill for the Costa Concordia’s salvage will be £1.7bn.

“If you ever win one contract in your life, that’s the one to win,” says McNiven, with evident pride. Critically, the Costa Concordia gave Dalby Offshore, then still a young business, an international profile, boosted its turnover to £24m in 2013, and put McNiven at the centre of Scarborough’s and Whitby’s reinvention.

Dalby’s next project is a £3m development at Endeavour Wharf in Whitby. From here the company will serve Dogger Bank (Captain Cook set sail from here to Australia), which will generate 200 new jobs for Dalby Offshore alone. Ultimately, some 3,000 wind turbines are planned for the colossal £30bn project, putting Whitby and Scarborough at the heart of Britain’s renewable energy industry.

The challenge for this new industry and other local employers will be the long-standing brain drain from the Yorkshire coast. Many local schools are in poor shape; most of the clever kids leave Scarborough and do not come back. Which puts pressure on local companies when they want to recruit talented new people.

These acute skills shortages drove Alan Pickering, managing director of Unison (“intelligent tube technology”) to such despair that he decided to tackle the problem himself. He has spent the past several years, heroically and ultimately successfully, lobbying and campaigning for the town to have a new university technical college (UTC). These new colleges blend academic and practical teaching within a curriculum that is partly set by local employers. When it opens in September 2016, Scarborough’s UTC will be the only one in a town of this size. “It’s got to work. If it doesn’t, Scarborough will become a ghost town,” says Pickering bluntly.

But there are reasons for optimism beyond Dogger Bank. Sirius Minerals has permission to start mining within the North Yorkshire National Park, which sits on two billion tonnes of potash (used in the making of fertiliser). Local officials reckon this could create hundreds of jobs.

As in many seaside resorts, outdoor sports and entertainment are flourishing in Scarborough. The Tour de Yorkshire, the successor to the county’s phenomenally successful staging of the 2013 Tour de France opening leg, brought the world’s top cyclists to the town. In Spring 2015 Scarborough hosted the P1 Powerboat festival, watched by thousands from the slopes above the sea, the town’s natural amphitheatre. Surfing is popular, and Scarborough is home to one of England’s most beautiful county cricket grounds. “It’s a playground,” says Tony Robinson, the renowned micro-business campaigner who has long made this his home.

The architectural fabric is impressive, too. Mighty Victorian villas fringe the imposing clifftops. Led by the quietly charismatic Nick Taylor, investment manager at Scarborough and Whitby Council, the town’s ‘super-output’ problem areas have been tackled head on and, in instances such as Trafalgar Square, been turned around. Where once there were street drinking and ‘chaotic families’, now there are colourful hanging baskets and desirable properties. There’s a £2.7m refurbishment under way in the old Market Hall, which could create 60 new jobs and a new hub for local craft businesses. ‘Participatory planning’ is a phrase you keep hearing.

Talent is beginning to stay in Scarborough and perhaps most important, is returning. Tony Robinson sees more and more successful executives leaving corporate careers in their forties and, like Stuart McNiven, coming back with a great address book, cash in the bank and a desire to help their home town.

Others use Scarborough in all but name. Local technology entrepreneur Andy Gambles keeps a postbox address in central London, but really works from here. And why not? 98% of his security software customers are overseas, and he only needs to meet them once or twice a year. “Sometimes they ask, ‘where are you based?’ I say ‘Scarborough’. They say ‘oh, is that near London?’ And I say, ‘yeah, it is”.

You can feel the buzz of home-grown talent in the Woodend ‘creative workspace’, an inventive £7m renovation of a Grade II-listed house in the town centre. Here, designers, artists, PR firms and creatives ply their trade. Why would we run a business from anywhere but this town of texture and sea breezes, many of the Woodend entrepreneurs wonder? It’s not hard to see where they’re coming from: the Stephen Joseph Theatre plays first-rate shows, Alan Ayckbourn lives in the town, as do well-heeled former BBC types. Local poetry, jazz, literature and music festivals are proliferating.

Scarborough’s future, like many remote communities, is delicately poised. If a large employer, like the frozen-food company McCains, which employs 1,000 people in the area, decided to leave, it would be catastrophic. No doubt there are enterprise zones across the north of England regularly on the phone to local Scarborough companies, tempting them away with rent-free periods and better transport links. “There’s no reason for us to be here except that we come from here,” says one local manufacturing boss.

“We have a recession every October,” says Nick Taylor from the local council. Ancient local rivalries run deep, and can’t help when pushing for regional investment and a higher profile on the national stage. “Scarborough people don’t go to Whitby – and vice-versa,” sighs a local businesswoman.

Still, while they’ve probably marred many a summer holiday, those North Sea gusts could herald a new future for this stretch of Yorkshire coast, adding a new, long-term industry to a charming, old-fashioned resort.