Seaside towns: the outsiders at the end of the line

First published on www.robert-kelsey.co.uk

A leading think tank, for which I’m the proud Deputy Chairman, recently produced a report on seaside towns, and how best to revive them. Indeed, many of Britain’s seaside towns are pockets of deprivation with high unemployment and low growth: long on social ills, short on employable skills. What, and who, can reverse such a depressing trajectory?

Given that the think tank in question is the Centre for Entrepreneurs, it will surprise no one that we concluded that entrepreneurs are the answer. Individual entrepreneurs can provide the vision, innovation, energy and sheer grit required to change the fortunes of these iconic but sometimes unfortunate areas. Entrepreneurs are, after all, contrarians: we see opportunity where others don’t. We also stick with it – usually due to bloody-mindedness – when others surrender, sometimes long after surrendering was the most rational option.

As is the way with such reports (this one called From ebb to flow: How entrepreneurs can turn the tide for Britain’s seaside towns), some interesting case studies highlight the point. For instance, Matt Desmier is behind Bournemouth’s exploding tech-hub. Meanwhile, Stuart McGiven, a former shipping executive, is turning Scarborough into an offshore renewable-energy centre. In Littlehampton, Jane Wood is generating an arts and architecture vibe; while brothers Marc and Rich Moore are converting Hastings’ derelict buildings (including a swimming pool) into a world-renowned skateboarding and BMX centre.

These are varied examples of people who are “out there” trying to achieve something radical for towns that – thanks to cheap travel and changing tastes – have somewhat lost their raison d’etre.

Of course, it’s at this point I should start saying that these entrepreneurs are outsiders: mavericks, going against the tide in order to pursue unique paths often misunderstood or disdained by insiders. Certainly, I would state this if it was true. And while it may be for some individuals, the most overriding sense when reading the report is of individual civic pride. These people clearly love their towns, which is an unlikely emotion in most outsiders who tend to assume their town embodies everything that frustrates them.

Here, it’s the resorts’ great and good (i.e. the insiders) that seem to be using their influence to encourage entrepreneurial endeavours. As with the cases mentioned, many are focused on developing entrepreneurial clusters aimed at helping their towns forge a unique economic identity: an identity that can encourage further entrepreneurs – as well as subsidiary businesses – to locate there.

No, it’s not the people that – in this case – had my outsider radar bleeping. It’s the towns themselves. While they have a lot in common with each other (a beach, a seafront, a pleasure pier – as well as hardship and an air of decline), their relationship with the surrounding area often jars. Many simply don’t belong in their region.

Reinforcing this notion, of seaside towns as “other”, are my own experiences. As a child I can remember journeys through the prosperous and pleasantly-rural villages and hamlets of northeast Essex before arriving in Clacton: an alien bubble of chip-fat cafes and noisy arcades with a vaguely menacing air.  Now I have a house in Southwold which, with its beach-huts and boutiques, has little in common with gentle inland towns such as Bungay, Beccles and Halesworth. That said, nearby Lowestoft – a fishing port that’s lost its fishing fleet – could be on another planet from the soporific well-fed county within which it resides.

These are outsider towns that have, perhaps unsurprisingly, attracted Britain’s waifs and strays. Nearly all such towns have an oversupply in benefits claimants, drug addicts, problem families and n’er do wells. They are, quite literally, the end of the line for those rejected by or rejecting society. Of course, being at the end of the line adds to their sense of isolation: that they are cut off from the mainstream economy, which is increasingly centred on inland centripetal cities such as London, Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds.

Given this, the report’s conclusions are remarkably similar to my own in The Outside Edge. First, these outsider towns need to discover their meaning – i.e. a reason for existing. In the case of seaside towns, it’s more of a reinvention, which also works for outsiders – many of whom have lost their way after a lifetime of trying to fit in. They then need to develop a strong new identity that supports this quest: something that chimes with the identity needs outlined in The Outside Edge.

Of course, seaside towns have the advantages of sea and sand and the feeling of being somewhere special.  But, as that’s no longer economically sustainable, an additional identity is required: whether it’s as a foodie haven, a music centre, a startup tech cluster or a design hub.  Only then can the towns stand out from their hinterlands, as well as differentiate themselves from each other.

Yet the report’s other recommendations also have a surprising resonance withThe Outside Edge. A second need for seaside towns – and one chiming with the book’s focus on pursing excellence – is a major improvement in educational outcomes. The reports’ authors (including Matthew Rock and Matt Smith) detail the underperformance of schools in seaside towns, which is a disaster for any aspiring entrepreneurs looking to recruit locally.

The answer – according to the report – is a Seaside Challenge. Similar to the successful London Challenge under the previous Labour government (subsequently exported to Manchester and the Black Country), this would help boost educational attainment levels through targeted additional funding, a laser focus on improving results and by instigating a sense of competition between schools.

And finally there’s the recommendation that seaside towns make the strongest possible use of their assets: perhaps converting old buildings for new identity-supporting uses. Indeed, what could be more self-helpy than this – the idea that we all possess positive attributes that, if honed, can become our strongest assets for attainment? In the case of seaside towns it includes swimming pools (such as the Hastings baths being converted into a skatepark), piers, dancehalls and other seaside paraphernalia. In the case of human outsiders, meanwhile, it tends to be our creativity and unique perspective: something – thanks to entrepreneurs – also increasingly apparent in our seaside towns.