The rising tide of enterprise refloating seaside towns like Scarborough and Whitby

Written by Matthew Rock, co-author of From ebb to flow: How entrepreneurs can turn the tide for Britain’s seaside towns. First published in The Yorkshire Post.

THE coastline of Britain evokes contrasting reactions. For many, it brings back memories of childhood, echoes of a more innocent time. In recent decades, seaside resorts have also been seen as towns in decline, tatty places that have seen better times, that are descending into economic and social irrelevance.

Earlier this year, the London-based think-tank, the Centre for Entrepreneurs, asked me to examine the conditions for entrepreneurship in the UK’s seaside resort towns. Remember, this was pre-General Election; Ukip had won two by-elections in the south-east of England, including at Clacton-on-Sea. There was a sense that these communities, already isolated, were being pulled further away from the mainstream.

Actually, having visited many of these seaside towns, there’s another, quite different perspective. Yes, these communities are remote, often with poor transport links and infrastructure. Work is seasonal and low-paid, and the brain drain of talent can be acute. The glory days of mass tourism are long gone. Tastes have changed, piers stand empty.

But there is also evidence that the UK coastline – described by the designer Wayne Hemingway as “our crown jewels” – is rediscovering its relevance. Aided by technology and attracted by sea breezes and a better quality of life, entrepreneurial people are sticking or returning to the coast. Local officials and businesspeople are working together to give their towns stronger brand identities. Whisper it, but the tide may be turning on our buffeted coastline.

Many of these forces are at work on Yorkshire’s East Coast and, in particular, in Scarborough and Whitby. Both are showing just the kind of entrepreneurialism, public-private cooperation and resilience that are in evidence around the UK coastline.

Stuart McNiven, founder of the sea vessel operator Dalby Offshore, is an important figure in Scarborough’s reawakening. For two-and-a-half years Dalby Offshore was the main sub-contractor for the Costa Concordia salvage operation, worth tens of millions. It was the biggest commercial diving project ever. “If you ever win one contract in your life, that’s the one to win,” McNiven said to me recently.

Critically, the Costa Concordia has given Dalby Offshore an international profile, and put it in pole position to service the £30bn offshore wind farm at Dogger Bank.

Dalby is investing £3m to redevelop Endeavour Wharf in Whitby where 200 new jobs may be created. The town will soon be at the heart of Britain’s renewable energy industry.

There will need to be many McNivens and Dalbys; the area must become overtly friendly to business. The decision to permit potash mining within the North York Moors National Park is positive and could create hundreds of jobs, but the likelihood of a resort town drawing a mass employer – a car plant or a technology giant – remains pretty slim. Local officials must provide the right climate for lots of entrepreneurs and smaller employers, and celebrate the ones they’ve already got.

They should also actively encourage local people to set up their own companies. You can see this happening in the Woodend “creative workspace”, the £7m renovation of a Grade II-listed house in Scarborough town centre where designers, artists, PR firms and creatives ply their trade.

So how to keep building on the momentum?

  • Local authorities, businesses and tourist/marketing agencies should join together to forge unique identities for their towns. Padstow is synonymous with food; Weston-super-Mare just bagged Banksy’s Dismaland “Bemusement Park”. Scarborough cannily hosted the end of the first leg of the Tour de Yorkshire.
  • The Government should consider launching a new “Challenge” in deprived rural and coastal regions, given their success in boosting educational outcomes in London, Manchester and the Black Country. Let’s call it the “Seaside Challenge”.
  • The Government should support and encourage charities – such as Teach First and the Education Endowment Foundation – that are working to improve to educational standards in seaside town.
  • Data-led programmes that map economic trends (such as the government-backed “Tech Nation”) should be implemented so entrepreneurs can identify places to invest.
  • Seaside towns need to have publicly accessible asset inventories. It’s far too difficult to find out who owns what. Local authorities should lead on this.
  • Seaside towns, and the regions in which they are located, should be granted greater decision-making autonomy.
  • Local and national authorities should continue and upscale their investments in physical infrastructure. The planned high-speed rail improvements for Hastings and Margate show the way.
  • Investment in improvements that will support the digital sector are paramount, especially high-speed broadband.

If this happens, towns like Scarborough and Whitby can look to the future with optimism.