Sadly, it is. And yet Great Yarmouth and its “poverty-on-sea” siblings are far
from being alone. There is nothing radically new in what the CSJ has to
report, and some will think that much of it could have been said 30 years
ago. Many British seaside towns, once as remote from our cities as Mr
Peggotty’s romantic dwelling, fell on hard times, particularly in the
Sixties, when cheap package holidays in the sun began to persuade us away
from a week in a glum Essex boarding house or the faded glories of an
Edwardian hotel on the Kentish riviera.
Yet the think tank report is a call to arms. It finds that seven out of 20
areas in Britain with the highest welfare dependency are in coastal towns;
that Blackpool – with high rates of teenage pregnancy – has three times the
national average of numbers of children in care; that up to two thirds of
working-age people in one area of Rhyl on the North Wales coast are
dependent on out-of-work benefits.
Shocking statistics, yes, but it is not as if local authorities are doing
nothing. Plans to “regenerate” the five Poverty-on-Sea towns have been well
established in recent years. The real problem is that more money than is
possibly available may yet be necessary to revive towns that grew too big
for their own sandals between the coming of the railways in the mid-19th
century and jets shrieking south to Spain a century later.
Blackpool and Rhyl were transformed out of all scale and recognition as the
railways brought Lancashire factory workers on annual summer holidays.
Yarmouth and Margate benefited, too, while as for Clacton-on-Sea, the town
was created as late as 1871 by Peter Bruff, the “Brunel of East Anglia”.
This enterprising Eastern Counties Railways engineer bought land on the
Essex coast and founded his holiday resort the same year the Bank Holiday
Act was passed.
Clacton was meant to be a rather smart resort and Bruff looked down on Cockney
day-trippers from London’s Liverpool Street station. Quite how he would have
reacted to news that Clacton relies so heavily on out-of-work benefits is
anyone’s guess, although surely nothing could shock him more than the state
of Jaywick Sands, a coastal shanty town south of Clacton, and officially
Britain’s most deprived area.
When tourist numbers began to fall – Blackpool now has eight million annual
visitors, down from a peak of 17 million – so ambitious hotels and
guest-houses fell empty. Butlins closed its holiday camp in 1983, while
Bruff’s pale blue Royal Hotel at Clacton-on-Sea stands empty today.
The story is repeated in other coastal towns; it seems impossible, today, to
believe that there were ever enough paying guests to fill Ramsgate’s
imposing, if rather forbidding, Granville Hotel, a monstrous design by E W
Pugin, son of the great Victorian Goth A W P Pugin, who had made his
“medieval” family home at Ramsgate in the 1840s. Complete with Turkish
baths, this ambitious hotel closed in 1946, having been bombed during the
war. It was chopped up into 50 flats. Last year the whole Gothic horror was
sold to Eliasz Englander, a London property developer, for £156,000; that’s
three grand a flat, which gives some idea of property values in coastal
towns on their uppers.
While writers, artists, architects and antique dealers exiling themselves from
London have made exquisite homes in recent years in towns like Margate,
Folkestone, Ramsgate and Hastings (property is cheap, there is much fine
historic architecture awaiting restoration, the sea is a peerless draw),
their investment is a pebble in the sea for local authorities saddled with
the problem of what to do with our heavily subsidised coastal towns. The
cheapest rented properties attract incomers, many of them transient, on
ever-lower incomes, with ever-fewer qualifications; the CSJ report notes
that 41 per cent of adults living in Clacton-on-Sea have no qualifications
Local authorities need to house increasing number of unqualified and often
jobless people, yet this unhappy situation is not exactly an enticement for
companies thinking of investing in our deprived coastal towns. While Margate
can boast a new Turner Gallery facing the sea, designed by the David
Chipperfield, the first architectural sight that greets visitors as they
step from the town’s handsome train station is a distinctly grim Sixties
tower block detracting from what should be a glorious stretch of golden
Sadly, it was not just holidaymakers who abandoned so many of our seaside
towns, but mainstream businesses, too. Towns like Great Yarmouth have lost a
great deal of their manufacturing industry, while Margate finally lost its
famous Hornby model railway factory, along with 400 local jobs, to China in
1995; there’s a Hornby visitor centre there today, at a fiver a pop, but
this is hardly the same thing as a working factory or the retention of the
skills that the CSJ says are needed here.
For Nigel Farage and Ukip, the decline of our coastal towns might just be a
political opportunity waiting to be exploited. “What’s becoming really
interesting,” he said last month on the campaign trail in Anglesey, “is the
phenomenon that no one has really noticed, which is that by accident we’re
becoming the seaside party.”
Mr Farage might yet stand in Great Yarmouth. But Yarmouth, Blackpool, Clacton,
Margate and Rhyl are none of them the kind of “bungalow towns” filled with
“self-supporting, self-reliant” people that Ukip feels are its own. If
anything, these places are likely to feel increasingly alienated from the
political mainstream, and if they are left to decline any further, they will
become an ever‑greater burden on taxpayers.
While every effort needs to be made to revive our seaside towns, it is hard
not to sense that over the past 150 years they have ridden roller‑coasters
of their own making – or perhaps of the railways’ and Victorian property
developers’ making. And now the tidal forces of brute economics are
battering them back to a time when they were far-flung fishing settlements,
unpretentious ports and even bare stretches of sand, like Clacton before
Peter Bruff, witness only to the cries of gulls and the indifferent sway of