Common ground for seaside and coastal towns

Action for Market Towns and CoastNet have been reviewing both the vulnerabilities and challenges unique to small seaside towns and those they share with others. Chris Wade reveals their findings

Since the 2007 select committee report on coastal towns a significant evidence base has been collected on their status and common issues. This has included benchmarking studies commissioned by the Department for Communities and Local Government (English seaside towns and smaller English seaside towns), and by the Welsh Assembly Government.

Further, Stephen Fothergill, the leading light behind much of this body of work, has produced other relevant and valuable work, such as on the value of the seaside tourism industry  in England and Wales.

In addition regional studies have added further insight into the nature of coastal economies and some fundamental issues such as reconciling regeneration and environmental risk which have a bearing on strategic investment by both the public and private sector, benchmarking and characterisation and the impact of SMEs on coastal regeneration .

From these various reports we can identify the following issues as common to seaside towns and which mark them out from inland communities:

Demographics – above average proportions of older people and people of working age on benefits

Housing – higher than average proportions of small and cheap private sector rented housing units, often of poor quality

High health inequality – probably in large part due to the previous two characteristics

Tourism – an important economic sector, but brings problems of low wage, low skilled seasonal employment (although the seasonal fluctuations in total employment in seaside towns are actually small)

Public sector dependency – there is a higher than average dependency on public sector employment

Diversity – the economy as a whole is less diverse than inland

Isolation – the geographic peripherality from main centres is perceived as a barrier to inward investment, but seaside town economies tend to have a high degree of self-containment

Environmental risk – tends to be high (requiring costly sea defences against flooding or erosion and creating uncertainty for investors)

Public realm – seaside towns have a larger than average public realm which is more costly to maintain and replace, creating conflicts with other spending priorities

Resistance to change – there is a high degree of resistance to change in small places

Deindustrialisation – it has an impact in port towns or those with coastal industries such as ship-building, leaving derelict land, often contaminated, and often with relatively poor road access. This can be the case even in very small towns

Different businesses – there are business sectors represented (not all being tourism) that are unique to the coast or present to a unique degree.

Where a revival of seaside and coastal towns has worked well, it has combined strategic support from principal local authorities with strong local leadership and a spirit of self-reliance and enterprise by town councils, community partnerships and business forums. This is the same balance in local leadership that has played a huge part in the regeneration of market towns and other inland settlements. This can be broken down as follows.

Strategic support

  • Strengthening local leadership and capacity: it is important to capture the lessons learned from past community-led regeneration to help improve upon the existing good practice. This means devolving some decisions and delivery beyond the principal local authorities to the town level. Local people have a far greater understanding of their community’s needs and – supported and facilitated by councils with the powers and capability to help them do it – will be far more sensitive to the value of proposed change and be able to take the decisions and contribute their own efforts to making it happen.
  • Joining-up settlements and policies: arguably, success to-date in regenerating individual small towns has largely happened in spite of a strategic understanding of the interactions between communities. This has limited the opportunities for policy coordination in areas such as tourism development and retail strategies. For the best use of available resources, policies and strategies for regenerating individual seaside towns and wider areas now need to be developed with a better appreciation of how different communities complement, interrelate and compete with their neighbours.
  • Managing change through community-led planning: effective tools and techniques for community-led planning have been tried and tested in rural areas over the last decade. As a structured process, a community-led planning technique can provide an over-arching mechanism across a wide area.

Self-reliant practices

  • Understanding town economies beyond the high street or seafront: while the health of the high street or seafront is a very visible issue in small towns, it must also be understood that their economic and social wellbeing is dependent on wider issues such as employment, development, housing, training and transport. At the same time, the challenge of recession combined with longer-term decline of traditional markets are very real and must be addressed if seaside and coastal town economies are to be viable.
  • Creating affordable housing solutions: affordable housing, or the lack suitable provision, is a key issue that is shown in extremes in seaside and coastal towns. ‘Striving communities’ are characterised by high levels of deprivation across all indicators, and a very high proportion of people living in social rented accommodation; whereas the ‘silver seaside’ and ‘re-inventing resorts’ show upward pressures on house prices caused by relatively affluent incomers.
  • Delivering innovative public services: many coastal towns, just like in-land rural towns, have seen a reduction in many medium-scale services and often are no longer equipped to serve their residents or the needs of surrounding villages. In a time of recession and public spending cuts, the need to identify innovative ways to safeguard local services is paramount to delivering an effective agenda for change. This includes: exploring the way services are run; finding more efficient ways to deliver core services; and above all maintaining the importance of community leadership in influencing and delivering appropriate local services.

Click here for further information on the research or read the overview, Regeneration in seaside towns. Chris can be contacted at, 01284 756567 or contact Coastnet’s Alex Midlen at, 01752 426164.


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