Britain’s coast is in desperate trouble. As more of us head for our beaches this summer than since the 1950s, spare a thought for the 3.5 million who live on the coast all year round – disproportionately poorer, iller, older, more mentally depressed, in low-paid temporary work, more overweight and more prone to suicide, drug abuse and self-harm than if they lived just a few miles inland. Levelling up is too often associated with derelict industrial Britain, but it is on our coast that the crisis over living standards, life expectancy and health is most acute. If the EU referendum was lost anywhere, it was lost here.
The story is hardly new, as the chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, recognised in last week’s devastating report on the health and wellbeing of coastal communities. As he says, Blackpool has more in common with Hastings 255 miles distant, in its chronic ill health and poor public health services, than Preston just 15 miles inland. Even adjusting for deprivation and an elderly demographic, rates of mental illness and heart and kidney disease in coastal communities are roughly 10% higher than the national average – just one dimension of the “ shit-life syndrome” endemic on our coast. The quality of NHS care in response is enfeebled by major shortages of health and social care staff – 15% fewer postgraduate medical trainees, 15% fewer consultants and 7% fewer nurses per patient in coastal towns compared with the average inland. In any case, medical and public health services can only make so much progress in the teeth of the economic and social forces that create such a lack of wellbeing. Locked in a despairing vicious circle, coastal towns, often beautiful and with healthy sea air, are forgotten casualties because problems seem worse inland. There must be, declared Whitty, a national strategy to engage with this national wrong.
The underlying reasons are well known. The “blue economy” – fishing, shipping, shipbuilding, port traffic and tourism – has been hit hard by deep-seated trends. Industrial fishing has fatally wounded local fishing fleets; containerisation has killed small ports; shipbuilding has migrated to Asia; the British usually holiday abroad. The evaporation of a vibrant private sector with nothing spontaneously taking its place has seen wages, rents and local house prices suffer, on average over a quarter lower than a few miles inland, so that in general coastal towns have become poverty sinks. Neglect and deprivation beget still more, while teachers and doctors are reluctant to make their lives in these run-down places, exacerbating the decay.
What has given the decline its own special British twist is the way political and administrative centralisation, systemically denying local capability to raise taxes, borrow and spend, has interacted with a refusal to recognise that public and private are necessarily a symbiotic whole, more obvious on the coast than inland. Unless there is a vigorous public infrastructure of beautiful seaside fronts, promenades, well-tended beaches and amenities there cannot be successful coastal private enterprise. But that is impossible to create without sustained public resource and the accompanying structures.
Coastal communities in Holland, northern France, Denmark and Germany battle similar forces to our own, but their localities are afforded more chances to pull themselves up. Our coast’s decline is littered with examples of local energy and initiative running into difficulty for lack of any supportive, long-term framework, so that for every successful beachside art gallery or revived old port there is a parallel story of bankrupt pier companies and amusement parks. The doctrine in response is not to empower, but, rather, create Whitehall-controlled funds for which local communities bid against each for fixed pots of money. The root-and-branch overhaul in the way our towns and cities are governed, from which coastal towns would be prime beneficiaries, is abjured. The heroin addicts hanging out in the derelict seafront bandstand are umbilically linked to our pre-modern system of government.
The prime minister did not single out the plight of coastal communities in his recent speech on levelling up ten days ago – on the government website but surreally with no punctuation –, in which he simultaneously deplored so much spatial inequity in Britain while arguing that tall poppies should remain tall. Hence levelling up – not down. But importantly, he did call for more enabled local leaderships, the mayoral model to be extended to shires and counties, which could then put their plans to the centre. He envisages an extension of the existing model: more people to bid for these fixed pools of cash on which Whitehall would decide.
It can’t and won’t deliver what he wants. Yet for all the derision directed at his over-hyped speech so much of which was reheating pre-existing policies, at least he has put spatial inequality at the political forefront, while recognising any success must involve local leaders. It has created a unique moment that coincides with another break from the past. The working from home revolution prompted by Covid is creating the first mass re-engagement with our coast since the 19th century. Thus the Rightmove property network reports a 115% increase in inquiries this summer from city dwellers about buying property in seaside towns. House prices on the Cornish coast have exploded, while Scarborough is reinventing itself as “Zoomtown-on-sea”.
It is a once in a century chance on which our political establishment should capitalise, especially the Tory party, which represents nearly all the coastal constituencies it so shamefully neglects. Britain’s coast should become the spearhead of a green revolution, cementing the growing readiness of city dwellers to live there. There should be massive investment in beautifying our seafronts; in green energy for which the coast is so suited; in super-broadband; in upgrading housing stock; in quality attractions and creative quarters populated by a new generation of art and music colleges. St Ives, Hastings and Margate have shown what can be done with modern art – it can be universalised. All public sector workers in coastal communities should receive a coastal pay uplift. Coastal authorities should be allowed to experiment with spending, borrowing and tax freedoms.
The coast could and should become emblematic of health and vitality – a source of national pride. Chris Whitty is right. What has happened to our coast is shameful, not least as a public health disaster. It can and must be reversed.
• Will Hutton is an Observer columnist