Observer column: 08 September 2017
This week, a report commissioned by the BBC from the Social Market Foundation was published, showing that the 'economic gap' between coastal and non-coastal communities is growing.
The report finds that ten out of the twenty council areas with the poorest health are coastal. It also finds that educational achievement and average wages are significantly worse in coastal communities than in the UK overall. The report warns that some areas, particularly in the South East, 'are pockets of significant deprivation surrounded by affluence - meaning their problems are often overlooked by policymakers'.
Hastings is mentioned in the report, with the tenth highest unemployment in the UK, and the fifteenth lowest average gross salary, around £7,000 less than the national figure.
The cocktail of factors leading to the creation of some of the country's most deprived communities in coastal towns goes back a long way. The post-war collapse of long-stay tourism, the relocation of communities from inner cities to coastal towns, the lack of appropriate educational structures to cope with these relocations, and the failure to tie in the 'edges' of the country to the motorway network all contributed.
In recent years, regeneration in some coastal towns, such as Hastings, has been taking place, with the council and other agencies putting money and effort into improving the look of the town, forcing property owners to restore shabby buildings, creating educational opportunities, and encouraging the cultural and creative sectors to boost the local economy. That's made a big difference to the look and feel of the town, and its attractiveness to people wanting to visit and move to Hastings.
But deprivation in the poorest communities remains stubbornly high. And there are legitimate concerns that in some parts of town, increasing prosperity is a result of poorer households being displaced, rather than helped.
The reasons for such high levels of deprivation in coastal communities are complex. Hastings Council commissions national surveys every five years or so, in which we ask, amongst other things, why employers would not consider relocating to Hastings. The main reason given is that it's 'too far away', but coupled with that, poor transport infrastructure. That's a concern for employers who are here already. But they also consistently report that although unemployment is high, it's hard to recruit in Hastings - and that's from manufacturers offering training in skilled occupations. So transport infrastructure is a part of it (not just north-south but east-west too), but it's so much more than that.
So while we know that deprivation remains a serious problem in parts of Hastings and other coastal towns, what's less clear is how to put it right. It certainly needs long-term investment, in infrastructure, training, leisure facilities, education, and health, as well as new, affordable homes and employment spaces. It needs a more progressive approach to reducing long-term unemployment that encourages people to realise their potential, rather than imposing benefit sanctions that force them into the underground economy to make ends meet. But it needs more research too, to pinpoint the detailed reasons and potential solutions.
Hastings is improving, as are many other seaside towns, thanks largely to the ingenuity and creativity of local businesses, public sector agencies, and community groups. But we've a long way to go until we can say that we're offering proper life chances and a decent standard of living to all our citizens.
Council Leader's column