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Is the pandemic a fresh start for our seaside towns?.

17 Jun 2021 | 5 min

Humans’ love for water goes back tens of thousands of years. Back when people fed themselves by hunting and gathering, the best gig you could hope for was as a fisherman, because fish are plentiful and relatively unlikely to eat you.

Not only that, but mineral deposits from rivers create nutrient-rich soil ideally suited to agriculture – many of the most productive food-growing areas on the planet are deltas where rivers deposit into the oceans.

Early settlements would ultimately grow and become trading posts, with goods moved across the world by sea. Ports became centres of world trade so when you look at a world map, many of today’s major world cities are concentrated on shorelines. And this global trade was supported and enabled by shipbuilding, an industry around which entire coastal communities came to be built.

But that was decades ago. The evolution of technology, and air travel in particular, has threatened the prosperity of our seaside communities – many of which are now deprived and struggling to attract investment. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, presents an opportunity to undo some of the worst side-effects of globalization.

Seasides in crisis

Our oldest and largest port cities – London, Bristol and so on – have economies so diverse that they’re less susceptible to the effects of globalization. But many British seaside towns didn’t spring up out of trade and industry, but the idea that those things make us ill.

Victorian seaside towns like Scarborough, Bridlington and Bognor Regis were developed to give Brits a chance to escape the choking air of the cities. But they’ve been in a long decline, facing numerous issues: the availability of cheap package holidays; a lack of transport infrastructure, often being at ‘the end of the line’; and a lack of employment opportunities, often offering largely seasonal and low-skilled work in retail, care or hospitality.

This last issue, in particular, has led to a trend in which young people leave in search of education and employment and don’t return – coastal communities are, in general, older and poorer than their inland counterparts.

These issues have seemed hard to overcome, but the dark clouds of the pandemic might have a feint silver lining.

UK holiday boom

Firstly, there’s a huge amount of confusion and concern over foreign travel, and some risk-averse holidaymakers won’t take the chance. Not only that, but cash-strapped families who might otherwise travel to Europe could be priced out of an overseas holiday by the cost of compulsory testing, and the threat of an expensive hotel quarantine on their return.

Indeed, many families take package holidays because popular destinations in the UK are relatively expensive and don’t guarantee fine weather. So the current situation means already-popular areas like Cornwall and Devon are hugely oversubscribed, and commanding astronomical prices, and there are many left wondering where to go.

Less fashionable destinations can hope for an influx of tourists (and their cash) this summer, be they visiting for a day trip, long weekend or longer break.

But with overseas travel inevitably returning in the longer run, ‘more tourism’ can’t be the answer our seaside towns rely on – even with the climate crisis meaning some continue to eschew air travel long after the pandemic is over. After all, many of our seaside towns are not tourist destinations but ports and industrial areas, like Grimsby and Port Talbot, and we must ensure none are forgotten.

Shift to home working

A more permanent change brought about by the pandemic is likely to be a shift to more flexible working. The role of the office seems likely to change, and extended periods working from home will have many workers asking if the commute is worth it.

With many employers embracing the (cost-saving) shift to home-working too, many employees will be liberated from the need to live close to the office (or transport links to get there). This freedom to live anywhere could increase skilled job opportunities for young people in (typically poorly connected) coastal towns – and we must consider whether city-based workers will give up their cramped, pricey apartments to live in grander properties by the seaside too. Both would redress the imbalance in earnings between cities and coasts.

London-leavers have, in recent years, given seaside towns like Margate and Whitstable a new lease of life as local amenities and businesses spring up to serve well-heeled new residents – leading to a growth in jobs and, inevitably, property prices.

It remains to be seen whether other coastal towns could follow a similar path, with cheaper and less fashionable towns attracting those now priced out of these early hotspots.

Building back better

There is much talk of ‘building back better’ from the pandemic, and particularly of the promised ‘green revolution’. And building back better must surely mean building back equally, with investment spread across the country.

One opportunity for seaside towns in particular comes from power generation. Strong coastal winds may put many Brits off the idea of a UK seaside holiday, but offshore wind power, which is both sustainable and low-carbon, but needs local engineers and

And traditionally left-behind, Labour-voting communities will have high expectations of their new Conservative MPs, demanding improvements to things like infrastructure to deliver on their manifesto pledge to ‘level up’. In the past that might have meant stronger connections to the rest of the country in the form of roads or rail, but must surely now come in the form of broadband.

Focusing on health

Public health has been a huge focus for everyone over the last year, and that seems likely to continue even after the last vaccine has been issued – as we collectively come to terms with the trauma of being separated from our friends and loved ones for so long.

The Victorians were onto something when they built their holiday destinations by the sea; sea air is generally fresher and less polluted, so is good for sleep – which has both physical and mental health benefits. Those living by the sea are also more likely to be active and physically fit, and surveys reveal people living within a kilometre of the coast are less likely to suffer with anxiety and depression (even adjusted for other factors like physical health, employment status and age).

How long might any recovery last?

It remains to be seen how long a change in our holiday habits will last, but investment in our coastal communities is long overdue and is vital if the people who live there aren’t to feel left behind yet again.

This responsibility is shared both by government, businesses, developers and lenders. Government in terms of digital infrastructure and business incentives; businesses in terms of job creation, and creating amenities that will tempt people away from the conveniences of the city; developers in creating homes and neighbourhoods that people want to live and spend time in; and lenders like us, in supporting people as they relocate, grow their business and invest in property.

Working together, we might just make it happen.

Let’s talk

If you’re dreaming of relocating to the seaside, want to grow your business or are thinking of investing in a property that needs a little TLC, give us a call and we can talk you through all of the borrowing options.

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