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Today the House of Lords Select Committee on Regenerating Seaside Towns released its report on how to turn the fortunes of said towns around. This is an important issue given the challenges that such towns face. So it’s disappointing that a key recommendation, and a one covered in the press, is that culture-led regeneration offers the answer.
The Lords committee is no exception. We have been forthright that culture-led regeneration, whatever exactly ‘culture’ is (given that there is culture wherever there are people, my take on this is that it’s a shorthand for a specific, middle-class version of culture), isn’t a model for reinventing an economy. Those that don’t agree with this argument usually call on Margate as an example.
So why does the example of Margate keep on coming up? Much of it seems to be that a brand name grabs people’s attention. Margate has the Turner Contemporary, while St Ives has the Tate. The assumption here though is that, like the BBC and Channel 4, brand recognition brings with it an equivalent economic impact. It does not.
Interestingly, the numbers related to the estimated impact actually back this up. The report says that Turner Contemporary has generated £68 million for the local economy. This sounds like a big number. But if these figures are to be believed, and ignoring that it is unlikely to account for costs (i.e. £40 spent in a restaurant doesn’t equal £40 profit for the restaurant owner), this would equate to a maximum 0.5% of the total money created in the Thanet economy over that time. A positive, but small number.
What such interventions are likely to do is to help change the attractiveness of a place to live. But this on its own is not enough – alongside this people also need somewhere to work. That’s why we don’t have many thousands of working age people moving to live amongst the beauty of the Lakes or the Highlands.
What Margate has going for it though is that it has a jobs generator at the other end of a mostly high-speed railway line. It’s called London. This train line opens up the possibility of Margate acting as a suburb of the capital. The introduction of middle-class amenities, such as the Turner Contemporary, improves its appeal as a place to live for London commuters over somewhere like Colchester, say. The data offers some evidence of this happening – around 8,500 more people moved to Thanet (the local authority that Margate sits in) than moved to London between 2009 and 2017. This clearly is not a solution for a more isolated place like Scarborough or Grimsby.
So what can other places do? Some seaside resorts have been able to reinvent their economies, most notably Brighton. This is because the city is able to offer businesses access to a large pool of workers that are high-skilled (it has the second lowest share of residents with no formal qualifications) and access to a knowledge network of other high-skilled businesses. These offers make it a compelling place of businesses to locate and have allowed it to leave the days of being reliant on lower-skilled tourism jobs behind. Bournemouth has a similar story to tell.
It is these benefits that places like Blackpool should be looking to answer – if it wants to reinvent its economy, then it has to offer a compelling reason as to why higher-skilled businesses should locate there.
But one of the key things that Blackpool has in its favour compared to many other seaside locations is its scale – almost 220,000 people live in the city. This is not the case for a place like Scarborough. And it’s not clear how policy can make the offer sufficiently more compelling for a relatively isolated place, no matter how much we wish it.
This is why economic and social challenges in the context of many seaside towns need to be separated. Culture-led regeneration, enterprise zones or better broadband are going to do little to affect the economic performance of such places, no matter what politicians may claim. But they do have the power to affect the social problems that places face.
Chief amongst these powers is the ability to deal with primary, secondary and further education (FE) provision. The report does recommend improvements to further education provision but focuses on how FE should serve local industries instead of giving people the skills to get on in the 21st-century economy, wherever that may be. Meanwhile, there are no calls to turn around the declines in spending on further education or serious analysis of the patchy coverage of FE provision across the country.
Politicians should be wary of claims that they can bring jobs back to isolated places, coastal or otherwise. They should front up though to tackling the social ills that exist in such places. And it is recommendations around tackling these ills that should have prominence, not middle-class ideas around how to introduce culture.
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