Brexit is an opportunity to revitalise Britain’s coastal communities, which have taken a beating after they were tricked into the EU Common Fisheries Policy in 1973.
Despite all the promises made when Britain joined the EU, our coastal communities lost their marine and other industries to deindustrialisation and recession. And in 2016 millions of people living on the coast voted Leave. They felt they were losing their identity and the quality of life they had before joining the “Common Market”. Now they are fighting to regain control of fishing rights.
Industry and tourism, also crucial for the economies of coastal communities, have suffered badly during our membership of the EU. They should now be possible to revive, and there are signs of revival already.
When in 1882 digging started on the Channel Tunnel in Sangatte, it was soon halted because, it was said, Queen Victoria feared invasion. She seems to have had a point. Dover and Folkestone are angry towns today: EU free movement has put an unsustainable strain on town centres and the freight yards of Kent.
Media surveys such as “Turning the Tide” (2013) talk of “communities on the edge” or “on the fringes of Britain”. From Blackpool in the north-west to Hastings in the south-east, they have become dumping grounds for the unemployed and the unwell. Hastings became the suicide capital of Britain for a while.
The seaside is inseparably identified with working class Britain. From the historic Lancashire mill workers' Wakes Weeks to the engineers' Factory Fortnights, workers and their families migrated annually to the sands of Blackpool, Berwick or Rhyl for health and relaxation. From London families travelled to Southend or Clacton. Industry, rail, and holidays by the sea went hand in hand. Today, trade union conferences contribute to the seaside economy.
Britain’s long coastline is a unique national asset for recreation. Its terrain is diverse, from rugged cliffs, marshes and wetlands, to sandy beaches and urban waterfronts lined with grand Regency and Victorian hotels and convalescent homes.
As tourism diversified away from seasonal bucket-and-spade holidays, new health-giving possibilities opened up: walking or cycling the coastal paths of East Anglia, the Gower Peninsula, or Fife in Scotland; sea-kayaking, scuba diving, water-skiing, kite-surfing, bird-watching…
While others bemoaned the referendum result, the tourist board VisitBritain quickly took a positive approach, happy to refocus on domestic rather than foreign holidays. The grim image depicted by Bill Bryson of a small backward island staffed by penny-pinching landladies could be put to rest.
Private Hire Vehicle licence rules could be relaxed to allow hotels to shuttle visitors seamlessly “the final mile” to and from train stations and ports. B&Bs and local events could apply for a licence to sell alcohol. Hotels might even offer currency exchange (subject to the EU Money Laundering Directive).
‘Our ports faced outwards to the world for hundreds of years and must do so again...’
The Coastal Communities Fund (delivered via the Big Lottery Fund) is said to have increased the number of visitors to the English coast by 2 million since 2012. A National Coastal Tourism Academy has been set up in Bournemouth. Employment in tourism is growing faster than in Britain as a whole. Art galleries and striking modern architecture as at Margate or St Ives attract visitors to the coast.
Brighton is a typical seaside town that maintains itself through tourism. The engineering and light industry that used to support the town has gone (though R&D continues). For a while, they put their trust in finance, and companies like American Express and some of the insurance companies opened offices – now closed down.
But coastal towns cannot survive on tourism alone, even if it revives. Without the bedrock of industrial production, Britain cannot survive in the long term. EU regional policy and rules forbidding state aid gave governments an excuse to wash their hands of struggling steelworks and manufacturing in general. Many of these are on the coasts. Brexit cannot come too soon for Port Talbot and the rest of Wales, for Hull, Sunderland and the north-east.
The closure of coal mines and shipyards, compounded by the EU squeeze on fishing, has forced Fife to look to tourism for survival. On the Firth of Forth the port of Grangemouth survived a petrochemical crisis three years ago. The area is now buoyed up by jobs in tourism and the digital economy. The Kent coast slumped with the loss of coal mining and now looks to tourism.
Docklands all around Britain have been rejuvenated for pleasure and education, as at Cardiff, Bristol, Liverpool, Hull – their maritime history consigned to museums. Our ports faced outwards to the world for hundreds of years and must do so again. The development of ports will be important – for exports and fewer imports. And the expansion of regional airports is a priority.
A radical approach to training, with extended apprenticeships, is needed to overcome the barriers of seasonal fluctuations in employment, low pay, and the reluctance of private capital to invest where profits are too modest to satisfy capitalist greed.
Universities have established themselves around Britain's coast and should play their part in developing local economies. Initiatives such as the Coast to Capital Growth Fund could be replicated across the country to develop research centres, as at Sussex and Brighton universities, for automotive systems and emissions, clean energy, life-sciences, 5G connectivity and other digital projects.
The herring town of Lowestoft has just been chosen as one of the latest Heritage Action Zones. But this is not an accolade: its major employers are now in wholesale or retail. Its health ratings according to the 2011 census were worse than the average for England as a whole and the population includes a higher than average number of unskilled workers.
‘Survival is due to the ingenuity and resilience of a people – no thanks to capitalism...’
Yet others play as much of a seafaring role as ever: Great Yarmouth diversified from herring fishing to gas and oil exploration second only to Aberdeen. Its harbour is converted to a container port handling grain, cars and aggregates, and it provides Britain’s main service base for wind farm maintenance. Another east coast port, Felixstowe, has developed from Edwardian resort to the largest container port in Britain.
Portsmouth recently welcomed the Royal Navy’s biggest ship, an aircraft carrier newly built and launched at Rosyth. Defence, independent of the EU and the US, must be part of our post-Brexit planning.
Most coastal towns have an industrial, as well as agrarian hinterland, with the potential for new jobs and modern industry. If the status of farm work can be raised, buying power could lift the economy of nearby resorts.
Survival is due to the ingenuity and resilience of a people – no thanks to capitalism. No thanks to the EU. If the EU had been good for us, we would not be witnessing the misery of coastal blight.
Thankfully organisations have sprung up to fight for regeneration. The Coastal Communities Alliance with its “Seafront Strategy” is one of these. In June 2017 they vowed, “We will rebuild.” Likewise the Fish Market Alliance reported in the local Suffolk paper: “Today laid the cornerstone for a new beginning for the fishing industry in Lowestoft....The goal is simple: we want 200 miles of sea and all the fish within it...Brexit is a fantastic opportunity to rebuild a multi-billion pound industry.”
Those who seize the opportunities of independence early will outwit the doom-mongers Soros and Blair.
An inclusive combined manufacturing and tourism strategy – one that is less of a lottery, that casts its net wider than London and the south-east, beyond the over-subscribed cathedral cities, or the so-called “northern powerhouse” – could integrate towns and resorts into a nationwide plan.
Investment should include flood defences, coastguard patrol, social housing and transport. Fishing and boatbuilding communities such as those around the East Anglian coast have been cut off ever since Beeching wielded the axe. Now they are by-passed by the London-Cambridge science and technology corridor, while the channel tunnel by-passes the Kent coast.
Although the A303 expressway will make a difference, Cornwall and Devon badly need re-routed high speed rail: rough seas regularly wash away part of the only line connecting them to London.
To take full advantage of Britain’s coastline, people right across the country need the restoration of rail and bus links.
In short, build on the past, but look to the future.