Microbreweries and modern art may not conjure up childhood memories of the seaside but they are helping to make Margate a rare coastal success story. Its thriving arts scene, regenerated funfair and lively nightlife have earned it the moniker of “Shoreditch-on-Sea” as the town benefits from a widespread trend among Britons to enjoy a staycation this summer.
Sarah Martin, head of exhibitions at art gallery Turner Contemporary, says bustling Margate has been revived by its cultural transformation as creatives move into the town and visitor numbers boom.
“Since the gallery opened [in 2011], the Dreamland amusement park has launched and there are many independent shops, businesses, smaller galleries and artist-run spaces. The town has changed.”
Like many other seaside towns, Margate has ridden the staycation surge this year but its revival, which began well before Covid, is more unusual among Britain’s coastal communities.
Over the past 50 years, coastal towns have been hollowed out by a huge decline in visitor numbers that has left many coastal areas among the most deprived in the UK. Some hope a revival can be kick-started by new industries, Brexit and the levelling up agenda. Can this summer help trigger Britain’s coastal comeback?
Seaside towns have taken a step back in time to an era before bargain flights and package holidays. Coastal areas are leading the UK’s recovery from the biggest economic shock in living memory.
Centre for Cities data show that Blackpool, Bournemouth and Southend have seen the strongest recoveries in footfall and spending compared to pre-virus norms. Holiday platforms are also reporting record staycation bookings.
“As soon as the Government announced the easing of travel restrictions we saw a huge spike in demand,” says Mike Bevens, managing director of accommodation booking sites Sawday’s and Canopy & Stars.
“We had a record number of bookings in June, the biggest month in our history, and the trend has continued into the rest of the year.”
Packed promenades are a throwback to seaside towns’ heyday after a huge decline in recent decades. The draw of sangria on the Costa del Sol is not solely to blame. Heavy industries around non-tourism coastal areas, such as shipbuilding, have vanished, while fishing communities have struggled.
Bleak prospects have driven away the brightest young workers, while poor transport infrastructure and geographical isolation have also hampered economic development.
“Their location on the periphery places them on the periphery of the economy,” a House of Lords report on coastal woes warned last year.
“That decline has blighted coastal communities disproportionately, particularly in the North East,” explains Emily Cunningham, lead officer for the Local Government Association Coastal Special Interest Group. “Most of our coastal communities are massively over-reliant on tourism. There is a lack of skilled jobs and a very strong seasonality.”
While tourism hotspots have seen a “relatively busy summer”, Cunningham warns that not all areas have enjoyed a staycation boom and many businesses have been running below full capacity.
Coastal areas score highly in the Government’s deprivation index, with many of the poorest lining the coast in the North East, East and South West of England. Henry Overman, professor of economic geography at the London School of Economics, explains the decline is then worsened by a brain drain.
“The structural shift started them off on the downward spiral,” he explains. “If you are a struggling seaside town you are not a very attractive place to the higher educated and more able people that grow up there and they tend to move away.”
Economic output per capita was 26pc lower in coastal communities in 2015, a gap that has widened in recent decades, according to a report by the Social Market Foundation.
Coastal communities still hope they can turn the tide as the levelling up agenda takes centre stage in Westminster. Many of the “red wall” seats that helped Boris Johnson romp home in December’s election were won in struggling coastal areas, including Blyth Valley, Great Grimsby and Eastbourne.
“For too long, successive governments have focused on regeneration in the larger urban areas at the expense of coastal communities,” says Mike Hill, Labour MP and chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on coastal communities.
“I am very positive and upbeat about the revival of our coastal communities because we are an island and they provide unique opportunities. It’s imperative that the Government gets to grips with the obvious and unfair steady decline of our coastal community.”
Hill’s group and an alliance of organisations have this week written to the Prime Minister urging him to create a coast minister to oversee their revival.
Brexit provides two opportunities. Fishing towns could benefit from the UK regaining more control of its waters, although the issue has become a key sticking point in Brexit talks. Officials also hope they can drive investment into 10 free ports, specially designated areas that do not face import tariffs and often have other tax incentives.
However, Overman warns the staycation boom could run out of steam after the pandemic and argues there is no “blanket solution” to help coastal economies.
“The idea there is a one-size-fits-all solution here, that it’s about infrastructure, fishing, free ports or tourism, won’t work.”
Staycations will bring relief to some seaside towns hit by the Covid economic crisis. Turning the tide in the most deprived coastal areas long-term will be more difficult, however.