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Coastal communities are key to national revival – and political success

Improving local economies will add billions to national output. A smart catalyst for growth can be found in a little-known aspect of the Biden agenda.

By Jenevieve Treadwell

If Labour wants to build a better Britain, it should start on the coast. If you live along the shore in England, you earn £2,800 less on average than those inland. You are also more likely to die early from a preventable disease, live in a poorer-quality home and be a victim of crime. 

This hasn’t always been the case. But deindustrialisation and the drying up of domestic tourism left coastal communities without an economic purpose. The 2008 recession kicked them while they were down, with the coast recovering much more slowly than inland. For a Labour Party that needs to kickstart economic growth to fund investment if it is to keep to its pledges on tax and fiscal rules, reviving England’s coast should be a priority. If the coastal economy caught up with the rest of the country, it could add £8.5bn to national output. 

Party leaders have more self-serving reasons to focus on the coast ahead of the next election. These communities are proven political bellwethers: at every election since 1987, seaside constituencies have disproportionately backed election winners, topping up their majorities. The coast has overwhelmingly swung behind Thatcher and Blair and Johnson. Now, polls suggest a tidal wave towards Labour at the next election, with Keir Starmer picking up 77 of 113 coastal seats, doubling its current share.

The plight of the coast has been the subject of multiple inquiries, commissions and reports. But the lack of understanding about why the coast is struggling has kept them drifting towards disaster. Onward’s new report, “Troubled Waters”, shines a light on the three main factors dragging the coast down: industry, seasonality and demography.

Coastal communities are a tenth less productive than inland areas, with a quarter of people working in hospitality compared with a fifth inland, fewer young people attending university and poorer transport links. Seasonal tourism brings part-time, low-paid and temporary work, but also crime, with offences increasing by 20 per cent during the summer. Of the 172 communities nationally in which retirees outnumber working-age people, four fifths are on the coast, and the chance of suffering a preventable, early death is 15 per cent higher.

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For inspiration on turning around the coast’s fortunes, Starmer should look to the US – and not just to the headline-grabbing Inflation Reduction Act. Instead, tucked away in the Chips and Science Act is a smaller but no less impactful scheme: the $1bn Recompete Pilot. This programme learns from the massive public-private partnerships that have transformed the economic fortunes of some struggling rust-belt cities and ex-mining towns. The five-year scheme will support ten distressed communities with flexible funding that local leaders can use to create new jobs.

Britain should make a similar bet. A Coastal Economy Transformation Programme of similar ambition, backed by up to £500m to support three to five areas, could be the main plank of a coastal offering at the next election.

It would move beyond funding by “begging bowls” and beauty contests, putting real money into the hands of communities that have been poorly served in recent decades. It could be used to boost the visitor economy in the south-west, attract more advanced manufacturing to Barrow, or kickstart the green economy in South Shields. Crucially, council leaders and mayors should be in charge – developing long-term plans alongside businesses to break out of the low productivity trap. Successful local regeneration means learning to let go.

But economic growth doesn’t mean much if it’s not paired with a boost to living standards. It’s no surprise that talented young people are fleeing the coast. The jobs on offer are low-wage and low-skilled, and housing is either old and run-down or too expensive for a first-time buyer. This exodus to the inland hollows out coastal communities.

To make the coast a more attractive place to stay, new bridging schemes should be introduced between employers and colleges to increase the supply of higher-level apprenticeships and stop the brain drain. There needs to be a crackdown on rogue landlords that get away with running poor-quality private rentals in former seaside hotels and guesthouses – turning their properties into affordable family homes.

We know that coastal communities are unsatisfied with the status quo. They overwhelmingly supported Brexit, with four fifths of seaside constituencies voting to leave the EU. These towns have been let down, left behind and overlooked by national programmes that don’t recognise their unique problems and opportunities. Labour should realise that what’s good for the coast is good for Britain.

Read the full “Troubled Waters” report from the Onward think tank here.

[See also: Blackpool South took a gamble on the Conservatives. Has it paid off?]

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