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Digital exclusion is leaving coastal communities behind

We need investment into connectivity, or inequalities will only widen.

By Sheena Asthana and Sheela Agarwal

There was a time when coastal towns were synonymous with the good times. Families would flock to them during the summer holidays. Others were blessed with thriving small ports, or fishing and shipbuilding industries that employed entire towns and sustained positive identities. But many have suffered a long period of decline. The rise of cheap foreign travel has reduced their pull as holiday destinations, and globalisation has affected patterns of work and seen the slow dwindling of the old jobs that were a source of local pride.

Levelling up narratives have so far centred around north-versus-south or urban-versus-rural, with little attention given to specific challenges faced by coastal communities. A chronic lack of investment has caused a litany of issues across employment, education, health and overall prosperity.

One problem is low productivity. Employment in coastal areas centres around tourism, which is seasonal and reliant on part-time workers, and the public sector, which typically has fixed salaries, fewer employee incentives and small supply chains. Young people face poor educational outcomes, because there are fewer universities and job prospects than in urban areas – according to a 2023 parliamentary report on higher education numbers, 52 per cent of Londoners go to university, compared with just 32 per cent in the south-west of England. On health, rates of mental illness, heart disease and kidney disease are roughly 10 per cent higher than the national average, and there is a higher prevalence of smoking, drug use, loneliness and obesity.

Digital exclusion is widening these inequalities, with remote areas facing lower internet and mobile signal coverage rates. According to Ofcom, roughly 6 per cent of homes in the UK (about 1.5 million) do not have internet access, with older, disabled and financially vulnerable people more likely to be affected. Three per cent of households in coastal areas have no reliable indoor phone signal, and this rises to 6 per cent in rural areas.

This is having repercussions. The internet now enables everything we do, from online banking to buying essentials. It is becoming increasingly difficult for those in coastal areas to access vital services, such as repeat prescriptions, GP appointments or benefit applications, further impacting their health and poverty levels. Anecdotal research shows us that benefit claimant rates are proportionally low in coastal communities given the high rates of poverty, which worryingly suggests that people are not accessing all the welfare they are entitled to.

Lack of connectivity is also causing systemic issues. It further hurts local economies, cutting young people off from online learning opportunities and stopping coastal towns from attracting nascent industries, such as the tech sector, which are linked to higher salaries and productivity.

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It even impacts the quality of public services such as the NHS. In 2022, 27 NHS hospital trusts in England did not have comprehensive electronic patient record (EPR) systems and instead had a myriad of systems or even paper-based records. Trusts in coastal and rural areas are over-represented in this figure.

Digital immaturity across health services also means that patients are missing out on early monitoring and diagnostic tools that could keep them out of hospital and living well at home for longer. For example, wearable tech could be used to track early deterioration in major cardiovascular, neurological and pulmonary conditions, and transfer this data in real time to EPRs. Smart devices and environmental sensors could be installed in people’s homes to monitor their behaviour and pick up on changes to diet, physical activity and social interaction.

While cities such as London and Manchester gallop ahead in areas such as prevention health and social mobility, rural and coastal areas are stagnating. The Centre for Coastal Communities at the University of Plymouth brings together a breadth of academic researchers to identify inequalities and co-create solutions with peripheral communities. Many of our projects investigate how better digital connectivity could tackle different issues, from social isolation to poor health.

For example, the Intergenerational Co-design of Novel Technologies in Coastal Communities (Iconic) project, which is funded through a £1m grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, involves us working with 20 partners from the public and private sectors alongside 80 older people and 40 younger people to co-design new technologies. Using virtual reality headsets, people will be able to visit beautiful local landscapes and cultural sites such as National Trust properties and talk to others taking part in the scheme. Social prescribing schemes like this one will help to connect people, reduce loneliness, and increase physical movement.

Digital interventions such as Iconic can make a tangible positive impact on people’s lives, whether that’s by improving an older person’s health or helping a younger person access higher education. But we can’t improve digital access alone. We want to see the government take a more nuanced approach to levelling up by better considering the digital needs of coastal communities.

This includes speeding up its roll-out of gigabit broadband nationwide by 2030, which is the target set out in its Levelling Up White Paper after it was delayed from 2025. This is a long time to wait for those in coastal communities who currently struggle to do the basics online, and risks further perpetuating digital inequality.

We’d also like to see greater investment into coastal areas. Michael Gove, the Levelling Up Secretary, has promised to turn Cambridge into the tech capital of the UK, but why do we need to concentrate opportunities in cities when the digital industry is accessible from everywhere? Funding for schemes in areas such as Blackpool, Hastings and Skegness would help to attract businesses and boost their prosperity.

The challenges faced by coastal communities are not well understood, and this comes down to a lack of data. Research into deprivation in different coastal areas is sparse, and we’d like to see this change. At the Centre for Coastal Communities, we’ve been awarded Economic and Social Research Council funding to work with the Office for National Statistics on co-designing a new coastal classification. This will involve the linkage and analysis of a very wide range of data sets to help us better understand the diverse issues facing different areas, and will help policymakers make funding decisions that are evidence-based, rather than politically driven.

While we appreciate our coast’s scenic beauty, we must not forget the challenges faced by the people who live there. To truly reduce regional inequalities, we need to see greater parity of esteem between cities and coastal areas. Otherwise, deprivation gaps will only widen.

[See also: Why Michael Gove’s long-term plan for housing falls short]