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Last Updated: Saturday, 19 August 2006, 17:15 GMT 18:15 UK
Why we didn't like to be beside the sea
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News


Following the demise of the British seaside holiday, some of the country's resort towns were among the most deprived in the country. Why?

Walking along New Brighton seafront, it is hard to believe this small town on the edge of the Wirral peninsula was depicted as dirty and deprived 20 years ago.

In 1986 Martin Parr's series of photographs caused a storm as they portrayed the working-class subjects overindulging in food and sun, happily bathing in dirty water and on littered beaches.

The photographer was accused of contriving to show his subjects unfavourably, which he denied.

But if it was an accurate portrayal - and some residents to this day deny that it was - then New Brighton has cleaned up its act.

BournemouthNewcastleRhylNew BrightonWhitstableWeston-Super-MareBournemouthScarboroughRothesay
Although unemployment remains relatively high and the visitor attractions which made the resort famous - tower, ballroom, amusement park, pier, ferries, open-air pool - have long shut down and not been replaced, there's little evidence of deprivation.

However, the debate over the photos triggered the start of a collective realisation that British poverty was not just to be found in the inner cities.

According to government's statistics, some of the most deprived areas in the last 10 years have been in seaside towns like Skegness, Rhyl, Hastings and even Blackpool.

These were teeming with holidaymakers as late as 30 years ago, but their decline since has prompted a group of MPs to investigate how ministers could better help regenerate coastal towns. It will report its findings at the end of the year.

Physically, seaside towns are peripheral to main markets and to transport infrastructure - they are at the end of things
Peter Hampson
British Resorts Association

Committee chairman and Labour MP Phyllis Starkey said: "If you look at a map of deprivation in the UK, apart from various urban areas, it's very striking that there's a ring of deprivation all round the coast."

The evidence it has amassed so far suggests the reasons behind the decline of seaside resorts are more complex than simply the loss of tourists.

Among the witnesses to the committee was Peter Hampson, director of the British Resorts Association, who said transport policy neglects the coasts.

"Physically, seaside towns are peripheral to main markets and to transport infrastructure. They are at the end of things," he said.

New Brighton plan
Maps of New Brighton show where the attractions used to be

Few seaside resorts existed just for tourism because the heyday was based on a hugely seasonal market of 12 to 16 weeks, he said.

They had other activities and industries which also went into decline - fishing, agriculture, mineral extraction and shipbuilding.

And while visitors love the Victorian or Edwardian piers and promenades, this "public realm" is expensive to upkeep for local authorities who get little commercial return because it's free to sit in a beautiful Grade II-listed shelter or walk down the pier.

Flood defence, coastal erosion and sand blasts can also hit the municipal pockets.

Complacency

But seasides also have themselves to blame, according to Professor Victor Middleton, author of British Tourism: The Remarkable Story of Growth.

"They carried within them the seeds of their own downfall," he said.

"Obviously package holidays, and later budget airlines, provided major competition but the real problem was the seaside resorts were mainly Victorian and after the war they had a huge surge in demand which exceeded supply.

"A lot of resorts got complacent and thought the visitors would always come because they had been since the 1870s."

Midland Hotel, Morecambe

The high-earners went overseas in the 60s and the resorts responded by going downmarket and cutting prices, and the spiral of decline began, he said.

Local government reorganisation in 1974 pushed most resorts into larger districts which did not care about them, and the motor car ruined the ambience of towns built for railway and bus use.

The professor believes the template for recovery rests with retaining an ambience which attracts people to live, work and visit, while having a council which values tourism.

Midland Hotel, Morecambe (Peter Williams: The English Seaside)
... and the hotel in happier times
One of the towns which endured a typically tough experience was Morecambe in Lancashire.

Ingrid Kent, news editor of the Morecambe Visitor, said the town fought a losing battle in the 70s when package holidays really took off.

"Initially Morecambe lost many of its tourist attractions and the guest houses turned into houses of multiple occupation filled with benefits claimants.

"With less attractions and competition from the likes of Blackpool, by the 90s Morecambe could hardly be called a 'resort' any more."

Boarded-up shops, hotels and houses were evident, while petty crime and vandalism became rife, she said, and a "B&B ghetto" for people on benefits grew up.

Optimism

"These problems still exist but thanks to the regeneration initiatives things are changing and people want to live here again," she said, and the future looked bright.

Morecambe still has thousands of visitors every year and is marketing itself as a place for bird-watching, while many parts of the town have been remodelled through multimillion-pound schemes.

While social and economic problems still persist elsewhere, there are reasons for optimism.

In Skegness the daytripping, self-catering and short breaks market is still strong, while efforts are being made to extend the holiday season.

And in Rhyl, a 3.8m project called Drift Park, with its five themed gardens and open air theatre, has inhabitants hopeful things are on the up.




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