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Brexit has exposed a gulf between London and the rest of the UK. Regional inequality is widening and income inequality in the UK is amongst the highest in the EU. At the sharp end are coastal communities, some of the most deprived and isolated areas of the UK, where Gross Value Added (GVA) per capita was 23% lower than their non-coastal counterparts. This isn’t just an economic divide. The top five areas to vote leave were all coastal communities. Marginalised by economic and industrial decline, coastal communities of older, lower income, lower qualification voters have been left behind in modern Britain. 

There is a toxic cocktail of challenges facing seaside towns.

First, coastal areas face a demographic time-bomb. Thirty-seven thousand men aged 55-64, and 18,000 women aged 55-59, moved to seaside towns between 1971 and 1991, in comparison to just 2,000 aged 25-34. The number of people aged 90 and over living on their own in England is projected to more than double from 241,000 in 2016 to 588,000 in 2041 – coastal towns will be hardest hit. New analysis suggests that seaside towns in northern England will see the biggest decline in under 30s – the young could effectively ‘disappear’. 

Second, poor pay, low-skilled seasonal work dominates employment in coastal towns. Average wages were £3,600 a year lower in pockets of coastal deprivation. In England’s smaller seaside towns, over 40% of the jobs are in distribution, hotels and restaurants; 77% of coastal trips were in just six consecutive months of the year. 

Third, since 1993, “the distribution of under achievement has shifted from deprived inner city areas to deprived coastal towns and rural areas” according to Ofsted’s 20 year review. Twenty-seven percent fewer young people from coastal areas are getting into university. New data shows that children in coastal communities achieve the equivalent of two and a half grades lower across eight qualifications at GCSE level compared to children in cities.

Fourth, of the 20 local authorities in England and Wales with the highest proportion of individuals in poor health, ten are in coastal communities. Against the national average of 1.7 deaths due to heroin or morphine misuse per 100,000 people, Blackpool scored 14. The rate of antidepressant prescriptions in the leading three areas, Blackpool, Sunderland and East Lindsey, was almost twice the national average.

So how do we make our coast a healthy, thriving, economic powerhouse? More tourism isn’t the answer. Coastal towns have the potential to become sustainability hotspots. Offshore wind could be the cheapest per megawatt form of energy in the UK – and is creating skilled jobs, and supply chain opportunities along the coast. It will attract £11.5 billion of investment in the UK between 2017 and 2021. In 2015, around £689 million was spent on smart grid research and development. The spillover benefits outside the industry from low-carbon innovation in energy production and transport are over 40% greater than from conventional technologies. Everyone can benefit: over £106 million of funding is available for community grants across the UK.

Infrastructure is another essential input for this transformation. Coastal towns suffer from physical isolation and rail cuts, and are often at ‘the end of the line’. Mobility and accessibility inequalities are highly correlated with social disadvantage. Poor transport is preventing access to jobs, learning, healthcare, leisure and contributing to social isolation according to the Government Office for Science. Coastal towns have also been let down by poor broadband which has lagged behind urban areas, perpetuating peripherality. 

We can also learn from Brighton, which has built a dynamic coastal economy based on high-skilled jobs. Brighton has 57,000 knowledge economy jobs, with arts, healthcare and a digital economy representing 15% of employment. It ranks in the top ten cities for number of businesses and for broadband speeds, with 91.5% ultrafast coverage compared to the UK average of 53%. Indeed, jobs requiring digital skills earn an average of £42,578 compared to £32,477 for those which do not. The digital economy was Brighton’s fastest growing sector, generating £720m of gross domestic product each year. Of course, Brighton’s proximity to London must be taken into account for part of its success, nevertheless it offers an interesting case study of a successful coastal community. 

Amid a tectonic economic shift, coastal communities have been left stranded and a new agenda is needed to fix the divide. Seizing the opportunities of coastal renewable power generation, a focus on high-skilled jobs and investment in infrastructure are just some of the possible solutions to closing this divide.

Adair Verey is currently undertaking a week’s work experience at Bright Blue. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.