We need a full-scale national revival to make our seaside towns special places again, says Rory Olcayto
The Centre for Social Justice is a decent-minded organisation but it is in the habit of stating the obvious. (This is to be expected. It was founded by Iain Duncan Smith after a trip to Glasgow’s poorest estates opened his eyes to urban poverty, of which he had, until then, been unaware.)
For example, a June report was titled Fractured Families: Why Stability Matters and its latest research document, Turning the Tide: Social Justice in Five Seaside Towns is equally bold in drawing no-brainer conclusions. Apparently, the likes of Margate, Blackpool and Rhyl are home to some of Britain’s poorest, most vulnerable communities. Who knew?
Yet, as Britons migrate abroad for one or two weeks away during the month of August, it comes as a timely reminder. If you read the report, don’t expect to find any firm answers as to what should be done. The CSJ instead reels off the usual list of blandly phrased, worthy but evasive aims: ‘removing barriers to work, drawing in new investment and industry, increasing local responsiveness to issues, and strengthening education and families’. If these aims are acted upon, the CSJ says, ‘Britain’s troubled coastal towns can be revived, not just as wonderful places to visit, but also as wonderful places to live and work’.
However, the same could be said for a number of British towns and cities, many of which are struggling to reinvent their economies for the 21st century. Forget cheap foreign holidays: the problems affecting Clacton-on-Sea and Great Yarmouth, also highlighted in the report, are no different from those affecting Bradford or Burnley.
There isn’t a ‘nice, twee architectural solution’ to the problems of seaside towns
Architects can certainly help but, as planning expert Shelagh McNerney warns, there isn’t a ‘nice, twee architectural solution’ to this problem. Margate is a case in point. David Chipperfield’s Turner Contemporary is a welcome addition to the seafront – and, in fairness, is far from twee – but its presence has done little to improve the quality of local schools, boost employment, or reverse the subdivision of Victorian villas to house tenants who can’t make ends meet.
Seaside towns are struggling because Britain is struggling. What should our nation be for? How can we provide for our citizens? And what can we offer the world? Ironically, this debate is happening in the two places that are considering some form of independence: in London, which seeks to consolidate its world city status at the expense of a united nation, and in Scotland, whose citizens quite rightly fear England’s isolationist stance. Our seaside towns first emerged when Britain was in its pomp. It will take a full-scale national revival to make them special places again. My apologies for stating the obvious.
This week’s edition of the AJ revives an old print tradition: the summer special. All manner of periodicals used to publish these editions during the summer holidays. They were characterised by their slightly off-beam contents – pretty much the same as what you usually got in your magazine of choice, but somehow a little different. If it was a comic book for example, a new artist might draw your favourite strip. It would be a one-off tale, with no ‘continued next week’ panel at the story’s end. And that is the case with the AJ this week, which has a seaside flavour, and a building study of Jørn Utzon’s classic retreats on Mallorca, beautifully photographed by Anthony Coleman. Take it to the beach and read it there: with its glossy cover, this week’s AJ is designed to withstand sun block and sand. Enjoy your holidays!