THE Labour MP Mike Hill is leading a new all-parliamentary group on coastal communities following a House of Lords report that expressed concern at the neglect being experienced by some seaside towns.
“It’s my honest opinion that we do need greater investment in our coastal communities – meaningful jobs, less seasonal work more all-year-round work, things for people to do, and not letting communities slide,” said the Hartlepool MP.
I grew up in Redcar and knew the place when it was still able to attract huge numbers of visitors to its seaside attractions and its racecourse. The railway station had a special platform long enough to accommodate the excursion trains that used to arrive at weekends and on race days.
When you live in a place you don’t really appreciate what it is that brings visitors to the area in such huge numbers, but whatever it was did just so and always had done.
By then we didn’t have either of the piers that once graced the town – both of them having been demolished by errant ships and heavy seas – but people flocked to the sea and the sands and the seafront amusements and a great time was had by all.
But then along came the era of package holidays. People had more money to spend and cheap flights to the Med took them away from our seaside resorts in punishing numbers.
Some places managed to survive by the skin of their teeth as there were always people who were faithful to their favourite British resorts, but many struggled and finally succumbed – like Redcar’s piers.
Resorts like Redcar had nowhere else to go, nowhere else to turn, and even the popularity of the racecourse declined as racing was increasingly televised.
The economy of the town settled at a level that could be sustained by its resident workforce in the nearby steelworks of Dorman Long and the chemical works of ICI, a sun that people had no reason to ever suspect would one day set, but set it eventually did when both of those huge industries shut down.
Mike Hill, being MP for Hartlepool, just north of Redcar, should know first hand what the problems are that his all-parliamentary group is likely to discover in one struggling seaside town after another – places that have relied historically solely on their seafront with nothing else to fall back on.
That has been Redcar’s problem. Over the years, the local council has spent EU grants on a series of “use it or lose it” schemes that have left lifetime residents of the town scratching their heads in puzzlement and disbelief.
I no longer live there because, being a priest, I can no longer choose where I live, but whenever I pass through the town it pains me to see how it is now compared with how it used to be.
A lot of money (£75m it was said) was recently spent on revamping the seafront, but sadly it was all too late – including its crazy “vertical pier”. If they wanted a pier, it would have made more sense to rebuild one of the originals that people could stroll along and fish from as in days of yore.
Even neighbouring Saltburn has half a pier. But no, they built an 80ft monstrosity, at a cost of £1.6m, that looks like something that is being dismantled rather than constructed and that gives anyone who can be bothered to climb to the top of it a view of absolutely nothing but rooftops in one direction and an empty seascape in the other.
None of that is going to save Redcar. It’s not Blackpool, it’s not Brighton, and it’s not even Scarborough and it never will be. Sadly its glory days are long past and its industrial safety net is also gone.
Housebuilding is going on apace – as everywhere these days – but exactly what there is for people moving into the town I’m not sure. I get the impression that it has simply become somewhere for people to live but who commute to work elsewhere, and maybe that’s the best it can do and the answer also for other seaside resorts in a similar situation.
No one can “magic” vibrant local economies out of thin air, nor is it always possible to recreate the Victorian character of seaside resorts that once brought visitors in their droves.
But in Redcar’s case, I wonder how many of the councillors who brought it to where it is today lived there long enough ago to remember how it once was and who might therefore have had the sort of ideas in mind – while there was still some potential socially and financially – to restore the character and facilities that once made it a great town, and resort to live in and visit?
Neil McNicholas is a parish priest in Yarm.