The urge to head for the seaside as soon as the winter lockdown lifted was irresistible – to walk, to breathe the sea air, to drink in the wide-open skies and sound of waves on the shoreline.
To be there after being cooped up over a long winter was liberating. Everybody I know felt the same, and we all thanked our lucky stars to live in a county where one of the most glorious stretches of coastline in Britain is within easy reach, all 120 miles of it from the Tees to the Humber.
Our coast has worked wonders for the physical and emotional well-being of countless people this year, yet its own health is far from good.
Even as staycationers were heading for Whitby, Scarborough, Filey and Bridlington for their summer school holiday break, a series of reports painted a worrying picture of coastal towns facing a raft of deep-seated problems to which there are no easy solutions.
First there was the conclusion by the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, that the health of coastal communities is generally worse than elsewhere because of widespread deprivation.
Hard on its heels came the classification of parts of Bridlington as amongst the most deprived in Yorkshire, and then this newspaper revealing that the coast is struggling to recruit enough doctors.
Such findings are becoming familiar. Two years ago, a House of Lords report painted a grim picture of high levels of deprivation, a lack of opportunities for young people, low wages and educational attainment and long-term economic decline.
It is a decline that has been decades in the making. Almost 40 years ago when I started my first proper job, in Bridlington, the seeds were being sown. Though the Yorkshire’s coast’s tourist trade was still vibrant, the days of guest houses and hotels having the “no vacancies” sign in the window from Easter to September were past.
Without anybody much outside the travel and tourism industry noticing, a significant milestone for the coast’s fortunes had already been passed. During the summer of 1979, the amount spent by British people on taking holidays abroad exceeded what they spent on breaks in this country for the first time – the surest indicator that the package holiday boom was unstoppable.
As the 1980s progressed, I saw a steady decline in the fortunes of the coast. What little industry there was shrank, and the decline in tourism grew steeper. Each year saw closures of hotels and guest houses, most of them husband-and-wife businesses, as owners decided there was no longer a decent living to be made from them.
Margaret Thatcher’s government then proceeded to make matters much worse, by displaying an open contempt for seaside towns which were effectively classified as dumping grounds for some of society’s least fortunate people.
It decided the coast would be a less stressful environment than cities for long-term unemployed and people with mental health problems, and offered them the chance to relocate.
This disastrous exercise in social engineering saw an influx of people with myriad problems, putting health and social services under pressure and sending unemployment rates sky-rocketing.
There was a silver lining of sorts for some owners of former hotels and guest houses, who converted them into blocks of bedsits and did very well out of the benefit payments made directly to them on behalf of tenants.
But it turned streets once busy with holidaymakers and smart holiday accommodation into scruffy places of despair populated by the aimless and unwell. As surely as night follows day, the air of hopelessness saw rates of drug abuse soar.
The consequences are still to be felt at the coast, because it entrenched deprivation in the local economies.
You don’t have to look far behind the bustle of a seafront on a summer’s day to see poverty writ large in unkempt buildings which are now into their fourth decade of housing people for whom there are few prospects of work.
Next to nothing has been done to boost coastal economies over the course of all those years, as successive governments have failed to see beyond the illusion created by busy summer months that all is well.
It isn’t. Our coast deserves a much better deal than the institutional neglect that it has suffered. Whilst run-down inner cities have been regenerated and new businesses move into former areas of heavy industry, coastal towns with comparable levels of deprivation have been completely overlooked.
Nothing has been done to encourage industries to set up there and provide jobs outside tourism, and transport links have had insufficient investment. It is almost as if, in the eyes of government, the coast stands apart from the rest of the economy and will somehow muddle through thanks to the income from its visitors.
The reality is that the coast is in greater need of having its economy levelled up than most of the vaunted “red wall” former Labour seats that the Government spends so much time talking about, because it is starting from such a disadvantaged position.
It is high time that there was a dedicated minister for coastal communities and a comprehensive plan for regenerating them, because the picture of deprivation in Yorkshire is mirrored all around the country.
There is an opportunity to start addressing the neglect of 40 years in the Chancellor’s autumn spending review, which will doubtless contain much talk of levelling up the economy.
The promises to do that simply can’t be taken seriously unless the coast is given the help and investment it so desperately needs.
* Read Andrew Vine in The Yorkshire Post every Tuesday.
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