I beg to move that this House has considered The Future of Coastal Communities, and it is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship Dr Huq.
As the Chair of the APPG for Coastal Communities and in my capacity as MP for the beautiful constituency of Hastings and Rye, I am leading this debate on the future of coastal communities and am grateful for the support received by Members from across the House.
Coastal communities are integral to the U.K.’s environmental, social, and economic well-being. The Covid-19 pandemic profoundly impacted our coastal communities, exposing and exacerbating long-standing social and economic structural challenges that need an urgent and coordinated response for a sustainable recovery.
Coastal communities are also the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, with erosion and flooding posing an ever-greater threat to both the built and natural environments.
We have long been a proud maritime nation, historically relying on our coastal communities to help deliver national prosperity but, today, too many of them face shared challenges and disproportionately high levels of deprivation. These communities have enormous potential - which can be unleashed with ambitious vision, partnership working, and the right investment from both the public and private sectors.
Both Labour and Conservative governments have been alerted to the challenges of coastal communities over the years. Lots of reports, not enough real action!
In 2007, a Department for Communities and Local Government Select Committee report on coastal towns highlighted the shared characteristics of coastal communities including poor quality housing, deprivation, inward migration of older people and the nature of coastal economies; that coastal towns have too often been on the margin of central government regeneration policy with a focus on inner cities.
This report led to the creation of the Coastal Communities Fund.
Later, in 2019, the House of Lords Select Committee on Regenerating Seaside Towns and Communities published its report – The Future of Seaside Towns, highlighting familiar challenges and making a number of recommendations.
Challenges highlighted included lack of transport connectivity, poor education standards and attainment, skills shortages, high levels of population transience and disproportionately high levels of people claiming sickness and disability benefits.
Recommendations identified how regeneration could be supported in coastal towns, including a dedicated source of funding specifically for coastal communities beyond the completion of the Coastal Communities Fund.
We have seen this Fund relaced with the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, but it is disappointing that many coastal local authorities like Rother District and Hastings Borough received the minimum of £1 million – a quarter of that received by inland Chorley in Lancashire which received over £4 million, or Cannock Chase which received over £3 million.
Often the funding pots are competitive. The APPG for South East, of which I am also Chair, published a report this year; Financing the Future – what does Levelling-up mean for South East England. One of the report’s recommendations is that levelling up must address the issue of short- and long-term government finance with an emphasis on certainty and flexibility, not one-off and often competitive funding pots.
In order to really plan for the future of our coastal communities, we need long term strategies and locally-led plans.
Improvements to coastal transport networks and targeted investment and improvement programmes for schools were also recommended – hence my persistent campaigning for a faster service from London via Ashford linking up Rye, Hastings, Bexhill and Eastbourne not only to each other but also to London.
This is essential for better connectivity which, in turn, will encourage and boost local employment opportunities and economic growth.
I welcome new Education Investment Area funding for East Sussex with Hastings allocated as a Priority Education Investment Area – but we must do more. Education and skills are vital tools in social mobility and essential for economic well-being and social inclusion.
It is vital for economic growth that education and skills evolve with the needs of the modern labour market and our coastal communities have enormous potential in this regard in the green revolution. But they are not currently being given the focus needed to unleash their potential and become a greater resource to the UK.
In 2020, the Office for National Statistics produced a significant study of coastal communities – again highlighting what we already know about the challenges, including the prevalence of deprivation, slower employment and population growth – even a decline - and an aging population.
A poll commissioned by Maritime UK last year also revealed that coastal communities are set to lose 49% of their young people amid employment concerns. With jobs being cited as the overwhelming reason, Maritime UK and the LGA Coastal SIG jointly published their Coastal Powerhouse Manifesto in September last year, urging the Government to form a coherent plan for the coast, highlighting a number of areas including where action must be taken ‘to catalyse investment, ‘level up’ coastal communities and realise the potential of all of the UK’s coastal regions’.
To date, coastal regeneration funding has largely focused on heritage, recreational and arts projects which are important, but it is clear that further specific action is required to generate higher wages and higher skilled jobs. UK Maritime’s Coastal Powerhouse Manifesto sets out proposals to extend freeports benefits to all coastal areas, boost connectivity to the rest of the country, develop new skills in coastal communities and install a shore power network across the coast to provide the infrastructure to charge tomorrow’s electric vessels.
Most pertinently, Professor Chris Whitty published his annual report last year on health disparities in coastal communities. Life expectancy, healthy life expectancy and disability free life expectancy are all lower in coastal communities whilst the Standardised Mortality Ratios - for a range of conditions including preventable mortality - are significantly higher.
Take life expectancy at birth in Central St Leonards in my constituency for example. For males, it is 11.2 years below Crowborough North East in rural, more affluent Wealden District and 8.7 years below for females.
Case studies such as this consistently emphasise that coastal communities not only face challenges with the recruitment and retention of health and social care staff, but they also face knock-on challenges with service delivery.
Last week I visited the Parchment Trust, a local charity in Hastings which provides occupational and day care services for people with learning and physical disabilities. They do amazing work, but struggle with recruiting and retaining staff – largely due to the pay which can be offered. East Sussex County Council, which commissions services from the Trust, has limited resources but an above average population of elderly people and those with social care needs. This is not reflected in funding formulas.
In his report, Prof. Whitty clearly outlines that tackling the underlying drivers of poor health, including deprivation, poor educational attainment, housing, alcohol and/or substance misuse, homelessness and rough sleeping, underdeveloped transport infrastructure and lack of diversity in jobs and coastal economies, as well as focusing proportionate NHS and care resources to appropriately provide for physical and mental health and social care needs, will help prevent ill health in the long-term. This will benefit not just our coastal communities but the whole of the U.K too.
High levels of deprivation, driven in part by major and longstanding challenges with local economies and employment, are important reasons for the poor health outcomes in these communities. Tackling deprivation is key and, whilst the Levelling Up White Paper articulates how policy interventions will improve opportunity and boost livelihoods across the country, it does not specifically target coastal communities.
In order for the Government’s spending, taxation, investment, and regeneration policies to bring about meaningful change in these communities, they must be at the heart of the Government’s levelling up plans.
However, we must not focus solely on the challenges facing coastal communities. They have fantastic and unique opportunities too!
Coastal communities have unleashed nature-based potential both on land and in our oceans for renewable energy industries and in the fight against climate change, which can also drive social and economic benefits. Our coasts and seas contain some of the UK’s most varied ecosystems and investing in coastal restoration and adaptation projects offer opportunities for low-income coastal communities that yield financial returns on investments, create jobs, stimulate local economies – and regenerate and revitalise the health of ecosystems.
Restoring and maintaining blue carbon habitats in our seas could create jobs directly in conservation, as well as indirectly in nature-based tourism, helping to level up our coastal communities even further.
Coastal communities have their own distinctive and unique role to play in our regional and sub-regional economies – as well as the national one. We must ensure that all places create and share in prosperity, in order for everyone to have the opportunity to enjoy a higher quality of life.
If given the necessary social, economic, and environmental support and investment, our coastal communities can be an even greater national resource, rather than a problem requiring a solution.
It is vital therefore that levelling up recognises the unique challenges that coastal communities face and respond to them with meaningful policy action. It is also vital that this Government recognises the unique opportunities that coastal communities present to us economically, environmentally, and socially, and respond to them with meaningful policy action.
To address the challenges and exploit the opportunities of coastal communities, we need a dedicated Minister for Coastal Communities who can work across government, supported by a national strategy for coastal communities and the re-instatement of a cross-department working group for the coast.
This much needed recognition and investment from Government will help secure the future of the coast and generate improved economic resilience and environmental sustainability through better connectivity, economic diversity, stronger communities and by restoring pride in our coastal identity as an island nation.