There are big and weighty matters in the papers at the moment. Should Scotland leave the United Kingdom? Should the United Kingdom leave the EU? Should NATO combat Russia and/or militant Islam? These are all worthy and important, but in the middle of all this pops up the seaside town of Clacton. This happens to be the scene of a by-election which might well return the first member of UKIP to the UK parliament. At the time of writing the UKIP candidate has a strong lead in the polls so it is possible that history is about to be made in Clacton. But what has history made of Clacton itself?
As it happens I have never visited Clacton, but I was born in a seaside town and have lived in two others. Business regularly takes me to Brighton and Morecambe. So I have a feeling that I would feel rather at home in Clacton. I am comfortable anywhere with a seafront and a pier. But I am also aware of the problems that these places are facing. The economic rationale of the English tourist resort goes back to the days when railways were the only form of mass transport and a day out at the seaside was the pinnacle of the average person’s consumer experience. The infrastructure of these towns was laid out with a view to providing services to day trippers and holidaymakers.
The world today is very different. Who wants to walk along a promenade to seek out saucy postcards and slot machines by day and go to a show on the end of the pier in the evening. The electronic tablet in your pocket can provide better entertainment options without you even leaving your sofa.
So seaside towns now seem totally redundant. This makes their dating guest houses good options for housing people who can’t afford the standard, and a good place to retire to to make your savings stretch a bit further. So they become concentrated with a population that is well below average on economic activity. The Times journalist and former Conservative MP Matthew Parris was unimpressed when he visited to cover the Clacton by-election. It isn’t surprising that it elicited only contempt from someone used to a cosmopolitan place like London.
His prescription is the logical neoliberal one. They have outlived their useful purpose and should now be left to decay in their own time and their own way. The rest of us should just get on with it and leave them to struggle on their own. It is hard to argue with that point of view. It is always hard to argue with market forces. They seem to be something natural and beyond our control and to oppose them is to be like Canute ordering back the tides. (Which he did at Bosham incidentally, another seaside town that has seen better days.) But simply abandoning these places to their fate is not really very sensible. They might well decay if neglected but we don’t have to choose to neglect them. With a bit of imagination and some planning and a bit of active government they can be transformed into assets for the country. It is worth remembering that tourism is one of the biggest industries on the planet. It is worth about $40 billion dollars per annum to the UK. France pulls in a lot more visitors and nets $56 billion dollars. We should be looking at somewhere like Clacton not as unfortunate casualty of changing times but as an under-performing asset that needs upgrading to fulfil its potential.
So what is to be done with these places? I think that with imagination, there are quite a few opportunities. Places like Margate and more recently Hastings have gone big on art. In a world where you can download mass market entertainment, there is a strong logic to hosting unique objects that you have to travel to see in person. Brighton hosts numerous festivals. Eastbourne has a marina.
If I was running the campaign for a political party in Clacton this is what I would run on. Let people who want to talk about things like Europe do so. Nobody has ever yet come up with a way of shutting up pub bores. I’d be looking for ways to rejuvenate this seaside town, and while we are at it asking the question as to why these places that should be national treasures get neglected by the Westminster elites?