Dan Hind

Sun, Sea and Socialism in England’s Coastal Towns

Dan Hind
Sun, Sea and Socialism in England’s Coastal Towns

COASTAL RESORTS PRESENT an important electoral prize for Labour. Around one in ten of the party’s 150 most winnable target seats are English seaside towns.

These constituencies are found in all parts of the country and include Hastings (the 7th most winnable), Dover, South Thanet, Scarborough and Whitby, Morecambe and Lunesdale, Blackpool North and Cleveleys, Southport, Truro and Falmouth and the Bournemouth constituencies. The seaside towns are also prime candidates for economic reinvigoration through a partnership between ‘ground-up’ municipal socialism and the proposed National Investment Bank and National Transformation Fund. Domestic tourism is strategically important as a source of foreign currency, as a means of ‘import substitution’ and as an opportunity to experiment in the new forms of everyday utopianism.

Many resort towns are characterised by low wages, seasonal work, high levels of social and economic deprivation and a private sector made up of an unusually high proportion of small businesses. Although enterprises are small, land and property are often concentrated in a few hands. Their necessarily peripheral location means that the resorts struggle to attract large scale enterprises and, while they have much in common with post-industrial communities struggling with structural change, they were not heavily unionised in their heyday and the labour movement as a whole is often weaker than in other parts of the country.

This, along with their popularity with retirees, helps explain their support for the political right.

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The main thing they have in common, of course, is the seaside. Their beaches were crucial to their development, and is key to understanding how they can be revived economically and brought over to the socialist cause. All the resorts have derived vast incomes over the years from their geography but these have been captured by property owners who control real estate on or near the seafront.

These owners extract rents and spend them elsewhere. Public investment has sometimes helped restore the value of these private portfolios. But it has not transformed absentee landlords into shrewd investors in the local economy, let alone radically improved the conditions of the wider population.

People were drawn to coastal resorts and the opportunities for rest and recreation they afforded. Businesses that operated there enjoyed the benefits of an unearned ‘natural rent’; income derived from a favourable location rather than from investment in labour and capital. Much of this ‘natural rent’ became ordinary rent as business owning families gentrified and became rentiers. Meanwhile local government has become captive to the interests and perspectives of large landowners.

The situational advantage of the resorts was exploited more and more intensely during the industrial period until environmental degradation, competition from southern Europe and a refusal by the landlord class to reinvest profits led to a relative collapse in the 1970s. The same landlords responded by converting poor quality tourist accommodation into poor quality housing.

The seaside remains, however, a powerful draw. Revival depends on the capture of the existing natural rents, either through direct ownership of the seafront or through fiscal policy, and the recycling of these rents into an improved visitor offer, an expanded co-operative sector, an enhanced public realm and the maintenance and restoration of the natural environment.

This virtuous circle of rent capture and public investment increases the charisma of the place and attracts visitors who stay longer, have a better time, and spend a little more money. With careful stewardship by local government, this ‘nationalisation of the seafront’ helps the Labour Party move on from the language of redistribution towards the socialisation of natural rents and a reckoning with both landlordism and the financial sector. Natural rents become a revenue stream that communities can use to meet their own economic and social needs.

Beautiful indoor swimming pools and spas benefit the year-round residents as part of a broader public health intervention and make the towns more attractive to visitors. Libraries and assembly halls support a dynamic public culture and provide venues for leisure and entertainment.

Rising revenues finance social housing to prevent the displacement of local people and provide start-up funding for co-operative enterprises. Restaurants, nightclubs and music venues operated by these co-ops convert the use of public assets into high and equitable wages that will help fund their expansion and diversification.

Publicly owned digital platforms will enable these co-ops and other businesses to secure higher profits by offering a low-cost alternative to the likes of Uber and Airbnb. Each resort can specialise and experiment, confident that the material benefits will be widely shared. Tourism, rather than being extractive and status-oriented, can be restorative and egalitarian.

The weakness of the pound has already made domestic tourism more attractive than foreign travel. The trend towards shorter breaks and festivals and the increasing popularity of the health and wellbeing sector also present opportunities for the coastal towns, if they are able to access patient and responsible finance and can ensure that new money intended for investment does not become a new source of rents for favoured insiders.

Communities that want to succeed will have to find ways to eradicate rentseeking in the public as well as the private sector. Success will depend on building a culture of general participation in economic decision-making. And this will in turn provide an ongoing education in political economy that prepares for further democratisation of the economy. At present the combination of steep inequality, low investment and susceptibility to reactionary rhetoric found on the coast play out the national drama in miniature. If we can break this syndrome through new and revived forms of social and political collectivity we will provide a valuable demonstration of Corbynism’s wider potential.

The full achievement of a public option for the resorts will require co-ordinated action by central government. We can imagine a number of possible approaches: ‘disenclosure bills’ in Parliament that bring key parts of the seafront into public ownership; and new powers for local government to raise land value taxes that will have particular importance for coastal resorts.

Local government itself is in urgent need of thorough-going reform as part of a new constitutional settlement. But community wealth-building in Preston and elsewhere shows that we do not have to wait for a Labour majority in Parliament to begin the process of transformation.

A commitment to municipal socialism with seaside characteristics can, and should, play an important part in Labour’s electoral strategy in this year’s local government elections. An insistence on the need for radical change, combined with detailed and practical proposals for existing public assets, will go a long way to winning support from electorates who have been neglected and ill-served for far too long.

  • Dan Hind is a writer, publisher and democratic socialist who lives in Margate, Kent. He can be reached via @danhind on Twitter.

South Thanet CLP. Dan is a writer, publisher and democratic socialist who lives in Margate, Kent. He can be reached via @danhind on Twitter.