Back in the Fifties, during what was still the golden age of the British seaside, Brian O’Connor used to earn pocket money working as a barrow boy in his home town of Skegness.
Every Saturday of high season from the age of nine he would take his father’s wheelbarrow to the train station where, all day long, tens of thousands of visitors were disgorged for a week’s holiday.
The tourists – in good mood and with spending money to hand – would pay local kids two or three shillings a time to wheel their luggage to hotels and guest houses.
“If you were quick, you could make yourself a quid on a good day,” remembers O’Connor. “I had a wheelbarrow, but some lads would use the family pram.”
The town was a daily carnival, he says: “You’ve never seen somewhere so busy, and in the evenings, three shows a night, the biggest stars. Tommy Cooper, Sid James, they all played here.”
Today, Skegness, a town of 20,000 people on the Lincolnshire coast, is a much-changed place.
While the resort and surrounding area still attract 4 million visitors every year, its slow decline following the advent of cheap air travel and overseas package holidays is a well told – and well replicated – story.
Like numerous seaside towns, it has become a ballroom shadow of what it once was. Deprivation here, as in places such Blackpool, Clacton and Cleethorpes, is rife. Educational attainment is below the national average; drug addiction and mental health issues well above. A lack of opportunity has seen young people leave in droves.
Now, there are fears this slow decline of our coastal regions could be turned into catastrophic freefall by the long tail of coronavirus.
Research published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation last week found three of the 10 UK areas most at risk from a Covid-19 poverty surge are coastal: Blackpool, South Tyneside and Thanet.
Already the national lockdown – which wiped out three crucial bank holidays – has cost seaside towns across the country some £10.3bn in lost revenue according to estimates by the National Coastal Tourism Academy.
But it is what is happening now – and what comes next – that has become the real concern.
Ongoing social distancing rules have meant that, while people are once again heading to such resorts, the hospitality industries there cannot cater for them in the numbers needed to make business viable.
Bars, hotels, restaurants and attractions have all had to reduce capacity, while taking on extra costs for things like cleaning and signage. Across the board, they say, even with a good late summer – and even taking the government’s £10,000 business grant into account – there is no way they can turn a profit this year. On an individual level, staff have been let go or seasonal workers simply not taken on.
To compound matters is the fact the UK has now entered the most severe recession currently being experienced by any G7 country off the back of coronavirus. Should this downturn be as deep and entrenched as many economists increasingly fear, the consequences will almost certainly hit resort towns with particular savagery: people who have just lost their jobs tend not to spend money on day trips and weekends away.
“What these communities are facing,” says Mike Hill, MP for Hartlepool and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coastal Communities, “is a perfect economic storm.”
At worst, he reckons, businesses could fail in significant numbers, unemployment will skyrocket and social services already stretched to the bone after a decade of austerity will face collapse.
It is, he tells The Independent, “no exaggeration to say the survival of these places in the way we know them is under threat.”
On a beautiful August morning in Skegness, it feels bizarre such concerns exist.
The pier, beach and shopping lanes are all throbbing with life. There are no real-time visitor numbers available but those who know the region best say it is as popular as ever in recent years.
“Since the reopening we have been inundated with visitors,” says Colin Davie, Lincolnshire County Council’s cabinet member for economy and place, which includes responsibility for tourism. “I have never seen the coast so busy … the other day every car park of every resort was full by 8 or 9am.”
A similar picture has emerged elsewhere. With people wary of air travel and amid confusion over quarantine rules, domestic travel has seen a mini boom. Hoseasons, cottages.com and Cool Camping all report periods of record bookings since the end of lockdown, while the term “UK staycation” has been Googled 500 per cent more this year than last.
So popular have some resorts been, indeed, that many locals are less worried about economic collapse and more concerned with the NHS being able to cope should visitors bring in coronavirus.
Such numbers come as no surprise to that one-time barrow boy, Brian O’Connor, a man who – even in the midst of global pandemic and historic recession – refuses to be anything other than positive.
Since his school days running wheelbarrows, the now grandfather-of-five has become something of an institution in Skegness.
For the last 42 years he has owned the popular boating lake, adding an adjacent fish and chip stall and seafood restaurant to his empire along the way. A couple of years ago, he splashed out £260,000 on upgrades which included building a two-storey model light-house. It doesn’t do anything, he says. “But doesn’t it look great?” he beams proudly. He is shoeless and tanned and infectiously enthusiastic.
He is also bullish about the future. “We’re a two-hour drive from 12 major cities,” he says. “And almost everyone in those cities will want to spend time by the sea in summer so all we have to do is make sure this is the place they come. We need to be ambitious and make sure what we offer is so good they keep coming back.”
Boldness is imperative, he asserts: “Let’s be Las Vegas on the Lincolnshire coast.”
Such positivity is not, to be clear, without foundation.
Long-term decline or not, tourism still generates huge amounts of money for coastal resorts. The visitor economy was worth £699m to East Lindsey District Council – the authority which includes Skegness – last year. The corresponding figure in Blackpool was £1.58bn. “It is a goose,” as one councillor tells The Independent, “repeatedly laying a golden egg.”
The problem is that, using the same analogy, it is often the only goose in town. The reliance on this single economic strand makes coastal resorts uniquely vulnerable to contractions. Here in Skegness, some 54 per cent of workers have jobs directly reliant on visitors, according to an April study by the Centre for Towns. In Newquay, that goes up to 56 per cent – the highest in the UK.
Worse still, decades of both public and private under-investment have left these among the most challenged places in the country. To borrow a phrase, few areas have been quite so left behind as coastal resorts.
In East Lindsey, some 34 per cent of people live in areas classed as deprived, according to the Office for National Statistics. The same 2019 study found eight of England’s top 10 most deprived council wards were, astonishingly, in a single town: Blackpool.
Wages in coastal communities are £4,700 a year lower than the UK average. The jobs themselves tend to be less secure with fewer opportunities for career development. Disadvantaged school pupils in towns by the sea achieve three grades lower at GCSE than those in a similar socioeconomic bracket living in inland cities, the Department for Education estimates. And austerity had a greater impact: while the country’s economy as a whole grew 17.1 per cent between 2010 and 2017, the coastal economies achieved just 7.5 per cent.
All of which is to highlight the reasons behind what may be one of the bitterest ironies of the pandemic: while coastal resorts have, by and large, succeeded in keeping Covid-19 infections relatively low – there have been 59 deaths in East Lindsey and no reported cases for the last fortnight – these areas appear, ultimately, to be the ones which will be the most devastated by the fallout.
Perry Remblance is bent over a stationary go-cart and elbow deep in oil when we speak.
The entrepreneur runs a variety of attractions along the east coast, including this race track in Skegness, an inflatable park up in Hornsea and a couple of amusement arcades.
But this morning he has a screwdriver in one hand, a spanner in the other and 14-year-old son Harry holding his toolbox as he attempts fix one of his carts.
“I’d normally have a mechanic in doing this,” he says with a shrug. “But these are the times.”
To some extent, this is the coal face of the coastal coronavirus crisis. Remblance has been unable to take on his usual seasonal staff, while customer numbers at his indoor attractions have fallen off a cliff.
“We’ve made them as safe as we can,” he says. “Sanitiser, screens, social distancing – but people are still nervous. They’re coming here but, even on holiday, I think they’re looking for ways to reduce risk, and I suppose arcades fall into that for now.”
He had hoped to open two new attractions next year but has shelved those plans. His fear is not just that visitor numbers will continue to be limited by distancing rules and people’s own apprehensions but that a wider recession is coming.
“There are so many jobs being lost,” he explains. “We could easily be talking about mass unemployment before things get better. And less jobs means less people taking holidays. As a business built on holidays, we need to be aware of that.”
It is a warning that is similarly made by Danny Brookes, a town councillor, district councillor and owner of the Indulgence homemade ice cream parlour in town.
New guidelines means he has had to take out a third of tables at his cafe. “Which is basically the profit margin,” the father-of-two says.
He’s had to let five of his nine staff go and is running a limited menu. During lockdown he lost £25,000 and has no hope of making it up this year, even with a good long summer.
The result is, at 54 and after almost 25 years running such parlours, he is now considering something he would never have imagined just a few months ago: what he might do if has to wind up the business.
“I’m not exactly making a contingency plan,” he says. “But I’m aware I may have to make one if things don’t get better. You can’t run a business – even one you’re passionate about – when it’s losing money.”
Pertinently, neither he nor Remblance – nor almost anyone The Independent speaks to – are critical of social distancing measures. Uniformly, they say they believe it remains necessary for public health.
Yet neither of the pair are exaggerating the precariousness of their own situation either, wider evidence suggests. The Coastal Tourism Academy predicts a quarter of such tourist businesses nationwide could eventually fold as a result of the pandemic. In East Lindsey, where 17,300 workers out of 51,300, were still on furlough when the government last published figures at the end of June, the job losses would be demonstrably devastating.
The answer, says Brookes, is to urgently diversify their economies, and for the government to prove it was serious about its levelling up agenda by investing in education, transport and digital infrastructure. This in turn would allow such places to move away from over-reliance on visitors and begin attracting talent here.
“But that has been the answer for decades,” he says ruefully. “And it still hasn’t happened.”
In the days before coronavirus existed – April 2019 to be exact – a House of Lords select committee highlighted many of the issues facing seaside towns.
In a scathing analysis criticising perpetual underinvestment, the peers recommended a whole raft of measures should be taken: better transport links; faster broadband; increased educational opportunities; and greater funding for local services; and recognised the unique issues – poverty, crime, drug use and mental health – that are often rife.
In our new Covid age, the necessity of such action is starker than ever, analysts suggest.
But, conversely, there is also hope the pandemic may just provide the much-needed spur required for such long-term change regeneration.
Two reasons for this optimism run parallel.
The first is the idea staycations may be on the cusp of a new golden age. With people already looking to reduce their carbon footprint, the new health implications of air travel have arguably made domestic tourism more appealing than ever.
“We’re predicting a massive move towards homegrown tourism in the coming years,” says Colin Davie of Lincolnshire County Council. “This is something we’re already seeing but more people are going to visit the UK’s resorts and coastlines than ever. So, our job is to help our business prepare for that and be ready to take advantage of it.”
The windfall of such a boom, so the argument goes, should then be used to help deliver a more diverse and more resilient future economy.
The second reason for optimism is that if, as seems likely, the UK is now about to enter an era of increased remote working, it is our small towns which look likely to be the biggest winners.
Freed from the shackles of big city offices, so the theory goes, workers will escape to more liveable, more scenic communities.
“Where could be more scenic than the coast?” asks MP Mike Hill. “There is a real opportunity now to use increased remote working to drive the regeneration of long-neglected areas. If the government is serious about levelling up – if this isn’t just Tory rhetoric – now is the time to invest in the infrastructure that can help bring that change.”
It is a point Will Jennings, co-director of the Centre for Towns and professor of political science and public policy at the University of Southampton, agrees with.
He was co-author of an April study which found coastal communities, along with ex-industrial towns, were the most likely to be affected by lockdowns.
“One of the issues we face as a country is that, because of the dominance of London and other regional cities, people wanting to get on in the world in smaller towns can face quite tough decisions about having to relocate themselves,” he tells The Independent. “So, if you use the new impetus for remote working to invest in physical and technological infrastructure in these areas – faster broadband and more connected transport but also investment in schools and social care provisions – that would give people more options for where they choose to live.”
Crucially, he reckons, a country where professional development can be routinely progressed in small towns would be a country that is healthier, wealthier, happier and more environmentally sustainable.
Among the wider benefits – apart from the greater geographical spread of prosperity – would be that businesses have a greater talent pool to choose from (because it is no longer constrained by geography); congestion in big cities would be reduced; pressure on high-use public transport eased and individual wellbeing boosted.
The conclusion, says Jennings, is simple: “If these are things we value, there is now a real opportunity to reimagine how the economy could work better for everyone.”
Back on the Skegness seafront, the Mansell family are here from Willenhall in the West Midlands for the week.
Mum Sarah is a schoolteacher, dad Adam is a welder, and the two lads – Jack, 10, and seven-year-old Blake – are currently having the time of their lives on the pier’s mini motorbike track.
As a family, they alternate holidays between one year abroad and one year in the UK. Why Skegness this time? “Well,” says Sarah, “it was available at quite short notice.”
Not perhaps the ringing endorsement the tourist board hope for – but the four have thoroughly enjoyed themselves since arriving.
“It’s been really lovely actually,” she says. “The beach is beautiful. It’s so big. No need to worry [about social distancing] there.”
They may, they say, stay in the UK next year too if the situation with coronavirus has not settled – further proof perhaps that a staycation era may be beckoning.
Brian O’Connor, that one-time barrow boy, nods when The Independent tells him about the family a little later. “The pandemic has happened and we all wish it hadn’t but we can’t change that,” he says. “What we have to do now – all resorts, in fact everyone really – we have to find the best way to make the most of it.”