Coastal communities are all too often overlooked when it comes to the levelling up agenda. Former MP, Councillor in a coastal community and Chief Executive of policy institute Curia, Ben Howlett sat down with MP for Hastings and Rye and Chair of the Coastal Communities All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), Sally Ann Hart ahead of her Parliamentary debate in September to discuss how levelling up could unleash the potential of coastal communities.
Setting a positive tone for whole discussion, the chair of the Coastal Communities APPG begins the discussion with a positive vision, telling Howlett “our coastline, seas and coastal communities have challenges, yes, but given the right vision, support and investment, they can be a national resource rather than a problem to solve.”
Coastal communities “have unleashed potential and we should be looking at how we can maximise that potential.”Sally-Ann Hart, MP for Hastings and Rye and Chair, Coastal Communities All Party Parliamentary Group
Given the confusion over what is meant by ‘levelling up’ Hart’s definition is about individuals, families and communities to create “equality of opportunity.” To achieve this, throughout the discussion she calls on a need to invest in education and skills. As an MP in East Sussex, she says the county is now an education investment area and hails that Hastings is a priority education investment area.
However, she says levelling up is not just about education, it is about transport infrastructure and connectivity. To improve peoples’ lives, she says “it is about levelling up so many things.”
Parliamentary debate on coastal communities
Having lived around Hastings and Rye for a long time and as a district councillor, local magistrate and now MP Hart outlined her commitment to coastal communities through her campaigning to improve the transport infrastructure, skills, education and health.
Through the Parliamentary debate, Hart is looking for MPs to explore some of the issues facing coastal communities.
Citing the 2021 annual report by Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty on health disparities in coastal communities, she tells Howlett that she should have been appalled by the findings but she actually welcomed it. She said, “it provided an excellent platform to lobby the Government on behalf of her constituents.”
She said Whitty’s report was clear, in that one size does not fit all and that coastal communities have their own unique challenges. However, as Chair of the APPG she has learnt that they have a “commonality of factors which affects them all.” It is something she wants to see the Government address through a national strategy.
Thinking of some of the solutions that she would like to see come from the debate, she highlights that solving deprivation is key to levelling up coastal communities.
To transform coastal communities, she says there is a need to think about transport, education, health and playing on the strengths of coastal communities and what they have to offer. As an enthusiastic advocate for an inclusive approach towards levelling up, she said that by “getting children and family right and ‘education, education, education’ right is fundamental.”
Welcoming the levelling up and towns fund pot, Hart reflects on the experiences within her own East Sussex constituency.
“I look at the amount of money being spent in Hastings on capital projects c.£590 million…but they haven’t built in the skills development and training. Rather than competitive pots of money, we need to look at long term funding,” said Hart.
Thinking about the commonality across all coastal communities, Hart says there is a need for a strategic plan for local communities about how they are going to level up.
“We need to look at long-term funding from government. The public sector can provide the pump prime ‘seed funding’ that leverages in private sector funding.”
However, she says “We need to look at how best to spend the money in order to level up. Not just about investing in capital projects, it is about skills and job creation too.”
Hailing the excellence that levelling up funding has provided for the cultural economy, she says “it is not enough.”
A new Coastal Minister?
One of the key reasons that Hart has called for this debate in September is that she has been calling for a new Coastal Minister, a national coastal strategy and a cross-departmental government taskforce.
She says there is a commonality of factors that coastal communities have and that it is “really important” to unleash the potential of coastal communities.
Re-emphasising the point, she says that “if we have a real focus, they can be a national resource, rather than a problem to solve.”
Conservative Leadership Contest
Highlighting the campaign by fellow Sussex MP, Tim Loughton to create a “coastal challenge fund” to deliver an equilibrium of funding for northern and seaside communities, Howlett asks Hart if she has seen a shift on the definition of levelling up since the start of the Conservative Party leadership contest in respect of certain communities.
As Chair of the APPG for the South East, she insists that she does not want the South East to be left behind on the levelling up agenda. “We want all areas of the UK to be levelled up, but just because the South East is affluent by comparison, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t pockets of deprivation within the region.”
Hart highlighted that the solutions for tackling deprivation simply cannot be regionalised. Fundamentally, Hart affirmed that these solutions must be focused on communities in local areas. She said, “you need to use more granular data and target finances where resources are most needed to make the most impact.” Given that East Sussex is not particularly affluent, but the South East is, she hopes this will target resources to produce better outcomes for communities.
Highlighting that as an MP in Bath, one in five children live in poverty in the city, Howlett outlined that Curia’s Levelling Up Commission is looking at ways levelling up funding can be more effectively targeted to low-income communities in wealthier regions.
Hart said that by using available data, targeting resources at a polling district level could target funding at communities. Hart positively reflected on the focuses of localism and the elevated focus on local communities within the white paper on levelling up.
She stressed that levelling up “is not just about money.”
Hart insisted that “we have to make a little go a lot further now. It is about partnership working and getting that support from government whether through national policy or through funding.”
Finally with the issue of coastal flooding becoming more important and the issues of climate change impacting communities, the Government is looking at coastal flooding more seriously than ever before.
Highlighting nature-based solutions, Hart suggested our coastal communities have enormous potential to fight against climate change. She said that “if you restore and protect coastal habitats, it can mitigate flooding. Looking at Wallasea Island off the Essex coast, they have used nature based solutions with the old salt flats to mitigate against climate change.”
As eco-tourism, food and jobs have a central focus on our coastal communities, Hart hailed the opportunities available to coastal communities as they rethink their strategies to overcome the impact of climate change.
Despite the positive reflections, Hart remarked at the lasting issues for these areas. Hart warned that coastal communities have been “overlooked.”
Nevertheless, Hart is positive about their future, in that they can be a “major national resource for us” if they are given the right vision, investment and support.
She finishes by making the point that “rather than a problem to solve, they are going to have a major impact on our social and economic growth. They have unleashed potential and we should be looking at how we can maximise that potential.”
Given that both our host and MP have represented coastal communities, it is interesting to see just how much enthusiasm there is for the future.
Delivered properly, levelling up can bring significant opportunities to coastal communities. There was a clear narrative from the discussion. Hart and Howlett both agreed there needs to be a clear strategy for our coastal communities to thrive. With social, economic and environmental challenges ahead money needs to be targeted and a vision for coastal communities needs to be better communicated.
There has been dramatic change in the fortunes of coastal communities, particularly because of the pandemic as tens of thousands of people have relocated from major urban centres to coastal communities.
It will be down to the next Prime Minister to maximise the opportunities that lie ahead for these all too often overlooked communities in the years to come.