Curia Chief Executive, Ben Howlett, speaks to MP for Hastings and Rye and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coastal Communities, Sally-Ann Hart, about her vision for levelling up in coastal communities
Having lived around Hastings and Rye for a long time, and as a district councillor, local magistrate and now MP, Sally-Ann Hart outlines her commitment to coastal communities through her campaigning to improve the transport infrastructure, skills, education and health.
Through a Parliamentary debate held earlier in the year, Hart was looking for MPs to explore some of the issues facing coastal communities. Citing the 2021 annual report by Chief Medical Officer, Sir Chris Whitty, on health disparities in coastal communities, she told former MP and Cllr, Ben Howlett, that she should have been appalled by the findings but she actually welcomed them. She says, “It provided an excellent platform to lobby the Government on behalf of my constituents.”
She says that 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 All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), she has learnt that they have a “commonality of factors, which affect them all”. This is something that 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 that 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 “Getting children and family right, and ‘education, education, education’ right, is fundamental.”
Welcoming the levelling up and towns funding 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.”
Thinking about the commonality across all coastal communities, Hart says that there is a need for a strategic plan for local communities about how they are going to level up. She says, “We need to look at long-term funding from the Government. The public sector can provide the pump prime ‘seed funding’ that leverages in private sector funding.”
However, she also says, “We need to look at how best to spend the money in order to level up. It is 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 states that, “it is not enough”.
A new Coastal Minister?
One of the key reasons that Hart has called for the September debate is that she has been calling for a new Coastal Minister, a national coastal strategy and a cross-departmental government task force. She says that 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”.
Levelling up all parts of the UK
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 highlights that the solutions for tackling deprivation simply cannot be regionalised. Fundamentally, Hart affirms that these solutions must be focused on communities in local areas. She says, “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 that this will target resources to produce better outcomes for communities.
Highlighting that in Bath, where he was an MP, one in five children live in poverty, Howlett outlines that Curia’s Levelling Up Commission is looking at ways that levelling up funding can be more effectively targeted to low-income communities in wealthier regions. Hart says that by using available data, targeting resources at a polling district level could target funding at these communities. Hart positively reflects on the focus of localism and the elevated focus on local communities within the white paper on levelling up.
She stresses that levelling up “is not just about money”.
Hart insists, “We have to make a little go a lot further now. It is about partnership working and getting that support from the 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 suggests that our coastal communities have enormous potential to fight against climate change. She says “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 hails the opportunities available to coastal communities as they rethink their strategies to overcome the impact of climate change. Despite the positive reflections, Hart remarks on the lasting issues for these areas. She warns 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, “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 Howlett and Hart 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 that 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 a 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 new Prime Minister and ministerial team to maximise the opportunities that lie ahead for these all too often overlooked communities in the years to come.