‘Usually it’s packed in August’: UK seaside towns suffer in cost of living crisis - THE GUARDIAN
AUGUST 26, 2023
BY Joe Middleton
Fri, 25 August 2023 at 1:44 pm BST6-min read
“Just look at it, this is the middle of the summer holidays,” says Phillip Garnsey, the exasperated co-owner of the Oggy Oggy pasty company, as he surveys an empty high street in Torquay.
Just a few hundred metres up the road in the Devon town, the juxtaposition could not be more stark as families relax on the beach, enjoying one of the first sunny days of August, and paddleboarders make their way through the crisp blue ocean. Squeals can be heard from the nearby funfair as children play on the rides and later beg their parents for ice-creams or candy floss, while young couples browse inviting street food at the market.
However, away from the levity of the seafront, shopkeepers in Torquay told the Guardian about a lack of footfall, decline in the town centre and struggles caused by the cost of living crisis.
Michael Jamieson, the owner of Café Crème, says: “It’s been the worst summer in 14 years. Look how quiet it is for August, usually the town’s packed. June, July, August and May, they’ve all been quiet, super quiet. It’s not just me, it’s everybody, cafes, the clothes shops, souvenir stores, you name it, we are all down, we’re all struggling to pay our bills.”
He adds: “When we’re in season, from April until the end of September, I start serving breakfast at 8am. Now, I’m opening at 9am and hardly anybody is coming. You look outside and it looks deserted, the town.
“Believe me, wait until this winter, it will be a lot [worse], I guarantee you, come March, April, there will be a lot more empty shops, because people are struggling.”
The town centre is already pockmarked with empty shops and the streets are quiet. Ryan Hanlon, the manager of the Cider Rooms, says demand at the sports bar was good but did not compare with the previous year, when the high street was packed “with a sea of people”.
This is the heart of the problem. Last summer, trade was exceptional for seaside towns as people embarked on domestic breaks after the pandemic lockdown, due to restrictions on travelling abroad. But this summer, travel providers and airlines have reported strong demand for foreign trips, with a spike in last-minute bookings due to the wettest July on record in some part of England and Northern Ireland.
Tony Galinos, 74, a professional musician, has owned and operated The Guitar Man music equipment shop in the town centre for the last four years and has seen the area’s decline. “Our turnovers have dropped, conservatively, from 50% to 80%, we’ve got 50 vacant shops on the Torquay high street … Without support from the government, I would say within the next 12 months at least another third of the remaining businesses will close.”
He says these economic difficulties are being faced by seaside towns up and down the country. “It’s everywhere, if you go to Southend-on-Sea, even places like Brighton are suffering.” He adds that trade is “not even close” to what they experienced in the town last year and “80% down”.
Galinos says part of the reason is more people flying to Europe this summer, but that the poor weather in July and early August has also put people off heading to the seaside.
Garnsey says the summer has been terrible for visitor numbers, “at least half down on last year”. But the 58-year-old argues that is not the only problem: “I don’t think there is anything to do down here. If you go to Cornwall there is a bit more … there is nothing much on down here, I don’t think, and the town is very grubby-looking. We have had a lot of holidaymakers say that they wouldn’t come back.”
The most recent data supports the idea that the domestic holiday trend is fading post-Covid. Analysis from the recruitment firm Reed, published by Bloomberg, says that job vacancies in 25 of the major seaside towns have declined significantly since last year.
James Reed, the chair of Reed, said: “Given how heavily reliant many of these coastal towns are on strong summer trading, it is certainly concerning that the usual summer boost in job postings hasn’t materialised. The staycation boom has come to an end.
“Even those in a stronger financial position may opt for a less costly foreign holiday package over a domestic staycation where UK businesses, hit particularly hard by rising costs, have had to hike up prices for consumers. Just by comparing the costs of travelling by road and rail in the UK with the costs of flights abroad, it’s clear why the staycation boom has failed to re-emerge.”
Just over 270 miles away from south Devon, in the popular Welsh coastal resort of Abersoch, Tom Leslie, the owner of the Potted Lobster, says the restaurant is still busy but businesses in the area think its quieter than last year. “People are still coming out and spending, but the spend is more limited. They’ll buy one bottle of wine instead of two.”
Leslie also part-owns a hotel, the Whittling House in Alnmouth, Northumberland, and said occupancy rates were 98% in the domestic holiday boom after the pandemic, but this summer they had dropped to 70%.
After the economy opened up following Covid-19, he said, there were “freakish” high levels of trade due to the specific circumstances around the pandemic, but this could now level out.
The post-lockdown visitor spike bucked a decades-long trend of economic decline in Britain’s coastal communities. A House of Lords report released in July titled The Future of Seaside Towns found such places had “significant potential” but faced a “persistent sense of disconnection” as well as complex social issues, a lack of jobs and deprivation.
Last month, the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, said she wanted to “supercharge seaside towns” to boost their economic prospects and create new jobs. If Labour won the next election she promised it would crack down on sewage dumping in rivers and the sea, scrap the current business rate scheme, let councils introduce a holiday lets licensing scheme, and help create new, high-quality jobs through an apprenticeship levy.
Analysis released by Labour at the same time found the economic output of seaside towns had increased by 12% between 2009 and 2019, far below the 20% overall increase in the UK gross added value, a measure of economic output.
Another key issue is poverty. A 2020 analysis of coastal towns published by the Office for National Statistics showed there was more likely to be higher levels of deprivation than in inland towns.
Alan Tilley runs Turning Heads, a community interest company in Torquay that runs a social supermarket offering food to struggling families at lower prices than traditional retailers.
He says demand has increased and every week someone new, who is almost always in paid employment, is asking to use the shop. “I’m astounded about the state of what’s going on,” he says.
Garnsey says not enough is being done to support seaside towns, and his pasty business is likely to close. “We’re finding it tough, but it’s not just because of the lack of visitors, it’s the cost of living going up.
“We’re not the only ones. If you look down the high street at the shops that are shut … It’s such a shame, we have a lovely shop and such fantastic customers, but it hasn’t worked.”