Skills and the regeneration of coastal communities

Coastal communities rarely make the headlines, but they are among the UK’s poorest areas. For every small former fishing port with a Michelin-starred restaurant there are dozens whose populations face unemployment, precariety and low pay. Educational standards are well below average, as are such critical infrastructural resources as transport and broadband.

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Whitby. Photo by R Jordan, licensed under Wikimedia Commons

These criticisms are hardly new, yet current government regeneration initiatives are failing. In the words of a new report from the British Hospitality Association, ‘policy across Government is uncoordinated and often at odds’. Instead, the BHA sets out a seven-point plan for central government – including the devolved administrations – to attract and promote opportunities for investment in coastal economies’.

Skills, I am pleased to see, are one of the key areas for investment. A large proportion of projects supported by the Lottery through the Coastal Communities Fund involved upskilling, and it would be rather nice to see a serious evaluation of these before going much further down this track. We might also ask why BHA members are not already doing far more to raise the skills and qualifications of their workforce. Still, it’s good to see the BHA recognise the need for improving skills.

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Point 6 of the BHA’s seven-point plan

Moreover, the BHA proposals for skills are placed within the context of growing demand for labour. I’ve blogged about skills and coastal communities before (see more here), expressing the view that far too much is said about skills supply and far too little about skills demand and utilisation. The question here is whether the BHA proposals, which rely heavily on tax breaks and infrastructure investment, are enough.

The basic economic problem of coastal communities derive from over-reliance on inherently low-skilled, low-paid industry sectors such as those related to tourism, which often also require part-time and seasonal workers. Seasonality of work also makes it difficult for workers to progress in their careers and reduces the incentive to train, as each job may be with a different employer. Part-time work promotes a tendency for people to hold multiple jobs, and again reduces the incentive to train for any of then.
Many of the most highly educated young people leave in order to attend university. Whatever their intentions at the time, they rarely return after graduating. Essentially, this means that new skills either have to be recruited from outside, or developed in the existing – ie adult – workforce. And adult education provision, for reasons of small scale and under-resourcing, is rarely a strong feature in these areas.
Tackling these structural problems is likely to require more than tax breaks and better infrastructure. It also means breaking the over-reliance of coastal communities on tourism and hospitality.This isn’t how the BHA sees it of course (their report offers the model of Folkestone, whose cultural quarter and triennial arts festival are designed to boost tourism).
Diversifying the economy is challenging, and not always comfortable for existing tourist businesses, as can be seen from the early controversies over the new offshore operations hub at Whitby, which has already started to recruit apprentices as well as bringing highly skilled workers into the town. One side effect has been to strengthen the local training system, with a small but successful fisheries school developing into other maritime areas. This seems to me a much better path to go down than further increasing these communities’ dependence on the low skill, low wage tourism sector.

Skills in a coastal community – the relentless tide of supply side thinking

As a citizen and ratepaper I have just responded to my local council’s consultation for its draft corporate plan. Called Towards 2030, the plan is intended to provide the overarching framework for the wide range of activities that Scarborough Borough Council undertakes on behalf of its population of just over 100,000 people.

At the moment, the Council is interested in our response to the four broad, high-level aims that it proposes to pursue. A cynic would say these are ‘apple pie’ statements, which focus on people, place, prosperity and the Council itself – all four lined up under the ambitious vision of ‘a prosperous Borough, with a high quality of life for all’.

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I had plenty to say about all this, but what struck me was how far the section on prosperity focused on education and skills.This includes turning the Borough into ‘the most highly skilled coastal community by 2030’, a target that I would bet my coffin will never be met (and will probably be quietly forgotten by 2020).

Coastal communities across Britain are generally characterised by low skills levels, and their economies are often characterised by a heavy reliance on low wage and precarious forms of employment. As a result, government has announced a series of initiatives to help regenerate coastal areas, with a major focus on training places and apprenticeships.

All this is of course fine. The problem, though, is that improving the skills and aspirations of young people (and adult workers) may well be highly desirable, but it will not create a highly skilled population. Far more probably, well-educated and highly-motivated workers will immediately move elsewhere to realise their ambitions and use their skills – as indeed they already do from coastal towns like Whitby, Scarborough and Filey.

Scarborough Borough Council is hardly alone in focussing on skills supply as the panacea for all ills. I can see why local government might look at local labour markets and decide that the solution to low skills is to train and educate the young. And the Council has done well in some respects, for example in securing the provision of a higher education campus in the Borough, with Coventry University offering a broad range of degrees.

The problem is that to retain skilled and motivated workers means raising the demand for skills, by promoting types of employment that will use and reward those skills. And in turn that means interventions of some sort to help reshape the local economy and move it up the value chain. These interventions, whether government-led or business-led, will inevitably be of a kind that so far local and devolved governments in the UK have been most reluctant to pursue.