18 January 2021

When it comes to levelling up coastal communities, fishing is a red herring

By Matthew Patten

Disagreements over fishing almost sank the new EU trade deal, but for many of Brexit Britain’s hard pressed coastal communities, it’s a red herring. The danger is that in a fit of angst-ridden guilt, the government now throws cash at the fishing industry as a proxy for levelling up our seaside towns and villages. That would be a mistake of Edward Heath-like proportions. If we are serious about fishing, we need to put the rejuvenation of our coastal communities first.

The UK is an island nation with a powerful maritime heritage and strong affection for its coastal towns and villages. Yet many are struggling with a range of profound economic, social and environmental challenges. According to the latest research from the Office of National Statistics, coastal communities in England and Wales have higher areas of deprivation than their non-coastal counterparts, lower population and employment growth than the national average, a higher share of self and part-time employment, and a lower proportion of residents with degree-level qualifications. In our small seaside towns, 30% the population are over 65 years old. Unsurprisingly, our coastal communities voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU in the 2016 Referendum.

While many of these communities mourn the demise of our fishing industry, for most it is not the answer to their problems. Recent data reveals that fishing comes bottom of their list of economic activity. It has always been concentrated in a few ports like Grimsby, Lowestoft and Brixham, which combined with 40 years subjugation to the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy, has seen the industry reduced to less than 6,000 boats, with just 12,000 fishers operating from just a handful of England’s 169 coastal towns and villages.

Government has, in recent years, pointed to a number of schemes to help coastal communities. Most obviously, a Coastal Communities Fund worth £180m, which is currently supporting 178 projects and the creation of Coastal Community Teams to provide local leadership. Ministers also point to more generic funds, such as the Future High Streets Fund and Towns Fund, which coastal towns can also bid for.

But this sticking plaster approach is at best maintaining the status quo. To arrest 40 years of decline, we need a far more innovative and dedicated coastal strategy. Here are five suggestions to start with from me.

The best way to join up ‘end-of-the-line’ coastal communities is to give them outstanding broadband and data connectivity and a highly competitive business tax regime. Second, British seaside businesses, including tourism and fishing, rely on self-starting entrepreneurs who have been worst affected by Covid restrictions, and need urgent support to ‘build back better’. Third, incentivise employment opportunities for people over 55, the largest demographic in most coastal towns and villages. Fourth, where better to start with implementing the government’s net zero environmental targets than in coastal communities, perhaps looking to replicate the excellent private-public model established by BP and Aberdeen? And finally, make it a requirement that the new ‘Free Ports’ are engines for community regeneration as well as enhancing trade.

How would we do this? Not all at once would be my advice. We should invite three of our coastal towns and villages to volunteer as pilot schemes. Give Luke Hall, the Minister responsible for coastal communities in England, room to be bold, a credible budget, an order to embrace local subsidiarity, and to get on with it.

Depending on the pilot communities, it may be that fishing has a part to play, but as Lewis Carroll once said, “no wise fish would go anywhere without a porpoise.” Levelling up our coastal communities is that purpose.

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Matthew Patten is Director, The Coastal Communities Agency.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.