Oh, I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside…

…living it up on £73.10 per week.

Blackpool Tower & Illuminations, by Mark S Jobling [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Amber Rudd is back in the Cabinet, to the amazement and horror of many political commentators. Having taken the fall for the discriminatory and racist Windrush Scandal, she’s served her time in the wilderness of the backbenches, and will be ruining lives of all ethnicities from her new role as head of the DWP. Maybe they could adopt a “no lives matter” type slogan.

Like her predecessors, she’s cashing in on the nasty stereotyping of the poor and disabled that Cameron and Osborne started around 2005. Rudd, the MP for Hastings, a seaside town in decline, said in 2013:

“You get people who are on benefits who prefer to be on benefits by the seaside. They’re not moving down here to get a job, they’re moving down here to have easier access to friends and drugs and drink.”

It probably struck a chord with many of the righteous, Gammon-faced Brexit fans among her constituents, but there is a reason why so many people in old seaside towns are on benefits, and it ain’t their love of the beach.

Sure, if you’re going to be poor and have a shit life, you might as well do it somewhere you can get a nice tan, but there are deep-rooted social problems in our seaside towns that the Conservative Party are ignoring and blaming on vulnerable people with limited means to improve their lot. And anyway, if I want to get hold of some booze and drugs, it’s far easier to head into Manchester than it is to book a weekend on the English Riviera.

Like so many traditions that we fondly keep alive nowadays, our liking for the seaside was started by the Victorians. It wasn’t down to their sense of whimsy or love for the coast, but because the industrial masters wanted something to take their low-paid workers minds off of the mundanity of the other 51 weeks of the year. Coupled with beliefs about the marine air being good for you, the British masses were encouraged to take holidays by the sea. A whole industry grew up around the seaside, and if you can find one of the coastal towns that still survives on tourism, it’s a sight to behold. It does feel a bit strange, almost childlike, to enjoy the innocent pursuits of a bygone age.

Blackpool Promenade c. 1898, by Detroit Publishing Co., under license from Photoglob Zürich [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

British seaside holidays remained popular well into the 20th Century, even as working patterns and attitudes changed. But around the 1970s, cheap air travel and resorts overseas were able to compete with British beaches, and the decline started from there. Nowadays, British seaside towns are populated by the elderly, and a younger underclass the government would rather forget about.

Tradition couldn’t keep up with progress, and like many others from my generation, I moved away from the sea in search of a better life. When we were growing up, we’d all joke about how we’d make our escape from the town, and we even had a theory that the town was some bizarre government experiment — such was the weirdness we’d encounter living in a small town that no-one ever leaves. A lot of the things we made fun of were the result of years of neglect, and people who had serious issues in their lives, that we were protected from by our parents.

Although I was in all the top classes at school, I grew up on a council estate, so my friend group in school didn’t align with life on the estate. My friends’ rich families lived in large houses a bit like those you see on American TV shows, whereas my family lived in a post-war prefab. My parents also had a sense they didn’t belong in such a lowly place, having enjoyed the benefits of the town in their youth, when there were still decent jobs to be had.

But I grew up in a time where there were virtually no jobs available. The remaining seasonal work was done by families that had been in the business for generations, and what industry we once had was either long gone, or pared down to a tiny fraction of what it once was: the chemical plant, the gnome factory (no, I’m not joking), and the steel mill that went bankrupt and got bought out every 18 months.

© Copyright Martin Coull and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Although our teachers encouraged us to strive to be whatever we dreamed of, we could see from our surroundings that we didn’t have any future if we stayed. Plenty of us knew that we would end up staying here, and that’s when the rot began to set in. There was so much violence, vandalism and general misbehaviour — not out of boredom, but to lash out at the world. To make some sort of impact, as it might be the only thing we’d get recognition for.

Many of my peers graduated from GCSEs to the dole, some of my classmates had kids in their teens and got council flats at a time when it was still possible to get a council flat, and the rest of us got out while we could. It was a beautiful place to live, yet there was nothing left for any of us. Expansive sea views matter not when that’s the only thing to look at all day.

There are loads of social problems back home. You can take a checklist of all of society’s ills, and my hometown will score full marks on every one. There’s no hope, no jobs, nothing to do but get pissed, stoned or into a fight. Older residents will tut at the youth of today causing trouble, mouthing off, hanging around in gangs. But they don’t consider the bigger picture, or maybe they feel hopeless as well. They know their town isn’t what it used to be, but they can’t do anything about it; the natural human instinct is to find a scapegoat, and if it’s not foreigners, it’s going to be the poor.

The demand for UK social housing is high, and most areas are so oversubscribed that waits of over 5 years are possible. As unfair as it may seem, some applicants have a more urgent need than others, and when there is no available housing in one area, they can get referred to somewhere with more homes. Tenants don’t like it, it disrupts their lives and cuts them off from friends and family, but at least they’re not homeless.

Seaside towns, especially those with decaying old B&Bs that are desperate for trade, are the perfect dumping ground for homeless families with few prospects. As the children of the locals have moved away to make their lives elsewhere, those with no future get pushed out to dead-end towns. It’s no surprise that social problems increase, and that there are so many people on benefits.

The “workers vs. shirkers” attitude instilled by Cameron & Osborne, and carried on through to today, is reaping what it has sown. State benefits have been cut back so much that people are left destitute and unable to get out of a downward spiral of misery and debt. The huge increase in homelessness, combined with a stagnant economy, has driven poor people away from cities and into Britain’s forgotten towns.

The rich flock to the cities, and get richer. The poor are driven out, and then we punish them for being poor. Their move to the seaside makes it sound like a fucking holiday camp, but in reality it means isolation, poverty and crime. Old seaside towns are already neglected, and then the only people that can, or perhaps, yes, want, to live there are those who already have troubled lives.

© Copyright Des Blenkinsopp and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

It’s the perfect storm, and we created it by turning coastal resorts into dumping grounds. We need a clean-up operation, and it requires millions in investment. The assumption that already disadvantaged people need to sort their own lives out, with no assistance or sense of duty from an uncaring society, has led to this entirely predictable situation. It does not work.

Nobody is happy about the current state of the British seaside. Vendors can’t make a living, the older generation no longer get to enjoy the towns as they remember them, social problems are rife, crime is through the roof, and no-one has a job. We can’t solve this problem through blame — if Amber Rudd cares so much about people on benefits living by the sea, perhaps she should consider if they really have a choice.