There is a perception that coastal towns are run-down and culturally unengaged. This month, a conference run by SeaChange in Great Yarmouth marked the culmination of a three-year programme to change that using the arts. The Coasters project, backed by Arts Council England’s Strategic Touring Fund, programmed international circus and street art.
Bringing arts to coastal towns was an idea to harness the growth in the creative industries – Peter Bazalgette’s review in 2017 showed the sector was growing at twice the rate of the wider economy – to places being left behind.
Coastal towns have suffered in recent years as UK holidaymakers ignore them in favour of cheap flights abroad. Many have become riven by social issues, from unemployment to drugs, and have seen the wealth of their heydays become no more than a sepia-tinged memory.
The disparity is starkly demonstrated in North Somerset, which is where our arts charity, Theatre Orchard, is based. It includes Weston-super-Mare, and is the third most economically unequal region in the country.
End Child Poverty, a group of organisations fighting the issue, revealed 43% of young people in Weston’s south ward grow up below the poverty line. Contrast that with one in 20 in regions closer to Bristol – just 25 miles away.
Weston was put on the map, culturally, with Banksy’s Dismaland, which brought 150,000 visitors. The ‘bemusement park’ shone a light on the underbelly of the UK seaside, while spray-painting a love letter to the hook-a-ducks and dodgems of childhood memories.
The economic picture in parts of Weston may be bleak, but, like many seaside resorts, that isn’t the full picture. Despite its subject, Dismaland offered hope. The local economy benefited to the tune of £20 million from the theme park and the idea that culture could offer hope to a seaside town gained traction.
Coasters came in to bring arts to the people and reached 1.5 million across England.
As that network’s initial funding ceases and Dismaland fades into memory, where does this leave culture in Weston-super-Mare? While it is not the panacea, culture has left its mark, and the future seems brighter.
One example is Tropicana, the iconic 1930s lido that stood empty for 15 years before hosting Dismaland. It is the focus of a bid from a group of cultural organisations that includes Theatre Orchard and Wayne Hemingway, a champion of culture-led regeneration.
He says it could become a beacon, a destination for events with national appeal, as well as a space where artists and creative industries can thrive – a creative heartbeat for Weston that retains and attracts talent.
It could also provide a path for other seaside towns to follow. Big cities are all-too-often pricing out younger generations. Could it be that our end-of-the-line seaside towns can ride a new wave? That they can re-energise faded architectural gems with 21st-century flair and carve a vibrant future for the UK seaside as ‘the’ place to live, work and play?
Fiona Matthews is creative director of Theatre Orchard