I HAVE lived all over the UK, but Great Yarmouth — an insular borough of creeping mists and neon circuses, medieval battlements, and high-tech wind-farms — has my heart. A former fishing port too often looked down on by its neighbours, it feels to me as spiritually alive as Nazareth or Galilee. Some ask “Can anything good come out of there?” I’d answer with Philip: “See for yourself.”
And so it was with cautious approval that I greeted the publication, in April, of Regenerating Seaside Towns, a report by a House of Lords Select Committee of the same name. It is an informative document that makes many accurate observations of the problems shared by (generally larger) coastal communities around the UK. It is thorough and wide-ranging — perhaps too much so — in its scope.
The report says that certain “key elements” are crucial to the potential regeneration of coastal communities. These include tackling poor housing; improving education; updating infrastructure and connectivity; and supporting leadership and administration. There is a cheery admonition not to allow the complexity of the problem to “mesmerise”, because, it says, regeneration is possible.
SUCH a hopeful tone is laudable. Many of the issues highlighted in the report, however, are not specifically “seaside” issues, but national issues of poverty (with the exceptions of industrial uses of port land and coastal erosion). Occurring in physically marginalised regions, these are then compounded and rendered complex because of the more specifically coastal problems of poor connectivity (transport and communications), physical isolation (services within a certain travel “radius” are severely reduced when half the area is sea), and practical challenges to infrastructure — as well as distances from administrative, higher educational, or support hubs, and from central government.
After years of neglect, these multiple issues of poverty and isolation stretch across several generations (a generation being 15 years). Fears and low expectations are rooted in close-knit kinship. Unexpected stories of success are often told only by or of people who have moved away. And community storytelling, as the report also notes, is also key to community regeneration.
Here, in Great Yarmouth, we have been a guinea-pig for some costly experiments — for example, Universal Credit — in which ill-constructed systems and patchy connectivity have been disastrous.
Carly misses an appointment about her Universal Credit, which has been brought forward, because she is at a long-awaited hospital appointment with her toddler. She was informed by automated text on the morning of the new appointment, but, with no car, she cannot catch a bus from the hospital to the changed appointment in time; she has no phone credit to ring and explain, and there is no one to whom she can text a reply. She is automatically sanctioned, but she has not got the wherewithal to travel to any appointments or to communicate and fix the situation.
But we have also seen initiatives that clearly work. The development of community connections and supportive partnerships between local cultural leaders can rejuvenate all groups involved, as the report notes.
For example, Enjoy-Great Yarmouth is our Local Cultural Educational Partnership: a network of local educators and organisations, ranging from venues, museums, and theatres to musicians and schools, which includes our minster church. The group meets regularly, works on joint projects, and brings in new opportunities. The results in youth well-being and aspirations are clearly visible. And the award-winning team Neighbourhoods That Work (neighbourhoodsthatwork.org) operates at an even more granular level, as workers bring people of all ages together, one by one, to work on projects that build community.
IN 2017, the Church of England reviewed its mission to coastal communities, and then later announced the provision of strategic development funding available not only to regions of inland deprivation and population density, but also those heavily populated marginal areas that physically make up so much of this island nation (News, 13 July 2018).
This commitment is essential and laudable, but it cannot alter a mindset, still held by so many, that the seaside is primarily a frivolous, recreational area, or a place of retirement and rest: that was not true in the glory days of Greek philosophy, nor in the transformational years of Christ in Galilee — and it can only ever be true for those who do not live or work there.
Aspirations, gifts, and potential are not reduced by the challenge and delight of surviving the seasonal changes of coastal life, but sidetracked — worn down by grinding poverty and deprivation that are national problems. But what a gift for those who are willing to live right on the edge, to remain for more than a season, to become part of community and to keep the light of Christ burning in season and out. From the margins, one can see for miles.
The Revd Jemma Sander-Heys is Vicar in the Great Yarmouth Team Ministry, in the diocese of Norwich.
Read the report at www.parliament.uk/regenerating-seaside-towns