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Shifting sands and sea change: How can our seaside towns respond to the productivity challenge?
With the summer holiday season just around the corner, coastal towns up and down the country will be hoping the sun comes out to tempt the great British public to the seaside. It can be easy to forget that many of these coastal communities are in desperate need of regeneration and economic revitalisation, suffering from ongoing decline of their core industries such as domestic tourism, fishing, shipbuilding and port activities, and the challenges of seasonality. Their location on the periphery of the country places them on the periphery of the economy, creating a host of socio-economic problems and in turn, barriers to economic prosperity for their communities. The recent publication of a House of Lords Select Committee report on “the future of seaside towns” provides a timely reminder of the scale and complexity of this challenge, and sets out a series of recommendations for how seaside towns can once again become prosperous and desirable places to live and visit. Reflecting the different stages of evolution of these places, the UK’s seaside economy is far from uniform. Some locations, like Bournemouth and Brighton on the south coast, have benefitted from a model of reinvention that is not available to all. Meanwhile, many smaller coastal towns have seen their unique selling point diminish. Their sense of isolation has left small town, seaside communities overlooked and facing profound economic and social challenges. Blackpool for instance, which tops the seaside destination ‘leader board’ in terms of visitor nights, faces some of the most acute deprivation in the country. The national imperative to drive up productivity and earning power of people across the country – as set out in the government’s Industrial Strategy – provides a further incentive and pertinent backdrop to the Select Committee’s recommendations. Last week saw the publication of a new Tourism Sector Deal setting out how the government will work in partnership with the tourism industry to boost productivity, develop skills and support destinations to enhance their visitor offer. It begs the question: how can Britain’s seaside towns respond to the UK’s productivity challenge and contribute towards national prosperity? The development of Local Industrial Strategies provides the most immediate opportunity for ensuring that the needs of coastal areas are better reflected in local plans to drive economic development, with most well underway via Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and Combined Authorities. Framed in context of the Industrial Strategy’s five foundations of productivity (ideas, people, infrastructure, business environment and place), there seem to be a number of key areas of opportunity to boost the economic prosperity of our seaside towns: Economic diversification: coastal communities increasingly need to recognise, promote and support diversification of their economies where a sole reliance on tourism is no longer a viable option. Much can be learned from places like Folkestone in Kent, where a new Creative Quarter has been delivered through a regeneration strategy based on the arts, the creative industries, and education. Transport connectivity: is holding back many coastal communities and hindering the realisation of their economic potential. Sub-optimal connections (such as inadequate rail connections and road access via single lane carriageways) can limit the potential for investment in economic diversification, and improvements to transport will be vital in supporting further economic development in isolated coastal communities quite literally at ‘the end of the line’. The forthcoming Shared Prosperity Fund is likely to provide a key source of funding in this regard, alongside the next round of the Coastal Communities Fund. Digital infrastructure: improved digital connectivity presents a significant opportunity to overcome the challenges of peripherality in coastal areas, and would help existing businesses, encourage new businesses, and enable people to work more flexibly from home to achieve the all-important work-life balance; a core part of the offer. Skills and aspirations: limited access to education, in particular to further education (FE) and higher education (HE) institutions, is severely restricting opportunities, denting aspirations for young people in some coastal areas and having a direct knock-on impact on local economic productivity and growth. Recognising that there is never going to be a ‘bricks-and-mortar offering’ of HE in every coastal town, this might necessitate greater scope for flexible access both to FE and HE, such as online, part-time and distance learning. Maximising unique assets: what makes coastal communities different is their unique asset: the coastal and marine environment that surrounds them. Seaside towns that have been most successful at reinventing themselves are those that have identified their own special character and USP. Key to this is a long-term, place-based vision that is supported by local leaders and grounded in each town’s unique assets, whether this be a combination of inherent geography, history, geology and ecology, or created features, such as attractions and culture. Examples of such assets include a university arts centre in Aberystwyth, The Stade historic fishing area in Hastings and a specialist university for the creative industries in Falmouth. The Stade historic fishing beach in Hastings, East Sussex Some of our recent work in the Lichfields economics team has focused on the huge growth potential of our seaside economies and making the case for targeted investment in infrastructure and associated projects to unlock this potential; in locations such as Gosport, Worthing, Southend-on-Sea and Eastbourne. With around half of all LEPs comprising coastal or estuarine areas, it will be interesting to see whether Local Industrial Strategies are embraced as an opportunity for renewed focus on addressing the skills gaps, low wage economies and aspiration challenges faced by many coastal communities. Whether by drawing on existing assets (such as historic infrastructure) or technologies of the future (such as emerging green industries that harness wind and wave power), it’s time for our much-loved seaside towns to play a more meaningful role in the UK’s plan to drive innovation and growth across the country.  

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Technology in the public realm: ‘Street smart’ just got a whole new meaning
‘Smart Cities’ are those that invest in and make optimal use of technology to transform the physical and social environment of the urban area and improve the performance of urban services. However, definitions of Smart Cities are broad and exactly what technologies are to be focused on is not specifically defined. At the end of the 20th century, ‘Smart Cities’ became a familiar buzzword in the planning arena, perhaps in response to major technological, economic and environmental change at that time. It has developed from a trend to a crucial city planning objective, to secure economic competitiveness, greater efficiency and better quality of life. Since the London Mayor’s ‘Smarter London Together’ Strategy was introduced last summer, innovative data application and smart technologies have been leading ideas in the development sector. The Strategy sets out how London can become the ‘smartest city in the world’. This has been recognised in the draft new London Plan. Draft Policy SI6 (‘Digital connectivity infrastructure’) seeks to ensure new developments have the digital connectivity required to support London’s global competitiveness and recognises the potential opportunities for mobile digital infrastructure to be accommodated within the public realm, to help meet consumer demands for mobile connectivity. Nationally, the National Infrastructure Commission’s July 2018 report sets out that ‘building a digital society’ should be a Government priority; the UK must progress improvements in digital connectivity to meet the needs of consumers and prevent the UK being left behind by other countries with smart agendas. We recently attended talks on digital street infrastructure by Future Cities Catapult and the Association for Consultancy and Engineering, which investigated and advocated just this topic. We found the possibilities for the integration of digital technology into our streetscapes a fascinating idea and a conspicuous example of the Smart City agenda. There are various methods of digitising infrastructure currently being explored in the urban context – all of which have the potential to make the City safer, cleaner, more efficient and exciting. This blog explores just some of the digital infrastructure emerging in London’s streets, and around the UK. InLinks InLinkUK, from BT, are modern panel units being installed on streets, replacing some old payphones. They provide ultrafast internet, phone calls and other digital services such as mobile phone charging, maps and directions and a digital BT phone book. All for free. InLinks have digital displays which are used for advertising purposes and can also show real-time information such as weather forecasts, messages to the community and travel updates. The first one was launched on Camden High Street in 2017. There are now 435 InLinks across the UK (correct as of May 2019) as shown on inLinkUK’s interactive map. If you haven’t spotted one of these in London yet, where have you been? Source: Nancy Stuart & Georgia Crowley, Stockwell. Interactive road crossings London-based software company ‘Umbrellium’ focuses on methods to build ‘engaging cities’, where people’s needs are put first. Umbrellium has developed an interactive road crossing that responds dynamically, in real-time, to road users. The Starling Crossing (STigmergic Adaptive Responsive LearnING Crossing) is designed to be the Zebra crossing of the 21st century. It reacts to the changing capacity of the road and may disappear when there aren’t many pedestrians or widen when there are a lot. Bright LEDs embedded into the road surface flash warning signals to (often smart phone-using) pedestrians, who veer onto this interactive road surface. The lights and patterns are controlled by a computer system, which analyses footage from cameras that constantly monitor the crossing. Source:  Umbrellium Smart street furniture When we rely on our smartphones for almost everything, running out of charge when out can be problematic. But, there are now benches around London where one can charge their smartphones for free. Source: Nancy Stuart & Georgia Crowley, London Bridge. Need to charge your electric car from a road-side parking space? Modified lampposts can provide easily accessible on-street charging points. In Southwark, 50 specially adapted lampposts have been installed by charging point company ‘Char.gy’. Other local authorities that wish to roll out on-street electric car charging can also apply for investment from the government’s ‘Onstreet Residential Chargepoint Scheme’, until 2020. Source: Nancy Stuart & Georgia Crowley, Clapham. This new generation of street infrastructure has the potential to adapt all sorts of ordinary street furniture to new multi-purpose digitised versions. As well as phone and car charging provision, street infrastructure is being explored that could act as security cameras or could deliver electricity for filming and festivals.The introduction of 5G has a huge role in the growth of Smart Cities and the proliferation of digital technology in the public realm. While the main media focus of 5G is improved personal data browsing speed, 5G is also a key enabler to many emerging technologies as digital connectivity is a precursor for deploying smart systems effectively – meaning 5G could strengthen and support this new generation of street furniture. There is a need for the planning system to be proactive to enable the delivery of both digital street infrastructure, and 5G connectivity. However, there are persistent cost, time and coordination challenges to the roll-out of new digital infrastructure. For instance, London boroughs have different approaches to granting planning permissions and prior approvals for digital infrastructure, and some Boroughs have prioritised this more than others. This could create disparities in accessing the benefits of new technology across the City. Digital infrastructure can also impact amenity and heritage, which are often concerns for planning authorities, and local policies aimed at decluttering public spaces often conflict with the installation of digital street infrastructure or mobile equipment such as masts. It may not always be clear what should take precedence, and outcomes of such a judgement may vary spatially. Overall, our streets are becoming more technologically friendly, benefiting the quality of life of city dwellers. As technology is increasingly becoming part of everyday life, our streets must adapt to accommodate our technology-driven needs. ‘Street smart’ has taken on a new meaning and we look forward to watching the public realm change to accommodate these and many other urban emerging technologies.  

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