Who doesn’t like to be beside the seaside? Who doesn’t love the first glimpse of sun sparkling on bright, blue-green waves, a salt tang in the air?” Around Britain’s Seaside, published by the AA in 1979, described itself as an “exciting new publication”, a “guide to the resorts of Britain from the larger and most popular to the smaller, hidden-away spots”, including descriptions of “where to eat, places to see, what’s on and where, plus town plans”. I paid £1.50 for a secondhand copy a few years back and have never regretted the purchase. The book provides a window into a very different world: the last summer before Thatcherism kicked in and transformed everything – including the AA and the British seaside holiday.
In 1979, public ownership in Britain had reached its high-water mark. It was hard to go on a summer seaside holiday in the UK in the socialist 70s and not use state or municipally provided services. If you went by train, you went by the state-owned British Rail. The “Golden Rail” scheme offered holidays all the way from your local station, inclusive of hotel and rail travel, to more than 40 resorts throughout the country.
If you went by ferry, you probably went with Sealink, a BR subsidiary, with the BR logo proudly displayed on its funnels. If you went by coach, you used the state-owned National Express, with its airline-style hostess service. You could go even on a state holiday via “National Holidays”, a division of the National Bus Company, which had 1,000 pickup points and offered “hundreds of superb holidays throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, in Jersey and the Isle of Man”. In some resorts there was the option of staying in a state-owned hotel, operated by British Transport Hotels, a division of BR.
Around Britain’s Seaside details just how much was provided by local authorities once you arrived at your resort. You’d not only find council car parks and public toilets, but also municipal swimming pools, pitch and putt courses, crazy golf, deckchairs for the beach, boating lakes, recreation grounds for bowls and tennis, bus services and civic theatres, all manned by local authority employees.
Fast-forward to 2013, and it is a very different picture. The British seaside holiday – like almost everything else in Britain – has been privatised.
British Rail and its ferry and hotel companies have gone. There is no state-owned coach operator, let alone one that also provides cheap holidays.
Local authorities have sold off, outsourced or simply closed many of the facilities that they used to provide to holidaymakers in the pre-Thatcherite era. In Eastbourne, where the first municipal motor bus service in the world was launched in 1903, the buses are now run by Stagecoach. In Rottingdean, the holes on the pitch and putt course have been filled in by Brighton & Hove council to stop locals playing there after its lease to a private operator ran out. If you’re dying for a pee as you walk along the seafront on your 2013 British seaside holiday, you could be in trouble: the British Toilet Association estimates that 40% of local authority toilets have closed in the past 10 years. Meanwhile, an investigation by the BBC last September found that more than a third of UK councils had cut or closed some public sports facilities in the previous three years.
The spirit of the 70s lingers on in some places. Eastbourne has four council-owned theatres. In Blackpool, it is still the council that runs the buses and trams. And of course many councils, to their credit, have kept facilities open.
The trend, though, is very much against local authority provision, made worse by the cuts that councils feel obliged to make.
Does the privatisation of the British seaside holiday matter? I’d argue that it matters a great deal. For a start, it was cheaper to get to the coast in the days when trains and coaches were in public ownership and, crucially, there were affordable walk-on fares for those who decided to have a weekend at the seaside on the spur of the moment.
Local authority provision of things such as putting greens, boating lakes and tennis courts made our resorts more enjoyable and visiting them a richer experience. Adequate provision of public toilets, whether at the seaside or elsewhere, is surely a hallmark of a civilised society.
Seaside resorts were always about taking money off holidaymakers, but Thatcherism has pushed the tide out way too far. Today, it’s too often about “profit centres”: if this piece of land on the seafront doesn’t make a big enough profit, let’s build something else on it, even if that means destroying the character of the resort. In my 1979 AA guide, Exmouth is described as a place that has “all the amenities of a popular resort whilst remaining free from excessive commercialisation”. That just about holds true today, but won’t for much longer if East Devon district council gets its way. Despite a petition that raised 12,000 signatures, the council has sold Elizabeth Hall, a popular community facility on the esplanade that dates from the Victorian era. It will now be demolished and replaced by a four-storey hotel. The council’s “masterplan” for the redevelopment of the seafront includes more “retail areas” and “a large privately run play and recreation area”.
Other coastal councils have enthusiastically pushed ahead with reducing the municipal role. In 2011, the Conservative-controlled Isle of Wight council voted to close the island’s six tourist information offices and 27 public toilets, reduce spending on parks and gardens, and axe the beach lifeguard and Wightbus service. The council said that tourist information offices were no longer needed, but this summer an “information point” for visitors opened in a private shop.
The Tories lost control of the Isle of Wight this year. Let’s hope that it is a sign that the high tide of seaside neoliberalism has now been reached. There is another, better way, where people come before corporate profits and crazy golf comes before crazy developments, as Around Britain’s Seaside reminds us.