The towns that EasyJet killed

Stephen Pond

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series about the ways budget airlines and changing tourism trends affect communities in Britain and abroad.

GREAT YARMOUTH, UK — In the good old days, tourists flocked like migratory birds to this resort town on England’s southeast coast.

Resident Grace Edwards, 67, slept the summers of her girlhood in a single bedroom with her parents and brother so the other rooms in their house could be rented to holidaymakers.

“They’d come off the bus in their bright-colored clothes,” she said with fondness. “It was so exciting to see them come in.”

Although tourists still come to Great Yarmouth, that golden era seems a long time ago.

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The beautiful Edwardian theatres on Marine Parade now house arcade games and mini-golf ticket offices. A once-stately hotel overlooking the sea is a strip club. And where Edwards’s mother served breakfast to B&B customers, Edwards dishes up hot meals for locals in need at a church-run drop-in center.

Great Yarmouth isn’t alone in its struggles. Decades after evolution in the tourism industry triggered their decline, Britain’s seaside towns are caught in a rip current of economic and social problems, compounded by changes in the government welfare benefits on which many residents depend.

Unemployment and welfare reforms have affected cities across the UK, but these former resorts share a unique set of challenges. Economic deprivation in England’s seaside towns is worse than in the country as a whole, according to government studies quoted in a report last year from the Centre for Social Justice.

“In 2011, it was a bleak picture, but nothing could have prepared me for what it was like in 2013,” said Sue Smithurst, a researcher who interviewed residents for two reports on local poverty for the Great Yarmouth Community Trust.

Postwar heyday

When the weather is right, Great Yarmouth’s seafront has a cheerful, kitschy appeal. On a recent weekend, the beach and main drag of Regent Road were full of British families enjoying fish and chips and sticks of “rock,” the baton-sized hard candy without which no seaside trip is complete.

Great Yarmouth and resort towns like it saw their heyday in the postwar years of the 1950s and 1960s, when an annual trip to the seaside was the highlight of many working- and middle-class families’ calendars.

Factories and mines in the north of England closed down for two weeks each summer so workers could vacation with their families. “Fortnighters” arrived in Great Yarmouth by the thousands from industrial centers like Sheffield and Birmingham.

The summer season brought an infusion of cash and energy that kept the town going throughout the year. Local schools altered their calendars to accommodate the holidays tourist-trade families took in the fall after their seasonal customers returned home.

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“When I was a kid, it felt like summer went on forever,” said Kerry Robinson-Payne, a member of the Great Yarmouth Borough Council whose family has lived in the area for four generations.

She remembers the annual night of free rides for local kids so the beachfront amusement parks could test safety before opening to tourists — “They wouldn’t do that now,” she says with a laugh — and the friendships formed with returning visitors: “You got to know the people year after year. They’d become like family as well.”

Fast decline

The decline of Britain’s seaside resorts began in the 1970s and 1980s with the rise of the package holiday. Tour companies chartering flights offered all-inclusive jaunts to Spain and other reliably sunny countries for less than the cost of an often-cloudy week on the British coast.

Then the explosive popularity of low-cost airlines such as Easyjet and RyanAir in the late 1990s and early 2000s delivered the deathblow.

The cheap international travel market has proved too powerful to resist. Direct flights to sun-drenched resorts in Spain and Portugal leave daily from the airport in Blackpool, a once-popular northern beach town that now has England’s highest rate of children in state care.

With the tourists went the jobs. In June, 3.7 percent of residents in Great Yarmouth claimed unemployment benefits, according to government figures — well above the national rate of 2.5 percent. In December, during the off-season, the figure was 5.1 percent.

Although those numbers have declined since last year, many suspect the drop owes more to a year-old government crackdown on benefit claims than any improvement in living conditions.

“When you hear that 20,000 people have gone off [the welfare rolls], you think, Hello! Twenty thousand people have been sanctioned this week,” says Patricia Slade, a volunteer at the Great Yarmouth Food Bank.

End of the line

It’s a story common to rusting towns across Britain: a major industry departed, be it manufacturing, mining or tourism, with nothing to take its place.

In the case of former seaside resorts, their distinct geography hastened their decline. Some vacant hotels and guesthouses were converted to care homes for the elderly, disabled and mentally ill, increasing the share of the population that relies on social services.

Others were purchased by private landlords and converted to the inexpensive studio apartments known as “bedsits.”

The availability of cheap housing and promise of seasonal work drew people from all over the country in need of a jumpstart. Prisons directed released offenders to former resort towns such as Blackpool, Margate and Rhyl.

People still come to the sea with hopes of cheerier weather and seasonal work, but many end up disappointed.

“We get a lot of people coming from London, Essex, the Midlands thinking the beaches are paved with gold,” says Annette Carter, an advisor with Disabled Information and Advice Line Great Yarmouth. “But we are a very deprived area.”

Brian Thorne agrees. He heads the Pathway Cafe and Support Centre, a church-sponsored drop-in center that offers hot meals every Friday to people who are homeless, impoverished or otherwise in need.

When the center opened three months ago, Thorne thought it would be hosting 30 people a week by now.

Last Friday, 70 visitors walked through the doors — elderly people with canes, tense-looking young men, a young pregnant couple who stood in line for tea with arms around each other protectively.

“We are the end of the line,” says Thorne, 69, who has lived in Great Yarmouth since he was 7. “People come here thinking there’s lots of jobs, and then they’re stuck.”

Blame the immigrants

For some frustrated by the lack of jobs and opportunity, the area’s population of immigrants — primarily from Portugal and eastern Europe — seems to offer an explanation.

“It isn’t England no more,” said Janet Ellis as she waited for a Pathway meal of fish and chips.

The 52-year-old lives in Great Yarmouth with her unemployed son, who’s 23. He’s applied to every employer in town since leaving school, she said, even the seasonal ones, without a bite.

“The foreigners take over and they take all the jobs as well,” she said. “I wish the government would do something about it.”

Politicians have been quick to capitalize on that sentiment. Candidates from the anti-immigration party Ukip took 10 of the 13 seats up for re-election in Great Yarmouth’s local elections in May, ousting Conservatives and Labour Party councilors alike.

Privately, employers say the local population lacks skills. One recruiter told the Centre for Social Justice that while he’d rather hire locals, he’s found it more cost-effective to pay airfare and lodging for 450 Portuguese workers each summer than to deal with the absences and “wrong attitude” endemic to local workers.

“There is a sad irony to the situation Great Yarmouth finds itself in,” the center’s report noted. “Holiday-makers who used to fill the hotels now jet across to Portugal while Portuguese workers wing their way over to Great Yarmouth to work.”

Dismal prospects

The government has tried to help address the problem by promising to hand over to seaside communities half of revenues from marine assets in the Crown Estate, a state-controlled portfolio of investments, until 2015. Great Yarmouth has received $1.3 million in grants so far.

Placed against the total need, however, that sum is a drop in a bucket: The borough faces an $8 million funding gap in the next four years. On Tuesday the local council publicly appealed for money-saving tips to add to its own proposals of yanking out streetlights, charging more for public burials, taxing mobile home residents and selling off public buildings.

“I often hear that Yarmouth is a place of low aspiration and ambition, and I think I disagree with that,” said Andrew Forrest, chief executive officer of the Priory Centre, a social services hub.

It’s not that there are no ambitions here, he said, only that “poverty crushes your feeling that you can achieve them.”

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