In difficult economic times it can be hard to look too far ahead. Yet in East Devon – as across the South West – our seaside towns are staring at urgent challenges which may determine prospects for prosperity for many generations to come. Holding fewer cards than for many years, our local authorities must look to play their hand in a different way.
Most seaside towns will recognise each other's plight: disappearing traditional marine industries; seasonal and lower-paid local employment; young people leaving to find work while older generations, having left work, look for the peace and quiet. What each wants from their home town is changing. Nearby larger towns and cities dominate as sources of better-paid and year-round employment, as well as places to spend money. In looking to welcome seasonal visitors it grows more difficult to provide balanced economies that cater for the mundane requirements of everyday life – jobs, security, community coherence – alongside the expectations of those who travel in hope of leaving the mundane elsewhere.
Despite these worries, most people cherish their luck to be able to live by the sea. Quality of life is often the first thought for those asked why they love where they live. Here in East Devon, communities in Exmouth, Budleigh, Sidmouth, Seaton, Beer and beyond know just how eager many others would be to swap places.
Looking ahead, though, such communities face major economic hurdles against a backdrop of game-changing austerity. Elected councillors of all colours know that their ability to fund change directly is shrinking. Government is cutting funding which, although we have pursued efficiencies, still reduces our spending power – especially with our commitment to freeze the Council Tax. Available public finances to support regeneration are now at their lowest levels for many years – and will most likely only diminish further! We can regret it, even resent it, but we must get on with looking at different options. In East Devon we feel that means forming ambitious partnerships with private providers to share risk and invest serious sums in bringing jobs and prosperity in the years ahead.
Exmouth, East Devon's biggest town, offers an easy epitome of "work-life balance" for many. But no one should ignore Exmouth's challenges, especially for the young; narrowing job opportunities, rising housing costs and availability, faded attractions and public services under pressure. For some, the prospect of change is perceived as giving into the clumsy march of developers putting profit before place. For others, carefully-balanced development marks the only way to entice the new investment and opportunity worthy of a refreshed 21st century identity.
In East Devon, the "Exmouth Vision" is a package of development looking to build a bridge from past glories to future prosperity. Through Exmouth Vision, our role is to create an environment where fresh investment becomes probable, not just possible. It is a framework for regeneration which balances many interests, expressed through recent consultation across the town and building on previous exercises stretching back 10 years or more.
For those who know Exmouth, transforming the "Estuaryside" is the Vision's largest single element. Retail, new jobs, community facilities and transport improvements are all part of ambitious plans for this important "Gateway" to the town. "Exmouth Splash" is a key proposal to provide a new recreation and leisure zone on the seafront. Nearby Elizabeth Hall has been a great servant to Exmouth but now looks out of place for a modern seafront location where redevelopment can help bring new jobs through greater investment.
Of course not everyone agrees with this direction of change. There have been petitions and protests aplenty, and allegations of asset-stripping and selling the town's soul to the highest bidder. Emotional stakes are running high, but we remain confident that Exmouth Vision is acting upon an impatience for improvement that has been broadly expressed across the town for many years.
Everything was modern in its own time. The Victorians were far from reticent in tearing down and rebuilding in the modern architectural styles of their day. Similarly in the 1950s, post-war architecture was in a heyday of modernism and new construction. The less we say about the 1970s the better but the point is, that change is inevitable and welcome. It is also a threat for the seaside towns that don't embrace it when other competing towns across the country do.
Like so many other towns, Exmouth has its work cut out to find a sustainable future. If there's one message it's got to be this: let's take the difficult decisions now to make sure change works in our favour. Otherwise it will happen without us.