29 Sep 2020

Torquay: the Covid challenge to a coastal community

Covid has highlighted many of the weaknesses in our society. It has also accelerated trends that have been evident for many years. This is particularly evident in our coastal communities which are heavily reliant on the locked-down tourism sector.

A recent report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies names Torbay - alongside the Isle of Wight - as the most vulnerable in England because of deprivation, an elderly population, and the high number of tourism and hospitality businesses.

My own town of Torquay has recently seen the Living Coasts 'zoo' near Torquay harbour shut its doors, with the loss of 44 jobs, and the closure of two large hotels due to the collapse of a national holiday company. Many smaller hotels, cafes, shops, pubs and clubs are unlikely to reopen. Even before the pandemic, Torbay’s economy had underlying issues holding it back - it already had the lowest economic output per person in the country.

On the other hand, multi-million pound bids for Government funding have been made, there are improvement plans for Torbay Hospital, and we see significant investment in new hotels. Community activists are also seeing the crisis as an opportunity for Torbay to reinvent itself and move away from declining areas such as coach tourism.

Poverty, of course, requires a national response and the political will to implement solutions. Yet, much can be achieved locally. What Covid did prove is that the voluntary and statutory sectors can quickly and collaboratively rise to a challenge when required. A helpline was established which received 11,000 calls and 700 offers of help; while community groups came together to develop longer-term approaches to tackling issues around poverty, domestic abuse, mental health, racism, exclusion, and community cohesion.

I began by saying that coastal towns have been badly hit by Covid, but the pandemic only highlighted the vulnerability of those communities with an ageing population, low wages and fragmentary employment. Full time, permanent, well paid work, and the ability to purchase a home, is no longer an option for many of our young people and so many leave. They are replaced by retirees and incomers, some with significant support needs. Torbay is consequently, in demographic terms, 40 years ahead of the rest of the country. Accordingly, if there are no serious solutions to these issues of economic and generational polarisation, poverty, access to housing, adequate pensions, these challenges currently faced by coastal communities will, in the near future, be experienced by the rest of Britain.

We know that permanent solutions to the challenges facing our communities are often more complex that we would like to think. But to take one example: I have been involved in the community sector for over 40 years, have run community centres, and have been to countless meetings to discuss solutions to street homelessness. Within two weeks of the advent of Covid, all of Torbay's homeless were offered accommodation.

For so many of us, Covid has been a tragedy. But, out of this, there have been real opportunities for progressive change. Alliances have been made, red-tape cut, mutual hostilities forgotten, communities engaged, and residents empowered. Another tragedy would be if this was all forgotten and we went back to how we were before...