Turning back to the sea in 2017

Following a year of great political and economic turmoil, when predictions were mostly confounded, 2017 should be the year when people and communities around the country take centre-stage. A new action plan, developed with the support of hundreds of people, shows how coastal communities can take the lead, reconnect us with our coastal identity and secure a more prosperous future for the UK coast.

Coastal communities made up the top five areas that voted to leave the EU last June. This should not have surprised you. Britain’s over 11 million coastal residents face an uncertain economic future, with some unique and urgent challenges. When compared to non-coastal areas, they see higher levels of underemployment, economic inequality and educational underachievement. In addition, they are more vulnerable to the increasing threats that climate change brings, as well as the declining health of the UK’s marine environment.

The 2016 State of Nature report showed how the natural environment, on which our economy and our lives depend, is faring worse in the UK than in most other countries. For the coastal and marine environment, the key challenges remain the impact of our activities – a combination of pollution, over-exploitation, and climate change.

This picture has been unfolding for decades. Coastal areas sit alongside other areas in the UK that have never truly recovered from the loss or the decline of traditional industries and jobs since the late 1960s. Successive public policies have not been able to inject new life into marginalised UK economies still struggling to fill that void, and many communities have become dependent on government ‘hand-outs’, ultimately stripping them of a sense of pride in creating their own opportunities for a better future. So, it is no wonder that in 2016 they rejected the advice of both the UK and EU establishments.

One way or another, 2017 brings a window of opportunity to rethink the UK economy so that it truly works for everyone, and no longer, leaves people behind. An industrial policy aiming to rebalance the UK economy must be bigger, bolder and driven by the regions who need it most. For the UK coast, it must be about building the capabilities of places, people, and communities; support projects, small or large; and ensure there is the digital and transport infrastructure that communities need to thrive. They should not be expected to do it all alone.

Despite great examples of good practice happening around our coast, and a number of welcomed government efforts in recent years to support coastal communities, what policies have still not been able to address is that the problem for coastal communities is that they lack the scale of power and resources needed to address their complex and many unique challenges.

That is why the New Economics Foundation launched the Blue New Deal initiative, which has brought together a range of voices and interests to discuss the future of coastal communities, starting from its unique asset. UK waters cover a significant part of the UK national territory, extending to more than three and a half times the UK’s land area. Our extensive coast, and the marine environment surrounding it, provides us with a wealth of resources, including fish stocks, a variety of habitats and wildlife, energy sources, and cultural heritage.

Turning back to the sea means getting more people excited about what our coast has to offer and growing a new generation of innovative coastal and marine businesses. The Blue New Deal wants to see the development of stronger coastal economies that are able to support more good jobs and increased economic resilience through activities that can promote, support and deliver healthier ecosystems for the future.

There has never been a more urgent need for communities to come together and lead this change themselves. In the face of deprivation, political and financial instability, we need a new approach to economic regeneration. The Brexit vote was a wakeup call: communities left behind by our economy and ignored by our politics want greater control over their futures. But Britain’s pending exit from the EU also threatens to undermine recent coastal and marine conservation efforts and bring further division to towns and cities. So how can we deliver transformative economic reform that meets people’s deep desire for more control and supports a healthy environment for the future?

The Blue New Deal’s 20-point action plan is about putting people in control so they can reconnect with our seas, shape their own local priorities, and lead the way in revitalising the UK coast. It builds on existing experience and resources on the UK coast, and has the potential to support up to 160,000 additional jobs and £7.2 billion of additional income in coastal local authorities.

Fernanda Balata is Senior Programme Lead for Coastal Economies at the New Economics Foundation

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily of Bright Blue