NatWest & SBT Roundtable: The Revitalisation of the South East’s Coastal Towns


The SBT and NatWest roundtable series began in Hastings last month, with discussions surrounding the topic of revitalising coastal communities across the South East, in particular focusing on Hastings itself…

NatWest Bank and Sussex Business Times has come together to bring a dedicated series of roundtable discussions to Sussex, and the surrounding community. The aim of these events is to gather individuals from the Sussex business community and to address regional and national business issues: particularly those that affect businesses operating across the region. As with our monthly publication, we aim to bring businesses in Sussex the latest and most prevalent news, sharing and attempting within these sessions, to solve the issues that they face.

Our first topic of discussion was: The Revitalisation of the South East’s Coastal Towns. We were all very pleased with how this session went, with opinions, concerns and, most importantly, solutions shared from one side of the table to the other, between businesses and between passionate people. Joining the panel for our first session were:

  • Tim Boag, Regional Managing Director (Natwest)
  • Ben Chubb, National Enterprise (Manager, Natwest)
  • Neil Crawford, Retail Development (Manager, Legal & General)
  • Matt Smith, Director (Centre for Entrepreneurs)
  • Philip Johnson, Director (Locate East Sussex)
  • Carole Dixon, CEO (Education Futures Trust)
  • Christina Ewbank, Chief Executive (Eastbourne Chamber of Commerce)

    Coastal Towns across the UK

Jenny Ardagh: There are some common themes across the country, and certainly some issues which need to be addressed. What do you think is the situation across the UK in terms of the vitality of coastal towns?

Matt Smith: The Centre for Social Justice and Think Tank put out a report in 2014, which makes for some fairly depressing reading. Across a lot of seaside towns, you see very high levels of deprivation – whether you’re looking at mortality rates, obesity, unemployment; any measure, seaside towns do worse than most others. Why? You’ve got very limited digital connectivity and infrastructure in these places, and actually over the past few decades, poverty has spread poverty. So, if anything, the situation is getting worse too. We, at Centre for Entrepreneurs put together a few reports last year telling the story of how entrepreneurs are starting to revive these seaside towns. If you look back on the history of a lot of these places, it was entrepreneurs who created them. Our ethos is therefore that entrepreneurs are the key to reviving them. When you start looking at the towns themselves, we find some pretty encouraging examples, not least in Hastings: some very interesting business ideas and opportunities that can be taken advantage of.

Carole Dixon: One of the things about coastal towns is a huge inter-generational issue – young people don’t have role models, which is essential for continuing the entrepreneurial community. We need to support young people on their way to becoming successful entrepreneurs and starting to think about business from a young age. If they haven’t got the evidence that it’s possible from role models, they won’t go anywhere.NatWest_120116_19

Jenny Ardagh: Have you seen any impact from Government schemes on coastal communities?

Carole Dixon: Yes, there has been an impact, looking at things like education across the whole country – but there has been particular investment in Hastings: we’ve got the university campus, we’ve got the college and academies. If you look right across the board in Hastings, right down from foundation stage through to key stage 4, you can see progress. That progress is fragile though and it’s about quality of teaching.

Philip Johnson: I think that’s one of the things that we’re finding: the colleges and the universities are now teaching the kinds of skills that are appealing to young people to actually encourage them to stay and perhaps set up in their town, rather than immediately head off to London, Bristol, Manchester, or wherever.


 The Current Situation in Hastings

Christina Ewbank: The situation in Hastings, as I see it, is that there are all sorts of great things happening. There are still areas of deprivation, but there are all sorts of plans afoot to improve what’s available to the people who live here. And all sorts of people, from the Chamber of Commerce right through to the council and local entrepreneurs, are working on finding reasons for people to come to Hastings.

Philip Johnson: Just before Christmas, the new link road opened up, connecting Hastings with Bexhill and providing not only shorter journey times but also reducing congestion in and around the town, and on the coastal road. Another very exciting development that Hastings, in particular, and Bexhill are looking forward to is the extension of the High Speed 1 rail service, so that direct trains will be able to run from Hastings, via Ashford, into St Pancras, reducing journey times to around an hour. And if that happens, that will have another really major impact on the town.

Matt Smith: I think one of the greatest opportunities in Hastings is a very entrepreneurial economic development team in the council. They have very entrepreneurial and, perhaps, risk-taking local politicians. And you can see the impact of that. So, The Source BMX track that’s opening soon, came from the entrepreneurs partnering with White Rock Trust to find the location, working with the local government and the MPs to secure the coastal community’s funding, and the council taking the risk of giving a ten-year lease to the entrepreneurs. And that will pay off.

Carole Dixon: I think, from the perspective of the local people, having that level of support—as you say, both at government level and the council—is crucial. So the council has continually worked to improve buildings, particularly along the seafront which, actually, has taken years and years of persistent working by the council. Likewise, the local minister is very much prepared to support local causes and is quite strong in linking schools with businesses.

Tim Boag: One of the things we’ve seen in a couple of places is a real ecosystem. And if you’ve got the ecosystem right, whether you’re starting up a business or whether it’s part of education or the local council, it has an amazing impact. It’s a lonely place for a lot of entrepreneurs and what they struggle with is not just getting their businesses off the ground, but once they do, the question is, how do I grow the business? That access to advice is something that is lacking. So, I think it’s great if you’ve got a minister, I think it’s great if you’ve got an entrepreneurial environment and you’ve got some politicians prepared to take risks, but it’s joining all of that up and connecting it that really helps, so everybody can support each other.

Jenny Ardagh: How is Locate East Sussex helping in Hastings?

Philip Johnson: Well, what Locate East Sussex has been able to do is work with local companies who are already here, to help them access some of the new properties that are being developed, particularly around the link road. This is creating the opportunity for companies to expand and develop bespoke factories and offices. Those are already being occupied by a number of local companies. What we’ve also been able to do is help companies, such as The Source, to access regional growth fund money, provided by the government, to help them expand. We’ve been able to identify areas through working with the local council, the economic development team, where growth can be encouraged further as well.NatWest_120116_13

Christina Ewbank: Infrastructure is a problem that needs facing. The train service out to London is going to be a game changer – to get people to visit the town and to spend their money, they need to be able to get here easily. The roads need improving, and we need to see ultra-high-speed broadband, which is really important for the businesses that are here to carry out their work.

Neil Crawford: Having a good relationship with the local council is massively important when it comes to tackling town issues like this. Legal & General has a very positive relationship with the council in Eastbourne, who are very proactive in trying to remove barriers and bureaucracy – they basically see themselves as a large capital investor in their town, and therefore ask what they can do to facilitate development coming forward. You would think that would be the case in any town, but we develop and buy throughout the UK and it very much isn’t the case. And it’s something that we need to look very long and hard at with Hastings, in terms of whether there are development opportunities. What is that local authority that we are going to partner with like?


 A South East Comparison

Neil Crawford: Legal & General are owners of the Arndale Centre in Eastbourne and, for a number of years now, we’ve been bringing forward a large extension to the Arndale Centre, which will hopefully go on site this year with a view to opening around Easter/Spring 2018. In addition to what we’re doing, as you rightly said, there are a lot of other things going on in the town centre. For example, there’s a lot being invested in Devonshire Park and the Winter Gardens. There’s been a lot of capital investment in terms of the public realm in the town centre and improving, in particular, the areas around the train station and the gateway of the station through which people enter the town, as well as making the centre a generally nicer environment to be in.

Carole Dixon: Infrastructure and transport links really are key because they’re two of the things that often get criticised in Hastings. So we talk about the schools and we talk about the hospital. And what a scrutiny review done by the task group that are working on that drew out was that it’s actually infrastructure that makes the difference to getting the right employees down, so you get good teachers, good doctors, good council members, and so on. It’s about change and attracting people down.

Neil Crawford: And I do think all of these things are interrelated and sometimes a town just needs a large catalyst – if you put one piece of the jigsaw in place then you’ve got a far better chance of delivering the rest.

NatWest_120116_23Ben Chubb: So, one of the things that we’ve done at NatWest is partnering up with Matt and Startup Britain, travelling around the UK on the NatWest Mobile Business Bus, which visited Brighton last summer. But what we’ve been doing specifically in the Southeast is working with colleges and schools. So it’s about bringing the idea of starting your own business enterprise, which encourages people to do that: to think differently, to enterprise, to encourage people to start their business and think differently. It’s about going out into those communities, trying to encourage them on that journey with us. And we’ve certainly done that in other parts of the UK, and I know we’ve already been talking about how we can get the bus down to this neck of the woods and how it can fit into some of the areas.

Tim Boag: In Brighton, the success rates for businesses that have gone through Espark (an entrepreneurial program that lasts 18 months) are in excess of 80% – whereas normally, 80% of startups fail. So I think if you can get 80% of your entrepreneurial businesses succeeding for more than 12 months, then you have a chance of creating employment. I think having that hub in Brighton has helped because it’s given us that focal point that brings the community together, and other people feed off of that. It won’t necessarily work in every town, but I think with the right sponsorship, it would start to attract people into that community and everybody can help each other.

Matt Smith: I think one of the really great ways to attract people, and therefore entrepreneurs, are these one-day festivals—so, Pirate Day, the Seafood and Wine Festival. I think one of the nice examples from elsewhere is the Vintage Festival in Morecambe, which was set up by Wayne Hemmingway of Red or Dead, starting maybe two or three years ago. They now have 40,000 people visiting Morecambe for a four-day weekend. It’s all things vintage: clothing, cars, music, anything you can imagine. The entrepreneurs follow the people, and I think when The Source opens, you will start getting the BMX crowds amd surrounding industries will develop.

Philip Johnson: I think this year Hastings also has, in addition to The Source, the opening of the new Pier and the 950th anniversary, of the Battle of Hastings. There’s a huge programme of fantastic cultural events happening towards the back end of the year, called Route 1066. That, again, will bring visitors in, not only from the rest of the Southeast but also from the rest of the UK and internationally, to showcase what’s going on here.

Christina Ewbank: Those events are really important, but the Chambers of Commerce are focusing on the period between October and February, when it gets a bit quieter. Eastbourne also had their first Christmas market this year and around 30,000 people came to it over a five-day period, and that’s the first one. So I would recommend to any other seaside town that they look at having a Christmas market because, if they get it right, it will bring people back.

Tim Boag: One of the interesting things from the CFE report was around identity, and coastal towns have that identity. So I think the events are great but, actually, having a sustainable identity is key.

Jenny Ardagh: In 2010, the Hastings and St Leonards Strategic Partnership was working with regional and local agencies to try and come up with a strategic plan for the next ten years, but we can see that there is still a lot of deprivation in Hastings and business turnover rates aren’t growing very much. Do we need a strategic master plan for the coastal communities across the South East?

Phillip Johnson: I think from an economic development perspective, Hastings is actually very well positioned. I think we need to work very hard to get that message out to other businesses in the Sussex area and highlight what a fantastic location, and entrepreneurial community there is in Hastings.

NatWest_120116_16Ben Chubb: On improving identity in Hastings, a couple of people have mentioned a few things. I believe education is key. I think with anything, when you’re moving house or you’re trying to attract people, people want to send their children to a good school. Working collaboratively to focus on education and structure, which will take a long time but is still always worth having a go with, is key here.

Carole Dixon: Improving that education in Hastings goes back to getting good teachers. It’s about getting support, as we have done for the academies, and trying to improve the opportunities in those academies and those schools for young people. And it can be done by businesses, going in and encouraging young people as best they can.

Christina Ewbank: Hastings can learn from other towns. Margate has been focusing on their identity quite hard; Eastbourne has actually employed a brand specialist to look at their identity and they got all of the local business people together to get them involved in understanding the identity of Eastbourne. A lot of people think Eastbourne is a retirement town; it’s not. So, we need to communicate to people that, actually, we do have a lot of exciting, younger people who are coming up with new ideas all the time for new businesses, and we need to support them.

Neil Crawford: I am often talking to national businesses, i.e. retailers, caterers, leisure occupiers, but I really struggle at times, even with Eastbourne, to sell its worth with just facts and figures. However, once I’ve managed to get people down to the town itself, they completely change their attitude. You’ve really got to create an identity and break through people’s preconceived ideas to get them there in the first place, and that’s the challenge. There are lots of great things about Hastings, as we’ve discussed today; it’s just trying to put them all together, market them and come up with the right image.

Tim Boag: Sometimes we talk about all the negatives, but actually if there are things that are working really well, for example having role models in business—individuals and companies— that will help retain skills, we should publicise them. I think finding those success stories and highlighting them to say this could be an attractive place, and putting all of those strengths and positives into the public domain is important.

Carole Dixon: And I think if we’re working strategically, perhaps, it might be a good idea to pick out some of the things that will work in the coastal towns – so that you are actually highlighting the positives. We know the issues that are there; that’s been brought to the fore. But how do we identify what works in these areas and what we can do to make a difference? That’s what we must highlight.

Philip Johnson: I think Neil’s point is very pertinent. In Hastings in particular, there is something of a gulf between the perception that people have of the town, who are non-visitors who don’t know the town, and the reality that’s here: a vibrant and exciting place to be. There are a lot of positives that, as Locate East Sussex, we need to work very hard to communicate, in particular to highlight all of the benefits of being based on the coast in beautiful East Sussex.

Matt Smith: I think the future is very much linked to the strength of the local networks. Once the businesses are plugged in, they will naturally support themselves. I think part of the overall identity and the brand, looking outwards, has to celebrate Hastings’ entrepreneurial drive and actually outline how it rivals, and perhaps differs from, some of the other competitors.NatWest_120116_09

Christina Ewbank: Each town needs a capture team, and on that capture team there should be the leader of the council, the Chief Executive of the council, one of the senior planning officers, the Chamber of Commerce, a variety of local business ambassadors that work with Locate East Sussex and other similar organisations, and the Chamber of Commerce team as well. And they should be prepared to communicate with, visit and encourage new businesses to come to the town.

Tim Boag: My view is that collaboration and cooperation will yield more results more quickly than trying to do it on your own. I think having a louder voice, a bigger stakeholder group on those core, bigger strategic issues will help a number of communities, not just one or two in isolation. Collaboration is key, but that doesn’t mean to say that you don’t have your own priorities and identities that you need to protect and build on as well.

Christina Ewbank: Aristotle said that the sum of the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Even though Eastbourne competes with Hastings, Uckfield competes with Eastbourne and so on, ACES finds that when we work together, we can get more people to come to the area from the rest of the world, rather than just fight amongst ourselves. It’s much better if we work together.

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