Torquay fears losing to former ‘red wall’ areas

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Kate proctor

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It may be grim in the north, but it is not a picnic in parts of the southwest, as Torquay leaders insist that the seasonal nature of local jobs and the housing shortage social make the city equally worthy of investment, writes Kate Proctor.

It was once a glamorous seaside resort where 1960s stars spent their summers, but despite palm trees and miles of gorgeous golden sands, the resort town of Torquay – and the wider area of ​​Torbay it inhabits – suffers from more often discussed problems. in connection with the northern towns “left behind”.

These problems: low wages, brain drain to the cities, lack of quality jobs and aspirations, aging of the population as well as child poverty, are felt just as keenly in the south-west as in the former ” red wall ‘domains.

Part of the English Riviera – which enjoys more hours of sunshine than anywhere else in the UK – the city has suffered from decades of neglect, not to mention the reputational damage caused by the television series Fawlty towers (inspired by an eccentric hotelier in Torquay).

But despite its difficulties, the region is trying to reinvent itself as a tourist destination and a city worthy of the new century. If “leveling” is about improving infrastructure, then that ticks a lot of the boxes. It recently received £ 22million from the government’s Towns Fund to improve the harbor, a local park and the crumbling pavilion. The idea is to get a new station at Edginswell paid for by £ 8 million from the New Stations Fund.

If the government seeks to expand its domain elsewhere in the country, it should not all look north

Five years ago, the Kingskerswell bypass was opened, reducing travel times to nearby Newton Abbot. Singapore-based group Fragrance is looking to open a multi-million pound five-star spa hotel on the site of the former Palace Hotel. A £ 400million reconstruction of Torbay Hospital is underway.

Steve Darling, the Liberal Democrat leader of the Torbay Council, is adamant that new opportunities are needed if the place is to level up, but they must be available year round to balance seasonal work based on the tourism. The city is trying to reposition itself as a more bourgeois holiday destination so that part-time, evening and weekend work continues. However, he finds it frustrating that the North receives so much attention when it comes to high-paying public service jobs.

“It is an extreme concern for us that there seems to be this concentration [on the north]. We hear that part of the treasury is located near Leeds, and in fact in the west of the country we need this investment from the potential ministries that are relocated here.

“If the government is looking to expand its domain elsewhere in the country, it should not all look north,” he said.

“The outskirts of seaside resorts are always a challenge. We need jobs all year round, and while we need to reorient the tourism industry to cover the shoulder months, we need to make sure that the other stresses in our economy thrive.

Torquay has an electronics and photonics industry nearby, which Darling described as “bombproof” during Covid in terms of stability. The highly acclaimed South Devon College has provided the electronics engineering courses needed to work in the field, and it also specializes in healthcare.

Tory Torbay MP Kevin Foster agrees that part of the upgrade has to be creating a cycle from early years to skilled, local work.

He said he wanted to see a “role model in the bay” of taking a child to nursery, possibly from a family that has had challenges, going to primary and secondary school, and then to make a smooth transition to college.

“It creates that little flow that we hope then creates some really talented people coming out the door. It’s part of the upgrade program, ”he said.

Other items that will unlock Torquay’s potential in the future are significant infrastructure spending, such as the Dawlish Seawall to protect the train line from destruction by powerful waves.

He jokes: “To see when the trains are running, you have to check the tide times and navigation forecasts, as well as the train times… that’s not really the best message for investing in the region.

However, despite the enviable spending on infrastructure, and a clear vision and symmetry between local leaders and educational institutions on improving the skills of young people, poverty levels are high. Torbay is the most disadvantaged local authority in the South West and one in three people in the region live in places that are among the bottom 20% of England.

It also has the second highest number of “children in care” in England – only Blackpool is higher. Darling says children’s services have historically exhausted the council’s budget, although there may be an under-spending of £ 7million this year, and his council’s slogan “turns the tide of poverty”.

Why are the levels so high? Precarious work, potentially. The seasonal nature of local jobs in the tourism industry means that income can be unreliable and fluctuate throughout the year. There is also a shortage of social housing – less than half the number of social rental housing available compared to the rest of England.

“What happens is the private sector is stepping in. While the majority are good landlords, you get less good landlords, so you end up with a bit of living space,” Darling said.

Domestic violence rates recorded in 2019 were the highest in the South West, and even higher than some London boroughs. The number of children receiving free school meals has increased by 20% since the start of the pandemic. In addition, by 2030, one in three people will be 65 or older.

Invest in communities to prepare young people to be economically active

Jonathan Oliverio, chief executive of the Youth Genesis Trust, a youth work organization typically working with more than 200 young people in the region per week, said levels of children in care are high, historically because a number so-called “struggling families” have been displaced in the region under the mistaken assumption that living by the sea would in itself be enough to change people’s lives. There are still fairly entrenched deprivations and he said there are children in Torquay who will not even have visited the beach.

He said: “We are talking about leveling cities so that there is a better and stronger economy, but then it is about getting people there. Many of the people we work with have mental health and self-esteem issues. It’s about living with overcrowded housing. The aspirations are quite low.

“In terms of upgrading, in addition to having an urban plan, it is a community plan that is necessary. Economic regeneration is great, but I also think there needs to be investments in communities to bring these young people to the point where they are ready to be economically active.

A tangible improvement would be affordable bus fares and more frequent service, especially number 12 which runs through Torbay, he said. Sometimes the barriers to leveling up are smaller than you might think, he suggests.

“One of the things young people are saying is that it allows people to get around Torbay with a day ticket. It’s good to have a very good road network, but unless you can afford a car, it doesn’t make sense. It would be an upgrade – more affordable transportation, ”he said.

Foster, who was elected MP for Torbay (which covers Torquay and Paignton) in 2015, believes part of the leveling could be the relocation of jobs from London – the type that can be done from a laptop computer to the House. Fortunately, the area has had decent broadband for several years.

He said: “It gives real opportunities for high value roles and people not to spend two hours walking into the office. Or pay exorbitant rent for a tiny apartment because it’s on the corner of a particular location.

“You can work for your company in London or in the civil service. Then turn off your laptop on a summer evening at 5 p.m. and head to Paignton Beach.

But even though ‘leveling’ is the common language of government, do locals really feel their region could be on a par with the rest of the South West or other parts of the UK?

“I think it’s a bit of a turning point,” Foster said, with excavations underway at a Towns Fund project in Upton Park.

“Most people are a little cynical because there have been so many claims in previous periods, and on many funding streams prior to 2010, Torbay was not normally ranked very high. [People think] is it just a flash in the pan.

“But there is definitely a feeling that things are changing.”

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