In 1937, George Orwell wrote The Road to Wigan Pier. It revealed the dreadful social and working conditions of towns in the north of England. Eighty years later, northern towns are again under the spotlight as the government promises to compensate for the effects of ten years of austerity with levelling up. What’s actually happening?
Cleethorpes in north east Lincolnshire is a town of around 40,000 people on the edge of the Humber estuary. It has good transport connections; the A16, A18 and M180 all run there. Three train companies – TransPennine Express, East Midlands Railway and Northern Rail connect to northern and midland towns and cities and beyond. Humberside and Robin Hood airports are within easy reach. Despite its geographical location, it’s far from isolated.
From fishing to tourism
Historically, it was dependent on fishing for its livelihood, but tourism in the Victorian era turned it into a seaside resort. Today, when you emerge from the station on to the seafront, you find a pier, a popular – and clean – sandy beach and a collection of games arcades, small cafes and shops selling seaside paraphernalia. A little further on is the miniature railway and a leisure centre. It has a compact town centre with independent shops that seem well used and a decent country park close to a smart-looking residential area with well-cared for houses. There’s an air of solid prosperity and very little litter to be seen.
The impression is that it’s a nice place to live. But north east Lincolnshire is one of the most deprived areas of the UK and in 2016, Cleethorpes voted 70% to leave the EU. Its neighbour Grimsby also voted heavily to leave. Perhaps the people in both places believed the rhetoric, especially about the return of the fishing industry.
It’s a prime area for levelling up and the local authority is already developing regeneration plans: £6.7m has been secured to be spent by 2022 with the declared ambition to make Cleethorpes ‘a year-round visitor destination’. They have just advertised for someone to lead the next phase of the scheme, presumably to take advantage of the rather grandiose-sounding UK Shared Prosperity Fund which is intended to replace the money previously provided by the EU.
Plenty to do
There’s a bit to do. Next to the station is an empty building site. It appears to have been the location of a pub which has been demolished, to be replaced by a building in the art deco style whose purpose isn’t clear. The hoarding surrounding the site carries the government’s logo and – prominently displayed – the EU Regional Development Fund (EURDF) logo. This is likely to be part of the final round of EURDF funding the area will receive. When I asked locals what was planned, I was told the authorities couldn’t make up their minds. One woman thought it was going to be ‘small trinket shops’. One wonders how many sustainable, well paid jobs that will create, especially for young people.
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Another idea is to revitalise the seafront. Some work has been done: exercise furniture has been installed on the North Promenade and various pieces of public art are planned, including a controversial 22 metre silver palm tree. Defending the idea, a local councillor said, “love it or hate it, it’s a talking point. If The White Palm lures you down the North Prom, don’t forget to buy a stick of rock, or an ice cream, then it’s job done!” It appears many people did hate it, describing it as a ‘laughing stock’. In June this year, the project was dropped.
The pier, complete with ‘the largest fish and chip shop in the world’ appears in much better condition than the tired-looking arcades and cafes nearby which aren’t the best advert for a town looking to welcome visitors. Another strand of the regeneration plan aims to restore the Victorian buildings in the town, particularly the ironwork that encloses balconies on one of the older streets. Work was meant to get under way in 2020 but, needless to say, nothing’s happened so far.
I liked Cleethorpes but found myself asking if this would be enough for its residents. The town gave its MP, Martin Vickers, a 21,500 majority in 2019 on the strength of getting Brexit done and in 2020, he celebrated Britain’s final departure from the EU. Mr Vickers is a prominent and enthusiastic Brexiter, his support of Boris Johnson is unqualified. He believes strongly in the idea that businesses in his local area will benefit from the freeport status conferred upon the Humber region despite concerns about their integrity and the impact they will actually have on local business.
Since then he’s helped deliver his constituents rising energy prices, tax increases, benefit cuts, no improvement to the fishing industry, food shortages, the crisis in the haulage industry and no meaningful trade deals. Rather than levelling up (which the government doesn’t even seem to have clearly defined) that’s more like razing to the ground and cannot all be explained by Covid. With growing numbers of people and businesses around the country now saying Brexit is causing more problems than it solves and the staunchly Tory local council warning of very choppy waters ahead, it does make you wonder how forgiving Cleethorpes will be to Mr Vickers if levelling up amounts to no more than a slogan.