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We need to reimagine the UK’s coastal communities into a coastal powerhouse

The British public vote for Brexit sent shockwaves around major cities throughout the globe. However, in many of our coastal communities in the UK, the result came as no surprise at all. Indeed, out of the top five areas to vote leave in the country, every single one was a coastal town or city. Compare this with the top 5 spots to vote remain in England, Scotland and Wales, where no coastal constituency features on the list.

For many of these coastal communities, people feel left out and left behind. Traditional industries have often departed and whilst some new sectors such as renewable energy have arrived many of the lost jobs and investment have not been replaced. A report commissioned by the BBC found the mean salary in Scarborough in 2016 was £19,925, nearly a third less than the national average, while data from the Office for National Statistics showed that in 2016 economic output per person was 26% lower in coastal communities than non-coastal communities. Across a range of economic and social indicators we are seeing a widening gap between many coastal communities and their inland counterparts. In the face of such change and challenge it is perhaps not surprising that coastal communities voted for change.

For the United Kingdom, these coastal communities have long served as the historical heartbeat of the nation and, despite a long and varied history, the UK has always had one constant. It has been inextricably tied to the seas that surround it.

As an island nation, the sea has always been a provider of prosperity and partnership, and there’s never been a more important time to unleash the sector and transform the fortunes of our coastal communities. Maritime UK figures estimate that the sector supports £40 billion in value to the UK economy in 2015 and supports a million jobs across the UK. The sector has a unique capacity to kick-start a renaissance in the fortunes of those communities and reawaken a new coastal powerhouse.

The potential is enormous. The maritime sector boasts productivity 53% higher than the national average. On top of this the average maritime sector job generated £77,897 in value to the economy in 2015. Compare this to the average job in the UK economy which generated £50,800, that’s a third less.

The ports sector alone already invests more than £600 million per year in coastal areas and is ambitious to do more. The launch last week of the RRS David Attenborough is a fitting example of the UK’s high value ship building capabilities, alongside the UK’s world-leading superyacht manufacturers. Through these industries the Maritime sector is committed to high skill levels and high-quality apprenticeships, providing year round jobs. And developing skills and infrastructure benefits not only the maritime sector – the new road to a boat yard or port is also the one that brings in more tourists or takes out manufactured goods and food products.

The process to transform these communities isn’t some far flung pipe dream, nor does it require huge investment and resources from government. It does, however, require a number of specific changes and support for initiatives to unlock private investment and deliver growth. The three key areas that require change are:

  1. Investment in connectivity and infrastructure
  2. Creation of a pro jobs and trade planning environment to boost investment and development
  3. Support for industry-led maritime clusters embracing local government and academia

British industry understands the breadth of the opportunity available if we can mobilise our coastal communities and is working collaboratively to realise it. The maritime sector is developing a compelling case to government via an industrial strategy sector deal. Government ministers have signalled their support and we now have the very real opportunity to transform our coastal communities.

This transformation will require more than direct boosts to investment and jobs around our coast – it requires us to look to the technologies of the future to place these communities at the cutting edge of the sector. This is already happening. The maritime sector is bidding to co-fund a new national centre for maritime research and innovation which would bring together the UK’s leading maritime academic and research institutions, most based in coastal communities.

Together, industry and academia can tackle challenges including autonomous and green shipping as well as how we clean plastics from the oceans. Government’s own Foresight Future of the Sea report predicts the global ocean economy will total a staggering $3trillion by 2030. By leveraging existing expertise and collaborating in a joined-up way, we can win a sizeable slice of the international pie for the UK and our coastal communities.

We continue to argue for a pragmatic and sensible Brexit deal, and recently welcomed the Chequers accord. However, regardless of what type of relationship we secure with Europe, it will become increasingly important to leverage our international comparative advantage in those sectors in which we excel. Maritime is certainly one of these sectors.

Our ability to reimagine coastal communities into a coastal powerhouse not only looks to redress socio-economic imbalances, but to fuel major growth across the whole country in a natural British industry. Spreading growth across each region can bring the country together, ensuring we tackle our future as an outward-looking global trading maritime nation, together. Our coastal powerhouses hold the key to a truly prosperous, global Britain.

Ben Murray is director of Maritime UK and Tim Morris is CEO of the UK Major Ports Group

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