Seaside town prepares for economic storm: Malcolm Pithers reports on the importance of development status to a small fishing community

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The Independent Online
KEVIN BUICK has spent all his working life at sea, one of a shrinking band of fishermen still trying to earn a living out of Whitby in North Yorkshire.

These days he goes 'partying' as often as the recession and the weather allow, taking groups of amateur anglers out for a day's fishing. He is also having to think about 'going back to sea seriously' to earn his living as the day trippers dwindle in numbers.

'They used to book well in advance but now they just turn up and hope you can take them out. I have been thinking about converting the boat back again so I can go out and fish with a small crew. Trouble is you are almost drowned by the restrictions before you begin. And on shore there is no work at all,' he says.

An angler's cast away from Kevin Buick's boat in the harbour, the Whitby task force office is busy preparing for the economic equivalent of a gale warning. The Government has ordered a review of assisted areas in Britain and consultations with the Department of Trade and Industry, the Scottish Office and Welsh Office are due to end next month.

People in Whitby fear that after the review they will lose their development status which has been a long and vital lifeline for the town's economic survival.

Whitby, on the surface a thriving east coast tourist spot, badly needs financial assistance to attract new industries as old ones either collapse or are greatly reduced in size.

The status is important to the local economy because it provides access to regional enterprise grants, Government-funded business schemes and makes it far more likely that the town will be included in European Community funding.

Michael Padgham, manager of the town's task force office, is fearful of what will happen to Whitby if the assistance is stopped. 'The local economy would be stifled if we lose our full status. Companies would just not move here and the effect would be devastating in an area that is already suffering.

'Whitby is isolated and despite the tourist trade it is in a very difficult situation. If the Government decides to take away the status or downgrade us then Whitby will never be the same again. It is difficult enough to attract companies to the area in the first place.'

The outsider's view of Whitby (pop: 14,000) is of an idyllic seaside town hiding on the edge of the North Yorkshire moors. It is perhaps one of the least changed of England's oldest harbour towns, trading on its rough charm, famous for its links with Bram Stoker and the explorer James Cook.

Families from Yorkshire, the North-east and, curiously, North Wales, have travelled there for generations. But it is easy to see how Whitby totters on the brink of economic decline. For most companies, there needs to be a huge incentive to relocate there either from the North-east or other parts of Yorkshire.

Ray Williamson, the principal planning and economic development officer with Scarborough borough council, the authority responsible for Whitby, says: 'The difficulty of getting inward investment into this type of place is very considerable so it is very important that we have that grant assistance available. It is an area of very high unemployment.'

The council is to formally lobby the Government next month over the issue. Whitby has the highest unemployment rate in North Yorkshire, with young people being forced to move away to try to find work elsewhere.

One couple, aged 21 and 19, who are staying and who do not wish to be named, are on income support. They are expecting their first child this autumn and the day they decided to take out a mortgage on a house near Whitby a redundancy notice was served on the young bricklayer.

He is now on a re-training course and his wife-to-be is having to give up her part-time job as a hairdresser. They face just as difficult a struggle as the fisherman Kevin Buick, with no sign of any economic relief on the horizon.

(Photograph omitted)