Sussex is an affluent county, but Brighton is a fake. If you are a visitor, you see a wealthy town. It isn't

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The Independent Online
CHRIS KNEATH lost his job cooking hotdogs in a snack bar in Brighton, his home town, at the end of the 1990 summer season. He has not worked since.

'On a bad day it makes you want to cry, on a good day it makes you want to spit,' he said. 'For so many ordinary working people there is no future here. Once we had the railways and some manufacturing, now it's nursing homes, financial services, catering, gambling. I am a builder. Even the summer catering was pretty menial.'

For the visitors, Brighton remains a town of Regency squares, antique shops and the pier. Buskers, beggars and the homeless offer the only clue to the 'other Brighton' - the one where joblessness among the 387,000 population in the town and its hinterland is nearly 13 per cent, the 51st highest in Britain. In the Pier and Regency wards, behind the seafront hotels, it exceeds 30 per cent.

Brighton is not an exception. Some of the most famous names of the English holiday trade have emerged as areas worst hit by the recession. Torbay, Clacton, Great Yarmouth and Skegness suffer chronic unemployment. It is almost as bad in Bournemouth, Weston-super-Mare, Minehead, Aberystwyth, Blackpool, Dover and Deal, Eastbourne, Scarborough and Filey.

Mr Kneath, 46, acknowledges the contradiction. 'Sussex is an affluent county, but Brighton is a fake. It's a fraud. You go into the town and there are all these little shops with pounds 300 pairs of boots and pounds 100 jeans, with Bentleys, Porsches and big Mercs parked outside. If you are a visitor, you see a wealthy town. It isn't. Walk beyond The Lanes and look about the streets. See how many people are sleeping rough or dossing in derelict buildings. Look at the wooden boards covering the cafes and the 'opening soon' signs in the charity shops.'

Brighton has no tradition of manufacturing. With the decline of the British 'bucket-and- spade' holiday in the 1970s, the town turned to the conference trade. The 1980s recession forced many small local manufacturers to close, but banks, building societies and insurance companies moved in. Now, the rationalisation of the financial-services sector has left the town with little to fall back on.

Unemployment rates were below the national average in January 1990, but had exceeded it by June 1991. Last year they were higher than in Newcastle upon Tyne, Glasgow and Hull.

Graham Tubb, a policy and management executive at East Sussex County Council, explains: 'As a seaside resort in a region with poor road and rail infrastructure, we have always had little inward manufacturing investment. We didn't feel the pinch so much in the 1980s, but now that firms like Peat Marwick and Prudential Assurance have moved out, and those that are staying, such as American Express, are shedding jobs, we have suffered very badly. But there has been a tendency to dismiss our protests as griping because we are part of the supposedly affluent South-east.'

Policy-makers may now be starting to take note. According to figures from the House of Commons library, Brighton, Clacton, Folkestone, Great Yarmouth, the Isle of Wight, Skegness and Torbay qualify on three out of the four measures likely to be used by the Government to award grants worth hundreds of millions of pounds under the Assisted Area Status scheme.

Derek Fatchett, Labour's industry spokesman, who will raise the issue of seaside Britain in the Commons this week, argues: 'The domestic tourist industry is feeling the squeeze and the service industries are shedding jobs. Formerly prosperous coastal towns in the South of England are now experiencing unemployment rates higher than in large parts of the industrial North. This new geography of Conservative economic failure is posing huge problems.'

The last Assisted Areas map, drawn up in 1984, covered 35 per cent of the working population but excluded the South, east of Devon and Cornwall. A decision on the new map has been deferred until after the Government's coal review, but special pleading from Tory MPs in the South has increased pressure on the Department of Trade and Industry to include resorts.

In Brighton, council officers who helped draw up a bid for Assisted Area status insist that the town is well placed to benefit from aid. Martin Taylor, principal economic development officer at Brighton council, said: 'We have excellent quality of life, good office and industrial sites, a skilled workforce with 17,000 students a year at Brighton and Sussex universities and the College of Technology, and we are near Gatwick airport. If we can compete on a level playing-field with areas like Cardiff, which have pipped us at the post with incentives for investors, we can turn it round. South Wales is not in big trouble any more. The Government should be playing to our strengths, not the perceived weaknesses of others.'

For some, in particular the young, regeneration cannot come too soon. Daniel Bracey, 18, and Grant Pemmy, 17, are among hundreds of young people who last week applied for Easter and summer work in the pier arcades. They do not expect to get one of the handful of jobs on offer.

'There are so many people of my age who are looking for work. I'd do anything, cleaning, whatever,' said Mr Bracey, 'but there is nothing. I don't even fit the description of the blokes the police want for identity parade work.'

(Photograph omitted)