Joan Smith: Who'd want to be beside the seaside?

Because English weather is so unpredictable, resorts developed features to be enjoyed in the cold and rain - cheap food, copious pubs and so-called amusement arcades
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The Independent Online

Some years ago, when he was still a junior minister, David Miliband offered to send me a copy of South Tyneside's cultural strategy. I was astonished and excited: my mother lives in Miliband's South Shields constituency, which I visited frequently as a child, and I remember it as a rather dismal place with lots of fish and chip shops and a dingy slot-machine arcade. I've been back plenty of times since and now it's even more run-down, having lost most of its traditional industries including the mines where my paternal grandfather worked.

South Shields was never in the same league as Hastings, the seaside resort whose Victorian pier burned down earlier this week. Tuesday's conflagration added Hastings to a sad series of seaside casualties: Brighton's grade-II listed West Pier, which burned down in 2003; Southend Pier, which was destroyed by fire in 2005, and Weston-super-Mare's Grand Pier, which went in 2008. There's something about these dramatically blazing structures, and the blackened wreckage which is all that remains of them, that seems to symbolise the seemingly inexorable decline of England's coastal resorts, from Blackpool in the North-west to Hastings in the South.

Even before one of its landmarks was reduced to a smoking ruin, Hastings had high unemployment and a thriving illegal drugs culture; in 2007, the town came 31st out of 374 local authorities on the index of multiple deprivation, placing it within the bottom 10 per cent of deprived areas in England. As it declines as a tourist destination, more and more people (some 43 per cent) work in the public sector, meaning that the town is likely to be hit hard by the Coalition government's cuts. It will soon have a new art gallery, housing the Jerwood art collection, but even that's controversial; it's going to be sited next door to the distinctive black fishermen's huts on the Stade in the old part of town, a position that's caused uproar among local people.

At the other end of the country, South Shields now boasts an innovative art installation by the Spanish sculptor Juan Munoz, consisting of 22 life-size bronze figures on one of the town's beaches, but that hasn't proved universally popular either. Its official title is "Conversation Piece" – the figures appear to be in the middle of animated conversations with each other – but they're known locally as "the weebles" and have caused much derision among the older generation.

I'm all for public art and I don't see why it should be confined to affluent areas of cities, but a cultural strategy can't fix the problems of declining economies and decaying infrastructure. When I got my first job on a newspaper in Blackpool, I felt as if I'd been catapulted back to the 1950s; the town's attractions were cheap, garish and not very cheerful, while the middle-classes gravitated to genteel Lytham St Annes. The town's economy was based on the existence of an industrial working class which has all but vanished, factory workers from Glasgow or Manchester who were given two weeks off each summer and arrived at the railway station en masse. Now working people can take their holidays when they like, and rail fares are so high that they might as well take a budget airline to Malaga.

Even when politicians decide it's prudent to be seen taking their holidays in England, they tend to choose Cornwall over Brighton, Bournemouth or Scarborough; I just can't imagine David and Samantha Cameron strolling hand in hand along the seafront in Blackpool. And the glory days of seaside party conferences are just about over, transferred to purpose-built conference complexes in Birmingham or Manchester. Some of the drama has gone out of them as a result, but I can see why delegates prefer big cities with boutique hotels and cosmopolitan restaurants.

In recent months I've visited Scarborough, Hastings and Brighton, and in some areas of town it's impossible to escape the pervasive smell of frying fat, as though there's an unbreakable link between the seaside, fast food and cafés with formica tables. This is the weird thing about the traditional English seaside holiday: most of it doesn't have much connection with the sea. Perhaps because English weather is so unpredictable, seaside towns developed features that could be enjoyed in the cold and rain, including cheap food, copious pubs and so-called amusement arcades; Blackpool has beautiful beaches, especially below the cliffs to the north of the town, but it became famous for its Tower, Illuminations and the Pleasure Beach (actually a funfair). You could spend a couple of weeks at the seaside without using up too much cash and never tasting fish without batter, a situation that's hardly changed now that most of the population can afford holidays abroad.

England doesn't have a Biarritz or a St Tropez; it hasn't even got a Sitges or a Salobrena, two of my favourite Spanish seaside towns where you can eat freshly-caught fish in unpretentious establishments on the beach. This country's seaside towns are trapped in a time warp, populated by old-fashioned B&Bs that can't compare in facilities with their Continental counterparts, while long stretches of fast-food establishments make the seafront look spectacularly down-at-heel. English seaside resorts are a kind of working-class theme park which could be situated almost anywhere and consequently take little advantage of their geographical location.

What's needed to revitalise the English seaside is a bold approach that puts the sea and the beach at the very heart of the town's amenities. It's an amazing fact that what people expect when they arrive in an English resort (and indeed what they get) is a dismal row of tattoo parlours, slot machine arcades and takeaway food shops. What happened to the entrepreneurial spirit that gave us piers, oyster bars, art-deco lidos and even the Brighton Pavilion? Art galleries and seaside art installations are a start, but we also need seafood restaurants, modern hotels and a range of activities including sea fishing and boat trips. Otherwise, what's happening to English seaside towns really will turn into the end of-the-pier show.