Poverty existing cheek by jowl alongside breathtaking vistas can be found throughout the world. Indeed, poverty is one of those terms that is as subjective as it is relative, depending where on earth one is referring. Many coastal areas the length and breadth of Britain are showing not just glimmers of underlying hardship, but abject conspicuousness . Although not putting them in the same league as a favela, township, or ghetto, the relative living conditions and shocking examples of post-war planning endured by many gives traction to the opinions of those who assert the gap between the country’s rich and poor in modern-day Britain has never been wider.
A recent visit to Rhyl, one of several resorts on the North Wales coastline whose raison d’etre is to entertain the captive audiences staying in a a profusion of local caravan sites, highlighted in microcosm the shocking decay suffered by many holiday resorts that is typically obviously just five minutes inland from promenade glitz and merriment. Rhyl has made considerable effort, and continues to do so, with its seafront, melding traditional arcades with some pleasing landscaping and family attractions. Money has undeniably been spent, at least on land where the local council has full say-so. In keeping with innumerably similar coastal areas the problems are with the land and buildings in private hands; the properties outside of local authority control, are in the main what uglify towns like Rhyl.
Period properties of significant size are often divided into low-rent Houses of Multiple Occupation(HMOs), housing benefit claimants often passed on by neighbouring municipalities. This is not an exercise in labeling all claimants as indolent dossers, but the lack of due care and attention afforded to many swathes of side and back streets in our coastal towns is often the result of absentee, slum landlords intent on picking up housing benefit from tenants without any inward investment into their properties, aside from the absolute bare minimum. This isn’t just Rhyl but think Blackpool, St. Annes, Morecambe, areas of Southport, and so on. Before encountering the scary squalor in some of the streets close to Rhyl’s railway and bus stations, it should be noted that as a shopping centre – a buffer zone between the promenade and the inner wards of decay – it has considerable merit. Along with investment in its promenade, there can be little doubt that the local council continue to fight hard to make the best of what is in its power.
I found in Rhyl two cafes – one that might be bracketed both pejoratively and complimentary as a greasy spoon – where prices were refreshingly(and startlingly) low but did not reflect on the quality of fare, nor the cleanliness of its environs. Although in evidence Costa, nor any other generic gourmet coffee brand, is a perfect fit for the likes of Rhyl. Typically, those who stay in one of the many holiday camps that carpet the coastal strip in nearby Towyn and Kinmel Bay are not sufficiently moneyed to take a family of four into such an establishment, and be relieved of nigh on £15 for a ‘meh’ product. Sidoli’s cafe on Wellington Street, close to a covered market and Cara’s Cafe, in the bowels of another covered market redolent of another era, the Queen’s on the promenade, have astonishingly low priced but superb-quality fare in surroundings reminiscent with the coastal holiday’s heyday. In just two examples of what I assume is a mere sample of perhaps many more there is an absence of being ripped off for products that are often far less than the sum of their retail price.
Although notwithstanding the lengthy and expensive processes of enforcement and compulsory purchase, the hands of local council’s throughout Britain are often tied, but of course the uglification of coastal areas can sometimes be squarely blamed upon planning departments intent on stimulating the local economy, but only end up endorsing what is in effect a charter for visual blight. Not content with the planning and design errors of the fifties and sixties that thrust upon areas such as the North Wales coast rows of tightly packed, low quality non-standard construction bungalows designed for retirees from the industrial north, a visual abomination of no less equal proportions is the at times as-far-as-the-eye-can-see carpet of static caravan parks, in effect housing Rhyl and nearby Prestatyn’s customers. For shock value these are best viewed from the top deck of the Rhyl-Llandudno bus, giving levels of shock and awe normally associated with the more positive aspects of North Wales and its Snowdonia and Clwydian ranges.
Passing through the areas of Towyn and Kinmel Bay leaves one feeling dispirited and saddened by the disfigurement of the coastline, all in the name of housing tourists attracted to North Wales for reasons far removed from the visual abomination in which they will stay. Perhaps though they don’t see it that way, and are content with escaping for a few days from the less salubrious areas of Liverpool, Manchester, and Stoke on Trent.
There are many reasons, both historic and contemporary, that have precipitated the levels of poverty seen in many of Britain’s coastal regions. The advent of cheap package holidays necessitated the need to complete with pile it high, sell it cheap caravan-style accommodation, although even some of these holidays are now far from what one would term as cheap. The loss of much heavy industry has created ghost towns in many of North Wales’ inland villages and towns, often juxtaposing poverty with some of the region’s finest scenery. The burgeoning but unwieldy welfare state, initially conceived to temporarily aid those most in need has become a default way of life for perhaps three generations of families, none of whom have seen gainful work in decades or at all. In such an economic climate – there is always a beneficiary during even the most straightened of circumstances – unscrupulous landlords take the opportunity to hoover up decaying properties for a song, mindful that local authorities have to choose between the devil and the deep blue sea of empty or occupied, but unmaintained buildings.
Serving only to further ghettoize areas suffering from the various tentacles of economic inactivity and deprivation, we see a further spiralling downwards of living and moral standards, and aspiration, often set amid a backdrop of alcohol and drug dependency. Until relatively recently such social problems were in some areas described as residing in Hidden Britain, often where poverty was previously neither seen nor heard because apparently, it didn’t exist. Whether it did or not is moot, but for what once was concealed, is now very much conspicuous. North Wales, synonymous with its coastline, mountains, and plethora of castles has proved to be anything but immune to the social problems besieging today’s Britain.