John Harris

Journalist & Author

Morecambe has too much history to be one of austerity’s casualties | John Harris

The failed regeneration of Morecambe is a depressing example of how the private sector cannot thrive if the state’s hacked back

Eva Skawinska is 47. In her native Warsaw she worked as a hospital radiographer. Now she runs a restaurant on Morecambe seafront – Eva’s, where the standard of food surpasses most of what you’d find in the average British town centre.

One problem: the business sits in the midst of what amounts to a huge but half-finished regeneration project, dealt blows by the recession and the austerity that has followed it. “We opened at a bad time,” she says – and she’s not wrong. If takings stay much the same, she tells me, Eva’s won’t remain open for much longer than a year.

Her story is presumably the same as that of scores of small-scale risk takers who took a punt on the revival of the English seaside – witness optimistic pre-recession talk about Hastings, Margate, Folkestone and more. The hope was that dreams dangled in property columns and Sunday supplements might somehow take flight, but they have often plunged earthwards, like those infamous birdmen on Bognor pier.

I pitched up in Morecambe on the back of an online Anywhere but Westminster discussion where one of the most interesting posts was left by a Guardian user named Tiojo: as it turned out, a fan of the town who has been here as a tourist. “What about Morecambe and its attempt to reinvent itself as the Deauville of the Irish Sea coast?” he asked. His post paid tribute to the Midland Hotel – the art deco beauty recently restored by the Manchester-born developers Urban Splash, which offers a gleaming local example of high-end hospitality. But he then asked a couple of awkward questions. “Where are the small-scale entrepreneurs to open bistros, wine bars and boutiques that are a big part of today’s holiday? What of the galleries and performance spaces that attract visitors to all sorts of places?”

Quite so. As a child I used to come to Morecambe in the early 1980s, when it offered a human-sized alternative to Blackpool and had the largest big wheel in Europe, plonked in a wild west-themed amusement park called Frontierland. The latter is now derelict: a rusting, fenced-off dead zone owned by the supermarket Morrisons, which has apparently banked the land pending an upturn.

Morecambe’s promenade, by contrast, has been splendidly spruced up. But as plenty of other, boarded-up places confirm, things are not good at all. The so-called West End, a grid of streets at one end of the front, is Morecambe’s predicament in microcosm. Once a thriving cluster of hotels and B&Bs, it has become ridden with social problems, as its low-rent accommodation filled up with people parked on incapacity benefit. But around 2005 there was bold talk of its reinvention as a pleasant location for family homes.

A good deal of that effort has now stalled. The West End’s regeneration was meant to be spread over 15 years, but the crash happened three years in, and the money started to run out. The abolition of a body called the North West Regional Leaders Board cost the West End around £1m. The Homes and Communities Agency promised £2.3m but that cash is no longer available. The winding up of the Northwest Regional Development Agency kiboshed a £750,000 contribution to the Morecambe Townscape Heritage Initiative. And so the woe goes on: a crash in local property prices, for example, has repelled private developers. Everything feels as if it has seized up – and given that people such as Eva Kawinska were gambling on regeneration continuing, that’s very bad news for scores of local businesses.

The lessons from all this are so obvious as to be almost painful. In a place like this, if you hack back the state, the private sector does not thrive in the newly vacant uplands: it shrinks, at speed. It really is the cruellest thing to behold – one blinkered decision following another, and hitting a town full of sparky, driven people who desperately want to revive it.

A good example is Sonja Campbell, an artist and film-maker who grew up in Blackburn and then moved to London, but came here to start a family. She and her other half bought their five-bedroom house for less than £100,000. Morecambe’s history and character is part of what attracted her; so too is the nearby Lake District. She dreams of a more robust local economy, buoyed by creative types. Living here, she says, “lets your mind breathe a bit”. Listening to her talk, it’s obvious that this place should have a future – and that if it doesn’t, Morecambe will count as one of austerity’s saddest casualties.

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