Published on 17 July 2023
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The extraordinary power of the sense of place

The second Reynolds Lecture by British award-winning author, Madeleine Bunting, explored the multi-layered relationships connected to place.

At this year’s Reynolds Lecture, award-winning British author Madeleine Bunting explored ‘the extraordinary power of the sense of place’ and its multilayered relations, connections and stories.

She began by describing the memories and interconnected relations she had with place as well as her decades of research in this area.

For her most recent book, The Seaside: England’s Love Affair, Bunting visited the UK’s 40 resorts, exploring themes such as the nostalgia of leisure, crowd-pleasing entertainment, and the healthy ‘sea-cure’, alongside the sadness of the crumbling infrastructure, isolation and poor health. The challenge of the declining seaside resort has “never grabbed the attention of government as a potential productivity powerhouse” and so is not deemed worthy of serious public policy attention.

She said: “Seaside towns don’t fit into the public debate about the North South divide. Nor has their decline ever dominated the national narrative in the way that inner cities did in the 80s as a focus of public policy or like the former mining and industrial towns. Seaside towns have been left to struggle with their own decline. They’re not well connected.

“They suffer from their geography, because unlike a city in the centre of the country,  they have half the catchment area for employment and customers given their position on the coast. Their challenge is unique.”

Bunting listed five factors all evident in coastal towns: “The lowest average pay, the shortest life expectancy, the poorest quality of health, the lowest educational achievement and they are plagued by extremes of the national housing crisis.”

She continued: “These seaside towns are the site of a distinctive politics which has national repercussions. In 2014, Clacton-on-Sea in Essex, held a byelection that resulted in the first of Ukip’s two elected MPs which was the starting shot for the Brexit campaign. And the recent housing of Afghan refugees in places like Scarborough and Skegness has heightened frustrations about economic decline and led to local protests. The Kent coastline has all kinds of tension around migration.”

Bunting was invited by the House of Lords Select Committee on Regenerating Seaside Towns to discuss her latest book which spotlights some of the problems with place-making policy. She describes how the Levelling Up White Paper bundled coastal areas into generalised descriptions of places with problems – “Urban areas and coastal towns”, “former industrial centres and many coastal communities” – and underplayed the specific needs and issues evident at the coast.

And yet, she says, seaside resorts are generating resilience. “These places are loved. The paradox is that these are places which generate huge affection. Four million people visit Skegness every year and Blackpool is still one of the most visited places in the country.”

Every place has a story.”

She also argued that “Wisdom sits in places*”. Rather than central government ‘doing to’ communities and places, local and national government, public and private sectors, and communities, must come together to understand and work on shared common goals.

This second Reynolds Lecture was hosted at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, on Thursday 6 July 2023. College Master, Doug Chalmers welcomed guests and introduced his predecessor, Lord Richard Wilson, who established this annual lecture series in honour of his successor, Dame Fiona Reynolds.

The annual Reynolds lectures are co-hosted by the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, Emmanuel College, and the Centre for Science and Policy (CSAP).

*The phrase comes from the title of a book by Keith H. Basso: Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache

Image (L-R): Lord Richard Wilson, Madeleine Bunting, Dame Fiona Reynolds

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.

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