In the year 2027 – Lyme Regis’s twenty-year plan
Five years into Lyme Regis’s twenty-year plan, Benjamin Blech assesses what has been achieved and what the future holds for the town
Published in November ’12
Lyme Regis knows only too well the challenges that come with balancing the demands of tourism with the needs and aspirations of local people. Riding the wave of the Local Government Act 2000, which obliged local authorities to prepare ‘a community strategy’, in 2007, the town put together its first ‘Community Development Plan’. The plan outlined how the community wanted the town to develop over the next twenty years. To put the town’s vision into action, aims were set out across themed groups on issues including the local economy, the environment, healthcare, housing and young people.
Despite a strong awareness of hard-hitting austerity, dismal macroeconomics and a generally wet summer, the overall view of the plan is largely positive. ‘The great thing about the plan is that it has allowed us to see Lyme holistically, rather than looking at the issues in isolation’ says Chairman of Lyme Regis Development Trust (LRDT) Wendy Davies. Chief-executive Marcus Dixon also said that the plan had ‘given the Town Council access to many capable and passionate people and allowed them to be more enterprising’.
The town’s economic aims focused mostly on strengthening the local economy, reducing its reliance on tourism, particularly in the winter months, and creating well-paid year-round employment. While Lyme is still a long way from achieving its full list of aims, one of the town’s greatest achievements has been the ‘move towards niche market events’ like the Fossil Festival and RNLI Lifeboat Week says Marcus Dixon.
‘The [fossil] festival has been tremendously successful and really helped put the town on the map’ says Press Officer, Jill Newton. According to the Arts Council for England’s Economic Impact Calculator, the festival attracted over 16,000 visitors over the three-day weekend (4-6 May 2012) and generated more than £260,000 for the local economy.
Among the town’s other economic achievements, the shelters along Marine Parade have reopened. Community learning centre LymeNET is continuing to develop the work-related skills of local people, an important component to fulfilling the town’s vision of a broader, less-seasonal economic base. Lyme Regis Museum has doubled its visitor figures, which Director David Tucker admits is probably the result of a particularly wet summer. And as local MP Oliver Letwin said: ‘the virtual rebuilding of the sea-front [has been] a colossal achievement…at a time when tourism in Britain has bright prospects’.
While definite progress has been made in developing the tourism sector, there was less optimism about whether Lyme could achieve its aim of having a viable economy all year round.
‘Lyme’s tourism will always be seasonal, says David Tucker. ‘That’s just a feature of seaside towns. But that’s not to say nothing can be done to attract more visitors in the winter months’.
In recent years, there has been a definite drive to position Lyme as a central hub for the earth sciences, as well as various forms of ‘educational tourism’, which it is hoped will pick up the slack during quieter periods.
‘Working in collaboration with the Natural History museum in London, we hope to have a Jurassic Coast Study Centre up and running within the next five years’ says Wendy Davies. ‘We are in the process of pushing for the funding we need. But we do recognise that that the £5m we need is a substantial ask in today’s economic climate. Nevertheless, I am confident that it can be done. We have a dedicated team and a proud history of bringing funds to where they are needed’.
‘Fossil walks are a major family attraction’ says Jill Newton. ‘But I don’t see any reason why Lyme couldn’t become a centre for both family visits and enthusiasts all year round’.
‘The stormy winter months are the best time to look for fossils,’ says local guide and paleontologist Chris Andrew, ‘and whilst we have noticed a sharp slump in sales in our shop, when it comes to activities like fossil walks, business has never been better. So there are definitely options for the winter. It really comes down to making it happen.’
Lyme Regis is ‘still a global brand,’ says Marcus Dixon, ‘so I’m confident that the town can continue to broaden its economic base without relying solely on tourism.’ He also said that LRDT’s long-term aim was a 120-bed residential study centre, equipped with the latest technology and open as a hub for learning and research throughout the year.
Despite the optimism, government spending cuts and high commercial rents are clearly putting pressure on the town. ‘In many cases, it’s not new things that are needed,’ says Wendy Davies, ‘often it’s a case of fighting for what we’ve got – the Marine Theatre being just one example’.
The arrival of corporate retailers like WH Smith and Tesco are also likely to threaten the town’s aim of supporting the growth of local businesses. But in the absence of what Marcus Dixon calls an ‘effective support strategy’, its seems likely that out-of-town retailers will continue to fill empty shop spaces.
Efforts to make the town more environmentally sustainable have made steady progress. According to the latest update of the plan, Turn Lyme Green (a campaign aimed at banning plastic bags from local shops) has gained ‘a well-known identity and website’. Many farmers markets have taken place along the seafront, but there is still a lot to do, particularly with regards to reducing C02 emissions and lessening the town’s reliance on nonrenewable carbon-sourced fuels. According to LRDT, the main challenge is not a lack of will but an unsustainable reliance on small numbers of ‘fatigued volunteers’.
‘The lack of sensible transport links also remains a problem,’ says Wendy Davies. ‘At certain times of day,’ she adds, ‘we still have a number of buses operated by different companies (but serving similar routes) pushing up the hill through the centre of the town.’
Healthcare groups have reported an even mix of optimism and uncertainty. Thanks to locally based ‘quick response teams’ assisting ambulance crews, emergency response times have improved in the five years since the plan was published (although a spokesman from South Western Ambulance Service said that due to changes in performance monitoring, the service could not quantify how significant the improvement had been).
It is extremely difficult to predict the viability of the town’s healthcare aims while so many questions remain unanswered. Following the planned dissolution of the Primary Care Trust from March 2013, it’s not yet clear who will take over management of the Medical Centre. There are also concerns about the closure of the Portland Rescue Service and the Mental Healthcare Centre in Bridport.
The Lyme Regis Gig Club continues to make a valuable contribution to the town with its beautiful Cornish Gigs built and powered by local people. Wendy Davies said the club had helped ‘bring people together’ and that it had played an important role in ‘lessening the divide between older boatmen and visitors’.
According to the latest update to the community plan, the Town Mill complex, where many art and other educational exhibitions are held, is ‘thriving’. The Town Council has also announced provisional agreement for an extension to the Lyme Regis Museum. According to David Tucker, this would include a geology gallery, a larger education space and much-needed toilets for visitors. The extra space will also allow the museum to make more of Lyme’s rich literary history.
Poor transport links remain a barrier for those without their own transport in post-compulsory education. ‘The problem arises when young people move on to college, with most relying on Exeter or Taunton’ says Wendy Davies.
One area where progress has been particularly limited is in tackling the lack of affordable housing for local people and the negative impact empty second homes have on the community.
As West Dorset District Council (WDDC) highlight in their latest Local Area Plan, a significant challenge for housing planners in Lyme Regis is the lack of suitable land, with development limited by land instability, roads and a number of other factors.
In 2003, WDDC carried out a housing-needs survey, which identified a need for 69 social (rented) and affordable (for sale) homes in Lyme Regis. Marcus Dixon believes that the survey may have significantly underestimated the town’s housing problems by overlooking a hidden demand from young people living with their parents, as well as those in rented accommodation who had not registered their need.
While the community is still limited in its powers to control the issue of second homes, it seems the council is slowly taking steps to address the shortage of social and affordable housing. In the Local Area Plan, WDDC say they have proposed ninety new homes at Woodbury Down, and that planning permission is already in place for a further fifty homes close to Colway Lane. Other opportunities outside the town, including land in East Devon and the Woodmead Car Park are also being explored.
When it came to issues predominantly managed by government agencies (healthcare, traffic and social housing), there was a noticeable feeling of powerlessness among those involved in implementing the plan. LRTD, the Town Council and a number of local business owners all said they felt that their ability to directly influence decisions was extremely limited.
As Marcus Dixon put it, Lyme Regis is ‘definitely at a crossroads as to where it is going in the future’. A great deal of progress has been made so far. There is still a lot of enthusiasm to fulfil the town’s aims. And a consistent belief in those whom Oliver Letwin calls the town’s many ‘motivated and effective people’. But there are also significant challenges ahead, most notably of all an unpredictable global economy, inadequate transport links and an over reliance on small numbers of volunteers.
The deciding factor as to whether the town can achieve its aims will be the extent to which it can balance a range of conflicting interests. To name but a few, the dilemma of how to expand the town’s tourist sector without exacerbating problems like traffic, a shortage of parking and pressure on the environment. If this more collaborative and holistic approach to developing the community can really take hold with enough driven, committed and capable people, it should make all the difference in balancing the continued wellbeing of those who live in the town, with providing everything for which visitors come to Lyme Regis.