Britain's seedy seaside towns are about to get tons and tons of regeneration cash, a dozen or so world-class architects and some schemes that will knock your socks off.
Could the tide at last be turning for Britain's seaside resorts? As Brighton's West Pier progressively sinks into the English Channel, less than two miles westwards along the seafront in Hove, two celebrity architects are competing for what is shaping up to be one of Britain's grandest, most avant-garde developments. Next week, Brighton and Hove council will choose between competing schemes by the American creator of the swirling Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Frank Gehry, and Britain's double Stirling prizewinner, Wilkinson Eyre, for a cluster of 40-storey tower blocks and a sports complex.

Further to the east, in Hastings and Bexhill, plans are being drawn up for one of Britain's most ambitious urban regeneration schemes, which will include one the government's nine trailblazing Millennium Villages with 2000 homes. Other resorts are sprucing themselves up with smaller projects, such as the "surfing academy" on the beach in Newquay, Cornwall, Blackpool's swivelling wind shelters by architect Ian McChesney (pictured), and a modern pavilion on to Southport's Victorian pier.

When it comes to urban regeneration, however, seaside resorts bring their own peculiar set of problems. This week, CABE and English Heritage wade in with the publication of a report entitled Shifting Sands: Design and the Changing Image of English Seaside Towns. Their central argument is that, to regain their status as tourist attractions, seaside resorts must reinvent the bold, inventive, fizzing seaside architecture that put those towns on the Crest of a wave for most of the 19th and early 20th centuries but has since sunk into the sands. On top of that, regeneration projects must come to terms with uneasy mixes of permanent and transient populations and other specific challenges of seaside resorts.

Largely a Victorian invention that reached its heyday between the wars, the British seaside resort has suffered from a mass switch in allegiance by native holiday makers. As recently as 1968, seaside resorts still accounted for 75% of all main holidays taken by Britons, but by 1999 more than twice as many Britons were holidaying abroad than at the British seaside.

However, the story of British seaside resorts is not simply one of economic decline. Seaside resorts have already undergone their own forms of regeneration – but in ways that were not always planned and not always welcome. Peter Hampson, director of the British Resorts Association, points out that a new form of tourism has evolved: in what he calls benefit tourism, unemployed people and asylum-seekers migrate towards resorts to occupy the old boarding houses abandoned by holiday makers. Prosperous neighbourhoods lie alongside wards that appear high on indices of social deprivation. And where private developers have moved in, their schemes are often of the cheap-and-nasty amusement-arcade variety.

The Civic Trust first drew the nation's attention to the plight of declining seaside resorts in the late 1980s, when they were not eligible for government urban renewal funds. The big – and welcome – change is that many resorts have in recent years become eligible for government regeneration grants, including the single regeneration budget, European Union assisted area status and National Lottery grants. Merseyside and Cornwall lie within EU Objective One and Objective Two designated areas respectively, which in the case of the Merseyside resort of Southport alone has helped generate some £100m of development.

What sets seaside resorts apart from other towns is their public spaces on a grand scale

Peter Hampson, British Resorts Association

In their report, CABE and English Heritage list a range of measures for seaside regeneration, including transport infrastructure, a mix of visitor attractions and the proper management of public amenities. This often requires a complex public–private partnership to be set up between local and regional agencies and private entrepreneurs, as in Hastings and Bexhill.

Seaside resorts that have undergone successful regeneration can become victims of their popularity. As in Brighton, they attract a new prosperous class of residents, but the rising house prices that ensue can squeeze out the indigenous population reliant on lower-paid employment in the tourist services sector. According to the Shifting Sands report, "the answer lies not in preventing progress, but in ensuring that, coupled with the development of an appropriately skilled workforce, it creates better paid, sustainable jobs and encourages the building of affordable homes and the perpetuation of town and villages that people not only want to visit and but where the residents can afford to stay". Creating better-paid, sustainable jobs depends on developing a sustainable year-round economy, combining tourism with other industries.

Above all, CABE and English Heritage make the case that quality of architecture and public spaces is a central issue if seaside towns are to regain their original raison d'être as visitor attractions. "Imaginative architectural conservation and design lie at the heart of the rebuilding of confidence of the seaside town," their report maintains. It points to the swagger exhibited by generations past in building Blackpool's answer to the Eiffel Tower, the confectionary of Brighton's Royal Pavilion and Bexhill's pioneering De La Warr Pavilion, all of which we still find irresistible.

Creating seaside architecture that is suitably exhilarating brings special design and development challenges, which the two architectural watchdogs feel have not been properly grasped. First, though many resorts have a proud legacy of large historic buildings, they are rarely put to inventive new uses. Second, they highlight the fact that harsh, corrosive seaside environments demand durable materials and detailing, and regular maintenance.

Third, as the British Resorts Association's Hampson points out: "What sets seaside resorts apart from other towns is public spaces on a grand scale", including beaches, promenades, parks and squares. However, these public spaces are ageing, and tend to be exposed to inclement weather. "Most local authorities struggle to maintain them," he asserts. But the real challenge is to inject them with an imaginative dynamism to appeal to 21st-century visitors.

Twin rebirth: Hastings and Bexhill

Although there is still little to see of regeneration in Hastings and Bexhill, the twin south-coast towns are busy preparing some of the most ambitious plans along Britain’s coast. Currently languishing in economic decline with wage levels about 22% lower than the national average, the towns are planning wholescale regeneration that could carry a £400m pricetag and include one of the government’s nine model Millennium Villages with 2000 homes.

The ambitious plans are the brainchild of a public sector partnership, pointedly called Hastings & Bexhill Renaissance, which brings together the town council, the county council, the regional development authority, the regional government office, English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation. The partnership’s first steps into physical regeneration are more modest, comprising a media centre designed by Baker-Brown McKay (pictured) which will provide premises for a cluster of creative industries, and a “university centre” being converted out of a 1960 British Telecom building.

But Hastings & Bexhill Renaissance has nevertheless nailed its colours to the mast by promoting design as a prime ingredient of regeneration. An initial masterplan was commissioned from architect Martorell Bohigas Mackay, famed for the regeneration of Barcelona in the 1980s. More recently, an architectural competition announced for a spectacular 3 ha development site on Hastings seafront next to the Norman castle, has attracted several top architects including Foster and Partners. The site will not be sold on to a developer until a scheme has been selected by competition.

Blackpool’s green ambition

Blackpool, perhaps Britain’s most urbanised seaside resort, could be returned to nature if a visionary new masterplan is implemented. The town council has commissioned a masterplan by EDAW and the Jerde Partnership (pictured) for a £1bn initiative that aims to kickstart growth in the declining resort.

The plans, which could take 15 to 20 years to realise, aim to change Blackpool’s reliance on seasonal attractions by providing year-round facilities, such as an 800-room casino hotel, retail space and a 32,000 m2 conference centre and arena. They are notable for a return to nature landscape strategy, which aims to combine public transport such as trams and track with substantial green open spaces. The plans are focused on four areas, called Pleasure Beach, the Village, Central Beach and Town Centre. EDAW has also been selected to design some of these key public open spaces, such as a redesign of the famous 1.5-mile promenade, a specially designed landmark structure welcoming drivers from the M55 and a central square.

Torquay’s Mediterranean makeover

Torbay, also known as the English Riviera, attracts the largest number of long-stay visitors in Britain, with Torquay harbour at the heart of the resort. More than 30% of Torquay’s population is employed in tourism, but visitor numbers have been dropping since the 1970s, prompting the council to launch the Torquay Waterfront Regeneration Strategy.

Estimated at £35m, the strategy comprises a number of schemes, with a focus on the harbour area. These include the redevelopment of the Beacon Quay area and the construction of a lifting footbridge over a dock, both designed by Kay Elliot Architects and completed earlier this month.

Torbay council appointed Landscape Design Associates to draw up a public realm masterplan, completed in September 2002. This draws together all the proposals for Torquay, including the development of civic spaces throughout the town. These include Cary Green, shown left, currently underused despite its town-centre location. The masterplan also includes plans for residential and retail developments around the harbour. Phase one of the masterplan is due to begin implementation later this year.

Funding for Torquay’s makeover is to be split between Torbay council, the South West Regional Development Agency and English Heritage. The scheme will also receive EU Objective Two funding, with the Heritage Lottery Fund possibly contributing at a later stage.

Southport’s new pier group

Day-trippers can gambol once again on Southport’s Victorian pier, now that it has been restored and enhanced – by the addition of a pavilion designed by one of Liverpool’s hottest architects, Shed KM. Costing £7.5m, these are just two projects out of the regeneration bonanza being indulged in by the Merseyside resort, which has an estimated value of £100m.

Southport’s regeneration boom is largely fuelled by grants from the European Union’s Objective One Programme, which applies to all of Merseyside and is now in its second five-year period. The catalyst was the £8.6m construction of a sea defence wall in 1998, which opened up a stretch of development land two miles long and a quarter of a mile deep behind it. The reclaimed land has since been developed as entertainment and shopping complexes, though the latter is criticised by CABE and English Heritage in their Shifting Sands report as “turning its back on the sea despite its waterfront position”.

Further developments currently under way on the seafront include a road bridge linking it to the town centre and an Eco Visitor Centre. The centre is basically a bus shelter for park-and-ride customers, but Sefton council has recognised that it commands a captive audience of at least 250,000 visitors a year, and is exploiting the building as a showcase for sustainable design.