Squint and you could be in Paris, thanks to Southport’s main thoroughfare Lord Street which resembles a broad Parisian boulevard. It is lined with grand Victorian buildings, linked by glazed pedestrian canopies protecting shoppers from the weather. At first glance, Southport doesn’t conform to the stereotype of deprived seaside resort.
The town centre is separated from the seafront by a large marine lake, a leisure destination in its own right. The pier - second longest in the UK - actually begins on the edge of the town centre and spans the lake before thrusting into the Irish Sea. The seafront has been given a makeover during recent years, with a shiny pier pavilion plus new sea wall, lighting and artworks.
Unlike its near-neighbour Blackpool, Southport (which has a population of about 100,000) has an up-market feel, with neat public gardens, quality restaurants and smart boutique hotel. This is partly because of the town’s heritage, and also due to its renaissance over the last decade with a clutch of successful regeneration projects. The Southport Cultural Centre is the latest chapter in that story.
Rise and fall
During the Victorian era and the first half of the 20th century, Southport was a prosperous and sophisticated place to visit. It was renowned as a cultural destination, with theatres, concert halls, gallery and more than a dozen cinemas. “It was a satellite town for major businesses in Liverpool and Manchester,” explains Sefton Borough Council’s head of arts and cultural services John Taylor.
However, after the Second World War there was little new investment, and during the 1950s the resort began to slip into a slow decline. Says Taylor: “The deciding factor in the decline was the rise in the package holiday, which brought about substantial decline until the 1980s.” Many of its key attractions and architectural assets - such as an opera house and aquarium - were demolished.
“While different from many resorts due to its Lords Street USP and collection of championship links golf courses, Southport was affected by the changing habits of its traditional users in exactly the same way as all the other resorts around the country,” adds Tony Corfield, Head of Tourism at Sefton Borough Council. “This led to ongoing decline in visitor numbers, which exacerbated the problem.”
On the seafront, the Pleasureland amusement park closed in 2006, and its rides dismantled. Incidentally, this site, which is presently being used for temporary fairs, will be totally redeveloped with a new leisure element, as part of a major Urban Splash regeneration project.
While the smell of decline isn’t as strong in Southport as at some other resorts, the wider Sefton area suffers from greater deprivation. It is among the 15 per cent most deprived local authority districts in England, in terms of concentration of deprivation. And like most other seaside resorts, it has a higher than average proportion of elderly people.