Torbay Was Already Struggling. Covid-19 Could Devastate It

The region's reliance on tourism makes it economically vulnerable. Some forecasts estimate that up to 18,000 people could lose their jobs.

Nestled in one of the most picturesque areas of south Devon, Torbay is home to little more than 135,000 people year-round, but the population typically doubles come summertime as holidaymakers arrive. Not so this year, as the coronavirus pandemic forced bed and breakfasts, restaurants, pubs and shops to close their doors, just on the cusp of the vital tourist season.

Now, even as lockdown restrictions begin to ease, Torbay’s residents and business owners are facing the possibility that the disruption caused by Covid-19 will have a far more permanent impact on the region, potentially costing thousands of jobs.

“If we don’t have much – or maybe any – of a summer, then we’ve had three winters in a row,” said Alan Denby, director of economic strategy at the Torbay Economic Development Company.

“A lot of our visitor accommodation is family-owned and family-managed, and there are still questions about how they will survive. There is a real risk that around 30% of tourism businesses could fail.”

Swithin Long, council cabinet member for economic regeneration, tourism and housing, told HuffPost UK that the pandemic “could potentially have a devastating effect.”

There are fears a sharp drop in tourism will hit areas like Torbay.
There are fears a sharp drop in tourism will hit areas like Torbay.
MartinParratt via Getty Images

More than 16,500 workers in the region – approximately 34% of the workforce – were furloughed when hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions shut their doors at the height of the pandemic. Some of those jobs have already been lost, and as the furlough scheme tapers off throughout the autumn, there are fears that thousands more could face redundancy.

“Forecasts of job losses might be a bit premature,” Long said, “but a worst-case scenario could involve 18,000 jobs.”

Those job losses would be a capstone to the hardship that many Torbay residents were already facing even before the pandemic. Despite Torbay’s reputation as the English Riviera, tourism to the region has been declining in recent years, and the impact of the 2008 recession is still felt more than a decade on. In 2018, the region had the third-highest rate of personal insolvencies in England and Wales, accounting for 47.3 per 10,000 adults.

Leaders are waking up to to the threat posed by the virus too. On Wednesday, ahead of a visit to the harbour town of Falmouth, Cornwall, Labour leader Keir Starmer warned that tourist towns risk “falling through the cracks” as the government’s furlough scheme tapers towards the end of the summer season.

Analysis carried out by Labour showed that areas with at least a fifth of workers in tourism-related jobs had seen unemployment soar by 174% since February, compared with just under 110% for the UK as a whole.

“In a sense, coronavirus was just the final knock on the head,” said Simon Tonge, executive director of the Wild Planet Trust, a conservation charity that operates the local Paignton and Newquay Zoos.

A third wildlife centre, the Living Coasts zoo, was one of the biggest visitor attractions in the town of Torquay. But Covid-19 decimated the charitable organisation’s reserves, and in June, the Trust announced that the Living Coasts zoo would not reopen after shutting its doors in March. The other two zoos will likely need to lay off staff as well.

“Lockdown has been absolutely catastrophic for us in that we have lost our entire operating reserve,” Tonge said. “We will probably lose about 100 positions across our three sites.”

The Paignton and Newquay Zoos have now reopened, and Tonge believes they can survive until next spring with the help of a £3m loan from the government. Beyond that, however, the future remains highly dependent on whether tourists return next year — and whether the coronavirus pandemic remains under control.

“If there’s another lockdown on March 23 next year then that’s it, that’s the end of it,” Tonge said “There’s no way back.”

Living Coasts Zoo & Aquarium in Torquay shut its doors in March.
Living Coasts Zoo & Aquarium in Torquay shut its doors in March.
Ben Birchall - PA Images via Getty Images

The impact of lockdown and job losses is already being felt in the wider community too.

The Citizens Advice service in the Torbay area has seen a huge increase in demand through lockdown. Advisors have helped more than 800 people with 2,680 issues since March 23. Benefits, employment and housing have been the top issues raised, with redundancy and furlough among the most commonly-asked employment questions. The number of people with queries about Universal Credit has increased 104% since the start of the pandemic.

“Lockdown has had a huge impact on people,” said Steve Barriball, chief executive of Citizens Advice Torbay. “There are problems with getting back to work, some people might find that the hours just aren’t there to get their finances back on track. We’re already seeing quite a few people with more than one job – especially if they’re on zero-hour contracts.”

“There were times when we were running on a really fine line – we never ran out but we spent an awful lot of time looking for food, which was a shock in itself.”

- David Gledhill

Foodbanks in the area have also experienced a spike in demand since the start of the pandemic, and struggled initially to source enough food to meet it. Coordinators were forced to scramble around local hotel chains and ask them for help before a new supply chain was set up with Bristol-based food charity FareShare, who have expanded into Devon ahead of schedule as a result of the crisis.

“There were times when we were running on a really fine line – we never ran out but we spent an awful lot of time looking for food, which was a shock in itself,” said David Gledhill, a lead member of the Torbay Community Development Trust. “In the wealthy Western world, that’s just not something you think about having to do.”

Gledhill said that people in Torbay will continue to face challenges in the months to come, particularly as the furlough scheme begins to taper off and more people face possible redundancy.

“We’re expecting a massive mushrooming of people in need of mental health support because they’ve been locked down for so long and they’ve got nothing to look forward to, or they’ll see their neighbours going back to something and they can’t,” Gledhill said.

“There’s a lot of money going into services now locally to help, but there’s an awareness that there’s going to be a hell of a lot more people soon, and they’re going to get desperate.”

Foodbanks have struggled to meet demand. (File photo)
Foodbanks have struggled to meet demand. (File photo)

In order to give local businesses a boost this year during the shortened summer season, leaders in the region have called for tourism-specific assistance from the treasury – partially delivered with a cut on VAT for the hospitality and tourism industry in a statement by Rishi Sunak in early July.

To tackle the decline in visitors, the Torbay Economic Development Company, which is wholly owned by Torbay council, is also pursuing some £43m in government schemes in order to boost town centres in Paignton and Torquay – backed by £80-£100m of private investment.

Recovering from coronavirus in the bay isn’t just about getting holidaymakers to return, however. Leaders are also looking to reposition the economy and encourage entrepreneurs to relocate to the area. A £25m investment saw the opening of the Electronics and Photonics Innovation Centre and South Devon College’s Hi Tech Digital Centre in 2019, and there are hopes that as Covid-19 dismantles our ideas about work and industry, a location like Torbay will become more attractive to leading companies.

“The fact that you haven’t got a 360-degree market is definitely a challenge – a lot of demand on the area comes in the summer months when the population can go up by anywhere from 70% to 100% depending on the week,” Denby said.

Shifting the local economy away from its reliance on tourism could be a key to its survival in the long term.

“We don’t want to go back,” said Swithin Long. “‘Normal’ wasn’t the best place to be anyway because of the underlying issues we’ve faced.”