It was summertime when Katey Howell, 34, first visited Rhyl, and she was bowled over by a town where everyone “seemed really happy”. The north Wales seaside resort was “full of holidaymakers, had a beach you could walk to and a good range of shops”. In 2004, Howell moved from Manchester to be with her future husband. “It seemed like a nice thing to do, to get away from city life and move down here.”
Rhyl’s glory days – when families from Merseyside and the Midlands would gather during Factory Fortnight to enjoy the beach, the funfair and fish and chips eaten al fresco – are long gone. Assembly member Ann Jones, who has lived in the area all her life, says the introduction of cheap flights to Spain and guarantee of a better climate started a slow decline that saw magnificent seafront Victorian B&Bs turned into flats.
As chain stores such as Marks and Spencer and Topshop relocated to nearby Prestatyn, the town centre became increasingly forlorn. In 2007, the funfair closed. “People were seeing things leaving and nothing was replacing them,” says Howell. Unemployment is high and six years ago part of Rhyl was identified as the most deprived area in Wales. It was also labelled a “Crap Town” by some.
But not for much longer. Funded jointly by the Welsh government, Denbighshire county council and private investment, a programme of regeneration aims to bring jobs, businesses and tourists back to the town. As Rebecca Maxwell, the council’s corporate director, points out, Rhyl has a lot going for it. “The town is in a beautiful location, it has a stunning beach with the hills behind it, and it’s just off the A55 so there’s easy access in and out.”
Work began in 2013 with the opening of a striking new pedestrian and cycle bridge, Pont y Ddraig, across the harbour. Arthur Davies, harbour master since 2014, says the bridge has drawn in walkers as well as “groups cycling from Holyhead or the east coast or even from London”. Howell says the bridge has made a difference. “It is beautiful – so peaceful. You see a lot of people down there, dog walking, jogging, cycling, whereas a few years ago you wouldn’t have seen anyone.”
Both Jones and Maxwell believe that, while the bucket-and-spade holidays of old are unlikely to return, Rhyl can become an attractive destination for short breaks. The big draw will be a £33m waterfront development (pdf) that will see the refurbishment of the Pavilion Theatre, the arrival of a Travelodge and Premier Inn and new restaurants – as well as a rejuvenated Sky Tower, which will illuminate the night sky. Meanwhile, the Sun Centre, a much-loved leisure pool that had fallen into disrepair, has been demolished, and will be replaced by an all-year round waterpark. It’s a project the council hopes will pay for itself in five years.
In west Rhyl, the Gerddi Heulwen housing development has a mix of social housing, shared ownership, private rental properties and what Maxwell describes as “prestigious town houses,” sited round a new park. A new building for Rhyl high school, completed last year, will also appeal to families, Maxwell hopes.
It all sounds so promising. But a cloud hangs on the horizon: north Wales is a net beneficiary of EU funding, and when support for existing projects runs out in 2020, the gap may not be filled – and that’s without the concern about how losing membership of the single market will impact the economy. Jones is worried: “If we’re not careful, that will be a downward spiral that will send us plunging out of control.” Cuts to the welfare budget and council funding have already hit the region hard, she notes.
But Maxwell hopes that Denbighshire’s plan can turn Rhyl’s fortunes around before then. By 2021, the town should reach a tipping point where it’s “much less dependent on regeneration funding and starting to look at economic development activity”. Encouragingly, Howell, who had thought about leaving, feels “more happy about staying now than I was three or four years ago”. But, she adds cautiously: “Check back in five years.”
This article first appeared in the Guardian’s public leaders network.