Life after Pontins swapped tourists for tradespeople

2 weeks ago 25

Pontins Brean Sands

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The holiday park is now home to 900 construction workers

By Dave Harvey

Business and Environment Correspondent, BBC West

In 2023, EDF took over 900 chalets at Pontins Brean Sands in Somerset to house construction workers building Hinkley Point C. At the time, the energy firm promised "year-round" spending by staff but local traders say the move has "decimated" the seaside resort.

Building Britain's first new nuclear power station for 30 years is a huge deal for the area. The budget, now around £46bn, dwarfs the county's economy. Over £1bn has been spent with local firms supplying the project.

But when EDF commandeered the old seaside holiday camp at Brean Sands, many feared it would be the first time Hinkley Point C had damaged local trade.

Surely tired nuclear builders would not spend money in the seaside resort like families on holiday had?

When I spoke to Hinkley managers in 2023, they promised their scheme would in fact "bring more people to Brean".

Andrew Cockroft runs the "stakeholder engagement" programme at Hinkley Point C, the biggest construction programme in Europe.

His team spent £2m repainting and refurbishing the tired Pontins chalets, and hired a marketing agency to promote the resort nationwide.

Because their 900 workers would stay all year, it would mean "business all year round for the local traders."

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"We've not seen the EDF workers," said Alan House of Discover Brean

So as Brean reopens for the Easter weekend, I asked people if they had seen any business from the nuclear builders.

"No," said Alan House, who runs Unity Holiday Resort and chairs the tourism association, Discover Brean.

"Generally speaking they're all either on-shift or asleep.

"They don't tend to come out into the local economy, we haven't seen anything of them over the winter at all."

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"They're here to work, not play," said the owner of this amusement arcade

Perhaps unsurprisingly, none have been in Charles Holland's business, even though it is right across the road.

His amusement arcade offers traditional slot machines and penny pushers, alongside brand new video games.

"They keep themselves to themselves, I think they're here to work really," he said.

"We have lost trade yes, it has been a big thing for us losing the Pontins customers."

I hear the same story in every business on his parade.

A fish and chip shop, a café, a convenience store; all the classics of the English seaside resort.

And yes, your correspondent can confirm that nuclear construction workers have no interest in buckets and spades at the UK's oldest Pontins resort.

It first opened in 1946 and was a former US Army base during World War II before its life as a holiday resort, which ended when EDF workers moved in.

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Brian Davies has lost half the traders at his weekend market

Brian Davies can put figures on the losses. For decades he has run a weekend market at Brean, with stalls selling arts and crafts, Somerset cakes, fudge and treats, everything people want on a seaside holiday.

"Last year we started the season with 43 stalls," he told me.

"We ended it with 21. Traders just weren't taking the money."

'Pontins fed us'

Pontins Brean Sands has 900 chalets, out of a total of 2,000 self-catering chalets available to rent in Brean.

Although thousands more people own their own static caravans, bring touring vans or camp in the summer, Pontins used to provide nearly half of the beds rented by the week.

"Pontins fed us, basically," Mr Davies said.

"There are 900 full-time workers in there, and there used to be 3,000 people that were on holiday. Of course we've lost money."

Privately, several business owners tell me it has been a hard winter. Takings were down so badly last year some considered closing altogether. But now the season has come again, and they are keen to "get on with it", as Mr House puts it.

One of the most badly hit was the theme park. Phil Booth has swapped thrill-seeking holidaymakers for tired builders, and few of them fancy a ride on his rollercoasters.

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Phil Booth is targeting day-trippers to his theme park after losing Pontins visitors

"It has taken a chunk of our earnings, yes," he tells me.

But small firms are adaptable, and if there are fewer people staying for the whole week, this year Brean Theme Park is targeting day-trippers.

Mr Booth explained: "We have added some new rides, upgraded the rollercoaster, and we've changed our pricing structure. A new day pass gives you all the rides, and a meal."

Managers at Hinkley Point C reject the suggestion that their takeover of Pontins is to blame for the drop in tourism.

Mr Cockroft said: "Brean was not alone in experiencing a visitor downturn last summer - thousands of tourism businesses across the south west reported reduced numbers and income.

"The particularly wet peak months of July and August, combined with the cost-of-living crisis, deterred many families."

Despite the loss of the Pontins beds, Brean is still the second largest camping and caravan resort in the UK, and the busiest tourism area in Somerset. As shops and cafes, holiday parks and amusement arcades polish themselves up for the new season, they are hoping for better weather this year.

Stressing the positives, Alan House put it like this: "Everyone has had enough of the horrible winter weather, and just wants to get out an enjoy the great British seaside."

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