Reflections of a beach manager
A blog post by Robbie Blyth
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As we celebrate 30 years of Scotland’s Beach Awards our Communications Manager, Suzanne has spoken with Robbie Blyth Head of Operations with the Fife Coast and Countryside Trust. He has been involved with beach management if Fife for over two decades and has been an advocate of the award scheme and the benefits they can bring to communities for many years. Fife currently boasts 15 award winning beaches, more than any other local authority area in Scotland.
When did Beach Awards first become something, you were involved with?
It was round about 2000 when I did a management qualification and, as part of it, I did a project focusing on beach improvements at Burntisland.
I was working managing the leisure centre there and recognised the economic benefits of a well-managed beach. A huge investment had been made in the new leisure centre but the beach, which historically drew people to the town in the summer required investment. The beach was a free, accessible to all resource, but I knew it needed work to ensure people wanted to keep visiting. I also believed that if people came to the beach and the weather was bad, as it often is, we could attract them to the leisure centre. A win-win for the community.
As we improved facilities and the management of the beach we saw people coming more, and using the leisure centre when the weather was bad.
Burntisland received a beach award in 2001 for the first time and we had a flag raising ceremony with elected members, employees and representatives from key organisations involved, including Scottish Water, SEPA and Keep Scotland Beautiful.
What was the landscape like then with regards to beach management?
When I first started to get involved in beach management it was a little disjointed, but we had huge stakeholder support for improvements and aspirations for awards, with improved facilities at a number of beaches around the Fife coast.
I came to beaches and the awards with a background in water safety. I had lifeguarded in Norfolk when I was younger and saw the opportunity, and identified the need, for better water safety measures around the Scottish coast.
There was political support, and a willingness to improve things, but every area of beach management, cleansing, toilets, access, biodiversity enhancement and safety was managed by different services to different standards.
Nationally, there wasn’t a network for managers to collaborate, and we turned often to local authorities in England and Wales for good practice.
What do you think were the pivotal moments for beach management in Fife?
To be honest I think making a single organisation responsible for the overall management of the Fife coastline was key to our success – Fife Coast and Countryside Trust has pulled key services together under one provider allowing us to be much more fleet of foot, responding to challenges quickly and effectively.
And, Fife was the first, and only Scottish local authority area to have a dedicated beach officer. I suspect this is why we have been able to boast more award beaches than other areas.
The last two years have really hammered home how valuable our coastline is. Yes, the pandemic, even with its negative points, has highlighted how important our beaches are to local people and visitors.
What we need to do now is capitalise on the interest and engagement we have seen and ensure all our visitors understand their responsibility to respect and protect our beaches.
What is your, and Fife’s biggest achievement with regards to the awards?
There are really too many to mention. It’s always a team effort but the number of awards we have gained and the beach upgrades we have managed to carry out are the biggest achievements for me. That and securing water safety cover (beach lifeguards) at six beaches. Not to mention all the beach upgrades even on non-award beaches, where we have applied the same management standards where we can.
We have been very successful recently with the UK Loo of the Year Awards too – a performance indicator to measure how successful our services are, and many of the award winning toilets are by our award beaches. People don’t remember good toilets; they expect them. But, they do remember badly managed and maintained ones and may not visit again.
What is the biggest satisfaction to you personally in being involved with beach management?
To be honest I don’t know as it changes from week to week. Over the years I have been proud of developing Beach Safety Operating Procedures for all the Fife beaches, of training the lifeguards before we handed that role over to the RNLI, and of developing beach litter plans for all beaches. We have extended the season for our beaches, deftly managing things so that we can provide a service year-round, with similar financial resources, but in a smarter way.
But there are other unique challenges which have led to satisfying outcomes too – people bringing vehicles to our car parks and staying overnight has led us to develop a charging scheme for campervans which we hope to launch later this year.
Personally, I have also enjoyed helping others across Scotland who were starting on the journey, training the lifeguards in Dundee for the first two years, and supporting Coldingham when Scottish Borders Council first got involved in the award schemes. I have also been able to attend UK Bathing Water Conferences and share the experiences I have from Fife with others across the UK, learning from beach managers in Wales, Northern Ireland and England – all of whom have challenges – some similar to ours (the unpredictability of the summer weather and impact that has on visitor numbers) and some different ones due to the unique nature of each beach.
Are there any stand-out challenges or memories you have from managing beaches in Fife?
Elie Harbour Beach losing its beach award due to poor water quality was a challenge. I was called upon, alongside Keep Scotland Beautiful to do interviews with the BBC and STV to talk about the loss of the award. Ironically, as the sun shone on the day of filming, and as we were able to reassure people that because of the award we had procedures in place to let people know the risks, we actually ended up promoting the beach in a positive way.
I have also had to deal with the recovery and disposal of beached whales which is extremely upsetting and challenging to manage, I have had to deal with oil slicks, erosion incidents, vandalism, and more recently avian flu and an increasing number of pallet fires – which has led to our communications campaign - #Unpallatable.
Which is your favourite award beach and why?
Elie Ruby Bay, as it’s a great wee cove and fun to swim in the water there, but I do also like Kingsbarns which has benefited from new toilets this year.
Where do you want to see Fife and the beaches in another 30 years?
The biggest challenges ahead for our beaches and coastline in Fife, are probably climate change, managing increased visitor numbers and securing long term investment – both capital and revenue.
If every coastal location could have a good economy, high standards of water quality, address the challenges of climate change, have high standards of conservation, and meet the expectations of residents and visitors, that would be a good start (perhaps that is a Utopian dream?).
But I would like to see Fife benefiting from being part of the network associated with Scotland’s Beach Awards and Keep Scotland Beautiful. We have over the years learnt a lot, shared a lot, and the Kingdom of Fife has benefitted from the long term commitment we have had to protect our beaches, and manage them for the enjoyment of environment and people.
If you would like to find out more about the support we provide beach managers, how to get involved and apply to have your local beach recognised in 2023 with one of Scotland’s Beach Awards, get in touch directly or find out more about the criteria.