Thursday, 11 June 2009

Margate Urban Panel Review 2009

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Urban Panel

 

Margate 

 

Review Paper

 

This item is potentially exempt from public access under the Freedom of Information

Act, Section 22: Information intended for future publication

 

1.0      The Urban Panel’s visit to Margate was particularly timely because the current economic downturn meant that the masterplan and development framework was bound to be reviewed.  It was timely for another reason as well - since the Panel had been to Dover, Folkestone , Great Yarmouth, Lowestoft and Weymouth - all during the previous year.  So there was an immediate recognition that while some of the challenges and opportunities for resorts are common – for example the attenuated approach routes and the isolated position, with only 50% of the environs being land – each has unique qualities – such as, in Margate’s case, the very long relationship with London and a sufficient supply of land to meet emerging development needs beyond the town.

 

1.1                Furthermore the Panel’s experience of other bigger resorts – for example, Brighton and Blackpool – showed that the dumping of social problems in areas where there is a surfeit of large, under-used, former boarding houses is a national as well as a painful local problem.

 

1.2                It was also the case that while some Panel members were new to Margate, there were a number who had strong childhood memories of visiting or staying in Margate during its (most recent) heyday.  This real life connection with the town made it relatively easy to connect with the emotional part-ownership which many have with places in which they have never lived but where some important passages of life were played out.

 

1.3               It has also to be noted that the hard times which have latterly afflicted Margate have had the effect, in the external world, of exacerbating the poorer elements of its image.  In part this is simply an element of a national sport, which is to ridicule those places which most travellers can still (for the perhaps short time being) afford to fly over on their way to hotter climes.  In other part, it reflects the fact that there was always a self parodying tendency of the Kiss-Me-Quick English seaside tradition which was happy to play up the image of the working classes indulging less than genteel pastimes by the sea.  Finally, there genuinely has been decline and some of that has lead to the reputation of Margate being damaged by journalistic and other comment.

 

2.0                In order to form their own informed view on these issues and to have seen as much of the place as sensibly possible in twenty four hours, the Panel members had the benefit of extensive briefing – including copies of English Heritage’s excellent Margate’s Seaside Heritage and a number of coach and walking tours and site visits.  Throughout this process they were supported by the staff of both Margate Renewal Partnership (MRP) and Thanet District Council (TBC).  Their support was invaluable and their informed drive inspiring.

 

2.1               The evening dinner with guests from all parts of the local communities, development partners and governmental bodies served to strengthen the impression of the strongly motivated and diverse partnership which underpins regeneration in Margate.  This was further reinforced when the Panel enjoyed the opportunity to attend the Board of the MRP at the beginning of their meeting.  It is just as well that Cobbe built such a capacious bank (which now houses the MediaCentre where the meeting was held) for a smaller place could not have accommodated so many people.  Nevertheless the presence and commitment of the Chief Executive of the South East England Development Agency (SEEDA) chairing such a wide gathering of interested parties was a most encouraging augury and the Panel members were grateful for the opportunity to take up a little of the Board members time in widening mutual understanding.

 

2.2                As an important counterpoint to the enthusiasm and vigour of the active players the Panel also saw the obvious physical problems which the town has still to address and was well briefed on the nature of the social problems which afflict parts of the town and the complex links between those problems and property values.  Nowhere was this more eloquently put than by the owner of the Shell Grotto (on the visit see 9.3 below) who, having graciously and enthusiastically guided the Panel around this small wonder, then opened their eyes to the difficult social truth of life in the harder parts of the town.

 

3.0                All the guides and presentations drew the Panel’s attention to the (incontrovertible) fact that each phase of the Town’s life was built out in a different place and the question of whether that makes overall understanding of the complex town difficult.  The Panel accepted that the places (old town and harbour, Georgian town, Cliftonville and Dreamland) were very distinct – indeed they enjoyed those distinctions.  For their views on whether this is a problem or an asset see Eight below

 

3.1                Taken chronologically, the Old Town is clearly a recent success story.  The Panel felt that the move from boarded up, under-used near dereliction ten years ago to the scene today was one of which the professional team who led the regeneration work, the landowners and, indeed, the external funding bodies should rightly feel proud.  The very successful dinner was held on the premises of a business taking full advantage of and playing a part in building a better future for the Old Town.  The quality of the built environment, its proximity to the Sands, while offering protection from the worst weather blowing in that way, and the emerging quality public spaces all were a success to be trumpeted.  At the same time the Panel noted the obvious truth that, if this were the sole initiative, its ability to resolve the wider problems facing Margate would be only slight.

 

3.2               The Georgian town built on the hill fields beyond the High Street put Margate at the forefront of English seaside development for a while and, had Cecil Square and the Assembly Rooms survived intact, the image of the town might well be different today.  What is left is poignant proof that good intentions can lead to disappointing outcomes.  Staff were keen to point out that Cecil Square remains a viable municipal centre with many of the facilities the town needs still available there.  This is true and important, but a high price has been paid to achieve it.  Within the governance and local politics of Thanet, it is great for Margate that the civic offices are located in Cecil Square along with the library, Post Office and so on.  However, the building that houses them is so out of scale and overbearing as to drive the image of the rest of the square from the mind.  What is more, the square has suffered as badly as almost any from the non-negotiable demands of the highway engineer.  The Panel’s comments on this can be found at (7.1) below, but it will be no surprise that the repair of the public realm here is strongly recommended.  Hawley Square, with a good green space and the elegant Theatre Royal, along with Trinity Square with its sadly much expanded but still well managed green space, are examples of the value which Georgian planning brings to today’s town and Cecil Square should rejoin them.

 

3.3                Cliftonville could, by a different fluke of social history and demographics, be one of the most desirable parts of the country to live in and, as the Panel was told, in parts it still is.  In its prime, the fact that this other place out of town offered not only a whole holiday experience, including good shopping on Northdown Road but also access by stairs and lifts to another bathing world must have offered a most satisfactory experience to those wishing to distance themselves from the more robust entertainments of the Sands.  So today, it could offer high quality living by the sea and must come to do so.  While admiring the main features of Cliftonville, the Panel members were left in no doubt about the difficulties which have arisen from the large boarding houses being so prone to unprincipled ownership and exploitation and the social difficulties which follow.

 

3.4               Of course, as each of these, loosely defined, phases occurred, the Sands persisted - but with the embankment of the Mere and the creation of Marine Parade, the stage was set for Dreamland.  As the Panel saw, this site has been reduced, by the passage of time and the failure of enterprises both commercial and municipal, to little more than an opportunity, albeit a great one.  The sad state of the closed cinema and the fire damaged Scenic Railway is exacerbated by the empty car park and failed shopping at Arlington Square.  However, the panel was very pleased to have the chance to see this all from the air high on the 19th floor of Arlington House.  There the enthusiastic advocacy of the Dreamland Trust representative was infectious and convincing and the rather astonishing (when viewed from ground level) claim that 15 fairground rides may be accommodated on only half the site, was much easier to comprehend and believe.  The Panel was impressed that the local authority has both taken steps to protect the listed structure of the ride and to encourage development which will build upon the still firmly established image derived from the impressive peak of activity at Dreamland.

 

3.5                The place the Panel was so expertly guided around has, of course, many other features beyond those set out above.  The quality of the excellent shore line and beaches, with bathing, walking and great views, is on a par with all the best resorts.  The sense of special place engendered by the Isle of Thanet, with Reculver Towers visible in the distance, is a palpable and important asset.  The Sea Bathing Hospital may be temporarily stalled, but its survival says a good deal about the high aspirations of the town then and now.  And the connections to Broadstairs and Ramsgate, with quality sea front housing along much of the way gives clear signs that a viable future for the whole district is not that far away, once Margate has once more found its feet.  So the Panel was pleased to be able to comment on the vision for Margate and on the likely efficacy of the many projects which are intended to help achieve that vision.

 

4.0                This review has so far made no reference to the Turner Contemporary Art Gallery and to the local reader that may appear strange.  To Panel members, however, the gallery was one of the first of the many initiatives intended to revive the town, rather than one of its existing conditions, as inventoried above.  It is a great achievement to have overcome the many difficulties of commissioning and sustaining the funding for such a schemeand to have a David Chipperfield building coming out of the ground, as a symbol of a revitalised Margate, is impressive.  Furthermore, the Panel was pleased to see the successful gallery outreach programme reaching new audiences in the former Marks and Spencer on the High Street.

 

4.1              It was a relief to find that few, if any, of the people the Panel met subscribed to the mystical theory of the power of an iconic building.  Instead the Panel found a steady and commendably balanced view of the limits to what the gallery could achieve as well as of the image changing impact it could be sure to have.  To build on that change will be a long and complex task up a windy and difficult road.  A critical hurdle will be to provide both the accommodation and the entertainments (minimally, several good bars and restaurants) which will encourage and enable the new, gallery visiting, Margate visitors to stay overnight.  The Panel will return to both those points later but the headlines may be mentioned immediately and they are: that the necessary change is not likely to be reinforced by settling for the budget hotel which may be the only thing on offer at the moment; and that a significant contribution to the required new accommodation may be made by the resurrection of formerly failed or failing large boarding houses.

 

5.0              However, that would assume that some impact had begun to be made on one of Margates greatest challenges – the high levels of social deprivation caused by the unprincipled cramming of large former boarding houses with socially demanding and disruptive tenants from far afield.  This, the Panel acknowledged, was a crisis that cannot be entirely resolved within Margate itself.  It cannot be acceptable that the best answer the social housing bodies have found for disruptive tenants is to ship them elsewhere, where additional costs are then met by another authority and another social housing budget.

 

5.1              Pending resolution of the national problem, Thanet and MPR have to deal with the situation on the doorstep. The Panel found the current initiatives to be well considered although, inevitably, smaller than would ideally be the case.  Specifically, the Panel saw a strong case for a degree of municipalisation which, although running counter to the long-established political tide, is a necessity likely to be adopted once more around the country while offering specifically relevant benefits in Margate.  Once properties are in the hand of the local authority, far wider targets may be addressed – for example, proper mixed uses can be introduced to areas so that new tenants are moving into a viable, mixed environment.

 

5.2                Furthermore, the authority will want and need to work with partners at the county to ensure that the requisite educational provision is made available to support new community members who wish to commit to Margate but need schools, along with other services so to do.  The Panel appreciates that the sudden storm clouds of recession offer little but new threat to places like Margate which attract investment mainly at the high water mark.  If there is to be a silver lining, however, it may be that only the public sector can invest at present and Thanet will be able to achieve some complex and difficult municipal objectives during a period when the market is not available.

 

5.3                In that particular context, the Panel was impressed with what had been achieved with community groups, such as the environmental improvement work that was pointed out in Dalby Square.  There is a strong case for the authority fostering such initiatives wherever there is potential.  One way of taking this kind of community strengthening activity further was suggested.  On sites such as the fire damaged hotel at the north of Dalby Square, Panel members saw a very strong case for Thanet acquiring , assembling and perhaps providing infrastructure for the site and then making it available, through a community development trust, for self-build schemes.  As a way of providing new committed members of the community, while meeting a social need, such co-operatives are unparalleled and the Panel commended their development in Margate.

 

6.0                The downside of the recession and pressure on the public purse is, of course, that the amazingly ambitious project list in Shared Intelligence’s report will have to undergo far more radical prioritisation (something the Panel would have recommended in any case, even in financially more comfortable times).  Panel members did not think that the list was that difficult to prune, for now.  The Rendezvous site may be needed for the county to balance its books (and the authority should not be forced to suffer after so generous and powerful a gesture as underwriting the Turner Contemporary).  However, it will surely have to wait and it must be supported in resisting cheap and inappropriate development, just because it would generate some receipt.

 

6.1                Similarly, although the Lido site could in future house the kind of uses which are helping regeneration in former spa towns, it cannot be a priority to try to bring such a difficult site on stream now.  Rather, it might be one of a second wave of projects, concentrating on health and exercise themes, with an appeal to the ‘silver dollar’ tourists.

 

6.2               In choosing which of the many schemes to prioritise, the Panel had no doubts.  Dreamland is blessed with assets of the highest quality and national importance, a nationally known (remembered) name, all the space that is needed, a dedicated Trust, with a collection of historic fairground rides and a vision which the Panel thought wholly apposite.  Accordingly Trust, Partnership and authority were urged to turn all necessary attention to the re-emergence of Dreamland.

 

6.3                National funding streams of relevance exist and, although the Panel has no lien on them, members thought there was very good case for some funds coming to Margate and being directed to Dreamland.  On the other hand, the Panel felt that even on this site there was a surfeit of perhaps undeliverable aspirations and projects.  The proposed road around the back of the site was not found convincing and its benefit was questioned.  There will always have to be traffic movement along the Mere causeway and the front, for movement is the nature of sea fronts and some reduction in that flow seems a slight return for a significant investment, a fragment of which could calm traffic and give ownership to pedestrians along the front.

 

6.4                So the Panel urged that the vision of Dreamland re-opening as the first and nationally unique heritage fairground be promoted with urgency and drive and without unnecessary burdens.  Similarly, the Panel saw no merit in delaying the scheme because the grander development package for the site (which suddenly looks very dated) cannot now be delivered.  New housing may be a long time coming and yet this need not hamper successful delivery of new Dreamland.  The remainder of the site can be brought forward, with minimal investment, as an events space.  Panel members envisaged a near future in which Dreamland is functioning and attracting new visitors as well as entertaining and pleasing existing ones.  That can be much enhanced by attracting to the new, large events space circuses, markets, small festivals and so on, with obvious concomitant benefits.  The Panel was also confident that such a degree of activity would constitute the critical mass which would provide the context for a successful re-use of the cinema.

 

7.0                Indeed Panel members were so convinced that this is a clear first development priority that it strongly urged that all necessary funds be directed to that purpose even where other, generally laudable, objectives would have to be abandoned or, at least, deferred as a result.

 

7.1                One area where the Panel saw the opportunity for trimming the sails was in the public realm proposals.  While the Panel is a strong proponent of the quality of the public realm generally, it was concerned that the enormous areas potentially involved could result either in loss of focus, or in huge costs which would not deliver sufficient returns.  So for, example, the Panel much admired the benefit which has been derived from the relatively small and affordable areas of public realm work in and around the Old Town – particularly the new piazza facing the harbour.  It did not believe that the same effect could be achieved by pouring large sums of money into the roundabout by the station or into some hundred yards of the front.  Rather members felt that the re-creation of Cecil Square as a pedestrian dominated space of quality would offer a far better return for residents and visitors alike.  Engineer led schemes of the sort defacing the square are often up for renewal for engineering reasons and now would be the time to ensure that the preparation work has all been done, the vision of another Georgian square of quality being returned to the public has been promulgated and political drive is behind a great transformation.

 

7.2                On an analogous front, the Panel noted that the future of Northdown Road was essential to the success of Cliftonville.  The survival to date of so many independant stores is a remarkable asset, which it was encouraging to note is widely valued.  However the steps which will ensure survival of a viable number of these stores will be difficult.  It may be necessary to allow some retrenchment.  There will probably be the case for a dedicated trust which manages properties with the viability of the special place in mind rather than the profit derived from individual properties.  This is a special moment, when properties are cheap and the public sector active where such a trust could be set up and endowed with properties which Thanet or MRP had acquired.  Only with a viable and convincing set of initiatives in place should public realm work then become part of the mix, for it is expensive and can seldom be a cure in its own right.

 

8.0               Another aspect of management of the public realm is connectivity.  It was suggested to the Panel that the development history of Margate combined with its topography had somehow made a place which was difficult to comprehend and navigate and where there were critical disconnections which had to be overcome.  The Panel did not accept the analysis and thought that the emphasis on connectivity in the masterplan was overdone.  In many ways Margate is easier to understand than other seaside towns.  Few others, if any, can boast a view of the sands from the main entrance of an attractive station  Once the short walk which that view inspires has been undertaken (and the Panel accepted the case for some improvement of the pedestrian route past Buenos Ayres) then the Harbour, the Droit House and the emerging Turner Contemporary will be obvious.  The Panel thought there was strong case for the Droit House to contain orientation displays and probably for some investment in modern, map carrying fingerposts.  Both of these should then direct visitors to the attractive small inter-connecting routes which are one of the pleasures of the town, which should be more widely shared.

 

8.1                The Panel accepted that there is more of a barrier between the Harbour and Cliftonville but felt that much could be done to alleviate that in the aftermath of the removal of the dual carriageway and the work which must be done to animate the new spaces emerging around the Turner. (Indeed given that there are bound to be delays before many sites are developed, members wondered whether there was a case for improving the top of Fort Road further by buying and demolishing the Arcadia hotel and producing a temporary public space, as a meantime use).

 

9.0                The panel urged MRP and TDC to consider a programme which promoted such meantime uses in empty shops, on open sites which may one day be developed but will stand fallow for a long time and in buildings awaiting their eventual use.  The outreach work the Turner is carrying out in the former Marks and Spencer is a great example and the organisation might be the right one to carry forward such a wider initiative.

 

9.1                The Panel also noted a case for better quality management of existing public spaces.  Walking along the seafront below the Winter Gardens is a case in point.  The coastal connectivity of all parts of the town to each other and to other parts of Thanet is an undoubted asset and just the kind of thing to attract new, staying visitors, but the spaces themselves are undermanaged to the degree of feeling abandoned.  This was a state of affairs the Panel stressed must be reversed.

 

9.2                This is also part of a wider picture for the immediate way ahead in hard financial times.  It is essential that Margate keeps existing attractions as well as the spaces between them in the best possible condition.  The Winter Gardens may well have a daunting capital cost if complete refurbishment is considered.  While that is yet to be found, however, a viable short term programme must be ensured and, where possible, the users of the Winter Gardens must be helped to understand that there are emerging facilities, in the Old Town and elsewhere, which can add to their enjoyment of a visit to Margate.

 

9.3                Another such attraction is, of course, the remarkable, Shell Grotto.  Panel members were very grateful to Sarah Vickery for the enthusiasm and openness with which she introduced them to this unique place.  They agreed with her that it was far more important that the Grotto be repaired and guaranteed a long term future than that further energy be directed to establishing an exact date and provenance for the place (intriguing though that question is).  They commended first Ms Vickery for her far sighted and selfless gesture in taking on the grotto and, equally admired English Heritage’s offer of significant grant assistance to that end.  And then they listened to her description of the very real difficulty of living in an area where all the necessary social qualities of life were routinely threatened and disrupted.  It will be essential that TDC and MRP are able to support all those attractions which are currently suffering from both the localised effects of such social problems and the wider ones, as they impact on the town’s image and ability to retain staying visitors.  It will be equally essential that the emergent community groups which seek to address these issues locally are supported.

 

10.0                Finally the Panel’s thoughts returned to the problem of the residential mix of a town which has the infrastructure to house thousands of staying guests in a society which does not want to use that infrastructure, other than for the (indefensibly short term and frankly amoral) resolution of a national housing problem.

 

10.1                As for a long term vision, the Panel was optimistic.  With new Dreamland and Turner Contemporary starting to change the image of the town; with new eating and drinking facilities - initially in the Old Town - coming on stream; with the unquestionably good physical assets of the resort (and Thanet) and with longer term opportunities to redevelop the Lido for a health and bathing based purpose, the Panel could see a future where those wishing to use and stay in the town would be there in rising numbers.

 

10.2                Servicing such an economy could have a number of very positive outcomes.  Boarding houses could once more function for their original purpose, providing opportunities for self-employed operators and entrepreneurs to establish high quality businesses and provide local employment.  Modern guests expect high quality local cooking and the Isle of Thanet is a great place for local sourcing.  The very significant skills required to achieve such an aim could be the focus of new further education provision in the town (such as a catering college linked to a training hotel), and the new ‘5 star’ boarding houses could both help build the market for and complement new high grade hotels (much better to wait for this moment than fall for a budget hotel in the short term).

 

10.3                But all of this can be fatally compromised by the current social milieu of the town and the Panel acknowledged that this is the greatest hurdle facing MRP.  It is, for that reason, most encouraging that the County Council, the RDA and national bodies such as the Housing and Communities Agency are engaged in the partnership.  Their ability to influence local, county, sub-regional, regional and indeed national policy will be essential in resolving the problem of social dumping.

 

10.4                The Panel is keen to offer what help it can in taking forward those discussions.  Members are keen to agree with TDC and MRP how the Panel can join in any representations to government about the priority which must be given to addressing this problem for, once a programme has been agreed and initiated and the social mix of the town starts to be corrected, all the objectives which the partnership has set itself will start to be feasible.

 

Summary

 

 

The Urban Panel:

 

  1. found Margate to be a resort whose nationally important history was reflected in its complex and attractive fabric;
  2. conversely noted that the decline of the twentieth century had left the town damaged, with many difficult issues to address;
  3. was most impressed at the vigour and breadth of the partnership which had come together to address those issues;
  4. commended major significant steps which had been taken so far including the revitalisation of the Old Town, the acquisition of Turner Contemporary and the protection of the fire damaged listed Scenic Railway;
  5. welcomed the partnership’s mature understanding that Turner Contemporary would do a great deal for the town but was not an iconic magic charm;
  6. acknowledged that the partnership had identified an impressive list of potential further actions but that prioritisation was going to be the key;
  7. advised that the key top priorities the Panel perceived were resolving the social issues arising from the residential mix and ensuring the future of Dreamland;
  8. strongly endorsed the core proposal for the Heritage Fairground at Dreamland;
  9. saw no reason to burden that development with other aspirations like the new road and indeed found a good opportunity to turn the rest of the site to events uses;
  10. believed that a programme of meantime uses for many of the currently empty places and spaces in the town could enliven it pending major developments;
  11. urged all parties to seek the opportunity for high quality development of an appropriate sort rather than to accept lower grade development just because it is currently available;
  12. saw a future for the resurrection of former boarding houses as high quality visitor accommodation offering good local food and pssibly supported by a catering college linked to a training hotel.
  13. did not find the town poorly connected or difficult to navigate and urged that public realm initiatives build on the strengths of the place such as the repair of Cecil Square;
  14. stressed the need for existing attractions to be supported and for public spaces to be well managed;
  15. emphasised that most of the above developments and improvements risked foundering if the social and housing issues were not addressed;
  16. praised the local authority for those areas in which it had managed environmental and social improvements in alliance with community groups;
  17. proposed that such groups be bolstered by enabling self-build housing initiatives and by the creation of a trust which would support that process as well as underpinning the special qualities of Northdown Road; and
  18. offered to assist the partnership, if possible, in making representations to government about the need for social housing policies which would lift an insupportable burden from Margate.

 

 

 

Chris Smith                                                                      20th April 2009

 

 

 

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