Nice big up for the Walpole Bay Hotel.
If Margate were a blind date, waiting for you at a bar, you would turn on your heel and run. Who wants to spend an evening with a man whose front teeth are missing, whose expression is permanently leery, whose tatty clothes smell of stale chip fat and worse? And yet I fall for the town in the time it takes me to walk from the station to the prom. It's not that I don't try to resist. No sooner am I off my train than I'm counting the number of shops that are boarded up: those missing teeth. But when I get to 12 in almost as many paces I give this up as too depressing. Then it happens. Standing outside the elegant but derelict Dreamland cinema on the seafront - it's from 1935, the first English cinema to be modelled on the Titania Palast in Berlin, a style later made famous by Odeon - I look out towards the harbour wall where, in just two years' time, the town's new gallery, Turner Contemporary, designed by the architect David Chipperfield, will open its ritzy doors. Beside it, Margate's pastel Georgian houses are hunkered beneath the sky like little old ladies in coloured raincoats, and no wonder. As skies go, this one is as big and as brooding as they come, dirty clouds scudding across it as if they were in some strange meteorological race. The effect is beautiful, and extraordinary. It makes you ache for Margate: for all that it was, and for all that it could still be. Suddenly I'm head over heels in love.For a small, decrepit and very deprived town - according to the government's Indices of Multiple Deprivation, it is among the most deprived towns in the country - Margate has been much in the news of late. First there was the long-running gallery saga over Turner Contemporary - so called because, according to Ruskin, JMW once said that the "skies over Thanet are the loveliest in Europe". Would it happen? In 2006 Kent county council, which is funding the space, dropped Snohetta & Spence's original design for the building after costs spiralled to more than £40m (the foundations for Chipperfield's new, cheaper design were finally sunk earlier this year). In 2008 there was the arson attack at Dreamland, Margate's famous amusement park, a fire which destroyed sections of its beloved Scenic Railway (the oldest operating rollercoaster in Britain and the first to be listed - Grade II - by English Heritage), and which effectively closed the doors of the park, in its current incarnation, for ever. In recent months there have been other, smaller fusses: over attempts by contestants on The Apprentice to rebrand the town; over a campaign to list the Victorian Nayland Rock shelter on the grounds that TS Eliot wrote some of The Wasteland there ("On Margate Sands./ I can connect/ Nothing with nothing"); over a snobbish piece in the Times which called Margate a dump.Through all of this, Margate has struggled on, doing what it does best - fish and chips, Mr Whippy, cheap lager - and trying hard to ignore the fact that 8.5% of its population claims unemployment benefit (double the national average), or that vacancy rates in its high street hover at 33%. If you believe the press, the town's more discerning residents and business people are playing a waiting game, hanging on until Turner Contemporary finally arrives, and a whole new lot of visitors (for which, read: middle class visitors) appear in search of art and crab sandwiches. The question is: can they be sure that this is a game worth playing?Will people come and, if so, how many? What will be the knock-on effect? Will hotels and restaurants boom? How many jobs will be created? Nothing is certain. For one thing, we're now in the middle of a recession so severe that public investment in culture is regarded as marginal at best. For another, people are increasingly chary of white elephants. They look at, say, The Public arts centre in West Bromwich which cost £52m to build and whose gallery closed before it even opened, and they wonder: why not spend the cash on schools, or housing, or a business park instead?Not that Margate is the only one. Pre-recession, many south coast resorts made culture a cornerstone of their hopes for regeneration. In 1968 three-quarters of us still took a holiday at the British seaside. By 1999 that figure was 44%. No one goes to the coast in a charabanc for Wakes Week (or whatever) any more, the thinking went; we must give them new reasons to come instead: literary festivals, all that. Better still, let's put up something big and iconic for them to gawp at. Architecture! Out came the chequebooks, up went the cranes. In Bexhill the restoration of the De La Warr Pavilion will now be followed by the 'next wave': a raft of controversial landscaping measures on the promenade. In Hastings planning permission has been granted - despite vigorous local opposition - for a gallery, designed by HAT Projects, to house the Jerwood Foundation's 20th century art collection (Jerwood is funding the gallery; Hastings borough council will fund improvements to the immediate vicinity). In Eastbourne the Towner Gallery, whose collection includes work by Victor Pasmore and Vanessa Bell, has moved to an £8.6m building by Rick Mather. In Folkestone, already home to a literary festival and a triennial, a sleek new £4m performance space has just opened, Quarterhouse, designed by Alison Brooks. Even Deal has a new architectural jewel: a cafe at the end of its pier designed by Niall McLaughlin Associates.But back to Margate, where I am standing in the cold and soft drizzle. I have an appointment to see Victoria Pomery, the director of Turner Contemporary. First, though, I am going to look round. Let's see. The further I walk, the more boarded-up shopfronts I find; and yes, there are lots of signs offering cheap booze, breakfast all day, and all you-can-eat buffets. Nevertheless, Margate is invincibly lovely. It has the second oldest theatre in Britain, the Theatre Royal, which is exceedingly beautiful, and which is now run by someone very imaginative (his name is Will Wollen). It has a terrace of houses, recently restored, which looks just like New York's Flatiron building in miniature. It has the mysterious and beautiful Shell Grotto, a (Grade I listed) series of subterranean chambers whose walls are decorated with 4.6m cockles, whelks, mussels and oysters, and yet whose purpose, 174 years after its discovery, remains obscure. (Is it a pagan temple? A Regency folly? I don't know, but I love it either way.) It even has a nice old-fashioned hotel, the Walpole Bay, with its 1927 Otis trellis-gated lift servicing every floor. Not to mention fresh shellfish, which I buy from a family-run shack by the harbour, and scoff with a wooden fork. Does it really need a swanky art gallery, or would it be better served by a little love and attention, a decent marketing campaign, and some passionate word of mouth?Victoria Pomery is well aware that some people think Turner Contemporary is being "beamed in": that it will arrive, as if from outer space, and lead an existence completely separate from that of the town. But she believes the naysayers are wrong. "Good art should be seen and experienced by everyone, whatever their circumstances," she says. "Kent, perhaps because of its proximity to London, has always suffered from not having a cultural infrastructure."The seaside, she points out, was always at the forefront of experimentation - in architecture, for instance, where modernism reigned - even in earlier centuries. "Margate was the first town in Britain to have bathing huts. So why shouldn't it now have a building designed by one of our best architects? We have a tendency to look back, to look at old photographs of Margate, all those visitors. But the world has moved on."But is Turner Contemporary sustainable? Can she be sure it won't end up being another white elephant? "Yes, I can. We've done a huge amount of work on things like business planning."However, she won't let it be responsible for solving all Margate's problems. "It is easy to say: this will regenerate the town. I don't think you can say that. One building isn't going to do it. The content has got to be right."This is an understatement. Although some (borrowed) work by Turner will always be on display at Turner Contemporary, it has no collection. Yes, its educational work in the community, with schools and local artists, has already been running, very successfully, for some time. But its reputation in the wider world will stand and fall on its exhibition programme. The odd Turner aside, will Pomery really be able to get her hands on enough good work to continue to attract visitors?At the moment, however many exploratory studies people carry out in advance, it's difficult to prove that this stuff - culture as regeneration - really works for the simple reason that it's a long process, and most seaside towns are at the beginning of their journey. Still, the evidence is mounting that, done the right way, it can make a significant difference to a place. Folkestone, another once glorious seaside town that fell on hard times as visitors abandoned it, is having significant success with its programme of cultural regeneration, although, unlike Margate, it worked hard at a grassroots level before it started indulging its edifice complex (and Quarterhouse is relatively modest in size, sitting snugly on a town street).In 2003 Roger de Haan, whose family business, Saga, is based in Folkestone (he sold it in a management buyout in 2004), established the Creative Foundation for the specific purpose of using the arts to regenerate the town. The Foundation established a Creative Quarter, refurbishing old buildings and leasing them to creative businesses and individuals. It also helped to establish the town's first higher education courses and, last year, its acclaimed Triennial. "Our project has already created or sustained 200 jobs in the creative industries, and hourly earnings, which used to be 15% below the national average are now just 2% below," says Nick Ewbank, the Foundation's creative director. "In terms of more anecdotal evidence, significant local employers, such as Holiday Extras, tell us that cultural regeneration has made it easier to recruit and retain staff."Ewbank thinks that big iconic buildings work better in cities. "Our first priority has been to make Folkestone a better place to live. Education is at the heart of that. If more tourists come, too, that's a happy byproduct. But this is a long-term commitment. These are 125-year leases at zero rent." His advice to other towns: "It's not that there is a finite capacity for museums and galleries; it doesn't work like that. But you need to trust in local communities to be distinctive. It's not about parachuting stuff in. Nor is it about copying someone else's model."The experts perkily use words like "social enterprise", "hubs" and "aspiration". But even they accept that this trend is ridden with bear-traps. "Projects have got to stack up financially," says Sarah Gaventa of Cabe (the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment), the quango which advises the government on public space. Cabe runs a programme called Sea Change, which makes grants to seaside resorts want to use culture for the purposes of regeneration (the final wave of grants will shortly be announced, by which time the DCMS will have handed out up to £45m). "There needs to be a legacy. We don't want to create white elephants. So councils have also got to think about how people are going to get there, where they're going to stay, and eat."David Powell runs a company which advises towns on cultural regeneration and will shortly publish, with Professor Fred Gray of Sussex University, a report called South East Coastal Towns: Economic Challenges and Cultural Regeneration. Powell says: "One of the difficulties of large capital projects in small places is that they are a big flame which burns brightly, and takes all the attention away from other things. People assume that by its mere presence, it characterises change. That isn't necessarily so. For the cost of three triennials in Folkestone, you could probably build a decent-sized gallery. The question is: would you want to?"I ask both these experts what they think - to take just one example - of the Jerwood project in Hastings. Gaventa believes it will work because it has a collection. "It's an organisation of national quality; it's not like building a museum then looking round for bits of old fishing equipment to fill it." Powell is more hesitant: "There is a feeling of it having been: plonked." In this context, I think that the collection-less Turner Contemporary, for all that I wish it well, is going to have to tread carefully. When David Chipperfield told locals he'd changed the roof of his design from flat to pitched, the better to reflect Margate's architectural heritage, the crowd clapped. But a pitched roof is not going to seal the deal - with locals, or with visitors - in the long term.In all these towns, even Folkestone, with its billionaire, public money is being pumped into cultural ventures, and outsiders called in to help. Is there another way? Perhaps. From Margate, I go to Littlehampton where, two years ago, Jane Wood and her daughter Sophie Murray opened the East Beach Cafe in a building that everyone says looks like a piece of driftwood, designed by Thomas Heatherwick. Since then they have taken over one further cafe, and opened yet another - the West Beach Cafe, designed by Asif Khan. Jane has also bought the last remaining 19th century warehouse on the Arun estuary, thus saving it from almost certain destruction (she is going to convert it into flats). They are also spearheading fundraising for the town's plan to install the longest bench in the world on its prom. Jane and Sophie are not experts - or at least, they weren't when they started all this. They just love Littlehampton, where they have long owned a "very grotty" holiday flat. Sometimes, love is all you need - assuming the nice man at the bank will also lend you some money. "One day Sophie heard that the chap who had the little kiosk here [East Beach Cafe] had got planning permission for a 96-seat burger restaurant," says Jane, from behind the most fantastic sunglasses I've seen since Sunnie Mann died. "It really was going to be a horror: like a public lavatory. We love this beach and, for us, it was like seeing a tree cut down. We felt something would be lost for ever. We had no alternative but to buy the business. People say we were brave but to us it wasn't brave; it was completely logical."The deal signed, the family sat at their kitchen table, and talked about what they were going to put there. Jane met lots of architects, but Heatherwick, a product designer, best grasped the brief. "He didn't want to put up a great edifice for the glorification of his name. He spoke of prospect and refuge."He got the job. When Jane and Sophie reapplied for planning permission there were no objections; they did a lot of public consultation: people saw that, however outre, it would be good for the town. The previous owner's application had received several hundred objections. A year later the story was repeated all over again. This time someone was going to put up an ugly burger bar on West Beach. So Jane and Sophie stepped in."We're a business!" says Jane. "We're not rich philanthropists. So the cafes must make money. But even so, we have given something to the town: some quality architecture. This place really belongs to the beach."The knock-on effects have been amazing. They have created 40 jobs at peak season, and Jane believes the cafes have "totally changed" the kind of visitors who come to Littlehampton. Because the food is good and affordable, the cafes are used by local people, too. As a result, Jane and Sophie are in demand: other towns seek their expertise. But Jane has strong views. She looks at the plans in places like Margate and Hastings and wonders if they aren't an "imposition". She and Sophie are "addressing a need" - in this case, the need for decent food and somewhere to shelter from the squally weather - rather than stimulating one. "People ask to pick our brains. Well, you can't do that! I don't mean that rudely. You need something that's right for your town. You can't plonk anything, anywhere."We talk about the Dreamland project in Margate: local enthusiasts have been buying up heritage pleasure rides - most recently, Blackpool Pleasure Beach's Junior Whip - and are now raising money so that Dreamland can be reopened as the world's first amusement park of historic rides (the Deco cinema will also be restored, as a museum of street style). Last month the Dreamland Trust was awarded £384,500 by the Heritage Lottery Fund for its development plans; as I write, they await a decision on a £4m application to Sea Change. We both love this idea, born of local enthusiasm and pride. It seems to belong to Margate already - a privilege its new gallery will have to earn.Perhaps it all comes down to what you call culture. I can think of few things lovelier than looking at a tempestuous Turner sky in the place where he painted it. But I also think that old wooden rollercoasters count as culture, too - not to mention fish and chips and mushy peas and Tizer. These things are part of who we are. They make our lives better, just as art does, and theatre, and music. To combine them, then, is very heaven. For our battered seaside resorts, all 250 of them, this must surely be the future.After we finish talking, Jane drives me over the Arun to the West Beach, and deposits me in her other cafe for lunch. When I arrived the sky was grey, and the rain soon soaked into my sandals and my silly summer coat. Now, though, as if by magic, the sun has come out. I order fish and chips and a cup of tea, and then a scoop of homemade strawberry ice cream, and I sit in Asif Khan's airy wood and glass box, with only the sound of the sea and one elderly couple (it is early for lunch) for company. It's the British seaside as I always dream of it: the view, so cleverly framed for me by a bright young man barely out of architecture school, and the batter on my haddock, so light and so crisp, are each as delectable as the other.