Observations on an Urban Panel visit to Margate
We agreed that this was a time of special opportunity for Margate. The completion of the Turner Contemporary in 2011 will hopefully be paralleled by the realisation of the Dreamlands project in the same year. In addition there is now the distinct possibility that the Tesco/Arlington House proposals will add to the regeneration of the key beachfront between the station and the Turner. Lastly there are significant sea defences planned for the same place and with careful integration this work could make a further contribution to the creation of a real sense that Margate has turned a corner. Thus we emphasised that there was a vital need to “Seize the Moment”.
It was encouraging that several of the issues that we highlighted in March have seen real progress. Dreamlands has received a major grant from the Sea Change programme. Margate has its first boutique B&B in Hawley Square which exemplifies what we had in mind when urging that Margate needed to raise its offer in the hospitality stakes. In addition, the severe problems caused by excessive out-borough placement of vulnerable single people and children, is beginning to receive appropriate attention from senior civil servants.
However Margate remains a place with many serious challenges, and the tantalising signs of success around the corner should not be allowed to deflect attention away from the need to nail down real progress. Maintaining the attention of the wider public sector on Margate will be crucial, achieved perhaps by constant reminders that the quality of the underlying fabric of the town and its significant place in the early development of the seaside resort, provide a strong skeleton on which renewal can be built. The willingness of the many agencies involved to meet on a regular basis to coordinate activity is encouraging, but concern was expressed at apparent “Partnership proliferation” and the danger that coordination is mistaken for action.
Housing Margate enjoys some most attractive suburbs with a wide range of sizes and styles of home. Built on spacious plots with plenty of space for in-curtilage parking, the result is streets fairly free of parked cars, with mature trees and hedges. The many bungalows must be popular with older residents, but what might be a rather bland environment is enlivened by the visual interest provided by the odd modernist villa and occasional glazed pantile roof.
However away from the suburbs Margate desperately needs to make better use of the large and fine terraced housing in the central area, because their visual prominence at the heart of Margate and along the sea front sets the tone for the whole place. To the private sector they have proved ideal for multi-let low investment renting. The problems this creates for the wider community are well understood, and in particular the resulting highly transient population is a major financial and social burden on the wider community.
It seems improbable that owner occupation will become established in these properties without major public sector leadership and direct financial investment. But without the establishment of a majority owner-occupied community it will be exceptionally difficult to create social stability and regenerate the heart of Margate.
This challenge is clearly understood by the council, and they have sensibly identified Dalby Square as a place to start. In particular as a town planning set piece it has the visibility to stimulate reinforcing activity elsewhere.
The key question that faces Thanet and Kent is what housing strategy should guide the public sector intervention. In our discussion we observed that in many ways the challenge that faces Margate is not dissimilar to that which faced inner London Boroughs forty years ago. Large properties in multiple occupation, absentee landlords, disrepair, poverty. The solutions applied then were either, slum clearance and redevelopment, or municipalisation coupled with improvements and conversion. In both cases the end result was an increase in social renting, but in the latter case the stigmatisation now associated with large estates has been avoided, and those areas where the pre-existing terraces were retained are amongst
the most desirable places to live, with the majority finding a natural and comfortable balance of tenures. This success was achieved by public sector intervention following the declaration of General Improvement Areas, and Housing Action Areas. Both allowed investment into privately owned property as well as that acquired by the Local Authority – but on a planned area basis allowing the impact of the investment to be maximised.
We were given to understand that there were some 800 empty homes in the two central wards – Margate Central and Cliftonville West. This is both a major opportunity and a stark illustration of the scale of challenge facing the town. Given wider regional housing targets this would seem a major opportunity to meet housing growth targets without releasing previously undeveloped land. However reference to lessons to be learned from the Housing Market Renewal programme undertaken in the midlands and north should be regarded with caution. It is too soon to tell whether those programmes have achieved lasting regeneration, and early feedback suggests that the volume house builders engaged in these programmes have only been able to build their cheapest products in such low value areas. Surely the last thing that Margate needs. A focus on improving existing properties rather than redevelopment would surely be better, combining respect for Margate’s heritage with a responsible recognition of the need to prioritise environmental sustainability via refurbishment rather than new build..
In undertaking a multi-agency survey of residents in Dolby square the council has made an excellent start in establishing an objective base from which to plan their programme. We understood that they were well advanced in visiting every property and with achieving their target of meeting every resident. By using a home improvement agency they had assessed that about a third of the properties warranted the serving of a repair notice, and eleven houses had been singled out for specific action. It was particularly encouraging that the Leader was able to give categoric assurances that the serving of notices will be energetically
implemented. This is a key step, as it is unlikely that the council will achieve it’s goals without resort to compulsory purchase, and building up a case by the use of repairs notices is an important part of such a strategy.
When visiting Dalby Square we discussed plans for the cleared site at the southern end which has been temporarily landscaped and for the burned out hotel which abuts it. It was easy to understand and sympathise with the keenness of officers to bring forward a redevelopment scheme for the site as it is the focal point of what is a most impressive urban space. However we were unconvinced that the development proposals that were immerging from the current local and wider economic environment would do justice to such an exceptional site. Perhaps it would be better to demolish the adjacent and derelict hotel and invest in some reasonably good quality temporary landscaping, in order to give time for
the designation of a Conservation Area, coupled with intervention to repair and improve the existing buildings, to raise housing values in the square sufficiently for a genuinely high quality scheme to come forward.
The Margate Renewal Partnership is preparing a Housing Strategy for central Margate in partnership with the HCA and others. The key elements outlined in the briefing we received make a lot of sense. It is important that it places the emphasis for action on the local authority, supported at least initially by one or more Housing Association. Following on from the survey work referred to above, a programme of Housing Notices is to be implemented, coupled with the Landlord accreditation scheme now established and the proposed discretionary licensing scheme for rented accommodation, landlords should be in no doubt that the council means business. It must be hoped that a substantial capital budget will be established (Perhaps with the HCA using investment funding rather than traditional grant) which can support CPO acquisitions. Once property has been acquired I would recommend that it should be converted by Housing Association partners predominantly for sale. (To
ensure that purchasers actually reside in their homes consideration could be given to selling on shared ownership leases but with only minimal unsold equity but a five year bar on staircaseing out.) Proceeds from sales can be recycled into the acquisition programme thus utilising the investment as a revolving fund. Given the weakness of the local housing market this process may result in some losses in the early years but this should be reversed in due course as the market recovers, and should be accepted on the basis that the real return on the investment is a reduction on other local authority budgets as the social make up of the area is modified.
Out-placement of vulnerable single people and children. This was one of the key issues we highlighted when we made our first visit to Margate last year. The town is currently trying to support a far higher proportion of vulnerable single people and children in care than similar sized towns elsewhere. Both the wider community
and those individuals placed there are suffering unnecessary stress as a result. There is therefore an urgent need to reduce the number of such placements and to allow a more normal social balance to reassert itself. This means that the tap needs to be turned off as soon as possible. A clear directive from central government to those local authorities currently referring cases to Margate would seem likely to be the most effective strategy. In the meantime it is important for Thanet to analyse how these placements have impacted on the wider economy of Margate, and to consider how the very significant income that they bring with them will be replaced, so that those who have depended on this trade for their livelihood are not disadvantaged. This is an economic issue as well as a social one, and will need careful handling. It would seem to me to be bound up with on the one hand improving the hospitality offer (as in Hawley Square) and on the other promoting residential development via improvement and conversion to allow owner occupiers to take the place of the transient. The latter process will allow landlords to extract their equity if they wish,
while the former could provide an alternative source of income. However to stimulate sufficient demand for boutique accommodation the town will have to rebrand itself as a quality holiday destination. As pioneered in other struggling resorts, the arts, heritage entertainment venues and food have the potential to be at the core of the new brand.
Arts led Regeneration
A number of seaside resorts have turned to the arts and the cultural sector to lead their regeneration strategy. The Turner Contemporary is a brave investment in the future of Margate. The commitment shown by Kent CC and it’s partners is impressive. Crucial to success will be the role of local champions, and the expansion of the existing artistic community. Outreach events, such as we saw in the High Street on our previous visit, are an excellent way of building local support and interest. However sustained success will need to draw new players into Margate and in that regard there are lessons to be learned from the work of the Arts Trust in Folkestone.
We had too little time to reflect on the public realm. Previously we had drawn attention to the need to establish a programme of improvements. There is a sense that other towns are making real progress in improving their image by sustained intervention in improving key parts of their public realm. Margate needs to emulate what others are doing. In particular the key route from the station to the Turner Contemporary, and beyond along the seafront, needs to be given a higher priority. This space has great potential but is threatened by the impact of new sea defences, and by inappropriately over designed highway changes generated by the proposal for a Tesco supermarket as part of the Arlington House project. Margate has shown what it can do on a small scale in the old town, and now needs to build on this achievement.
It was gratifying to be invited back to Margate, and to experience once again the
considerable efforts which are being made by members of Margate Renewal Partnership to transform their town. Progress is being made, and all involved seem to be clearer about the actions which need to be taken. The potential of Turner Contemporary and Dreamlands to send out a powerful signal that Margate is on the way back is understood, and is clearly highly motivating. Notwithstanding the success in attracting the Sea Change funding, the fragility of the match funding is a cause for concern. With the shape of a wider strategy emerging it must be hoped that the symbolic importance of Dreamlands will enable all concerned to hold the ring so that real regenerative momentum can be established.