Taiwan with tea-shops

The figures are indisputable. Worthing topped a survey this week as Britain's most booming town. But shouldn't someone tell the residents?
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The Independent Culture
THE woman in one of Worthing's local information offices chewed her lip thoughtfully and looked totally baffled, as if someone had just posed the most cryptic of crossword clues.

"Here, you say? Worthing? The most prosperous town in Britain? Long pause. "Are you sure you don't mean Hove? I don't know what to say. I'm surprised, I suppose. Yes, surprised."

She's not the only one. While Brighton enjoys a certain louche status epitomised by Keith Waterhouse's observation that it looks like "a town helping the police with their inquiries", poor old Worthing, you feel, would never arouse such suspicion - or interest. Until now, that is. This week Brighton's goody-two-shoes relative has suddenly shot into the limelight, after a report rating it as the most profitable town in Britain.

This is some transformation, for a place that barely gets a mention in most guidebooks on Britain. Both Lonely Plant and Rough Guide appear to overlook this centre of commerce, while the Good Guide to Britain awards it a terse mention: "restrained but rather charming town with a pleasant sea front; in the same mould as Brighton but altogether quieter and less gaudy"; damning with faint praise indeed. Perhaps the town's most famous claim to fame is a mention by Oscar Wilde, who was thought to have written The Importance of Being Ernest while staying there. At any rate, it seems that Worthing's potential has been seriously underestimated.

This genteel resort is also in the news for being one of the luckiest places in Britain. Worthing, nicknamed "Guards' Waiting-Room", has just recorded its seventh lottery jackpot winner - Brian and Karen Hopcroft, fish and chip shop managers. "It cod be us" reads the headline in The Argus, Worthing's local paper, above the couple's jubilant photograph.

Experian, the global information group, analysed the profits of 200,000 companies in England, Wales and Scotland and measured firms' profits against sales. They found that successful areas had excellent communication and transport links, a high number of skilled workers and a well established manufacturing base. The figures also show that businesses in Worthing enjoy an average profit margin of 20.9 per cent. London, in comparison, manages a measly 5.27 per cent. Worthing's buoyant figures really reflect the businesses that have invested here: the Daewoo Motor Company, SmithKline Beecham Pharmaceuticals, and Griffin Credit Services. There has also been a 10,000 increase in the numbers of people of working age living in the town, and another 4,000 are expected to move in over the next five years.

Chris Sargent, chairman of the Economic Development and Planning Council, views these figures as evidence of a significant demographic shift in Worthing's population. At one time, Worthing had the largest over-65 population in Britain. But no longer, enthuses Mr Sargent.

"A lot of younger people are moving to the town. It's quite a place now. In fact we've got more young people here than in any other town in West Sussex. It annoys me that the media look on it as an old people's town. It's changed."

Old people, it seems, aren't so much part of the vision for this new, shiny, hi-tech centre of commerce. Young people, young "professionals" in particular, are part and parcel of New Worthing's 21st-century image. One information officer tells me brightly: "It's not a sleepy place at all. It used to be called the `Costa Geriatrica', but not any more."

Opposite Worthing's Pavilion, Richard John, a businessman, owns three hair and beauty salons. He is expanding rapidly, and has bought several other shops in the area.

"I now employ 55 people," he says. "It was just me and a shampooer. What's happening, I think, is a change of attitude. New companies have moved in, with young families."

So there's not much demand for blue rinses, then? He looks vaguely appalled by the idea. "Blue rinses? Ooh no, certainly not. We offer high quality that people like paying for," he says firmly, despite the fact that there are enough old people walking past his shop to keep him shampooing non- stop for a week. But that's not the sort of clientele that interests him.

Which leaves you wondering whether Worthing is a town in serious denial - or at least suffering from a split personality: Milton Keynes aspirations with Bournemouth demographics. And while the more entrepreneurial residents boast of an influx of lively young things and a dwindling elderly population, 20 minutes in the town centre confirms the exact opposite.In this light, reports of a new tiger economy seem a little far-fetched - more enthusiastic Labrador, maybe. Elderly couples stroll along the sea front past the sedate- looking ice-cream parlours and the pavilion, where you can catch an afternoon tea dance or watch Hinge and Bracket. They sit around on benches and in tea rooms, making the most of the mild weather before the season draws to an end.

"I've never noticed that this town is prosperous" says Elsie, 70, out with two friends. "They come in, spend their money and then go back again." Her friend, Pam, chips in: "If you ask me, the place has lost a lot in the last few years, with all those new-fangled shopping centres and the smaller shops going. It's taken the character away."

Further along the seafront, at Worthing's equivalent to Brighton's "Grand", Lillian and Sylvia, in their seventies, are settling down to some sewing over a morning coffee. "It feels welcoming here, but not particularly wealthy," says Sylvia. Lillian agrees. "I like it because it's so quiet. Not like Brighton - I hate that place."

The real challenge, it seems, is to locate Worthing's flourishing younger population - which is supposedly breathing new energy into an old resort. After a fairly arduous hunt, it becomes clear that they are pretty thin on the ground. Louisa and Stacey, both 18 and at college, stick out like sore thumbs in one of Worthing's seafront pubs - chiefly because they're under 60 years old.

"There's not a lot to do, clubbing-wise," admits Louisa. "You tend to go to Brighton for that. There is money around, definitely. But it doesn't go to the right things."

Stacey agrees: "There's more for the elderly lot. And they get irritated by the noise, so clubs have to close down earlier."

Profitability may be soaring, but it looks as though it will take some time for the rest of the town to fulfil such a lucrative reputation. No need for Brighton to start sweating just yet.

"It would be nice if there were more for young people to do" says Louisa wistfully. "Still, there's always the National Lottery."