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Coastal erosion: Can a retail guru save Margate?

Ahead of her Government-sponsored report on the revival of the high street, Mary Portas has just visited Margate. The seaside town was this year dubbed Britain's grottiest place to live, so it seemed the perfect place to make the point about failure.

It is a decaying, uninspiring town: more than one in three shops are boarded up, unemployment rates are high, architectural monstrosities abound and there is little social cohesion. It has been pilloried and lambasted, used and abused. Once a popular Victorian seaside resort, it is now a dump.

So what can be done? To give Portas some ideas, I took Andrew Ashenden to Margate. Ashenden is the unsung hero of high-street regeneration. He was the architect of the renaissance of the Howard De Walden Estates in Marylebone, London, in the early Nineties. He has also advised on the revival of the North Yorkshire town of Ripon, the Sussex town of Midhurst, four derelict former mining towns in Scotland and numerous other blighted spots around the country. In addition, he's advised the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea about saving small shops.

Ashenden says: "Small independent shops are the key to regeneration. At Marylebone we took reduced rents if we found the right tenant because if the tenant does well and thrives then your rental income increases."

There were also profit-share and reduced-rent deals on offer to encourage the right sort of tenant. The big chains didn't have their leases renewed and were actively encouraged to move out as Ashenden tried to clean up the "cloned" high street of Marylebone.

Although both Tesco and Sainsbury bid more for a supermarket site, the winning bidder was Waitrose, which promised to give more back to the community. Ashenden waves the flag for paternal capitalism with great gusto.

But it wasn't always like that. When he started work at Howard de Walden Estates, there were 51 vacant or part-let buildings. In fact, a little like Margate.

Driving into the town you are met with a beautiful beach, a quay on the left and a 1960s tower block on the right. The beach is open and expansive and the winter sun shimmies off the sea.

"That tower block is one of the ugliest buildings I have ever seen and it is the first thing that you see when you enter the town. Have they never heard of first impressions," exclaimed Ashenden.

It is squalid and remote, blankets used as curtains hang in windows. The tower rises above a derelict shopping arcade called Dreamland, which Tesco is trying to move into. There is a littering of down-at-heel shops. "The first thing to do here is flatten the tower block and turn it into some nice open space, grass it over," said Ashenden.

The Dreamland building is not without its merits but the entire thing is covered in scaffolding and needs some urgent repairs. But it seems as if the money has run out. It is utterly depressing.

We then went for a stroll on the beach and as nice as it is – and it is – it is strewn with litter, plastic bags, old pieces of corrugated steel and sweet wrappers.

So how do towns get to this state? "A lack of care, bad leadership and the rise of out-of-town shopping centres are all factors," says Ashenden.

Approximately ten minutes drive from Margate there is a huge shopping centre called Westwood Cross. It has acres and acres of free parking and lots of big names, from Tesco to B&Q.

Margate was once a holiday destination but the advent of cheap flights and holidays abroad has more or less put an end to that. It has to reinvent itself and to an extent it is trying.

Although a great deal of the high street is boarded up, there is hope. Rooks, an independent butcher, was doing a thriving trade. The shop bustles and the meat and food on offer looks appetising, some of it locally sourced. Meat pies, cooked foods, polony (a type of sausage dating back to the 18th century but now rarely seen) and black pudding all look superb. "It is a beacon on the high street," says Ashenden. Next door there is a greengrocer selling a good selection of fruit and veg.

"This is what is needed, this is what they should be encouraging," he continues. "What about a cheese shop and a deli? It's right by the sea, what about a fishmonger? There is very little aspirational shopping here. And another thing, there should be a town centre manager, someone you can ring and say: 'The rubbish bins are overflowing, there is graffiti on a wall and a broken window.' It is essential. In Marylebone we have a 24-hour telephone line where tenants are encouraged to ring through with complaints."

Ashenden is infuriated by the council's approach. "There is so much they could do and it doesn't appear that they are doing much, does it? This place needs an effective town manager and a retailers' forum, the key players need to be brought round the table. A local authority should provide leadership as well as regulation."

But perhaps things are improving. As we go on through town and down the hill towards the seafront, a range of cafés, clothes shops, gift shops and art galleries spring up. The trouble is they are not exactly bustling with people. We stop for lunch on the seafront at the lovely Harbour Café Bar Kitchen. The food is excellent, the place is charming and atmospheric. The owner runs a jazz festival which, this year, hosted Jamie Callum.

There is further hope too. Down on the beach a large wedge-shaped building has been erected. It is a new art gallery called Turner Contemporary, named after the 18th-century artist and sometime Margate resident, JMW Turner. Only this week they put Auguste Rodin's The Kiss on display, which can only boost visitor numbers.

On the harbour stands a majestic nine-feet tall "shell lady" by Kent-based artist Ann Carrington. Cast in bronze, she represents Mrs Booth, Turner's landlady lover, staring wistfully to sea.

Ashenden is hopeful art might be a big factor in getting Margate buzzing. "As long as there's sufficient parking and the old part of town can be linked in some way to the Turner gallery and the seafront then the revival has a chance. They have to get more small independent retailers with a vision," he says.

Tracey Emin is Margate's most famous daughter but even she despairs of the place, declaring that no one cares any more for the unloved Kent coastal town where she was brought up. Thanet Council is at least trying. It runs a discount scheme called Shop Local First. The idea is to get residents to shop at the local stores and as admirable as the scheme is, it won't work if there are no shops. Will it be too little too late? "I am not overly optimistic. It may well be that the council will have to just manage decline," says Ashenden gloomily.