How the battle of Whitstable became a struggle for the soul of seaside resorts

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Derek West can justifiably claim to know a thing or two about whelks. For the last 110 years, his family has fished, cooked, shelled and sold the meaty molluscs from a black-painted hut on the windblown quayside at Whitstable.

As the 78-year-old grandfather put it while sitting over a bucket deftly twisting dozens of freshly boiled whelks from their conical shells: "I've been working in this harbour for 65 years. Every morning I sit down and pick whelks with my wife and granddaughter. It's what we do, it's second nature."

In recent weeks, Mr West, whose whelking boat saw such long service that it now sits in the town museum, has become a reluctant expert on another matter that is no close to his heart: proposals to "enhance" this bustling 176-year-old quayside and fishing port on the east Kent coast by demolishing buildings and adding, among other possibilities, a 10,500 sq ft supermarket, a theme pub and a four-storey glass and steel hotel.

The plans to regenerate the South Quay in Whitstable, which has undergone a renaissance in the past decade from a dowdy working town to the chic seaside location of choice for downshifting Londoners and day-trippers, have sparked a furious response from residents and visitors alike, who fear it will irrevocably damage the harbour. Some 16,000 people in a town with a population of less than 30,000 have signed a petition condemning the proposals put forward by the local authority.

As a result, the battle of South Quay has become a test case for the redevelopment of Britain's seaside towns. English Heritage will hold a conference this week to warn that preserving historic buildings and structures is vital to the successful regeneration of these communities. A survey for the conservation body found that 77 per cent of people believe the "historic character" of seaside towns is their key asset.

For Derek, who now combines his whelk business with a sideline in Whitstable's famous oysters, the very survival of one of the last small-scale working harbours in south east England – the first in the world to be built solely for the use of a railway, a freight line running to Canterbury – is at stake.

Speaking in front of a large banner reading "Hands off our harbour – shipping not shopping", he said: "Why on earth would you want to put a supermarket in a place like this? We have two huge supermarkets on the edge of town. If I want to go to the pub, there is one across the street. This is a working harbour with a fish market. These plans would kill this harbour off, not regenerate it."

Buoyed by growing numbers of day trippers seeking the benefits of 10 years of gentrification, which has left Whitstable's once-struggling Victorian high street dotted with bistros and select boutiques, the harbour has become a key attraction in recent years.

As well as a busy fish market and adjoining cockle processing plant, which lends the quayside its fishy perfume, it has recently sought to diversify by adding an arts fair, an outdoor café and a weekly programme of live music.

But with £3m of maintenance work to the quays needed in the next decade, Canterbury City Council, which owns the site, says it must remain economically viable (this year it is on track to make a profit of £70,000) and regeneration by a developer is the most obvious way of doing so.

Three multi-million-pound proposals have been supplied by developers. One envisages a mixture of holiday lets and a large supermarket, another foresees the replacement of the wooden shed currently hosting the fish market with a large glass and steel restaurant and the other, put forward by Kent brewer Shepherd Neame proposes a themed pub next to the cockle plant.

Peter Banbury, the head of Whitstable Harbour Watch, a pressure group set up to oppose the plans, which has a mushrooming membership, said: "There is a very strong feeling in the town that these proposals are just outrageous. Massive development of this nature is completely out of keeping with the nature of the harbour. It is a historic site – the oldest harbour in the world built to be served by a railway. Why on earth would you want a supermarket there?"

English Heritage, which has studied regeneration projects in 15 seaside towns, said it was the unique features of each town that made redevelopment successful. Simon Thurley, its chief executive, said: "Investing in the historic core of seaside towns is the essential first step in revitalising communities and giving residents a home with a soul. From fishing alleys to Victorian boulevards, from old docks and harbours to historic spas, we have lots of evidence to show that people and businesses flourish in places where local character and distinctiveness are being revived, often through physical renewal and reuse of historic buildings."

Whitstable – the Pearl of Kent

One of Britain's best-loved coastal towns, Whitstable now attracts a growing number of day trippers and residents, including the broadcaster and Independent on Sunday editor at large Janet Street Porter. Bob Geldof lives in nearby Faversham.

The Neptune Pub on the seafront served as a location in the 2006 film Venus, for which Peter O'Toole received an Oscar nomination. The town was also used in the BBC adaptation of the Sarah Waters novel Tipping the Velvet.

The influx of downshifting Londoners, attracted by cheaper property prices and an abundance of Georgian and Victorian housing, has earned it the moniker "Notting Hill on Sea" with a growing infrastructure of gastropubs and shops.

Nestling between the bright lights and amusement arcades of Margate and the heaving Medway Towns, the town has survived for centuries as the quietly unassuming "Pearl of Kent".