More towns should do a Margate

The seaside resort did not need Mary Portas - it got funds for a gallery that attracts local people and visitors

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Mary Portas is definitely a Marmite person – her plans to reinvigorate our high streets have been welcomed by some and condemned by others. The Government took up her proposal that planning red tape had to be slashed allowing vacant properties to be repurposed quickly, for a limited period – but the Local Government Association (LGA) reacted angrily, predicting that pubs and greengrocers would be subdivided into betting shops. The LGA reckons we'll only return to our high streets if they offer "cherished, local, good-quality shops, restaurants and businesses", and fears that vacant offices will become flats and schools, and that there will be money-lenders and pawnbrokers on every corner.

There is no doubt that drastic action is needed to halt the terminal decline. A new study from the Centre for Retail Research reckons one in five shops will have closed by 2018, and the ones that remain tend to be uninspiring chain stores. Dame Fiona Reynolds, former director-general of the National Trust, made a speech at the Hay Festival yesterday complaining that clone towns are ruining Britain's heritage.

Meanwhile, Mary's "Portas pilot" towns, which received seed money from the Government to get started with their regeneration plans, are finding it tough. Ten of the 12 now have more shops empty than a year ago, with only Bedminster in Bristol and Margate showing any improvement. But the revival in Margate has little to do with the high street and everything to do with a fabulous new museum, the Turner Contemporary, slap bang on the sea front, right by the characterful Old Town.

I moaned about Mary's whimsical ideas like farmer's markets and craft fairs, but I support removing planning restrictions on empty buildings, and I welcome flats and schools being located in town centres. If anything the new proposals are too cautious, imposing a time limit of two years on new usage. Let's repurpose town halls and turn them into massive old people's homes and youth centres.

Last week I went to Margate to monitor progress for myself. The old town looked fabulous in the sun, and a wonderful new exhibition, Curiosity, curated by Brian Dillon, had just opened – admission free – at the Turner. It's intelligent, appeals to all ages, provides food for thought, and an experience you could never have online. As Charles Darwent writes today, the exhibits range from a stuffed walrus to contemporary prints and photographs, drawings done with split hairs, and exquisite glass sea anemones. I don't think I have enjoyed a couple of hours in an art gallery so much for ages.

Then it was time for lunch (delicious home-made beetroot tart) on the harbour wall in the BeBeached café, the only blight being the hideous racket created by a jet-skier ploughing up and down the harbour. The beach was full of women in burqas sitting happily in large groups, and there was a large prayer meeting.

This is what Margate is all about – not the high street. The Old Town is a jumble of junk shops, places selling souvenirs and secondhand clothes, cafes and pubs as well as an indian restaurant with a Michelin star! It's still very much a work in progress, but there are two Margates – one that appeals to the rough-and-ready mob outside the seafront amusements and pubs, and another catering for the arty types in the older backstreets.

Margate never needed Mary Portas to breathe life into the dreary High Street. The town, which has a rich history, was lucky enough to get the funding for the Turner, which has been highly successful at attracting both locals and out-of-towners.

Clone towns are suffocating Britain, but to reinvigorate our towns, we need to accept that it's us – bargain-hunting shoppers – who have killed off high streets. That's why the LGA has no chance of success.

Town centres need to be reinvented for the 21st century. How we buy has changed for ever, and towns need to trade on their history and quirkiness to attract us to visit them. That can only be achieved by cutting rates and rents and favouring small traders. I don't envisage a betting shop on every street corner if planning laws are relaxed: if betting shops continue to proliferate, it's because we are dumb enough to patronise them.


The news that child killer Mark Bridger downloaded child abuse images from the internet has increased calls for search sites like Google to impose stricter controls on users. Last week, I wrote about the international Twitter and online campaign launched by a coalition of pressure groups including Everyday Sexism which asked Facebook to ban sites that encouraged violence against women – including one site called Fly-kicking Sluts in the Uterus. Cleverly, the campaigners targeted major advertisers: almost 60,000 tweets and 5,000 emails were sent begging them to suspend their accounts and Dove's Facebook page was flooded with requests.

After a week, Nationwide, Nissan and Dove were among the big clients who suspended their ads, and Facebook was forced to acknowledge that it had failed to propery monitor hate speech and images which condoned violence towards women, promising stricter monitoring in future.

When it discovered that students at Loughborough University were ranking their sexual conquests online, Facebook removed the page. Dozens of other universities have Facebook pages called Rate Your Shag, which presumably will now face being taken down. The company says it wants the world to be "more open and connected", but that cannot include demeaning and denigrating people who cannot answer back. Now, search engines such as Google should ask themselves some tough questions about access.

Gnome truths

I love the new Ikea ad: an army of menacing garden gnomes terrorise a couple who are revamping their garden with products from the Swedish retailer. After one persistent fellow grabs her skirt, Mr and Mrs trap the invaders in a blanket and smash them to pieces. This witty homage to nasty Chucky or my favourite zombie movie, Night of the Living Dead, is not to everyone's taste. Fifty people have complained to the Advertising Standards Authority. A gardening historian called (really) Dr Twigs Way says: "The ad was bound to cause uproar … we are a nation of gnome lovers... if I were Ikea I would be worried. Beware the revenge of the little folk."

I hate gnomes, and was appalled they were allowed at Chelsea Flower Show last month. Twigs's book Virgins, Weeders and Queens: A History of Women in the Garden was, sadly, described by one reviewer as "mistake-ridden" and "unreadable". Perhaps her history of gnomes will be stocked by Ikea.