Ahead of her Government-sponsored report on the revival of the high street, Mary Portas, Queen of Shops, has just visited Margate.
The seaside town was earlier 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. The streets are dirty, rubbish bins overflow and there is graffiti everywhere.
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 Prince Charles and the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea about saving small shops.
Surprisingly for a big-time property man, 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. They donated a magnificent clock, which hangs outside its store, gave money to local charities and created a tiled mural of Marylebone in the store. In short, it thought about the community at large, not just its shareholders. 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, the quay is like the cob at Lyme Regis. But there the similarity ends.
"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. Other windows have pro and anti-Tesco posters in them. 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; a tattoo studio, a shop selling disability vehicles and, of all things, a joke shop. But this town is no joke.
"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 scaffold 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. This has Ashenden on the warpath.
"Look, this town has a very high rate of unemployed people. Why not say to them 'in order to get your benefits payment we would like you to pick up rubbish on the beach for two hours a week'. The beach would look better and it would give them a sense of purpose," he says.
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 that have affected Margate," 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.
As we stroll along the seafront, things become worse. There are boarded-up kebab shops, a 99p shop, fish and chips and independent fast-food outlets of every description, derelict pubs and grotty amusement arcades where the feckless and witless are encouraged to gamble their dole money. It is a hellhole. It's so bad that Marks & Spencer packed up and left some time ago. The Primark shop front is tatty and letters are missing from the signage. "The manager of that shop should have got that fixed," Ashenden says, pointing to the sign.
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. "The small independents are the lifeblood of these places," he says.
"This is what is needed, this is what they should be encouraging. 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. If a tenant is unhappy, I want to know why and then we go out of our way to put it right."
We walked off the high street into what should be a beautiful, pastoral market scene. Sadly, all the stalls were unkempt and grubby, cheap shabby clothes hung lifelessly, a stall selling mobility scooters and a food bar add to the depressing nature of the place. None of the stallholders seem to be doing any business.
"Now this," exclaims Ashenden "is a perfect place for a farmers' market. In Marylebone we have one of the best farmers' markets in London. It is held every Sunday and brings an entire new audience into Marylebone, who subsequently shop, drink in the bars and eat in the restaurants. Margate is crying out for one."
And as we stroll on we come across a palatial-looking clean building. There aren't any boarded-up windows, there's no graffiti on the walls but there is a plaque which reads Thanet District Council. This has Ashenden fuming. "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, there is a coal-fired stove roaring, the place is charming and atmospheric. The owner runs a jazz festival and earlier this year managed to get Jamie Cullum to come and play to the locals – and they packed them in.
There is further hope too. Down on the beach a large wedge-shaped building has been erected. It is a new Lottery-funded art gallery called Turner Contemporary, named after the 18th-century landscape artist and sometime Margate resident, JWM 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 significant factor in getting Margate buzzing again. "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.
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