News Column

Comment: Why Farage is planning to fight them on the beaches: The multiple problems of coastal resorts make them fertile ground for Ukip, but regeneration through culture can work

August 28, 2014

John Kampfner



One of the delights of the quirky Walpole Bay hotel in Margate is a mini-museum with memorabilia from better times. Squashed alongside the antique furniture, feather boas and flappers' outfits are sepia photographs of the crowded sandy beach. This was one of Queen Victoria's favourite getaways. This was the place to be seen.

From the 1960s until just after the millennium Margate, like most British seaside resorts, went backwards. It became "a dumping ground" (to use the phrase of a thinktank) for asylum seekers. Its proximity to south London boroughs and the availability of disused hotels and boarding houses allowed all manner of vulnerable people to be offloaded. Rapacious landlords made a fortune. Add in weak local governance and an angry population struggling to find work and the mix was combustible.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Nigel Farage identified Thanet South as fertile territory for Ukip's first inroad into parliament. The seat has swapped over the years between Labour and Conservative, with the active and popular Tory incumbent, Laura Sandys, deciding to stand down. Although the constituency borders Margate, its main base is Ramsgate - until recently one of the entry points to the UK from the continent, and a source of particular anxiety about asylum seekers. Farage was also said to be hovering around Folkestone, which has similar social problems. He could have identified other towns in Kent, Essex, Lincolnshire and beyond.

Two reports in August 2013 shone a startling light on the extent of the malaise in small and medium-sized towns that used to make their money from the bucket and spade. The Office for National Statistics noted that levels of public health, disability, employment and income were alarmingly low. The Centre for Policy Studies, a favourite in Conservative circles, pointed out that reliance on benefits was twice the national average. Two wards in Margate and two in Folkestone were among the 10 highest in the country for pregnancies among 15- to 17-year-olds.

In the late 1990s, as the notion of culture-led regeneration took hold, the idea was mooted of building an art gallery in Margate. The risk was not helped by an overly ambitious first building project that was quickly abandoned. It would have been easy for Kent County Council and the Arts Council to give up on the idea. Instead they appointed David Chipperfield to come up with a new design, and in 2008 they turned it over to an independent board of trustees, which is when I became involved.

I remember back in late 2009, in a taxi that was going past the gallery construction site, the driver turned to me and said: "Mark my words, mate, in five years' time that'll be a benefits office." I am pleased that he was wrong, but I can understand the sentiment. In an environment in which nothing has worked, despondency and the search for scapegoats is a natural reaction. I assume he, like many in the area, will have voted for Farage's party at every recent opportunity. Seven out of eight available seats on the district council went to Ukip at the 2013 local elections.

Resentment and poverty of aspiration make for a heady brew. It takes more than individual success stories to turn around decades of neglect. Still, you have to start somewhere. Three years after it opened, Turner Contemporary has attracted close to 1.5 million visitors. It is seen as one of the most successful museums in the country, with exhibitions that have received widespread praise. There is also a strong emphasis on education programmes and jobs for the long-term unemployed. When the Queen visited in November 2011 - an event marked by thousands on the streets - she spent time talking to gallery assistants, some of whom had been out of work for years.

However, television crews don't have to work hard to find bleak vistas; Farage has no shortage of backdrops for the "country we have lost" soundbite. Turning right out of the station, the visitor is confronted by a line of boarded-up shops. Yet for all the troubles and a deep recession, Margate is picking itself up. The Old Town is now packed with cafes and small businesses. The reopening of the Dreamland theme park next year, overseen by Wayne Hemingway, will provide another source of local pride.

It takes time, though, and the regeneration model doesn't always work. But when it does - as in Wakefield, Nottingham, Gateshead and other towns and cities where deprivation is deep - the effect is palpable.

Some people in Thanet could be forgiven for wondering what the fuss has been about and lamenting the fact that any economic boost has yet to reach them. Farage will play on those fears, but it will be interesting to note his approach to Kent's biggest success story in decades, and if he becomes one of the two local MPs we will look forward to engaging with him and whatever cultural policy Ukip alights on.

Already the Farage effect is producing a benefit. The woes and wonders of a sometimes forgotten corner of England - in Roman times an island - will now be at the heart of the national debate.

John Kampfner is director of the Creative Industries Federation and chair of Turner Contemporary. His latest book, The Rich, is published in October



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Source: Guardian (UK)


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