The Kent seaside resort is not sure whether the Mary Portas pilot for its high street will be good for business
Precisely what’s going on with Mary Portas and Margate? It began with £100,000 from Grant Shapps, part of a regeneration pot worth £1.2m, to be shared with 11 other ”Portas pilots” high streets. It doesn’t sound like very much. “I’d call that a lick of paint, more than a regeneration,” said Mathew Holter, who works in the Turner gallery.
But parking that for a second … Portas comes with the money, along with a TV crew, to make a heartwarming rags-to-riches show in which her expertise, combined with the pluck of the townspeople, turn a depressed town back into a vibrant marketplace. So that’s problem one: Colin Mitchell, who works at a florist’s in the high street, remarks. “They’re bound to show all the bad bits and make them look really bad, and even if nothing gets better, they’ll have to make it look as if it has.”
If there was ever a time when people believed in the reality of this type of telly, that time has passed. At a town meeting on Wednesday night, objections were raised about the cameras being in the room. A local told me that Portas seemed to convey that if the cameras went, she went; and if she went, the money would be withdrawn as well.
That struck people as odd – it was almost as if government money were being used to bankroll a fairly pedestrian entertainment idea. Why stop there? Why not make a show about workfare, like The Apprentice, except the winner gets a job in a supermarket that is actually paid?
This impression was corrected on Thursday by the Conservative MP for Thanet, Roger Gale: they would get the money with or without Portas. And yet, despite almost unanimous agreement that Portas “did herself no favours on Wednesday, with all the swanning about” (shopkeeper Gail Colyer remarked forgivingly), it looks as though the show will go on.
There is no doubt that Margate High Street is depressed. Gary Derriman remembers when the shops started leaving, six years ago. “Suddenly, the high street was empty. There was no reason to go down there. I was running a pub, we still had regulars, but you can’t survive on regulars in a seaside town. You need passing trade.” There’s a drug problem, there’s a crisis of policing, there is petty criminality (that florist, Di’s Petals, had the same shoplifter three days in a row – trying to steal flowers!). There are a lot of charity shops, a Subway, and not much else. At the public meeting, someone had written on a noticeboard: “Bring Poundland here”. Colyer made a face: “I thought it was a bit of an odd thing to say. But it is a good shop.” People are asking what regeneration is actually going to mean. More Poundlands? Are we supposed to be grateful to Poundland now? (I am quite grateful to Poundland, for its unbelievable value, but not to the extent that I want to lure it with government money.) At the other end of the spectrum, Holter points out, there’s “Whitstable … It’s far too twee. I don’t want it to end up like that. But I don’t want it to end up full of phone unblocking shops, either.”
Margate’s Old Town is another story – not overwhelmingly twee (except in parts), it looks like a cross between Shoreditch and Burnham Market. It’s been regenerated up to its eyeballs, a classic tale of crash-creativity, where rents plummet and independent retailers spring up. German furniture, children’s knitwear in scary colours, art… there is nothing you can’t buy here, except normal food for cooking with and things that cost a pound.
Anthony works in a cider bar right in the middle of it. “It’s the best bar in Margate,” he says, matter-of-factly. Talking of the Margate split, the locals versus the weekend crowd who come for the Turner gallery, he says: “On the side that I’d be included in, ultimate gentrification is the goal. But I hesitate over it. Obviously it becomes safer and more relaxed, but I don’t think material aims should be our priority. I don’t know that turning everything into a coffee shop is a good thing.”
On TV generally, and Mary Portas specifically, he says: “I had a tutor who said the new currency of our century isn’t money, it’s attention. Attention is what will change people’s lives.” He doesn’t say whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, which I suppose is because it’s obviously neither. But there are plenty of people for whom all the obvious upshots of attention – the visitors, the atmosphere, the straight cash – are brilliant. Derriman points out: “Local people don’t eat out as much as visitors. Just the TV presence will bring people to have a look. I think this is the best thing to happen to Margate in years.”
Penny Stock Picks