As the winner one of the first Portas Pilot grants, the people of Margate are determined to transform the faded fortunes of their seaside resort. But controversy has already come to town

Thanet, the swathe of the north Kent coast once separated from mainland UK by the Wantsum (yes, really) Channel, is thought to derive its name from Thanatos, the Greek god of death, after the Bronze Age burial mounds found in the area.

Sadly, despite pockets of affluence (Broadstairs) and the highest concentration of supermarkets in the country (courtesy of out-of-town shopping centre Westwood Cross), the ‘Isle of Death’ moniker remains apt today - nowhere more so than in former Victorian holiday hotspot Margate.

Although the old town is starting to experience regeneration bordering on gentrification thanks to the opening of the Turner Contemporary art gallery in April 2011, Margate’s high street remains blighted by a 36.1% shop vacancy rate, making it the second-worst “ghost town” in the country and the very definition of the dying seaside town.

Drive into the town and the contrast is writ large: look ahead and left and the sleek ribbon- adorned gallery stands proudly on the harbour wall, look right and you’re confronted with an ugly tower block, faded Dreamland sign and tired-looking arcades.

Down the high street itself, the deprivation is even more evident. In the old town, you can’t move for boutiques, cute eateries and vintage shops. On the high street there are more voids on some stretches than trading stores - one small shopping mall off the high street is less than half full.

So it was no great surprise when Margate last month succeeded in becoming one of the first 12 Portas Pilot towns (see box above). The question is: with a TV series also in the offing, will it be Margate retailers that primarily benefit or the TV-viewing public? Can regeneration and entertainment really go hand in hand?

The Grocer visited Margate high street on a rare sunny afternoon earlier this month to assess the scale of the challenge facing Margate Town Team, which masterminded the winning bid and is tasked with overseeing the distribution of the £100,000 Portas Pilot grant.

It’s two days after the first official open meeting for the town’s residents in the former Woolworths, which sparked media headlines when Mary Portas herself was filmed threatening: “We either let the cameras in with me, or I go back on the train and some other town gets it”. Feelings are still running high. But Robin Vaughan-Lyons, who as well as running two shops on the high street, heads up Margate Town Team, says that overall, the event was a success.

“We had sheets and sheets of people who signed up to open pop-up shops on the high street,” he says. “If we gave every one of these people a pop-up shop we’d have no empty shops left at all. The job club also went crazy. We ran out of leaflets in 10 minutes.”

At the heart of the Margate bid were proposals to establish a job club, create temporary shops in empty high street units and pump free public wi-fi throughout the town. The hope is that such initiatives will spark regeneration of the whole high street.

It sorely needs it. Snaking uphill from the picturesque harbour, the high street is a hodgepodge of charity shops, discounters, a handful of national retail chains and lots of small independent stores. And then there are the voids. Pretty much every high street retailer that has gone out of business or slashed store numbers in the downturn once had a presence in Margate, it seems - Woolworths, Qube, Bonmarché, Shoe Express, Gamestation, you name it.

This would have been a killer blow in itself, but the town was already on its knees following the opening of the out-of-town shopping centre, Westwood Cross, in 2005, which prompted the defection of big names such as Marks & Spencer. Then there were the stores that closed as a result of dwindling footfall in the wake of the death of the tourist trade - neither the advent of cheap overseas package holidays nor the closure of theme park Dreamland helping their cause.

To compound matters, landlords are rumoured to have hiked rents in the wake of the gallery opening and to have done so again now the town has won pilot status - an unfortunate side effect the Mayor of Liskeard is all too familiar with having recently hit out at the greed of landlords trying to push up property prices after the Cornish town received pilot funding.

All in all it’s not a pretty picture, which is why the town team issued a statement earlier this month criticising the “overly-restrictive contracts” that TV production company Optomen wanted to impose on retailers involved in Portas’ new programme. “We can’t escape the inevitable conclusion that the desires of a TV production company are being placed above the needs of a community in transition,” read the statement.

This tallies with my own brief encounter with Optomen representatives who were busy interviewing local business owners to identify quirky ‘Mary-style’ retailers for the TV series, regardless of whether or not their enterprises were situated on the high street.

People’s concerns haven’t been assuaged by the tight filming schedule the TV company wants to stick to (the town team believe two years is more realistic) or its attempts to orchestrate (and film) rows between Portas and townsfolk - presumably with a view to creating a classic conflict resolution arc for the series.

Some would argue that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but Vaughan-Lyons’ is unequivocal that this project is about high street regeneration, not light entertainment. “It will be a shame if she doesn’t film here, but if she wants to film here it will have to be on our terms,” he says. “We’ve got so much work to do and we’ve got to crack on, so it may well be that Margate has to say ‘thanks, but no thanks’ to the TV plans.”

The town is displaying a united front, although some business owners remain sceptical. “At the moment, people only come onto the high street to go to the banks, not to shop,” says one small shop owner. Another business owner adds: “The council has neglected the high street for too long. It’s been dying for years and it’s going to take a lot of hard work to change that.”

The good news is that the Turner has already started to turn the tide for Margate in the old town and the town team are confident that the high street too can be revived - as is Portas, who told town team meeting attendees: “Margate won because there is a passion, there is a vision, there is an energy and also because there’s hope.”

The Grocer will be back to see if that hope has been translated into a practical blueprint for regeneration that can restore life to the high street - and render the name Thanet more ironic than fitting.

Portas Pilots

How the winning towns plan to spend their £100k government grant:

Bedford: Intends to provide mentoring support for high street businesses
Croydon: Will transform the historic old town into a thriving market, food and cultural quarter
Dartford: Intends to open a ‘school for shopkeepers’
Bedminster: Plans to promote street art and street theatre projects
Liskeard: Focus on vibrant arts scene, guerrilla gardening and yarn bombing
Market Rasen: Will restore the market town’s look and feel
Nelson: Young persons’ café, and a new art and vintage market
Newbiggin by the Sea: Better branding of the town to draw people in
Stockport: New creative arts complex, outdoor screenings and a new parking strategy
Stockton on Tees: Will provide live entertainment to boost the evening leisure economy, alongside specialist high street and evening markets
Wolverhampton: ‘Dragon’s Den’ style competition to support local entrepreneurs