Just about every time I’ve been to Margate there’s been a dazzling blue sky and I asked if the golden sand was artificial – it isn’t. However my interest in this place didn’t stem from childhood memories of day trips to the seaside (but I do recall English and Welsh seaside holidays sitting behind a wind protector with goosebumps), but instead because of Margate’s high level of social deprivation. Strange interest? Yes. But my interest in things is often strange and this is often pointed out to me. When I first visited Margate, the area contained among the highest, most deprived wards in England. I was intrigued as to why this was so and why other seaside towns, for example Skegness (….”is so bracing!”), Jaywick Sands near Clacton, Ramsgate, Blackpool shared similar characteristics whilst others like Brighton, St Ives, Bexhill on Sea (with the stunning De la Warr Pavilion) were to fare so very differently.

Margate was the first English Seaside resort; the magnificent Royal Sea Bathing Hospital was constructed in 1790s to treat all manner of disease with the coastal environment believed to provide health benefits. Like many other hospitals, and a long history of decline and change, it is now luxury flats (more on this next time…). Margate developed as a successful seaside destination with the wealthier enjoying second homes on the coast, and the working classes enjoying shorter holidays and day trips. Elsewhere, the working classes rented chalet type accommodation in the then attractive and accessible resort of Jaywick Sands.

But by the 1960s things were changing for the English seaside tourist economy. Cheap overseas flights to hot locations provided a more attractive option with a greater likelihood of better weather: English seaside towns with hotels and guest houses and their sometimes declining attractions were becoming less appealing. Other seaside towns rose and fell similarly. Chas and Dave later popularised Margate in their song about daytrips with the family and their film shows a thriving Dreamland in the backdrop. This was soon itself to fall into decline.

Over time, the whole nature of the place changed from leisure and holidays towards accommodation looking for a new use and income. Some seaside towns shifted from holiday resort to towns which provided lower cost rental accommodation and with this came those housing themselves, or being relocated and housed, into these burgeoning residential venues. Bed and breakfasts and hotels shifted from commercial to residential, from seasonal to around the year and with this, a shifting and generally lower income community with few choices, including care leavers and those receiving benefits. As tourism moved out, private sector landlords moved in, housing a new and deprived community and a transient one at that. Residential standards continued to decline as converted buildings were not designed for permanent residential use, and neither was the neighbourhood ready.

Once desirable seaside towns like Margate and Jaywick Sands became amongst the most deprived wards in England, and ways forward were difficult to fathom. Research reports questioned what the true situation was, finding a close correlation between mental health and shared housing, with few appropriate services to tackle and meet such major gaps in provision and need. Rough sleepers also became more of a challenge.

Despite the challenges a range of regeneration initiatives have sought to arrest and turn around the cycle of decline and regeneration, each with an individual focus. Margate constructed the Turner Contemporary art gallery (both Turner and Tracey Emin come from Margate) on its beautiful position on the beach, but ironically opposite poverty and deprivation. This has been one part in the jigsaw of change. There has been massive investment and regulation of the disproportionate, privately rented housing sector, with the council seeking out and addressing rogue landlords, bringing empty properties back into residential use and developing a sense of optimism around the housing stock. After years of decline and closure, the Dreamland complex – with its fabulous deco frontage – has received investment and reopened, offering a range of fairground activities to local people and visitors once again. Further round the coast, Ramsgate favours heritage-led regeneration and there is a new buzz around the area. Here regeneration isn’t just about top down investment, it’s primarily about seeing the community and the activities they do as the primary assets and the arts really come to the fore.

But what to do about Jaywick Sands? Here researchers talk of housing-led deprivation: a damaged, dysfunctional housing market; complex and unconnected legislation; lack of ordinary house building and housing investment; and an unattractive market for new housing (Elphinke, 2017). Jaywick Sands, like Margate, has  a skewed benefit dependent community and people living in privately rented buildings that were never supposed to be permanent houses. Not long ago, it even lacked proper roads and many people know the name from media and TV programmes like Benefits by the Sea.

However, when I visited, I found it quite friendly. Neighbours spoke to us and there was a sense of community, if lacking in local facilities (except for a police station and community centre). Lots have been tried, and a lot is still going on. Now there is more emphasis on housing-led regeneration and tackling the excessively high numbers of poor quality privately rented houses where landlords can rent out properties never designed to be permanent homes, some with scant regard for condition. These individual and wider conditions in the privately rented sector prove exceptionally hard to manage. There needs to be more locally owned and managed social housing that local people can remain in, and afford, encouraging a more stable community.

Gentrification seems such a continual battle in regeneration, as conditions improve, prices go up and local lower income people struggle to remain as a new and wealthier community moves in. As Margate has changed over recent years, there is no doubt that it has a better feeling, the problem is that we frequently measure regeneration success in terms of house price rise and further investment potential, but that doesn’t allow for thinking about home for those struggling to afford to stay, if even they can.

Our seaside towns offer real challenges in finding new ways forward to address housing conditions, as well as social and economic development and need strong, sustained public sector investment. A range of initiatives are needed to tackle complex but interrelated issues through a range of initiatives that both benefit and enhance the local area but also ensure that the very people affected by change have a place they can continue to call home. When all is said and done, most of us really do like to be beside the seaside, and have done for a long time, as this 1930s photo taken at Jaywick Sands shows, when things were a little bit different there.


Other reading:

England, C. (2017) Heaven Kent, Inside Housing 16 June 2017, pp. 18-21.

Elphicke, N. (2017) Turning the Tide: building a faster, stronger, new coastal renaissance, Online: Housing and Finance Institute.

Thorpe, C. (20170 Coastal Crisis, Inside Housing, 10 November 2017, pp. 22-25

Forthcoming: Stewart J and Lynch Z (due June 2018) Environmental Health and Housing: Issues in Public Health, London: Routledge – order your copy here.