In Dreamland: Can gentrification save Margate?

Dreamland. Image: Iheartcabbage/Wikipedia.

On the first floor of a repurposed cinema in Margate, 60-year-old Frank White inhales the warm smell of hot cross buns coming out of the vast oven below. “It happens every 10 minutes,” he says, somewhat wistfully.

White runs a stall called Grandad’s Workshop in Old Kent Market, where he sits whittling his own wooden pens, and even encourages customers to try their hand at making their own.

The market itself opened about a year ago. Finished in 1911, the building was once the site of a cinema, a bingo hall, and a snooker club, before being transformed more than into the present-day kitschy hub of foodstalls and independent craftsmen and women. Caterers stay on the lower floor, leaving tradesmen and women on the higher level to observe the scenes below.

White attributes changes in the area to the opening of the Turner Contemporary in 2011. But he was initially sceptical about whether it would have a positive impact, and when his stall first arrived at the market, whether it would see any success.

“Over the winter months it was obviously very cold and windy, you occasionally have those days when a man, his wife and a dog come in... It was very quiet, sometimes a bit disheartening,” White says. “In the summer it’s the opposite... I’ve heard so many people say what a wonderful place it is.” He believes that the changes to the area are attracting people who previously did not frequent the town.

“I hate to use the word ‘class’, but I think we are getting a different type of person coming into the area... It’s been a gradual thing, probably since the Turner centre opened,” he says, noting that these people might have a more “artistic” temperament and disposable income.


“We thought, this is going to be a complete white elephant and what a waste of our council tax. But, I have to put my hands up and say I’ll admit, I was wrong.”

“The more new businesses that open in the old town, the better it is for everybody,” agrees Michelle Norman from Mica' Coastal Crafts, also based at the market.“It has a knock on effect.”

Last year, both London’s Evening Standard and the Daily Mail ran stories proclaiming that London’s “hipsters” were heading to the Kentish seaside town in droves. On top of that, this summer, the renowned Dreamland amusement park threw open its doors again after a £25m revamp; it held a party on 26 May. “I think that’s going to bring a whole ton of people into the town again,” said Dom Bridges of Haeckels, which creates cosmetics made with ingredients such as seaweed harvested from the Kent coast.

Bridges and his partner moved to the Cliftonville area, east of the town centre, from London about three and a half years ago. “There’s been a whole bunch of businesses opening up there,” he says. “We’ve had Cliffs open, which is a sort of multipurpose space. Coffee, food, yoga, a record store. It does everything,” he says, adding that a further record store, Transmission, is run by someone formerly from Rough Trade.

Estate Agent Alan Munns, director of My4Walls and owner of the Thanet Property Blog, said that the High Speed 1 (HS1) railways has also contributed (section one opened in 2003, and section two in 2007), as well as London prices and the media interest itself. “The Turner is certainly part of a sequence of events and investments, I think it has put Margate on the map,” he says. “But the improved High Speed Rail link into London too.”

He mentions the different approach taken by people coming from outside, and how they arrive free from the local understandings of the townspeople. “We get clients from all over London,” Munns said.

The coastline is still scattered with English seaside amusement arcades and stray advertisements to watch Steve McFadden speak (sorry, you missed that – it was on 6 May). And the concerted effort to change the social fabric of the area, typified by the Turner, doesn’t come without its downsides.

Property prices have risen enormously in the past few years. According to rightmove, sale prices in Margate in the past year were 13 percent up on the previous year, and 25 percent up from 2007.

Because of this, people who are renting properties, rather than buying, are suffering problems. “The downside is that landlords are selling property and tenants are having to find new accommodation,” says Munns. “I wouldn’t call it a crisis but certainly there’s a shortage.”

In its 1950s and 1960s heyday, Cliftonville was a thriving shopping area. But in the last 10 years, it’s been an area of high unemployment and antisocial behaviour, says Munns. “The people from London all want to buy in Cliftonville,” he notes. “Local people won’t buy in Cliftonville.”

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Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.


…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.