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Can Georgian architecture regenerate Sheerness?

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Conservationist Will Palin’s ongoing efforts in the deprived coastal town are somewhere between visionary and insane, finds Flora Neville

Could deprived coastal towns, from Hastings to Scarborough, be on the up? In the first quarter of 2015, seaside visits nationwide were higher than they have been in nearly a decade, with tourism profits increasing and labels like ‘Costa del Dole’ that once besmirched these towns washing away with the tide.

Last September, a report entitled From Ebb to Flow by the Centre for Entrepreneurs (CFE) was issued. ‘Seaside towns will prosper because of individual imagination and initiative, not by top-down diktat,’ wrote CFE chairman Luke Johnson. ‘Architectural assets make seaside towns potentially some of the most inviting, inspiring and invigorating areas of the country to live and work in.’

But is interesting architecture or cultural heritage championed by a bold investor enough to transform a seriously deprived town?

The town of Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey makes an interesting case study. Notable for its Napoleonic naval dockyard engineered by John Rennie and built in the 1810s, Sheerness is one of the most deprived towns in the UK. There are 17 listed buildings behind the dockyard walls including robust, strident and vast Georgian terraces built to house the Navy, and an 1851 Grade I-listed boat store - the world’s first multi-frame steel building. In 1961, the dockyard was sold to a commercial port and, according to Patrick Wright, a cultural historian researching Sheerness, ‘the economy was wiped out’. Thousands of full-time jobs were lost and the coastal resort experienced levels of deprivation comparable to ex-mining towns in the north. It is now a fully operational cargo port run by Peel Ports handling some 70 million tons of cargo annually. Industrial buildings and belching towers take up most of the dockyard.

While Palin acknowledges Sheerness ‘is not pretty’, he believes it could attract investors

In 2009, a group of private investors, spearheaded by Will Palin (of SAVE Britain’s Heritage and Spitalfields Trust stock) spent £1.85 million on seven houses and the dockyard church. Convinced of ‘the capacity of great buildings to create an identity and pride in a place,’ Palin’s larger vision is to bring wealth, tourism and investment to the struggling north Kent town. While Palin acknowledges Sheerness ‘is not pretty’, he believes that its proximity to London, and the £500,000 price tags on five-bedroom Georgian terraces with 200ft gardens could attract investors and revive the town to its former glory. ‘It’s undiscovered,’ he says, and as Johnson writes, ‘what young and edgy entrepreneurs are looking for is their own undiscovered haven’.

Part of Palin’s masterplan is to unite the disparate parties (locals, investors, the school, the council and port) through the renovation of the Dockyard church which was destroyed by fire in 2001. The recently established Sheerness Dockyard Preservation Trust has been working with Nick Hufton of Shepheard Epstein Hunter on the designs. Hufton says the plans for the church are to ‘make the building about the community’. It will be used as an events venue for weddings and conferences and will house the largest architectural model in the world - a 1,600 square foot reproduction of the dockyard commissioned by Rennie. Hufton believes that the church could be ‘the gateway to the dockyard’. The key to its success, he says, is ‘active management’; marketing and day-to-day running to attract visitors. ‘There’s a core community with a sensible business plan,’ he says referring to the Preservation Trust, ‘and if anyone can do it, these guys can.’

If the vision isn’t viable, it’s a pipe-dream

Peel Ports meanwhile has an independent 20-year strategy to strengthen the port by expansion. Are these listed Georgian buildings an obstacle to its expansion strategy? ‘Skin and hair would go flying if we pulled them down,’ says Peel Ports’ head of planning Warren Marshall. While Marshall thinks being ‘willing to spend money on listed buildings’ is admirable, he argues that ‘if the vision isn’t viable, it’s a pipe-dream’. Can boutique hotels in restored Georgian buildings really fly on an island where the two principal employers are ports and prisons? Despite Marshall’s misgivings, he has respect for the trust’s work, and believes ‘the trick is collaboration; getting everyone to work together’.

Local residents do seem to support Palin’s plans; one self-labelled ‘swampy’ said, ‘I’d give him the island’. And Swale Borough Council’s chief executive Abdool Kara is also a supporter: ‘Though in sheer numbers Palin’s contribution is fairly small scale, it has huge cultural significance,’ he says. Patrick Wright too testifies, ‘Palin’s enormously well regarded. There’s no “who are these bastards from London buying our Georgian terraces”, because they recognise that they’re doing something useful.’

The soaring success stories of Deal, Margate and Folkestone, now dubbed ‘Shoreditch-on-Sea’, are barely a stone’s throw from Sheerness’ deserted shores. Why shouldn’t Sheerness welcome the overspill of skinny jeans? There is more than a wisp of magic on this strange, marshy island and a certain commonality between Palin and his fellow investors. They are fully immersed in their plan, intrepid, entrepreneurial and adventurous: Georgian enthusiasts who are somewhere between visionary and insane.

 

Architectural regeneration in five English seaside towns

1. Littlehampton

In 2007, property developer Jane Wood started her architectural revival with the first permanent building by Thomas Heatherwick - East Beach Cafe - plus shelters by Flanagan Lawrence, the world’s longest bench by Studio Weave and a cafe by Asif Khan.

2. Folkestone

Folkestone has seen substantial regeneration, including the creation of a Creative Quarter in its old town, pioneered by former Saga boss Roger de Haan.

3. Hastings

A collection of cultural entrepreneurs including brothers Rich and Marc Moore are turning Hastings’ derelict swimming baths into a world-class skate park, expected to bring in £2.8m of new economic activity.

4. Scarborough

Investment manager on the council, Nick Taylor is leading a regeneration programme which includes a £2.7 million refurbishment of the old Market Hall, expected to bring in 60 new jobs and local craft business.

5. Margate

The town has seen a complete turnaround in the past five years. David Chipperfield’s Turner Contemporary opened in 2011 alongside wider investment in transport, leisure and independent shops and last year saw the opening of the revamped Dreamland amusement park following a £30m project led by Hemingway Design.

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