Hopes, expectations and Dreamland

It only takes five minutes for us to walk along the seafront from the Turner Contemporary, past the arcades, bars and fast food shops of the seafront to Dreamland – once the heart of a holiday in Margate.  But what a scene of desolation greets us.  The whole place lies empty.  The Scenic Railway – the oldest surviving rollercoaster in Britain – is fire damaged but still standing.  The cinema is shrouded in scaffolding during essential works to protect the listed building.  The only real sign of hope is the hoardings on the seafront which proclaim “Dreams Can Come True” and “Building Dreamland for You”.

Today, ironically, the best place to start a visit to Dreamland is in the Turner.  The current exhibition “Nothing in the World but Youth” is full of images of Dreamland in its heyday – black and white stills of the Art Deco Cinema with its neon signs lighting up the excited faces of teenagers queuing for the latest 50’s blockbuster, and ancient film footage of the “trains” rattling over the scenic railway providing thrills aplenty for pre-war holidaymakers.  It even features in many of the “where are they now” photographs of superannuated Margate teds, rockers, mods and punks.

In fact I’m starting to think that the whole exhibition has been planned to create a series of subliminal messages aimed at the Heritage Lottery Fund team about to consider the next stage of Dreamland’s funding application.  The work of big name artists is really just cover for this assault on the subconscious.

And it certainly worked on me.  Somehow Dreamland now seems as vital to Margate’s future success as the Turner.   A sort of yin and yang of hedonism and culture staring at each other across the bay.

It took ten years and £15m of public money to make the initial idea of Turner Contemporary into the award-winning gallery of today.  Ten years during which Dreamland struggled, closed, and clung on to its very existence by a thread.   Planning briefs were written, funding applications made, and negotiations to lease the land entered into.   But hope must have been in very short supply for much of that time.

Today the Turner seems to have given Margate people their hope back.  Somehow reopening Dreamland doesn’t seem so daunting when you can see success on your doorstep.   However, with raised hopes come raised expectations.  And boy is that causing some trouble for the neighbours.

Before we left the Old Town we went into a gallery in the Market Place.  There I overheard two people discussing Tescos.  After listening just long enough to make sure they weren’t deciding how to spend their clubcard points I asked them “Is that the proposed Tesco at Arlington House you’re talking about?”

Well – within a few minutes this little question had escalated into an impromptu public meeting.  And the view of the meeting was not in favour…

Arlington House is a 60’s tower block, a (vacant) shopping arcade and multi-storey car park, right next to Dreamland.  In December last year the owners submitted a planning application for a large Tesco store on top of the car park, with a hotel, shops and bars on the seafront.   Arguably it’s just what regeneration is meant to be about now.  It would be a massive investment in an area right at the bottom of the deprivation league table, and it doesn’t require any public money at all.

Six months after the application was submitted it made it to the Council’s Planning Committee.  The committee considered the “town centre first” policy, and decided that there were no better located sites than this for a superstore.  It considered the impact on the listed buildings, and decided that as long as it approved the details separately before construction started there wasn’t a problem.  It considered the traffic impact – and that too was OK.  In short it decided to approve the application, but had to notify the Government first because of the size of the Tesco.   By July the Secretary of State had said “Fine – you may approve it.”

At that point the site owners could have been forgiven for thinking “Right, we’ve reached level 95 of this fiendishly difficult PlayStation game ‘Planning Manager 2011’. If we just jump through that trapdoor we should be on the final level.”   But as the trapdoor opened they were hurled into the abyss, and remerged on about level 4.  And now – as they work their way up again – all the levels look different.

Second time around the Planning Committee decided to refer the application to the full Council, “because of its importance to Margate” and it will be December before the full Council considers it.  That is almost exactly twelve months since the application was submitted.

So what happened?  Well the official answer is that over the summer English Heritage upgraded the listing of the scenic railway to Grade II*.  However a quick look at the government’s advice in PPS 5 shows this to be a red herring.  It says that “substantial harm to a grade II listed building (or its setting) should be exceptional,” whereas “substantial harm to a Grade II* listed building should be wholly exceptional.”  You’re ahead of me on this I suspect – and you’re right.  The Committee report back in June didn’t suggest that there would be any harm to the listed building or its setting, substantial or otherwise.  So the change in grading shouldn’t make one iota of difference to the decision.  And while there is also a campaign to get Arlington House itself listed – so that one day it might be a modern movement icon like Trellick Tower in Ladbroke Grove, with prices to match – it hasn’t been yet.

No – I think that what happened was that the Turner opened.  By the summer the rising expectations generated by its success and the resurgence of the Old Town had caused more and more people to question the plans – and loudly.  Suddenly the idea that Dreamland could actually reopen too, and become a big draw, a source of pride and, let’s be honest, a major money-spinner for traders, has become real to people.  Suddenly nothing should be done to risk the success of that endeavour.

My little straw poll about the Tesco application started calmly enough:   “The Council were told ‘this is the best you’ll get’ and they believed it.  But it will do nothing for the regeneration of Margate, and it doesn’t even meet their own Dreamland Planning Brief,” and “We want something there to support the visitor economy.  All this will do is bring lots more cars onto the seafront.”

But then:  “The plans are deliberately misleading.  They don’t show the difference in levels between Dreamland and the Car Park.  It’s meant to be a Scenic Railway – but all you’ll see is Tesco’s,” and “English Heritage is running scared of the new localism.  They don’t want to be seen to be putting pressure on the local authority.”

And worse:  “Council officers have been leant on.  Some of them are nearing retirement and they don’t want to jeopardise their pensions.  That’s why the impact on the listed buildings wasn’t acknowledged.”

There is plenty more of this in the blogosphere.  Now I’m not a one for conspiracy theories.  Work as a planner for long enough and you get immune to them in the end.  But for the people I spoke to the Tesco decision is about the whole future of Margate.  And to them the answer is so obvious that anyone taking a different view must be at best lacking in ambition, at worst incompetent or less than honest.

But the Heritage Amusement Park is far from home and dry itself.  The relationship between the Council and the Dreamland landowners, both of whom have been publicly committed to the project, has broken down to the extent that the Council is now seeking to compulsorily purchase the site.  So it’s still not certain that there will be a view (Scenic or otherwise) to enjoy any time soon.

Personally I really hope that the Dreamland promoters get the rest of the public and private funding together one way or the other, and the project goes ahead.  My hour in the Turner has fired me with enthusiasm for it.  But we can’t expect too many of these projects to succeed in the next few years.  Big corporate regeneration like Tesco’s at Arlington House, not  a £multi-million public investment like Dreamland, is now the name of the game, and I’m not at all sure the people of Margate like that idea.