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23 October 2020updated 08 Nov 2021 4:45pm

Inside the deprived Kent suburb paying a London advertising agency for a rebrand

Whitstable, Margate and… Newington? What it takes to stop being “left behind”.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Trace your finger along a map of the Kent coast, and certain names jump out.

The oyster capital of Whitstable, long popular with day-trippers and now a place of rising house prices and Grand Designs-style creations along the seafront.

Artsy Margate, where the Turner Contemporary gallery overlooks atmospheric bistros serving small plates on the harbour arm – the restored pleasure park of Dreamland commodifying traditional English seaside revelry across the bay.

There is the genteel Victorian charm in the tearooms and beach huts lining the sandy beaches of Broadstairs; hotchpotch Ramsgate’s junk shops, smugglers’ caves, and warren of air raid tunnels; the retirement favourite Deal; and the moody music video and photoshoot haunt of Dungeness: speckled with industrial detritus and (disputably) Britain’s only desert.

All stereotypes, of course, perpetuated variously by local tourist boards, estate agents and people down from London (“DFLs”).

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Such reputations can attract visitors, investment and excitement to the area, yet local experiences tend to be erased in the process – and coastal deprivation hidden from view.

Thanet, home to Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate, is the most deprived local authority in Kent. It has the highest rate of youth unemployment in the south-east. Five of its neighbourhoods in the top 10 per cent of England’s most deprived wards, according to the Index of Multiple Deprivation, are within a four-mile radius of each other.

All five – Newington, Northwood, Eastcliff, Dane Valley and Cliftonville West – also rank in the top 10 per cent of places lacking public assets and local spaces, according to a new “Community Needs Index” created last year by the Oxford Consultants for Social Inclusion (OCSI) with Local Trust. This puts them on a list of 225 “left behind” English neighbourhoods.

Newington is a residential estate of solid 1950s houses with gardens, originally built for local coal miners and their families. The rows of neat houses criss-cross between large green stretches of open grassland, playing fields and parks.

Historically, it has suffered from a “terrible reputation”, admits Cara Thorpe, who was born and bred in Newington and has managed the local community centre for two years. “It was quite a rough area, there were gangs on the estate terrorising neighbours, burnt-out and stolen cars, and problems with drugs.”

“They want posh restaurants and it doesn’t matter what the rest of Ramsgate say”

When Thorpe was raising her own children here, they were beaten up numerous times when out alone – particularly her son who attended the local grammar school and would try and disguise his uniform (Kent maintains more grammar schools than any other English county).

Newington’s only pub, the Cherry Orchard, closed in 2011, bus services are limited, and the main local shops are chippies and off-licences.

“We are limited here,” says Thorpe. “We’re looked down on as the poor relation of Thanet. We’re part of Ramsgate though you wouldn’t know it – we get forgotten and neglected. It’s all about making the harbour look pretty. Don’t get me wrong, the harbour does look nice, but all the investment goes down to the seafront, and down in the town.”

Nearby Margate is one of 101 towns shortlisted for up to £25m of the government’s Towns Fund, and Ramsgate has been awarded £1.1m from the High Streets Heritage programme. And after 22 years of sitting derelict, the site of the Pleasurama funfair that burned down in 1998 is finally undergoing multi-million-pound development work on Ramsgate esplanade.

“That will all be posh flats and restaurants and shops that we would never be able to afford to go into,” says Thorpe. “They want posh restaurants and all that and it doesn’t matter what the rest of Ramsgate say.”

Now, however, lifelong residents such as Cara Thorpe are taking their area back into their own hands.

The estate was awarded £1m by the then Big Lottery Fund in 2014, which has opened up money for residents to spend on their own projects in a group called Newington Big Local. Even before then, residents tell me, their home had been visibly transforming.

Poor-quality maisonette housing in Newington town centre was replaced in the early 2010s at the behest of veteran Newington representative Richard Nicholson – who was then its Thanet District councillor and now chairs Newington Community Association.

“When people visit, they say, ‘oh it’s so green!’ And it is, it’s like a little garden state,” Nicholson tells me. “To get anywhere nearly as green nearby you would probably have to go all the way to Broadstairs.”

“Whitstable has been bought by London, and all the big money’s being spent on culture around Margate”

Newington now has two artists-in-residence, and its own community gardener and community chef. The latter, Mike Spackman, is making a large vat of white sauce in the community centre kitchen when we meet. He puts on cookery classes, distributes free taster pots accompanied with recipe tips, and has taken students and residents with him to prepare food at Whitstable Oyster Festival and Canterbury Food Festival.

“There is rejuvenation and capital investment in the coastal towns,” he tells me. “But Whitstable has been bought by London, and if you look at the investment in Folkestone harbour, and then look at the culture and arts around Margate – that’s where all the big money’s being spent.”

In response, he wants to “create a new food culture” in Newington, which he describes as a “food desert” because of its level of food poverty: over half of Newington’s under-18s live below the breadline, the highest rate in Kent.

“He’s got me eating garlic, chickpeas, lentils – I had butternut squash for the first time!”

His plan appears to be working. Sarah Nicholson, who has lived in Newington for 16 years and brought up eight children in the area, used to insist she didn’t like garlic. Now she eats it all the time. “He’s got me onto garlic, chickpeas, lentils – I had butternut squash for the first time last week!” she says. “He’s changed my taste buds.”

Any resident can collect a large bag of food, including fresh produce, on Mondays and Thursdays from the “Food Club” for only £5, and Spackman gives demonstrations on site (which he recorded on Facebook during lockdown) of how they can cook their ingredients. This week, he is filming how to use all the meat on a chicken.

Across the road, an atmospheric slice of community woodland named “The Copse” houses a pond, brightly painted wooden sheds, climbing plants and a vegetable patch. Brand new signs detail the species within: a wild cherry tree, blackbirds, rooks and hazel.

Photo: Facebook/Newington Big Local Copse

A giant, multicoloured mural of an owl and other animals line the footpath that runs along the back of the estate: “alley animals” that guide your way through.

“I know when people hear ‘community artist’ they think ‘oh, here we go, what are they going to do now?’ Or ‘it’s all a bit twee’,” says Nova Marshall, Newington artist-in-residence since 2015, who lives in the deprived Margate neighbourhood of Cliftonville West.

“But I’ve noticed a change here since we started our projects. There’s more trust. It gives people self-confidence to see their work around their neighbourhood. It builds aspiration.”

She holds a weekly arts and crafts “Chill Club” for Newington children, and sent out creativity packs filled with art materials during lockdown. Gaudi-esque mosaic benches designed by residents were installed in the summer, featuring designs of woodland animals, tributes to the NHS, and references to Newington activities (one reads “Hot Dog Club ‘19” – a locals’ favourite).

Newington Big Local commissioned the brand agency Lantern in 2017 to design logos and visuals to rebrand the neighbourhood. “Often community projects have a drawing competition for a logo and never change it – we wanted something professional, so that people see it and know it’s us, because the residents deserve it,” says Thorpe.

Photo: Courtesy of Lantern

Newingtonians I meet bemoan lockdown pausing the annual Best Fest arts festival – which has drawn thousands into Newington each summer since it started in 2015 – and also await the return of a pop-up “Roundabout Theatre” that showed three shows fresh from Edinburgh Festival last September, at £1 a ticket.

“It takes a barrier down, that idea that going to the theatre is just for certain people,” says Thorpe. “Everyone can go and afford it, and they loved it.”

Planters are about to be installed to protect the grass outside the local primary, Newington Community Primary School – an “outstanding” school desirable to parents from far and wide, who pull up right outside in their 4x4s. The shiny new primary round the corner, Ramsgate Arts Primary School, which first opened its doors in 2017, is also becoming popular. On the wet Wednesday I visit, four professional artists help pupils craft their own forest and woodland creatures along the corridor floor.

It has taken years for Newington’s residents to reclaim their identity.

“When I started taking my daughter to the new majorettes club at the community centre that started in 2015, I used to sit outside and wait for her without speaking to anyone,” says NHS healthcare assistant Jenny Philpott, a Newington resident since childhood, whose father was a miner. “I was embarrassed.”

She felt guarded, having spent the Eighties and early Nineties avoiding the dangers of the area, ferrying her children around by car, and complaining to police about syringes being chucked into her garden by drug users in the alley outside.

Now her daughter Hayley Philpott is a mother herself whose 11-year-old is involved in every local activity going (“she’d camp outside the community centre if she could!”), and she allows her own children to stay out after school without worrying. “With mum, she used to say: ‘Why aren’t you home by five?’ Now, I just think, ‘ah, they’ll come back when they’re hungry’.”

“There’s so much more going on here now,” adds Jenny. “We’ve grabbed our home back but it takes a while to reverberate through. People are suspicious of nosey neighbours – actually it’s community spirit, and makes the place safer.”

“Places to meet” are the top resource that people in 225 “left behind” neighbourhoods say they lack, according to recent polling by Survation of areas identified by the Local Trust organisation. Just 9 per cent of respondents had belonged to a community group in the past year, despite 63 per cent agreeing that when people get involved in their community, they can change how their area is run.

After cuts to youth groups and children’s services over the past decade, public buildings have fallen derelict and into the hands of private developers. Owing to shrinking local authority funding, more than 12,000 public spaces have been sold off by councils since 2014/15, according to an investigation by the Bureau for Investigative Journalism with HuffPost UK and regional journalists in March 2019. These include libraries, community centres and playgrounds.

“The sewers have saved us from redevelopment!”

“You want to have the ability to control spending locally,” says Thanet District councillor Rob Yates, who is working on “community wealth building” in the area: an economic model pioneered in Preston, Lancashire, which focuses on keeping public contracts local. He has signed up to the Community Wealth Fund Alliance, which promotes hyper-local investment on a level covering 3,000-10,000 people.

“Investment schemes coming forward have been focused on high streets, seaside fronts, like Margate, where I live, we’ve got the [Towns Fund] deal,” he says. “We get restricted to spending some of these funding allocations on capital: buildings and structures. And often in neighbourhoods and estates, there’s no space left for such buildings.”

Yates argues it’s a “no-brainer” to give “money and control of that money directly to neighbourhoods to decide what they want”, rather than imposing projects that may not have an effect on places such as Newington.

Newington’s future still hangs in the balance. Its community centre, owned by Thanet District Council, only has seven years left on its lease. The council finally agreed recently to transfer it to residents as a community asset, but the process has been slow and any significant damage to the centre could spell its end. The council would be unable to afford repairs, and the dwindling lease prevents it from receiving any grants to help fix it up.

“I’m just crossing my fingers the floor doesn’t fall through,” says Thorpe. “We are lucky that we have a community centre, which is strange for most areas, because they’ve gone. The main sewer runs underneath it, so they can’t build on it, same with the parkland. The sewers have saved us!”

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