Getting down in the hole

I spend a lot of time thinking about regeneration. It’s a creative process, turning failing towns into interesting places, and I like creative processes. So like every other one, whether it’s drawing or performing poetry or presenting to a film camera, I want to understand how the thing works. What are the right tools, where do you make the first mark, how do you finish the thing?

My hometown has been my nursery slope. Worthing’s been suffering for years, a gradual loss of any sense of place or purpose, and as I’m always plugged in to grassroots community activity, I’ve been watching from the front line. I’ve got my hands dirty, time and again. Literally, cleaning drains backstage at the local theatre, stripping the shabby wreck of a cinema, carving a new cinema out of an old scenery workshop, clearing shops of debris and rubble to make community spaces.

About fifteen years, the council stopped seeing Worthing as a tourist destination and said the town was a business centre. There was no action to back this up, no new business parks or office buildings. Just words on the boards at the town’s gateway.

So since then, it’s been neither one nor the other. The folly of that lack of focus is demonstrated by the fact that while the recession has wiped out a few large employers locally, like Norwich Union and Lloyds TSB, there’s been no investment in tourism and the town can’t capitalise on the rising number of stay-in-Britain tourists.

But Worthing hasn’t reached rock bottom yet. We have a masterplan, and an active regeneration team who are taking exactly the right approach, doing what they can and supporting people as they start small, sustainable initiatives; pushing for better quality and long-term thinking.

That team has helped the planning department to drive up the quality of new developments developments, with decently designed social housing replacing old pubs. There’s a new village of retirement flats in the town centre where there was once a dated art college. On the seafront, the site of the burnt-out Warnes hotel has become a swish and stylish Art Deco block of flats. The ever failing Guildbourne Centre had a minor revamp a few years ago, and cosmetically looks much better – although it still has a completely empty first floor. The historic Dome Cinema is safely restored, even if the Trust managing it aren’t thinking comprehensively about the spaces they have and consequently the building’s massively underused. Along the seafront there’s a cool beachside cafe next to half a dozen art studios carved out of old beach chalets. Next door, there’s a new and truly landmark swimming pool planned, to replace the crumbling concrete Aquarena.

The bigger projects, like the massive, empty Teville Gate quarter, and building new colleges to replace antique huts and 60s architecture, haven’t even made it to the starting line.

But all of this all fits the narrative I’ve understood for regeneration. When I was involved in a huge masterplanning effort in the town, one of the planners said Worthing just needed ‘urban acupuncture’ – small pressure at key points to revive the town. I thought that made sense, and that the projects I’d been involved in – that historic cinema, the beachside cafe and studios, a crumbling old theatre – would be the pin pricks the town needed.

After working on projects in empty shops and seeing towns across the country this year, I’m rethinking that idea though. I’d always thought that the caterpillar, wrapped up in its cocoon, transforms into a beautiful butterfly. It doesn’t. It dies in there, rots away, and something new and beautiful is made from the rotted flesh. There are distinct stages, not a constant process.

I don’t think we can start regeneration while the town’s heading down, and turn it around that way. I don’t think the caterpillar transforms into the butterfly. I thought it did, we could, but I think maybe we need to reach the absolute bottom, and stop, and contemplate where we are.

There’s a story Leo tells in The West Wing. A man falls in a hole. A doctor and a priest can’t help him – they won’t get in the hole. But the man’s friend come along and jumps in the hole too.

“Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.’”

I’m thinking back to the Brighton I knew as a child; a run-down, shabby seaside town with no place or purpose. It had to sink really low; that pushed property prices down, allowed people to think creatively about the spaces available and how to use them, and allowed a meteoric rise from failing city to special place.

And looking at Margate, where an absolute decimation of the town centre has led to new, fresh thinking and focused action. Margate, with its magnificent old town, will thrive in the next few years.

A bushfire clears the ground for new growth. Plants have adapted, with extra shoots that push up quickly after a fire and seeds that need the heat to germinate. The Eucalyptus even encourages fire, with oil-filled leaves, so that it can start new growth and spread.

I suspect that the people that usually start a town’s renaissance, the artists and writers, the entrepreneurs and visionaries, are the same. They need the clear ground and the heat. They need to get down in the hole.

In the past few years, Worthing has started to fill with refugees from the property wars in Brighton and London. I suspect that this is a false dawn; it looks like a new, comfortable, middle class rebirth but really these people, on the whole, want to dress Worthing up as Brighton’s younger brother or make a London-lite, with Starbucks and Gap. I don’t think that will ever work. I don’t think people living in the town are feeling a shift, a change of culture. Trying to imitate Brighton just makes it clearer we’re thirty years behind them, in terms of regeneration.

I want to see Worthing become a better Worthing, not an imitation of somewhere else. Give me a burnt space, clear ground, a fresh place to start from. Jump down in this hole with me, will you?

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