Worthing Borough Council are making the town a ‘great place to live, work and invest’. It’s one of those ‘vision thing’ statements that is quite meaningless. Of course it is; could any council be working to make their town a bad place to live, work and invest?
Currently, the town is undergoing a makeover, with a new swimming pool on the seafront and a new hotel replacing an Art Deco block that’s just been demolished. New apartments have just been completed overlooking Splash Point, itself regenerated in an award-winning scheme. So the shiny stuff is happening.
But however much makeup you slap on the old seaside tart, the real problem is, Worthing doesn’t have any work. The biggest employers are government; local councils, the Environment Agency, the NHS and the Inland Revenue. Take them away (and with austerity in the air, that’s already happening) and what is the town of 100,000 people here for?
Detroit has 60% fewer residents than it did in car industry’s heyday in the 1960s, and the vast factories stand empty. The East End of London employed thousands as lighterman, quayside workers and warehouse men in buildings now converted into apartments and art galleries. Visit any city in the North, and you can see the remains of past industry, in magnificent old mill buildings and the grand offices of industry. But what happens when a place loses its industrial base and every trace of the buildings are wiped from the map?
That’s Worthing’s problem. The traditional industry of Worthing has been wiped out and is only remembered by a few locals in place names, like Page’s Corner and Newland Road.
Mr Elliot shipped glass from the Great Exhibition of 1851 to the town and built the first greenhouses. By 1899 Worthing was described as a ‘town of hot-houses’. That industry supplied the markets in Brighton and London with grapes, cucumbers and the town’s most famous export, the tomato. ‘Sunny Worthing’ earned that title not for its beaches, but because it was the perfect place for a very home-grown industry.
It’s why the town has such good railway links, with West Worthing originally built as a goods station. Four fruit trains a week left the town.
The industry covered Worthing, employed thousands, and those greenhouses were still standing after the second world war. And now, a generation later, it’s all gone. The council sold the land for housing and the rapid post-war expansion wiped out every trace. If you grew up in Worthing in the 1950s and 60s, you might remember the greenhouses. Born like me in the 1970s, and they were all gone.
Collectively, the town has never acknowledged that loss, never sought to replace those real jobs with anything meaningful. So for sixty years, we’ve drifted. Not a market town, not a seaside resort, not… anything. That’s why the unemployment rates in recent years have been higher than the surrounding county and why wages are lower than elsewhere. It’s why the town looks shabby, and has 16% of its shops empty at the last count.
So what Worthing needs now is not the vaguest of aspirations, to be a place where people live, work and invest. Worthing needs some serious thinking, and to become again a town where people live, make things and generate real worth. The town has the spaces; those 16% of shops that are empty could all become mini-manufactories, making and producing all sorts of goods that bring meaningful work for local people, and add real value to the local economy.
Companies like Fresh Egg, who’ve turned an old carpet showroom into a hot-house growing websites and nurturing digital talent, show one way forward. But there are far more ways to use empty shops and now’s the time to explore them.
Worthing needs to discover a sense of purpose, stop trying to be a pale imitation of Brighton, and become something special again.
Update: Somebody has sent me a link to some old Pathe newsreels, and there’s one about Worthing’s hothouse growing carnations. It talks about growing as an industry, too: you can watch it over here