Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Folkestone: Tales of Time, Space and Regeneration

The Victorian and Edwardian heritage of Folkestone includes the imposing Metropole and Grand hotels, which look out over the Leas promenade and across the Channel. The Leas retains the grandeur of a Victorian seaside resort, but, further north beneath the cliff edge, the harbour is partially derelict. Ferry passenger services were killed off by competition from the Channel Tunnel and the hovercraft has long since disappeared. Folkestone suffers from many of the social ills associated with economic decline, its eastern wards being some of the most deprived in the country.

Since the economic low point of the 1990s, various regeneration projects have been instigated. This summer, the most obvious statement of intent is the Folkestone Triennial, which exhibits the work of international artists, including Tracey Emin, in and around the town.
(http://arts.guardian.co.uk/art/visualart/story/0,,2285626,00.html)

The purpose of the Triennial festival is to promote a future for Folkestone based on the arts and creative industries. Other towns and cities have approached regeneration in a similar vein, though usually based on an iconic building project. Bilbao’s Guggenheim is the best-known example, but Emin’s hometown of Margate, not far from Folkestone, has its own Turner Contemporary gallery currently under construction. Folkestone’s Triennial itself may be more transient than a building, but it is part of a wider and more substantial regeneration effort.

The Triennial was commissioned by The Creative Foundation, a charitable regeneration company aimed at improving the economic life of the town. It has focused in recent years on regenerating Folkestone’s Old Town area. The dilapidated property in the area that it has purchased is gradually being refurbished to provide spaces for artists and other creative industries. Rents are controlled in order that they are affordable for such businesses, while cafes and bars are also encouraged to revitalise the area.

The long-term arts-led regeneration vision depends not only on improvements in The Creative Quarter, but also on wider links and initiatives within the town fostered by a range of agencies. These include the development of the Folkestone University Centre, a partnership in higher education between the University of Greenwich and Canterbury Christchurch University, again supported by the Creative Foundation. The University Centre is to provide the courses and skills necessary to allow the community to access employment in the creative industries. 

Likewise, the newly developed Folkestone Academy school also specialises in art, media and European culture. Educational improvements are designed to stem the ‘brain drain’ of Folkestone’s talented young people out of the town, while also encouraging new talent into the area, where they can flourish in the creative environment that the town will provide. The public engagement work of Strange Cargo, which brings participatory and community based public art to the town, also forms part of this integrated approach to regeneration.

But perhaps the most prominent project is the proposed redevelopment of the harbour, and its transformation into a marina surrounded by public and leisure buildings, a university campus and a residential development including affordable housing. The proposals, by the renowned architectural practice Foster & Partners, have been formulated to allow for the possibility that the ferry service between Folkestone and Boulogne will return, while making the town a destination which people will want to visit. Accessibility will also be improved by the introduction of high speed rail services between London and Folkestone in 2009.

Folkestone has become, then, a test bed for an innovative and energetic arts-led strategy to achieve regeneration. Many of the initiatives described involve the input of government agencies and local government, including SEEDA and Kent County Council. But all are also energised and supported by Roger De Haan OBE, the former Chairman of Folkestone’s biggest business, Saga. Folkestone could be a model for successful arts and creative industry-led regeneration. But it remains to be seen whether other deprived towns can aim quite so high without the benevolence of a local billionaire.


Author: Lewis Eldridge

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