Mary Portas and Margate: Facing reality, not reality TV
The moment of truth was when the ceiling at John O’Neil’s boxing club fell down.
Perched at the top floor of the old Masonic Building at the end of Margate’s High Street, John’s boxing gym is a local gem: in the afternoons, dozens of children of all ages gather to put on some gloves. For most of them, this is the only alternative to aimless wandering in the streets. Many can’t afford the small membership fees, but no one’s ever been turned away. In the evening, a dedicated group of adults shows up. Like the youngsters, many of them found a haven at a tough time in their lives. They knew that John would never disappoint, even if they didn’t have a few quid to put in the kitty.
But that’s exactly what happened when the ceiling collapsed and the gym was closed three weeks ago. With nowhere to train, the kids were sent to hang out in the streets during the summer break.
It was a classic moment when communities come together. When resources are found and people pitch in. Only several months ago, when a few of us first came up with a plan to regenerate Margate’s High Street, this was the moment we imagined. This was what we were there for. And when the announcement came that Margate was among the 12 towns that won £100,000 as part of the Portas Pilot scheme – TV retail expert Mary Portas’ regeneration initiative – we thought we would also have the resources to make good things happen.
How naïve we were. We thought regeneration was about our community. We imagined regeneration as a sustainable boost for shopkeepers on the High Street. We thought about planning for the future without giving up the rich heritage of our magnificent seaside town. We thought about the often challenging realities we encounter. The realities that John O’Neil sees in his gym every day.
Other people were thinking about reality TV instead.
The first ominous signs came during the now-infamous public meeting at the old Woolies when Ms Portas first announced: “The downside for some of you is that I’ve got cameras doing this with me. They show warts and all. This ain’t going to be smooth.”
Oh, how right she was. Reality TV is not about the hard work of bringing a community together. It has no interest in the long hours it takes to assess individual needs and collective strengths. It lacks any sensitivity or empathy for individuals and communities who have been dismissed and disappointed for years.
Reality TV is not about reality; it’s about entertainment. It needs a simplistic plot that can be chopped up into easily digestible bites. In TV terms, we were merely small-town stooges. We were supposed to bicker and fight and fail, only to be rescued by the benevolent Ms Portas.
Most of us saw it coming. We believed we had won the bid because we had a vision and we had the potential. We knew we didn’t need Channel 4 primetime to make a difference. On the contrary. But neither were we invited to take part in the documentary by programme makers Optomen TV. We were never given contracts, the TV company saying they preferred to make their programme with traders in the town unknown to Margate Town Team, of which I was the secretary.
A few thought otherwise. Disagreements are natural, and we had our fair share. We forgot that reality TV thrives on divisions and conflict and underestimated the determination of those who sought TV fame and self-serving interests. In classic divide-and-conquer manner, small meetings were arranged with team members, shop owners and councillors. The cameras were rolling behind the backs of the Team and tensions rose.
It’s too easy to snipe back at the audacity of Peter Cross, a spokesman for Mary Portas, who used the resignation of several Town Team members to declare, “This Town Team has failed. It’s not for us to get into the politics.” It’s easy to note that since the Town Team won the bid, Ms Portas has still to date never spoken with me, or never visited Margate in her Government advisory role.
But our High Street needs solutions, not additional problems. And when John O’Neill got a cold shoulder from some members of the Town Team when he needed them most, I knew something was deeply wrong.
Sadly, Margate doesn’t lack empty properties. With the right vision, these empty spaces are our greatest assets. They give us an opportunity to dream about creative solutions. An empty shop may be an eyesore to some, but we see it as a rare opportunity for a young local entrepreneur to get started without going bust over extortionate rental prices. It could have been a chance for John’s kids to have a place to train during the summer.
Without knowing, Mr Cross was right about one thing when he said: “Margate will succeed. It will succeed with a different Town Team.” Today we launch Streets Ahead Margate, a broad initiative that will shake off the bad habits that plagued our town for too long and replace it with fresh vision and determination to succeed.
When the cameras go back to London, we’re going to still be here. This is our reality and we intend to own it. John O’Neill’s situation is still continuing; the roof is leaking into the gym again and a solution needs to be found.Margate, Mary Portas, reality television, reality tv, regeneration
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