Folkestone hit by ‘gentrification’ row over Saga tycoon’s harbour plan

Seaside town’s social problems are being ignored, say critics, who fear expensive new homes, shops and restaurants risk polarising community

On the windswept harbour arm of Folkestone, visitors sit and enjoy cocktails and artisan pizzas in the warm August sun. A short walk from Rocksalt, the sleek timber and glass fish restaurant opened by former Claridge’s head chef Mark Sargeant in 2011, the long-desolate concrete strip is now proving an added draw for the affluent Londoners whom the Kent port is eager to attract.

Pete Lawless, who runs the Bathtub & Gun cocktail and beer bar on the harbour arm, says the site attracts the sort of clientele who while away their evenings in Rocksalt. “People with an appreciation for quality,” he said. “People with a bit more money. We have had a lot of people down from London who are looking to move to Folkestone or have recently bought a place.”

The renovated pier is the first phase of a £337m redevelopment of the harbour, which will see 1,000 homes, restaurants, shops, sports centres and gardens built on the seafront over the next two decades. But experts on seaside regeneration warn that the project by local philanthropist and former Saga group tycoon Roger De Haan’s Folkestone Harbour Company risks a polarising gentrification of one of the town’s most deprived areas, with only 8% of the new homes classed as affordable.

James Kennell, a regeneration expert at Greenwich University, said: “It’s not a development for local people. All the primary benefits are for people moving in or for visitors.”

Over the past decade, De Haan’s Creative Foundation has transformed the town into an arts hub with a triennial art show, a new music and performance venue, a book festival and a public art collection featuring works by Tracey Emin, Mark Wallinger and Cornelia Parker.

Jonathan Ward, a sociology researcher at Leeds University, who recently published a report questioning the benefits of cultural regeneration in Folkestone and Margate, contends that the harbour development casts De Haan’s support for the arts in a different light. He said: “[It’s] a bit of cultural branding used to conceal what is basically a speculative property development aimed at elite consumers.”

Paul Sharp, senior branch manager at Ward & Partners estate agents in Folkestone, says there is a growing influx of wealthy out-of-town buyers, particularly from London, accounting for up to 40% of sales in the last 14 months. He expects the harbour development to bring local house prices more in line with Hythe, its more affluent neighbour, within five years. “We’re already seeing that with different people in the town,” he said. “Not so long ago I could walk down the street and bump into quite a few people I knew. That isn’t the case now.”

David Crump, director of the harbour development, said the homes on offer would range from “entry level apartments through to luxury detached beach houses”. He added that only 8% would be affordable housing due to the costs of converting the existing harbour, claiming the development was “utterly unattractive to a commercial developer”.

James Kennell said: “I’m quite positive about the harbour as a short-term intervention because of the jobs it will create in construction for local people. [But] 8% [affordable housing] is a clear statement of intent to gentrify an area of the town that has always been the most deprived. That brings it in line with controversial London housing developments such as those around the 02 or at the new Battersea power station site.”

He added that Folkestone was lucky to have a Victorian-style benefactor like De Haan but, despite the vast sums spent on cultural regeneration, the Office for National Statistics still rated the town as deprived. “It’s great to have a futuristic vision of the town being an entrepreneurial/creative hub with fantastic links to London but it’s all very outward-looking. Folkestone and Shepway have deeply entrenched social problems and the regeneration that takes place over the next 20 years has to bring those people in, otherwise what you’ll end up with is a very polarised town.”

Jonathan Ward said many low-earning artists who had been instrumental in the town’s cultural renaissance had been marginalised by the focus on attracting new consumers and investors.

Local artist Matt Rowe said: “Folkestone was on its knees before Roger’s money came in. The Creative Foundation does work. It’s now that there’s more demand that it is slightly different. The harbour arm and the housing development are going to bring in a much more mass culture audience. The people who come down are happy to spend £8 on a burger but they’re not happy to spend £20 on a print.”

The Creative Foundation and its tenants employ 516 people, while another 45 jobs have been created on the harbour arm. Trevor Minter, who works for De Haan, said the organisation saw its role as creating jobs and improving the local economy. He added: “We’re not displacing people but we’re attracting people from a broader spectrum. Roger does not want an exclusive and gated community.”

Although the multimillionaire also sponsors Folkestone academy school and funded community groups tackling social exclusion, Minter added: “We’re not taking ownership of the problem, certainly on our own, but we want to influence it for the positive for the whole town.”

The leader of Shepway district council, David Monk, said the authority’s support for the harbour development reflected its “core objective … for more homes and better jobs in an attractive district”.

He added: “We are aware of the challenges this brings but are determined to make sure that the regeneration of Folkestone benefits all of its residents.”


Folkestone was once one of Britain’s most fashionable destinations, attracting the sobriquet of ‘gem of the south coast’ in its Edwardian heyday. King Edward VII spent so much time in the seaside resort that local people took to peering through the windows of the Grand Hotel to glimpse him having tea with his mistress, Alice Keppel, the great-grandmother of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall.

Other regular visitors included Agatha Christie, who wrote her 1934 thriller, Murder on the Orient Express, at the Grand Hotel, and violinist Yehudi Menuhin.

The first and second world wars proved disruptive to tourism due to the town’s proximity to mainland Europe and, from the 1960s, it fell into decline. The opening of the Channel tunnel, which led to the closure of local ferry services, compounded the problem. Some of the port’s neighbourhoods rank among the most deprived in the country.

Local businessman Roger De Haan, who sold the Saga group for £1.35bn in 2004, established the Creative Foundation in 2002. Since then, more than £60m has been spent on refurbishing the Creative Quarter, centred on the Old High Street.


David Batty

The GuardianTramp

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