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.
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.