Many of the UK’s seaside resorts have been in decline for decades. As government agencies, academics and consultants busy themselves looking for ways to revive such areas, they would be well advised to take a look at Folkestone in Kent, a town a mere 65 miles from London. For in Folkestone it is not the public sector leading change, but a private citizen with a burning vision for his home town.

Roger De Haan has lived all his life in Folkestone and remembers an idyllic boyhood in a place never short of things to do and bursting with civic pride. He spent his working life with his family business, Saga, the Folkestone-based brand leader in financial and holiday services for the over 50s. While building Saga into a premier division operation, he watched in sadness as large parts of Folkestone began to register among the worst figures in England for unemployment, poor health, low educational attainment and social dislocation.

Advertisement

Home comforts

When Mr De Haan sold his 100% holding in Saga in 2004 he turned his business skills to making Folkestone a centre for the arts and creative industries. He has made use of public-sector investment that has brought the town a university campus and a new £40m high school, designed by renowned architect Norman Foster, which serves the most deprived part of the town. Both open in September 2007. In Folkestone’s old town, Mr De Haan’s charity, The Creative Foundation, has bought 65 properties. Most are now refurbished to high standards and let at attractive rates to artists, designers, galleries, coffee houses and restaurants. Sixty-five new small businesses are already in operation and it is believed that the old town, now known as the ‘creative quarter’, will deliver 700 to 1000 new jobs. Investment from Mr De Haan and his public sector partners has already reached £80m.

“We’re creating a new type of economy that builds on Folkestone’s strengths as a place and realises the potential of its community,” says Mr De Haan. “Improving life chances through education and training is the core of our philosophy.”

Folkestone is becoming a an enjoyable place to live, with its young, creative industries, 500 university students residing in attractive new buildings, a new £4m performing arts and business centre (funded by Kent County Council and the South East of England Development Agency), and a lively local music and drama scene.

Keith Grimley, the town’s economic development manager, says the council sees big potential in sectors such as advertising, film, music production and digital. “We are looking to create tailored solutions for businesses in these sectors.”

Harbour regeneration

Local eyes are now shifting to the town’s harbour, which Mr De Haan bought two years ago. It will undergo a complete transformation under a masterplan by Norman Foster. New additions will include a marina, new ferry docking facilities, a new university campus and conference centre, 1500 apartments, 2500 parking places, water sports facilities, an ice rink and skateboarding park, bars and restaurants and powered walkways and lifts to link the harbour more closely with the town. Capital investment will be about £500m.

Folkestone is home to the Channel Tunnel and is the starting point for the M20 motorway. In 2008, the new high-speed Javelin rail service will put Folkestone about 65 minutes from the heart of London.