Folkestone: The revival of a seaside town?

23rd November 2021

Folkestone. A Kentish town in the South East of England is filled with a rich historical and cultural background. Like so many other seaside resorts, Folkestone had been on the decline since the 1960s, struggling financially and losing its appeal with both holidaymakers and those who call it home. However, since 2003 Folkestone has had the financial backing of local businessman Sir Roger De Haan, who has invested millions of pounds into the town to bring improvements to the lives of Folkestone residents. With developments and investment in the town showing no signs of slowing down, our reporter Oliver Leonard investigates whether all this change is positive news for local residents, or is it doing more harm than good.

As you walk through certain parts of Folkestone today, it is hard not to admire some of its beauty. The Old High Street, for example, a once desolate and rather unpleasant area, is now the home of Jewelry Makers, Vintage Clothing, and Tapas Bars. Full of colour and energy, the Old High Street would not look out of place in a thriving area of Central London.

This part of Folkestone, has certainly not always been this way. The Harbour, which was once ex lorry parks, forgotten concrete, and old fayre grounds, is now one of Folkestone’s biggest bragging rights. This is down to not only the investment from Sir Roger De Haan but also some of the Folkestone creatives who have put great effort into making Folkestone a more enjoyable and pleasurable place to live.

The Old High Street

The Folkestone Fringe is an artist-led organisation committed to creating opportunities and projects which connect people to each other and to the place where we live. The leader of this organisation is artist/curator and producer, Diane Dever.

“Our mission is to work with creatives for them to have opportunities to reach their potential and to bring the public along on the journey.”

—Diane Dever

Diane went on to say:

“These creatives can share space together and invite the public to have an emotional connection that might make them think differently about themselves and where they live.

“My feeling was the Harbour really needed to be seen as a public and social space. It was always going to be the public space for the development, but I felt people needed to think the Harbour was their space and that they were invited to linger and see each other in a social way.

“So, that is why we have the music program and made the Harbour a place for food and drink because that is what people like to do.

“People want to eat, drink, hang out, and be entertained. It was important to us that the business’ on the Harbour were run by local people initially.

“It started with 6 handpicked businesses and now we have 25 along the Harbour.”

These changes have been far from an overnight process. Since 2008 a large amount of investment and time has been put into making this part of Folkestone what it is today. Many people travel from all over the country to visit Folkestone’s now-famous Harbour Arm and this is something Folkestone residents can start to be proud of.

Diane emphasised:

“Pre 2005 art was very concentrated. The Old High Street and Tontine Street were really not in a good way. There wasn’t much activity, a lot of the shop fronts weren't active.

“It was really obvious that the town had all the ingredients it needed, it just didn’t have the energy or the people to make it thrive.

“With the investment from Roger De Haan and through the Creative Folkestone, you started to see arts-led regeneration being used as a driver for change. Bit by bit those properties were bought up, renovated, and rented to creatives.

“It has taken 10 years at least and only in the last 3 or 4 has it really started to take traction and that’s a combination of effects.

“That’s investment locally, people moving in because they believe in it, Covid, people moving out of London and a general revival of the British seaside town through cultural regeneration.”

Thanks to the work of the creatives at the Folkestone Fringe, the Harbour is now a place where people in this town can go to socialise and enjoy themselves. Furthermore, in many other places around the town, you can find works of art that have been designed by creatives to make the town a more colourful place to live. The Folkestone Fringe looks to continue their progress by putting on even more festivals and events going into 2022.

Folkestone has been a prime example of how a seaside town can completely reinvent itself through the arts. Especially, after the very challenging past 18 months people want to start enjoying themselves again and the arts is a great way to do that.

However, the regeneration of Folkestone does not stop there. The Folkestone Harbour Company has secured outline planning consent for a mixed-use development at Folkestone Harbour and seafront. This envisages building up to 1000 homes, with a mix of beach houses, apartments, and townhouses, together with a range of sports and recreation amenities and the creation of new public spaces.

The scheme secured outline planning consent in 2015 and has been prepared for development through significant investment from the landowner, Sir Roger De Haan. The 35-acre development will also incorporate recreational areas and public spaces as well as commercial space of up to 10,000 square metres.

On the surface, this sounds like another step in the right direction for Folkestone as a town. But, in a town where housing prices are rising all the time, many are concerned about how affordable these homes are going to be.

Beginning of housing development

Nicola Keen is a Folkestone town councillor for the Harbour Ward. Nicola expressed a great deal of concern about these homes being built by the Harbour.

“It is gentrification, that’s what it is.”

—Nicola Keen

Nicola went on to say:

“I'm not happy.

“They are not homes; they are commercial properties. These 1000 homes are not being built for the people of Folkestone.

“My priority is the people of Folkestone and I don’t know many people in the Harbour ward who can afford to purchase one of those properties.

“The Harbour is the 12th poorest ward in the county and they pay very high council tax there.

“Who would ever build on the beach anyway? It is almost like they have stolen the heart of Folkestone.

“We have got a beautiful little Harbour, which is going to be overshadowed. I do not think any development should ruin what is already there.

“I don’t think anyone should have the power to do this, it makes me very sad.

“My biggest prayer is that it does not happen.”

Despite these fears, the plans for these homes to be built are well underway. With the development including private gardens, landscaped areas, shingle gardens that lead to the boardwalk, and a new piazza at the base of the leas, the project certainly is not going to be a cheap one. An estimated £5.1 million is being funded by the Government’s Local Growth Fund for the sea defence alone. So, the question of everyone’s lips is, are Folkestone residents going to be able to afford these homes?

Nicola thinks this is highly unlikely:

“It is gentrification, that’s what it is.

“It will have a negative impact on people who live and work in South Kent. On the basis that property and rental prices are rocketing. The figure I read recently was a 27% increase in the price of rental properties.

“Children from families like mine, when they start to look at properties it is going to be ridiculous prices.

“We purchased our property for 34,000 thirty-plus years ago. It is now worth half a million pounds; it does not make sense to me.

“Local young people who are earning what used to be considered a decent wage, are being driven out. There is no council housing available.

“I have got no problem with this town becoming a go-to place, my problem is don’t price out those that have lived here and grown up here. I think it is absolutely unreasonable.

“There are lots of ways this town can improve. It can be made to be a town for everybody.

“I have got no issue with people moving down from London. There is room in Folkestone for everybody.

“But my argument is don’t make it a town where those born and bred here can no longer afford to live.”

House prices around the country are undoubtedly on the rise. They have been on the rise for many years and the post covid world we live in has seemed to amplify these prices further.

So, how does Folkestone compare when it comes to housing prices?

In the last 5 years alone, house prices in Folkestone have risen by 17.8% and this includes a 6% increase in the last 12 months alone. Some experts believe that these price hikes are down to rise in home-working, as a result of the pandemic and a surge in the numbers of properties coming on to the market to satisfy demand since the lockdowns were lifted.

Lifelong Folkestone resident, Joshua Hearn-Collins, has found it incredibly difficult as a first-time buyer. Joshua has worked at Tesco for the last 12 months and despite saving well, the 25-year-old has had no luck as of yet.

Joshua added:

“I am currently renting in Folkestone but have been looking for a place to buy for the last 6 months. It has been really difficult, to be honest, I am having no luck in finding a suitable place.

“At the start of the year there seemed to be a real lack of houses available and whenever I found one, I liked, they seemed to sell very quickly.

“In the last couple of months, I have lost a bit of hope in finding anything if I'm honest. I am on basically minimum wage at Tesco’s and finding something affordable is a real challenge. I have money saved up, but living on my own and getting a mortgage at the moment does not look doable.”

As a resident on Folkestone for 25 years, Joshua has welcomed some of the changes around the town. Despite, this making his search for his first home much harder, Joshua, like many other residents still wants to see the town progress.

“Without a doubt, I think the Folkestone is heading in the right direction. I feel like the town is a much safer place to live now, when I was growing up, I remember not feeling safe when walking home from school. But now I think this is a place where I would like to settle down and have children of my own here.” Joshua said when asked if he was happy with how the town is progressing.”

He added, “I have seen this town change a lot over the 25 years I have been here. Without a doubt, I think the Folkestone is heading in the right direction. I feel like the town is a much safer place to live now, when I was growing up, I remember not feeling safe when walking home from school. But now I think this is a place where I would like to settle down and have children of my own here.

“I am so impressed with how some parts of the town have developed, but if it is not affordable then I think I will have to move on.”

Joshua is not alone in this view. With an increase of 25% in house prices in most parts of Kent, many people are finding it more and more difficult to find an affordable home.

This is not only the case with people on a low wage either. Some of the luxury homes being built around Folkestone are even too expensive for those earning above the national average wage.

Former Mayor of Folkestone and current town councillor, Roger West, sympathises greatly with Folkestone residents on this issue.

Roger added, “Where I live up near the army camp, we have a lot of new homes being built but only around 10 percent of them are affordable really. Unless you have that London wage you are going to struggle to afford them.

“I hate seeing our old buildings going. Seeing all these old buildings coming down by the Shorncliffe area makes me quite sad.

“Many old buildings in Folkestone are being torn down and turned into lovely luxury flats. This is all well and good, but I couldn’t afford one and I think a lot of people in Folkestone will be in the same position. The prices are not realistic.

“It's especially not good for youngsters who are trying to buy their first home.

“Roger De Haan is trying to have a positive effect on the town and I do think he does have some very revolutionary ideas. His modern designs are not my cup of tea but I can see why people would like them.”

Plans to extend gym in Folkestone town centre

The history of Folkestone stretches back to prehistoric times, with evidence of human life dating back to more than 12,000 years ago. In the 13th century, Folkestone became part of the Cinque Ports and following wars with France, the plans for the Folkestone Harbour were made as a form of defence for the country.

In the mid-19th century, the town found its true calling. The arrival of the railways truly shaped the future of the town. The railways bought with it the tourist trade and the port and seaside resort which led to great tourist opportunities for the town.

After the second world war, Folkestone, like many other towns across the country faced incredibly tough times financially. Folkestone had to overcome many obstacles to make it the place we see today. Of course, there is still much room for improvement but it is hard to argue that Folkestone is not heading in the right direction.

In fact, Sandgate, which is only a 2-minute drive from Folkestone town centre was rated the best holiday destination in the entire country on Airbnb. An accomplishment that can only be admired, from what is a small seaside resort.

Another theory on why Folkestone has become so popular with Londoners is due to Covid-19. Many people who lived in busy cities did not have the same luxury as residents in seaside towns during the lockdown. In Folkestone, residents were able to enjoy long walks along the beach or enjoy the scenic views by the Leas, to make their isolation more bearable.

With London being a short journey on the train from Folkestone, the prospect of a move to the seaside from the big city is an appealing one.

In fact, in 2020 Folkestone was named Kent’s most sought-after location according to data released from Rightmove. More people than ever before are looking for a move to Folkestone, with the town attracting 80% more searches on Rightmove than in 2019. Covid-19 has inevitably played a part in this sudden upturn of interest in the town.

24-year-old accountant, Aidan Fox, is someone who has taken full advantage of what Folkestone has to offer. Aidan was not happy with the amount of rent he was paying in London and so in 2020, he decided to make the move down to Folkestone.

“I came to the realisation that if I wanted to buy the kind of house I wanted in London, I was going to need to save for at least another few years. To be honest, the rent in London was killing me, so I knew I needed to get out.” Aidan said.

He continued, “It was not an easy decision as I loved living in the city, but when I saw some of the houses I could get in Folkestone, for a fraction of the price it was a no brainer.

“Moving to Folkestone I knew my job was not going to be around the corner like it used to be. But I work very close to Stratford, so from Folkestone central, it is only a 45-minute train journey.

“My rent was so expensive where I used to live, so paying for the train to work is not really an issue.

“I really like it here. I found it a very easy place to settle into and to be honest it's a nice break from all the noise and busyness of London.

“I have a beautiful house just before you get into the town centre, it has everything I need. I do think one day I would like to live in London again, but Folkestone is a perfect stop-gap until I can afford the kind of place I'd want to buy in London.”

People from London are making similar moves to Aidan every day. Londoners are taking full advantage of the leaps forward Folkestone as a seaside town is making, whilst also enjoying the benefits of significantly cheaper housing.

With the investment that has been put into Folkestone, the last few years have seen great improvements throughout the Kentish Town. Staycations have increased greatly with the town proving to have a great appeal to holidaymakers. This seems to be the case with many other seaside resorts around the country as more visitors are being welcomed than ever before.

The issue is trying to find the balance between a good place to go on holiday, whilst also providing a pleasant and affordable environment for those that live there. Folkestone has become a fashionable and trendy place to visit, but with this has bought about tensions and frustrations with locals.

In the coming years, Folkestone must look to keep pushing the town in the right direction, without pushing locals out of their homes. With the right guidance, Folkestone can continue to improve and become a model for other seaside towns around the country.

Following in the footsteps of Folkestone, other seaside resorts in the UK could start to produce similar revival stories.