Culture and creativity Spaces and services

The tide turns for Dover

Dover Big Local is stimulating economic activity in the town

Most people’s memories of Dover begin and end at the docks. To reach the ferry terminal, cars, coaches and lorries carrying an estimated 13 million passengers a year whiz along the A20 dual carriageway that splits the town from the seafront, and sail off into the narrow blue yonder of the English Channel.

But what about Dover town itself, which flashes by on the left of those bound for the continent, and on the right of those headed into England? People with a couple of hours to spare before their ferry raises anchor might opt to visit Dover Castle which dominates the eastern skyline from its hilltop vantage point, but only a few will make time to visit the historically important Roman Painted House in the centre of town, or explore the 19th century fortifications of Dover’s Western Heights. Venturing across the frantic dual carriageway for a wander along Dover’s prom is something of a daunting prospect – which is a shame, because on a sunny day, the sea glitters silver, the esplanade is wide and elegant, and a scattering of grand old Victorian hotels gaze out over the English Channel.

There’s sadly not much to tempt anyone into Dover’s high street, either. A visitor hoping to find quirky independent shops showcasing local talent will be disappointed. Nail bars, betting shops, barbers, fast food outlets and pawnbrokers proliferate, but despite pockets of handsome Georgian and Victorian buildings that can be glimpsed up several side streets, there’s precious little else to encourage you to splash your cash: what appear to be egregious planning failures giving rise to lines of ugly shopfronts provide no incentive to linger. As Martina White, chair of Dover Big Local, walks me through the town centre, we count the empty shops. “There’s another,” she says, pointing at an abandoned unit. There are twenty three of them, their windows boarded up or, if the tenant has only recently cleared out, an empty glass frontage glaring darkly out at the sunshine.

“It’s a bit like the stuffing has been knocked out of Dover,” muses White. “It’s been in decline for 45 years, so all that time, people haven’t had much work, they’ve not been consulted, they’ve not had ambition. They’ve lost their confidence.”

Dover Big Local intends to change all that.

Here, the partnership board is tightly focused on stimulating economic activity; it wants Dover town to become a destination that attracts the tourists who almost always drive by with barely a thought of stopping. White hopes they will pause, look at the town’s assets, “spend a night, at least”  – and spend some money.

It’s why two years ago Dover Big Local invested around £15,000 for a consultant to analyse why Dover’s tourism offer wasn’t working. This prompted the realisation that there was poor communication between the various interests in the town. The consultant’s recommendation – the creation of a “Destination Dover” concept – is now funded by the town and district council as well as by local employers such as P&O, the Port of Dover, English Heritage and the National Trust. Big Local was the first to say it would stump up £25,000 per year for 5 years, underscoring its commitment to the project. “Nobody wants to be first to put money in, do they, but Big Local can be first,” says local rep Carl Adams. Destination Dover now has an employee charged with co-ordinating the town’s tourism offer: extraordinarily, White says, “there was never anything like that before”. It’s early days yet, she observes, but there are positive signs that more British and overseas visitors are getting the message that there is more to Dover than a ferry port.

Co-innovation

Tourists drawn into Dover will need something to spend their money on though, and the betting shop/nail bar combo on the high street isn’t going to cut it.  A couple of minutes stroll away, White stops outside a large unit owned by the council. In a previous life it was a Co-op supermarket. Now, a large sign over the entrance says “Co-Innovation Space for Opportunities.”

“We had a meeting last May with the district council about the state of the high street, and though everyone could see the problem, there wasn’t much anyone could do about it because the shops are mainly owned by landlords who expect London rents,” she observes. The solution was for the council to rent the unit to Dover Big Local for a pound per year over two years as a “Meanwhile” space whilst its future development is determined. For its part, the partnership said it would invest in the building and work to attract local entrepreneurs. For affordable rents and just a one-month notice period, White explains that local start-ups can try out their business idea with virtually no financial risk, and all their rates and bills included.

In three months, 23 businesses have signed up and are now operating out of the old Co-op; they include a stamps and collectables shop, pre-loved clothes outlet, a wedding and events management business, an art and crafts shop, an exotic fish shop, and an artist who gives lessons from her studio. “An immigration solicitor is about to move in over there,” White remarks with a wry grin, pointing out a unit that’s still being built – as a major port, Dover is the first place that many immigrants and asylum-seeking children will land on arrival in the UK.

Right by the sliding glass entrance doors is an upcycling business that would fit right into the now ultra-fashionable Margate and Whitstable just up the Kent coast. The shop’s windows are festooned with lampshades made from colourful vintage fabrics, and inside, various musical instruments – a trumpet, an electric guitar – have been transformed into funky light fittings. Dull brown furniture has been wittily re-styled with applique, paint effects and in one case, leather belts too worn to be resold by charity shops. Former police officer, now upcycling enthusiast Gaby Redman, welcomes us in.

I use reclaimed fabric pieces, even old dresses to make the lampshades,” she smiles, holding up a 1960’s style frock printed in flouncy purple florals. “I can make you anything you want. Anything!

Dover Big Local isn’t just leaving local entrepreneurs to get going on their own. For the past two years the partnership has fully or co-funded a week-long Pop Up Business School. “Participants can arrive with – or without – an idea, and the intention is that they’ll have made their first sale by day five,” says White. It’s hugely popular: around 40 to 50 people regularly attend. This summer it will be held in the Co-Innovation Centre’s large event space, which is currently being readied by builders, plumbers and heating engineers.

But Dover Big Local is thinking even bigger. Dover town was invited by the Foundation for Social Investment to bid for a multi-million pound place-based Local Access grant (combined with a repayable funding element): only a handful of areas around the country will be successful, but White and Adams are fired up about the possibilities if Dover was to win through. “There’s Burgoyne Fort, up on the hill,” enthuses Adams, who undertook the initial phone-interview with the funders. “It’s an absolutely enormous space, full of history, and it’s pretty much abandoned. Imagine if local businesses and education and heritage activities were all up there. It would be a real destination draw.”

Meanwhile, back in Dover town, the Co-Innovation space has already required significant investment from the Big Local partnership – what happens if the council does decide to flatten the building two years hence to bump up the number of parking spaces?

White laughs. “We want this to be so successful that it would be political suicide to kick people out and pull it down.”

I leave Dover with one of Gaby Redman’s lampshades in a (recycled) bag. If a range of business start-ups can be encouraged here that meet people’s desires – and, as per the immigration solicitor, their needs – then it’s entirely possible that both tourists and locals might, one day, think of Dover just as they now consider Margate or Whitstable. As a fun place to visit, and a good place to live.


This feature was written by Louise Tickle, our journalist-at-large. You can contact Louise directly if your Big Local has a story you want to share.