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Idea Exchange: Investing £20m to restore Dreamland's former glory

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Dreamland, one of Britain’s oldest surviving amusement parks, has a unique position in British cultural history.

  • Project: Regeneration of Dreamland
  • Objective: Unlock the regeneration of the site
  • Timescale: 2009 to present – Thanet DC hopes work completed will pave the way for further development
  • Cost to authority: £20m in total, comprising £8.03m investment from Thanet DC; £6.07m Heritage Lottery Fund; £3.7m from Sea Change; £1.90m from Coastal Communities Fund and £0.3m Working Neighbourhoods Fund
  • Number of staff working on project: In region of 15 officers, crossing seven different council departments
  • Outcomes: 400,000 visitors in first three months of Reimagined Dreamland (26 May - 29 August 2017); £6m direct additional spend in the local economy; 200 new jobs and rising; £35m of private sector investment with more in the pipeline
  • Officer contact details: Madeline.Homer

From the 1870s to mid-1990s Dreamland was Thanet’s, and possibly Kent’s, most important visitor attraction, but it was also a brand recognised throughout the UK.

It had been an essential component in Margate’s heritage and culture and since the 1870s its fortunes have been closely tied to those of the town. 

Throughout its long history under private ownership, Dreamland benefitted from new attractions and facilities that ensured it remained popular and profitable.

Madeline homer

Madeline homer

Madeline Homer

From the mid-1990s, national awareness of the cultural and historic importance of Dreamland increased, thanks in part to its unique combination of European influenced Expressionist architectural motifs and American Neon signage. Its appeal was also enhanced by the Grade II listing and subsequent upgrading of the scenic railway and the Dreamland cinema.

However, in the late 1990s, this investment in the park stopped. Thanet DC, together with English Heritage, worked hard to protect the heritage assets through statutory designation. Unfortunately, the owners of the site neither protected nor maintained these assets and their condition deteriorated considerably.

The council served a number of urgent works notices under section 54 of the Planning (Listed Building and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 and, following non-compliance with these notices, carried out safeguarding works in default. An arson attack in 2008 also caused significant damage to the scenic railway. The once thriving park subsequently stood derelict.

Following the news in 2003 that the owner was going to close the park and redevelop the site into shops and leisure units, a grassroots Save Dreamland campaign mobilised. The campaigners wanted to ensure a feasible future for the site and provide the maximum possible opportunity for the public to engage in the park’s history. This campaign group developed into the Dreamland Trust, which continues to work with the council and the park operators on the heritage of the site.

The council realised that, much like the restoration of Margate Old Town, Dreamland could play a pivotal role in revitalising the local economy.

As one of the only bodies that could compulsorily purchase the Dreamland amusement park, leisure complex and other assets, Thanet took the bold decision to do so. We intended to expand and evolve the visitor attraction to boost tourism, to stimulate further regeneration, respond to the groundswell of community support and preserve the heritage assets.

By enabling the development of Dreamland through the compulsory purchase process along with private investment, the council has helped to create a more sustainable site, all of which has helped to boost Margate’s wider regeneration of Margate.

Bringing Dreamland back to life was a massive project so we split the work into phases.

Phase one was the £100,000 restoration, with Heritage Lottery funding, of the pleasure park, the railway, and of a set of three exceptionally rare and historic menagerie cages, discovered in 2008 during work to protect the railway. These structures dated from 1874 and were almost all that remained from the original Hall-by-the-Sea Pleasure Garden that was formerly on the site. The council issued a preservation notice to protect them and in February 2009 they became Grade II listed, having been left unmaintained for approximately 50 years. Alongside the menageries, a two storey structure known as the Folly or ‘gardener’s cottage’ was also discovered and restored.

During phase two, we restored the cinema complex building, which is in prime position on the seafront. Thanet DC successfully bid for £1.89m from the Coastal Communities’ Fund and led the project, which was quite unusual for a project of this size. We appointed a local contractor to carry out the work after a competitive tender process.

Key historic features of the cinema had been removed by the previous owner; the signage had been changed twice and the interiors were damaged by inappropriate alterations, leaking roofs, vandalism and asbestos. We also found major structural issues relating to the corroded steel frame and cracked and porous brickwork, exacerbated by the building’s exposed seafront position. This meant extensive rebuilding was needed.

Iron work specialists restored the windows, carefully repairing their outer frames and manufacturing new steel sections to upgrade the inner frames to take double glazed units. The largest of these sections weighed 0.3 tonnes and needed a robot to lift them into place. We also had an accurate replica created of the bronze doors and fanlights to the entrance.

Other repairs to the building included restoration of the famous neon lighting on the building’s ‘fin’. Only black and white photographs of the original signage at night were available so we commissioned a specialist in colorization of historical photography to use an algorithm to determine the colours. To ensure accuracy, these were cross-checked with descriptions of the lights from that era. This scheme was developed in consultation with Historic England.

In spring 2017, just days after Margate was named host of the Turner Prize 2019, Tracey Emin officially switched on the lights of the cinema building. The spectacle was accompanied by the unveiling of a new public art installation, which we commissioned from acclaimed artist Rachel Wilberforce. Her 2015 artwork Solaris already sits in the Dreamland arcade leading into the park.

We had initially re-opened the amusement park in 2015, but further to significant private investment from commercial operators, we were enable to relaunch the park on the same day as the official reopening of the cinema. During that weekend 55,000 people visited the park.

The park has since hosted some of the biggest names in music; with the Gorillaz Demon Dayz festival saw people flood to the town bringing a party atmosphere and a bucket-load of celebrities.

Dreamland and the wider regeneration of Margate is providing jobs and bringing far greater visitor numbers to the area. Thanet was the fastest growing tourist economy last year; opportunities for Thanet as a district are on the up.

Madeline Homer, chief executive, Thanet DC


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