In August 2013, a group of friends decided to build a skatepark on Margate seafront. They called it "Little Oasis Crazy Skate" after the derelict crazy-golf course they built it on top of. According to Dave Edwards, a skater and builder, the idea for the park wasn't really a community project to begin with but it quickly became one. "We were just sort of fed up waiting for the council to build a skatepark", he told me. "They'd said 'next summer' for the next six years. So it was like 'we need to do something'... It was just a little skater clique at the start, but later it was like, 'wow', at how many people have we introduced to skating."
Margate is one of the most deprived areas in the country. The Centre for Social Justice called it a "dumping ground" for vulnerable people such as ex-offenders and children in care. The district is made up of the top five most deprived areas in the whole of Kent. It's a community crying out for help – help which the local council often struggles to give. In the case of the Little Oasis skatepark, the community was helping itself, but its efforts have been destroyed.
Local kids were some of the first to take an interest in what Dave and his friends were building. "They were hanging out there at the skatepark because it was safe and it was fun. It was cool." Dave told me. "There's literally nothing for them to do in Margate. I'd say to the English kids, 'why don't you go to the youth clubs round here?' And they'd say things like, 'it's full of Czech kids' and this and that. And I'd be like 'really? You young kids are saying that to me?' Woah... the beautiful thing with it was that it broke down those barriers, giving those kids something to do." The area is part of the South Thanet constituency that UKIP is targeting in the general election, with party leader Nigel Farage standing as candidate.
On the first day of construction, Dave told me, a group of bricklayers came and gave them a hand and the community involvement built from there. Eventually, the residents were so on board with the scheme that local businesses were ordering them hundreds of pounds worth of cement to finish the park. People came with barbecues to feed them and others brought their lawnmowers to cut the grass.
"Watching 50 people all in one line helping and carrying stuff. All of those sort of moments, with young kids and their dads bringing them down to get them to help out, it was magical" said Dave. "People who were normally reclusive in the area were coming along... We were breaking down barriers with Roma gypsies, people from the Czech republic, Poland – we were teaching kids skateboard tricks in exchange for Polish. And they were all cool and willing to give it a go and we were sharing boards and this was the last area you'd let someone have a go on your board."
When Thanet District Council found out the park was being built they fenced it off citing health and safety concerns – though they quickly took the fences down following a public backlash. Despite very few of the councillors actually visiting the park, it was deemed a safety hazard.
The skatepark was functioning for about six months from the summer of 2013. The council bulldozed the park in March last year – Dave and his friends had been building it for eight months. "The council was forced into a very difficult position and regrettably had no other choice... the council received legal advice that it was required to remove the skatepark in the interests of public safety," a press release said at the time. A public outcry followed. Nearly 4,000 local people signed a petition demanding the park be rebuilt. "It was just a bit snide how they did it – they turned up at six in the morning, everyone in hi vis, with big building equipment and lorries, police were standing there making sure no one got it. It was like 'no way!'," said Dave.
Since knocking it down, Thanet council have held the line that they had no choice because the park was badly built and unsafe. Those who built the park say that's not true. Dave showed me a safety report commissioned by the council and carried out by Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA). Both the council and the skaters recognise this report as accurate. The report said that with a bit more work, the park could have been brought up to an insurable level of safety. "The finish of the completed items is very good and gives an indication that the site will provide a well built area with risks within the normal level for this type of facility", it said. Parts of the park that were deemed unsafe had been fenced off by the community in-between inspections.
However, council Leader Iris Johnston – who told me that she was one of a small number of councillors to see it in person – said that the workmanship on the park was shoddy and potentially dangerous, seeming to contradict the council-commissioned report. I asked her if the RoSPA report was legitimate. She affirmed that it was, before saying that, "RoSPA saw [only] what was on the surface".
"When it was dismantled, there were some areas where people had done their best but you could see that it actually was a very thin area [of concrete], so that if a child or person crashed through it they were in danger and there were nails and whatever [underneath]," she said. "If someone had got injured... then we'd be in for even further criticism."
The council's planning document detailing the decision notes another, more mundane reason for turfing out the skaters: "The skatepark is unlawful and the occupancy of the skaters amounts to trespass. To allow the current position to subsist is in effect endorsing breach of planning law and by taking this position the Council would by default be encouraging this type of illegal activity."
A further nail in the skatepark's coffin may have been business interests sniffing around, Dave suggested. "They think that Margate is the costa del Margate and that it's worth loads of money, but it's not," he said. Councillor Johnston said a desire to sell off the land was not a consideration in deciding to demolish the park but she did say that the council was aware of businesses interested in the land and admitted that, "Council's have to go for best consideration. That's the rules," – essentially saying the council would have little choice but to sell the land to the highest bidder.
The site the skatepark was on has been derelict for a year since the demolition, as it was before the skatepark was built. Dave Edwards and his friends put in a business proposal to build a new skate park on the site but it hasn't gone anywhere. "It's been swept under the carpet, we haven't heard anything". The Council point out that they're building two new skateparks in other towns in the Thanet area, but neither of them are in Cliftonville.
Dave is not impressed. "They're supposed to be supporting this kind of thing", he says, "The skatepark was full of our sculptures – it was community built and you would have thought that they'd want to look after it but no, no, like a small kid, they wanted to smash it down. It's all small time little council politics but it's hilarious".
As if having a skatepark torn down wasn't enough, there's a hypocritical aspect to Thanet Council's destruction of the Little Oasis. "Margate will be a town of youthful exuberance", reads the council's "Cultural Vision for Margate 2008 – 2018". It goes on to say Margate, "will be a Town where new youth cultures flourish and where young people congregate to express their identities". Nothing seems to express those ideals more than this community built skatepark that the council demolished. Now all that remains are some bits of smashed up concrete and some graffiti on the wall of a shuttered kiosk: "RIP Skate Park Fuck You Thanet District Council".
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