Faded seaside towns are fertile ground for UKIP

Faded seaside towns are fertile ground for UKIP
A car waits at traffic lights outside the UKIP local party headquarters in Ramsgate, southern England.

RAMSGATE, United Kingdom - Deprived of tourists by the advent of cheap foreign holidays, many of Britain's faded seaside towns have become pockets of deprivation - and fertile territory for the populist, anti-European UK Independence Party (UKIP).

With its fine sand, clear waters, elegant Victorian buildings and chalk cliffs that inspired the painter JMW Turner, Ramsgate in southeastern England was once a jewel in the country's coastal crown.

But these days, the town and its neighbour Margate rank among the top ten worst coastal towns in England and Wales for unemployment, petty crime, education and health.

Only Blackpool, Clacton and Hastings were ranked as more deprived by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

UKIP, a former fringe party which is hoping to make a breakthrough in Britain's general election in May, held its party conference in Margate this weekend and its leader Nigel Farage is standing for election in the area.

In Ramsgate, the local tourism body hails the "stunning Royal Harbour" and cafe culture, but a closer look reveals rusting metalwork, cracked facades and broken windows.

"This place was booming in the 1950s and 1960s - since then it's gone downhill," said John, a local resident.

"Ramsgate is a town that is quite beguiling initially, but behind the facade there is a huge problem of unemployment." England's seaside resorts were once bustling places, filled with day-trippers and holiday makers, until the arrival of cheap flights sent tourists overseas, notably to Spain.

Some resorts, including Brighton on the southern English coast, managed to diversify their economies and thrive. But the majority, often isolated by poor transport links, struggled to attract investors.

In 2011, Margate had the depressing distinction of having the highest proportion of empty shops in the country.

Later that year, the Turner Contemporary art gallery opened in an effort to cash in on the region's links to the painter.

But a 2013 report by the conservative think-tank Centre for Social Justice warned that property prices had plunged in the town, bringing a new wave of residents, many of them on welfare benefits, migrants or children in care.

"These towns are sacrificed," said Jack Tyler, a 70-year-old former builder in Ramsgate.

'Ideal UKIP territory'

UKIP has fed on the perception by local people of having been abandoned, and ten of its 12 target seats for May's election are on the south or eastern English coast.

"These struggling former mining, fishing and port towns with lily white, ageing, working-class communities represent ideal UKIP territory," said Robert Ford, a professor of politics at the University of Manchester.

One of those seats, Clacton, has already fallen into the party's hands after the incumbent member of parliament (MP) defected from Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative party and was re-elected as UKIP's first MP in September.

Meanwhile Farage is currently ahead in the polls in the constituency of South Thanet, which includes Ramsgate.

Retired resident Phil Harris said the biggest problem was immigration - an issue that UKIP has promised to address by pulling Britain out of the European Union.

"It's a pressure on schools, hospitals, housing - everything," said Harris, who will be voting for Farage.

Retired builder Tyler had similar complaints: "My wife doesn't go into the town centre anymore because there are too many strangers. You barely hear any English any more." Official statistics, however, show that immigration in seaside towns is actually lower than the national average - and some residents are unhappy with UKIP playing on local concerns.

"A lot of people here have never been out of Thanet and lived in multi-racial society," said Charlene Flynn, who denounced Farage as a "fascist".

"Bigotry comes from fear and fear comes from ignorance," he said.

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