The bothersome Oval Chalet / Tile Warehouse development

oval chaletAs my previous post mentioned there’s a patch of land close to Whitstable beach that’s being developed for housing, and many people are frustrated by the lack of information about the sale. It bothers people because ‘public open space’ is part of the local plan for this plot. It bothers people because the deal was made without an open sale. It also bothers people because it’s right by the beach and a unique bit of our town. The final bothersome thing is that we care about the land but have to assume the deal has been done, so there’s no point to any of our thoughts or feelings. This feels very bothersome indeed.

The empty Oval Chalet land in this picture is owned by the council, the old black building in the background is the Tile Warehouse, owned by the Green family. A planning application has been put forward involving both pieces of land, so it appears that the land has been sold to the Greens who own the Tile Warehouse. The plan involves housing, with a small paved area as the open space.

I think it’s great that this bit of town is being sorted out, it clearly needed fixing. The Oval Chalet was leased for 50 years, and it’s only now that something can be done. There are no villains in my mind, just people doing their best to make money and plan our town. The council want to sell land to profit from the sale. The council’s property advisors believe using both plots works best from a town planning point of view. Then the people of Whitstable were asked to give their views on the plans. The people of Whitstable said, “What, you made a deal? Is this already sold?”

Someone thought it was in the best interests of everybody to make this sale, and they believed this plan was good. Nobody mentioned any of this to Whitstable people, or asked for their opinionss. See some details about the reasons here.

We are now being asked to have a say on the planning application. However a say on a planning application is limited in scope. We can say someone’s window won’t get enough light, or we can say the building’s too tall. We can’t say ‘ But we wanted something else here,’ or, ‘It says public space on the local plan, can we have a good space?’ Or even say,  ‘But what if my friend wants to buy this, it doesn’t seem fair that you sold it privately.’

In a closed council meeting the sale was decided. I asked what was discussed in that meeting, and  a new group, ‘The Oval Chalet Preservation Society’ have been using Freedom of Information requests to find out more.

My email from the council discusses three options that were discussed at the Executive meeting  on 11 December 2014. I have made the message available here, as openness is a good thing.

The three options that were discussed were 1) Do nothing 2) Agree a sale for the amount recommended in the report or 3) Sell the freehold on the open market.

I’ll give you my thoughts on each.

1) Do nothing, or “Let’s watch the weeds grow.”

The email said, “The council will continue to hold a currently unproductive area of land which will incur maintenance costs, attract anti-social behaviour, and will leave a difficult site to improve in the future…”

I do hope this ‘do nothing’ idea was dismissed in less than thirty seconds at this meeting. It’s hardly worth listing as as an ‘option’ at all. It has no value financially or to anybody in the town.

2) Agree a sale for the amount recommended in the report, or “Let’s sell the Oval Chalet land to the Tile Warehouse owner.”

The council offer states ‘this will contribute to a better overall development in Town Planning terms.’

This appears to be the decision that was made. The plans combine the run-down Tile Warehouse with the Oval Chalet land. Combining these two plots of land means developers can plan a complete scheme of houses using the full area and the road.

The plan shows many small houses. At a guess these will sell for £6 millionish, and gain the developer a million or two in profit after his costs. We can speculate that the council got a great price for their land, because combining it with the Tile Warehouse made the development value higher.

But the other side to this is that the price might be reduced because the land isn’t on the open market and the council is bargaining with one buyer in a position of power. We have to hope they got a got deal or the people of Whitstable will be crosser than the cross they are already. And of course the crossness is mostly because we are presented with this too late to have any real say, and feel odd about one buyer having monopoly to make an offer.

3) Sell the freehold on the open market or “Anyone can make an offer for the Oval Chalet land.”

The council email states, “The Local Planning Authority is likely to prefer to see the site developed comprehensively rather than in a piecemeal fashion.

Selling the land separately would allow for a different kind of development. But perhaps a private buyer might want to negotiate with the Tile Warehouse owner and try to buy that land too? Or perhaps the Tile Warehouse owner would still buy the land to develop it in one piece? Maybe in this case he would be forced to pay a higher price to fight off competition.

I don’t think it can be assumed that ‘a piecemeal development’ is the only outcome with this option. I also feel ‘The Local Planning Authority’ is making a decision on the type of development we want, without asking the people for an opinion. I would hope that the planners have considered lots of ideas for separate developments, and decided that every single one of these ‘piecemeal’ ideas wouldn’t work.

The  funny thing is the open market approach feels fairer, even if the outcome might be similar to the one we are presented with. The public know what’s going on if there’s an open sale, so they are more likely to support it. Heck, they can even bid for the land themselves if they win the lottery! It feels open and honest, but while it would make people happier, it is fair to say the eventual development would likely be similar. It would most likely lead to two patches of houses with some issues with land levels and light as mentioned in that email.

10133492-largeBut another way to look at this is that two separate developments might need to be different but less dense to allow access between each, and less tall to allow for light one from the other… Possibly this would create a more suitable plan for a conservation area, a more natural one based on old boundaries rather than one larger development.

I also wonder if the council could make it a condition of a sale that the public space must be a certain size, or that the public space must contain something useful for us the public who will use it?!

The interesting bit of an open sale is also that it might allow the community to put forward a bid with an inventive plan.

Westgate Hall in Canterbury was scheduled for demolition by the council but saved by the community. The community group found a tie-in with the Curzon Cinema and were able to save the building and create something good for the city. I’m not saying a community/commercial link  is likely with the Oval, but if the land is already sold we have no way to even explore this option.

7212595-largeThe Community Right to Buy laws can’t be used here as the council has a 5 year clause for ‘land of community value.’ The original legislation allows this timing to be at the council’s discretion, but it would be unlikely to consider a 1940s ice rink as our ‘valued space.’

The dream here is that the council listing the land openly would encourage bids by entrepreneurs with vision, and a magnificent plan to improve the area and create exciting public space…. The reality is that housing will offer the most lucrative value. We’d get a similar plan to the one we’ve been offered, just in two sections.

But if the council did have it in their power to pick the best plan for the area I think this is an excellent choice. Allowing many ideas to be submitted is better than working with just one company with only one idea.

These three options were the only ones considered according to the council property chap. But I think there might be more.

4) A council development, or  “Let’s develop the Oval Chalet land ourselves.”

If any councillor pied up with this at the December meeting they’d get the answer, ‘but we don’t have any money!’

This is a fair point. But it is also true that the council owns 800+ properties from playing fields to shops and cafes that we walk past every day. They also own costly  developments like the Marlowe Theatre or the Tower House wedding venue. The council are property developers, it’s a key bit of their work.

The Localism Act means that any council can get entrepreneurial, they are allowed to create any business sideline. So could a patch of land beside the sea in a tourist town be used in a profitable, people pleasing, way by the council? Maybe they could hatch a plan for the land’s use that combines a clever business with other council goals? Perhaps develop the whole area as a business to encourage tourists? Or could they please the citizens of Whitstable by offering something we lack and hire people who struggle to find work?

Of course developing anything here would take a smart business plan to see any return. It might be tricky to find that a great idea. I don’t think ‘difficult’ should be a reason to dismiss this thought.

Do you know the story of the Queensland tourism board’s ‘best job ever?’ A clever tourist board used an ad for a $100k dream job to gain publicity for their amazing place. How about a public competition to offer someone a chance to run a creative tourist venture by the sea? The council supports the best plan – while getting everyone talking about our town?

Of course I’m dreaming! Even if councils are allowed to be entrepreneurial that doesn’t make them think this way.

A more straightforward plan would be for the council to build housing and sell it for profit. And of course spend thought on the public space too. They are the only developer who are able to mix commerce with a concern for our town.  ‘Public open space’ is in the plan but any commercial developer is forced by good business sense to shrink this to maximise profits. Only the council can mix profit with people’s pleasure to fit both labels for the land. I would trust our council to develop an important bit of our town sensitively, and make money too.

Another option might be for the council to find a partner or lease the land to the right people.  Maybe work with Southwold’s under the pier show to create a cool tourist attraction? Or partner with summer events and hire out the land with a marquee while long-term ideas are explored?  Or even work with community groups to see if they have ideas? What if Whitstable Museum’s community group could get lottery funding to create a by-the-sea display? Or what if a new group pitched to recreate a historic seaside ice rink, Dreamland style!?

None of these things are in any way likely, but it annoys me that they are impossible if only the Tile Warehouse owner has been allowed to bid for this space.

The value of this land is perceived as the value of a sale for housing, but it could be judged in many other ways.

It has value as an opportunity to create something in a unique location. It has value as a public asset like our parks, playgrounds, annual festivals. Or the value might be a good business plan that earns money for the council creating jobs and a stronger local economy. The value might also be in making a place to inspire visitors to love our town more. What if the sale of this land, a step away from the beach, gives us something we value more than a tiny council tax reduction? What if something is created here that makes visitors tell their friends ‘Whitstable’s amazing!’

5) The council sell the land but keep a public space or “Let’s set some boundaries.”

A lot of the  public worry is about the size of the public space. So could the council have defined that public space and kept ownership of the public area? What if they were to sell most of the land to the developers but retain control of the public land. This way the conflict between commercial and public space is avoided. They could have used the development cash to create an interesting and useful public space for Whitstable people. The property guy’s email mentions raised platforms and viewing areas and links to ‘the highway environs between the scheme and the beach.’ This all sounds great but none of this was evident in the plan at the consultation, and I’d be surprised if we could hold a developer to create something expensive if they can get away with just building houses to sell.

The likelihood is that the people who care about this land will fight hard to tweak a few things in that planning application. The Tile Warehouse owner will build his houses and make a good profit. In a year I will  visit that ‘public space’ kiosk to buy an ice cream. Then I’ll go and eat it on the beach.

The council email explains the decision as, “The chance to do something really exciting for this part of Whitstable, and any development is likely to be more attractive and cohesive as a joint project incorporating the Oval Chalet land with the tile warehouse footprint.”

NC_Dune_Viewing Platform-2Ok, council people, I take your exciting and I raise you ‘more exciting!’

I’m applying for planning permission for a car park topped with a raised inland pier with sea views, a kind of beach town square for people. It has a tree house sort of viewing platform extending towards the beach. The kiosk can go there for ice cream with a view. It also has a temporary outdoor gallery to contain interesting exhibits to promote our museum and festivals, and anyone in the community with a good idea can apply to borrow the space for the good of the town. I’m also adding a pebble powered wooden automaton sculpture, and the world’s first bubble blowing clock tower, that blows bubbles on the hour (even though I don’t really like the name Whitstabubble...) There will be a market and/or open air events in the summer, and a seaside skating rink at Christmas. And I’m changing the name from ‘The Oval’ to ‘The Rectangle’ because the shape isn’t oval at all.

Obviously this plan is mad and flippant, but my point is that lots of imagination is needed to create ‘really exciting’ ideas. I don’t think any imagination went into this idea for houses and a paved area.

Perhaps this is just me and other people will be excited by this new corner of our town? I do hope so, because we are changing our town forever here. We have one chance to make a good decision, then it’s gone. It makes me sad that this moment has probably already gone, and happened on December 11th 2014 in a council office with none of us knowing anything about it.

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