Ovalgate – A timeline of events

This post has not been received positively by all Oval supporters, I have been asked to add a lot of further information (such as the use of the land for holiday lets and more on the Yacht Club lease ending) and to put a different emphasis on some facts. So, I wish to make it clear that this a summary of events, and  that any blog post is a presentation of the view of the author. This post is already too long, so I did not want to revisit it in every way suggested. I think it does a good job as it is. I suggested the Oval team use this as the basis of their own more detailed timeline. They now have a timeline on their official site here.

I’ve been accused of speaking for my Conservative councillor husband a few times lately, simply because I don’t think the Oval Chalet controversy is as black and white as the protesters claim. If you check the posts on this blog from back in June you’ll see that I was angry about the sale from the start. I think the council certainly made mistakes, but I also think the council’s recent explanation for what happened is both honest and open. Their position doesn’t lead to outcomes I’d like, but I do understand why they acted as they did.

project-ssw (1)
The development as it was meant to be.

As the facts have been revealed the news has been worse than I imagined.  Back in June I wrote, ‘We have to hope the council got a good deal, or the people of Whitstable will be crosser than the cross they are already.‘ Well, we are crosser than cross..! We now understand that the land was sold for as little as £160,000.

We also learn that this deal was made with an intention to offer public open space (see picture.) But the contract was botched. It was drawn up by a locum who is no longer working for the council, and the contract used the phrase ‘landscaping’ instead of adding a contractual requirement for public space. Of course the developer takes advantage of this, so we are now offered a development with little provision for public land.

Aerial-View-West
The development taking advantage of a contract mistake.

The Oval Chalet group now have a web page, as do the council. This post is written partly out of frustration, the Oval Chalet Preservation Society promotes a rather one-sided view of the deal (for understandable reasons) while the council expects the public to read through 9 long documents of council minutes to understand the situation.

I accept that there are many sides to this, but this is an attempt to present a factual timeline of what happened. It is a complex situation so if I’ve got any facts wrong please let me know and I’ll do my best to correct them. I haven’t covered the historical background to the Oval Chalet land, which some people think relevant, but the history is  well described on Brian Baker’s blog here.

1961 – 30 March 2013 : The Oval Chalet land is leased by the council to Whitstable Yacht Club and used for boat storage. The Council regained possession of the land on 30 March 2013.

10133492-large2012-2013 : Barrie Green and John Knight who own the Tile Warehouse adjacent to the Oval Chalet land become aware the yacht club lease is ending. Barrie Green is quoted in the Whitstable Times saying he is closing the Tile Warehouse business. The Tile Warehouse owners approach the council and discussions begin with council property officers to see if there is potential for a joint development.

37310852012-2013 : There are a a few local newspaper stories about a potential development of the Oval land in conjunction with the Tile Warehouse. One of the stories describes a plan for a hotel. There are no widespread public concerns at this time, and the plans are presented positively by local papers. Members of the Oval Chalet Preservation group claim they contacted the council to ask what was going to happen but received few answers.

2nd and 10th October 2013 :  In meetings of the Overview Committee and the Executive in Autumn 2013, the Oval is discussed. The Head of Property is authorised to negotiate a joint development of the Council’s Oval Chalet site with the Tile Warehouse site. Here’s the relevant section from the minutes webpage.

RESOLVED –

  1. That the Property Services Manager be authorised to negotiate terms for the development of the Council’s site jointly with the adjoining warehouse, and a sale of Oval site be supported subject to suitable terms being agreed and the Property Services Manager being satisfied the sale complies with Section 123 of the Local Government Act 1972.
  2. That the Property Services Manager report back after negotiations have reached an advanced stage.

It takes nearly a year for the plans to return to to a council meeting for further discussion.

project-ssw (1)Oct 2013 – Oct 2014 : The council property officers are in talks with Sea Street Developments, the company directors being Barrie Green and James Knight (the Tile Warehouse directors) plus John Green and Richard Green (Barrie Green’s sons.)

The development at this stage seems to be this plan by Sawyer and Fisher it’s described as a raised piazza and has steps leading to commercial units, with holiday lets and luxury apartments on the Tile Warehouse plot.

January 2014 : A valuation for the land is sought. Five firms are invited to tender for the valuation. The letters of tender issued in January 2014 set out the basis on which the advice will be sought. Urban Delivery were the company selected to deliver the  Oval’s valuation report. Details  of the requests made of the council’s potential valuer, and the results of that valuation process form part of the long report here.

It appears that the price might have been low because of development limitations due to public space provision. The valuers were told the development would, ‘Include an area of elevated terrace that will provide public open space. In addition, there will be a courtyard area situated to the northwest of the site that will provide additional public open space and shelter from wind blowing off the sea. This courtyard area will provide access to two further retail units.’

land registry

April 2014: The valuations were received,and offered land valuations based on various scenarios. The valuation mentions difficulty with access if a stand-alone development of the Oval land is chosen, rather than a development with the Tile Warehouse. Some people have noted that the valuers mention access from Sea Wall (close to the beach) but make no mention of access from Sea Street (the Tile Warehouse side.)

There is a small access strip from Sea Street as part of the council land, but it is not possible to tell whether the valuer neglected this fact, or simply decided building work would use access from Sea Wall.

The valuer said this of a joint development with the Tile Warehouse, ‘A comprehensive development scheme for the whole site would be an opportunity to bring significant aesthetic improvements to the locality and meet the desired objectives of many to reintroduce an element of useable public open space within this site. ‘

Colin Carmichael, the Chief Executive was told of the plans and valuations. He sought guidance as to how to proceed. “I took the view that, given the sensitivity of the site, and the proximity of the local election, we would be sensible to consult once more with Executive Members before asking for any formal decisions.” In the old council system such discussions took place in  a ‘Leadership Steering Group.’

colin_carmichael

6th October  2014 : Colin Carmichael reports that he met the Leadership Steering Group to clarify the details of the plan prepared. He explained that, ‘This officer group pulls together advice on development matters which normally need input from officers in several services – property, planning, regeneration, transport, finance and legal.

The notes from the meeting say, ‘The open space component of the scheme comprises approximately 650 square metres which is roughly 90% of the Oval Chalet footprint. The developer would also wish to undertake some wider public realm works to improve the highway environs with the surrounding area between the scheme and the beach.’ 

The meeting discussed three options. 1) Proceed with the sale. It will be a comprehensive development in conjunction with the tile warehouse, giving a better outcome in planning terms. The proposals also provide a good amount of accessible open space.

2) The Oval Chalet Site could be disposed of at auction. This would be a quick and clean method of disposal, and secure an early capital receipt…. There may also be reputational issues for the Council to deal with, given the history of the site.  

I suspect this auction option offered no public space, and that the sale would be for financial benefit alone. This is my take on it given the reputation worries,  but I accept I may be wrong. The description in option 2 makes no mention of open space.

3) Defer any decision to sell until after the election. It has taken a year of discussions to reach this stage, and the developer has previously indicated that the tile warehouse owners are becoming frustrated at the delays.

The council officers advice was to sell the land at auction, ‘Although there were, in our view, clear advantages to a joint development, and in fact such arrangements can often be very positive, the increasing controversy behind this development and the desirability of an arrangement where the Council could be seen to tender alone and organise its own affairs, as well as the potentially higher income achievable as suggested by Urban Delivery, meant that, on balance, officers thought that an auction sale of our own land would be the best solution.’

However the councillors at this meeting didn’t go along with the officers advice. The Executive Members favoured negotiation with the developer and preferred the development as originally envisaged.

The options were then put to the meetings of the Overview Committee and Executive in December 2014.

4th December 2014 : Canterbury City Council Overview Comittee debated the Oval Chalet sale in a closed session. Like the earlier meetings this was closed to the public due to commercial confidentiality rules. ‘Financial and business affairs of the Council and other persons.. is exempt information.’ This is regular practise in any commercial deal, it means the online minutes list the item discussed but limited details.

Alison O’Dea, Neil Baker, Phil Cartwright and Louise Morgan were the Whitstable Councillors present in this Overview meeting. Phil Cartwright represented the the ward where the Oval is located. He describes what happened here.  He explains that the councillors were led to believe the development offered good public space.

The Head of Property discussed the options for the land with the councillors. The developer declined to provide the complete plans as it was claimed this would be costly until the deal was sure.

The councillors were led to believe 90% of the Oval Chalet land was a ‘public piazza’. It seems the councillors believed the £160,000 (reputed) price was low as the developer would mostly offer public land on the site. The councillors recommended to the Executive that the deal progressed through the legal department, and ‘concludes a sale of the land on the terms set out in this report.

11th December 2014 : The Council Executive accept the recommendation from the Overview committee. They approve the sale of the land to Sea Street Developments. The report they were given is here, with some details not revealed, but it seems clear from this report that the the plan is to, ‘provide an open plaza within the proposed development looking out towards Reeves Beach.‘ Regarding the developer’s requirements the report says,  ‘The policies in the Local Plan ensure that any future development of this site within the Conservation Area will include the provision for open space and access to the sea front. Indeed, the developer is keen to provide this – and enter a legal agreement with the Council in that respect, and sees it as an important part of the scheme to be put forward.’

We can see that the report shown to the Executive does not show the council land in full. Some people have speculated that the valuer was also given incorrect descriptions of the land, missing the access strip from Sea Street, but we do not know if this is true. I suspect part of the valuation process would be to check the land registry, particularly given the complex nature of the land’s history and potential for clauses to limit its use. But we do not know.

This section of the meeting was again private due to confidentiality. The minutes do record that the following options were considered.

(1)         Do nothing – 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 in the event the tile warehouse is developed without incorporating the subject site.

(2)         Agree a sale for the amount recommended in the report, which will contribute to a better overall development in Town Planning terms.

(3)         Sell the freehold on the open market. The Local Planning Authority is likely to prefer to see the site developed comprehensively rather than in a piecemeal fashion.

And 2) was chose, and the sale subject to development was agreed, with :

Reasons for the decisions

There is now a 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 than as a stand-alone site.

Should the council seek to leave the Oval Chalet untouched and the adjacent site is redeveloped in isolation, the ground level differences between Harbour Street and Sea Street will result in the council’s retained site becoming an eye-sore offering no amenity to the community of Whitstable. Any subsequent development would be severely constrained by the built form that occurs at the adjoining site, along with Rights to Light issues and would close down any opportunity to deck the land to raise a viewing platform for the public to enjoy sea views. This will provide the best chance for a more comprehensive and cohesive townscape in terms of the development format with public space provision across the two combined sites.

January 21st 2015 : A contract subject to planning permission is drawn up. This is where things go badly wrong. 

As Colin Carmichael’s report says, ‘The contract entered into seems generally appropriate except in one sense. The clear desire of the Executive to achieve open space as part of the joint development has not been clearly translated into the contract. There is mention of “landscaping” but that isn’t necessarily open space.

The contract places reliance on delivering that on the planning process. In hindsight I think more could have been done to require this contractually, though of course that ran the risk of sabotaging the scheme by making it unviable.

So the developer has a contract with no open space requirement…  I wonder what they might do!? This contract does have a a ‘Long Stop’ date by which it can be terminated if the planning approval is not given.

electFeb – April 2015 : The general election is coming up… you might say this has no bearing on a land sale, but perhaps it has? The Ward Councillors for the Harbour ward Phil Cartwright and John Wratten were not selected to stand for Labour in the local government election. I also think most councillors and members of the public are likely to be interested in the election and paying less attention to local issues. The boundary of the Oval ward is  now redrawn as  Gorrell Ward with 3 councillors standing. Labour select 3 new candidates. John Wratten did stand as an independent candidate, but didn’t retain his seat.

May 8th 2015 : The election results are in, and new ward councillors for the  Oval Chalet patch are Ashley Clarke and Brian Baker for the Conservative party and Bernadette Fisher for Labour.

View-1May 22nd 2015 : A public consultation is announced for the development. The plans are shown and the size of the public  space is minimal. It seems the 90% open space plan is more like 10% now. The open space is a small paved area outside a kiosk shop.

The developer has no contractual requirement to offer public space, and so has offered a plan that is mostly built up with houses and holiday lets.

June and July 2015 : The public interest in this Oval Chalet grows. Information is scarce, I was emailing councillors but information was hard to come by. I brought up the sale at WAMP, asking councillors to use these meeting to update the public on local issues, and asked a few questions. The Oval Chalet Preservation Society was formed to protest about the development. A petition was launched with this web page promoting it.

15 July – 28 August 2015 : The Oval Chalet and Tile warehouse planning application was open for consultation. The developer presented a massive file of supporting evidence with hundreds of pages, no ordinary mortal could spare the hours needed to go through it in detail! Despite this, and the fact the council website timed out when you spent more than 5 minutes writing a comment (!) the application received 80 complaints from the public.

23rd July 2015 : At the Full Council meeting the petition was presented to the council with 800 signatures. The petition was received without debate and referred to the Regeneration and Property Committee for a report by the Officers.

17 September 2015:  The Regeneration and Property Committee discussed how to proceed. The report on the petition discussed options, but the recommendation was pretty clear.

‘The Council is not in a position to rescind the contract. In conclusion therefore, there is no reason for the Council to revisit its decisions in the matter, and the only route left for the Council is to reject the petition. Any other decision would lead to litigation with the developer for breach of contract, with the concomitant time and costs involved in defending the Council’s indefensible position in the matter.’

The council minutes of the meeting reveal that in a closed part of the session there were discussions about the value of the land, the open space provision, and the lack of openness with the sale. Councillors were given advice on the legal and financial implications of withdrawing from the contract. There was no vote on withdrawing from the sale, because the recommendation was clear that the contract could not be cancelled.

The proposal put, and seconded, in the public session at minute 259, that the decision remains in place, was put to a vote and FELL.

 A proposal was put that the decision was reviewed with full disclosure of information, appropriate financial advice, independent legal advice and with relevant witnesses and with a site visit. This was not seconded.

 A proposal was put that the council fulfils its current contractual obligations and also undertook a review of the way in which the decision was taken. This was seconded and when put to a vote it was CARRIED.

So the decision was made to retain the contract and review the sale because, ‘The council would suffer significant reputational and financial losses by breaking the contract. However, there were some areas of concern for the public in how the original decision was taken and it may help the council to learn lesson but conducting a review of how that decision was taken.’

22nd October 2015 : This review was presented at the next meeting of the Regeneration and Property Committee. Colin Carmichael compiled a lengthy report which can be read in full here. It covers how the decision was made, reveals near complete details of the valuation report, and reveals the key fact that the contract offered no clear provision for open space just a mention of ‘landscaping’.

The report was thorough and presented the honest admission that the contract offered no safeguard for open space. The Chief Executive also said that future closed session meetings should reveal as much information as possible in their minutes.

12342806_1672922989591510_3567234605771084720_nThe Oval protestors did not like the report, they felt that the Chief Executive was reviewing his own actions, which meant the report was not an impartial investigation.

10th November 2015 : In a slightly unconventional announcement in a Facebook group, Cllr Ben Fitter-Harding the Chairman of the Regeneration and Property committee revealed independent legal advice was being sought on whether the contact could be cancelled. A highly respected Counsel reviewed the case and backed up the council lawyers. His report said the contract had to stand. 

12274423_10208503007159325_3863594542288192383_nThe Oval protestors say that the QC was swayed by the questions put to him and the evidence given.

 

17 November 2015 : The council creates a web page linking to documents and minutes to do with the sale.

25 November 2015: In the Whitstable Area Member Panel (WAMP) meeting Cllr Neil Baker presented a request by a member of the public for background information and details of the Oval Chalet contract to be made public. Other councillors supported the recommendation, although it appears likely council officers will deny it on commercial confidentiality grounds.

4 December 2015: The Oval Chalet group have created a web page. It details their view of the sale,and I’m glad  they have a place for information and documents. However Cllr.Ben Fitter-Harding claimed that of the 5 bullet points on the front page only 1 is accurate.

Next steps: I asked the council democracy department what the options are for effecting this sale. You can read my email here. In brief they say, the contract must stand as both council lawyers and an independent council have agreed  that the council can not withdraw from this.

A judicial review may be a possibility, but must be within 3 months of the decision, and all the decisions were made more than 3 months ago.

A complaint to the local government ombudsman may be possible, but this must be made by an individual harmed by a decision – not by a whole town. It is unlikely to lead to the contract being cancelled.

The best plan seems to be fighting the development at the planning application stage. I am hopeful the current plan will be rejected, and this means the developer will need to compromise.  Another point is that if the decision takes a long time to reach an agreement the contract may end due to the Long Stop clause.

CGQ3jw4XEAEnpceThe contract will also not stand if any foul play is discovered. ‘Bad faith or abuse of power‘ are  both reasons to cancel the contract. The Oval group are considering these points. These are certainly serious faults to find. This means fraud, an intention to deceive, or official misconduct. I do not suspect criminal acts when I consider this situation, although other people have stated suspicions of some conspiracy.

There is also a view from some, councillors included, that this development is not even worth a fight. They say we have plenty of open space a few feet away on the beach. Despite my own passion for this cause I have some sympathy for this view… Despite all the talk about the Oval there seems  to be no clear consensus on how best to use the land.

postcardBut I do believe that it is worth a fight. I still hope some solution will be found to save it. I’d like to create a development that sits prettily on a postcard, and create a bit of our town that will be loved by Whitstable people now, and by generations to come. The original plan by Sea Street Developments, voted for by the Executive and priced low because of its open space plaza and sea views, would have been a plan I could support.

I hope this review of where we are is useful. If anything is incorrect please email joanne@museumoffun.org and I’ll correct any inaccuracies. This post is an attempt to present some balance in a fraught situation, although I’m aiming to present facts, it is of course my own reading of them. Feel free to add your opinions in the comments bit.

 

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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.

Round the houses with the Oval Chalet

CGQ3jw4XEAEnpceWe went to an excellent meeting organised by the Campaign for Democracy in Canterbury District last week. It discussed involvement between the public and the council. New council leader Simon Cook spoke in support of this, and we seem to have an exciting and forward thinking new council. I’m convinced our current council support public involvement,  but I’m bothered by a decision taken before the election that wasn’t as open as the vision discussed in this meeting.

I spent a lot of the meeting considering my experiences with trying to find out what’s going on with the Oval Chalet land. A planning application has been put forward for this council owned land and it seems it will be sold to the next-door Tile Warehouse. I say ‘it seems’ because it’s impossible to discover whether the land is sold already. The sale discussions were in private, and it seems likely that this deal is done.

A public consultation sought views on the plans.  But if it is already sold  then it’s a different kind of consultation, it’s ‘How do you like this deal that will happen?’ If it hasn’t been sold then it’s, ‘What do you think of this idea for the area?’

Someone at the CDCD meeting spoke about public involvement leading to better outcomes. I am sure that people are more inclined to buy-in to a decision made with their input, and a full understanding of the problems and facts.

I am also sure the opposite is true. With the Oval Chalet land the facts are not easy to know,  this is due to legal reasons about confidentiality, plus poor communication of the available information. An email I received from the council property officer today told me of, ‘exempt information under paragraph 3 of Schedule 12A of the Local Government Act 1972.’

A quick Google reveals that this is used to maintain confidentiality in council business affairs. Each time it’s used there is supposed to be a ‘Public Interest Test’.  “Does the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweigh the public interest in disclosing the information?”

I understand that the financial details could never be public, but the majority of information about the land deal is unknown. I feel that telling us a sale was being considered was very much in the public interest. I would have liked to know if the consultation would make much difference, which presumably it wouldn’t if the deal was agreed. I would like to know about this sale before it happened, because I would have told my councillor I’d like other ideas to be explored.

It is surely in the interest of the Whitstable public to have their views heard, and listened to when there is a chance for those views and ideas to make a difference. It is surely in the interests of the council to seek those views and explain the problems and issues so people understand, if only so they don’t get accused of being sneaky.

So, I have spent about a month writing emails, researching history, discussing this with people, and generally spending time, thought and energy on this situation. I now feel tied in to this whole saga, and much less willing to simply let it be.  So, due to a lack of simple facts, someone like me, who fully supports our council and wants to understand their decision, has turned into a frustrated angry person.

I want to ask, ‘What’s going on please?’ but instead I’m getting information from a group using Freedom of Information requests. My local councillors have been great (thank you Brian, Ashley and Bernadette!) but there’s simply not much information to go on.

I’m imagining how it might have been to hear a message in 2014 saying, “Hello Whitstable, guess what? This land’s lease had expired, this means we can finally do something to improve this area! What do you think ?”

I believe the people of Whitstable would have jumped up and down and shouted, “Hurray, well done council, good news! Let’s finally get this eyesore sorted!”

View-1The Oval Chalet land is simply a bit of wasteground near the sea. Like most people I’m glad it’s being developed because it’s tatty and unused. Passions are high for various reasons, but mostly because we all care about our town and want the best for it. The decision to build in a rare spot of land beside the beach should be approached thoughtfully and not rushed.

These are a few reasons why this matters to local people:

  • There is a listing of ‘mixed use with public space’ on the local plan. ‘Public’ means you and me. This gets our attention.
  • The council owns the land so people feel they have a right to know what’s being done with it, and also why. Giving views to my councillor when my words have no influence surely means the timing is wrong, it’s too late.
  • Records suggests the land was sold to the council with a condition that it should benefit the elderly. There is no actual legal clause about the land use so personally I don’t think this means much. The land used to be a skating rink so it’s never been used to benefit old folks.

I believe that the council is supposed to get ‘best value’ on a sale. This is good for you, me and our council tax bills. So is value is all about the cash?

Not exactly. There is value in good planning, and there is value in open space, if there wasn’t we wouldn’t bother to put these details in the local plan. But how much public space gives us real value? And how do we suggest good ideas for a ‘public space’ when we don’t know the size of that space? All we know is that a developer wouldn’t spend much cash on this because it would eat into his profits.

There is an immediate conflict between a developer needing to maximise profit (more houses minimize the public space) versus the public’s desire for pleasant usable space (less houses more public space.)  I think any local plan listing ‘public space’ should give dimensions to save us from headaches like this.

wfh-forgeThe developer’s plan showed housing and a small paved area outside a kiosk. The likelihood is the planning application will be denied and resubmitted, and we’ll end up with housing and a slightly larger paved area outside a kiosk.

Kiosks always have tables and chairs outside them, but if this happens I wonder if that’s really commercial space not public? Will anyone really enjoy this space? Will people walk from the beach and sit here, out of reach of the sea? We’re probably fighting for something that won’t even make much difference to our lives. An open bit will benefit the residents nearby, and look a bit nicer, but that’s it.

But I’ve come this far, I’m bothered, I’m ready to take this on. .. I suspect this isn’t a winnable fight but I’m committed. This is public involvement gone wrong. This is frustrated citizens hatching plans for placards and protests, because they care… and not even knowing if they are wasting their time on a lost cause.

I have a letter from a council property chap, a willingness to ask questions, and a desire to blog about all this. If openness and facts are a good thing (and I think they are) I can at least share information this way to dispel the misinformation. And I can give the point of view of  one member of the public (me) even if these views may be aired too late to make a difference. If you have thoughts on this development do add a comment.

A part 2 post about the Oval Chalet can be found here.