Large public sector projects soon acquire an unstoppable momentum. When things go wrong it’s the taxpayer who foots the bill.
From one of Owl’s researchers
As an unimpassioned outsider, this longstanding EDDC council tax payer, has watched with interest the history of the Ocean, Exmouth. I had thought the saga was finished and hopefully regenerating Exmouth. I now find in 2020 that I have had to help pay £2.7 million for the building, plus a lot more along the way.
The EDDC elected conservative councillors in the early 2000s had a growth agenda which included regeneration in Exmouth and Seaton of which most of the electorate were unaware. Planning officers appear to have been recruited to carry this out. To a casual observer the evidence shows this tactic worked. The now 18 year’s long bowling alley saga is an example of this. I apologise for the length but it is a saga and I am sure I have missed out so much so please contact Owl to correct or add.
How did it all start?
Tate Britain opened in June 1993 in St. Ives and was the regeneration of the town. Consequently seaside towns jumped on the bandwagon but with very mixed results. The Turner Gallery in Margate may be a successful gallery but economic data issued by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government show the area around Turner Contemporary is still one of the 1% most deprived in the country. The Living Coasts in Torquay, the regeneration hope for the Riviera town, closed this year.
EDDC owned a site which had been undeveloped for years on Exmouth seafront with 2 retail units. It was the site of Exmouth’s open air swimming pool which opened in 1932 on the seafront and was identified in The Exmouth Waterfront Study for leisure-related activity to complement existing seafront activities.
EDDC, under the Conservative leadership of Councillor Sarah Randall Johnson (who spent more than £175,000 of EDDC money fighting the Boundary Committee and the plans for unitary Devon) and Councillor Ray Franklin (EDDC planning and regeneration supremo for 15 years) invited tenders for the development of the site as a leisure activity. The land was subject to continuing tenancies and covenants that restricted the use of leisure activities imposed by the freeholder of the land, Clinton Devon Estates (CDE). And it is a pity that when mentioning these covenants in the negotiations, EDDC did not specify the height restriction of 30 feet. This would have saved the council who paid £50,000 to release this covenant ten years later in 2010.
The tender was won by FWS Carter and Sons who submitted planning application 02/P2572, the first of 16 revised plans. The planning portal does not contain all the planning documents, only those which were approved, therefore the original application cannot be seen. A revised scheme was submitted in August 2003 for a bowling alley, 6 retail units, 2 cafés and restaurants and children’s play area. This was passed, although there had been a failure previously of a bowling alley in the town. The height had increased from the initial plans to 38 feet. The modern contemporary design was considered by the planning officials not to compromise the adjacent conservation area.
Nothing has happened on the ground at the Esplanade but a lot has happened in EDDC. Karime Hassan was appointed Corporate Director and set up the Exeter and East Devon Growth Point and also established regeneration programmes for Exmouth and Seaton. The influential East Devon Business Forum was created in 2005 and FWS Carter and sons and CDE were members. Kate Little was Planning Chief whose mission included “dragging Budleigh Salterton into the 21th century with contemporary architecture” and, in retrospect, it looks like all of East Devon.
On the Esplanade there is now a new developer, Mark Quinn of Harlequinns Bowling and Leisure Ltd, who owned a bowling alley in Bude. It is said that the design was not what he originally wished as planning officers kept saying they wanted a larger more “Iconic building”. There was a new planning application, 05/0901. This was approved with the same footprint and height as the 2003 scheme and with only modest alteration to the physical appearance. The retail units were reduced to 4 with the specification that no further reduction should take place as amalgamation of units with bigger floor area would draw retail activities from the town.
How many shops are there now- one -and what size and what does it sell?
Another planning application was passed – 07/0743- and a new architect, J. Staszewski of Strode Treglow appointed. If any councillors and planning officers wanted an iconic building which would regenerate Exmouth they had one now. A slightly increased size building; a roof with broken waves and even its own timber- clad look-out tower, topped with a wind turbine. At a roof line of 44 feet this definitely exceeded CDE’s 30 foot maximum. The retail units were reduced to three to create 2 additional bowling alleys.
Hooray, the building commences. Oh dear, the building stops! It has been built too tall and not to plan!
The building just sat there. Mr Staszewski and Mr Quinn said they had “run into some problems” which had caused a delay in the construction process. Mr. Quinn, later, said he had been forced to halt work for around 18 months while legal wrangles were ironed out when structural difficulties arose early on in the development.
Another planning application passed, 09/2564, to regularise the building work carried out and seek permission for a further increase in height so that the building can be finished. The residents are not happy but the councillors just want to see it finished.
The planning officer’s report to the Development Management Committee defended the size of the part of the building already erected by saying that when the glazing and cladding is inserted this will break up the bulk.
Planning application 11/1157 passed with minor changes: the addition of a new roof over the previous open terrace area and a further increase in the height of the building; the universally hated wind turbines removed; 2 additional retails units approved because they were deemed too small to harm the town centre.
Local caterer Aby Farmanieh pulled out of catering deal as a completion date hadn’t been confirmed.
EDDC issued legal notice to Harlequin Leisure in an attempt to speed up the development, which has so far taken five years. It threatened Mark Quinn to either complete the project or hand the building back to the local authority if it was not completed within two months.
The company says that “everything is fine”, and a large team are on site working hard to get the bowling alley ready to open in the new year.
At last it OPENS. Bowling alley manager Isaac Robb, one of the UK’s top chefs, and his wife Grainne, who have taken on the new attraction, were serving food on Boxing Day.
The Robbs leave the business.
EDDC engineer a take-over of the lease of Exmouth sea front facility by LED Leisure Management. Councillor Andrew Moulding, chairman of Exmouth Regeneration Programme, said: “This is fantastic news for everyone who lives in Exmouth or who comes to the resort for holidays or leisure” Some disagreed when they looked at the generous guarantor terms provided for LED (tenant) and Harlequinns (landlord) by EDDC. Should LED become in default the amounts involved are eg. £200,000 a year for the fifth year of the term.
New application, 16/0409 passed. This goes back to a single mini-market retail unit which planning officials now say would not generate a level of activity to harm the town.
Ocean goes on the market for £2,700,000
EDDC buys the building for £2.7 million. Full council only informed in October 2020. I find this extraordinary that £2.7 million can be spent without the full council’s knowledge.
LED estimates a loss of £1.3m in the current year as a result of COVID-19 restrictions over the leisure centres it operates in the East Devon area. It has asked for funds ranging between £616,000 and £1.276m from EDDC. As a charitable trust it is unable to claim 75 per cent of lost income under a central government scheme whereas leisure facilities operated by Local Authorities can do so. (This has happened after I started researching this piece.)
Having looked at so many planning documents and all the planning officers’ decision reports to councillors all I can say is that, once started, this project HAD to go ahead at the expense of the neighbouring residents, the seafront historical environment and even the town centre. All this could go ahead using ambiguous planning policies. As long as comments are taken into account, other considerations can be given greater weight. Take the 2001 approval for a retail area with 6 units; small units which would sell seaside goods which would not compete with the town centre – reduced to 4; increased to 5; this space is now 2 bowling lanes, an amusement arcade (the Hon. Mark Rolle of CDE would turn in his grave) and a Budgens mini- market selling groceries. The planners in their reports can argue, quite legitimately, first one way then another.
Has it regenerated Exmouth? Even pre-Covid Exmouth town centre still looked sad. Seaton? Has Tesco regenerated the town or just its own profits?
This grandiose scheme opened up the way for the Elizabeth Hall/ Premier Inn, M & S on the estuary, the re-alignment of Queen’s Road, the Watersports Area and goodness know what next.
[One of Owl’s correspondents has recently queried whether EDDC needed to purchase the Ocean, musing on what the outcome on the building’s ownership might have been under insolvency.]