“An embittered disagreement has arisen between the owner of an Exmouth seafront attraction and the district council over whether he rejected an offer to be involved in its £18m redevelopment of the area.
East Devon District Council is pressing ahead with its ambitious but controversial redevelopment of a 3.6 hectare swathe of Queen’s Drive which has already resulted in the closure and demolition of several long-standing businesses including DJ’s Diner, the Arnold Palmer/Jungle Fun site, and the model railway.
Chris Wright and his family have been running Exmouth Fun Park for four decades. After months of negotiations, Mr Wright said the council made an offer to him involving a lease to run a golf operation, but this was subsequently withdrawn within weeks, without warning.
However, the council claims that Mr Wright rejected the offer before they withdrew it. Members were instructed of his rejection last April in a document entitled ‘Communicating about Queen’s Drive’. The spokesperson added that the council would have liked to reach a settlement with Mr Wright, “but he would not agree terms”.
This claim is vehemently refuted by Mr Wright who is adamant that he did not reject the offer made in September 2015.
A “costly” court battle then ensued regarding his tenancy, in which the council won the right to terminate the Mr Wright’s lease, “devastating” the family “financially and emotionally”.
In a Freedom of Information request (FOI) to the council, and a subsequent request for clarification after the response was only partially answered, the Echo asked for details about how Mr Wright rejected the offer, including the date and the means of rejection, such as verbally or in writing.
The council responded: “The offer was not accepted and was then withdrawn by EDDC on the 12th October 2015 prior to the trial commencing on the 2nd November 2015…there was no acceptance from Mr Wright and accordingly on the basis of legal principles relating to offer and acceptance, an offer that has not been accepted can be withdrawn by the party which made the offer,” the response continued: “There had been extensive negotiation between the parties’ legal representatives during the period between the offer and the date of withdrawal…”
In response to the Echo’s probing into whether the council took an absence of a reply as non-acceptance of the offer, and whether any effort was made to chase up the offer made, it responded: “…the offer was not accepted. There had been extensive negotiation between the parties’ legal representatives during the period between the offer and the date of withdrawal…”
Mr Wright, said: “On September 7, 2015, the council offered us a new 25 year lease on a subject to contract basis. We were happy with the terms of the offer and on the advice of our solicitors, we arranged to meet with council officials to clarify the details of the lease.
“On October 5, we met with an official to discuss the details. After the meeting the council’s solicitor wrote to our solicitors to confirm that an “understanding” had been reached. Our solicitors responded to confirm that if the concerns we raised were addressed, there was no reason an agreement couldn’t be reached imminently, as an understanding had been reached on other issues.
But the draft leases were not provided as the council had indicated they would be, and we received a letter from the council three days later saying they were taking further professional advice.”
Mr Wright said that he heard nothing further until the council wrote to his solicitors on October 12, saying: “It has now become apparent that there can be no agreement reached between the parties to settle the issues…The Council is unable to accommodate your client in the development at this time and therefore the Council is, as of today’s date, withdrawing from any further negotiations”.
As a result, Mr Wright took the council to court because under the Landlord and Tenant Act, he had the right to ask the court to grant a new tenancy, or a tenancy of a part of the new development. However, the council was entitled to oppose the grant of new tenancies on the grounds they intended to develop the land and that it would not be reasonable to carry out the development with us remaining in occupation. The court ruled in the council’s favour.
Mr Wright, said: “We spent a significant amount of time negotiating the terms for a new lease of a part of the development to avoid court proceedings. We were committed to being a part of the future of the seafront.”
He added: “Having traded on Exmouth Seafront as a family for some 40 years, far from being against investment, for over a decade we sought to do just that and submitted countless proposals to be part of the future. As a family this has been emotionally and financially devastating.”
A council spokesperson, added: “The council made a number of attempts, both formal/informal and in writing/face to face, to reach agreement with Mr Wright. This included an offer made in August 2015 by the council to Mr Wright for him to have a new and longer lease directly with the council and to stay on part of the site rather than leave. This offer was increased formally in a letter dated September 7, 2015 and remained on the table while further negotiations continued.
“By October 5, 2015, when a further meeting took place with Mr Wright, there was still no confirmed acceptance by him. During this period of negotiation his financial compensation expectations continued to increase as the trial date approached.
“Clearly negotiation was not working and the council needed to address the imminent court hearing. The council would have liked to reach a settlement with Mr Wright, but he would not agree terms, so the matter went to court and the council’s offer was withdrawn.”
Exmouth Fun Park will continue operating until August 31, 2017.”