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Ashton's Gardens?

Ashton Gardens, St Annescounterbalance enjoyed a rare opportunity recently. We were able to sit in with a jury of folk (called 'stakeholders') to hear the latest version of Fylde Council's plans for Ashton Gardens in St Annes. If they get the final stages of the lottery grant right, FBC will get some cash - quite a lot actually, in the region of 2 million. But apparently even this won't be enough to do everything. Those in charge say privately that they could really do with 5 million.

Given that there isn't going to be enough cash to do everything, some things are going to have to be left out. Potentially that spells trouble.

There was some controversy about this last autumn when the Gardens' supporters group and some other local organisations failed to support the scheme, and objected to the Commissar's plan to turn the gardens into "a vibrant outdoor leisure centre" because it left out almost all the restoration and planting, and majored on new buildings and paved "entertainment" areas.

Ashton Gardens are quite special to St Annes residents. They are in a designated conservation area, and listed Grade II on the National Register of Historic Parks and Gardens. 

The 'stakeholders' at the meeting were told there are only 100 or so such gardens in the UK, and St Annes has two of them, (Ashton and the Promenade) which is pretty exceptional for a small town. 

We also have a pretty exceptional demographic profile that is heavily skewed toward the over 50s. It runs wholly counter to the national average. 

The sort of retired professionals who form the electorate around here ensure a Conservative MP is always returned - when they're almost extinct elsewhere in the north of England. 

Our residents also have a natural predilection for flowers and gardens, and the peace and quiet that goes with them. They expect their gardens to be a place of horticultural excellence.

We're also a resort with exceptional visitors who, broadly speaking, match the residential demographics. Historically, the Council's own surveys of visitors and potential visitors have all shown the three things that will attract visitors or our resort are: peace and quiet, parks and gardens, and small friendly shops. 

The Council's most recent survey - 'Listening Day 2006' (sic) - shows the top three things people want are: pleasant, peaceful, relaxed atmosphere, green environment with open spaces, and specific locations such as parks. It also showed the most requested change or improvement that visitors wanted (an enormous five times greater than the second most requested change) was..... no change at all.

So you'd think anyone with half a brain cell would look at this set of circumstances, and realise the sense in going with the grain, maximising our strengths, and capitalising on the gifts that fell into our lap. 

You could imagine a plan based around flowers and harmony and tranquility to please residents and attract visitors. 

You might even think it could become a unique selling point to develop a niche tourism market for a small northern seaside town like ours.

But not with the present crop of politicians in the driving seat of the Politburo Cabinet. 

Their inherent inadequacy drives them to exert their own stamp of change on us. Like a dog scent-marking its territory, they seek to modernise and impose change to both the physical and the social environment that envelopes us and ought to provide our comfort. 

They jab and jar, imposing change that produces nothing more than the illusion of progress. They waste huge sums on consultancies, mushrooming overheads and non productive costs, devising social engineering schemes that are usually the hallmark of he hard left, and forget altogether they are really there to provide our public services - to empty the bins, cut the grass and sweep the streets, not to 'manage' us, or to regulate our behaviour.

Their approach to the Ashton Gardens project illustrates their 'macho-man' self-image. The believe they are leading us, rather than representing us. It is ably demonstrated in the press release from Fylde Council's Dim Tim Ashton. 

He disregards the self-evident demographics and the expressed preference of visitors and residents, to echo the views of the Commissar. He pays lip service to retaining - as he calls it - "a sense of heritage", but says he is mindful that a sense of fun is needed in the Gardens.

He disregards the fact that the Gardens are exceptional because they are Grade II listed for their historic integrity, and goes on to say it is very important not to create "a historically accurate time-capsule of the gardens but rather a space which caters for all, almost providing an outdoor leisure centre which can compete with other places which are vying for people's attention and patronage."

Apart from the ludicrous logic that confuses gardens with recreation grounds, the other odd thing about his outburst - headlined in the Express as something like 'Historic Gardens to become Fun Park' - is that he wasn't even at the 'stakeholder' meeting, so he didn't hear the landscaping experts say almost the opposite of what he told the press.

We also find it confusing that he seems to be in charge of Gardens (and trying to change them into outdoor leisure centres) when he holds the 'Streetscene' portfolio (typically bin men and street cleaning), not the Leisure or the Tourism ones which would seem to be better suited - unless of course this reflects the Commissar's real intent to extend the streets into the Gardens.

Contrary to what Dim Tim said to the press, the landscape experts were very much focused on restoration and planting. They said privately after the meeting they thought the Heritage Lottery Fund (who give the grants) has leaned on the Council to change the emphasis from being a buildings-led scheme to a gardens-led scheme (perhaps in response to public unrest last year).

It was also apparent during the meeting that the Commissar isn't going to get the subsidiary 1 million scheme called 'Stage 2' into which most of the planting and much of the restoration had been pushed when the bid was prepared last autumn. 

Stage 2 would also have seen the 'Winter Gardens' replace the present cafe. But the Lottery fund has now said the 2 million scheme is all Fylde is going to get for a while, so the 1 million subsidiary scheme is all but dead, and that's why the plans are now being re-prioitised for the eighth time.

If this hadn't been done, we think  St Annes would be in line for it's own Bob Geldof moment - you know, when they open the gates and everyone says .... "Is that it?"

There was one difficult moment at the meeting when it was suggested that a new building (styled on the demolished Ashton Institute) might be licensed (shades of another town centre pub but needing dray-lorry access into the gardens). This drew strong and sharp opposition from the supporters group, who threatened to become an altogether different sort of 'stake holder' if that plan was pursued, but apart from this, the tone on both sides seemed much more positive than might have been expected.

It remains to be seen whether this new found spirit of co-operation will last when the devil appears out of the detail of the latest re-prioritisation, but our readers can at least rely on counterbalance to keep them informed better than Dim Tim.

That said, he has at least  woken up to his faux-pas (or perhaps he has been woken up to it by the Commissar, who will have seen several letters to the 'Express' from local residents) - because a second press statement has been headlined in the Express as "Theme Park Rumor Denied by Parks Chief." He goes on to repeatedly talk about the "special character of the Gardens." He regularly mentions "heritage" and "history" and how they want to restore the Gardens. He goes on to say confusion has arisen that the gardens were going to be some sort of theme park, and there is not a grain of truth in it.

The only confusion is what he and the Commissar have sown. 

If you want to see what a politician in the middle of a "U" turn looks like, you can follow this link and read his first press release for yourself

Dated:  14 November 2006


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