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'Masterplan' Considered

'Masterplan' ConsideredThe doors to the Town Hall were supposed to open at 6:40pm but by 6:15 there was a small group waiting outside in the drizzle.

A kindly Councillor took pity on the assembly and the doors opened early. We went into the delightful 'Reception Room' where the meeting was to take place (The former Council chamber you will remember was ripped out by a previous Chief Executive).

The public gallery of about 40 seats was at one end of the room with the table running up the centre and a laptop and projector setup at the far end for the presentation.

Those who follow counterbalance will already know the background to this story from our last article 'What Masterplan?' Tonight was about hearing the consultants Jonathon Dixon and Nick Laister (with apologies to the people concerned if those spellings are not correct) deliver their report, and to hear them answer questions about it.

By the start, there was a queue of people outside the door hoping to get in. With the quiet efficiency of an experienced hand, the clerk acquired more chairs and with a bit of a squeeze and her good management, everyone was accommodated.

There were probably 60 to 70 people in the room. The Chairman, Councillor John Bennett, who managed the meeting well, welcomed those present and said he proposed to have the consultant's presentation, then questions from the public, then questions from councillors not on his committee, and finally questions from his committee, before asking the consultants to leave - to enable debate by his committee.

The presentation began with the consultants explaining they had been working on the scheme for about a year, and there had been no precise reason for doing it. It was not the final document, more "a hope that something will happen in 4 or 5 years" and it was only the first step in such a process. We thought this sounded like either fairly significant backtracking as introductions go, or it was an attempt to distance themselves from what they had recommended - but that's just probably our misunderstanding.

One point that was laboured was the phrase 'enabling development' - as in 'enabling hotel development' and 'enabling residential development.' We thought this recognised the thrust of our previous article - there are not enough visitors to justify the capital investment in a leisure site of this size, so it will need something which is less desirable to allow it to happen. The consultants said they thought a hotel could be classed as an enabling development.

The rest of the presentation went as expected, explaining what they had said in the report (and we covered in 'What Masterplan?')

Then we came to the public questions.

The first speaker said he thought the consultants had missed out an option. People were attracted to the area for its openness and to use the beach. They didn't want all this built development, and the right thing might well be to extend the golf course or have some other form of open space. The consultants noted the area was the subject of a commercial lease and this sort of development was unlikely unless the Council were to take the site back into its control and that would be very expensive. Councillor Fiddler later said "The idea of removing what's there and not putting anything back is not realistic" But the idea of open space did seem to be a theme running through much of the public comment.

The second speaker said she didn't like the plans either and wanted a public amenity such as the open air roman baths with a retractable roof.

The third speaker noted the consultants intention not to include things that would conflict with or damage the retailing offered in the town centre, but she couldn't understand why, when the present accommodation providers were not full to overflowing, the consultants has not applied the same logic to the hotel industry. She thought the proposed hotel would damage that. The consultants said they didn't think there would be a conflict as "this would be a different sort of hotel" suggesting a 'branded' hotel would be a different animal. This was not met with wide acclaim from the public, and some later said they saw the consultants getting decidedly tetchy at the issues being raised.

The fourth speaker noted they had consulted the Regional Development Association's tourism strategy, and asked whether they had consulted the Fylde tourism strategy and the Fylde tourism policy and whether they had done any primary research into the particular visitor market that Fylde has.

He also noted the consultant's reference to the Grade 2 listed gardens as being "the most distinctive feature" of the promenade and asked why these had been disregarded as the focus of the masterplan.

The consultants said they had spoken to Fylde's tourism officer as part of their preparation, but there was no tourism strategy or policy. The last tourism strategy expired two years ago and the new one was still being worked on. They had noted the gardens, and "were hopeful Fylde could find some finance to keep them going." We don't think that was a terribly good answer really from a supposed masterplan.

Another speaker asked if the Hotel was acceptable in planning terms (the consultants said they thought it was), and another spoke in favour of the open air baths that had previously occupied the site. The next speaker asked about the logic of closing a swimming pool four years before any development might happen, and the last said she hoped residents living opposite would have their views and amenities protected, to which the consultants pointed to policy TREC 8 about not jeopardising the character of the area.

Then came the non-committee councillors.

Saint Barbara Pagett said there must be proper public consultation before any planning brief is drawn up for the site so the public could influence it, not simply comment on it. She was widely supported when she said there was an accepted principle that there should be no hotels on the seaward side of the promenade, and that she had asked about Fylde's tourism policy herself, only to be told we did have one but the person she asked didn't know where it was.

John Davies asked if the consultants has knowledge of, or has surveyed, the spare capacity in existing hotels before recommending another one be built. He also noted that all the schemes had less car parking than is presently provided, and he hoped this would be a serious public consultation, and not a mickey-mouse one like the swimming pool. He also said we should be encouraging people to play golf, not to look at a museum of it.

Fabian Wilson said we were going for classic resort status, and she was not at all sure what we had seen tonight was unique or special, adding we need to celebrate our Victorian heritage, not have things modern.

Kath Harper agreed with former speakers, emphasising that any development needs to be in character.

Then the Chairman invited questions from his committee

George Caldwell put the cat amongst the pigeons a bit when he asked what brief the consultants had been given. With evident fluster they said this had all emerged when the lessee had proposed change, and the Council had asked them "To explore the redevelopment potential of the seafront taking into account any relevant documents." Cllr Caldwell also asked where else they had worked on seaside schemes, and was told Scarborough, Skegness, Great Yarmouth and Blackpool.

We had a look on their website and found the following:

"Last year RPS secured planning permission for Camelot Theme Park's (Lancashire) biggest ever ride: 'Knightmare', a 26m high roller coaster that is visible from the M6. RPS has acted for the Park's operators for over 10 years...."

"....theme parks are finding more new and innovative ways of supporting their attractions. RPS worked with Great Yarmouth Pleasure Beach and Great Yarmouth Borough Council to apply to the Government for a new-style casino as part of the review of gambling legislation, resulting in the town becoming the only UK seaside resort to date, to be able to grant a 'large' casino licence.

RPS submitted the application for the casino development this year, to include a 60,000 sq. ft casino, 22-lane ten-pin bowling alley, 10 screen multiplex cinema, and a 184-bedroom hotel with 6 restaurants and parking for 832 cars. The building will become a major landmark between the Pleasure Beach and the town's Eastport outer harbour development. The entire building is carefully designed to create a stunning grand-scale lightshow, and the development will represent the biggest investment in the town's tourism economy in over 25 years.

Other recent RPS projects include: Blackpool Pleasure Beach (Lancashire), Loudon Castle (East Ayrshire), West Midlands Safari Park (Bewdley), Funland Amusement Park (Hayling Island); Brean Leisure Park (Somerset); Adventure Island (Southend); Old MacDonald's Farm Park (Brentwood); and Pleasure Island (St Annes)."

Hmmmm.

Bill Thompson said he was worried about sea level rises and he knew this was a flood-prone site on the Environment Agency's maps. He asked what thought had been given to this aspect. Without actually saying 'none' the consultants confirmed part of the site was within a flood zone and said any eventual planning application would have requite a risk assessment, and it would have to meet Environment Agency criteria.

Kevin Eastham (the soon to be Chairman of this committee), said this was really an academic exercise, and few masterplans come to reality as envisaged. He stressed the need to work more closely with the lessees of the site.

Lyndsay Greening asked if the consultation would extend to the whole of Fylde and not just to Lytham and St Annes, to which came the answer "yes."

Cabinet member Paul Rigby was invited to comment and seemed reluctant to do so at first, but once in his stride said he was disappointed people had given the impression they had not discussed this with Carr Royd. There had been six meetings with them. He also said - in what to us sounded a rather petulant tone - he thought we were consulting the public tonight (implying there didn't need or be any more public consultation). He concluded by saying he thought this brief was OK

Kevin Eastham said the Cabinet wouldn't want to do a financial appraisal at this time. He also wanted to look at the relationship between this scheme and the gardens restoration plan.

Trevor Fiddler said he was certain the public consultation must precede the production of a planning brief.

At this point officers commented that they welcomed guidance from the committee as to which should come first, and another said the brief would probably be based around TREC8 (a policy that supports appropriate development on the promenade)

Tellingly then came the comment, "The cabinet, or the portfolio holder, will decide what happens." This Committee can only advise.

At this point the somewhat battered consultants were released, and the formal debate began.

In addition to the printed recommendations, the Committee added two more - that officers and relevant councillors agree the scope and content of a public consultation, and that they try to identify sources of funding for that to take place.

As the debate went forward, Kevin Eastham said ominously, "There must be some enabling development if anything is to happen here".

Councillor Maxine Chew said she thought this sounded like an "off the shelf package" and not something that was specific to St Annes. She added that specific needs of St Annes must to be the focus of the public consultation. She said she was concerned about the reduction in car parking, and learning to dread words like modern, exciting, contemporary, refreshing, and vibrant. She said whatever was done must focus on our Victorian Heritage, and that a 'pastiche' which had been spoken of disparagingly by the consultants, was far more preferable to her than a modern glass and steel structure. We thought we saw Cllr Eastham wince at this, but maybe it was just a twinge.

It's an interesting debate - whether to retain the character of an area by retaining a specific architectural style (in our case Victorian / Edwardian) or whether the character comes from, say, the quality of the architecture, in which case a good modern building is just as valuable. We admit to being tempted to the former, and, like Cllr Mrs Chew we would definitely go for the 'pastiche' if that's how others see it.

We see it as was explained in the early days of the St Anne's on Sea Land and Building Company who, in the manner of Henry Ford, would say to prospective builders - you can build whatever you like as long as it is in the 'Domestic Gothic' style.

Cllr Chew concluder her comments by saying that an enabling development was simply a euphemism for we won't like and don't want. Mischievously adding that a branded hotel could end up being a Travelodge.

Cllr Thompson said "Well, the plan is a start isn't it? We need to involve the whole council in this, and I remain worried about the sea defences. He was contradicted by Cllr Fiddler who said sea rise was nowhere near the risk it was being predicted to be, and we have to approach the site from a commercial perspective.

The Committee's decision will now go to the Cabinet. We'll bring you more when it does.

The consultants SeaFront Masterplan report (7mb) can be downloaded from FBC's website

Dated:  4 August 2008 


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