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Pontins Development?

Northern Trust to develop Pointins?If you are one of our readers who is registered for reminders when a new article is published, you'll know we sent a newsflash about Northern Trust's possible re-development of the iconic Pontins Holiday Camp for residential use on the day the story broke.

The rough outline is that millionaire Trevor Hemmings (who bought lots of Blackpool's key sites from First Leisure a while back and was behind the Casino plan in Blackpool through his Leisure Parcs Company which has interests in gambling, holiday camps and seaside attractions) is considering putting houses and apartments on the 38 acre Pontins site.

One of the 40 richest people in the UK, with a fortune estimated to be £3,500m, we understand Hemmings owns a range of leisure and gambling assets (including Blackpool Tower), as well as interests in the casino operator 'London Clubs International', and in racecourse owner 'Arena Leisure'

He also has an interest in pools betting company 'Sportech'. His empire extents to property development and he owns both Whittle Jones, and the developers of the resort casino scheme, Delma. But Leisure Parcs and TJH Group are Hemmings' two main corporate vehicles.

However, as we showed with his plans for land development in Wesham, the company involved in that scheme ('Metacre' ) and Whittle Jones Surveyors, share the same address and ultimate parentage within the Hemmings business empire, just as 'Northern Trust' - which is a trading name of 'Northern Trust Company Limited' which itself is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Northern Trust Group, also works from the same Chorley address, and is masterminding this scheme for Pontins.

Back in March, local man Graham Parr used his company called 'Ocean Parcs' to buy Pontins from Hemmings, reportedly for £46m.

The site had first been a Royal Navy training station in WW2. It was then bought by (later Sir) Fred Pontin who saw its golden years. He sold to Coral Leisure for a reputed £56m in the late 1970s, and it was sold it on to a group led by Hemmings in the late 1980's for around £57.5m. That group included Graham Parr who became the group's Managing Director.

In the 90s, it was sold to Scottish and Newcastle for a reputed £85m before returning to the Hemmings empire for a sum believed to be much lower (£30m or so, although it's mot clear what exactly was in the deal) in 2000, before being sold on in 2008 to Ocean Parcs.

Graham Parr said at the time of acquisition last March, he was planning a three year project to transform Pontins fortune, but it now looks as though that was because he had a three year lease on the use of it. We also heard it alleged there is little or no rent being paid to the site owners, and whilst building up of the holiday business is being trumpeted at the success it is, Ocean Parks prefers to speak about its greatly improved bookings and less about its business profitability.

But for whatever reason, a spokesman for the site owner told the Gazette they were looking to protect their long term interests, and had arranged an exhibition of the plans for the site, giving local people two days notice to organise a visit. We promised to go along to the exhibition so we could give readers our take on the scheme.

That seems to be the way things work these days. Time was when you submitted a planning application and if a storm of protest arose you (or the council) might organise a public meeting to exorcise the anger at your plans.

"Illustrative" plan

Today however you get the plans ready; call them "illustrative masterplans" (which in reality means nothing at all), and hold a public display of your "plans". This, of course, means you can provoke a reaction and gauge how serious the opposition is going to be before you submit actual plans which might be different.

We saw this with Kensington's Queensway scheme. The second set of "illustrative" plans bore almost no relationship to the ones exhibited to the public, and because theirs is an 'outline' planning application (which only deals with the change of use and the means of access to the land), the final scheme could be entirely different again.

But what this process does do, is draw out the objections. So if you are the developer, you can take evasive or if possible avoiding, action and if there's not too much of a reaction, you can say - well we hade these illustrative plans and everyone seems happy with them, so that's OK then isn't it?

So that's modern planning. It's really a balance between what the Planning Officers will put up with, and what local people will accept.

So what was the Pontins scheme actually like?

Well, it's difficult to tell.

The plan is to demolish Pontins, and put about 370 houses of one sort or another in its place.

Northern Trust staff explain the plansThere were oodles of sharp suited but earnest young men from Northern Development ready, willing and able to explain the ideas, the concepts, and the details to visitors, most of whom seemed to struggle to orientate themselves in a layout so unfamiliar to them. We spoke with one man for whom it was all just too much. He knew he lived on Bentink Avenue, but couldn't relate how it would affect him. And we suppose that's what most people were there for - how would this development affect me?

Superficially, the design was what we would call a workmanlike scheme. It met all the constraints of the site, it tried to match the scale and character of the existing surroundings, and provide a buffer of sorts between the site and probably (at least in our view), the most important natural environmental site not only in Fylde, but probably in Lancashire, the now rare sand dune and dune slack nature reserve environment.

The lower cost (and tallest) 3 and 4 storey properties were near the Lemon Tree (or more correctly what used to be the Lemon Tree), graduating down to a more spacious lower rise enclave of dormer type bungalows toward the St Annes end. A diagonal green strip of open space lay (rather obviously in plan view, but perhaps not so noticeable on the ground) along the line of the runway, and a green public open area abutted the Nature Reserve land that acts as both the physical separator and the emotional sigh of relief between Blackpool and St Annes.

The plan view didn't show the height of the new buildings of course, and that is probably the greatest disadvantage because they will look much taller than the present low rise chalets. The other main disadvantage will be the access(es) onto Clifton Drive North with traffic complications and probably additional urbanisation of what was previously the mostly open road which 'Dune Point' started to corrupt with its traffic island, and this will extend if the scheme goes ahead.

So as far as the layout was concerned, they had made a fair stab at minimising the impact of something we believe most people won't want, so in that regard, it was as good a job as might be hoped for. "Workmanlike" sums it up..

In discussions with our readers, it feels like around 70% against and 30% for. Interestingly the 'Defend the Dunes' group is on record as supporting the plan on the basis there would probably be less people and thus less disturbance to the dunes opposite. Predictably, tourism leaders are concerned, but reductions in bedspaces outside the key holiday areas are what have allowed the remaining accommodation businesses to earn a living and continue to achieve reasonable room-rates in St Annes

But of course, there might not be a development at all at the end of all this anyway. We can think of a couple of other reasons for the announcement.

Suppose for minute you owned the land, and were in discussion with, lets say, the airport owners about a price for them to buy the land. It would strengthen your hand quite a bit if you could say the land was worth four or five (or whatever) times its current value because it had residential planning permission on it.

Another possibility might be if you have a property empire that is struggling in the present economic climate (which local developer Kensington has called "catastrophic"), you might be able to insulate against the worst effects of the banking crises if you can show the bank your asset portfolio continues to be worth more than the shrinking land value - by increasing it with planning permission for residential property.

So although it might cost you a thousand or two to draw up the plans, even if you don't actually build anything, the change in land values could be worth quite a lot.

As we said before, it's difficult to tell what's going on.

If it does stop being a holiday centre and becomes residential, then we think the greatest shame of all will be the missed opportunity to link the west coast main line and the towns of East Lancashire with a new rail head located within a regional airport terminal building on the site of Pontins.

Now that would be something worth having, and if Fylde Council was on its mettle, it would be talking about a site specific development plan document to help achieve that aim.

Dated:  23 December 2008


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