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What Masterplan?

What Masterplan?This is a long article, but it's an important topic that needs to be covered in depth. And our readers will benefit from some  background information that's not easily available elsewhere.

Speaking recently about the new Seafront Masterplan, Councillor Paul Rigby, the present (but soon to be deposed) Cabinet Portfolio Holder for 'Finance and Efficiency' is reported to have said:

"We took the decision to create the masterplan as we felt it was a major responsibility of the local authority as community leader to guide and encourage high quality redevelopment of one of the town's major assets The ambitious designs have been thoroughly researched and based around market testing to gauge interest for potential uses of the site. Amongst the top runners is a quality branded hotel development, a bowling facility and a health and fitness club....."

We can deduce from his comment that:

  1. The Masterplan is FBC's own project.
  2. They still think it's their job to lead us (Not to represent us).
  3. Their definition of 'high quality' is very suspect.
  4. They think these plans have been 'thoroughly' researched (we will show they are not).
  5. They think if they slip the word quality into the press releases a lot we will start to believe it.

So much for the spin. What's really going on? And why is this article called "What Masterplan?"

Well, the first thing to realise is that if St Anne's Promenade is to maintain its appeal to the niche market of visitors it seeks (or at least this which it has historically sought) to attract, this plan is going nowhere. It's a dead duck.

The second thing is that its all been done before - back before Pleasure Island came to St Anne's.

And it's not a masterplan anyway.

Its a draft - and wholly flexible - strategy produced by people who have been told what to find, and who don't know, care or even understand, about the particular circumstances of the town.

So how did we get to this point? And why do we even need a Masterplan?

Well, the site presently occupied by The Island (formerly 'Pleasure Island', and originally 'Slideworld', and having had several other names and incarnations in between) is owned freehold by Fylde Council. Back in the mid 1990s there was concern that the (then) Open Air Baths on this site were losing money, and were not sufficiently attractive to modern visitors who had more sophisticated expectations. They were costing over £100,000 a year in maintenance costs and were only really popular in a heatwave.

Having built a state of the art new indoor swimming pool next door, the Council decided to close the Open Air Baths and to market the site for an alternative leisure use. (we'll return to this aspect later).

The Carr Royd Group were eventually chosen to lease the site, but having done so were unable to make it pay, so they sought, and were granted, changes to the lease conditions (and most especially to the financial arrangements) they had with the Council.

They also went from being a children's play centre to a more overt commercial undertaking and created tenancies of their own with independent stall holders in the train carriages they installed. They subsequently created tenancies in their main property; all of which produced an income for them with less outlay.

But it seemed that even this move was not enough, and they wanted another change - to introduce a major player into the site. We believe the intention here was to have what became the Whitbread's Salter's Wharf pub/restaurant as the main attraction for the site, bringing in people that would also spend in the Carr Royd Leisure complex.

Negotiations with Whitbread were complicated, but in 1997 whilst the Council retained the freehold of the site, Whitbread took the lease of the whole area, (including their pub and the Pleasure Island site), with Carr Royd retaining their use of part of this area (we believe) as a sub lessee.

The present Masterplan has its roots in a 2006 desire by Carr Royd to again regenerate their site.

We wouldn't be surprised if the original reason for this move (although we have no actual knowledge of the reason) was to be able to draw revenue from disposing of their interest in the site to someone else.

Increasing a site value with a new planning permission before selling is a common practice in business.

In November 2007, we included a gossip note on our 'counterbalance new article notification email'. where we said:  "We've not enough definite facts to go to print yet, but we're picking up stories on the radar about a major development on "The Island" at St Anne's, perhaps as part of the Classic Resort scheme FBC is working on. We hear tales of Hilton Hotels and conference suites being talked about. Of course, it's only gossip at present......."

The story that came to us at the time, (and we were not able to confirm it, so we didn't print) was that The Island's management had come up with a plan that was so off-the-wall that Fylde's planners were gobsmacked (in vernacular parlance) and, as a damage limitation exercise for the future, FBC commissioned a review of what might be suitable for the area. Inevitably, they brought in consultants to do this.

We have seen it argued that the cost of these consultants is not being paid by FBC.

This is more doublespeak. The cost is being shared between FBC and the Local Strategic Partnership - which itself is funded from Council Tax paid in by FBC, LCC and other precepting authorities.

Last autumn, the Gazette leaked a copy of (what was thought to be the final version of) the four-option 'Promenade Masterplan which showed the Swimming pool retained (as was expected at the time).

However, the Commissar's gross overspending after financial incompetence in the Streetscene department and elsewhere led to the pool closure plan being adopted.

This of course gave a new opportunity for using the pool building for something else, so the 'Masterplan', was not issued, and the consultants were told to review and modify their original plan.

What's now been published isn't anything close to what we would call a Masterplan. That would be something well researched and carefully thought through.

This is an infinitely flexible strategy borne of an urgent need to react to something unpalatable, and subsequently varied as circumstances have changed.

That's not the hallmark of a plan, its the hallmark of a rudderless, incompetent administration bereft of any credible ideas of its own, seeking to take advantage of whatever wind is blowing at the time so it appears to be making progress

It's a ship going wherever it is blown, not charting a course to somewhere.

So what's in this so-called 'Masterplan' then?

Well, the document itself is a pretty, modern design booklet with lots of photos to lull you into the mindset the authors want you to have.

So there are clever pictures of things like sandblasted and faded signs for the Tourist Information Centre (that the Commissar has closed).

There are pictures of police signs warning to lock your car because thieves operate in that area, and various unmaintained, tatty public-realm (as they call it) features.

The aim of these is pictures to subliminally make you think St Anne's itself is tired and run down (although our readers know the real reason for the poor maintenance is that the Commissar and his Politburo Cabinet is spending all our money on consultancies and he has nothing left to maintain the signs, tourist facilities and 'public realm' infrastructure they have already - and that's not going to change until he's gone)

The Masterplan opens with a short introduction outlining the consultant's brief. It moves on to put the tourism industry in context.

The points made here are all national issues. None is specific to tourism in Fylde. There is no mention of any primary (or even secondary) research specific to Fylde's tourism industry or our visitor profile. Nor is there any reference to a Fylde tourism strategy. There is no reference to any tourism marketing plan that has informed the findings of the Masterplan.

In short, Fylde's own tourism product has been relatively disregarded and national issues have been substituted.

It is therefore not thoroughly done. It is not particular to Fylde. It sets out to "form the basis of new future for St Anne's seafront" without the research or information necessary to do so. It has relied on national tourism trends. It is thus doomed to failure because Fylde is a niche visitor market that is not reflected in many of the national trends.

The report goes on to describe the area of study which has been said to be the Breach Terrace Cafe to the Pier, but is actually from partway down the greensward beyond the Beach Terrace Cafe (toward Denford Avenue) to a bit further north into the sand dune areas beyond the present North Promenade Car Park.

It notes that the main distinguishing feature of the promenade (and in our view one of the three main visitor attractants) is the Grade II Listed historic gardens, but apart from mentioning there is already a restoration scheme waiting to be funded and implemented, it proceeds to ignore the gardens for the rest of the booklet.

If this had been a real Masterplan these important gardens ("the main distinguishing feature") would have become the focus and centrepiece of the plan.  Instead, they are cast aside.

It then goes on to describe 'The Island' as the least successful element in the seafront area.

The report then considers the 'Townscape Framework' following an 'urban analysis exercise' the consultants undertook to identify linkages and barriers between the promenade to the town centre.

It makes the point that the original (Victorian/Edwardian) elements of the promenade are the most successful, but then says the promenade hotels should be of modern architectural design, with tree planting included wherever possible.

This marks the author as having no understanding of the local climate and very little common sense, as several of their sketch plans show trees planted on the promenade to the seaward of 'The Island' (you know, the part that is currently subject to wave overtopping in high tides).

They certainly don't appear to have checked the Environment Agency's flooding maps or the Beaufort scale records for the area before parroting out this triumph of euphoric tree planting hope over common sense.

They probably thought it really strange that not one of the properties on the promenade has planted any trees in their grounds.

There are opportunities (the report says) to "protect and enhance" the promenade gardens with 'public art' (we couldn't find the word 'restoration' used anywhere in connection with the gardens but maybe we simply missed it).

They say there are also "opportunities" to turn the front of the pier into a better retail offering - we suspect here the plan is to try to extend the shopping area of town into the promenade.

It describes the site of 'The Island' as the "entertainment anchor" and suggests it should blend in better with the promenade.

It also says the present car par arrangements throughout need a dose of looking at, and mostly it wants to link "commercial opportunities" more closely to the promenade.

Here the plan is in direct conflict with the reasons people come here, which are: peace and quiet; small friendly shops, and parks and gardens. We recall a comment from a visitor survey form we once saw that said "The reason I like St Anne's and we keep coming back here is that unlike Blackpool, it is relatively undeveloped. We can walk along the promenade and still see natural sand dunes. Even in the more built up areas we can walk the length of the promenade without the children constantly asking to spend money on amusements and souvenir shops"

So what is actually being proposed. Well, there are several options for redevelopment.

Option 1   "Limited redevelopment"

  • The North promenade car park is extended into the sand dune area to the north
  • A redesigned pier forecourt with parking removed and retail kiosks added
  • Improved access to the beach from the promenade (complete with an opening or two to allow windblown sand an easier access to the promenade).
  • Outer promenade with new paving, seating and lighting
  • Changes to the area outside the former pool (space to be flexible, adaptable for events as well as moveable retail kiosks and small scale amusements. low key vehicle access and no car parking).
  • Limited redevelopment of 'The Island' - principally the area occupied by Pleasure Island, Salter's Wharf and the swimming pool.

It notes that the decision to close the swimming pool means the building is now available for an appropriate alternative use, and that the area occupied by Pleasure Island and Salter's Wharf should be redeveloped for a mix of uses such as a hotel, cinema, casino, health & fitness suite and complementary retail provision.

However Option 1 warns against it being an overly retail-focused development as this would conflict with the role of the town-centre.

Finally, Option 1 extends the Beach Terrace Cafe car park into the grass area to the south, though the extent of this development is not shown on the plan.

Option 2     "Major redevelopment"
Although styled "major" - this plan is identical with Option 1 except:

  • There are two retail kiosks sited on the outer promenade and the southern car park.
  • It also suggests some improved parking in association with the mini-golf course but this is not easy to identify from the sketch.
  • The main difference is that the current site of The Island and Salter's Wharf is extended into the (shortened) mini-golf course to accommodate a new hotel, residential or sports facility, and it may include a golf heritage centre.

The consultants say Option 2 is a 'good thing' but the costs of altering the promenade will make it cost prohibitive. (We also noted the little word 'residential' hidden in the middle the main alteration. We will return to that later).

The consultants then turn their attention to the site of 'The Island' etc in more detail, producing sketch concepts Ai, Aii, B and C.

Sketch Ai
This retains the pool building for an unspecified 'new use' with a remodelled area possibly housing a Cinema; Casino/bingo accommodation; Ten-pin bowling alley (approximately 16 lanes); Hotel; and/or Health & fitness suite including gym.

They note the redevelopment of the site in a modern style would contrast with traditional character of the Promenade Gardens (which they earlier said was the main distinguishing feature of the area).

It also notes the Hotel would help to 'draw visitors through the site'

Sketch Aii
This has less parking in the site and several pretty-looking trees on the outer promenade (yes really!).

It also has the pool reserved for 'another use' and has a Hotel in a new 'feature building' with some cafe and retailing activity.

It also has a new ominously ambiguous 'mixed use central building' as well.

Sketch B
This has pretty-coloured striped canvas awnings on the back edges of the buildings and some fairground rides on the sea side of the buildings. It has the trees again (though in different places).

Most notably it has a new "feature building" (with no specified use) to replace the swimming pool.

Specifically it promotes the idea of having

  • An Indoor visitor attraction(s);
  • An amusement arcade;
  • A cinema (3 or 5 screen);
  • Casino/bingo accommodation;
  • Ten-pin bowling alley (approximately 16 lanes);
  • Ancillary retail accommodation;
  • Hotel;
  • Health & fitness suite including gym; and/or
  • Residential accommodation;

(Note that again, the little word 'residential' that keeps creeping into the middle of the blocks of text when no-one is looking)

Sketch C
Is mostly a mix of the earlier ideas.
The pool building is retained (for another use).
There are more fairground rides than before.
The buildings look a bit different but are more or less the same in principle, however this option suggests the Island/Salter's Wharf site be used for:

  • A major indoor visitor attraction such as a museum of golfing history;
  • An amusement arcade;
  • Retail accommodation;
  • A hotel; and/or
  • A health & fitness suite including gym;

Having put these as options, the report now heads into a summary.

It says they have looked at Fylde's planning policies (though evidently not at its tourism policy - if it still has one that is), and they have "carried out a market-testing exercise to identify those forms of development that could be accommodated on the site."

What this probably means is they have been whoring this site around a few leisure property estate agents and businesses to see if anyone can be persuaded to say they are interested.

The consultants report concludes that "Masterplanning for this area should therefore take into account the need to simplify and reconnect St Anne's seafront with its host town and landscape setting."

Their recommendations are:

1). The Council should consider allocating 'The Island' site for redevelopment in the emerging Local Development Framework. Any such policy should make it clear that only comprehensive mixed-use development proposals will be entertained. (ie no piecemeal stuff).

2). The Council should consider publishing a draft Planning Brief for 'The Island' to take into account the Masterplan's findings.

3). That jointly with the main leaseholders on the site, FBC should instruct a chartered surveyor to undertake a detailed financial appraisal of the proposals in this Masterplan, to ensure that best value is obtained. (ie they're - unsurprisingly - not taking any financial responsibility for what they have said).

4). That, in partnership with the leaseholders, the Council should consider packaging up the site and going out to the market for formal expressions of interest from property developers to implement some or all of the so called Masterplan

(They also note that in this process, there may be altogether different ideas altogether that arise, and so long as they are within the overall framework the consultants have recommended, that should be OK)

5). As a priority, the Council should consider "a package of conservative, but carefully designed detailed works to the north and south promenade areas (which could be limited solely to the public realm or could also seek to provide guidance and encouragement to adjoining landowners) to re-establish the original quality and character of the promenade, such as: resurfacing of the promenade; a coordinated approach to street furniture, lighting and planting; and a coordinated design-led approach to car parking."

But it doesn't end there

The next section is the planning policy appraisal. This notes that Policy 'TREC 8' allows new facilities that are in keeping with the character of the area.

However the main point this page makes is that Policy 'TREC 12' which we - and others - have referred to before in connection with retaining the swimming pool, can be got round.

The policy says "All existing indoor public and private sport and recreation facilities will be retained. Proposals for the redevelopment of such facilities for other purposes will not be permitted."

However the workaround the consultants suggest is that following the closure of the swimming pool (which they have the nerve and ignorance to describe as being "on The Island site" - which it most definitely is not) the pool site may not be regarded as an 'existing facility', so it should be possible to redevelop the building as part of a wider redevelopment of the site.

So that's how FBC are going to get round their own planning restrictions. By closing it, they will argue that in planning terms it is no longer an indoor sport and recreation facility, so policy TREC 12 no longer applies to it.

Yeah, right. Honest John, innit.

We thought they'd get round the policy by issuing a Development Plan Document specific for this site that would override the existing policies, but this is actually a neater (and cheaper) option for them.

But the concluding magic words, which you will find buried at the bottom of page 38 say

"It is plausible within the existing policy framework that the redevelopment of The Island site could also include an element of market housing if it was necessary to enable the wider regeneration of the site."

Remember, you heard it first on counterbalance.

Having hawked the site around developers and/or operators, the interest shown in the site has been:

1). The greatest interest is in providing Hotel, Casino, and Indoor bowling facilities.

2). A Health and fitness club, "Visitor attraction" (unspecified), and "Amusements" form the second wave of possibilities

3). Bringing up the rear are Bingo and a Cinema which almost no-one wants to provide anyway.

There were no takers for what we regard as the only worthwhile idea, a Conference and Exhibition centre that would bring trade and promote its own advertising of the Fylde area all year round. Nor was there any interest in a marina that appears to have been suggested by the consultants as a possible option without any thought as to how it might  work.

So there we are

We can't see legions of OAPs queuing up to play Tenpin Bowling, but the Casino is probably sound if it is well run.

But once again what we have here is the spectre of our own Moneybags  Rolling In The Eyes, Pool-Closing Commissar with his latest plan to asset strip and ruin yet more of our land in the name of modernisation and re-generation.

The long-established policy of not having hotels on the seaward side of the Promenade is about to go out of the window.

The possibility of having market value housing on the seaward side of the promenade is being trailed - or even touted.

The particular niche of Fylde's tourism product is being disregarded to attempt the seduction of whatever leisure business can be attracted here.

And once again the present administration of FBC demonstrates its disregard for the key value of this town - its period heritage.

Oh, and we think a few of the town's hoteliers and residents will be pretty cross about the monster that is being spawned by this report.

So is it going to happen?

Well, disregarding the hotel for a moment, if it does happen, we think it won't look anything like the pictures in this report. If it happens it will be a cheap tin-shed leisure development which in a few years will be sold on or abandoned (just as the Carr Royd site is planned for abandonment now) because none can be made to pay.

'Jubilee Gardens Mk II' is what's on the cards here, and that will do nothing for our wellbeing, image or our 'sense of place'.

The exception to this would be either to create a new building line of hotels seaward of the current promenade, or to turn the site - as Fleetwood is presently considering for some of its sites - into luxury apartments or other residential uses.

Whilst commercially viable, this would be the end of St Anne's as we know it.

It would also be the final nail in the coffin of the tourism industry here that is supporting family businesses who circulate their money back into the local economy, not spirit it away to London and shareholders beyond.

So we don't think it will happen.

But then we couldn't envisage a Conservative administration closing a perfectly good, twenty-five year, old swimming pool simply because they are incompetent at running it and, as with so much else, they seem incapable of keeping losses and spending under control.

But the main reason we don't think it will happen was trailed toward the start of this article.  - We've been here before.

Councillors of much greater standing and ability than the Pool-Closing Commissar, and officers with much more experience than those presently running the show spent literally years trying to find a suitable use for the Open Air Baths site in the mid 1990s.

They places many advertisements, engaged internationally renowned leisure professionals to trawl the marketplace, and analysed dozens of schemes - including an indoor ski slope and snowdome, an upmarket Japanese restaurant with extensive Japanese style gardens, various offerings of cinemas and bowling alleys and others.

They're all there sitting in the minutes of the former Council, documented, described and then disregarded when the money side wouldn't work.

In the end, none would not stack up financially because St Anne's is a niche market and it didn't have sufficient footfall to justify the scale investment that was needed to redevelop a site of this size.

And that was before the present administration all-but abandoned tourism as a local industry.

So the best we could do at the time was Carr Royd, with its unbridled enthusiasm, its 'fire-salvage' low-capital second-hand supplies of water chute tubes from the abandoned Derby Baths in Blackpool and cinema seats from a closed down picture house, its low cost building construction methods, and its slow but eventual transformation into a 'leisure market' with stall holders ranging from ice cream sellers to a casino and restaurant.

And it looks as though even they, with all their entrepreneurial skills, low-cost developments, and business acumen, aren't able to make a go of it.

So we're struggling to see how anyone else can.

Unless of course, the plan is really the start of a new wave of seafront hotels or the start of a new residential phase of St Anne's Promenade.

There was one odd aspect that caught our eye in here. The consultants said Fylde's existing [planning?] policy framework probably allows an element of market housing to be included in the scheme. But they have recommended Fylde to prepare specific planning policies for this site as part of the Local Development Framework.

The planning policy Scrutiny Committee considering this matter on Thursday is being advised that Planning Officers don't really have time to write any specific planning policies for the site.

That means the issue of residential use of the site could be addressed within the existing planning policy framework, and without causing a lot of fuss.........

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

Dated:  29 July 2008 


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