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'The Island'

'The Island'We're taking a look at the latest plan to re-develop part of St Annes Promenade. And to do so, we provide an account of the site's history and its background

It is a sorry tale.

We think that unless something unpalatable is being kept quiet about this plan, history is about to repeat itself as Fylde prepares to repeat its mistakes of the past.

SYNOPSIS

We begin with an Introduction outlining Fylde's latest move, before looking into the Background explaining how and why  how resort tourism has declined in the UK and why the former St Annes Open Air Baths failed to meet the changing tastes of holidaymakers. This resulted in the Decline of the Open Air Baths, its eventual closure, and the Site going onto the market.

After a long period of trying, it became clear the only likely viable use was one with a low capital and running cost and a Cost effective development called Slideworld was built. That was not successful and the site became a Children's Play Area. That too was not commercially successful and Further changes took place, many of which were moving far from the Council's original concepts for the site. Then, after a Big change was proposed, Fylde decided to create a Masterplan for the promenade area. But before that could get off the ground, The Island closed and the Masterplan stalled.

We then look a possible use for a Church group before Taking stock of where we are today. We then look at how Fylde is going back to the future and looks set to repeat the mistakes that were made a generation ago by preparing another development brief. We Don't much like the decision they took, but even worse, we are dismayed at how they plan to go about it, and appalled at the advice given by Fylde's officers.

 INTRODUCTION

This topic was an item on Fylde's Tourism and Leisure Committee of 2 June 2016.

It's about a plan that was, in our view, rather deceptively described as 'The Island' site when in fact the accompanying plan shows the area stretching from the site's junction with the Miniature Golf Course toward the Pier, including the Carvery Pub/Restaurant, the Island site itself, including the train carriages, then moving toward the pier it includes the (Council operated) car parks, the St Annes Swimming Pool, the Lifeboat building, the boating pool and the catering facilities, right up to the narrowing of the promenade.

'The Island Site' in the report

So it's a much bigger area than what we would have described as 'The Island Site'

 THE BACKGROUND

The history of 'The Island' site is a sorry tale. It constitutes a micro-example of what has happened in Blackpool.

When the first Comet took off on a packaged holiday to Spain in 1958, two monumental shifts in the tourism industry began.

Firstly, tourists began to follow the lure of guaranteed sunshine offered by the Spanish resorts. They offset the additional expense of flight costs with the lower food and accommodation costs that were available from the (then) cheap labour available in Spain at that time.

Secondly, as a result of the growing number of people travelling abroad on package holidays - (where they avidly consumed unfamiliar cultures and cuisines), the tastes - and even the culture - of Britons began to change.

This was certainly true for the sun-seeking holidaymakers, but it also had an impact on some of the stay-at-homes as they became exposed to 'foreign' food (pasta, paella, olives, pizza and so on) and 'foreign' customs being adopted by travelling friends and neighbours.

In its own way, this change has had as big an impact on UK culture as the impact that the first world war wrought on the culture of the nation. (Though it is undoubtedly less shocking and unpleasant).

Foreign holidays generated the desire for a more sophisticated palette of experiences in UK residents.

Travel broadened their minds.

In resorts like Blackpool (which in the 1960s had more bedspaces than the whole of Portugal) the combination of these two culture shifts was a disaster that Blackpool Council saw far too late to do anything about.

The problem that was created persists to this day, and it has been aggravated by measures too small and too weak to rectify (or even adequately manage) it.

Exacerbating Blackpool's problem still further, it appeared to some (us included) that there was a political intent to capitalise on the additional funding that came with being classed as a deprived area. The town declined.

The resort of Lytham St Annes fared better than most.

It was smaller and thus able to reduce its bedstock more easily to match the changing demand. It was also known as, and encouraged the perception of being, an upmarket resort. So it was thus less dependent on those looking for cheaper or low cost package holidays.

But even in St Annes, the proportionate decline in tourist numbers over time, coupled with the changing taste of the nation, reduced the appeal and viability of some of its former tourist-attracting features.

Notable amongst these was the Open Air Baths on St Annes Promenade.

St Annes Open Air Baths

 DECLINE OF THE OPEN AIR BATHS

Whilst it was still well supported (and indeed loved) by many who did not routinely travel abroad for their annual holiday, (and by those of a more restrained, self denying, outlook), it was the case that the numbers of such patrons declined year on year - eventually to the point where it was making substantial annual losses in all but those short periods in the middle of the better summers we experienced.

When the Indoor Swimming Pool was built next door to cater for those more sophisticated preferences of people well grounded in the now-expected delights of foreign holiday pools, it was inevitable that the Open Air Baths would close.

And close it did in 1988, after several years of sustaining operating losses in excess of £100,000.

 THE OPEN AIR BATHS SITE IS MARKETED

There were many advertisements, land agents, and marketing consultants used in attempts to find a new use for the area and Fylde set out with high hopes of having someone offer to develop a new and exciting tourist facility.

But these hopes were quickly reduced.

Over a long period of examining several rounds of offers, a process of attrition depleted, and eventually almost dashed, the hope of finding an attraction provider.

The proposals Fylde received included many and varied interests.

Throughout its consideration of them, the Council maintained its standards and refused amusement arcades and pubs (which might have been a commercial success but were not thought to fit into the style of an upmarket resort).

The fundamental problem was that St Annes no longer had enough of what developers call 'footfall' to justify recovering the costs of a development on the scale of the Open Air Baths site. They could not cover development costs, meet the operating costs, and make a profit. None was viable.

To be honest, after the first half dozen schemes fell by the wayside for this reason, the council was left with 'men of straw' who were enthusiastically pursuing unachievable dreams.

It became clear to us the best use would be the simplest. To turn it into a grassed sunbathing or picnicking area like Lytham Green, but perhaps broken up with screen or shelter planting to help trap the sun and reduce the prospect of full blown adult or semi-adult football matches taking place.

That would not have produced an income, but it would have stemmed the 120k a year loss, for a relatively low capital cost and the lowest ongoing costs.

However, the desire for something more spectacular was strong, and the search for a developer continued for several years.

 A COST EFFECTIVE RE-DEVELOPMENT PLAN

Finally in the early 1990s, a chance meeting at a tourism event produced a small-time local tourism entrepreneur who had acquired the fibreglass tubular slides from the Derby Baths in Blackpool after it was demolished, and he came up with the idea of creating a relatively low capital cost waterpark. That proposal found favour with the Council because it was thought that a relatively low cost development might be able to achieve profitability.

The Open Air Baths were demolished

Demolotion of the Open Air Baths

And 'Slideworld' - the first leisure incarnation on the site of the Open Air Baths was built. It opened (we don't have an exact date) probably around 1992 or 1993.

Slideworld in progress 

But it was not as commercially successful as had been hoped, and there were significant problems with the adapted water flumes which had proved difficult to join together to produce a safe, smooth, and satisfactory ride. It had a short life.

 THE CHANGE TO CHILDREN'S PLAY

A change soon followed, based on the idea of a children's adventure park similar to the one called 'Jungle Jim's' in Blackpool Tower and the owners converted the inside of the building to this use. Again this was not a commercial success. (Partly because the demographics of resort visitors tended to be, in the main, childless, and the resident population was insufficient to support the facility on a year round basis).

 MORE CHANGES TAKE PLACE

The site metamorphosised several times, first to 'Pleasure Island' in April 1993 with a four-screen cinema, bowling alley, amusement arcade and restaurant and at one point also boasted a casino and a static steam train. But after some issues with the Disney empire over the use of the name, it became 'The Island'

With each incarnation, it moved further from the concept initially intended and closer to something that some would say was better suited to Blackpool's visitors - until, in the end, there was a change that saw Whitbread leasing part of the site and a smaller area remaining with the former business.

Eventually, the whole site was long-leased to a brewery in 1997. They ran the pub/restaurant and they sub-let the other parts of the site to the former leaseholder and various other people including the cinema, and catering, fancy goods and amusement facilities. We're not clear whether these sub concessions were lessees or tenants of Whitbread PLC or Carr Royd Leisure.

 A BIG CHANGE IS PROPOSED

A subsequent (2006) plan by the original lessees (Carr Royd) to redevelop The Island site into a pie-in-the-sky multi-storey hotel with an undercover shopping mall and some form of entertainment - perhaps a bowling alley - was given short shrift by the Council.

Then in November 2007, there was gossip about the Hilton hotel chain expressing an interest, but nothing came of that.

In 2008 - following the financially incompetent decisions of the former Commissar's administration, the New St Annes Swimming Pool next to The Island was closed.

 FYLDE PREPARES A MASTERPLAN

Possibly because it *was* closed, Fylde decided to prepare a 'Masterplan' for that area of the promenade.

It was an awful document, prepared by external consultants who more than adequately demonstrated their lack of local knowledge and their understanding of the history of the area in their report.

We reported their proposals in 'What Masterplan?' in July 2008, That article is still worth reading even now, including the quote where we said "But the concluding magic words, which you will find buried at the bottom of page 38 [of the Masterplan document] 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."

That report was first considered by Fylde's (then) Planning Policy Scrutiny Committee meeting in August 2016, and we subsequently gave a full report of that meeting in 'Masterplan' Considered.

Never ones to use a nutcracker when sledgehammer is available, the officers had said "Given the importance of the wider public realm and tourist related facilities it was decided to increase the scope the Masterplan to the area from North Promenade car park to Beach Terrace car park although the focus of the Masterplan is The Island."

Increasing the scope is a proven technique to kill something off (you make it so big it gets beyond the realms of reality and the whole thing grinds to a halt). It's not clear whether this was the real (underlying) plan (for example, it might have been a way of trying to permanently kill off the hotel/shopping mall idea), or whether the officers thought they really wanted to wallow in delusions of grandeur as leisure entrepreneurs for a while

What the officers suggested in 2008 were five steps:

  1. Preparation of new planning policies specifically for this project.
  2. Prepare and publish a planning brief at a (then) cost in the region of £30 - 40K.
  3. Undertake a financial appraisal. External consultants and another £10K.
  4. Form a development partnership and seek bids. The idea was to package up the site for redevelopment proposals to be formally submitted. (another £20K for consultants).
  5. Design public realm improvements to go with the re-development.

At the conclusion of that meeting, (the now, sadly, deceased) Cllr Bill 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." But he was contradicted by Cllr Fiddler who said sea rise was nowhere near the risk it was being predicted to be, and they had to approach the site from a commercial perspective."

Scrutiny Members were asked to recommend to Cabinet if, and how, further work should be taken forward based on the five recommendations in the Masterplan.

The Committee decided

  • To meet with the lessees of the site with a view to exploring their interest or otherwise in any redevelopment scheme in general, and in the proposed master plan in particular;
  • Dependent on the outcome of 2 above, to request that appropriate officers in consultation with the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of committee and the Portfolio Holder investigate the scope and content of the proposed consultation exercise;
  • Dependent on the outcome of 2 above, to ask the Executive Manager in consultation the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of committee and the Portfolio Holder to look at alternative options for funding the next stages of the proposed Masterplan and how it could interlinked with the Heritage lottery fund

Those recommendations went to the Cabinet meeting of 17th September where it was recommended to Cabinet Portfolio Holder

  • That, dependent upon the outcome of a meeting with the lessees, to request that the Portfolio Holder in consultation with the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the committee and appropriate officers, investigates the scope and content of the proposed consultation exercise.
  • Also, dependent upon the outcome of a meeting with the lessees, to ask that the Portfolio Holder in consultation with the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the committee and the Executive Manager to look at alternative options for funding the next stages of the proposed masterplan and how it could be interlinked with the Heritage lottery fund.

Cabinet also agreed that following public consultation and subject to staffing resources officers be asked to prepare a planning brief in respect of the Sea Front Masterplan.

 THE ISLAND CLOSES ITS DOORS

Then, in September 2009, The Island announced its closure. The owners decided abandon the seafront complex's three-screen cinema, bowling alley, amusement arcade and restaurant. That also saw the ambitious 30m plans to transform St Annes seafront scrapped.

The operator of 'The Island' told the LSA Express "The simple fact is not enough people were coming through the doors to sustain the business."

Commissar John Coombes, Leader of Fylde Council at that time, said the authority was saddened by news of The Island's closure. "This is a sad day for St Annes. The owners had big ambitions and we will now have to look at other avenues in which to move our masterplan (for the seafront) forward....The problem we have seen is that while we get a lot of visitors to the Promenade a lot of people do not put their hands in their pockets."

 PLANS FOR A CHURCH BASED COMMUNITY USE

Then at one stage, (September / October 2012), we heard that The Renovate Life Community Church was going to bring a host of new community facilities to The Island site.

Their plan was to provide a central hub and meeting place for the people of Lytham St Annes that would address the needs of residents and businesses, provide a concert venue, a youth club, dance, drama, and sound recording studios, and "To provide positive mentoring and life coaching"

But by March 2013, the church had switched temporarily to the Lytham St Annes Technology and Performing Arts College because "leasing issues have delayed the move, which is now expected to go ahead in the summer."

Their Pastor Pete Turner told the LSA Express. "Our intended move to The Island has been delayed because there are some complicated clauses in the lease agreements that would have prevented public meetings and the like, so we needed to delay it to iron these out. But The Island is still very much in our hearts and we are hoping to have the keys within the next few months."

And that was the last we heard of it both the 'Masterplan' and the bid from the Church.

 TAKING STOCK TODAY

The pub / restaurant is still popular and successful. And to their credit, the owners run it well within the ambience of the resort.

Parts of the former Island complex let to others still operate and we understand a new catering facility is being developed to open shortly by a local restaurateur who has already made a success of his town centre eatery. Quite how he must feel - having invested what must be a good deal of cash to establish and equip a new restaurant in The Island - only to find the Council preparing to advertising the site on which his investment stands for re-development, we simply cannot imagine.

 FYLDE GOES BACK TO THE FUTURE

Because now, the idea of a new development brief has resurfaced.

History is repeating itself from a decade earlier in 1988, and it's likely that a new round of advertising, inviting expressions of interest, interviewing possible developers only to find their 'due diligence' shows them there is not enough footfall to support tourism facilities and make a profit, and they withdraw.

One difficulty is that the site is the most likely site to be affected by inundation by the sea in the whole of the built up FBC area. Waves overtopping the existing sea defences are a relatively common problem with equinox tides - especially when accompanied by high winds that whip the tide into taller than usual waves.

In comparatively recent times, that knowledge, and the requirement for any developer to have to improve the sea defences as part of their scheme will undoubtedly have been putting people off.

But the Council has just agreed a plan to use a large sum of Government funding to improve the sea-defences along the Fylde coast, so it's possible that either having some of this money spent on sea defences around The Island will make it less financially unpalatable for potential future users, or, as is more likely in our view, someone has seen (or perhaps even been planning?) an opportunity to improve the site by linking the spend on sea defences with the prospect of 'partnership' funding leveraged from an as yet (unseen and unknown) developer.

Furthermore, a new Local Plan has been prepared, and that plan has much weaker policies concerning tourism. So some of the restrictions that applied in the existing (but expiring) local plan will no longer restrict what may be done in the fields of tourism and leisure provision.

We're now told that 'a developer' has approached the Council with an idea (as yet undisclosed) which proposes "refurbishment and reconfiguration of the wider Island complex."

Of course, it could be that the large scale of the site now being considered is actually nothing more than a way of leveraging some re-development cost of the smaller "Island" site toward the larger sea-defence scheme. (i.e. it is a bigger area than would actually be re-developed)

Or it could be that there has (as the report to the committee says) interest in the whole of the larger site

There is no hint of an indication in the report as to what is proposed - and we find that an ominous omission.

Furthermore, the idea is complicated by the web of leases and sub leases that exist.

The report to the Tourism and Leisure Committee noted 'The party is interested in the regeneration of the whole of The Island, which is shown edged black on the attached plan and also includes the swimming pool, council car parks, RNLI boathouse, boating pool, cafť and ice cream kiosk. This is despite the fact that there are protected leases in place which cannot be overridden.'

In our view, to be successful, a development on that scale, (one that would stretch almost from the pier to the Miniature Golf Course) is likely to contain elements that will prove unpalatable.

We know nothing of the proposals, but we would not be entirely surprised to see either (or a combination of) hotel, retail, or housing with an element or leisure activity. Or, as an outside chance possibly some sort of event or exhibition arena. (We say 'outside chance' because we would hope that the experiences of Blackpool's 'Headland' would be a salutary reminder). All of which are likely to be less than popular with either local businesses in those genres of business, or residents in the existing blocks of flats.

There is also a complication in planning terms in that, as far as we understand it, the gardens are Grade II listed in the National Register of Historic Parks and Gardens, and even if they are not physically affected, any significant change would have to be considered having regard to its impact on the 'setting' of the gardens.

The sort of complexity involved is illustrated in the following paragraph from the report 'The simplest approach to marketing the site would be to offer the councilís freehold interest. This would give the chosen developer the same, albeit limited, ability to carry out a scheme and work with tenantís to achieve its implementation. However, a freehold sale would limit the councilís ability to control the long term future of The Island and it is recognised that members would be reluctant to dispose completely of such an important asset. The recommended approach would be to instead offer a long leasehold interest, which could be created to sit between the council, as freeholder, and its existing tenants. The lease could incorporate terms allowing the council control over key issues. However, the complex leasing arrangements are likely to be a deterrent to prospective developers."

Once again as in 1988, a majority of the Committee decided to agree the principle of marketing The Island site to seek proposals for redevelopment and regeneration

It also :

  • Instructed officers to prepare a brief and particulars for the marketing of the site which would set out those parameters to guide the exercise
  • Agreed that once the brief and particulars were prepared that marketing would be undertaken through appropriate media to seek interest from developers
  • Agreed to form a working group of the chairman (or their nominee) from each of the following committees:
    • Tourism & Leisure,
    • Operational Management,
    • Development Management and
    • Finance & Democracy to assess any interest received, and
  • Agreed that a report presenting the outcome of the exercise be produced and reported to members of the Committee.

Readers can follow this link to download the whole FBC agenda item.

 WE DON'T MUCH LIKE THE DECISION

We're significantly uncomfortable with this decision.

Apart from the quite obvious failure to learn from the mistakes of a generation ago, we're even more worried about the process that is to be used to consider the matter.

We understand - and agree -   that this sort of detail needs a dedicated Working Group to consider it, and we agree that - excepting for the Operational Management Committee - the people listed above should form part of it. (Operational Management manages the Council's car park areas, but is, in effect the 'contracting' side of the council rather than the parts like Tourism and Leisure or Planning that are about setting out what should be provided).

But the worst aspect is that once again, we see the majority party choosing to implement a mechanism to consider this matter that will intentionally exclude Independent; Ratepayer; Liberal Democrat; Non- aligned and Labour councillors from hearing the issues and options involved, and from taking their rightful place in meetings that will, in effect, decide what happens.

Yes, the 'outcome' of the Working Group's deliberations will be reported to the full T&L Committee, and yes, it is they who will take the formal decision.

But there is little doubt that it will be a relatively superficial report setting out only the details of Working group's preferred option. And we confidently expect an overwhelming vote of the Conservative majority party on the Tourism and Leisure Committee will approve what they have already agreed as their preference behind closed doors in their private meetings - for which no agenda or minutes will be published, and which will have - intentionally - excluded non-Conservative councillors from the process.

That also means the decisions will be prepared without public knowledge of what is going on. Conservative group councillors will be taking provisional decisions without experiencing the weight of public opinion for or against what they are considering.

We understand the need to keep some of the financial and commercial aspects of such matters confidential, but that could be accommodated by  having the matter discussed in a cross-party sub-committee employing the use of 'exempt item' provisions that already exist.

This 'North Korean' approach to openness denies transparency and accountability.

How can the public be expected to make informed decisions about which councillors they might want to vote for when they are denied knowledge of the stance that individual councillors take on important matters such as this?

And without Fylde's councillors outside of the Conservative group having heard the detailed issues and options. Without their knowing what other possibilities exist. Without their having the benefit of officer briefings and the confidential reports, and without their having heard the financial arrangements proposed, how can anyone possibly expect the other elected members off the Committee, each of whom is elected to office on an equal standing with any and all of the Conservative councillors, to do their proper duty to their electorate and to the people of the wider Fylde?

The Conservative group's increasing deployment of the term 'Working Group' (rather than 'Sub-committee') - specifically to evade the legal requirement that requires politically balanced committees and sub-committees to consider and vote on the Council's issues, is nothing short of a public disgrace.

It brings shame on those who vote to implement it.

It is eclipsed in its wretchedness only by the humiliating sight of Fylde's officer class who have seriously let down something like 40% of elected councillors outside the controlling Conservative group.

They have produced a report that is biased to this end, and which goes even further. It actually *proposes* a politically imbalanced working group as the Officer's recommended way of proceeding.

We think that is appalling.

Dated:  11 September 2016

   

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