Desire expressed to 'Get Seafront Done' for controversial Exmouth site

  Posted: 16.10.20 at 09:36 by Daniel Clark - Local Democracy Reporter

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Councillors have expressed a real desire to ‘get seafront done’ but that the views of local residents have been listened to.

Described as ‘The Brexit of Exmouth’, the saga of what happens to the Queen’s Drive site has been rumbling on for close to ten years.

While phase 1 – the realignment of the road and the car park – has been completed, and phase 2 – the new watersports centre – is on the verge of completion and should be fully open early in 2021, the final phase of the regeneration remains as unclear as ever.

Planning permission for the redevelopment of a 3.6-hectare swathe of Queen’s Drive has been granted, and has been implemented, the council say, with the realignment of the road, but the attractions currently on the Queen’s Drive space – the replacement for the former Fun Park – only have planning permission to stay on the site until March 2022, with no further extension allowed under planning law likely.

The Exmouth Queen’s Drive Delivery Group meeting on Thursday morning heard that there was an acceptance that something had to be decided sooner rather than later for the future of the site, but that it was vitally important to get it right and for the residents to be in favour of the proposals.

The latest scheme, which followed a Wayne Hemingway led consultation last year, would have Exmouth seafront redeveloped with a high quality waterfront restaurant, an 80 bedroom hotel, and an area for play and leisure uses.

East Devon’s cabinet in February agreed to go out and test the market for the proposals – but following it being called in for scrutiny, the coronavirus pandemic, and a change of administration – that decision has now been reversed, with no clear way forward yet having been agreed.

Thursday’s meeting saw members of the public and councillors thrash out some historic grievances over what has happened in the past and saw a consensus that residents needed to be in support of any proposals for the site, but that no decisions as to what should happen were agreed.

Laura Woodward-Drake, the chairman of the Exmouth Chamber of Commerce, said that they need to move forward and forget the problems of the past. She said: “The Hemingway plans did reenergise the seafront. There are concerns, but from a business point of view, it combined business and beauty well, and combined leisure and culture. We need to get it moving as have wasted a lot of time in the past.”

Justin Moore added: “We cannot allow this to slip through our fingers. The Hemingway design was balanced and the hotel will complement the Sideshore development that is taking place. Exmouth will be turned from a staycation in the summer to an all year round destination. I was apprehensive and I see positive change, but we need to deliver – it is fast becoming the Brexit of Exmouth.”

But Gordon Hodgson said that the site needed to be unburdened from the need to raise large sums of cash, the public had to be involved in the decision making process, and to remove any requirement for a hotel.

And Daphne Courier added: “A hotel was bottom of the council’s own questionnaire, so what is the point if the people driving it take no notice of the public response?”

Cllr Paul Arnott, leader of the council, said that they must look to the future, but added: “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to make the same mistakes. We have to get on with this –but the economic aspects have changed, and we need to have an idea of what we would want for next Spring.”

Tim Child, Senior Property & Estates Manager, said: “Officers are ready to support members, whatever they choose to take forward. Once the next steps are scoped out, we will consider the resourcing implications.

"This is a great opportunity to complete the final stage of Queen’s Drive project, working together with members, residents and business, to bring forward a scheme that reflects the aspirations of all, supports Exmouth, and provides a sustainable legacy for current and future generations.”

Cllr Paul Millar said that the intention has to as Cllr Joe Whibley said, to ‘get seafront down’. But he added: “The plan was the market the site only for a hotel accommodator, but that’s a narrow remit, and Hemingway had a narrow remit. The public consultations haven’t been meaningful and last year the former leader of council said it would be a hotel or your council tax goes up, and that goes down like a pint of cold sick with the public.

“We should market the sites but with a wider remit. I’m not predetermined wither for or against a hotel but some are, and local residents don’t want a hotel and we need to listen to local residents. We need something that is commercially viable but we cannot ignore the views of residents.”

Cllr Whibley added that this was such a complex issue and they need to look to answer the questions over the future by involving the public and look to do something, ‘as everyone in Exmouth just wants something done’.

Cllr Olly Davey said that if East Devon get it right, it will be fantastic, but ‘if we get it wrong, it will be an absolute mess’.

He said: “A hotel was the least popular with the residents and I’m not connived a hotel on that site is the way to go. Something has to be commercially viable and generate income for the council – there has to be something that will be self-financing, but should not necessarily pay off the historic debt.

“What is there is fantastic and what we need, and we need to build on what we have to make it more attractive, but we need something else to compliment it and help pay for it.”

Cllr Megan Armstrong said that the previous attractions on the seafront where want people wanted, but just ‘upgraded a bit’. She added: “We have poured loads of money into the project that is getting nowhere. The public have to be involved in this and there have to be facilities for people who have little money.”

Cllr Steve Gazzard said he was impressed the current Queen’s Drive play space is superb and what the tourists are looking for, adding: “If we do anything that takes away from the jewel in the crown, it will affect people coming to Exmouth,” while Cllr Eileen Wragg said that they need to be careful as whatever the council chooses to build will be there for a very long time.

The council’s portfolio holder for the economy, Cllr Paul Hayward, said that Exmouth is the biggest town in East Devon, so it was critically important to the economy and the reputation of the council that they do the right thing.

But he said: “If you have an artificial deadline to hit, you will make poor decisions, and it may be that we need to extend the planning deadlines as I would rather kick it down the road than make a poor decision now.

“If we need to park a final binding decision then we park it until we see the outturn as to what Brexit will give. I would like to lock everyone in a room with pizza and coffee and not leave until we have a consensus view, and I think that is going to be necessary.

“The potential is incredible, but the potential to balls it up or foul it up is equally high. We cannot be tied down by artificial deadlines, and if it is prudent to do so, then should, as we need to make the right decision for the people of East Devon.”

In terms of what the plan for the site for 2021 would be, Mr Child said that a decision would need to be made within the next couple of months.

He said: “We need to scope out initial thoughts. The existing traders would like to be there next summer but there is a question around the need to tender. We need to be clear by Christmas what the plan for next summer is but it needs to be driven by members, and are you looking uses in line with previous years or something different?”

On the planning permission, he said that the 2012 outline and 2017 reserved matters permission had been implement by virtue of the road and the car park being done.

While the current temporary uses planning permission expires in March 2022, Mr Child added it is not usual for a temporary permission to be renewed for a third time unless there are exceptional circumstances regarding why a permanent planning solution cannot be brought forward for the site with a detailed planning application.

He said: “If it is not permissible to pursue a further temporary planning application, the council needs to consider what it will do with the site from March 2022 when the site has to close. In practical terms this will mean that the council has to erect fencing around the site to prevent access to the facilities which may well need to be removed.

“Notwithstanding the possibility of an extension to the temporary uses, it remains the view of officers that the council does need to give consideration to how it wants to take forward a more permanent development of the site in the near future (already delayed) so that when any further temporary permission expires, the council and any developers/operators are ready with legal agreements, planning permissions and funding in place to commence work in redeveloping the site very soon after the site closes to the public.

“The site requires further investment before too long, not all of the site is used, and the layout is not ideal with poor integration of the events area to the rear thus not affording optimum use of the site for the enjoyment of the public and the generation of income.”

The notes and comments from the meeting will be collated and brought forward to inform future discussions over the way forward, with the next meeting scheduled to take place in the second week of November.

One suggestion that had been put forward was to write to every household in the town to gauge their views on a variety of options.

The committee also agreed that the future of the Ocean building should be brought into the scope of the Queen’s Drive board – and made that recommendation to cabinet for approval when they next meet.

THE HISTORY OF QUEEN’S DRIVE

In 2012, plans to redevelop the area between the old lifeboat station and the Maer, known as the Splash Zone, formed part of the Exmouth Masterplan which sets out future regeneration in the town

The controversial plans divided opinion in the town in 2013 when more than 500 people completed questionnaires about the authority’s intention to redevelop the area between the old lifeboat station and the Maer, known as the Splash Zone.

When asked for a general opinion, 52 per cent of respondents of the questionnaires were in favour of the overall proposals with 41 per cent against. The remaining seven per cent did not express a preference.

In December 2013, East Devon District Council’s Development Management Committee gave the go-ahead for the development of the Queen’s Drive area in Exmouth.

The outline permission includes the realignment of the road to give easier access to the beach and stunning views from the proposed new watersports hub, cafe and public open space.

East Devon District Council were then working with Moirai Capital Investments of Bournemouth to put forward proposals to “breathe new life into the nine acre council-owned seafront site at Queen’s Drive with a range of exciting leisure facilities”.

The detailed plans included luxury flats, shops, eateries, a multi-screen cinema and a new Harbour View Café and coastwatch tower

At the same time, a new action group was launched to ‘save’ Exmouth seafront from developers, with Save Exmouth Seafront concerned that the £18m redevelopment would mean some of the town’s oldest most popular businesses closing.

In October 2015, the Carriage Café on the seafront left the town. It had been open for nearly 50 years and the restored 1956 carriage business’s closing brought an end to an era for residents.

At around the same time, more than 1,000 residents and visitors town took part in the Exmouth Seafront Survey, initiated by Cllr Megan Armstrong. Led by author and analyst Louise MacAllister, the survey aimed to discover if plans for a multi-screen cinema, outdoor water splash zone and adventure golf park were wanted by those who would be using the facilities.

Organisers said the survey showed 95 per cent were against the redevelopment, it showed widespread support for the businesses at the time occupying the seafront and that many Exmouth residents felt their concerns regarding the plans have been ignored.

In April 2016, Exmouth residents went to the polls, and around 95 per cent of those who turned out to vote want more consultation on multimillion-pound plans for Queen’s Drive. Called by concerned residents, the parish poll saw 4,754 people – 17.8 per cent of the electorate – take part.

The summer of 2016 Moirai Capital Investments sacked as the developer due to the length of time it had taken for them to bring more plans.

September 2016 saw the Jungle Fun attraction and Arnold Palmer Putting Course closed for the last time. Hours earlier, locals and tourists had flocked to the attraction for one last round. The crazy golf course had been established around 40 years ago.

In November 2016, campaigners in Exmouth staged a protest march calling for further consultation on controversial seafront redevelopment plans.

The Save Exmouth Seafront protesters set off from the lorry park in Marine Way and marched through Imperial Road, The Strand and Alexandra Terrace before finishing on the seafront.

April 2017 saw the reserved matters application for the seafront redevelopment approved. It meant the council could now go ahead and build the £18million redevelopment of a 3.6-hectare swathe of Queen’s Drive, but had no plans to do so.

Had the application been rejected, it would have meant the outline permission for redevelopment would have no longer been extant and sent the project back to the drawing board.

The Fun Park, run by the Wright family, closed after more than 40 years at the end of August 2017, with a vigil held and floral tributes presented.

A last gasp bid to reprieve the Fun Park from closure failed two weeks later, when East Devon councillors voted 26 to 21 against extending the lease of the Fun Park. The contents of the Fun Park were auctioned off the following day.

The Harbour View café was also due to close at the same time, but has seen its lease extended.

October 2017 saw Grenadier reveal their plans for the Watersports Centre, before submitting the formal planning application in February 2018, which was then approved in June 2018 by eight votes to five.

Work has begun, and is scheduled to be complete this month, with a full opening scheduled for the early part of 2021.

The temporary attractions for the seafront at the Queen’s Drive Space, which include the food and drink area and the dinosaur-themed play park opened in May 2018, having been given planning permission in March 2018.

Permission was initially granted for one year, followed by a second permission for a further three years. That expires in March 2022, and the council will not be able to apply for any further temporary use.

Work began at the end of 2018 to realign the Queen’s Drive road, which was completed in June 2019, although questions have been raised about where the funding for the road, which East Devon District Council paid for, actually came from.

At the end of 2019, HemingwayDesign and Lambert Smith Hampton submitted their vision for Phase Three for Exmouth Seafront to East Devon District Council.

The suggested uses for the site include a new two storey café/restaurant on the existing Harbour View café site to the south of Queen’s Drive, a mix of playspace (including free play) and open public space on the remainder of the site, and an 60–80 bed 3–4 star hotel of high design quality.

East Devon District Council’s cabinet, when they met on Wednesday, February 5, agreed to launch a formal marketing exercise to identify developer/operator partners for the Queen’s Drive site, with a final decision on what to take forward set to be made in July.

But that the council’s scrutiny committee then unanimously agreed that the panel the purpose of agreeing the selection criteria for the commercial development was not properly balanced, and expressed their anger at how they felt Exmouth residents were not being listened to.

Having been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic and a change of administration, in August, full council accepted that recommendation and sent it back to cabinet, who are now able to make the decision they wish over the future of Queen’s Drive.

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