When I first started coming to Whitstable, I noticed the plot of land in between the Tile Warehouse and the sea. On my walks I would wonder why it was so overgrown and neglected. Given its prime, seafront location, I started researching its history. The ‘closing down’ sign hung outside the Tile Warehouse for years, so I wasn’t surprised when people told me that its owners were waiting to buy it. Rumour, of course. Except – four years later, this is exactly what has happened. On 21st January, contracts were exchanged for the sale of the plot for the alleged sum of £160k, to the owners of the Tile Warehouse, completion dependent on successful planning permission.
When I learnt about the sale, I asked around. Had anyone known it was for sale? Nope. I asked on Twitter and Facebook. It was mentioned in the council agenda for x meeting, someone told me. I looked it up. There it was. Surely the council put it out to tender? Mumble, mumble … agendas … minutes … a closed meeting. A what? Oh yes, completely normal. After a bit of digging around, I learnt that the council did not make it public knowledge that the plot was for sale and met with the owners of the Tile Warehouse instead (now under the name of Sea Street Developments) and agreed a sale with them. Since then we have learnt a number of things.
- In October 2014, the previous Executive at the council, decided to continue negotiations with Sea Street Developments, even though the recommendation by council officers was for a tender to achieve a ‘clean sale and early capital receipt’.
- Urban Delivery, who valued the plot, were given an inaccurate description of the site, claiming it had no access. It is believed they spoke to the developers about the land but it appears no site visit was undertaken, just a desktop valuation.
- The sale contract is conditional on planning consent but failed to commit the developers to the public open space which was agreed for the plot when it was sold to Canterbury City Council.
- When initial plans were floated for the development, they showed some open space but the ones drawn up by Lee Evans, to submit for planning application, have been altered and now show almost no open space, simply a tiny kiosk with a bit of ‘landscaping’ around it and steps. And no provision for ‘the aged’ of the town, just 18 holiday lets and second homes.
- When the petition was being circulated, and documents requested, the council took ages sending out the files. Did this mean that councillors at the meeting on 17th October hadn’t seen – or had time to read – everything? And why was the Freedom of Information request turned down to know the exact sale figure?
- At the 17th October meeting of the Planning and Regeneration committee, councillors voted for the sale process to be reviewed but not the actual sale.
- At the 22nd October meeting the review by the Chief Executive, Colin Carmichael, was discussed. In public, most councillors agreed that the sale had not been dealt with well but in the non-public session they voted against the proposal for the Oval Chalet contract to be reviewed by full council and whether best value has been obtained.
This sale and development are so difficult to evaluate. It is hard to be objective when this is the last piece of seafront land in Whitstable. Different aspects of the situation bother different people. The way the human brain works, it is inevitable that ‘other issues’ get stirred into the mix. I have noticed a number of opinions and responses to the Oval Chalet sale. One of these is to form one’s view of the development based on one’s view of the developers, ie. the Greens. Another is to roll in one’s views on tourism, visitors, DfLs, traffic, parking, second homes. The second home issue is relevant: the planned development will bring in no section 106 contribution to local services. Others say that no-one has bothered about the land for ages, so why the concern all of a sudden? This last one is absolutely not the case. Many approaches have been made to CCC, and they have been turned down. The lease with the Yacht Club, to use the site as boat storage, precluded other ideas anyway. And a local resident has emails going back several years which document her questions to CCC about the Oval Chalet, and their repeated reassurance that they would tell her if plans were afoot to sell. (They didn’t)
For me, as a psychologist, evidence is crucial. I don’t like witch hunts and I don’t like unnecessary blaming. I also don’t think conspiracy theories are helpful. Asking questions, assuming to know the answer and presenting a theory isn’t helpful. But asking questions and wanting answers is part of democracy, isn’t it? Having been a teacher since 2002, I believe that accountability is important. In a school the head teacher has a senior management team but ultimately he/she is accountable for what goes on. In the case of the Oval Chalet there are so many questions which have not been answered satisfactorily, the void of not knowing easily gives rise to suspicion and doubt. Everyone admits there has been a series of errors and oversights. Some see these as simple mistakes. Others believe they verge on neglect of duty and deliberate attempts to mislead. It is impossible to claim to know the motivations of those concerned. Only they know what they did and why.
I would like to outline what I believe the questions are. And I call on CCC to answer them:
- Can the previous Executive members, or the five remaining councillors who served on that body, explain why the recommendation by council officers to put the Oval Chalet out to tender was ignored, and the current development pursued?
- What responsibility do Urban Delivery have for their valuation based on the notion of the plot having no access?
- Did Urban Delivery make a site visit?
- Who gave Urban Delivery the inaccurate plot description and drawings?
- Who drew up the sale contract and why did it not include a condition that public open space was to be provided?
- To what extent can the current Executive be held responsible for a decision made by the previous one?
- To what extent are individuals responsible who were part of the decisions and negotiations?
- Has the Chief Executive discussed the significant plan changes with the developers, specifically the fact the public open space has now disappeared from the application?
- Has the Chief Executive discussed the valuation issues with the developers?
- What legal advice has been taken about the potential consequences of not completing on the sale, and re-negotiating the contract or offering it out to tender? (There are widely diverging views on what these consequences may be and the idea that a judge would just order CCC to hand over the land is not a fait accompli)
- What was the point of agreeing to a review of the sale process when the sale itself was to stand?
- Was Colin Carmichael the right person to conduct the review?
- Why is he reluctant to get a second opinion on the value of the plot given the inaccuracies on which the Urban Delivery one is based?
- Why did CCC not make it public that the plot was available? Do they expect residents to learn of upcoming issues and decisions by trawling through lengthy council agendas and meeting minutes? Who on earth has the time to do this? And – what sort of communication is that?
So, CCC – over to you.