As we mentioned earlier today, the The Isle of Wight council have refused a request for a Community Asset Transfer of the Coastal Visitors Centre to the Ventnor Town Council (VTC), as they intend to sell the property on the open market instead.
David Bartlett, the Town Clerk for Ventnor, sets out below the details of the proposed Enterprise Hub project; why it is important for the VTC to take control of the Coastal Visitors Centre; and the VTC’s concerns for the future of yet another iconic Ventnor building.Ed
The Isle of Wight Council is so determined to sell off this iconic building that has belonged to the Town for 140 years that it has prevented Ventnor Town Council from accessing funding of £100,000 to develop it as a centre for business start ups and community use.
The building now known as the Coastal Centre was built on Dudley Road in the 1870s by Ingrams and has been part of the town’s life and skyline ever since. It’s provided the town with a wide variety of services across those years: Sanatorium, Boarding School, Hotel, College, Council Offices and Coastal Visitor Centre. Now only six of its 32 rooms are used, three by each of Ventnor Town Council and the Isle of Wight Council’s Coastal Management Team. It remains structurally sound with a potentially long and useful life yet is largely empty and neglected. Now the Isle of Wight Council is determined to sell it on the open market with demolition and replacement by yet more flats its likely fate.
The Town Council has been working since February to find a way to preserve it for public use and community value with yet more valuable service to the town. With Job Centre Plus’s estimate of 300 unemployed 18-24 year olds here, planning turned towards the building’s potential as a centre for business start ups. It soon became clear that 16 of its rooms would be ideal as serviced workspaces for those ready for self-employment through the development of their own business as well as being very attractive locations for home workers looking for more space. Two accessible ground floor rooms with startling views could also provide a quality centre for community. Estimates of the necessary refurbishment and refitting came to around £100,000.
As the vision grew the government launched its Coastal Communities Fund looking to create jobs in coastal towns with a deadline for Stage 1 applications of 27 April. The Town Council submitted an application for £70,000 in time and learned on 7 June that this had been successful; a final, Stage 2, application was invited by 21 September. As the detailed planning for this progressed the possibility of incorporating the centre for community became clear and an Expression of Interest was submitted to Natural Enterprise for Leader funding of £30,000 on 2 August. That too was accepted and a final and full application invited with the same deadline of 21 September.
In preparation for presenting the final applications to both funders a full Business Plan was written and shared with partner organisations together with an invitation to visit the building and discuss the prospects directly. The result was strong – and written – support for the Plan from Job Centre Plus, the Chamber of Commerce, the Isle of Wight Council’s Adult & Community Learning Service, the Isle of Wight College and the Chair of the Island’s Employment & Skills Board.
The government has been increasingly encouraging local authorities to transfer their unwanted assets to community groups including Town & Parish Councils. The passing of the Localism Act in November 2011 provided a legal framework for this activity. It included a Community Right to Bid that requires Councils to give community groups and Town & Parish Councils six weeks to express an interest before it is marketed and a further six months before marketing to develop a bid if they are interested.
Ventnor Town Council had good reason to believe it was well prepared to open discussions with the Isle of Wight Council about taking over responsibility for the building. Following a formal decision at the Town Council meeting of 14 May, the Isle of Wight Council was notified of the Town Council’s interest in the building in a letter of 25 May to its Strategic Manager Assets, Barry Cooke. After informal discussions, the Town Clerk was recommended by Barry Cooke that the proper route to progress the proposal was to ask County Councillor Susan Scoccia to take it to the Portfolio Holder, Councillor George Brown. That was done and George Brown’s decision that the building would not be made available to the Town Council was communicated to the Mayor in an email from Susan Scoccia on 23 July.
With the funding deadline getting closer, the Mayor emailed Councillors George Brown and Council Leader David Pugh four days later, 27 July, explaining the situation and requesting an urgent meeting. George Brown replied immediately that he was unavailable until the end of August for personal reasons but that the matter would be taken up by David Pugh. In spite of follow-up phone calls, mainly unreturned, no invitation to meet was offered by David Pugh.
In an email to the Mayor of 22 August, David Pugh made it clear that there wouldn’t be a meeting as ‘it is the intention of the IW Council to dispose of the building on the open market thus maximising the opportunity for a significant capital receipt.’
Earlier that day, the Town Clerk had emailed the Isle of Wight Council’s Chief Executive, Steve Beynon, asking him to intervene to avoid a breakdown in the currently positive working relationships between the two Councils. He replied with an offer for a meeting as soon as possible for the Town Clerks with him and Director of Economy & Environment Stuart Love. That meeting took place on 6 September at the end of which Steve Benyon said he would raise the matter with the Council Leader David Pugh at their meeting the following Wednesday, 12 September.
The final decision came in Steve Beynon’s email to the Town Clerk of 17 September: we will move to place it on the market ASAP.
Potential funding of £100,000 to refurbish the Coastal Centre has been lost along with a project offering a unique stimulus to the town’s economy and an iconic public building is likely to be sold to a private developer next year in a major failure to apply the spirit of the government’s legislation.
In view of the importance of this development for the town’s future, all the emails, funding applications, partner support letters, business plan and other related documents are available in the Ventnor Town Council/Document Archive section of the Town Council’s web site: www.ventnortowncouncil.org.uk.
Image: © Richard ‘Tenspeed’ Heaven