We always welcome a Letter to the Editor to share with our readers – unsurprisingly they don’t always reflect the views of this publication. If you have something you’d like to share, get in touch and of course, your considered comments are welcome below. This from Luisa Hillard, Town and County Councillor for East Cowes. Ed
I wasn’t born on the Island. I didn’t even grow up here, although for most of my formative years I did grow up looking at the Island from the shores of Southsea and Hayling Island.
Before I decided to move here my knowledge of the Island was poor, informed only by one school trip to Osborne House and one science expedition to explore the rock pools of (possibly) Bembridge.
Choosing a town wasn’t a difficult choice
My first real savouring (and it has been that) of the Island as a real life community started in January 2007. Choosing a town to make our home wasn’t a difficult choice as the decision was made based on practicality with a little intuition. The best decisions usually are.
East Cowes was a clear winner (believe it or not!). Driving down the hill of York Avenue into the town gives me the feeling of ‘coming home’. I get the same feeling in Ventnor. I think it has something to do with the way the beautiful old trees seem to part and reveal the sea, or at least the masts of sailing boats. It’s a ‘ta-dah!’ moment, particularly on a sunny morning when (West) Cowes is lit up like somewhere in the Mediterranean.
So, on April the 1st (honestly) 2007 we left our friends and family for a new life on the Island because we wanted a good place to raise our children – a better quality of life – full of romping along through woods, fields and beaches with a dog. My Dad fondly remembered childhood holidays here and called it an ‘opportunity’, much to the dismay of my Mum who said that we might as well move to New Zealand!
The East Cowes Masterplan
However, the fundamental reason for choosing the Island was because of SEEDA and their East Cowes Masterplan. They tempted Palmer Johnson Yachts, my husband’s employer, to relocate to Venture Quays. However no super yachts could be built here and by mid-2008 the company had moved back to the mainland. How ironic that a move designed to prevent commuting to the Island ended up with commuting to the mainland but we didn’t regret moving here and neither did we consider leaving.
At that time we had heard that East Cowes was undergoing regeneration and that house prices were likely to rise, so we considered property here to be a good investment for a young, growing family. We were sold a dream – a lifestyle – but despite my optimistic arrival there is a darker side to the process. Neighbours and friends in East Cowes talk very fondly of local history and the ‘glory days’ of industry but there is a sadness to the memories as they state that East Cowes had its ‘heart ripped out’ by SEEDA.
A cultural memory
Over time I have come to the conclusion that East Cowes has a cultural memory that still keenly feels the loss of industry, with the redundancies of those men who had worked for the same companies as their fathers and grandfathers before them. A particular sore spot is the closure and demolition of the old social club and sports facilities. Apparently we were once self-sufficient in squash courts and bowling greens.
Long term residents grieve the changes and whilst I understand this I have to some extent arrived post-demolition; unscathed, my own disappointments linked more to the shiny 3D model of the future East Cowes that was on display in Venture Quays some years ago.
SEEDA failed my family and boat builders
I suppose you could say that SEEDA failed my family and Palmer Johnson Yachts but I have never regretted moving to the Island.
Neither have I ever regretted moving to East Cowes, the heart of which is a really beautiful, green and leafy Victorian and Edwardian town. For a woman like me who has eclectic tastes and appreciates shabby chic it’s a comfortable fit.
However, there is an old saying that familiarity breeds contempt and perhaps this is why so many Islanders don’t appreciate what I see – a town which ticks all of the boxes for an active family with a dog: a beach, woods, recreation grounds, supermarkets, local shops, nurseries and schools. Perhaps for this reason I have felt more at home here than any other town I have lived in. I feel the strong sense of community. I have met the very active activists and been one of them. I feel safe walking around at night.
Regeneration project still on-going
Nine years later and the regeneration project is still on-going. SEEDA have gone, replaced by the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA).
There have been successes, I’m pleased to tell you. I was very pleased to welcome Waitrose, which has added a little gravitas and a rather large short-stay car park (but we have lost the long stay one, which is compounding resident parking issues). The new doctor and dentist building is quite nice too, although the consensus is that it could have been better designed and needs a few extra doctors. The world’s largest Union Jack got repainted.
The building of many new houses has been a mixed blessing – warm, modern housing has been of benefit to those residents who now live there but the expanded population has placed extra strain on the availability of school places and local doctor appointments.
Venture Quays buzzing with activity
In my opinion new houses in themselves don’t and can’t stimulate regeneration without new jobs for the new residents that come with them. Jobs are essential. A strong, local economy is essential.
Amazingly there have been some new jobs (Waitrose plus about 200 industrial) and the green shoots of industry have appeared again in once empty buildings – some companies have come and gone again, like South Boats and Vestas – but others appear to be flourishing. Venture Quays is currently buzzing with activity.
Aluminium welding, an Island speciality, has attracted several boat builders including Shemara Refit who are building the new Red Jet 6. I’m told that all order books are busy – the financial future of these businesses looks secure. In part renewable energy is driving this renaissance of innovation and industry with boats to service off-shore wind turbines and the research and development of turbine platforms for tidal energy.
East Cowes as a centre of excellence for engineering?
I would like to see East Cowes continue its heritage of boat building and all things nautical, but I also look to the future. I would like to see East Cowes develop as a wider centre of excellence for engineering – it makes economic sense to diversify in addition to tourism. Engineering jobs are well-paid, full time and not seasonal.
The Council tried to get us declared as an Enterprise Zone to help this aspiration but that was derailed. Despite lack of support from the mainland the arrival of the Studio School, who specialise in engineering, and the long-awaited ‘Isle of Wight Centre of Excellence for Composites, Advance Manufacturing and Marine Technology’ (imagine trying to fit that on a business card), due to be built at the Technology Park in Whippingham, will be training new skilled workers to meet the national shortage of engineers.
The future of light industry and engineering looks secure on the Island… with the exception of one major detail.
Employment land turned into housing estates
The current government believes that economic regeneration happens by building new houses and therefore has an aggressive house-building policy. The planning authority on the Island has a target of about 500 new houses every year.
There is therefore pressure to locate new sites for housing developments. Brown field sites are the preference, but this often means that employment land is being turned into housing estates.
For the Medina Valley this means that waterfront industrial sites which currently house many small and medium-sized businesses are facing planning applications to replace this high density employment land with high density flats and houses.
Expansion of ferry marshalling yard
In East Cowes this issue is compounded by a proposed relocation and enlargement of the ferry marshalling yard. In principle improvements to the management of ferry traffic during peak times is welcomed by residents of East Cowes, although the queue up York Avenue doesn’t tend to inconvenience us that much as we just go home via an alternative route, if needed.
The main benefits for better marshalling would be improved access to the Floating Bridge (which often has long queues) and encouraging ferry users to wander around town whilst waiting for their ferry, rather than crawling along in their cars.
As you might expect East Cowes has a love-hate relationship with the ferry. We accept that it is an essential part of us but a body part that would be top of our wish list for plastic surgery… a little less obtrusive, a little more beautiful… We wish to be appreciated for more than just our most obvious asset.
Loss of the High Street
Residents complain about the limited number and variety of local shops and I used to wonder why a town the size of East Cowes lacks an obvious High Street. I know the reason now: that the historic, waterfront town centre was bulldozed and what was the original High Street is now Lane 1 of the ferry marshalling yard.
It is clear that such extensive regeneration and revolving land uses (residential-industrial-residential) has happened over the years that it is difficult to grasp our current identity, much like a woman who has undergone way too much plastic surgery and can’t recognise herself in the mirror. The key is in the eyes and in the heart, which beats strongly.
Spirit of innovation at heart of community
‘Once in a lifetime’ redevelopments seem to be rather more common in East Cowes than is comfortable for the average resident, but we aren’t NIMBYs by any stretch of the imagination.
We have the spirit of innovation and creation at the heart of our community.
We are practical people in the most part – a demographic rich in factory workers, skilled trades, carers and nurses – but there is an aspiration to embrace technology of the future. We are after all a town that has been undergoing regeneration since we were first built – perhaps that explains why East Cowes breeds and/or attracts so many revolutionaries and innovators.
I may have been transplanted here but my roots are deep, so I anticipate that I shall live here in East Cowes for the foreseeable future.
Luisa Hillard, Town and County Councillor for East Cowes