Bognor Regis Herald — Arun goes on backfoot and also some way towards meeting the Sir Richard Hotham Bognor Regeneration Project

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Tuesday 21 Feb 2018 — Arun Civic Centre, Littlehampton

General view of chamber

The Council Chamber filled up towards 10am for the Informal hearing into the Appeal by the Sir Richard Hotham Project against the refusal by Arun Council as planning authority of the SRH £80 million Regeneration project for 3 key sites in the Town — Regis Centre, Hothamton and Esplanade (skatepark).

Not having been to such an affair before, it was instructive to watch proceedings, how the inspector appointed by the Government approached her complicated task, and the various paths down which she had to lead all present. The* majority of the public there were clearly supportive of the proposals, all had opportunity to intervene. The support reflected the large number of supportive comments made to Arun and the inspector over the whole process. Cllr Jan Cosgrove emphasised this point in the final of a number of interventions he made during the day.

The press was there, two Arun Cabinet Members dealing with regeneration and planning, two Town Councillors, reps from Arun Arts and the Theatres Trust. These were in addition to the Arun staff present and the quite substantial SRH Team led by a barrister.

It would be very hard indeed to give a running commentary so the following are summaries of points that emerged on various issues addressed by the inspector and those taking part:

  • On PARKING it seems clear that there would be more parking, that it would be available in most part for Visitors, and it looks very much that Arun and SRH had almost resolved objections by the former, given the approval of the County Highways on the issue. There would be some kind of agreed position, and the inspector was pressing for this to be signed before conclusion of the hearing.
  • There was a distinct lack of the claims made elsewhere that the SRH scheme would not produce adequate parking, it was rather concern over general access and the future of current free parking. This was not the only time the SRH reps seemed to be thinking on their feet and clarifying details and on this they came forth quickly and positively.
  • Did one detect occasional slight hint of frustration (no, milder than that) — why had the parties not sorted this out before, could we do it over lunch perhaps, gentlemen so I can have it in writing and signed before I leave? No Mr Arunman, you can’t send one later ….

The main sticking point, DESIGN EXCELLENCE, created the most clear signs of work to be done if there is to be agreement between the parties. SRH had made quite a few attempts to come to agreement, Arun’s main person said the scheme on the Regis Centre was too ‘monumental’ and that the style did not reflect the character of the area — Cllr Cosgrove pointed out the same Edwardian/Regency style implemented

without opposition at the Esplanade Grande flats by the same architect to award-winning commendation. SRH did submit some late changes such as more varied building materials and an extra cupola, to effect break up. It’s clear that such issues contain a fair amount of subjectivity, the inspector made site visits towards the end of the hearing with the two parties.

  • The future of the ALEXANDRA THEATRE and the NEW 1100 SEAT THEATRE proposed for the Hothamton site exercised much attention. Both Hazel Latus, Chair of Arun Arts, and Cllr Cosgrove, spoke strongly for the community theatre and that this had to be guaranteed in the outcomes. The latter said he was able to say, after talking with SRH, that a separate theatre of about the same size as the current one could be accommodated on the Regis Centre site. If so, this is a major stumbling block removed from the SRH process. Until now, Arun Arts had not been offered any solution which would enable it to continue as a community-based small theatre. After the meeting, she told the Herald that Arun Arts is not afraid of competition, in some ways it would be beneficial, but she and Cllr Cosgrove were clear to the inspector that such a theatre and a large commercial centre could co-exist, though not within the same building.
  • The Theatres Trust input also focused on the community aspect, being very supportive of the Arun Arts position, and they expressed reservations about the viability and design of the new theatre. They told us after there was “not enough break-out space” for such a large venue, the internal arrangements seemed too restrictive. Cllr Hitchens for Arun claimed the venue would need Arun subsidy, but Cllr Cosgrove pointed out that this was a commercial theatre many of which operate without subsidy, over 40%. This was backed from within the SRH team who also stated they had a major theatre management operation discussing 25–50 year operating lease and that theatres of the size, such as a 1200 seater at Norwich, were returning healthy surpluses.
  • He also supported the separation of the new theatre from the Regis Centre site and said that it would create a Cultural Regeneration on a dedicated site at Hothamton. The removal of ground floor flats by SRH from the Regis Centre aspect also meant the space would be used for leisure and retail facilities, all in grevious short-supply on the Esplanade. There were claims the scheme presented a wall of building that would dissuade visitors etc from moving from the seafront into the shopping facilities of the High Street and the Precinct. It was pointed out, however, that the SRH scheme had an arcade feature running from the seaward end to Belmont Street that would connect with the current Arcade recently purchased and being improved by Arun Council, thus promoting through-flow.
  • The parking issue dominated the RESTAURANT proposal on the Esplanade, with claim and counter claim re the availability and proximity of on street and other parking. There were differences re the size of the restaurant dome, agreed to be a matter of taste. The fate of the current skatepark was considered, its relocation to a triangle of land adjacent the Pier discussed in terms of pedestrian flow along the Prom. There was agreement re the siting of the kiosks proposed by SRH.

The latter, a small issue in itself, seemed to invest in terms of the day, the approach by Arun, where it seemed that quite a bit of pre-hearing discussion and written proposals had covered many of the objections from Arun. It has to be remembered, in this regard, that Arun’s own planning officer dealing with the case had recommended Approval to Arun Cllrs but with the proviso they could cite an issue such as design excellence were they minded to object. Such a course of action was fraught for Arun, and the hearing maybe saw that strategy undermined as officers and SRH appeared on various matters to nudge closer together.

Would a positive decision by the Inspector for SRH mean Arun would then agree to deal with SRH? No it does nor flow, and the cynical might say this was all very well but Arun is the landowner who can just refuse. That would be OK were the Council an ordinary punter, company or person. But it isn’t. We as individuals can do things provided there is no law to say we can’t. Councils have to have legal basis to do all they do and they have various duties. Saying no would require full, accountable public reasons and be subject to challenge at law. Cllr Cosgrove alluded to some of these duties etc he had raised in written submission to the Inspector:

  1. Arun has responsibilities re getting best value
  2. It is also pursuing its own development and, in effect, has appointed itself as its own preferred developer, albeit without the competitive process that should have ensued — indeed it stated openly it did not welcome other applications
  3. There appears to be conflict between the roles of its Director of Place over planning and regeneration, his previous title having contained both words
  4. As local authority, another distinct role from landowner and planning authority, its Leader has identified a need to generate income in the face of reducing government funding, and identified constructing flats on Hothamton as one method of addressing this problem — that perhaps adds to the conflict of interest issues.

With elections looming in May 2019, the period following the Inspector’s decision, if favouring SRH, could preface a very interesting period in local politics and public discussion.

All in all, this writer’s view is that, on the planning issues separating them, Arun and SRH moved closer towards agreed positions.

There is no news as yet about the likely date for a result, this story will be amended as we get news. The Bognor Post suggests within two months.

As reported elsewhere:

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