Bognor Regis Herald — Esplanade Fire Nov 2016 — One year on more answers emerge but more needed …..

A Herald Investigation by Jan Cosgrove

Read Full Edition of the Herald HERE

The Herald is the only paper that has probed the issues surrounding the major fire a year ago which gutted the former derelict Beach Hotel, We have run previous stories based on Freedom of Information inquiries to the site owner, Arun District Council which revealed issues for public concern.

The Herald has now received replies to its latest request which was in fact a requirement on Arun to conduct an Internal Review about its handling of the most recent FoI. This is the correspondence and outcome:

The first questions and answers clear up previous confused answers re ownership, establishing that Arun owns all the properties in question and that details can be found at the Land Registry re those holding leases from Arun, and the Herald has established by other means that the Fish and Chip shop site is sub-leased and that there is a current dispute between tenant and leaseholder (Brooks Bros) re granting of a new lease under Landlord & Tenant law on the expiry of the current lease which ends in March next year. We also know that Brooks Bros had taken over the leasehold in October 2016, with the cafe proprietor as sitting tenant. The site has been subject of various planning permissions since 2009, none of which appear to have been implemented. One possible reason for this is that the leaseholder’s intentions did not include the cafe remaining.

Question 6 asked a very significant question : ‘6. With regard to the properties which were derelict or not occupied, and for how long had this non-occupancy persisted?’

“Please find below the property addresses and the date from which the
Council has been advised that they became vacant:-

1 Pier View House 10.08.2010

2 Pier View House 12.11.2012

3 Pier View House 15.07.2008

4 Pier View House 09.09.2015

5 Pier View House Occupied

2 Waterloo Square 02.10.2009

4 Waterloo Square 20.10.2009

6–8 Waterloo Square (G/F) 30.10.2012"

It may be noted that the dereliction/vacancy has persisted for a number of years, indeed this has to raise the question as to WHY this has been allowed given the prominent position with regard to the Esplanade/seafront economy? One has to ask also, why have Councillors locally apparently not challenged Arun on this state of affairs and also what have Arun’s responsible senior Officers been doing to resolve the lack of occupancy and resulting decline and dereliction?

The contrast with the Council’s actions over the nearby property at 18 Waterloo Square cannot be more clear ….. there, attempts to get the youth charity leaseholder to pay for works which they settled out-of-court including a payment to the charity where the Council had demanded works costing £31,000 which the charity disputed. In that case, although Arun denied it had ulterior plans for the property they have since announced intent to seek planning permission to change use to 2 flats and 2 shop units.

Yet in the FoI re the Esplanade site, they say this “4. Were any the subject of negotiations/ discussion re development within the past five years and with whom were the negotiations?

2–4 Waterloo Square and the Beach Hotel. Both are subject to discussion
regarding works with the leaseholder. Negotiations are ongoing and
therefore commercially sensitive under Section 43(2) of the Freedom of
Information Act 2000.”
It seems that Arun has been content to ‘conduct negotiations’ with the leaseholders since 2010 or thereabouts, no court action etc and one is perhaps left to ask why the very different treatment where the dereliction and disrepair at the Esplanade site was so much worse than at 18 Waterloo Square where my experience as a charity trustee re Arun has led me to regard them as devious bullies.

The questions continue to arise when we look at the Council’s response re the cause of the fire:

“7. Has there been any investigation by the Council as to the cause of the
fire? Is it known whether it started in an occupied or unoccupied part
of the properties? Has the Fire Service been able to conduct forensic
investigations?

No investigation was undertaken by the Council. This is the responsibility
of West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service so please direct questions to them.
I note from your next question that you have their contact details.

7(a). Has Arun done what I have done and called for their formal report at
least, had you seen that? Link:
[2]
https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/f...

No.

7(b). Did Arun take any action at all. Officer visits, contact with Fire
Service, contact with leaseholder, contact with café tenant?

The Council were in contact with the Fire Service as part of emergency
control centre at the time of the fire. The Council worked with the
leaseholder afterwards. The Council would not be in contact with the café
tenant because they are not the Council’s tenant — they are the
leaseholder’s tenant.”

One would have thought that such a serious/prominent fire in its own property might have caused major concern but one is entitled to conclude that they seem not greatly concerned. They have been rather inactive on the face of it which must raise concern about their duty to ensure their property is adequately maintained to such a degree that the end result has been a very serious fire whose causes have not been determined. For legal reasons I cannot at this stage reveal a most serious report which I have communicated to a solicitor engaged in an above matter and where I am protecting a source.

The future of the site is still clearly not decided, if we are to accept Arun at its word.

“9. Is it yet decided what will happen re these properties? Please note the
answers you gave in this FOI request dated 1 October 2016:
[3]
https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/c...

Undecided, no decision made.”

There is one other question where The Herald has had a somewhat evasive answer from Arun: “5. As regards 4, was there any proposal to develop discussed where the council would have been paid a fee based on a fixed percentage of the increase of property value occasioned by the development? If so, what fee was suggested by the Council?

Beach Hotel — see lease held at the Land Registry. This lease includes a
valuation methodology for potential development.

No for other properties.”

We had a reliable report that re nearby sites in their ownership which were the subject of development, such an agreement was made that a fee would be applicable at 3% of (value after development — value pre-development) but that this was gazumped by Arun to 15%. This caused discussions with the previous leaseholder and a partner development firm based around a similar calculation to be abandoned and seemingly opportunity to solve the dereliction sabotaged. We will not be asking Arun until we access the documentation Arun cites and will report further on the outcome.

At this stage, The Herald simply asks, should the public be satisfied with Arun’s answers, and long-term management and performance re this site, is the Fish and Chip shop owner getting a fair treatment, and when will Arun attend to this eyesore properly?

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Jan Cosgrove

National Secretary of Fair Play for Children, Also runs Bognor Regis Herald online. Plus runs British Music Radio online