Re-think on Bognor Regis Regeneration
“Is it not possible at this stage to work quickly with the key parties so that an enhanced bid is put to HM Treasury as an amended, stronger version of the bid with the huge advantage of being able to show substantial private investment? That would mean the £12million would be available to enhance the scheme.”
This report starts with the current position as at August 2021 concerning The Regis Centre and Hothamton Car Park sites:
Arun District Council as land-owner has submitted a proposal to HM Treasury’s Levelling Up scheme. This looks to secure £12m to undertake a scheme involving recladding of part of the Regis Centre site, increasing the number of seats, adding other features. It does not cover the Whitbread-occupied part of the leased site.
Whtbread Plc has a lease to August 2046 covering all buildings on the site (pub and theatre), Arun Arts holds an underlease to one day less than Whitbread’s.
Arun has undertaken two consultations/invitations since early 2015 on this site and Hothamton, the 2015 attracted 13 submissions, the 2020 twelve presentations which were made in February 2021, some of which were not regeneration as such, being either ideas which might chime within a scheme or stand-alone and could also be fitted elsewhere.
Arun has not as yet had a discussion or decision what to do with these Presentations.
This report examines strengths and weaknesses of the situation and proposes what might be called a Plan B, or as will be seen, even Plan A-1
Arun’s Submission to Levelling-up
The first question is why was it made now, before the Presentations were decided? A simple answer is that there was a deadline, and the opportunity could not be missed. However, that begs the question, are there to be further rounds of L-U? No one is sure.
It was clear that in order to be able to submit by this first deadline, competing local authorities had to have ‘oven-ready’ schemes, there were several for Littlehampton, this one for the Regis Centre was what was available, and it seems to have some connection with a similar scheme submitted by Plaza Cinemas to the Presentations. That scheme avowedly is not Regeneration, that is made clear by Adam Cunard. It’s based on ?now is not the time? It bears some relationship itself to a scheme drawn up by architect David Bennett whose wife is a trustee of Arun Arts. Again, it is not Regeneration.
The scheme does not impact on either Whitbread or the current parking arrangements.
Possible Impact of Scheme if approved:
Q1. Will it offer more on the Esplanade?
There is no evidence that this will prove a great attraction to local people and visitors, at least not significantly in terms of Regeneration.
Q2. Will it enable larger, more professional shows, exhibitions at the Centre occupied by Arun Arts?
Maybe to a limited degree but not enough for the really big events, one can ask what is the % occupancy of performances, on how many occasions a year is Arun Arts short of space, and how often is it under-occupied? Would more seats (around 130) mean bigger audiences or more empty seats?
There is proposed to be exhibition space, but not a great deal, and gallery space.
Arun Arts is an amateur community theatre, there is always room for such a provision, but it does not attract many visitors from very far, the offer is a mix of tribute bands, amateur shows, community activity etc, According to the annual report of AA 2019 there are 5 staff. There are many volunteers who keep the place running. The proposed scheme will not employ more staff.
Q3. Will the scheme increase local employment and boost the local economy?
Maybe in the short-term as the changes are built, but not long-term, nor is the impact on the local economy likely to be at all significant. The scheme offers nothing radical to suggest a major boost in local business or indeed per head spend by visitors and local people. Indeed there is no real evidence that there will be any significant inducement in the upcoming resort contests re Staycations. The press currently is making claims about sunshine etc but the real issue is, will Bognor attract MORE visitors, will they RETURN and will they SPEND MORE?
Q4. Arun Arts has a lease that will give it operational control to 2046, is it a secure organisation?
Q5 Is Arun Arts capable of managing a larger professional theatre?
Since 1996, when as a Councillor I was one of a tight majority who got their business plan past an Arun Committee (one vote) where that outcome was not wanted by Arun senior officers, the charity has been through troughs and peaks, the former including one episode where a con-man took them to the proverbial cleaners and another where a then-trustee clearly defaulted on a Voluntary Arrangement, causing the charity to be taken into liquidation. (He the bid to the Liquidator to pay £43,000 to clear the debts. These were £160,000 at 38p in the £.) At that point in early 2005, I had met with London businessman Harold Winton, interested in theatre, he put up the £160,000 (secured as a loan, is this paid?) and also £59,000 outright donation to pay Whitbread’s demand for dilapidations, and a guarantee of another £65,000 to subsidise the first 2 years after restart, where I was Chair of Trustees.
The AA policy was no-deficit, the current trustees have continued with that, the pandemic has put a strain on finances but helped by Government bail-out.
The accounts are not clear as to whether any of the staff are ‘related persons’ and the 31 March 2020 accounts are a little overdue.
Q6. What is Whitbread’s position, will they engage in Regeneration?
The history since 1996 has been of self-contained close-to-chest operation, Arun has engaged with them to see if they will quit the current site, that seems unresolved after so long a time, we know they wanted a hotel in 1996 (there is a story on that …) but they have continued with Brewers Fayre, but that aspect of their offer appears to be under consideration, will they sell-off that chain and go more for Staycation hotels?
Regeneration here is not being helped by the lack of indication of direction by Whitbread, it has been hard to find out to whom one can speak and get an answer (that has been the experience of not just myself over the years). Somewhere along the line we need some engagement with them and from them.
Q7. What chance has the Levelling-Up submission of success?
This is a very competitive Fund, there are around 150 other councils able to bid, Arun is in priority group 2 of 3. Whilst the Littlehampton aspect <£8m engendered confidence across the Economic Committee in late July when the bid was discussed and agreed, that was by no means the case re the > £12m Regis Centre part. Indeed, I am clear not a few Councillors expect it not to succeed, if that happens, then what comes next?
Q8. What of the remaining Presentation schemes?
There are those which can be progressed anyway, they do not have to be ‘on-site’, Arun has other venues — CoffeeCup is an example.
This is a summary of the schemes:
4BR — I understand they are no longer in the picture
Sunrise — planning permission for 3 sites given 2018 expired — consisted of Destination Restaurant (Esplanade) Boardwalk, public space, studio theatre space for Arun Arts, Hotel, flats + undercroft parking (Regis Centre) and Multi-use space/Theatre (1100 seats)(with provision for Arun Arts use) Exhibition, Conferences, Blake Gallery, undercroft parking, Hotel (Hothamton Car Park) Funded £90m
Reinvigoration, a series of ideas, some of which chime with Sunrise, others not, no detailed plans/costimngs, not funded, on Arun and other land.
Associated with Regeneration
Blake — proposing a feature which could be incorporated in Sunrise, Levelling-Up, ?Reinvigoration, in various ways. Not funded. Sunrise has said it would find space.
Shooting Match — ?could be found space in Sunrise, Re-invig, Levelling-Up? No funding.
One Bognor — mainly issues allied with Regen but put in idea of modified Sunrise for Regis Centre — this analysis follows on from that idea in some regards:
Levelling-Up Bid — relies 100% on success of bid to HM Treasury
Plaza Cinemas — Arun admits Levelling-Up chimes with this idea
Regent — essentially redevelopment, lots of flats (700+)
Coffee Cup — can be located in a number of local venues
Juice — offering consultancy?
There also is the Arun Gardens by the Sea idea which has some features in common with Levelling-Up, no funding
Levelling-Up and Bognor Regeneration
It is entirely reasonable to ask, what happens next if the Treasury declines this current application? But it is not simply then a case of “we’ll now look at the other options”. It is clear from what has happened that, for example, the Sunrise proposals have been blocked by Arun in terms of the latter’s apparent vision for the two sites and the trend towards “re-development not regeneration” which chimes with the 2015 submission by Seaward Homes and was echoed in the Linear Park proposal (withdrawn), also the Place St Maur proposed scheme and now the Levelling-Up scheme.
If Arun has indeed adopted ‘redevelopment leading to possible regeneration’ that is a departure from the Masterplan and so that should be agreed formally as the way forward, modifying or scrapping the Masterplan.
Also, one can ask equally, if this current scheme maybe lacks the “necessary” to gain Treasury support, should there now be thinking about Plan B — or even Plan A-1?
Arun Council has been engaged with Regeneration since 2004 and the adoption of the Bognor Regis Masterplan, previous attempts have come to nothing and the 2015 and 2020 initiatives have left a list of ideas and proposals, only one of which is being taken forward (cladding) at this time. Indeed, is that Regeneration, will it provide the ‘prompt’ for the regeneration process?
Post pandemic and post-Brexit, the emphasis emerging is on Regeneration to revive British resorts, the ubiquitous ‘staycation’ being an illustration of perceived opportunity. Some councils have made progress in recent years, but that cannot be said for Bognor Regis which runs the risk of further decline whilst others move forward.
Yet there are a number of proposals, some involving the two main sites in Arun’s ownership. Having secured expressions of interest, surely Arun should now be working with those ideas and organisations and individuals?
My focus here is on the Regis Centre, termed ‘the jewel in the crown’. Looking at what Arun has put into the Levelling-Up bid, the following is an outline idea which would deliver what Arun is seeking, but very much enhanced in terms of Regeneration targets, outputs and appeal. I myself believe the Hothamton site is the best option for a major cultural provision, but I am not pursuing that idea here.
Drawing from the various submissions, here in a very basic schema on The Regis Centre:
It shows a much larger theatre/exhibition/conference multi-purpose venue, using the sort of flexible space concept in Sunrise’s plans for Hothamton, also a boardwalk and hotel element. There would be undercroft parking, and flats above 2nd/3rd floor. Gardens and open space on Place St Maur.
The flexible ground-floor space would enable a combination of professional and community productions, also exhibitions and conferences of various sizes, often multi-user. Arun Arts and a professional management company would work to an Agreement re use and management, thus giving the community theatre a guaranteed stake and usage, but also opening the way for larger professional shows and activity. This could provide a safe mix but retaining the ability to draw larger audiences from further afield than occurs now but minimising risk of under-use.
It would be possible using this approach for, say, an Arun Arts event for 500 audience and also a professional conference or exhibition at the same time. But also major music, comedy and other crowd-drawers to a larger audience ?1000.
The boardwalk would enable commercial and leisure offers, including a sea-view destination restaurant on the first floor, a good location for the William Blake art gallery. Add a roof garden/terrace with sea views.
Within the complex, room for studio theatre, and other small spaces.
The inclusion of a hotel, 60–100 rooms, accommodating staycation visitors, conference/exhibition attendees, overnight audiences for big shows etc.
The question of flats? Clearly, private investment is needed to enable this and such accommodation above 3rd floor would be attractive to private investors whose funding would pay for the provision..
There are opportunities here to embrace other ideas, including those from Reinvigoration, 4BR, Shooting Match, One Bognor etc.
There is a key issue however — Arun owns the land, Sunrise has the funding, so practicality suggests that it is those two bodies who need to look at a joint venture
Hothamton? If it’s accepted that Sunrise’s offer would move to the Regis Centre, then that leaves the Car Park area for other ideas -a new Medical Centre is a need, retail is an option on ground floor, maybe another hotel and flats, with undercroft parking, with an enhanced Sunken Gardens.
The Regis Centre rethink could be viewed as Plan B, but is there also an immediate case to look at this as Plan A-1, Plan A being the current L-U bid.
The case can be put strongly that the bid had to be ‘plucked out of the air’ at short notice, the Council not having had time to complete the consideration of the various Presentations.
Is it not possible at this stage to work quickly with the key parties so that an enhanced bid (A-1 above) is put to HM Treasury as an amended, stronger version of the bid with the huge advantage of being able to show substantial private investment? That would mean the £12million would be available to enhance the scheme.
That is the proposal, the style/architecture is not being raised here but it is a fact that Plan B/A-1 is formed on the Sunrise proposals for both Regis Centre and Hothamton. the Edwardian theme is relevant to Bognor and just along the road is the Esplanade Grande block which won design awards (same architect), The Blake concept on Hothamton sought to pay tribute to the original Pavilion but a Blake Centre (with Alexandra Theatre) on the Esplanade would echo the former Kursaal/Rex providing a very impressive aspect to that area.
The Pier. In my submission I made a proposal re the Pier Company relocating the Night Club and Arcade to the old Esplanade Theatre site. I know the concern is shared that the Pier could be and is ‘the elephant in the room’, missing out on Regeneration. I have suggested to the owner and the Leader of Arun Council that they consider a swap of long leases, peppercorn, to enable that relocation which would free up the Pier for restoration funding. One aspect of that might be to find the funding from total funds available from bid £12m and Sunrise £90m, plus maybe also application to Heritage Lottery, much of the work for that was undertaken.
Use? If Arun Arts remains at the Regis Centre site, as in Plan B/A-1, then one very attractive use could be the Museum of Comedy in my proposals, also funding for the Mile of Comedy Statues on the Promenade. Play The Joker!
It is my hope that, if this idea gains support, a Bognor Regis Foundation might be established subvented through a small % annually of commercial rents etc which could be used for local needs, searching these out and seeking matched support from eg Sussex-interest charities, Government funds, local authority sources, Lottery etc. My long experience in the community field tells me that such a Fund would create a multiplier effect in terms of partnerships above.
I hope these thoughts are helpful/useful and would urge the key players to make contact with one another and with the rest of those of us who made presentations, Arun Arts, Whitbread, Mr John Ayers etc.
Jan Cosgrove 32 Longford Road Bognor Regis PO21 1AG Tel: 07488–265916
03 August 2021