Winter Gardens - the unanswered questions behind the £1 sale
PUBLISHED: 12:00 27 January 2015 | UPDATED: 13:02 27 January 2015
IT ALL happened very quickly in a move which one councillor branded ‘a stitch-up’, but the £1 sale of Weston’s Winter Gardens to Weston College has now been confirmed.
North Somerset Council last week approved a move it says will support college expansion and help to kick-start town centre regeneration.
However, with zero public consultation carried out and key details still being ironed out behind the scenes, there remains plenty of uncertainty about the long-term implications of the decision.
The Mercury has this week spoken to both the council and the college to tackle those unanswered questions…
Q: When was the idea of handing the Winter Gardens to Weston College first raised?
A: The council remains tight-lipped about when it was floated internally, but direct discussions between North Somerset and the college began in September. However, the idea was kept under wraps until the council went public in mid-October.
Q: The lack of public consultation has been criticised. But there would have been time between those September discussions and January’s decision for some consultation, wouldn’t there?
A: Executive councillor Tony Lake has said not, blaming the ‘time pressures’ of the college’s funding bid. However, a North Somerset spokesman this week told us that policy means ‘the council does not consult on the transfer of buildings’ anyway. On the college side, principal Dr Paul Phillips says he was wary of raising hopes too early in the process by involving the public before the project was secure. Despite the absence of formal consultations, the council insists ‘the principle of educational use has attracted widespread support’.
Q: Will the public be given a say in what happens next?
A: Yes. College leaders tell us that as plans progress they intend to involve the public in a number of ways, from consultations over building works, to seeking input and new ideas for community use.
Q: What will happen to the Winter Gardens building?
A: The venue will become a law and professional services centre catering for as many as 700 full-time students and 200 staff. Dr Phillips said early interest from the private sector – with law firm Foot Anstey already signing up seven trainees – shows it will fill a ‘gap’ in the market. The building itself will be developed in phases, starting with the newer eastern extension, where an extra floor will be added. The ballroom and seafront wings will be the last to see work, but changes will be carried out with an eye on public events, and planned innovations such as retractable seating will help add flexibility to the type of events it hosts.
Q: Didn’t the plan originally include a four-storey extension overlooking the Town Square?
A: It did – at least in principle. However, despite forming part of the council’s initial presentation, this building was never included in the college’s funding bid to the LEP (which adheres to the current Winter Gardens footprint and does not extend into the Town Square or Italian Gardens). The council says its ambition is for Weston to establish itself as a university town, and describes the four-storey extension it displayed as ‘just an illustration of this ambition’. All parties admit future expansion remains a possibility.
Q: The majority of concerns about this project seem to stem from fears over public access to the building. How can this be guaranteed in future?
A: The council says ‘legal agreements’ are being drawn up to ensure such use is protected, but Dr Phillips tells us community involvement and access is already a key aspiration for the college – indeed, he hopes the college can not only match the current level of community use, but ‘better it’. That could involve support from other college premises too, such as the nearby Hans Price Conference Centre. A new ‘community board’ is being created, involving college staff and key stakeholders, to explore new avenues, from shows and events to exhibitions and club meetings – with Dr Phillips saying minimal charges solely to cover costs will help ensure widespread availability. The board will have the power to oversee the type and frequency of public events and make recommendations to college governors. The council says this arrangement will ‘provide significantly greater safeguards for future community use and access than is contained in the current contract’.
Q: What events can we expect to see in coming years, then?
A: The college has requested a list of future bookings from the council – but understands there are currently ‘very few’. It plans to seek public input into what can be staged in the building in future, and has indicated a willingness to work with the Mercury to solicit ideas from readers. Dr Phillips cites Weston super Food Festival as something which could prosper under the new arrangements, with relevant college departments potentially getting involved to make the event a multi-venue festival staged across the town.
Q: A requirement of the funding bid is that the project be ‘shovel ready’ by April. Yet the Winter Gardens isn’t being transferred into college hands until September, is it?
A: Dr Phillips told the Mercury some works can begin ahead of the official transfer date, while supporting work to current college buildings also helps ensure the LEP’s financial criteria are met.
Q: Why is the council giving away an asset it values at £11million for just £1?
A: The college’s LEP application, worth up to £14.9million, is contingent on match-funding being secured. That match-funding need not be in cash – and so the Winter Gardens transfer goes a long way to meeting that need. The deal therefore helps attract huge new investment into the town centre, while also breathing new life into an under-used building. The council views the deal as a demonstration of its ‘unequivocal commitment to support the college’s bid to host the academy and to the longer-term regeneration and growth of the town’. A busy, modern university centre is expected to stimulate other town centre growth.
Q: How come the council is allowed to surrender the Winter Gardens so cheaply when it has previously insisted, in the case of the Tropicana, that EU laws made such deals impossible?
A: The Mercury put this question to the council this week, but has yet to receive a satisfactory answer. We were initially told ‘the difference between the two projects is that one has a viable business case and funding support, and that the other doesn’t’. However, that seems markedly different to leader Nigel Ashton’s view from 2010: “Although many residents will want us just to hand the (Tropicana) site over, we simply cannot do this with a public asset. We are bound by strict EU legislation to follow their procurement process however longwinded, expensive and bureaucratic.” We await a definitive answer.
Q: What happens to the building if the college decides, at some point in the future, that the Winter Gardens is surplus to its requirements?
A: Both parties say this is ‘extremely unlikely’, but in such an event, the Winter Gardens will transfer back to the council. Negotiations are still taking place on what caveats could be applied, however – after all, the college plans to invest substantial sums in upgrading the building and could be left significantly out of pocket if it surrenders the building.
Q: Hundreds of new students need hundreds of new places to live. What progress has been made on this front?
A: Dr Phillips says the college is unlikely to become directly involved in this side of things, as the goal is not for the college to become either a property developer or a landlord. However, the council has already begun working to identify suitable sites in a new town centre planning document currently being compiled. The Mercury understands sites like the former magistrates court building, the soon-to-be-vacant police station and even the empty TJ Hughes store have all come under tentative early consideration (either from the council or property developers) as potential halls of residence.
Q: How long will all this take?
A: Not as long as you might think. Dr Phillips points to the college’s track record of having previous developments completed within 12-15 months, and says he is confident students will ‘certainly’ be on-site at the Winter Gardens by September 2016.
Q: Any last words on the subject?
A: The council says: “This project is a fantastic opportunity to kick-start a new future for the town centre, offering improvements to the Winter Gardens and securing community use into the future, as well as boosting its potential to host a mix of uses centred around learning and skills while contributing towards the wider social, retail and employment activities in the town centre.”
We will watch this space…