North Thanet MP Sir Roger Gale, has hit out at what he has described as “ill-informed criticism” of the lease awarded by the last Conservative council administration for Margate`s Harbour Arm.
Sir Roger says criticism that the deal was at the expense of the ratepayer is “nonsense.”
The row centres around revelations by former councillor Ian Driver that Thanet District Council lease the historic Stone Pier to Margate Harbour Arm Ltd for just £1 per year.
Questions have been raised over whether the lease was put out to tender before the deal in 2008 and again when the lease was renewed and extended in 2014. The Isle of Thanet News has submitted the questions as a Freedom of Information request after Thanet council declined to provide details.
Critics, including Mr Driver (pictured), say the 2014 extension – taking the £1 lease to February 2021 – does not represent best value for a council-owned asset and have questioned whether the authority should be paying part of the bill for power and water at the site.
Mr Driver added: “Thanet’s council taxpayers, who I believe undoubtedly lost out because of this stupidly generous leasehold deal, need to know why, when the lease was renewed in 2014, its terms were not altered in favour of the council to say £50,000-a-year instead of remaining fixed at a £1-a-year? Or why the lease was not competitively tendered to get the best possible return for the council?”
But Sir Roger has argued that the company, headed by director Graham Knight and secretary Dr Fiona Sheriff, has turned a derelict eyesore into a thriving asset for the town.
He said: “The Harbour Arm was a derelict and dilapidated eyesore when it was leased to Fiona Sherriff. As an enterprising entrepreneur she saw the opportunity, took the risk of refurbishing and maintaining the Stone Pier and turned a liability into an attraction that attracts thousands of visitors annually.
“By taking over the management of the parking on the pier Dr Sherriff and her partner (Graham Knight) ensured that visitors to the businesses leasing properties – such as the excellent Be-Beached Restaurant – have been able to leave their vehicles within walking distance of their destinations while at the same time injecting some order and control over what had hitherto been a chaotic situation.
“This is precisely the kind of enterprise that attracts tourists and pays business rates that we ought to be encouraging not criticising. In the long-run the contract will have transformed a council-owned liability into a profit-making and employment-creating asset and only those that cannot abide the success of private enterprise will not be able to recognise that achievement. It is a pity that in this instance the critics have once again been over-zealous in their desire to propagate a `story` without checking out the facts.”
Margate Harbour Arm Limited has a lease on the harbour arm for £1 per year from 2008 until February 2021. The original lease up to 2018 was extended by an extra three years in 2014.The agreement for the extension was made back in 2011 by then-Cabinet member Roger Latchford as compensation for the loss of income from four parking spaces, required for hard landscaping and improving access to Turner Contemporary.
Talks about the company taking on the then-derelict Stone Pier – known as the Harbour Arm –are noted in documents from a Margate Renewal Partnership meeting in June 2007 attended by various organisations including Thanet District Council and its then-leader Sandy Ezekiel.
In the agenda it states: “A planning application is expected within the next 2 weeks for change of use to café, arts studios, galleries etc. Could include Canterbury Christ Church Arts department. Developer is Pineapple Properties.” Pineapple Property (Kent) Ltd is owned by businessman Mr Knight.
An application was lodged by Pineapple Property (Kent) Ltd in December 2007 to create a cafe, restaurant, artist studio, art gallery and retail units at the pier.
Margate Harbour Arm Ltd was formed in January 2008 as the vehicle to manage the site. Mr Knight is director and Dr Fiona Sherriff is the company secretary.
Renovation and refurbishment work on the site was completed in May 2008. It was funded with a £120,000 grant from the Margate Renewal Partnership and investment from Mr Knight of £200,000.
According to the company’s first annual return, in 2009, the shares were allocated as 51 to Mr Knight, 29 to Dr Sheriff,10 to isle building company owner Stephen Groom and 10 to Pineapple Property (Kent) Ltd.
Documents from Land Registry state the estimated worth of the Harbour Arm and jetty at the time of the lease renewal in 2014 was £40,000.
In June 2016 the share allocation was 90 Mr Knight and 10 Mr Groom. The last available accounts, made for the company for year ending December 2015 show a net book worth of £46,641 down from £64,736 the previous year – a depreciation of £21,685.
The lease requirements
The lease does not include the walkways and toilets, which are retained by Thanet council. The authority, which paid £100,000 to install safety railings on the walkway this Summer following one fatality and two serious accidents in previous years, pays a proportion of the power and water costs for the facilities.
The watchtower and lighthouse are also not included in the lease.
Margate Harbour Arm Ltd is responsible for managing, repairing and maintaining the rest of the site, which includes businesses and parking, which also provide income. A clause stipulates that at least 50% of the internal site is let to artists or artist groups at a discounted rent. Fishermen Kevin Castro and Trevor Lamb (and all successors) are also granted security of tenure under the agreement.
Thanet council say the deal has resulted in an improved asset and, should the authority not renew in 2021, it will receive the income created by the businesses.
A spokesman said: “At the time the contract was agreed, the Grade II listed Harbour Arm was derelict and in need of significant regeneration. The tenant spent over £200,000 making the buildings fit for occupation and subsequently the Harbour Arm has been transformed into a vibrant and popular public area with art studios, cafes and bar.
“The leaseholder has a full repairing lease and management responsibility for the land granted to them and, at the end of the tenancy in 2021, should Thanet District Council chose to terminate, it will receive a much improved asset and the income stream that goes with it.”
Payments of £6,154 have been made by Thanet council this year to Margate’ Harbour Arm Ltd for ‘community services.’
The payments made in February, May and July, are listed as for ‘various services.’ The nature of the services has also been requested through a Freedom of Information submission.