Yesterday I took an early morning stroll along the Cliftonville clifftops, as a way of clearing my head before work. I didn’t used to do this sort of thing—not in the morning—but recently I’ve found myself awake much earlier than usual.
There is something pleasant about being around as the rest of the world is waking. The shift from quiet to busy swells slowly, like the growing tide, then quickly crashes in.
During this walk I passed various structures and buildings, until I reached one that looked very different to how I remember it being. It was the Newgate Gap shelter.
I was expecting a shelter in need of repair, surrounded by a protective fence to prevent people putting themselves at risk as the roof was not structurally sound. Yes, it wouldn’t look as good as it used to, but then who does after a century? The building has been there since the early 1900s and has spent the last few decades not being cared for, so of course it’s going to be a little worse for wear.
What I wasn’t expecting was what I found.
The thing that remains—because, let’s be honest, it’s not a shelter anymore—is basically a skeleton. The seats are gone, leaving a concrete space from which pillars rise to hold aloft the decaying frame of a former roof. It has been stripped and torn and there is nothing but a rusting hulk jutting into the sky, bare-ribbed and desolate.
I decided I would need to look up what had happened, so I went to the Thanet District Council website and found the planning permission section.
Last year, the council had submitted planning to remove the roof and seats, and mount hanging baskets from the pillars to make some kind of horrible Frankenstein-like monster. Obviously this upset people, and after numerous objections the application was withdrawn.
Had the council put another application in, and had it gone through without anyone noticing? I couldn’t find any records of anything. Had, in fact, the council failed to put in an application at all?
Recently, the council had put up a poster on the fence surrounding the shelter offering local community groups to bid on taking over ownership or management of it. That hadn’t been there, so I checked Thanet District Council’s community asset list. It wasn’t there.
As I was considering all this, I realised I had been walking further along the coast, towards Margate, and I was crossing over the top of the Winter Gardens. At this point, I would usually admire the sea as it sweeps up to Margate main sands, but I found myself staring at something else instead. Something large, and solid, and that wasn’t normally there.
It took me a moment to realise why I was distracted, until I spotted what had happened to Fort Hill shelter. Gone were the square windows, the creaking seats, the thinning paint, the broken armrests. It had been replaced with a white box.
The whole shelter had been clad in boards and painted white, and then barricaded behind a metal fence. That fence bore the same contractor logo as the one around the Newgate Gap shelter.
As I had the council planning portal open, I checked for Fort Hill. Nothing. Maybe a press release? Nope, no public comment at all. What was going on?
I decided that the best way for me to find out was to write about it, and in the course of doing so I could play the local writer card and contact Thanet District Council for comment. So I did, and this is it.
Firstly, I asked the council why, when a planning application to remove the roof of Newgate Gap Shelter was withdrawn in 2018, they have now removed the roof and seats with no planning permission to do so, after it had been offered to community groups.
“Recent repair work at the Newgate Gap Shelter in Margate has been carried out in the interests of public safety. On 13 June, our Building Control team deemed it a dangerous structure and served a Section 78 Building Act notice to remove the danger immediately.
“The site was originally fenced off but the repeated trespass at the site placed an unacceptable risk to the public which we had a duty to mitigate against. This is compounded by its close proximity to the Viking Adventure Playground. Contractors were therefore appointed to remove the timber roof covering to make the site area safe. This work does not require planning consent and was an emergency measure to remove any danger to the public. All the timber has been taken away and stored safely. It will not be disposed of until it has been tested for contamination. Important aspects of the shelter such as the pillars and floor tiles will not be removed.
“Following the removal of the timber roof covering, the contractors have raised concerns over the steel roof structure stability. Our technical services team are therefore assessing the site and ensuring that additional emergency repair work is undertaken to make the structure safe in line with the Section 78 notice. This will include getting the contractors to support the steels, testing to check for further loose materials and adding netting to the underside to stop any materials falling and to deter people from climbing on the structure. Once this is done and the structure is deemed safe, heras fencing will be removed.”
“The Shelter has already been approved by Cabinet for Community Asset Transfer and the closing date for expressions of interest is 9 October 2019. Please email email@example.com with your submissions. The structure will also be subject to an independent evaluation commissioned by Thanet District Council to assess any further steps required ahead of an asset transfer process.”
Secondly, I asked Thanet District Council why Fort Crescent shelter has been boarded up and fenced off, again without planning permission, and if there are any future plans for it.
“Fort Hill Shelter has been temporarily boarded up in the interests of public safety. On 22 August 2019, the council’s Building Control team deemed it a dangerous structure and served a Section 78 Building Act notice to immediately make it safe. The danger has now been removed in accordance with these requirements and the Shelter is now deemed safe.
“The organisers of Margate Now are due to display artwork on the hoardings in celebration of the Turner Prize coming to Margate. One of the festival’s key aims is to use disused and empty spaces with the hope of bringing new attention and life to these areas.
“Following the Turner Prize exhibition, an independent assessment will take place to inform future options and ensure due process is followed.”
I find their reasoning understandable, yet somehow it doesn’t all add up for me.
Blaming the shelters on being dangers to the public due to their disrepair, when it is Thanet District Council’s responsibility to keep them in a state of repair, means it is therefore the council’s fault they now pose a risk. The shelters haven’t been actively sabotaged, but passive neglect of council assets means they are now unsafe and that is Thanet District Council’s fault.
Culpability aside, risks to the health and safety of the public need to be minimised, and hazards removed. The Fort Hill shelter could well be repaired post-Turner Prize, which would be to the benefit of Margate.
The Newgate Gap shelter, however, is unlikely to survive unless an organisation formalises and takes it over.
Under the Localism Act 2011, ‘Relevant Groups’ have a “community right to challenge” the council and take over assets, but they need to meet the relevant body criteria. Local groups have expressed interest, but unless they formalise—and have financial systems in place—I feel it is unlikely they will win against Thanet District Council’s legal team.
As for trespassing, the council have made it clear that those who ignored the fence and stepped under the roof of the shelter are directly responsible for the council’s need to step in and remove it. Whether that was the right decision, or whether Thanet District Council should have repaired the shelter instead, are different questions and should not be conflated with individuals putting themselves at risk on council-owned property.
The Newgate Gap shelter is a structure close to my heart, and to see it torn down was very disappointing. A boarded-up Fort Hill shelter just made things worse.
It was a pleasant surprise, then, to see that three shelters in Birchington have been rebuilt over the past three years by the Birchington Shelters & Amenities Group, who are now starting work on their fourth. The community group have set a wonderful precedent on how to successfully campaign—and win—and have followed through by lovingly restoring the shelters along the Birchington coastline.
It is easy to go online and complain about this sort of thing to your usual groups or circles, but—and I mean this with absolute sincerity—Thanet District Council don’t check the local Facebook groups before they make decisions.
It seems—to me, at least—that the most effective way of getting what is best for an area done is to actually follow the official channels. Whilst there will always be those who throw money and lawyers at problems until they get their own way, there will also be the people who stand up and make a difference.
Examples like the Birchington Shelters & Amenities Group are where we should look for guidance and advice, and motivation to not just say how we feel but do something about it.
The only thing to do when organisations do things we disagree with, or engage in what to some could be perceived as questionable actions, is to follow the rules to the letter. There are no cutting corners when it comes to stopping others cutting corners.