‘No residential development’ at Winter Gardens pledge as interest from operators revealed and promise of public meeting given

Closed off Winter Gardens Photo Frank Leppard

Interest in taking on Margate’s Winter Gardens has been expressed by at least three parties with further enquiries still coming in, a Thanet council meeting was told last night (September 22).

The information was revealed by Director of Regeneration Louise Askew in response to questions from Labour councillor Rob Yates.

The officer also confirmed that £300,000 allocated from the £22.2million Margate Town Deal fund to pay for an appraisal study of the venue will be received by the council by the end of this month and work would start “immediately.”

The information was given as councillors discussed the next steps for the future of the Grade II listed building which hosted its last performance on August 7 before the lease was returned by then-operator Your Leisure to Thanet council and the doors were shut to the public in readiness for the report.

A pledge was also made that the site will not be considered for any residential use, with council leader Ash Ashbee stating: “The intention is to find a stable investor/operator, whatever we can do, to bring this building back into action. There is no intention, certainly under this administration, for it to ever be anything remotely considered as residential so I hope we can lay that ghost to rest.”

During a somewhat fractious exchange between deputy council leader Reece Pugh and Labour’s Rob Yates it was also confirmed there will be a public meeting “when there is information to share.”

Cllr Yates and fellow Labour shadow Cabinet members have been calling for the public meeting to update residents on plans for the Winter Gardens. A petition launched by Cllr Yates requesting the meeting has gained more than 3,000 signatures.

Their call was backed by Green Party member Tricia Austin last night who said even if there was little to tell, councillors could “listen” to concerns.

Cllr Pugh restated that he would be ‘happy’ to hold a public meeting when there was information to share but also that his “door is always open” to answer questions from residents and councillors.

Comments by Cllr Bob Bayford raised a gasp from the public gallery, where residents and members of groups including Margate Operatic Society were seated, when he said: “It is a great pity, there’s a lot of interest in the Winter Gardens at the moment…perhaps if the local population had as much interest in the Winter Gardens over the years as there is now…..”

He added that demonstrations outside some Thanet assets had more protestors than there had ever been audience numbers inside.

Next steps agreed

Cabinet members agreed to the next steps of commissioning experts to complete a costed structural survey; commissioning a complete set of drawings for the site; identifying all legal requirements and commissioning a team of consultants to review the night-time economy in Margate and the Winter Gardens role in that.

Louise Askew said a timeline for the project would be published on Thanet council’s website in the coming weeks and she expected the night-time economy report to be completed “by the end of this year or early next year.”

Cllr Pugh said he had been involved in making information videos at the venue and these would also be released by Thanet council.

Councillors Yates, Duckworth, Keen and Scobie called for a public meeting

Following the meeting Cllr Yates said: “Labour has been calling for a public meeting on the Winter Gardens since May 2022 and over 3,000 residents signed our petition demanding a public meeting in order to see what the plan is for the venue.

“Last night we found out more information about the future of the venue that could have, and should have, been made public months ago. We found out that a timeline will be published on the TDC website in the next few weeks detailing what is due to happen next and when this will be done.

“We found out the £300k for the feasibility study is expected to be paid to TDC by the government before the end of September and this has to be spent by April 2023. We found out that there are around three operators who are actively interested in the venue. And we got a commitment for a public meeting from the council, but only when the council is ready. “All this is new information that the council needs to be communicating with the public openly, rather than in Cabinet meetings at 7pm on a Thursday night to opposition Labour Councillors.

“I am happy that we have finally managed to squeeze some information out, but more remains to be done to give the public confidence that this is being properly handled. One example of this is that during the Cabinet meeting a question was asked about the rumour that seats have been removed from Theatre Royal and given away.

“The Administration denied this, but I learnt after the meeting, that it is actually the Winter Gardens seats that are looking to be removed. They failed to mention this.

“Labour councillors will continue to fight for our treasured local assets and we welcome tonight’s climb down by the Conservatives into finally agreeing to hold a public meeting.”

Cllr Ashbee said everyone shared the passion for the Winter Gardens and its future, adding: “This does need a long-term, sustainable future and the only way we will get that is by serious investment.” She added that matters were ‘being explored.’

The 2,000 capacity Margate Winter Gardens has been open and supporting the Thanet community for 111 years, with the last time it was closed during World War II.