Thanet council leader Chris Wells on Pleasurama, Manston, homelessness, UKIP and more

Thanet council leader Chris Wells

A plan to help combat the isle’s homelessness crisis through the use of modular homes has been revealed during a Q&A with Thanet council leader Chris Wells.

The Isle of Thanet News was invited to put questions to the Thanet UKIP boss as the administration enters a time of decisions on issues including the Local Plan and the council budget for the coming financial year.

The father-of-12 took the reins of TDC following the 2015 election, but it hasn’t been a smooth ride. Defections to the Conservatives or to Independent status have cost UKIP its majority and the party was wiped out at the last county council polls.

With the Local Plan vote looming, and whispers that it may be voted down despite a proposal for a last minute amendment, the administration is facing hard questions.

We asked about some of the issues that matter to you.

Pleasurama

The Pleasurama site Photo Barry James

When is the long stop date for the Royal Sands development? Do you think the proposal to build a hotel, flats etc is one that will be undertaken by the current landowner? When will the money made from the sale of the freehold be used and what will it be spent on? What contact does TDC have with the landowners? When the longstop date is reached, if there has not been substantial work, will TDC try and buy the site back?

“The long stop date is a period monitored from when the final elements are completed. This is from the legal completion, when KCC made a decision about the roundabout so it will be in 2020.

We have been told (the owner) is looking at building it out. We will proactively monitor the works that are likely to occur and have an officer to watch what is happening there. We do not own the site so are not in control of the timescale.

The stopping rights mean that when that point comes the council will need to make a decision about what it wants to use.

I would like the money spent improving areas of Ramsgate. It may need to be used for Ramsgate harbour, we will make it clear if that happens.”

Litter/flytipping

This is an issue that appears to be blighting the isle. Cliftonville West has a new task force to deal with this but what about the rest of the isle? Why has there been an issue with emptying bins/ public bins/clearing streets and alleyways over the past few months?

“This is a top priority and we do our best to clear streets and areas as far as we are able. We have spent out on new waste vehicles, four new mechanical road sweepers and detritus is down from 24% to 17%.

Flytipping is a national issue. The council does not drop the litter but tries to pick it up when other people do. There are community education programmes, such as bag it and bin it, and there is also the context of the budget. In 2012, we had a budget of £21.5 million with £11 million in government grants. In 2019/20 it will be £16.5 million and all that will have to be raised locally. The more we put into picking up litter the less we have to spend on other things that people want done.

We are spending more now on those services than when we arrived despite the budget shrinking. We can remind people politely, or impolitely through court orders, that it is their responsibility to pick up their rubbish.

In Cliftonville West we can clear an alley and it will be back in the same state the same day. There is a genuine question (with the task team) about whether putting resources in is rewarding the wrong behaviour.

If teams pick up in all the alleyways we would be spending the council budget on just that service. People living off and around alleyways should treat them as their back gardens and clear them.

In the general street cleansing budget we spend around £2.2 million revenue on cleaning our public areas per annum. It is also worth noting that for last year 15/16 and this year 17/18 we have also had to invest £1.3 million on new mechanical sweepers and cleansing vehicles.

Public Conveniences cleaning   438,000.00
Street Litter bins   20,000.00
Street Foreshore & Parks Litter bins   10,000.00
Beaches/Proms cleaning    242,000.00
General Street Cleansing    1,518,000.00

Manston

By James Stewart from England (commons.wikimedia)

Airfield or local field – which one is your choice?

There has been a very public social media spat with Dale Crawford who claims you were given details of finances from the investors he represents. Were you? Who are the investors? Why, if this is true, was that information not acted on?

Campaigners say UKIP got in on a Manston ticket, what more could have been done to encourage and work with credible investors?

Council documents say a DCO will override the Local Plan so do you have a plan b for those 2,500 houses if this happens?

The question everyone wants the answer to – what was in the bag given to you by Ray Mallon at your meeting in Broadstairs? What was the context of the meeting?

“My personal preference has always been for an airport solution if a viable one can be found.

I would make the case for housing elsewhere if we had viable investors with a viable plan, but we have not got that. How long do we wait for that and what other green fields do we build on? That is the choice councillors face.

With Dale Crawford I got a bank statement waved under my nose with a comment that all that money had gone to Africa. The name on the account was different to the company names discussed with us. There were redacted investors, we do not know who the investors are. We were told there would be a UK company set up with £50million capital on May 26 and we are still waiting for that.

UKIP voted to revisit RiverOak, now RSP, as a indemnity partner. Riveroak failed to provide basic financial information and failed the public interest test. Having inherited £14.2 million debt I was not interested in acquiring more debt. We went out to soft marketing and no-one came through

As I understand it when the DCO is presented to PINS they then have 28 days to decide whether to accept it. If they do there is then a period of one year to grant it. If the DCO is accepted then we will have to work on an alternative (for housing at the Manston airport site). We will put out another call for sites.

Ray Mallon contacted me to brief me that SHP had updated what they wanted to do and were adding the heritage aviation to the proposal. I brought the bag with me from Canterbury.”

Motorhouse

Photo PMH

Why has the West Cliff Hall  been put on the asset list for disposal on the open market, what happened to the deal with Project MotorHouse? The building is structurally unsafe, what will be done about that?

Thanet District Council is seeking expressions of interest for this property. Adverts will appear in the media, including Estates Gazette, the leading magazine for the commercial property market and across our social media channels. Preference is given for a commercial use that brings social, economic and/or environmental benefit to Ramsgate.  Any development would need to accommodate support for the promenade and be subject to planning permission, noting the property is of historical significance and within a conservation area. Closing date for expressions of interest is 31 March 2018.

MotorHouse entered an agreement with TDC in 2013 but were incapable of implementation as it was based around expectations of raising funds and they were asked to raise funds for things they probably shouldn’t have been. That agreement came to an end. We have a legal responsibility to look for the best value so it has been put out on the market to test that.

Every time we do this there are cries about selling off the family silver but if you are trying to provide homes for people you have to raise money somewhere.

A lot of assets have not been that well cared for over 20-30 years so it makes sense to move off the potential costs of putting them right and using that money for something more useful, such as modular homes for the homeless.

Talking of assets –has the Ramsgate Maritime Museum and clock tower been earmarked for asset disposal?

“I am not aware that the maritime museum has been put on the asset disposal list. The Steam Museum Trust was given a generous contract on the rent and lease by the previous administration in return for repairs that were to be done in 2017 and The Ramsgate Society are ready to take on that lease. These things do not seem to have happened. It can’t go on forever with the SMT not doing those repairs and it cannot go on being a blot on the landscape. We may have to step in and do the repairs as the landowner but the SMY has a full repairing lease and should be doing it.”

Local plan

If this is voted down how damaging will that be for your administration? We know the next steps if the plan is voted through but what happens next if it isn’t?

Cllr Wells requested the answers be deferred until after the Local Plan meeting on Thursday

Parking

Parking fees are due to rise again in April. Council documents acknowledge that higher charges could result in less use. Do you think that makes the measures counterproductive?

“The point of parking costs being off-putting does not seem to have happened, there was one-half % difference in parking usage in 2017 to 2016.

Firstly, we are going to have to move our entire budget on locally raised money (2020) rather than government grants.

Secondly, the bigger picture on last year’s charges is that £1million was taken from our £18million budget in December 2016 because of changes to the New Homes Bonus.

We will continue to extend schemes for cheaper residents’ permits.”

Committee system vs cabinet

During the election you told voters you would revert to a committee system. Why hasn’t this happened?

Going right back to when we started we had 34 councillors and 32 of them were new. The committee system and getting decisions through is very difficult and needs to be done by people who know what they are doing. I said I would look at bringing the committee system back in a couple of years but right now there are more urgent things that need dealing with.

Homelessness

TDC is paying out enormous emergency accommodation costs and some families are being moved as far away as the Medway towns. What is being done to deal with this? New capital investment of £1.63m is proposed in the 2018-19 budget aimed at addressing some of the homelessness pressures being faced within the district. In what way will the money be used? What other plans are there to alleviate the problem?

“We are legally required to house people and if there is not the accommodation here then, it isn’t our first, second or even third choice, but we have to house people wherever there is the space. This does not help families whose children are at school here, we really are aware of this. But it goes back to finances, we are not like Sevenoaks that can press a button and get £3-£4million, we have to work to find the money and if new have to sell more assets to dela with this then we will do that.

We are looking at a £900,000 homelessness budget pressure, this pressure is faced all over the country. There is the affordable rent sector and the local area rent allowance under the benefit system. The gap between the local amount allowed to be claimed in benefits and the actual costs of rents is bigger than many can afford from benefits that are meant for living on rather than paying rent.

The £1.63million will be used for new self-contained, modular homes which will be used for emergency accommodation.”

What are modular homes?

Modular homes are manufactured  in factories, reducing overall build time by up to 50% compared with conventional building. Unlike traditional building sites, weather delays don’t have to be factored in, and modular houses can be installed where site access is difficult, and with minimum disruption.

The houses are assembled not by traditionally skilled tradesmen but by manufacturing and engineering trained factory operatives.

As the modular houses are manufactured on a flow line there is no risk of late delivery. Modular Houses can be manufactured at a rate of twenty per week with no more than a four-week construction time.

Modular homes have all 5 main elements required to achieve a BRE Green Guide Rating of B or above and are designed to achieve a Code for Sustainable Housing Level 3 or above. The dwellings also meet the requirements of Life Time Homes.

The homes are being used as a solution by other authorities in the country. Reading built 28 ‘prefab’ homes at a cost of £71,400 each. Bromley and Greenwich councils have also revealed plans to use the prefabs to deal with homelessness.

Dreamland CPO.

How much does TDC expect this will cost and why has it still not been resolved? Is there a timeline for it?

Cllr Wells was unable to comment.

Ramsgate Port

The Belgian mayor announced a ferry service from Ostend to Ramsgate starting this March, any truth in this? Any alternative plans for the port? Why do we need a lorry park there?

“We have invested money in making it a capable and usable port. As and when any contracts are signed, we will deliver that news.

If at some point we have to look and see what other possibilities there are, we will, but at the moment we believe it will be a used port in the not too distant future.

Every layby in Kent is cluttered with lorries and they need somewhere to go, giving us the possibility of using that space proactively.”

Whitefinger

How much has this cost the council? What measures are in place to make sure workers are no longer at risk?

“The council paid a £250,000 fine following the case brought by the HSE. The HSE, after the court case, were required to come back a year and we have done all the things we should. We have just had the HSE visit and they were very happy.”

Cllr Wells was unable to comment on the compensation costs.

Dane Valley fountain

There was money pledged for renovation of the fountain. What’s happened to it?

“The fountain was listed Grade II on 22nd February 1972. Back in 2004 the council approached the Heritage Lottery Fund regarding grant money to get the fountain restored and working. The Lottery expressed an interest, so quotes were obtained which were in the region of in the region of £45,000. The Lottery needed Thanet District Council to match fund their contribution. Match funding was identified but, at the end of the 04/05 financial year, the match funding was taken away again – so the Lottery bid was never made.”

The Old Lookout

Photo Dean Spinks

What prompted TDC to advertise The Old Lookout in Broadstairs for rent at a commercial rate following renovation work carried out and paid for by the community? Will discussions be held with the community members who have brought this building back from its dilapidated state with the aim of reaching an agreement on a lesser rent?

“As a local authority we are required to get best value in all things we own. We worked very closely with the harbour group and they did lots of fantastic work. We cannot just give it to them, we have to test it in the market place. It is up to them to put in a bid and make a case. We have a community transfer policy and the community group could register it as an asset of community value and then there is a 6 month moratorium to raise funds.”

Would you consider holding a public Q&A?

Public meetings are subject to hijack by community groups that do not want to listen. There are more effective ways, people can come and talk to me at any time.

UKIP

Nigel Farage with UKIP PPC Rev Stuart Piper in Sandwich Photo David Stillman

What do you think will define the UKIP administration? Why do you think you have lost members, and the UKIP majority at TDC? Does UKIP really have a post-Brexit future?

Bringing stability to the council after a period of chaos. It has not been as boring as I would have liked but we have financial stability and officer stability and at the LGA Thanet council is quite highly thought of as a best example of a turnaround administration. I hope people will remember it for that.

Members moving from UKIP has generally been due to unrealistic expectations of what can be achieved. They have gone to opposition where there is freedom to spread that expectation because they do not have to live with it and take the tough decisions.

There is a view that the achievement of Brexit was a high point for UKIP. I suspect that having the most high-profile leader, Nigel Farage, stepping aside adds to that feeling. Since then UKIP nationally has not been hugely successful and it is hard for troops on the ground to maintain faith when they feel that those above thm are not performing as they should be.

Finally

What is TDC doing to mitigate the impact of KCC and central government cuts ? What initiative to stimulate economic growth and or social cohesion are you most proud of? What do you think is the most important issue facing the area and what are you doing to tackle that issue?

TDC is doing all it can despite having less money to spend due to central government cuts and only having 14% of what you pay in council tax.

In terms of social cohesion I would go back to before I was TDC leader. As a KCC member for Margate and Cliftonville I spent 3 years working with community groups trying to bring together indigenous community with the incoming community, In 2005 I was working at sites in Cliftonville, running a series of events and those groups meant the kids did work together.

Economic growth would be the community lottery. I had seen it done elsewhere and seen the work put into fundraising for local community groups. We have just distributed our first £1,000 between groups that are signed up. It is a good way for small community groups who are struggling for funds to get a regular income,

There is a difference between most important and most urgent. Urgent is the homelessness issue which we talked about.

Important is having a sensible way to try and encourage young people to stay in the area. Young people tend to leave at 18 to find jobs and careers elsewhere and we have the danger of losing our best talent. We need to encourage businesses to come here, have specialised jobs, opportunities to work from home – the important issue is making sure our best young talent doesn’t have to go elsewhere for a career.

6 Comments

  1. The Council Leader answered the questions very well and obviously has his head screwed on tightly. It’s a shame there are so many members who don’t understand this and just want to hold Thanet back in a continuous cry for a one trick pony of a working airport when it should have been put to bed years ago. There is more to beautiful Thanet than Manston ! We need to prosper and we need to get on with it. The Manston saga is holding Thanet back from achieving this.

    • That is only the opinion of a ‘few’. Around 90%* of Thanet Resident’s would like to see Manston flying planes again.
      On a recent survey 91% said they wanted Manston to remain as an active Airport.
      only 9% did not!

  2. I’m sure that 90% of Thanet would “want” a forest of money-trees planted at Manston if they were offered this option. But we don’t always get what we want in life, and you have to have some regard to reality. In this case the reality of the situation is that RSP don’t own the site and have very little chance of securing control from the legal owners. The legal owners shut the airport down because it was losing money and had no prospect of breaking even. It wasn’t viable and, professional, independent studies commissioned since then have confirmed that there is no prospect of it being successful. Unfortunately, the pro-airport campaign is led by people whose grasp on reality is somewhat tenuous. A good example of this emerged this week when RSP unveiled their plans for night flights from Manston. They’ve done their best to keep these plans secret, with good reason, because they are actually applying for more night flights than Heathrow or Luton. Despite this all tumbling out in black and white, there are still people in the pro-airport campaign who are claiming that no night flights are planned. “”They are only planning for night flights to justify the DCO” and “They are only asking for more night flights than Heathrow in case they have a couple of mercy flights.” You couldn’t be sane and genuinely believe such garbage, but the pro-airport lot are so desperate that they will say and do almost anything to try to keep their failing bandwagon on the rails. Let’s just hope that there are enough sane councillors to do the sensible thing; pass the plan and break the cycle of stagnation which has strangled progress in Thanet since the airport closed.

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