My Account of The Meeting on 24/4/09
A Report on the Meeting of Community Alert on Pubs held on 24/4/09 at the Electric Palace Cinema in Bridport
Here are the key points from my personal perspective:
The meeting was held to air views on the closure of village pubs and The Three Cups, owned by Palmers Brewery, and a Hall & Woodhouse pub. John Grantham of Community Alert on Pubs chaired the meeting and opened proceedings, outlining the situation with pub closures generally. The panel was introduced:
Nigel Jones of Humberts – Palmers Property Agent
David Evans – Planning and Environment Director of West Dorset District Council
Robert Gould – Leader of West Dorset District Council
Sue Farrant – Liberal Democrat, Parliamentary Candidate
No members of Palmers board of directors accepted an invitation to attend. The chairman said this was deeply to be regretted. Nigel Jones said that he was authorised to speak on their behalf. The Chairman, John Grantham, said that while saluting Mr Jones’ time and courage in attending the event, we could not presume that he would be able to talk of what the Palmers Board would think at various stages, as points of new information would arise that he felt certain would be likely to affect such individuals’ positions on key issues.
The question of village pubs was dealt with by considering the case of the derelict Old Swan in Toller Procorum.
Nigel Jones spoke first, stating that Palmers own pubs to sell beer and should be allowed to close outlets if not viable. Regarding destination pubs, he claimed Palmers are experts and know which pubs would persuade people "to get in their car and go and have a drink". He referred to car parks, views, and outstanding buildings as key factors for such premises but made no reference to cultural heritage or the potential of tourists from outside their area.
Robert Gould said some good things about helping businesses and the importance of tourism, building safety and new and innovative solutions. He was challenged over late action on safety measures.
Sue Farrant talked about the benefits of community pubs and presented ideas aimed at slowing down their rate of closure. She said that local communities must be involved in the closure of pubs, especially the last one in a village and that restrictive covenants should be outlawed. She introduced the idea that Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs) should be used by local authorities in such cases.
Michael Turner QC on behalf of CAP explained the law surrounding Compulsory Purchase. Compulsory Purchase can be used for the promotion or improvement of the economic, social or environmental well being of an area. Only one condition is necessary; The Old Swan meets all three. It was emphasised that the use of a CPO need not be expensive for a council because a building could be bought (at retail value) and sold in a day, possibly at a profit.
Val Connolly spoke eloquently and passionately about the sad demise of The Old Swan. This did not sound like the inevitable decline of a business into an unviable state but sabotage by the owners as the interior was stripped on closure, preventing others making a go of the business. The statue of a swan, which gave character to the building and the village was also removed from the exterior and has since been lost. The villagers’ action committee has applied to WDDC for a CPO to run the pub as a free house but have RECEIVED NO RESPONSE.
In the questions which followed Val's presentation, Nigel Jones said that Palmers were the experts on whether The Old Swan was viable or not. According to him, there was nothing special about the building; it is like any other residential property. The villagers could open their own pub in another building. These comments suggested to me that Palmers are interested in property development as well as selling beer.
Enquiries were made about a supposed secret meeting between Palmers, WDDC and one or two individuals from Toller Porcorum. This was denied by Robert Gould. The villagers seemed unconvinced.
Sue Farrant claimed that Palmers had told her that Compulsory Purchase had been ruled out. Robert Gould denied this. Another question asked specifically if the council had ruled out Compulsory Purchase. We were given a lot of flannel about financial considerations and if it was easy, it would have been tried elsewhere.
John Grantham moved on to his presentation about The Three Cups which included the 90 second video clip from the BBC Spotlight programme of 26/3/09. John went through the sad decline of the hotel into its current state of dilapidation which has been covered previously on this blog. He stressed the slow response of the council to risks of falling debris. I would have expected the council to have moved immediately, forcing the owners to make the building safe at whatever cost. If the grass filled gutter on the front of the building fell down and killed passers-by, there would have been some questions to answer about why Palmers were not made to effect appropriate repairs. (Between WDDC and Palmers it took 11 days to get effective safety railing installed on the pavement. It took 22 days between notification to Palmers of the problem and the guttering being cleared by Palmers.)
David Parker, Chairman of the Lyme Regis Hotels and Restaurants Association spoke about the negative impact of the empty Three Cups building on the tourist trade in Lyme Regis. He had a personal interest in the problem of falling debris as he lives next door and is very concerned about the risk to himself and his property.
The risks of break-ins, vandalism and fire were emphasised with statements from the fire and police authorities.
Marcus Dixon of the Lyme Regis Development Trust spoke of the effect of loss of business caused by the vacant Three Cups and the effect on the prospects and well being of the young people in the town. He has found real potential for bringing visitors to Lyme Regis in its position on the Jurassic Coast as a world heritage site. He has various national organisations wanting to bring study groups to the town and a representative from UNESCO will be speaking at his next fossil festival. Marcus would like to open The Three Cups as a Jurassic Coast Study Centre but can't move. (I have been wondering since what the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization will think when they see such a cultural treasure as The Three Cups lying empty and decaying.)
I went on the platform to explain how and why I started this blog. I ended by saying that the re-opened Three Cups should be more than another hotel, it should be the most famous tourist attraction in Lyme Regis, like the Tower in Blackpool, the Castle in Edinburgh or Raffles Hotel in Singapore, attracting visitors from around the world.
Claire Edge who is related to Maria Garrod, proprietor of The Three Cups when Tolkien first stayed was in the meeting. Her father spoke of his amazement that this cultural asset should be left unused.
Moving on quickly because of time constraints, John Grantham mentioned the White Hart at Beaminster as another Palmer's eyesore. He had also spoken to the owners of a different White Hart, the one at the bottom of the High Street in Dorchester, whose owners, the Hall and Woodhouse brewery, had been very approachable and helpful (and - in obtaining permission to demolish this pub - had nevertheless made provision for the moving of the White Hart statue to a planned central position in the new gardens, and for an Interpretation Board to be created which would include information on mentions of the pub in various Thomas Hardy novels.)
There was another time for questions from the floor. The professionals were asked if they were proud of the state of the buildings. In answering this Nigel Jones told us something of Palmers intentions for The Three Cups. He started by saying that it was closed because it was not viable. In view of his earlier comments, this could have meant not viable as an outlet for Palmer’s beer. However, he said something interesting about how Palmer’s wanted to do something really exciting during the property boom of the 90s. Did he mean open more bars to sell beer? Is it more likely this meant that Palmers want to make a killing on a property development which would not serve the interests of local people. I’m glad Marcus Dixon picked up on this in a question or I would have definitely said something.
Whatever that really exciting project was, Palmers were prepared to appoint one of the best consulting engineers in the UK (no expense spared) to resolve any geological problems with the building. Then it seemed that the works which the council planned in the garden of the hotel, beyond the car park forced Palmers to leave the building empty much longer. We have seen from events in Toller Porcorum that it is sometimes in Palmers’ interest to leave buildings of architectural and cultural interest to rot. As a civil engineer, I do not believe that the geological problems of the site are insuperable.
Sue Farrant gave a message to Nigel Jones for the directors of Palmers that they should be showing more social responsibility. This struck a chord with those attending the meeting and was enthusiastically applauded.
Someone added from the floor that the councillors should remember they were elected to serve those who had elected them. This was also well received by those in the audience.
Michael Turner QC spoke again to try and make sense of the council’s apparent refusal to use the powers of compulsory purchase. He reminded Robert Gould that he has no power to tell Palmers that compulsory purchase will not be used. Gould tried to tell us again that the use of a CPO would not be financially viable without explaining why he did not agree Turner’s argument that a profit could be made. He preferred discussion and dialogue. The good people of West Dorset attending the meeting obviously thought otherwise judging by their very vocal response to his repetition.
John Grantham closed the meeting by asking for votes from those in the audience on whether they wanted the council to use compulsory purchase orders to save The Old Swan at Toller Porcorum and The Three Cups. Out of an estimated 150 people present none voted against. Two abstained on the first vote, including myself as I have never been to the village. One abstained on the second vote (not me!). All others voted for compulsory purchase.
Val Connolly quoted Barak Obama with reference to the use of CPOs, saying that the council’s attitude should be “Yes, we can”. I would add that the question no longer seems to be “If” but “When” CPOs should be used to rescue the architectural heritage of West Dorset from Palmers’ clutches. So, I would like to quote another president of the USA, Dwight D. Eisenhower (who was also a guest at The Three Cups). I believe that as Eisenhower made the agonising decision on the eve of D-Day about when to launch the invasion of Europe, he said "Let's do it". If the action to save The Three Cups is left much longer, it will be too late. LET'S DO IT. The Second World War was fought to preserve our freedom and democracy. It would be good for the councillors of West Dorset to listen to the local electorate at this time.