Sunday, January 30, 2011

Down the Pan

A change from tumbling local political careers for a moment! While I was away in London this week, I noticed there was a public meeting on the future of Margate’s caves that I couldn’t attend. I did ‘Twitter’ for the handful of people who might see it, that on a personal note, I would be delighted to see the caves brought back into use as a visitor attraction. However, the enormous costs of doing so, repairs, access and compliance, given the surveyors and HSE reports make this highly unlikely with a figure of around £150,000 needed just to ‘make safe’ I’m told. That’s a figure on top of the several millions that other historic sites and buildings need for running repairs around the entire island.

So for now at least, it appears the caves will remain closed until a time comes in the future perhaps, when Thanet’s economy can support the funds required to bring them back into use.

On Friday, I visited the public toilets in West Bay. Not because I had been caught short but because of the report of another mindless example of vandalism which,  to all intents and purposes, has put them out of action for the immediate future. You may recall, it was only recently that a significant sum of council money had been spent on improvements and repairs since the last attack.

So what are we to do? Firstly, in this time of austerity, where does the money needed to repair these and similar public conveniences across Thanet come from? Secondly, do we really have to run public loos from 9 to 5 and at night, turn them into hardened military bunkers which are impervious to teenage vandals? Finally, with at least two remaining public toilets in Westgate having reportedly appeared on an internet directory for more sinister or should I say salacious reasons, what kind of society are we now living in or am I oppressing someone by raising the subject?

It’s hard if not impossible to ‘defend’ Thanet’s public conveniences once night falls, given that many of them sit well out on the seafront and are vulnerable to passing kids armed with a grudge and a lump hammer. The council, I know, wants to keep as many open for public use as often as possible but the repairs bill is enormous, sucking in money which should be better spent elsewhere. Other than appealing for people to report anything suspicious they might hear or see to the police – normally late night dog walkers – I do wonder what people would reasonably expect of the council when money is short or in our own case, we need to find £1.8 million of savings in the coming year.

Finally, one of my fellow councillors told me a story from last week, when he was walking in Cliftonville and saw the characteristic ‘Hoodie’ with a magnificent ‘Staffie’ in harness. The dog did what dogs do best on the pavement and the councillor was very surprised to see the young man reach in his pocket for a suitable bag and collect the mess. “One can’t paint all these young dog owners with the same brush’ thought the councillor, at last the message on dog-fouling must be getting through. He was immediately disappointed when the ‘Hoodie’ in question then chucked the bag and its contents into the nearest front garden and carried on as if nothing had happened!

I suppose we can be thankful at least that the owner used a bag. If evolution takes its course then one day in the far future, he’ll be ready to take the next step in properly disposing of the mess!


Michael Child said...

Simon correct me if I am wrong but I can’t think of any council funded historic sites that actually remain open.

Peter Checksfield said...

I was thinking the same thing Michael; perhaps someone can list them all?

DrM. said...


Perhaps the proper answer is that Thanet is a net recipient of Government grants and that there is no possible way for the cost of maintaining all of our historic buildings in the way we might wish to be met through local taxation alone.

Some people still appear to believe there's some magic source of money out there, capable of paying all the public sector bills. I can assure you there isn't and the last Labour government buried that myth along with the Leprechauns I. Ireland

Andrew said...

Am I not right in saying that public loos are a prerequisite for a Blue Flag or best Beach in the World Award or whatever its called these days.
It can't be beyond the wit of Man to devise a cost effective Neanderthal-proof public convenience. Especially when you consider the age demographic of your Ward Simon

DrM. said...

They are Andrew but seaside towns across the country are having to judge whether they can afford their Blue Flags in 2011.

I would ask if local people are really that happy with replacing a period public-style convenience with a vandal-proof bunker. There may be no option

Andrew said...

I think you're right - bunkers may have to be what we settle for. We have little else going for us and the Blue Flags are a good selling point. I think local people (apart from the Ramsgate Society types who will always want something Gothic or similar) would just settle for loos that work!

Anonymous said...

Or maybe special no return chambers for the vandals. One can but dream but once the plod lost control of the streets, vandalism, graffiti and dog fouling was inevitable. It would take tough policing, tough courts and tough corrective establishments to sort things out now and that simply is unacceptable in todays world of rights and, to make matters worse, unaffordable as well.

Michael Child said...

Peter I will do the main council owned and previously council funded major historic buildings I know of in Ramsgate as I am familiar with them.

Granville Theatre, demolished by the council.

Albion House, empty with safety nets on it to stop bits falling off.

Royal Victoria Pavilion, council failed to implement maintenance clauses in lease, derelict.

Clock House, years of delay by the council granting a viable lease to the charitable trust who wants to reopen the museum, closed.

Eagle Café, just tendered by council having been closed for years.

Westcliff Hall, derelict and beyond economic repair.

I can’t name any major council owned historic buildings that are in good repair and have public access, apart from the ground floor of The Sailors Church.

There are various small ones and ones leased out.

I suppose the joker in all of this is the tunnel system, which is potentially the greatest tourist attraction.

Simon the present administration has had eight years to get on top of this situation, you should perhaps think in terms of six fat cows ant two thin ones.

I think the fundamental problem is the council sees these assets as liabilities and has managed them as liabilities.

Say the first part of the tunnel system were turned into some sort of historical attraction and the viable assets, churches, synagogue, museum, tug linked into some sort of volunteer based, council supported and integrated set-up that could produce a viable all weather family day out.

DrM. said...

As always it comes back to the question of money and who pays? indeed many buildings are real liabilities in apart of the country where unemployment and deprivation remain high.

The council makes every effort to keep buildings in use where I can through partnering with the private sector wherever possible but the arrangement has to be a sensible one and only too often the business propositions are not sensible, financially or practically speaking!

Andrew said...

So we have the politics of despair. We can't do anything about anything because we haven't got any money so we'll carry on doing nothing - so no change there then.
Simon. To quote me from elsewhere; either let's do something about it or let's just stop pretending that we give a damn. This Island is falling to pieces around us and all we ever hear is that we have no money. But we did have and even then we chose to do nothing about things. Westcliff Hall didn't become derelict last night, or even last year.
I think we all look for some imaginative thinking. It's easy to just cut spending; you just keep telling people that we have no money and the majority just shrug their shoulders because that's all we ever hear; in 40-odd years as a voter, not always in an area as deprived as this, I can't remember a time when that hasn't been the stock excuse. If you guys can't think outside the box then maybe it's time to move aside and let others have a go. And no, I don't mean a Labour council (before you leap on this and ignore everything else here.)
I don't disagree that we have to severely trim our cloth after too many years of Labour financial suicide (as is ALWAYS the case after a Labour administration) but I've lived here for 22 years and do you know what - I'm tired of the ruddy excuses. Drop the politics. Drop the posturing. Drop the partisan approach. Join forces with the best people on this Island and get the job done.

Michael Child said...

Simon I suppose the problem with that is that specific cases don’t come over that way, it may be because the council are so secretive so one only hears the side of the story of those people who try to do something about individual properties.

An example of what I mean here is their shop in York Street, a tiny shop that used to be the offices of the Town Partnership before their funding was withdrawn, the council has this on the market £7,000 pa although what anyone could possibly do on the site that would cover a £150 a week rent defies my imagination.

My understanding is that the Ramsgate Society wanted to take it over at a nominal rent and were refused.

Frankly the proportion of empty shops in Ramsgate is becoming a serious issue and any temporary solution like this would have helped.

DrM. said...


Your problem is that with the best intentions you frequently present a one-sided opinion that lacks vital information. The council isn't secretive but it is bound by commercial confidence while working in the public interest.

Andrew, I'm being straight with you. I'll say again, there's no money to spend on anything but priorities at present. If third parties can come along and offer to use these assets in a sensible and sustainable manner, which serves the public interest and the duty of care the council is under, then fine. Otherwise, we are open to conversations.

There are a great many old and historic buildings that need repairs in Thanet (about £11 million is needed I think) and that's true of most districts around Britain. The sad truth is that government is not in any position to maintain funding at a time of financial crisis. Front line services come first.

It's not a question of vision but one of pragmatism at a difficult time. Alternatively, if you want to spend a million or so making repairs, then I would dearly love to know which part of the budget it comes from when we already have to find £1.8 million to simply keep the wheels running!

Andrew said...

I fully understand the predicament that we find ourselves in. I was born straight after the War. I've lived through the 50s and austerity. I've lived through the seamans, dockers, miners etc strikes in the 60s, the three-day week, the Winter of Discontent and I've lost count of the number of recessions I've weathered. And every time the answer at local level is to cut back on services. Now you're not a stupid chap - at what point does the council become merely a supplier of dustmen and road sweepers? How far away from that day are we? What do you define as front line services and how many of them are there because other local authorities have palmed off their problems on to us?
The £1.8 million that has to be saved. Has this been derived by taking the present budget and saying that it's 1.8 million too much - the subtractive approach. Or have you taken every service and costed it properly? Started all over again if you like. I suspect that it's the former rather than the latter approach.

DrM. said...

Andrew, in reality, that's what a council actually does, providing or facilitating around 600 services I'm told although I've never counted them! For example the distribution of benefits of all kinds, road sweeping, bin collection, local taxation etc.

Every service has been painfully reviewed and costed over the last six months in order to re-structure and achieve the target savings. It's a huge and complex job in order to protect what people recognise as the priorities and balance those others that the council has historically provided but is under no statutory obligation to continue doing so.

Over the last fifteen years local government ballooned in size as central Government borrowed and shifted the unemployed into the public sector and introduced new laws and regulations and miles of red tape. The HSE being a fine example. Now we can't afford it it and the country if £150 billion in public debt as we all know.

Thanet feels the pinch harder because unlike, say Henley, we have a relatively modest proportion of the population making a significant contribution to the local economy and that is felt in rates, council tax etc... which allows the council to budget for services.

Fiona S said...

Re the caves, do you know where the figure of £250,000 came from? This is the first time I've heard it. I had heard it was £100,000.

Andrew said...

Morning. So what we could end up with is a country that is no longer in debt because the Government have shifted everything on to local authorities!
I fully understand the devious ways used by the last Administration to make things look better than they really were - EMA to take 16-18s off the unemployed statistics, changing the definition of unemployed (although the previous lot were pretty good at this one as well), decentralising what are essentially central Government functions and thus passing thye burden on to local taxpayers.
I also agree that Thanet is badly placed to deal with this localism.
With your radical thinking hat on, can you see any way out of the mess? I'm sure that you note that endless cutting of services in a world where inflation bites away at the money available eventually means that there are no services.

Michael Child said...

Simon sorry I can’t let that one go, the trouble is that the council is secretive and does deliberately pump out misinformation, the last example that comes to mind is the press release about the tall ships not coming to Ramsgate this year. And the one I come against year after year is the Pleasurama site here in Ramsgate.

With the tall ships I am familiar with getting one of these in and out of the harbour, this one to be precise so it is something it is difficult for me to be mistaken about, rather like driving the car to Margate I know what’s involved.

The council sold the dredger, the harbour is now silted up and so the tall ships can’t come, the press release was just potty and about a piece of work effecting them that just wouldn’t have made any difference.

Just like saying Sturry roadworks prevents traffic going between Ramsgate and Margate.

Like the press release about the Royal Victoria Pavillion that they put out a few weeks ago implying that they had achieved getting it into a state where it could be used for something. I frankly didn’t believe this so I put on my hard hat and armed with a clipboard I wanderd in under the pretence of being some sort of inspector, here are the pictures I took

Look at Pleasurama, the development is about four times the size of the Turner Contemporary, for the last eight years work starts work stops, the effect on the town is devastating, the site is council owned. I don’t want the lease and financial agreements between the council and the developer, nor do I want the council’s confidential cabinet papers about this, what I do want like many other people in Ramsgate is to know what is actually going on with the site. This isn’t idle curiosity but trying to find out about the main leisure site in the town where I am trying to trade.

Anonymous said...

Do I sense a corner being backed into.

DrM. said...

Michael has his own agenda I'm afraid which I don't always agree with and if he wishes to dress up as inspector Clouseau and investigate public buildings, then it's not for me to challenge this rather unusual hobby!

Fiona, £100,000 or even £200,000 "There is no money!!!!"

Michael Child said...

Simon this isn’t my normal method of visiting public buildings, I mean for instance, the only other Royal Pavillion I know of is the one in Brighton, £25 for a family ticket, I believe they get about 100,000 visitors a year, paying about £10 each. I haven’t tried the hard hat approach there.

Trouble is that I don’t know another method for visiting the public buildings in Ramsgate and without me taking the occasional look we would only have the council’s word that they are ok inside.

I quote the council’s press release published two months ago.

“Repair work has been completed on one of Ramsgate’s most familiar seafront buildings.

Work has been carried out over the last four months to the Royal Victoria Pavilion on Harbour Parade by the Rank Organisation. It follows lengthy discussions with the council, which owns the building. It is Rank’s responsibility, as the tenants, to ensure that the building is kept in good repair”

Now you said, about me, “Your problem is that with the best intentions you frequently present a one-sided opinion that lacks vital information.”

Well you saw the pictures that I took after the “repair work” and you have read what the council has to say, one of is lacking vital information, either that or I have a rather bizarre version of photoshop.

Fiona S said...

Simon, I know that TDC have no money! I just wanted to know where the figures of £100k or £250k came from? Decisions can only be made on the basis of fact. As a fellow scientist I know you will agree.

I have seen the 2005 structural report so I know about the delapidations. As well as being as scientist I am also a renovator, and I'm intrigued to know who came up with the quoted figures and how. I'm struggling to make sense of it at the moment.

Ken Gregory said...

Am I being stupid or what? Simon said, and so did a former Labour Minister, There is NO Money, So should we borrow more than we can afford? to pay the daily bills? In my mind a few years of austerity is better than making our grand kids pay?

DrM. said...

I've seen the report and recall the figures lie somewhere between £100 and £200k depending on the renovations. The actual figure is probably an item of public record bu in the circumstances is pretty immaterial as the funds simply don't exist to support the level of expenditure required even at the lowest level required to bring the caves back I to use

Peter Checksfield said...

No, it's not immaterial Simon... As you've reported, there is a pressure group who are trying to save the caves, & who knows, this may even attract private funding. So, an accurate figure would be handy.

DrM. said...

My apologies Fiona, my large finger just brushed "delete" rather than "Publish" for your latest comment on my iPad. However, to answer your question again, the accuracy of the figure on my weblog, whether in error or not, remains broadly irrelevant. It's the existence of a supporting repairs budget that counts and this simply doesn't exist for what is required.

I draw your attention to the officer's report below and decline to draw this rather long winded conversation on costs out any further:

In terms of the work necessary to enable the caves to reopen, I have carried out a number of investigations. Whilst it is not possible to give an exact figure for the cost of the works without entering the caves, based upon work undertaken in 2004/05, it is estimated that works to enable the caves to reopen would be in the region of £100,000. In the interim, following our meeting, the necessary remedial works have been carried out to make the caves safe externally and to permanently seal the cave access and remove the buildings adjacent to the cave entrance. This work has proved to be urgently necessary because of the significant levels of anti-social behaviour taking place and evidence that people have been illegally entering the cave, potentially endangering their lives. This work has cost approximately £15,000.

DrM. said...

Peter .any private group would have to raise in the region of £100,000 pounds or more. The council has had proper reports on the state of the caves and even had the levels of poisonous carbon dioxide measured to determine the degree of risk at the lower levels.

So if any private group has plans to re-open the caves and can independently raise the funds to make them safe and an attractive tourist proposition, my door is always open!

Fiona S said...

Fortunately I kept a copy of my last response - here it is.

Simon, my issue is nothing to do with affordability, it's about facts. Why is it OK to start talking about 250k out of absolutaly nowhere? There is a major difference between that amount of money, and something affordable to the private sector or a charity application.

I can't understand why anyone would inflate the last-known figure by 250% for no apparent reason, except to try to prove that the project was unviable. It may be viable, it may not be. I don't know. That decision can only be made on the basis of facts. Are you a spin-Dr or a scientist? You can't be both, Dr. I'm a Dr too but I don't go on about it, and I'm just a straight scientist.

Peter Checksfield said...

I'm sure the inflated figure has absolutely nothing to do with anyone wanting the land to build on.

DrM. said...

I'm sure you would want to buy building land on top of a massive underground cave structure.

I wouldn't but then I prefer solid foundations. I'm funny about that!

Peter Checksfield said...

It hasn't stopped people building on similar "foundations" in Thanet in the past (re the collapsed buildings in Broadstairs a year or two back!).

DrM. said...

I can't recall 'Broadstairs caves" Peter! Possibly before my time!

Peter Checksfield said...

Not caves, but a landfill site! Hardly the "solid foundations" that you believe people insist on, & probably far more unstable than any caves (& anyway I'm sure that a fair bit of Ramsgate is built over caves or tunnels).

Anonymous said...

To the last bit about the dog mess,if it's in a plastic bag it is not biodegradable,so is even worse!I am terrified of these yoofs and their aggresive dogs(and I don't suppose the councillor asked him to pick the bag up heh?

DrM. said...

In all fairness the councillor rather foolishly did and had his physical safety threatened as a consequence!

DrM. said...

As a businessman, I have a personal impression of the cost of bringing the caves back into public use, as expressed on my own weblog. This takes into account not only the council’s £100,000 figure for making the caves safe but the on-going maintenance and repair costs involved in making them a viable tourist attraction, so in my unqualified opinion this figure would be closer to £150,000 - £200,000 over several years and you would have to balance this against its viability as a commercial attraction.

Let’s remind ourselves that the caves closed in 2004 following a visit from the Health and Safety Executive, who served a prohibition notice requiring essential work to be carried out. (HSE visited following a complaint that the site was not DDA compliant). Disability access is now a legal requirement that cannot be avoided and has caused problems for untold numbers of legacy sites across the country.

Unfortunately the owners of the site were not in a position to meet the costs to carry out this work - TDC did negotiate with the owner to try and reach a resolution but a viable proposal was not put forward.

The work that is currently being undertaken at the Margate Caves site is essential to address a number of serious safety concerns. Whilst of course it would be desirable to re-open the caves to carry out the full range of work required to allow public access, this would cost the council in the’ region’ of at least £100,000, which in the current climate is simply not a viable option. Until Thanet’s economy can support the funds required to carry out this essential work, the council is simply not in a position to re-open the Caves at this time”.

Finally, there is absolutely no intention to dispose of the caves. The planning application for nearby houses does mean that the existing entrance would be re-sited, however there is an alternative entrance (Forster entrance) which could be used if the caves were to re-open as a tourist attraction. If future funding can be found to carry out the necessary internal improvements then the site could be re-opened as a tourist attraction and I would both welcome and encourage this. Also in the short term should anyone approach me with a viable proposal for the area then I would be happy to speak with them.

Anonymous said...

Your own weblog? Who does this one belong to then?

Anonymous said...

As an Access Consultant, I can assure you that there is no such thing as making a venue "DDA compliant". Did anyone carry out a proper Access Audit on the caves? The intention of the DDA is to increase access in a reasonable way - not to close places down. Access for disabled people can be provided in a variety of ways. It is not a reason to close the caves down. This reason is given by people who unfortunately do not understand the DDA (now the Equality Act).

DrM. said...


The caves were closed by an HSE prohibition order circa 2003 and not by the council. Disability access is a factor that needs to be properly reviewed before any third-party chooses to re-open the caves should they find an appropriate source of funding. perhaps you would like to volunteer your services in such an eventuality?

Anonymous said...

Of course. I would be delighted to do an Access Audit of the caves - which is what is needed. I am based in Canterbury so can pop down any time.

DrM. said...

You need to contact the Margate Caves group then!

"Friends of Margate Caves"

Good luck