It is unlikely many readers will have missed the publicity announcing that the Leas Lift booking office has once again opened its doors, albeit as a café. The Folkestone Leas Lift Company CIC are to be commended for this fundraising decision, which is not only essential to ensure restoration of the lift, but has been tastefully approached with period décor that is very much in keeping with the Victorian building. It is a breath of fresh air in an era of modernist architects intent on making their futuristic designs clash with heritage buildings, rather than complement them. We wish Jamie Evans and Emily Fahey the best of luck in their venture, and hope it is well-frequented by both locals and visitors.
Of course, it is vital that the lift is preserved as it is Grade II* Listed. A consequence of being Listed is that work should not be carried out that would alter the character or appearance of the building. Its features of interest are: “the waiting rooms and corridor retain their original joinery including dado panelling with fielded panels, doors with moulded architraves and fielded panels and wooden railings to regulate access to the cars.” No planning application has been made, so we assume the plumbing, rewiring and joinery work that has been completed, including the fitting of an extractor hood, has been carefully planned with a sensitive approach to period features. However, the lift probably has a sui generis use class, whereas a café required A3 consent until recently, replaced by E(b) consent as of 1 September 2020. There is also the question of whether the CIC have a lease from the Folkestone Estate, as the Title Deed as of 18 September 2020 shows none. In which case, how can they sublet the building to another business? As eight Councillors pledged financial support to cover materials including the Leader Cllr. David Monk and Folkestone Mayor Michelle Keutenius, we hope this has already been addressed and hasn’t been undertaken without proper consent. This effectively happened when Folkestone Harbour Company applied to convert the signal box into a café in February last year. The Council finally issued a decision this year – nearly fifteen months after the application was submitted and ten days before the anniversary of the business opening in the building! This highlights shortcomings in our Planning Department and the Council’s disregard for the town’s heritage.
Many people are confused that the lift restoration hasn’t begun and still needs fundraising, believing that Sir Roger De Haan is providing a large donation. As part of the S106 agreement signed in September 2018 for the Seafront Development, Folkestone Harbour Nominee (1) Limited, Folkestone Harbour Nominee (2) Limited and Folkestone Harbour Holdings Limited agree to contribute £750,000 to the Leas Lift. Sir Roger is the major shareholder of all three companies so yes, he has made that promise. However, the document goes on to promise:
“11. Not to Occupy any Dwelling within Phase 1 of the Section 73 Development without first paying to the Council the first installment of the Leas Lift Contribution in the sum of £500,000 (five hundred thousand pounds)
12. Not to Occupy any Dwelling within Phase 5 of the Section 73 Development without first submitting to the Council the Leas Lift Business Case or any other information detailing the financial viability of the Leas Lift.
13. Prior to Occupation of the 50th Dwelling within Phase 5 of the Section 73 Development, to pay to the Council the second installment of the Leas Lift Contribution in the sum of £250,000 (two hundred and fifty thousand pounds).”
By Charlotte-Crofton – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.0 uk,
Consequently, Sir Roger doesn’t have to pay the first installment of £500,000 until he has someone ready to occupy the first apartment – and probably won’t. The lift will likely rot if funds aren’t found before then. And further funding from the Seafront Development will be years down the line.
So why are the CIC agreeable to these terms when they have no guaranteed pay day? The CIC was incorporated on 11 January 2018, the day after Savills submitted amendments to the Seafront Development S73 application Y17/1099/SH. One of the first CIC directors was Kay Whitehead, who was also Project Officer at Strand House (Sir Roger’s office), who resigned from the CIC just before the S106 was signed. Others included: Emma Lidiard, a director of Shepway Sports Trust Limited with Trevor – Ming the Merciless – Minter ; Catherine Mary Beare, who has since also become a director of Creative Folkestone; and Triennial artist Jonathan Wright. They were joined in November by: Martin Sandall, Managing Director of Jenner; Daniel Hulme, registered at Strand House and who sat on the board of The Shepway Sports Trust with Eve De Haan and Trevor Minter; and Peter Oetzmann, founder of the Leas Lift Beer Festival and a Triennial artist. Jenner Construction Director Nicholas Barnes joined them in August 2019. Go Folkestone reported in their November 2017 magazine just after the S73 Seafront application was validated that a group were planning to form a CIC and “met recently… with Trevor – Ming the Merciless – Minter in attendance”. We are sure that all links between directors and Sir Roger are purely coincidental and would have no bearing on any decisions made by the CIC, as they would have declared any Conflicts of Interest per Section 19 of their Articles of Association (page 50). If the Community Interest Company would like to make the minutes of all meetings publicly available, we would be happy to scrutinise.
However, the café isn’t the first fundraising scheme unveiled this year. In a report published on 19 March 2020, Folkestone & Hythe District Council detailed the applications recommended for approval under the Folkestone and Hythe High Street Fund. The first applicant on the list was “Leas Lift CIC” (we assume this is an error on the Council’s part) to “Deliver an Escape Room” and awarded a £45,000 grant as “57% towards capital costs”, so it cannot fund the restoration of the lift – unless, of course, the plan was to use the existing building. We assume, therefore, that the CIC have costed out the setup costs at £79,000, which seems quite expensive considering rent is an operating, not capital, expense. This leaves around £34,000 for the CIC to find, so you might be asking – where is this money coming from? It is currently unclear.
Do we really need another escape room when we already have two? Escape60 in Town Walk closed at the beginning of the year for a refit, planning to open in mid-March, presumably scuppered by Coronavirus. Nothing has been announced since, although their website appears to have been hacked by spammers. Locked In, based in the Shakespeare Centre, is temporarily closed due to the pandemic. It would seem an unwise time to venture into this line of business, especially with an already saturated market – although you could say the same about cafes in Folkestone!
Consequently, it is surprising to see that The Folkestone Leas Lift (Leas Lift Lockout) CIC was incorporated on 28 July 2020, registered at 133 Sandgate Road, the former Follies address. Is this to be the location of the escape room? The directors are Daniel Hulme, Edwin Wealand and Joanna Streeter, a project manager from Faversham and the only person who is not a director of the main CIC. Is this a foolish move in turbulent times? Or does it pre-emptively predict a positive future for Folkestone’s entertainment offering? The objects of the Company are:
To operate the Folkestone Leas Lift (Leas Lift Lockout) Escape Room on behalf of the community as a non-profit making organisation.
To promote and provide a visitor information hub for the Folkestone Leas Lift funicular heritage railway.
To raise essential funds to preserve and conserve one of the few remaining, operational water driven funicular lifts in the country and, thereby, provide an opportunity for those that have an interest in historical or water-driven machinery to see one in operation and enable members of the community to have easy access between the seafront attractions and town centre.
To provide a visitor attraction that will contribute to the economic regeneration of the town.
To provide educational facilities and experiences for schools and community groups.
Considering the main CIC’s objects include researching the history and heritage of the lift (despite former operators having an excellent knowledge of its past), providing educational facilities, and indeed preserving and conserving it, the lines seem somewhat blurred. Why do we need two CICs? Who are the Council going to give the High Street Fund grant to, considering Leas Lift CIC doesn’t exist; and neither did The Folkestone Leas Lift (Leas Lift Lockout) CIC when they approved the grant? If it has already been paid to The Folkestone Leas Lift Company CIC, it could prove difficult to transfer the funds to the other CIC due to the asset lock. And why is there a lack of transparency from a Community Interest Company? At a presentation in 2018, James Walker-Osborn promised to release the CIC’s business plan to the public, but these remain to be seen. Caution must be exercised if either CIC plans to use fundraising money to start a commercial venture, even where the profits all go back into the lift, as it is still taking a huge risk in a time when many business owners are concerned about the future.
As for the S106 money, you can understand apprehension about the terms, considering Sir Roger’s F51 skate park has been in the works for five years now and was originally due for completion in late Summer 2017. Perhaps the 51 will represent how many months it took to complete? It is a shame that the Council agreed that the fountain acted as a gateway to the Seafront Development, thus fulfilling the objective of “reconnecting the town centre to the Seafront” as required by the Core Strategy Draft, despite it being considered not needed for the development …at least for tax purposes. Had they agreed with the popular consensus that a fountain and a viaduct walkway between it and the harbour station don’t reconnect the town centre as it is clearly outside the town centre boundary as defined by Folkestone & Hythe District Council for the Folkestone & Hythe High Street Fund, perhaps Sir Roger would have taken an interest in the lift sooner, as its reinstatement clearly would reconnect the town centre to the seafront, as that was its intended purpose. In fact, the Folkestone Herald reported in 2013 that the approved plans included “improvements of footpaths between The Leas and the site and the Road of Remembrance and site.” Whatever happened to that plan, Sir Roger?
Should the CIC start an escape room? Does Folkestone need another? Where’s the rest of the money coming from? How many years will it be until the S106 payment is triggered? Answers on a postcard…
Hat Tip: MH, DC, TB and JB
The Shepway Vox Team
The Velvet Voices of Dissent