Updated @ 09:57am
When Folkestone & Hythe District Council announced a fast-tracked consultation on the regeneration of Folkestone Town Centre following the announcement that Debenhams would close in April 2019, it unveiled controversial plans suggesting the store would become a cinema.
Nearly 1,500 people signed a petition against a multiplex. Many feared a decision had already been made as only Section 8 of what was clearly a much larger document had been made public and the Council had been ‘working for some time’ with Ellandi, who own Bouverie Place (via an offshore company based in Luxembourg), on the plans. Indeed, Ellandi intended to sell the shopping centre (for £25m in June 2019), which they announced a month later, so the cynics amongst us might suppose their interest in regeneration might be to fuel a sale rather than a vested concern for the long-term future of the town.
In October 2019, the Council announced a survey to be held in the precinct for 24 days. Two members of Watermelon Research Ltd. staff wandered the precinct as they weren’t given a stand to attract attention, so people found them difficult to locate. Fortunately, the survey was put online in November, despite ‘a large number of people voicing their opinions already (we make it 720 as each researcher clocked off after meeting there quota of a mere 15 people each day – not even enough for a game of Family Fortunes). Some were critical of the somewhat leading questions, although there was opportunity to write your own words.
The announcement in March 2020 that the Council were purchasing Debenhams and did so in May 2020 for £2m made no mention of the cinema, instead touting proposals for ‘a health centre, leisure facilities, flexible work space and residential properties.’ East Kent Spatial Development Company have purchased the unused dental practice next door to convert into flexible office space, so more in Debenhams seems unnecessary. In July, the Council launched a competition to rename the building, then picked the name they liked best, perhaps afraid it would be Shoppy McShopface. The name chosen? Folca, sounding more like a chain coffee shop than a community hub, based on an unsubstantiated theory on the origin of the town’s name, thus simultaneously proving democracy is dead in Folkestone and they will literally rewrite the history books.
So it is curious that architect turnerbates released designs on the 20th May 2019, showing Debenhams as a cinema with a C-shaped tower block on its roof, dwarfing Bouverie Place and linking to it via a bridge, adding two storeys to the older corner section, including a rooftop café.
‘These regeneration plans will show how the town centre can continue to thrive and accommodate changes in shopping behaviour. In particular, we will demonstrate how new uses can make Folkestone an even more attractive and vibrant place to shop, visit, work and live.’ – Ellandi founder and Managing Director, Mark Robinson
What is also strange is turnerbates were contracted for the Masterplan for Folkestone Town Centre Regeneration plan in Sept 2019, some four months after they had already drawn up the plans. The contract had a value of £30,000. However, according to the council’s payment to suppliers data, turner bates were paid in June and July and Oct 2020, meaning they were paid for work where no contract had been awarded as such by passing normal procurement procedure.
There were no “urgent decisions” taken by the Chief Exec, Dr Priest or any other heads of department, which make the payments even stranger.
If these plans were confidential, why did turnerbates publishing them online in May 2019? If not, why haven’t the public seen them before?
Last month, FHDC announced the Place Plan, stating they are ‘commissioning experts to engage with businesses, residents and visitors to inform the plan.’ Apparently they released a tender in October, which is curious, as it doesn’t appear on the Government Contracts Finder or the Kent Business Portal. FHDC explained on their Facebook page that it ‘was a tender to invited parties only rather than an open call so it hasn’t gone on the Kent Business Portal.’ This is odd, as their contracting page states:
“When a contract opportunity is published, the Invitation to Quote (ITQ) or Invitation to Tender (ITT) process will be managed via the Kent Business Portal.”
Would FHDC pay an architect for secret plans before consulting the public then put two plain-clothes researchers in town without a stall if they really wanted our opinion?
The Shepway Vox Team
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