Following the announcement of a “visionary” Place Plan in October 2020, Folkestone & Hythe District Council have just revealed that We Made That LLP have been awarded the contract to oversee the project. Describing themselves as “an energetic architecture and urbanism practice with a strong public conscience”, We Made That impressed the Council with their enthusiasm and “very strong track record of community engagement”, according to Cllr. David Wimble, Cabinet Member for the District Economy. It certainly seems a positive start to a plan that must involve the public and ensure a positive future for the town centre. The contract was awarded on 25 November 2020 and runs for 6 months from 7 December 2020 at a cost of £81,490.50. Hopefully, despite a month of the contract having elapsed, the community engagement will be possible without the need to extend it.
You will recall we recently reported on a hidden regeneration plan from turnerbates, which illustrated a giant block on top of ‘Folca’ (better known as the former Debenhams building… or Bobby’s to those of a certain age). Disappointingly, it seemed to exclude Guildhall Street from the masterplan map. It is, therefore, most encouraging that the Council chose to use an image of Guildhall Street for their news article. In fact, the use of that image is indeed interesting – it was taken over a year ago, though you may be forgiven for thinking the presence of only a few shoppers indicated it was taken during lockdown. It comes from a journal post on We Made That’s website, dated 1 January 2020, that states:
“We Made That have been appointed by Folkestone and Hythe District Council to develop a strategy for Guildhall Street, an important high street in Folkestone’s Town Centre. With one of the highest vacant rates in the Town Centre, Guildhall Street represents many of the challenges facing the UK’s high streets.”
As an aside, there have been previous “visionary regeneration plans” for Folkestone Town Centre. In Oct 1964 Town Planners conceived ideas to regenerate Sandgate Road, Guildhall Street, Rendezvous Street, Castle Hill Avenue and the High Street.
This plan never materialised. The Council promised more of the same in 1986 and nothing happened. Then in 2019 the Council using Watermelon Research quizzed the people for the towns “vibrant future”. And of course there was the Turnerbates visionary regeneration plan back in 2019 as well.
Moving on, how could it be that We Made That claim they were appointed by Folkestone & Hythe District Council in January 2020, a year before the Council announced they won a tender and 10 months before the contract was awarded? You will recall that turnerbates also managed to draw up plans months before they were awarded a contract. What is turnerbates’ involvement in the Place Plan, now that London-based architects Fletcher Priest have been announced as involved (though with tender awarded officially)? Will the fruits of their £30,000 contract be used still? And will the £24,800 market research data from the Watermelon Research contract be used now We Made That are going to be doing further consultation?
Considering the involvement of several of these companies was not made public for some time, you would be forgiven for being cynical about what else the Council haven’t told you about the town centre Place Plan. You may recall that Bouverie Place owner Ellandi (owned offshore in Luxembourg) were involved with the previous masterplan, despite having quietly put the shopping centre up for sale, raising concerns that they may be more interested in a plan that facilitates a quick sale than the future of Folkestone. It would seem that another investor is keen to shape the high street without considering what the townsfolk want. Curious notices have recently gone up on the Poundstretcher building, advertising a company called dThree.
The building was previously Woolworth’s from 1926 until 2008, when it became a branch of 99p Stores, eventually taken over by Poundland and later becoming Poundstretcher after Poundland deemed two stores in Folkestone unnecessary. It has a long history as one of the town centre’s most popular shops, due to 95 years under brands that offer everyday items at affordable prices. So who are dThree and what is their intention with the building? They are a London-based interior design company specialising in office space, who offer a one-stop design and build solution exclusively to clients of commercial property consultants DeVono Cresa. As for intention of the building, it’s rumoured the building will become a second job centre, due to unemployment doubling, caused by the Covid pandemic.
Poundstretcher revealed a CVA proposal in June 2020, approved by creditors the following month, to restructure the company in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, including reduced rent for 84 of their stores and another 94 continuing to pay full rent, with the other 253 being reviewed after 6 weeks. Despite this, they announced plans to open a further 50 stores in October 2020. We understand from a former employee that the Folkestone branch was not forced to close by management, but that the landlord wanted the store back despite a 10-year lease signed on 22 June 2017. The landlord is London and Folkestone Ltd, a company owned by investor Douglas Malcolm Terry and registered at the West Hampstead address of Parkheath estate agents. Why would Mr. Terry want to end the lease early?
Well, building control application 20/6714/BC to “fit out” the ground floor “to form offices, workstations and associated facilities”, filed on 26 November 2020, certainly seems to support the suggestion that it will become offices. Unfortunately, the application does not state who the applicant is, nor does it give any details about the application other than that it is “decided”. Are we to assume that means it was approved? It is concerning that there is no planning application around this alteration. Whilst internal alterations don’t need planning permission, a change of use from A1 shops to B1(a) offices would have required planning permission… until 1 September 2020, that is, when they changed to E(a) display or retail sale of goods and E(g)(i) offices. As both are in the E use class, planning permission is not required – though an applicant may still apply for a lawful development certificate to prove the change is allowed. Could it be that the applicant didn’t want to attract public attention by submitting a planning application? They certainly didn’t want to offer the premises to let for retail use again, so it would appear they wanted this alteration to slip through unnoticed.
Will this be yet another flexible office space for hire, like the nearby offices above Burger King? The leasehold for that building is owned by East Kent Spatial Development Company, an investment company, of which Folkestone & Hythe District Council is a member. It has been suggested they may want to convert part of ‘Folca’ (previously Debenhams & Bobby’s) to offices, too. Is their strategy for our town centre to move away from retail? Whether it is to be multiple occupation or a single company, there is once again no parking provision for the building, so employees will be reliant on nearby car parks such as the NCP one at Middleburg Square. It is quite possible that the neighbouring Bouverie House, formerly the offices of Saga, might also be put to similar use and there is already the 840 square metre Folkestone Business Hub on the first floor of Aspen House (above the former Argos premises), though it is somewhat ominous that their website doesn’t even work.
Are offices the future of Folkestone Town Centre? Should the former Woolworth’s building have been offered as a retail store again, or would it have sat empty for years like Mark One? Would it be better used as an indoor market-style property with lots of affordable stalls for small business start-ups?
Watch out for the We Made That consultation and let them know your thoughts. For if you don’t this will be another visionary plan which will come to nothing, yet cost ratepayer a pretty sum.
The Shepway Vox Team
Journalism for the People NOT the Powerful