Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Ramsgate's Right Royal Rumpus

Rumour has it the that Thanet’s Labour Cabinet is likely to be handing the keys of the Ramsgate Royal Pavilion over to JD Weatherspoon’s at a meeting on 3 April. This could lead to the creation of one of the country’s largest mega pubs on Ramsgate seafront, adding to Wetherspoons  inventory of more than 900 pubs.

Although I love pubs and drinking good beer and although I desperately want to see the Pavilion restored to something approaching its former glory, I have my doubts about transforming the Pavilion into a hostelry of gargantuan proportions and worry about its economic impact on the other pubs in town.
Despite all the talk of recovery, the pub industry is still struggling. According to research by real ale campaign group Camara, pubs are closing at the rate of 28 per week. Opening a  behemoth of a boozer selling  cheap beer and food (not that I have a problem with cheap beer and food), is very likely to be last straw for many of  Ramsgate’s  struggling pubs,  some  of which will be forced to  close due to competition from Weatherspoon’s.  The jobs destroyed will very likely outnumber those created by the new seafront super-pub.

But it doesn’t end there. Our local pubs play an important role in keeping Thanet’s  economy moving.  They use their profits to buy supplies from local companies, to hire local entertainers  and   local tradespeople for repairs and refurbishments. Weatherspoons, on the other hand, source their food,  beers and maintenance work  from large companies  outside of Thanet. So opening a massive  Weatherspoon’s on Ramsgate seafront will actually reduce the amount of money circulating in the local economy which could have serious knock-on effects for local business.
I also think the most attractive aspect of Ramsgate’s  pub scene is the sheer variety of places to go. There’s a huge diversity of establishments  offering a broad range of  food,  entertainment and different beers.  Speaking to some visitors in the Belgian Bar the other week, I was told how they had enjoyed  exploring  some of our backstreet bars and how they  added something unique to Ramsgate. A single dominant drinking destination may well squeeze out the diversity of choice we enjoy at the moment and might sanitise our lively and unique nightlife making Ramsgate less attractive to visitors. So for me a mega-pub simply doesn’t work!
 My preferred choice is for the  Pavilion to be used as a location  for shops, restaurants, cafes, SMALL bars, entertainment and  exhibitions. A bustling public building which can be used by everyone.  We could even re-locate Ramsgate Town Council to the Pavilion saving some of the £50,000pa it currently pays in rent for its offices at the Custom House.

A multi-functional building such as this would fit comfortably with alternative plans for the Pleasurama site which, hopefully, the Council will have taken back from failed developers, SFP Ventures, by next year. It would also link into  the opening of the Ramsgate Tunnels, the redevelopment of the former Motor Museum and proposed investment in improving the Royal Harbour.  A revitalised multi-purpose Pavilion would, in my opinion, be a cornerstone in the long-overdue seafront regeneration of Ramsgate.  Not wanting to sound like snob, cos I’m not,  but a  mega pub is too demeaning a role for a grand old lady like the Pavilion to play. This is after all a building of such importance that it has been placed on the Victorian Society’s list of Top-Ten Endangered Buildings in 2013. Surely she deserves more respect than being a mere boozer?

Unfortunately the stumbling block to a bright and sustainable future  for the Pavilion is the small question of the £3million required to restore the building! Excuse me but here’s where my blood begins to f***ing boil! In my opinion the current leaseholder, the Rank Organisation, has vandalised the Pavilion almost to the point of committing a major heritage crime! Over the years they have hacked the guts out of the building leaving a bombsite behind them which will cost more than £3million to put right.
To their shame, Thanet Council,  its senior officers and politicians have colluded with Rank’s  destruction of  one of our  major iconic and historic buildings. In its usual incompetent style TDC totally failed to take prompt and decisive action against Rank as it destroyed the Pavilion bit by bit and broke every rule in its lease.  At a meeting last year,  Mark Seed the director responsible for the Pavilion told me that because the Council had,  over  several  years, consistently failed to apply the repair conditions of the lease  a court would not look kindly on Thanet suddenly getting tough with Rank. This may or may not be true. I personally believe its worth trying to bring these vandals to book and force them to put right the damage they have caused to Ramsgate’s.

However, I am reliably informed that rather than making amends Rank is desperately   trying to get out its lease and its repair responsibilities. Instead of fessing up to its destruction of the Pavilion and paying the price, it is  allegedly putting unfair pressure on Thanet  Council to accept Weatherspoons as the next tenant of the Pavilion. In exchange for lease of more 100 years, Weatherspoons will then reportedly  fund some of the restoration costs of the Pavilion. If the deal is not done then I have been advised by my sources that Rank will hand the keys leaving the Council holding a £3million baby! TDCs response has been to oversee a lease assignation process which has allegedly been  the polar opposite to the “open and transparent” process which had been promised by the Labour  Cabinet last year. I understand that those dealing with the lease may have been forced  to re-run the process over again because it was allegedly flawed and unfair and could have been challenged. Even now there are complaints that the lease assignation process is tainted by improper dodginess. This is hardly surprising when its borne in mind that last year  the Cabinet member with responsibility for the Pavilion, Councillor Rick Everitt, authorised the release of press statement which was seen by many as a personal attack on a member of the public who had the temerity to question probity of the disposal process.
So what’s the answer? Well in in my opinion rather than hand the Pavilion over to Weatherspoons for the next 100 years,  the Council (or a charitable trust) should take the Pavilion back off Rank and try force  a contribution towards the cost of the repairs. In the meantime, applications should be made to the Heritage Lottery Fund and other charitable organisations and sponsors to restore and rehabilitate the Pavilion to its former glory. The Council could then lease spaces within the building to local businesses  to run cafes, restaurants, bars and shops and entertainments.  This would produce a sustainable building which will be a driving force in the regeneration of Ramsgate.

This is not a new idea, look at the restoration of Hastings Pier, the De la Warre Pavilion in Bexhill, the Beany in Canterbury and of course the restoration of   Dreamland in Margate. If restoration of assets to their original use is good enough for Canterbury, Hastings, Bexhill and Margate why must Ramsgate be forced yet again for second best by having  its most iconic seafront building turned into a boozer rather than a beacon of civic pride?


  1. TDC Strikes again!!!! I'm sure most locals would like the idea of a mixture of small businesses.

  2. Well said Ian.

  3. Ian I assumed that in this instance Weatherspoon’s required a new and much longer lease and this would be subject to the asset disposal process and the associated public consultation.

    My own take on this one is that Margate has several council funded or part council funded public leisure venues, Turner Contemporary, Theatre Royal, Winter Gardens and Dreamland and that the council should take this lease back from Rank, secure grant funding and open the building as a public leisure venue

  4. Well said and well written article Ian. I think your solution could be the best outcome - The Council taking the responsibility from Rank and applying for grants such as BIG (lottery fund), Reaching Communities Fund or Coastal Communities Fund for example to support the restoration and then leasing the space to local businesses which would be a far more attractive offer to prospective businesses who will not want the risk and cost of restoring and maintaining this fine old listed building. My mum was recently at The De La Warr Pavillion in Bexhill and said that it is doing fantastically well compared to it's recent past and we could look to iconic buildings such as this for inspiration and a confidence boost in how successful this venture could be if only we were a little bit braver (TDC!). If TDC are serious about helping the LOCAL economy and improving Gross Value Added, then they need to appreciate that the basic facts are if you spend a pound at a local business, 72 pence will be circulated back into the local economy compared to around 5 pence when spent at a large corporation. Come on TDC, you know you want to! Forget the £7 million on 'improving' the port and invest in the Pav - while you're at it, you can spend the change on ensuring the Pleasurama site is safely back in our hands and then we can start rebuilding our tourist area into a 21st Century destination!

  5. So (just like with Tesco), the consumers shouldn't be allowed to choose where to spend their money? You have a strange idea of "democracy"!

  6. Lets be realistic. Obtaining funding from various sources just does not happen overnight having had first hand experience of the process. Yes it might be ideal to lease the pavillion out to various local businesses but how many takers would there be and if so how long would they be able to survive in the current economic climate. It has to be accepted that for the building to be restored to its former glory it needs a company with the financial mussle like Wetherspoons to do this. Wetherspoons has a big following and could turn the building into a fantastic venue. This would then encourage people from outside the area to visit the town. Many people combine a visit to a Wetherspoons with a look around the immediate area at the same time. I am positive turning the pavillion into a Wetherspoons would benefit the town particularly due to their popularity.