The re-opening of Dreamland was TDC’s flagship project. It was heralded as a once in a generation game-changer for Margate and Thanet . Whilst I was a TDC councillor, Labour Leaders Clive Hart and Iris Johnston made speech after speech about how the re-opening of Dreamland was critical to the regeneration of the district and how it would promote major investment in the area, create hundreds of new jobs and attract thousands of extra visitors. But even then there were warning signs that all was not as it should be.
First, plans to allow the not-for profit Dreamland Charitable Trust to operate the amusement park were shelved in favour of bringing in a commercial operator instead. This change, it was argued, was necessary to comply with forthcoming EU competition regulations. It was also said that commercial operators would have much more business experience and commercial savvy than well intentioned amateurs from a charitable trust, and that this experience and savvy would almost certainly generate more profit and investment than a non-commercial operator like the Dreamland Trust could ever do.
But despite their confidence in the commercial sector, TDCs Initial efforts to find a business savvy operator were a complete disaster. My understanding is that after advertising the opportunity far and wide, including overseas, at great expense only 2 or 3 completed expressions of interests were submitted to TDC. The council therefore decided to have another go at advertising the business opportunity. This time, to make the proposition more attractive, the Council re-wrote its operating agreement making it much more lucrative for wannabe amusement park managers. The operating lease for the park was massively extended to what was rumoured to be close on a 100 years. Something almost unprecedented in local government leasing arrangements, apart perhaps from the Wetherspoons mega-pub deal for the Ramsgate Victoria Pavilion which is alleged to be close to the century figure. The annual rent for the park was also said to be extremely low; so low that I heard it described by other councillors as a peppercorn or give-away lease. Today we heard on BBC Radio Kent that TDC had also offered a seven year no-rent deal to Dreamland’s operators which could be extended indefinitely if sufficient profit was not being made.
I guess it might be fair to say therefore that such was the lack of interest from credible commercial operators in managing the Dreamland Amusement Park that TDC had, in an act of utter desperation, been forced to offer to unload the troublesome asset for up to 100 years rent free to anyone willing to take it off their hands! And so it was, because my sources tell me that the second time expressions of interest to operate the park were invited, on the much better lease terms, there was only one applicant – Sands Heritage. Which brings me to my next points - business planning and due diligence.
Surely the overwhelming lack of interest in applying to manage Dreamland should have rang alarm bells at TDC.? The piss-poor response, especially from experienced amusement park operators from the UK and abroad, could only have meant one thing. That these business savvy organisations recognised that, even allowing for the alleged 100 year rent free giveaway, TDC’s business plan for Dreamland totally failed to generate sufficient profit to take the risk of running it! But instead of going back to the drawing board and revising the business plan for the park, senior TDC managers and Labour’s political bosses ignored this extremely serious warning sign and pushed on with the project. Possibly motivated by pride, arrogance, fear of the political and career costs of failure, or the simple desire to cover their arses, this wasted opportunity meant that TDC had no choice but to jump into bed with Sands Heritage – an arrangement I am sure that both parties are now beginning to bitterly regret.
Shortly after the deal was done I recall attending a top-secret Councillors briefing meeting on Dreamland. At this meeting several Conservative councillors, and myself, expressed our concerns about the difficulty is securing a park operator and the decision to appoint Sands Heritage. Whilst Labour councillors remained silent and uncritically nodding like donkeys to everything Iris Johnston said, we asked what previous experience did Sands Heritage and it’s team have of running successful amusement parks? What checks were being made into the financial standing of Sands Heritage and its directors? Does Sands Heritage have access to sufficient capital to cover operating problems such as unexpected reductions in income? Will the park be ready to open on time (then said to be April) and will all the rides be operational?
Many of these questions received insultingly non-committal replies from some of the senior officers present at the meeting. All of the questions about TDCs due diligence checks of Sands Heritage went totally unanswered. The then Labour Council Leader Iris Johnston, backed up by senior officers, dismissively said that these questions would not be answered because they were commercially confidential. Surely any reasonable person would have expected that the questions of democratically elected Thanet Councillors about one of the most prestigious and high profile projects ever carried out by TDC, should have been fully and properly answered by officers or political leaders. They were not. Had they been answered, then it might well be that Dreamland would not be in the catastrophic mess it finds itself in today.
But the problems with Dreamland didn’t end there. At the secret councillors briefing meeting we were told that the legal agreement with Sands Heritage to operate the park, would be signed in a matter days. It was not. In fact it is my understanding the agreement was not signed until several months later. Indeed, Sands Heritage actually took possession of the Dreamland site, so I have been informed, without a signed legal agreement being in place – a very risky thing for the council to have done. I tried to find out, on several occasions, why the signing of the legal agreement had been delayed. Every time I asked I was stonewalled and politely told where to go. I now assume that this lengthy delay in signing the agreement was probably because Sands Heritage knew it had TDC by the bollox and wanted to screw every last concession it could out of the council before singing on the dotted line. Perhaps this is when the 7 year rent free period extendable indefinitely if profit wasn’t good was agreed. Mind you with no other takers for Dreamland in sight, with TDC and its Labour bosses dirtying their underwear in fear of fucking-up its flagship deal wouldn’t you have tried to shaft Thanet Council? – after all business is business.
Legal agreements aside, on selecting Sands Heritage as the Dreamland operator TDC then declared that the park would open in April 2015 with all the rides in place. As everyone knows the opening was delayed by 8 weeks until mid-June 2015 and even then work to the park was not complete and the scenic railway was not ready to operate until 25 October – 16 weeks later. It is now reported that TDC has been forced to pay the Dreamland operator, Sands Heritage, about £1million in compensation for failing to provide them with an amusement park fit for purpose and for the loss income that might have been made had the main attraction – the scenic railway – been working from the opening day.
It also transpires that some of the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant money spent restoring the scenic railway had been ring-fenced for spending on other rides and works at the park and that TDC has now got find another £1 million from it’s reserves to make good its incompetent misunderstanding of the HLF grant terms and conditions. And last but not least, I believe that compensation to the former owners of the Dreamland site, following its Compulsory Purchase by the council in 2013, has not yet been finally settled. The delays, cock-ups and almost-but-not-quite-liquidation of the Dreamland operator will, in my opinion, give the former owners of the park a strong argument in court that the original CPO and the plans upon which it was based have been demonstrated to have been unsound. Such an argument might be enough to convince a judge to award multi-£million compensation to the former owners. I also reckon that, although Sands Heritage has already been paid close on £1 million compensation by Thanet Council, they may yet have to pay the struggling operator even more as the consequences of TDCs incompetence becomes clearer. Who will pay – you and I of course.
So where does this leave us? Well Sands Heritage must reach an agreement to pay back £2.9million to its creditors over the next 5 years. Will they be able to do it? Personally I don’t think so? Why? The next 6 months will be an extremely quiet time for Dreamland and there will be precious little income coming in to pay the day to costs of the park, let alone the money they owe to their creditors. Also the size of the park, the number of rides and the underlying concept of a heritage amusement park are, I believe, insufficient to generate the visitor numbers required to make the park sustainable and allow it to clear its debt. This is probably why none the of big amusement park operators in the UK or abroad applied to become Dreamland operators. They spotted the massive risks and pitfalls and stayed well clear of this financially toxic white knuckle ride.
What does this teach us? Well this is the latest in a series of major cock-ups at Thanet Council which have cost tax payers £millions. We had the secret TransEuropa ferries fee deferral deal which cost taxpayers £3.4 million. We have the Live Animal Exports compensation payments which have so far cost taxpayers £3.5 million with more to come. We have ongoing and serious problems with the Ramsgate Pleasurama Project which will use up a major chunk of the sale price agreed with site developers Cardy’s and may lead to further delays in building work beginning – if it ever does. We have an ongoing multi-£million health and safety claim which is likely to end up in the courts. And now we have the distinct possibility of Dreamland, which has cost taxpayer at least £6million, becoming insolvent. Having served as a Thanet Councillor for 4 years and having seen how it operates – up close and more personal than I would I have liked - it is my opinion that the organisation is led by some incredibly incompetent senior officers. Thankfully many of them have gone but others remain. I also believe that the Labour Party’s leadership of the Council between 2011-15 has been utterly appalling. One way or another it was the council’s Labour Leadership which allowed the events I described above to have happened. They have direct responsibility for this terrible mess. And finally the secrecy, lies and bullying which are firmly entrenched in TDCs culture also allowed the serial criminality and incompetence to flourish. In my opinion Thanet Council should be shut down. It should be replaced by a new more democratic organisation with a higher calibre of managers and politicians. Its impossible to continue to make excuse after excuse to justify the existence of this shamefully inadequate excuse for a local authority.
Although this post has been a bit of a rant I would like to say that, amazing as it sounds, I have always been a supporter of the Dreamland project. My only criticism is that it has been managed incredibly badly. It could have been a much larger more inspirational project, perhaps linking in the with the restoration of the Cliftonville Lido and the building of a state of the art 21 century skate park to replace Little Oasis community skate park trashed on the orders Labour Party political bosses. A bigger more imaginative project led more capable people could have succeeded in attracting the investment, jobs and visitors that Hart and Johnston claimed they were bringing about. I also want to make it cleat that my criticisms of senior council mangers do not mean that all council managers and council staff are incompetent. The overwhelming majority of staff are highly capable dedicated and hard working and if we were ever to meet in the pub I am sure that we would quickly agree who the remaining incompetent wankers and shouty bullies are.
As to a way forward well Thanet Council its officers and politicians, of which thankfully I am now not one, need to begin working on a plan B for Dreamland should Sands Heritage go under. See my other posts about Dreamland on this blog here one of them there are several more http://thanetgreencouncillor.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/no-sweet-dreams-dreamland.html