I have sent an open letter to all of the cabinet members about the Royal Sands development, I did something like this with the previous Conservative Cabinet when it came before them about three years ago, so it will be interesting to see how a Labour cabinet responds to this one.
It’s a bit long I’m afraid but then my excuse is I wrote it during a busy day in the shop, I guess this is the largest development and the most important one for Ramsgate, so any decision will be critical to the way the town rides the current economic problems.
Anyway here is the open letter:
I am writing to you as a cabinet member as the development agreement is coming before cabinet once again.
As you are probably aware it came before cabinet about three years ago, with the officers recommendation being not to proceed with the development on the grounds that there were insufficient financial guarantees, but the then cabinet decided to proceed with the development with reduced financial protection for the council.
At the time I discussed this issue with the two main officers concerned, Doug *** who was then head of major projects and Brian *** who was then head of building control.
My concerns discussed with them at the time related to the safety issues of what is a very demanding construction site, on a high risk flood zone and adjacent to a an unsupported chalk cliff.
At that time they made assurances that the problems related to these issues would be handled by the council’s building control department at the building control stage, when they received detailed construction plans.
The flood risk aspect had already been highlighted by The Environment Agency, see http://www.michaelsbookshop.com/ea/ their main concerns being related to wave overtopping and emergency escapes for the 1,000 or so people inside in the event of a tidal surge storm.
At this time the plan accepted by the council and Jacobs the council’s civil engineering advisors was to pile bore the building, in layman’s terms; screw it firmly to the chalk bedrock below the site, see http://www.thanetonline.com/cliff/id2.htm
Due to several unforeseen events, both of these senior officers leaving the council and building control going to a private firm, changes were made to the foundation design that appear to have been the result of poor communication between all of the parties involved.
The fundamental problem is that despite this site being in a high risk flood zone the flood risk assessment strongly recommended by The Environment Agency has never occurred.
The geological structure of the site is solid chalk bedrock at about the level of a low tide extending from the bottom of the cliff to the sea, created before the construction of the harbour and caused by natural sea erosion of the cliff.
The construction of the harbour caused a sand beach to form below the cliff and in 1860 when this beach was converted into a railway station the chalk spoil from the railway tunnel was laid on the sand, bringing the whole site up to the level it is now.
On the seaward side of this pile of chalk flagstones were laid forming an inclined frontage to the promenade.
I have written to Mike **** the council’s engineer and he has confirmed that that council has no plans for any subsequent modern sea defence there, founded in the chalk bedrock below.
All of the rest of the promenade in Ramsgate is fronted on the seaward side by modern Environment Agency designed concrete sea defences set into the chalk bedrock.
In what I take to be a mixture of a lack of communication and the lack of a flood risk assessment the foundations for the new development, that have been partially completed, only extend down to the sand beach and are not attached to the chalk bedrock beneath.
The same railway company that built this structure in 1861 also built the sea defence between Reculver and The Isle of Thanet that failed in the 1953 storm, leading to the loss of about seven square miles of land and about four miles of railway track in one night.
I guess as you are an intelligent person I don’t have to draw you a diagram of the potential public safety issues.
My understanding is that the promenade structure is entirely the responsibility of the council and that any improvements to achieve a structure suitable to protect a large residential structure with shallow foundations from the sea, would have to be paid for by the council.
I expect that you are already aware that the council has expended about £1m on repairs to the cliff façade, these repairs haven’t been entirely successful and further essential repairs to the repairs have already occurred.
In view of the large safety area needed for those repairs, the investigation of part of the cliff façade carried out by the development contractor Cardy Construction, see http://www.thanetonline.com/cliff/index.htm and various representations made by me that resulted in a hse investigation that instigated emergency repairs and a safety cordon, the council agreed to put in place a program of regular surveys and maintenance. The first of these surveys occurred at the end of last year and I am still waiting for the report relating to it.
It is important to understand that the cliff façade structure wasn’t designed as a cliff support structure, as the harbour arches or the Marina Esplanade arches were, so this is an unsupported chalk cliff.
The normal standard applied to unsupported chalk cliffs i.e. it is ok to walk in front of them but not to sit beneath them doesn’t apply in this case, as people will be living 4 metres in front of the cliff face.
Once again all of the maintenance liability appears to rest with the council.
Unfortunately all the cabinet discussion about this issue is subject to the exclusion of the public, so none of the related documentation is available to me, I obtained the development agreement and that variation to it, that relate to the previous cabinet meeting of 16th June 2009, via the foi and that is published here http://www.michaelsbookshop.com/pda/ in a series of linked pages. This puts me in the difficult position of having to guess what the developer is asking for this time and what aspects would be require secrecy.
What the developer promised the cabinet in 2009 was.
June 2009 enabling works for piling and drainage.
January 2010 commencement of groundworks, piling, services and surface drainage pipe.
August 2010 completion of groundworks, piling, services and surface drainage pipe.
March 2011 commencement of structural frame transfer slab of the hotel and the first residential block. (the one next to the hotel at the lift end of the site)
What actually happened was the surface drain pipe from the site to the harbour was put in, but no work started on the site until about a year ago, when a heath and safety licence for 200 workers was posted at the site gates. This was then followed by between two and four workers on site for most of the last year pouring the shallow concrete foundations.
Now the site has the look of being left hurriedly in the middle of work in progress, doors of one of the storage sheds left open, I have contacted the contractor about this but after about a week it remains open, part encased and unencased reinforcing rods for the transfer slab support pillars, looking rather bent and rusty.
There is no sense of one stage finished and another due to start, but very much a look of a project in progress that was suddenly abandoned possibly because the money ran out.
So my guess is that the main forward investor the hotelier pulled out at some time and that the developer’s emphasis has moved away from the hotel. Indeed during such work as has been carried out over the last year the emphasis has been away from the hotel end of the site where no work has occurred at all, so one would assume that the hotel, which was to have been constructed first hasn’t been a priority since work started on site.
Because I am working largely in the dark here, but hope to get you to consider a way forward with this development that would be least damaging to Ramsgate’s economy, I have to consider a variety scenarios and outcomes. I also want you to understand that it is about ten years since the Whitbread project was first proposed and that economic damage to the town of having a building site on the town’s main leisure site has been considerable.
If the cabinet decides to continue with the project I would ask you to consider using any bargaining power available to ensure that the development is at least safe, perhaps insisting on a flood risk assessment if this is possible and an independent assessment of the cliff façade.
With a flood risk assessment any protective works could be negotiated now rather at the whim of some future storm.
An independent cliff façade assessment would mean that there was some understanding of the ongoing liability here, that wasn’t prepared by the same people who supervised the work that has already proved to be defective.
Alternatively if the cabinet decide that there is no way that the development can proceed then I am hoping that you will seek some way that the site can be cleared so that it can be used for leisure and parking.
In a general sense I am not happy about this major local development on a council owned site, being only subject to discussion in secret and feel that there should be some involvement of local people and some public information available about it. So I would further ask you to ensure that if the project continues you will insist on some public information scheme.
At the moment I can see why the documents for next week’s cabinet meeting related to the financial situation may need excluding from the public although as the development agreement leases and variation are already in the public domain even this seems to have very little benefit, however I fail to see why those related to the rescheduling of the development should be.
I am sending this as an open letter to all of the cabinet members and will publish it online, please send me any thoughts or comment you may have for publication.
Best regards Michael.