|Playing With Loaded Dice|
|Tuesday 05/06/2012 00:30|
The whole situation hinges on the wretched, unloved Highbridge Hotel once again. It's become an unwelcome bargaining chip in a bigger game which stretches right from the River Parrett shoreline to the meadows which sit alongside the River Brue. In a nutshell, the Planning Committee is being asked to consider an application for parts of the former boatyard site on the basis that the developer will provide flood defence improvements which will unlock the ability to build on the other sites. This huge commitment of cash will effectively exempt them from any Section 106 contribution for the more traditional issues such as schools, transport and so on. So, the Planning Committee is being asked to take a 'double or quits' style gamble. Give the go ahead to the Boatyard, get the sea defences for free, and bank on the 'unlocked' development sites providing the infrastructure for the whole set of separately developed sites. We now enter a sort of quantum world of chicken-and-egg causality. The defences are needed because of the development, but the development can't be built without them. The relationship of the defences to the rest of the site is far less clear, and indeed there is no easy way of considering them together. Right in the centre of this maelstrom sits the Hotel. Still collapsing, still shaming our sister town up the road, still echoing a community's growing disconnection from the democracy which represents it.
Simple words, complex answer?
For starters this breaches all sorts of rules and regulations, and is technically illegal. When the Committee considers an application it is required to do so on the individual merits of the case, with some consideration of how it fits with the strategic plan for the area. And that is captured in the Local Development Framework. This captures how the Council thinks the whole district should develop over the coming years, and has been subject to a ton of expensive consultation too. But its been largely discarded in this case. So, we've got a bunch of officers who are reluctant to talk to the public because they fear reprisals for their inaction, a group of councillors who (save for a notable couple) are intent on getting the deal through to rid them of an issue and cement relationships with developers, and a population which - although divided on what should happen, are increasingly alarmed by what actually is (or indeed isn't) happening on the ground.
Sometime last week, the graffiti above appeared on the hotel, complete with painted jubilee bunting. Its innocent, childlike curves beg for an answer from those who have it in their power to offer it. Is a once proud build making a pathetic bid for it's own survival? Can you put a value on collective memory and shared ideas of space when they're pretty much all a community has to use as foundations for it's future? This simple message speaks louder and clearer than most others who've considered the Hotel site in recent times - and certainly improves on the planned, heavily corporately influenced plan to put a mural on the boards. The fate of the hotel, of the last historic building standing in the old centre of the town lies in the hands of a political gamble.
I only wish I had some confidence in the steadfastness of the players...
|Fanning The Flames|
|Thursday 20/10/2011 16:25|
It would be so easy, with the fire coming just two days before a public meeting to discuss the site, to invent conspiracies. It might not even be inaccurate to do so, but if yesterday's meeting needed to do anything, it needed to break the three-way impasse between community, developer and Local Authority if it was to move things forward in any sense. The meeting was, in fairness, rather a shambles. A proposed 'drop in' session of three hours, organised during the working day and thus fairly inaccessible, became a formal meeting of just two hours. So I ended up blundering into the room around an hour before the published end of the meeting to hear the chairman say "well, lets start wrapping this up then...". To be frank, I'd been in two minds about attending after the "behave or else" warnings on the town's internet forum from the chair. I didn't think people would be able to articulate what they felt without anger - and I also thought it was important that Council Officers heard it. The developer, less so - he'd already had his serving and seems impassive in the face of it. But after all, the bit of the meeting I caught was temperate and fairly interesting. I also arrived in time to find the thoughts I'd provided for one of our Town Councillors being read to the meeting by someone who did so much more articulately than I would have. I'll reproduce it here, because it continues to sum up what I feel, and I think it struck a chord - however minor - with the SDC officers:
The Highbridge Hotel on Monday evening
So, will this lead to change for the site, and more importantly a new attitude to Highbridge? Will a revival of the regeneration partnership manage to side-step the usual political footballers and move the site towards a development which has what Highbridge almost universally told Sedgemeoor District Council it wanted (retail, jobs, economic viability) rather than what it expressly doesn't (flats, takeways, more community halls). What kind of people will volunteer for the partnership? It needs to be a mixture of the usual stalwart local volunteers, and people who can slalom through the obstacles of governance and planning without losing heart or feeling overwhelmed. No mean feat, and potentially a thankless and incredibly time-consuming task.
This of course leaves one final question - what of the building itself? Sadly, I sense the tide is turning and the developer is winning the apparently recession-imposed war of attrition. Plenty of people think he's almost redeemed himself because he's letting the local kids (some of whom he confesses he'd lock up!) paint the new wooden hoardings. Thus, the will to knock it down if it will be expedient is strong. Still though, the building hovers as a pale grey, sinister presence on the maps of the proposed 2008 development which were paraded again tonight - almost defying it's own deletion. Quite whether it will survive the efforts of casual local hooligans, let alone the professional ones is up for debate.
|The Heritage Lottery|
|Monday 15/03/2010 07:05|
The final straw for those who are claiming the demolition of the pool is 'desecration' appears to be the suggestion that a chunk of the concrete edifice will be retained to bear a plaque featuring words chosen by the Braithwaite's descendants. This appears from the reactions to be adding a gross insult to a grave injury - but why is it any worse than sending this last piece to the crusher along with all the others? I think it's all about the removal of context, and the simple fact that we lazily expect our heritage to come prepackaged for easy consumption these days. Consider the embarassment of riches from the Roman era available in Britain today. I've been dragged around many a windy hillside to see these - forlorn, but evocative. Suggestive of a flow of time, but not necessarily sparking an instant vision of our history. Until of course suitable context is provided in the form of a 'visitor center' or 'experience'. In this model of heritage, the consumer signs-up for a package deal of context-setting multimedia and the artefact or location is relegated to second place. The thing itself can never match the reconstructed environment - not even the thrill of touching two thousand-year old stone walls can compete with the carefully paced walk-through designed to deliver just the right number of visitors through the site.
The situation with the boating pool is a little different, but still relates to this disconnection between relic and context. Here, the context is absolutely gone - bulldozed already and crushed into dust finer than the sand which surrounded it. The relic, a rather odd looking and insignificant corner of the concrete pool, is useless in itself and has none of the qualities of the original memorial. It's no accident that religious terms like 'sacrilege' are employed - in the strictest sense this relic has indeed been robbed of it's truth and meaning. Of course, the replacement for this lost context - a suitable plaque linking then to now - will never quite deliver the reverent and solemn 'experience' required. In a new war nearly a hundred years later, and with a deepening gulf between the personal and political in society this act of destruction signals all that is bad at the core of politics. An administration has failed to listen and understand, and seems to have deeply misjudged the heritage gamble.
How does this relate to Highbridge? Well, our own heritage here is taking hit after hit and we are in danger of losing the context too. However, the context here is an authentic market town which can't offer an 'experience' to the visitor in any positive sense as things stand. What it can offer is a view of forsaken heritage - entering from the south, the charred skin of the Highbridge Hotel, shored by an exoskeleton of scaffolding, rears at the casual traveller. Descending towards town, and just feet away the town clock too is under threat of demolition due to a lack of repair. The historic shopping and industrial areas are slowly but inexorably transformed into residential developments of the most depressingly predictable kind. Our own war memorial crumbles and leans at a busy road junction. However, the same intemperate locals who rage against the demolition of the pool can barely raise an eyebrow at the widespread destruction in Highbridge. The best response seems to be a recognition at the fact that Highbridge stands as a embarrassing gateway to it's sister town of Burnham - and that fixing it is a similar window-dressing exercise to watering the flower beds on the distributor road. The worst though, is a cynical sneer at the town and it's inhabitants. It is worryingly commonplace to find the latter view nowadays among locals - and often, perplexingly, it is those who are shouting loudest about the boating pool or poor planning decisions in Burnham who are least concerned and most scornful of Highbridge. It is of course folly to believe that the events here will respect parish boundaries, and perhaps it's time for Burnham's champions to look long and hard at Highbridge and to recognise the trend.
So perhaps the heritage game really is a lottery, and no relic is worth more than the value placed on it's immediate surroundings? This certainly seemed to be the situation for Sutton House in Hackney until the National Trust finally intervened, and it seems true for Highbridge too. As for the boating pool, I'm truly sorry that a part of my own memory of Burnham has disappeared, but politics and history are never the most comfortable companions.
|History Burns Again|
|Monday 28/07/2008 19:12|
The simple truth is we've lost another key piece of our heritage, and Weston has suffered a bigger blow. The town is in a kind of binary state just now, flip-flopping between family seaside holiday destination and a town built around stag- and hen-night debauchery. This fire may just have tipped the balance. Not today of course, as trainloads of day-trippers arrived to watch the fire or it's smoky aftermath. Roads closed and traffic chaos as rubberneckers attempted to get a glimpse. Was the west tower still standing? Isn't that where the deep fat fryers were? Are they saying that's what started it? A colleague pointed out that the tide would soon be washing away any evidence that had fallen through the superstructure. We decided not go and look today, it didn't seem right.
But there are key differences to Highbridge's situation. Within hours the owners of the site had said that despite this monumental setback, they would rebuild the pier. Local councillors were offering 'moral support' straight away (no cash, naturally) and people seemed to be getting behind the unlucky owners and supporting their local heritage. Suddenly it seemed OK to express a sense of loss, of childhood memories burned. Having lived in Weston for a few less than happy years, I was amazed at this sudden outburst of community spirit, in what has been a centre-less, disjointed and divided town for years.
Perhaps we could never have excited the local population here about a pub, particularly one which was declining in popularity and had seen better days in many senses. However, our tiny group of supporters remain committed to finding out what happened, and more importantly to doing all we can to secure a future for the Highbridge Hotel. We simply can't afford to lose any more of our heritage, our links with a quite recent past which seems impossibly distant to those who live in the town in 2008. As the people of Weston will discover tomorrow and beyond, once the strange gut-twisting thrill and disbelief of seeing flames leaping from a building has gone, a strange sense of loss sets in.
|Friends Of The Highbridge|
|Saturday 31/05/2008 11:23|
|The Spirit of Highbridge|
|Thursday 01/05/2008 21:21|
So, with all this still fresh in my mind I found myself agitated and distracted by tonight's meeting. I attended the Annual Town Council meeting last night and heard the Police say how they'd been unable to attend to a variety of crimes in the area last weekend because their resources were committed at the Hotel, guarding the private property which had become a public nuisance. Tonight, Derek Mead - the developer himself was the main act. Defiant and bluff, he affected a warm openness at the start of the meeting which soon collapsed, as from a room of sixty or so souls - some of them not young by any means - a collective spirit of Highbridge's own defiance rose. Again and again, the developer pressed the blame back on the community - our young people couldn't be trusted. Finally, and in a dignified and heartfelt speech, Janet Keen spoke of the people of Highbridge being good, respectful and decent in the majority and applause filled the room. A turning point, and from here on in, Mr Mead was less tactful, more combative. Perhaps now we were talking his language?
The meeting took a circular path - much was said about youth facilities, policing and the much misunderstood Section 106 process. The prospective Liberal Democrat candidate managed to make a fairly blatant election broadcast, whilst our local councillor - one of her own party - struck a much more dignified and communitarian tone. There were arguments, a face-off between Mead and a local simply wanting to tell him about metal security shutters, an older lady who asked the simply truthful question "was the hotel in your way?" menaced. As the meeting found its feet and began to challenge, Mead fell back on foul language and counter-accusation. It was the Police - they didn't guard the property, or it was the Council. Hamstrung by Mr Meads' constant references to another authority - my employer - I stayed as calm as I could and found myself frustrated and feeling worthless. The bellicose atmosphere fuelled by Mead's increasingly surly tone and repeated refusal to acknowledge that the building's security lay at his mercy. To claim indeed, that there was no electricity on the premises is absurd. The lights have been on for weeks, and someone has been at home.
So Highbridge found a voice, but naturally it's been hard for people to report how the meeting felt, and the soundbites are as carefully shored-up as the hotel with legally couched promises and pledges. A few of us chatted after, revealing our web-forum identities to each other, comparing notes on what we knew but couldn't say. Interestingly, it is the internet which has fanned the flames of this debate from the start - and Mr Mead let it been known that he hates the internet. Probably because it can't be controlled, bullied or jostled into order. It's hard to know quite where things will head next, but there are storms ahead I suspect.