I was particularly struck by a report on The News website that appeared today, being an account of what happened at East Southsea Neighbourhood Forum meeting on Thursday night. I was at the Forum and feel the report is a very one-dimensional version of events. As the Pier is, with the Pyramids, part of the great Southsea seafront fiasco, it is worth giving an alternative account of the meeting.
It started with a report by one of Southsea’s beat Police officers, and immediately we plunged into controversy about the Palmerston Rd pedestrianisation. A resident felt that the Police should take more action against those who still drive the length of the precinct, to which the officer replied that there are still so many instances of people driving through that it is felt to require “education” and advice rather than issuing of penalties. The questioner protested that people should be getting summonses, but the officer replied that it’s at Police “discretion” whether to penalise or not, unless the public wish to take it up with superior officers. A little later on, Cllr Vernon-Jackson even admitted himself that the Palmerston Rd changes “have not gone well”. Some understatement now that we have the Lennox Rd South block in place too, but nobody wanted to get into that row at the Forum.
Simon Hayes, the new-ish Police and Crime Commissioner gave a talk which for the most part was uncontroversial. Southsea Police Station (in the former PCC transport offices) is due for disposal, and Cllr Luke Stubbs asked what conditions the Police could impose to secure the preservation of the architecturally-important building. I thought Mr Hayes’ response that the Police are concerned solely with realising the maximum for the asset was disappointing from an organisation with a community role. This will be something to watch out for as time goes on.
Southsea Greenhouse then gave a brief presentation, their website will explain it far better than I can here.
Leon Reis of the People’s Pier then rose to introduce the topic of South Parade Pier, but before he got anywhere was immediately heckled by the Pier’s owner, Fred Nash, shouting that the Pier is not for sale and is being repaired. The first claim may well be true, the second seems more surprising. Some fencing was put up along the shore a while ago to limit access to the underside of the Pier, but this is totally ineffective and anyone can still see what a state the underside of the Pier is. There is a large-diameter pipe with a section missing which has been dripping God knows what into the sea for months.
There has apparently been some work on the deck of the Pier, although as most of it is still currently closed, and the Gaiety bar is without a license, there is clearly still much to be done. Mr Nash himself estimates that his work will not be completed until “late this year” and that reopening is dependent on the city council declaring the Pier safe.
So this is where the report in The News lacks vital context when reporting that Mr Nash has offered the “back end” of the Pier to the South Parade Trust for £1. All they or anyone else would be buying is a big pile of liability and risk. It would rely on the goodwill of Mr Nash to allow access to the back of the Pier, and supposes anybody would put money in to redevelop the back end of the Pier when the front of it is, and may well remain, an eyesore and an embarrassment. You’d have to be mad to take such an offer up.
I have not been present at previous discussions between Mr Nash and the community, but the decidedly chilly atmosphere of this part of the meeting suggests it is not a happy relationship. I am not sure what gives substance to the claim in the News report that there was “an awful lot of support for what we are doing”. When Mr Nash was questioned by an audience member why the Pier was not now for sale, when it was last year (and failed to attract any interest at an asking price of £200k), he skirted round the question a couple of times before stating that in the wake of the death of his former business partner the owners had had a change of heart. This, together with his intervention earlier, was if anything a disappointment to most in the room.
Another source of contention arose out of Mr Nash registering a business with a very similar name to that of the “People’s Pier” campaign, causing them to adopt the name “South Parade Trust”. This sounds a bit more of a solid name to me at least. Having supported the revolutionary Pompey Supporters Trust myself it is not much of a leap from being a supporter of PST to being one of SPT.
A particularly undignified passage were the questions from Mr Nash about funds raised by Pier campaigners, and what would happen to them while the campaign to buy the Pier is building. Mr Reis assured the meeting that any funds raised would be held in a responsible manner. Mr Nash offered no explanation for why he would wish to name a business after the group hoping to buy the Pier off him.
We were fortunate at the meeting to have an intervention from Scott McLachlan, one of the Pompey Supporters Trust’s leading members who has sat on their board. He gave a brief explanation of the Trust model of ownership. PST was formed long before supporters knew how they could acquire the club, and was building funds for a long time and holding them in an escrow account. It seems to me that the PST model is ideal for setting up a community-run business, should Mr Nash wish to sell up at some point.
Gerald Vernon-Jackson then became involved in a long debate about public toilet provision, and we heard again most of the same arguments rehearsed at the full council meeting. He admitted that the consultation process leading up to the decision was flawed, as it failed to make clear that maintaining the status quo was not possible.
Cllr Vernon-Jackson then repeated his usual insistence that there is no alternative to taking £200k out of the public loo budget, that no alternative cuts are possible, that the Lib Dems in central government enforcing public spending cuts are nothing to do with him and his city council colleagues, and that all the problems of Southsea seafront are caused by the gaping hole in the land that Harry Redknapp owns. It was one of the most obvious and ineffective attempts at a diversionary tactic I have seen in a long time to drag the unpopular Redknapp into this, but GVJ was getting a hard time from the audience and was rattled.
He was particularly evasive when I put to him that if financial considerations are paramount when it comes to public loos, the PCC decision to keep pumping our money into the Pyramids is particularly unwise; it will be at least £2m over five years. PCC’s own officials calculate that there is a substantial cash saving over the five years to be had by closing and demolishing the ageing centre rather than allowing a new operator to take it over. I asked why the council was committing the taxpayer to an open-ended spend on maintaining the centre as landlords, and was staggered when Cllr Vernon-Jackson twice assured us all that there is no such liability. That is certainly not what I understand the terms of the lease to be – as I understand it, the taxpayer is liable for major repairs to the centre, and that nobody in fact bid for a lease on the terms that Vernon-Jackson described at the Forum. Let’s put the discrepancy down to him getting confused in a lively meeting. Everybody agrees though that the city council is going to be putting at least £400k a year into the Pyramids, and when Vince Faithfull joined in asking why that is being done, Cllr Vernon-Jackson could only repeat that he feels the Pyramids add value to the tourism and the economy.
We have no idea what the liability will be. Barely a couple of days after the decision to grant a new lease, the Pyramids pool was closed unexpectedly because of machinery failure. The Pyramids have a long history of unreliability over the last 25 years and there is no reason to suspect that will change now.
Aside from the foolish managerial decision to grant a new lease, for the political dimension to the Lib Dems’ conduct we have to spool back to the full council meeting last Tuesday. A particularly incendiary contribution was the deputation from Jim Fleming, protesting against a congratulatory motion on renewing the Pyramids lease. He denounced the Lib Dems for their “hubris in taking the taxpayers for idiots”, and compared Vernon-Jackson and Cllr Mason to out-of-control gamblers. As Mr Fleming pointed out, PCC officials diligently recorded a variety of misdeeds and incompetence on the part of the previous Pyramids operator, SCLL, which the Lib Dem group ignored. The humble taxpayer still does not know what PCC officials uncovered.
Back at the Forum, once Cllr Vernon-Jackson had admitted that the Palmerston Rd pedestrianisation had not been a success, he was pressed by Vince Faithfull on the nature of consultation on any changes to Osborne Rd. GVJ promised that 6000 households would be involved in the consultation. We will have to keep an eye on what happens with any new scheme, given the disasters of Mike Hancock’s pedestrianisation of Palmerston Rd and Jason Fazackerley’s road schemes around the seafront.
The Forum petered out at that point, and your scribe immediately bolted to the bar, being in danger of dying of thirst. It had been a long meeting, and I felt sorry for Cllr Hunt who was sat at the top table all night looking bored and not saying a word while Cllr Vernon-Jackson did all the talking. It was almost as if he was under orders to be quiet.
The Royal Beach Hotel is a good venue for that sort of meeting, with a good bar for a couple of restorative Guinnesses, and hopefully whatever changes take place with the redevelopment of it will retain its character. The issues discussed at the Forum will run on and on, but until we have a change in the political direction of the council, they will keep running downhill.