Thursday, 6 June 2013

Update on the Community Garden spaces planned for The Old Town

Back in 2011, Thanet District Council launched a suite of initiatives called 'Countdown to Turner'.  Basically, a series of must-do projects to complete in time for the opening of Turner Contemporary. Margate Renewal Partnership, headed up by Derek Harding, tasked the charity Groundwork to carry out public consultation to develop two community gardens in the Old Town. 

One on Duke Street next to Outside The Square gallery, who had opened discussions with TDC regarding installing a sculpture:





 The second at Cobbs Place, next door to The Media Centre:


Shortly before the opening of Turner Contemporary, Derek Harding left office and the ongoing public engagement was passed to Thanet Council's Regeneration Department. I along with other members of local community groups had been in lengthy email communications with MRP  and had attended meetings and site visits. The designs that Groundwork had come up with proposed more hard surface than green matter. Communication from TDC regarding the projects ground to a halt after Harding's departure and nothing more was heard back. 

In the end, I submitted a Freedom of Information Request to the Council to find out what budgets were still available and if the projects could be picked up again. This whole process has now taken over two years and the plots of land stand empty and undeveloped.  Which is strange, because these two plots were included by TDC on the Countdown to Turner hit list because of their urgency.

My FOI was not replied to within the statutory period. I then had to report it to the Information Commisioners Office (ICO). The ICO then instructed the Council to reply with the requested information. The Council still did not comply and I had to request the ICO re-open the case. Finally, last Friday, the Council released information about the community garden projects. 

The Council's FOI response states that the expenses so far incurred are broken down as follows:
Design £3460.00
Public Consultation £2104
Soil sample analysis and report £2317.73
Total: £7881.73


Their response details that initial design work was actually carried out by a local company called Square Sky Landscapes followed by further re-designs then carried out by GroundWork following their public consultation exercise. Then, after all of this design and consultation process, the Council then undertook soil sample analysis costing a further £2317.73. 


The Council state that the results of the soil sample analysis: 

'revealed that only very limited temporary use of the Duke Street site would be possible without significant additional expenditure'
Further, the Council then seems to blame community groups for not being forthcoming regarding formal maintenance agreements. I'm confused about this. Community groups such as the Old Town Action Group (OTAG) and the Margate Conservation Area Advisory Group, had both volunteered a lot of time to feedback into the design stage of the gardens. At no stage were we contacted again by Thanet Council regarding maintenance.  The reason why I issued an FOI was because our emails were suddenly not replied to by the Council. The whole process of trying to find out further information on these projects has been driven by residents and groups.

I believe that residents are actually very positive about the idea of some kind of community garden in the Old Town. The concept of maintenance is a discussion that has not been initiated. We were never shown the designs by Square Sky Landscapes, who also designed the seating area on the Parade in front of the Old Town. We were shown the designs by Groundwork and they surprisingly were predominantly  hard resin surfaces and very little garden. 

What seems to have actually happened is that following the departure of Derek Harding on this project in spring 2011, the promised £41,000 gardens disappeared off the Council's agenda and almost eight thousand pounds has been spent on consultants and nothing on gardens themselves. Both Duke Street and Cobbs Place plots are still on the Council's asset disposal list. So whatever is developed as a garden there, it's worth remembering that they will probably eventually be built on. But surely some kind of temporary green space can be developed?The Duke Street plot, also backs on to Queen's Arms Yard. This is the strip of tarmaced land at the rear of The Bull's Head pub behind The Parade. The Council once planned to develop this into artist studios and shop units. The scoping exercise for this space alone cost over £100,000 of public money. As we see, this too is still a derelict space and used as car parking.







Can Thanet Council really afford to be throwing our money away scoping projects that don't come to fruition? And further that it takes two years of residents' enquiries to begin to find out what's going on?

Yet, there may be a happy ending to this story: The FOI response seems to say that there is still £8118.27 Revenue and £25,000 Capital remaining. 


Does this mean we as a community can ask the Council to work with us to spend  £33,118.27 on community gardens in Margate's Old Town?



How about a public meeting to decide?






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