Grace Hill Library and Seafront

At the last Go Folkestone members’ meeting of 30 or so on Wednesday 19 April, subject to Nicky and Jeanette’s minutes, there were several action points on the Seafront and other matters, but particularly on The Grace Hill Library. The Go Folkestone committee, with a couple of well-informed invited guests, is proposing to meet no later than next Monday, if possible, at a member’s house to decide a sensible, middle of the road position on which to progress, with a view to helping the Library re-open and the exceptional Grade II listed 1887 Carnegie Library Building to be repaired so that its condition doesn’t get any worse. This will probably involve an open letter to the MP and county councillors, whom we hope will come to the odd meeting in future. We will also look at updating some of our representations on The Seafront made to Sir Roger De Haan’s organisations on behalf of our 300 or so members, who are hopefully a cross section at least of the older residents.

Conversations with Conservative and Labour politicians leading up to 4 May elections reveal that, officially, the Grace Hill repairs, which are mainly to the complex Victorian roof, will cost £1.8 million and this is money that the owner Kent County Council simply doesn’t have. Some committee members feel that is an unproven, untested estimate that we should enquire into.

However, the Grace Hill Library is only NINTH in the list of priority libraries for Kent CC expenditure, according to good sources, because others are perceived as more important or in a worse state. We can only surmise that some of the many suburban libraries across Kent were products of the 1960s-80s when the design standards were often poor or unwisely experimental. Some must now be in a worse state than Grace Hill, the ground floor of which is a lot better than the upper floors. It may even be that because there are three other public libraries in the area, however small, that that has had some influence on the handsome and historic Grace Hill building’s surprisingly low position in the pecking order for repair money. These others are Cheriton Library and the smaller Wood Avenue and Sandgate Libraries, the latter run by the co-located Sandgate Parish Council. We wouldn’t want to sacrifice Cheriton Library to finance Grace Hill, and that isn’t on the table. However, in general terms, when there is inadequate KCC money for day centres and respite care in connection with dementia cases and cancers it doesn’t do to have tunnel vision on libraries; you can’t finance everything.

It remains the case that several separate avenues are being explored by various pressure groups as well as the Council. These include a charity taking over the building, which seems too big a change and doesn’t really remedy the lack of funds viz the continuing struggles of the charity behind Folkestone Sports’ Centre. More mainstream, possibly, is the re-opening of the ground floor library after considerably lower expenditure than £1.8 million, while the upper floors become the province of builders trying to remedy the main faults during 2024. Sources have said that arts and tourism funding is easier than heritage funding, and therefore, as a long term/longshot objective an art workshop and gallery might be an aim. To this end a lot of the archive may be moved elsewhere from vulnerable rooms. The Town Council and Museum are apparently willing and able to help with this. This half and half approach seem the most practical and I will be proposing that Go Folkestone is constructive, but the committee will decide by majority and note members’ chat at meetings and on Facebook. Once again, look at all the other demands on KCC funds.

Go Folkestone aims to liaise with the New Folkestone Society, of which I and other Go Folkestoners are committee members, whilst not echoing it. We are probably more open to, which isn’t to say supportive of, dramatic solutions that are only in the ether, such as saving the building by selling it for sensitive residential conversion and moving the library to the town centre. Many members and other locals cite Folca 2, the Art Deco half of Debenhams as a possible library. But that building is a District Council building rather than County Council, which makes that solution less likely. But they do talk to each other!

The well-known actress Jessica Hynes, very popular but best known for playing the terrifying Siobhan Sharpe (“Muslim is Islam. Wow! Who knew?”)  in W1A has set up Friends of Folkestone Library on Facebook etc and AFRA etc are also busy.

The Seafront:

I have had to send the following to the harbour company, and hope that our committee and our membership will keep refining our views on the De Haan project whilst remaining realistic. We have already received an assurance that the questions on the email will be answered and that the Foundation Stone discussions should go to the personal office:

I write on behalf of Go Folkestone, the largest Folkestone amenity group in terms of direct membership, to thank you for asking so many of us to your Seafront consultation. We are constantly developing our views. The attached draft was put out to members, and I think represents a majority view, reflecting anxiety about the bulk of the later phases, the potential gridlock, and the need not to weaken but to adapt the traditional Sandgate Road Town centre. We develop our view each month at and between regular monthly meetings, and will keep you in touch, but are always impressed with the quality of the scheme.

Questions arose at and after the last meeting of 30 Go Folkestone members last Wednesday 19th April as follows; I will be asking Trevor direct about the Princess Royal:

  1. Can you send a link to myself, and one other when decided, each time the scheme is significantly altered, or suggest another method of viewing. Is it true that a part of the thoroughfare around Marine Crescent has been adapted in the plans for resident parking?
  2. We have noted that UK Scaffolding are removing the scaffolding around The Princess Royal in South Street. We would appreciate an update on this building which Go Folkestone members remain supportive of, at least as an interesting 1860’s vintage shell for residential or other conversion.
  3. Although most members are anxious about car parking and not cycles, some of our members are ardent cyclists and might appreciate a meeting or a separate paper about cycling policy. We will be enlarging our views on cycling, cars and the Blocks F-H which we are most concerned about.
  4. We wish to keep Sir Roger in the loop on our Go Folkestone plan to move the inscribed, 1 ton, Foundation Stone of the Victoria Pier to the seafront. Unless advised otherwise we will do this through the personal office.
  5. A question has been raised about the concrete pads and other evidence of building on what we thought was a parking area immediately to the west of Marine Crescent. If you need further detail, I will enquire.

Yours sincerely, Richard Wallace (Chair)

Appendix: Folkestone Seafront

Go Folkestone members seem to encompass a small but significant minority which rejects the Folkestone seafront scheme as over-development, and a majority which broadly accepts it and feels it is of superior design and exciting conception. The minority often instance global warming and nervousness about the sea level, and many opponents live on The Leas and feel their views are badly affected, which is true. The majority think the quality of the development is very high, the occupancy benefits the local economy, and the Harbour Arm is superb and has to be taken as part of a whole which has some disadvantages. The most frequent worries for those who broadly support the development (or at least accept it as a trade-off for the fun of the Harbour Arm) are car parking or gridlock, and a worry that the shops and facilities around the Harbour Arm will dislocate and perhaps badly affect the traditional town centre. But we do believe these concerns are acknowledged and could be being addressed gradually by the developers.

Apologies to those members and readers who would rather that the whole idea of extensive building being constructed along the length of waterfront from the bottom of the Leas Lift to just east of the old Harbour Station be not undertaken at all.  The reality that we have is that all this development has planning approval granted and it will take place over a period, broadly in accordance with the masterplan.  Over the last year or so there have been opportunities to comment when each “block” of apartments and houses has been brought forward for detailed planning approval.  On each such occasion Go Folkestone has submitted a response based on the views of members expressed at the regular monthly meetings and by other member inputs received outside these meetings.  Some of us have also taken the time to submit our views as individuals.  Although the consultations have been of necessity about the detail of the buildings as requested, the opportunity to comment in more broad terms has generally been impossible to resist!

Last November Go Folkestone invited Sir Roger De Haan to address a special meeting and this he did.  The interest in the seafront developments in particular was very great, with over 100 people attending the event in person. Indeed, the number of questions submitted in advance for Sir Roger was of such a magnitude that there was no real chance of getting all of them answered, despite an attempt to group similar questions together.  Although there were a couple of unfortunate noisy interruptions, Sir Roger calmly and quietly gave very full answers to most of the queries.  He also opened the door to further, more detailed conversations with the Go Folkestone membership in the future.

It is our opinion that this interest and interaction has borne some fruit.  Whilst the construction of the next couple of apartment blocks will be carried out in accordance with the now approved designs, there is greater scope for a change in design as the development plans move towards finalisation in the area of the old Harbour Station, particularly on the east side.  The temporary nature of the development of the “Goods Yard” and surroundings is plain to see, with an abundance of portacabin style buildings, containers and timber sheds, all of which can be swiftly cleared from the site when the time comes for the apartment blocks to be constructed.  Whilst the Development Company is already looking into possible solutions for accommodating some of these facilities into the final plan, this work is at a relatively early stage, and we have time to engage.

We believe that there are some further opportunities for consultation being planned for this year. Go Folkestone had several members present at the February consultation: Richard Wallace (Chair), Nicky Tolson (Committee), Tony Quarrington (Vice Chair), Tony Hill (Committee), Pam Keeling and Dan Keeling (Committee), David Noble (Vice Chair), Howard Holt, Vaughn Horsman, Matt Jones, Debbie Jones, Linda Bauer, Patty Key, Mark Hourahane. Go Folkestone will of course be responding as it has before, but concerned individuals should take any opportunities to respond too.  Go Folkestone members in meetings and elsewhere have largely echoed the broadly favourable comments mainly written by Howard Holt and Richard Wallace, but there has been a real discussion around details. Chronologically the response at the planning stage has been as follows to the different blocks.

The first 84 dwelling block, Block B, now virtually complete, is generally well liked. We have heard that the wave form of some blocks and the tile finish are very expensive and may be under some reconsideration in future blocks. However, GF members think it looks expensive and very high quality, and hopefully puts the development at the top end of the market. The height is at the maximum we feel, and we remain uncertain as to whether our comments on the original height led to any reduction at all, because the design and floor layouts were altered so much. But it does not look overweening. We note that some of the original hopes for more green layouts and roof gardens were revised. However, the enclosed gardens are impressive, particularly as the trees and landscaping are finished.

The point block, Block A was disliked by some members more than the consistent flow of the crescents, but on the whole, it was liked for its finish and quality. We were interested in the ways that the crescent blocks B-E were slightly differentiated from each other. We thought it good design to lift the gardens above underground and ground level car parking and to include a small amount of shopping in the proposed Block C.

The development of the areas on either side of the old Harbour Station will be probably the most critical part of the overall proposals.  The dominance of these buildings will change the sea views from all the areas around and above the harbour.  Whilst the detailed design and the construction materials will undoubtedly be of the highest quality (as demonstrated by the expensive finishes now nearly completed first apartment block) the height and relative density of the buildings is probably the main concern.

At the presentation it was considered artful that the ‘key views’ were highlighted. The local people reflected in the Go Folkestone membership would agree, as those there mostly did, that the so-called ‘German Consulate’ in Bayle Parade, and the St Mary and St Eanswythe’s Church are important views that should be preserved as much as possible. Of course, a few cynics pointed out that it was the sea views from Folkestone that were perhaps ruined. But Folkestone Seafront, if the global warming worries are not crucial, is too great a development opportunity to expect to remain unbuilt, and the density isn’t a lot different from Victorian Eastbourne or Brighton, which were probably condemned by some in their time as spoiling their own desolate, shingled attractiveness.

To get down to more specifics, another area which Howard Holt, Richard Wallace and many other members thought quite critical is the proposed new “public square” at the foot of the Leas Lift.  There is of course great hope that the Leas Lift Company will be successful in their bid for the larger tranche of funding that they require, and thus be able to restore this (almost) unique asset to full working order.  The public square will then be a real centrepiece with routes to the north via the lift, to the harbour to the east, to the sea to the south and to the Lower Leas Country Park to the west.  There is also proposed to be a new café created as a part of the restoration of the lower lift station building, with seating inside and outside.  A real “gateway” site with appropriate design and materials is required.

It can perhaps be mentioned here that Tony Hill and the Go Folkestone team are trying, successfully, to move the inscribed 2ft x 2ft x 4ft Cornish Granite foundation stone of the old, long-gone Royal Victoria Pier from its current rural location to the seafront near to the Leas Lift. The former pier could perhaps be echoed in some way in various Triennial ideas in the Leas Lift Square, which could perhaps be renamed for Queen Elizabeth. We will give Sir Roger De Haan and the developers more information if asked!! But the Square must be a well-designed key point and durable in the seafront weather, with dry weather planting.

As for the wider issues, there are many which need further discussion and wider engagement.  Go Folkestone and some individuals have previously raised issues about the appropriate provision of retail and hospitality outlets, and the loss of car parking for tourists and for local residents is of considerable concern to many.  Whatever the car parking provision, most members would like to see a high-quality rapid transit bus service running to a frequent timetable to connect the various key areas of the town on a “loop” basis.  The locations might include, amongst others, the central railway station, the hospital, the town centre, F51, fountain square, the harbour arm and the seafront.  Such solutions have been found to work elsewhere – though they seem to be more acceptable if the vehicles have a distinctive appearance and are called something other than “buses”!  We do understand that the 102 Dover to Folkestone is a very regular service that goes by the harbour and on to town but wonder about the inclusion of the whole stretch of seafront into public transport to at least some degree as it gets built. Perhaps this could be by an intermittent extension of the 102 route in the same way that the Canterbury service sometimes goes around Hawkinge. All active travel solutions should also be investigated.

So, there is much to be done!  The long and very varied seaside here at Folkestone is surely one of the joys of living here, and we would love that we leave the best possible legacy for our children and grandchildren.

Openings and Closings:   Just noting that Greggs the bakers and hot food sellers are opening in Folkestone finally. It is long overdue. However, interestingly, it is only in Cheriton, at the Cheriton Road petrol station near Morehall Parade. Here it will co-exist for a trial period with Subway while the ordinary shop area is greatly cut down in size to accommodate both. Greggs is a franchise which has been very successful, albeit unsuccessful outlets do get cut e.g., Dover is going from three to two. So why shouldn’t Folkestone town centre have one too?!

Meetings:   Next monthly members meeting is Wednesday 10th May, but we do want a committee meeting before 4th May elections.

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