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Letter to the editor: the Brimscombe Port folly

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The news that The Grace Network faces a second relocation has brought into sharp focus Stroud District Council’s (SDC) Brimscombe Port strategy. SDC have had the admirable vision of building a new marina and a canal; however, the underlying strategy is flawed.

At the heart of the problem lies financial viability, flawed decision making that prematurely demolished community services and the risk to the vision from an avaricious property developer.

Building a brand-new marina is hugely expensive. Add to that the challenge of raising the site out of the flood plain, dealing with historic pollution and a canal community that is not contributing to the cost, and you create a non-viable folly.

Brimscombe Port sml | Letter to the editor: the Brimscombe Port folly
Brimscombe Port, November 2021. Pic: Matt Bigwood.

It is now two years since demolition was completed. According to SDC’s milestone plan the redevelopment work should have started three months ago but there hasn’t yet been a planning application. As a minimum the project has slipped 18 months. That is a sure sign the negotiations with St Modwen are not going well, but publicly, little is being revealed.

SDC have issued generic, repeated statements promising a next round of community engagement, the latest of which offered no explanation, apology for or empathy with the Grace Network’s circumstances. Given that some councillors lobbied to end community consultation (we are an obstacle to progress), we should not be surprised at the lack of engagement. SDC have only ever ‘informed’ and then only occasionally. There is no true engagement.

Brimscombe Port 5 | Letter to the editor: the Brimscombe Port folly
Brimscombe Port, March 2024.

Before the demolition decision, a councillor proposed an amendment to provide flexibility over existing leases. It intended to offer more help for the enterprises and to recognise that it wasn’t a good time to be rushing into a development project. The amendment was rejected, with canal supporters being particularly vocal about getting on with the demolition and making, quote, ‘hard decisions’.

At the time I was vocal about the foolishness of this approach. I have not changed my mind and believe that the decision was based upon the lobbying power of the canal community, not sound risk management-based governance. Both finances and planning permission for demolition were in place, and a developer could have been sought without premature demolition. All the significant risks sat with our community, and the slim upsides with the canal community. How did our council ever allow such biased and blinkered decision making to take place?

So where are we now? We have a rose-tinted vision of what the Port could be, blighted by a flawed financial model resulting in the appointment of a private equity-backed developer. We face the real prospect of the developer negotiating their way out of the community infrastructure levy or increasing housing density, undermining the vision, causing significant population increase without corresponding increase in services.

If the Port could be freed of the financial burden of water however, either by not having the marina or by the canal community paying their way, then the Port could open to more imaginative solutions provided by community focussed, rather than PE-backed developers. This community has a great track record of caring for itself in wonderful and innovative ways, and should be engaged by SDC on the project in an unprecedented way. It isn’t too late for SDC to truly engage with the local community and to utilise the many skills that have delivered some wonderful community assets. Surely this would be more fruitful than relying on the developer who has no true interest in our community?

For now however, we look out on a derelict site, are kept in the dark by SDC, all the while living with the damage done to our community by the premature demolition of key community infrastructure.

David Haydock, Brimscombe

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