Last ditch bid to remove Wells eyesore

Chris Hill Council chiefs have initiated their “last resort” of compulsory purchase proceedings to finally rid Wells of a burnt-out eyesore which has scarred its seafront for five years.

Chris Hill

Council chiefs have initiated their “last resort” of compulsory purchase proceedings to finally rid Wells of a burnt-out eyesore which has scarred its seafront for five years.

The prominent Grays Arcade and the adjoining Yellow Shop have been boarded up ever since they were severely damaged by fire in January 2005.

But despite mounting frustration in the town, all negotiations to bring the buildings back into use have failed, so North Norfolk District Council has written to notify the owners of both properties that it intends to intervene to resolve the long-running saga.

The council's cabinet will be asked next week to agree for a compulsory purchase order (CPO) to be issued, provided sufficient interest can be found from buyers willing to develop the site.

If the CPO is issued, it would be the first time these tough legal powers have been enforced in North Norfolk since the current council was formed in 1974.

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Clive Stockton, cabinet member for economic development, said: “Obviously it is a major step. I don't think in living memory the council has used compulsory purchase powers but we have come to that point here in Wells where we realise we have to act.

“All the other processes we have been through have not worked, from face-to-face meetings to a degree of coercion. So we are looking to use the powers available to us in the most responsible way to hopefully unlock what has been a major problem for more than five years. We are talking about 20pc of a beautiful quay frontage at Wells being marred by a burnt-out building. We need to take a final stance, and this is the last chance to develop this site.”

Council officers have drafted a development brief to encourage business interest, and hope to find a suitable buyer by the end of July. By then, unless acceptable plans are made by either owner, a CPO would be issued followed by a 21-day objection period.

If no objections are made, the council would act as conduit for the sale of the buildings to the new buyers at market rates. No taxpayer's money would be used for the acquisition, but the cabinet has been asked to allocate �23,000 of funding to cover legal costs in case objections force the CPO to a public appeal.

Sheila Oxtoby, the council's deputy chief executive, said: “We are writing to both owners of the site, and they may be willing to enter into voluntary negotiations. But failing that we are making a CPO, subject to there being sufficient interest in the property.

“The development brief is not prescriptive - it is there to invite expressions of interest from prospective developers. The district council must be satisfied there is sufficient interest before it goes ahead with the order.”

Mr Stockton said the ideal solution envisaged for the site would be a mixed-use development incorporating housing and retail use.

Joyce Trett, a district and town councillor for Wells, said an 800-signature petition had been collected which proved the strength of feeling in the town.

“It is extremely important, and the people of the town will be so pleased that this step forward has been achieved,” she said. “It is not a quick fix, and it won't happen overnight, but things are moving forward and we now know it won't be left as an eyesore for more long years.”

Five years of discussions on the redevelopment of the fire-damaged quayside site have failed to result in a planning application.

Previous ideas for the re-use of the Grays Arcade building have included reinventing it as a boutique hotel, but ownership disputes within the Gray family have stalled any concrete proposals.

By contrast, the owner of the neighbouring former Yellow Shop, Lincolnshire-based businessman Chris Isaac, did draw up plans last year to turn his part of the site into a caf� and wine bar. But although pre-application talks were held with district planners, they did not result in a formal submission.

Mrs Oxtoby said: “While there has been more willingness shown on the part of one owner, there has still been no development on the site after five years. If either landowner is able to come forward with a proposal which is in line with the development brief, then we would not exclude them from the negotiations.”

Neither the Gray family nor Mr Isaac were available for comment when the Times went to press.