Pier bid that was scuttled by cynicism
PUBLISHED: 20:24 23 October 2001 | UPDATED: 10:43 03 March 2010
PLANS to build a £15 million new pier complex for Felixstowe have been abandoned. RICHARD CORNWELL looks at the bumpy ride the project endured - and why it failed to get off the ground.
PLANS to build a £15 million new pier complex for Felixstowe have been abandoned. RICHARD CORNWELL looks at the bumpy ride the project endured – and why it failed to get off the ground.
IT was probably the last major opportunity to regenerate Felixstowe as a seaside resort and change the ailing fortunes of its tourism industry.
The scheme to create a new £15 million pier complex was a project of great vision and enormous ambition. And it probably would have succeeded in making the resort a boom town if it could have been accomplished.
But neither the Felixstowe business community, its residents, nor its councillors, ever really grasped the opportunity – or shared the enthusiasm of those behind it.
Now, four years after it was first put forward, the scheme has been abandoned.
The big question is not why has it been dumped, but why did Felixstowe apparently not want such a massive development on its seafront.
The reactions to the idea of a new pier, one which could attract hundreds of thousands of visitors with wads of money to spend in the town, have always been mixed – mainly cynicism, disbelief, and straight forward opposition.
Many people just thought it was "pie in the sky", never likely to happen despite the architect's drawings, model and computer-generated presentation.
It was just not the sort of thing which happened in Felixstowe.
Others were quite cynical about Stan Threadwell's involvement. His family had owned the pier since the 1960s and gave it to the Felixstowe Pier Trust after it was discovered that it was too dangerous for the public to use.
While Mr Threadwell gave the trust fantastic support – both through his efforts to interest people in the idea of redevelopment, and financially – the trustees never managed to successfully explain the nature of his involvement.
The cynics felt that Mr Threadwell, who owns the amusement arcade at the entrance to the pier and was set to expand and refurbish it at his own expense, would gain from the new pier complex.
But the truth was that he would not be running the new pier – unless he had successfully bid for a contract for any of its attractions.
The trust was a charity, independent and not beholden to anyone, but it still had difficulty in even convincing the politicians of its aims.
Then there was the opposition – some voiced already, but mostly what was expected once the plan advanced.
It is clear that many people do not want Felixstowe to change and today will be breathing a huge sigh of relief that the pier plan is dead.
Many people have moved there because it is a small coastal town, not a thriving seaside resort. The idea of 200,000 extra people a year visiting a revolving restaurant and casino did not appeal.
The new pier would have completely transformed the seafront, both in its looks and its activity and many people believe change, except for slow decline, is bad.
Many just want Felixstowe to stay the way it is, sleepy, comfortable, where the big stores in Ipswich are the main shopping centre, that town's theatres and cinemas and clubs the places to go for entertainment.
It is Ipswich-by-the-Sea, where the good folk from 10 miles up the A14, come to visit on a Sunday for a bargain on the market, chips on the prom and a stroll by the waves and the mewing, hungry seagulls. A Frinton-in-waiting.
Not everyone though was against the idea of a new pier – and a large number firmly believed it was the way forward, that it could be the catalyst for regeneration, to create jobs, new business and fuel the town's economy.
Suffolk Coastal council will – fairly or unfairly – get some of the stick for the failure of the project to take off.
As one leading council Cabinet member said recently, the authority mysteriously pumps little money into its prime resort compared with how many councils act toward their seaside towns.
Suffolk Coastal will rightly say that it gave £5,000 towards the much-needed feasibility study.
But that was after a two-year campaign by the trustees and was still only half of what they needed. Had the council given the £10,000 requested, the county council would have matched it and the study would have been done and the project would still be alive today.
The district council has given thousands of pounds of public money towards consultants' reports on many other projects – not least to the scheme to expand BT's Adastral Park at Martlesham, one of the country's richest businesses. It has also spent tens of thousands of pounds of public money on consultants for its own tourism plan on Felixstowe's south seafront, which, unless it is hugely imaginative, will do little to regenerate the resort on its own.
But it wanted to see more private sector commitment to the pier plan – and felt half the money for it should come from private backers as it was to be a commercial enterprise.
"The redevelopment will only happen if private investors support it as well, and it would be appropriate if they showed their commitment by backing the feasibility study as well. For this major scheme to succeed it will need a partnership and it is time for others to come on board and help take this scheme forward," said council leader Ray Herring.
There was obviously still a long way to go between the feasibility report and the reality of a new pier appearing on the seafront.
The report would probably have said the scheme was economically viable, the trustees would have used it to attract capital investment.
But with much work still to do, they appear to have been frustrated and disappointed at the lack of progress.
That is easy to understand. Two of the trustees are successful businessmen – whose experience and expertise is needed on a major project like this – and used to making a decision and putting it into practice immediately.
Four years to them probably seemed like 40. To council and government officials used to taking an age over simple things, it was a short lead-in time, especially for a large project.
It did take a leap of imagination to look down from Felixstowe's clifftops and visualise a new pier, reaching 150 ft to the lighthouse on its top, its 100ft diameter revolving restaurant lazily spinning.
Around 200,000 extra visitors a year, 18,000 of them staying over in local hotels, coming to spend in the casino, attend a meeting at the 300-delegate conference venue, or visit the national seaside heritage centre, or the climatic change exhibition, or have a meal and watch the shipping.
An economy buzzing with 150 new jobs, plus the potential for more if entrepreneurs took advantage of the feel-good factor and the £3.9m injected into the town each year.
Sadly, the dream has faded. Soon there will be no pier at all as the old crumbling one will have to be demolished. Felixstowe will never know what it missed.