‘Gem or a white elephant’: Will dream of world’s biggest snow park in Suffolk quarry now happen?
PUBLISHED: 07:38 18 May 2020 | UPDATED: 11:32 18 May 2020
For nearly 20 years, mammoth proposals for a £500m snow park near Ipswich have moved at a glacial pace. But could they now finally happen?
Standing on the edge of a former quarry and holding a copy of the Evening Star, dubbing his project “Ski Whizz”, Godfrey Spanner was all smiles in 2008.
But three years later, Mr Spanner, the man then behind SnOasis, faced court action and in 2012 he was declared bankrupt.
Since then, SnOasis – a dream to build the world’s biggest indoor winter sports arena at Masons Quarry in Great Blakenham – has faced huge hurdles.
But in the most recent planning documents, the project’s agent says £500m of funding is in place and last month Mid Suffolk Council gave it the green light.
The plans at the 350-acre site include a 400m-long indoor ski-slope, an ice rink and dry run bobsleigh ride, along with 350 chalets and apartments.
Some major figures – like the area’s MP Dr Dan Poulter – remain sceptical it will ever happen. Yet big investors, and a former Olympian, have continued to back it, believing Suffolk will become the envy of the winter sports world.
Our investigation into the project has found:
• Backers include a multi-billion-pound private investment group which owns the Royal Crescent Hotel in Bath
• A new company, run by an airport executive and former banker to the super-rich, now owns the land
• 2023 is thought to be the target for opening – but one of its biggest supporters fears it will be delayed by coronavirus
•Irish money turns sour
The dream began in 2001 when land at Field Quarry (also known as Masons) was purchased and a planning application was put forward in 2004 by Onslow Suffolk Ltd, then managed by Mr Spanner.
An Irish investment firm, First Equity Group Ltd, had a 70% share in SnOasis – and Alan Barry, its co-founder, remains a director of Onslow Suffolk today.
The plans were provisionally approved by the council in 2006 but they sparked a public inquiry. Officials eventually rubber-stamped the scheme in 2008. But the project appeared to hit an iceberg from 2009 to 2011, when its majority shareholder First Equity Group collapsed having backed projects worth €1billion.
Directors Peter Frohlich and Godfrey Spanner, meanwhile, faced court action over a separate venture, Onslow Ditchling Ltd.
At the time, Mr Spanner – who still lists himself as ‘SnOasis life president’ on Facebook and Linkedin – told this newspaper his “entire funding package” was in place.
Fresh planning proposals were eventually put into Mid Suffolk District Council in 2016 and Mr Spanner said at the time he hoped SnOasis would open in 2020.
Onslow Suffolk had a long list of Irish investors, but in late 2018, the land was sold to a new firm, Masons Quarry Investments Co Ltd (MQI) for £7m and Onslow Suffolk is no longer involved.
•The new backers
Founded in 2016, MQI has two directors – Cameron Ogden, boss of a small airport called Blackbushe in Hampshire, and William Harford, whose company Aetreum Asset Management part-owns MQI.
A former banker, Mr Harford handles investments for ‘ultra-high net worth’ individuals, according to the firm’s website.
MQI is also part-owned by businessman Nathan Kempin. Mr Kempin was once a director of Cathco Property Holdings Limited, which went into administration in late 2010.
According to MQI’s latest accounts, filed in October 2019, the firm had £8.5m in assets and owed £8.8m to creditors as of December 2018.
And while MQI now owns the land, a second company called Topland Jupiter Limited, is named as the financial backer in public documents.
The company is part of Topland Group – a multi-billion-pound private investment group which owns the Royal Crescent Hotel in Bath – and had a turnover of £26m with assets of £171m, according to its 2019 accounts.
MQI bosses remained tight-lipped when asked by this newspaper about SnOasis funding this week and said official announcements would be made “at the right time”.
They also declined to say how many visitors would be needed to keep SnOasis going, but in 2016 the previous owners predicted 600,000 visitors a year.
•Gem or white elephant?
Dr Dan Poulter, Central Suffolk and North Ipswich MP questioned whether a financial backer would put money behind a project like SnOasis right now.
“The long-term viability of the project is something that has always been of great concern to me and my view of that has not changed,” he said.
“I would be very surprised if – in a world where social distancing is going to become a fact of life for many months if not years - whether a financial backer would support the project at the moment.
“This is not an auspicious time to be launching multi-million-pound projects where the long-term business model may not be viable.
“My biggest concern remains that we will end up spoiling a very beautiful part of the country – Suffolk’s countryside – and end up with a while elephant that doesn’t have a long-term future.
“If it works there could be some benefits, from an employment perspective to Suffolk. But I still feel even in more certain economic times, the likelihood of this being a long-lasting success story is minimal.”
Ex-Olympic bobsledder Lenny Paul, who had made presentations to planners in SnOasis’ favour, is more optimistic.
“The company itself and the whole project seems to be really going forward,” he said.
“If all the right people who have promised to come forward do come forward, and we get everything in place, it is going to be a fantastic deal for Suffolk.
“Olympic associations say they’re coming on board - that will generate some more funding and money for training.
“It’s a gem falling right on our doorstep. Suffolk, everyone in the world is looking at us, so we must deliver.”
But Mr Paul does fear the impact of Covid-19: “I hope it will happen in the next five years, that was the promise. I know the plan was for this January to start doing everything, and because of this virus, it’s been put back a year.
“I am very optimistic, but you have to be realistic as well. 2023 would have been nice but I think everything is going to be put back.
“At least one thing for sure is there will be plenty of work. Suffolk’s going to be the envy of the world and I don’t say that lightly.”
•More visitors, more jobs
The final planning decision for SnOasis was made behind closed doors by Mid Suffolk’s chief planning officer Philip Isbell in April because of the pandemic.
David Burn, responsible for planning at the council, said he was pleased by the decision as it “reflected the will of our planning committee”, the majority of whom backed the project last year.
He said: “The developer is fully committed to delivering the SnOasis project – notwithstanding the current crisis.
“We therefore have no reason to consider that this significant mixed-used resort will not be operational in coming years.
“We have a responsibility for the economic growth of Mid Suffolk and therefore welcome a scheme that will create more jobs, attract new businesses and bring visitors to the area.
“The development itself is likely to create over 5,000 jobs in the area, and in addition to sport facilities will offer potential for further retail units, an entertainment centre and hotel accommodation. The community will also benefit from having world class facilities on their doorstep.
“However, we must also balance this with the needs of local residents.”
Substantial upgrades are due to be made to Stowmarket railway station, compensation made for waste and disposal, significant highways improvements and funding for a countryside management warden to mitigate the impact of the development, he added.
•Where’s the station?
Green councillor Andrew Stringer sat on the committee which gave the project original approval - but he voted against it.
He said: “I personally have issues with this approval not being made in public. For something of this magnitude, the vote should have been in a public meeting and not just waved through behind closed doors.”
John Field has been a local councillor for the ward where SnOasis would be built for the whole time it has been on the agenda.
He also raised fears about Mid Suffolk’s handling of the application: “I think the administration is obsessed with the financial returns which I have grave doubts about.
“They allowed it to go ahead without an £18m railway station for Great Blakenham which was part of the government’s decision - that it was essential to make the ecological and environmental impacts and they haven’t done that. There will now be a shuttle bus from Stowmarket station instead.
“I personally have a lot of negative feeling, we’re falling over backwards to accept this possibility that there will be an economic benefit.”
He acknowledged both sides of the debate, adding: “A lot of the local population, myself included, really don’t really want that great big ski slope on the horizon dominating our rural area so there’s a lot of feeling against it.
“I have to recognise as the local councillor that there’s quite a lot of people that think it would be great to have a nice place to go, to perhaps have a party.”
•What happens now?
Mid Suffolk Council is due to publish a section 106 legal agreement which has been agreed with MQI, Topland Jupiter Ltd and Suffolk County Council.
It will set out how MQI, which has been granted approval for its reserved matters planning application, will offset costs for certain parts of the community affected by the development.
MQI bosses said the firm is hard at work on the project and will provide details of time scales once they have concrete announcements to make.
Nathan Kempin and Godfrey Spanner were approached for comment. Onslow Suffolk Ltd was unavailable for comment.
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