The South West Regional Development Agency’s decision to pull £6.6m of funding for the regeneration of Weymouth seafront has not only acted as a killer blow to the scheme, but ignited a debate about the merits of investing in public-realm design in a recession.
The Esplanade Regeneration scheme, led by Weymouth and Portland Borough Council, would have seen the Dorset town’s seafront transformed in time for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, when Weymouth will host the sailing competitions.
There were plans for new beach rescue and tourist information buildings and five new focal points to link the seafront with the town centre and harbour areas and give greater priority to pedestrians. There were also proposals to implement a new lighting scheme that would bring the Victorian lights along the seafront back into use, refurbish the Victorian shelters, and invest in new street furniture and hard landscaping.
Work had been under way on the project for two years, with SWRDA earmarking the £6.6m last September, and in the past few weeks the council had been in initial discussions with a number of designers prior to issuing tenders.
Councillor Michael Goodman, chair of Weymouth Council’s management committee, says, ‘We were well on our way with the project and had held interviews.’ LDA Design had been shortlisted to redesign the seafront development, alongside five other practices.
Then last week, in its announcement of its two-year investment package, SWRDA pulled the funding.
Goodman continues, ‘We are bitterly disappointed at the decision to renege on the agreement to part-fund our seafront regeneration project. A great deal of work by our staff and those of potential partners has been wasted as a result of the late and total withdrawal of SWRDA funding.’
In a statement at the time of its funding announcement, SWRDA chief executive Jane Henderson said, ‘Like most businesses and families throughout the region, we have had to tighten our belts and will not be able to fund all the investments as we hoped we could. None of these choices have been made lightly.’
She added, ‘Given limited resources, we have our sights firmly focused on doing things that are most important for ensuring that the South West comes through the recession in the best possible shape to succeed as a dynamic, sustainable, thriving regional economy.’
By far the biggest beneficiary of the SWRDA funding is Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, which is hosting the Designs of the Time initiative, being delivered by the Design Council, Cornwall Council and University College Falmouth.
A total of £23m has been set aside in this region for potential projects including an environment and sustainability institute and an academy of sustainability research. The total SWRDA cash earmaked for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly is £52.2m, which vastly overshadows the £6.1m going to Dorset. Goodman says, ‘SWRDA’s decision has really emphasised the disparities in funding between different areas in the region. Anyone in Cornwall who wants to paint rocks can get money for it.’
Another reason he thinks SWRDA was averse to investing in Weymouth was that it would be difficult to measure the economic improvements it would bring. ‘It’s more likely to want to, for example, build factories that invest in a public-realm offer,’ says Goodman, ‘even if that does bring in tourism, as it’s less easy to measure this.’
This is despite Weymouth Council’s earlier assertions that the scheme would increase annual business turnover in the town by up to £4.8m a year, and create up to 180 jobs.
If the example of the regeneration of Scarborough Harbour, North Yorkshire, is anything to go by, then Weymouth’s estimates are probably not too far off. Completed by LDA Design with Gardiner and Theobald, Mouchel, Seymour Civil Engineering and Speirs and Major in June 2007 at a cost of £2.8m, the scheme, funded by Scarborough Borough Council, Yorkshire Forward and the European Regional Development Fund, saw new seating and lighting installed, along with resurfacing and new pontoon berths in the inner harbour.
Since Scarborough’s renaissance programme was launched, the town claims to have attracted £200m in inward investment and was last month named Most Enterprising Place in Europe at the European Enterprise Awards.
When SWRDA unveiled its now-aborted £6.6m Weymouth investment last September, Tony Bray, SWRDA’s Dorset director, said, ‘This seafront project will boost the local economy and unlock its business potential by positioning Weymouth and Portland as a 21st-century destination.’ He added, ‘The 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games mean the eyes of the world will be on us, so we all want to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and ensure that we leave a lasting legacy.’
Sadly, this opportunity now seems to have been passed up. Goodman says, ‘We have match-funding so we’re going to see what we can salvage. We’re going to do the best we can.’
The original Weymouth plans:
- Rejuvenation of the seafront to raise the profile of Weymouth as a resort
- Provision of a new George III Square, Tourist Information Centre, Beach Rescue Centre and sand sculpture structure
- Enhancement for the promenade landscaping, and an artist-led lighting scheme