Unlocking East Quay

After an extremely exciting Full Council meeting (how many times have you heard that sentence?) on February 18th, Onion Collective has now officially become the Preferred Bidder on the East Quay site. This means that on the conditions that we reach an agreement with Watchet Harbour Marina, and that we are able to provide a ‘substantial capital receipt’ to the Council, we now have 3 years in which to find the funding to build our proposed Work Foundry development.

This is great progress and a really important milestone to reach. We have always known that one of the most important drivers for change, in terms of town regeneration, is the support of our Local Authority, without which nothing can be achieved. And so to everyone at West Somerset Council, members and officers who have helped us, as well as the wonderful folk of Watchet who came either to provide moral support, or to speak in support of the proposal, and to Vidhya Alakeson and Maff Potts from the Power to Change Trust, who also came down to show support, we say a massive heart-felt thank you!

For those of you who love Watchet, and enjoy a bit of spirit stirring from time to time, do take the time to read the speech that Jess gave at Cabinet and, then again at Full Council.

It explains why we are doing what we do, what we hope to achieve and what is so special about Watchet. Here it is:

(Jessica Prendergrast) " Good afternoon. Thank you for giving us this chance to address the Cabinet / Full Council today.

You’ll all be relieved to hear that we are not going to show you a Prezi this time around. You’ve all had more information from us that you can probably bear. We are grateful for the time we have been given today and previously. What I want to do today is not reiterate all the consultation and numbers and designs. Rather I want to talk about this town – about what is so special about Watchet – and about what we want to do to secure that for the future.

Put simply, the East Quay project represents an extraordinary opportunity to change a place for the better; to improve the opportunities in the town in which we have chosen to raise our families. What we want to do is take a loved, beautiful, interesting but underrated town and help it to flourish as a place to live, work and visit and elevate it from being the sixth most deprived ward in Somerset.

There is a fascinating, but depressing report, published in 2011 by the Department for Communities and Local Government, that made a real impact on our understanding of what this project needed to try to do; why it mattered that the regeneration of this town that was always supposed to lead on from the building of the Marina, now does happen.

It’s a report about small coastal towns and it benchmarks Watchet against 36 other similar-sized towns across England, including 14 in the south west. On almost every of the 30 or so categories that it looks at Watchet fairs badly – on employment measures, on skills, in educational attainment, in access to services, in reliance on benefits, in occupational structure, on almost all the categories that make up the multiple indices of deprivation. Three domains within the Indices – income, employment, and education – together offer a reasonable guide to the more ‘economic’ dimensions of disadvantage. Of the 37, Watchet figures amongst the ten most disadvantaged in all three of the ‘economic’ domains in the Indices of Deprivation. The authors conclude it can be seen as one of those having the greatest economic problems.

So it is not about an abstract idea of ‘regeneration’ it is explicitly and purposefully about jobs, about opportunities, about work. In fact, there were only two areas where Watchet faired better than its peers – where we’re doing pretty well . Firstly, on crime, lack of not lots of. The second, is that unlike all but one of the other seaside towns in this report, Watchet has an unusually high proportion of jobs in manufacturing, in making. In Watchet this of course reflects the continuing existence of the paper mill. But it also points to to the fact that Watchet’s character is as a working town, where people get on and do stuff, make things, build, create. The trades that characterise Watchet’s history are all about making. From far back the seamen and shipwrights of Watchet could turn their hands to anything. From shipbuilding, to lime-burning, cloth-making, manufacturing boxes and blankets, ropes and sails, mining alabaster and gypsum, to the many trades connected with timber and paper-pulp, and the foundries that traditionally operated here to make machine parts and keep the railway and shipyard in good working order, this town had always made and created.

We believe there is an opportunity here to enhance that for a new generation. Our Work Foundry, with its communal makerspace, studios, workshops and co-working represents a core believe that the attainment of skill is the path to employment, confidence and wellbeing. It will provide a community-operated workshop that has access to tools and machinery from laser cutters, electronics kits, carpentry, jewellry making, glass, stone, metal work or whatever it maybe that its members want and need. Its all about changing opportunities and shifting aspirations. It will be a place that can support start up businesses, provide advice and pool skills, where generations can pass on their expertise to others, or just be a friendly place for those who like to tinker, and hang out with like minded people. Such places encourage enterprise, interaction, and collective endeavour. And these, in turn, encourage collaboration, innovation and growth. It will be a place that pulls together manufacture, art and industry, because it is all the same thing, it's all about making - and that is what gives people purpose, has always given purpose to this town.

So this is a project about work, and it is also about people and it is about place.

The place of Watchet has a character all of its own. Paul Johnson, writing in the Spectator about Watchet in 2003 wrote:

"Villages and towns are rather like people; they either have charm or they don’t, and it’s not always easy to explain why. ….Watchet is entirely true to itself, a hard-working place that has struggled to keep it’s head above the water – sometimes literally – for well over 1,000 years, and looks it: weather-beaten, bony, sinewy, no frills or ye-oldes, with no rich men’s houses or follies – just solid working-class history stretching back until it dissolves into the mists of early Anglo-Saxon times."

We love this description, and another I will read you too. This time a Mrs Osborn Hann who came to Watchet in the Edwardian period. She had been commissioned to write a book on Somerset in conjunction with the artists Heaton Cooper and Walter Tyndale and she wrote the following.

"Watchet, that little, quaint and higgledy-piggledy town which is more like a foreign quay than any place I know of. Here the houses seem to have dropped willy-nilly from the skies, falling north, south, east or west with careless unconcern".

This description captures Watchet’s idiosyncracy, its eclecticism, its charm. And it is this that architect Piers Taylor has sought to capture in his designs for the East Quay. The architecture of the whole scheme speaks explicitly of Watchet, through its materials, scale and proportion. The buildings are purposely eclectic, they require you to explore, turn corners, seek out views. Their purpose is to change things, - and to create something extraordinary – a Vertical Pier – that will attract visitors to this town. Echoing the lighthouse and steep rise of the cliffs, it will become synonymous with Watchet, acting as a beacon to visitors from far and wide; - from it you will be able to see, from right within the heart of the town, everything that is special about it - the coast, the geology, the hills, and Exmoor.

And because this is a community enterprise, the walkway up is literally wrapped around one of the revenue streams that supports the whole project - a core of beautiful, bespoke, extraordinary places to stay one on top of each other.

In this the development is about tourism and culture. It offers visitors something to see and do. It is also about containing and protecting public space by bringing activity and vibrancy to the quayside. And again this is part of the story of Watchet. Its history is about creativity about culture, about music and community. It not only has best fiddle-player in the West running a cider bar, the coolest private members club in the UK, and an ever more popular and established music festival, but is the port where the Rime of the Ancient Mariner began and ended. Those of us who know it well can easily understand why this gritty intriguing place would be able to inspire the greatest of the romantic poets.

The third thing that makes Watchet so special is its people, its community. We have been overwhelmed and humbled by the interest, and energy, by the openness and enthusiasm of the people of Watchet in thinking seriously and sensibly about what would be best for their town and their children. That is not to say that we have not been challenged, that we have not had to defend, explain and very many times adjust our plans in the light of both problems we didn’t see or ideas that were better than ours, but it is precisely this, these insights that Watchet’s community have given us are what have made this process worthwhile and are what will make this project, ultimately, work.

A case in point is our, ‘robust’ discussions with the Marina Operator as to how best to configure the quayside. It has been interesting, and we have been pushed hard, but that is fine – as we have said repeatedly, we firmly believe that any development must do right by the Marina and the berth holders if it is to succeed. This town needs a thriving Marina. But we are also gratified not only by the amount of time and consideration that the Marina have given these discussions, which to me is a mark of their commitment to finding a solution, but also that they have acknowledged our efforts to accommodate and by their repeatedly stating that they want to see the project succeed. We have a couple of areas yet to clarify but I am confident we can reach a mutually beneficial agreement that the Council can accept.

The literature on community ownership reinforces again and again what it is that makes it work, one of these is organisations – like us and the Marina and the Council, working together towards a common goal, but top of the list is the attitude of the people. To quote Paul Johnson again, “There is a certain spirit in Watchet -Watchet people keep up with the times, are enterprising and inventive. But they are also modest, quiet, soft-spoken and unobtrusive.” You’ll recognise I am not talking about myself here! But to this I would add some other characteristics that for me sum up the people of this community. The people of Watchet are resilient, self-reliant, industrious, forward thinking, generous. They view change not as a threat but as an opportunity.

And Watchet has this incredible history of changing, making, growing.

150 years ago the East Wharf and East Pier were constructed where previously had been a sandy beach used for ship-building and lime kilns. By 1912 the West Somerset Railway extended right out onto the East Wharf and the docks developed as a critical and completely transformative part of the economy. From the 1970s the docks began to close and Watchet adapted, as she does, again, with the building of the Marina itself at the millennium. We want to finally help to complete that process of regeneration, to widen aspirations, opportunities, prosperity. We are, as I hope is clear from all this work, really proud of our town, and all of the people, who live here. We cannot wait to get started on the next part of the journey. We hope you will support us. "

To view our proposals for East Quay click here

Featured Posts
Recent Posts