When applying for planning permission is like arriving at Base Camp of Everest

After four years, we have now applied for planning permission for a flagship £6m Community, Cultural and Enterprise development at Watchet’s East Quay. The plans include 14 workspace/studio units, a double storey gallery, a restaurant, marina facilities, self-catering accommodation pods and high quality public realm.

This is very much a community led development. We started in April 2014 with a blank sheet of paper, and have consulted and amended and consulted and amended, and here we are. It feels very much like arriving at the Base Camp at Everest. In order to arrive here, we have already fought strange and unexpected battles which have felt not that dissimilar to the 12 labours of Hercules, so there’s an air of celebration for us – we made it to the start!! But it’s a pretty high and perilous mountain still to climb. It’s no mean feat to raise £6m, in this economic climate, with Brexit looming. We have our road map, we know our path but damn that mountain looks treacherous. My husband, enjoying the Base Camp analogy has told me all about the ‘death zone’ at the top of Everest. Oh super! I’m so glad.

So, is it worth it? What’s the prize?

Well, for us the short answer is – everything. But let’s distill it down to our 4 most important reasons for building this building, in this place, now.

1.Civic Pride. West Somerset has the lowest social mobility in the whole country as identified in the State of the Nation report that hit the headlines a month or so ago. That lack of mobility is quite literally paralysing. For our young people growing up here, it feels as though there is no hope. For those of you who have witnessed depression it’s not that dissimilar a feeling of being stuck in a dark tunnel with both entrance and exit sealed. When our last remaining source of industry, Wansbrough Paper Mill closed in 2015 that was the last chink of light. And yet, we as a community are stronger and more cohesive than any community I have ever lived in. Together we are powerful people and so, this development is about us rising up, as a community and saying,” no. We will not be condemned, we will work together and fight for our future, and we will give our townsfolk something to be truly proud of.”

2.Building our economy. In order for us, as a community to build a stronger future for our town we must find a way of strengthening our economy. We must create jobs, bring in investment and bring visitors into Watchet. This development would bring an investment of £6m to the town, it will provide 30+ jobs and it will bring an increased tourism spend of £2.3m per year, that figure is enough to support a further 30 jobs. It won’t solve all of our problems, but it’s a damn fine start.

3. Culture. Sometimes it’s important to remind ourselves about the importance of the arts in our lives, in everyone’s lives. The definition of art for everyone is probably different, but for me it’s a way of connecting with each other about what it’s like to be human. For me, a gallery is a house of imagination. If you look inside anyone’s mind you will find things that are perplexing, outrageous, hilarious, peaceful or sinister. A gallery, a book, the theatre, a film is the same. They connect us and make us feel less alone. But too often, too frequently ‘culture’ is seen as the leisure grounds of the elite and the wealthy. As though they are the only ‘human’ ones. This is not, and is never ok. We must create buildings and spaces that bring the arts to every human everywhere. But especially in places that have no, or very little cultural buildings or spaces. We need cultural buildings here in West Somerset so our children can grow up feeling familiar in these places, and then less afraid to enter them all over the country.

4. Architecture. It is also easy to undervalue the importance of quality architecture. Each of us has felt the change in atmosphere when we enter a building like a Cathedral, or The Houses of Parliament, or a museum, how our posture and our breathing changes when we enter these places, how it changes the way we feel. We know that if you grow up privileged in grand buildings, you believe that is who you are, if you grow up in a poor quality housing estate, you feel as though that is who you are. Our buildings define us, however subliminally. But it’s all about money and power right? No, or at least not any more, our architect, Piers Taylor, from Invisible Studio is one of the most exciting and interesting architects working today, last year he won a National RIBA award for his building at Westonbirt Arboretum. The buildings that he has designed at East Quay, together with Landscape Architects LT Studio, are special because he is interested in buildings that are accessible, beautiful, high quality, affordable. But importantly the buildings speak of the place in which they are situated and the people who use them. Piers is interested in how the people who use a building interact with it and change it over time. We hope that over the course of the build some of the more simple elements will be 'community live builds', and so in the earliest tradition of community building, the act of constructing is part of what connects the people who live here with their cultural buildings. East Quay will show that good quality architecture is no longer just for the elite, it is for everyone.

So you see, the stakes are high. What we want to achieve here in Watchet is something extraordinary and transformative, which goes beyond a few artist workshops and a cafe. We want to be part of a community who believes it can do everything it needs to change its fortunes, and is proud to do so.

But it’s not easy and the mountain is high. Here we are at base camp, it's been a long journey to get here, and at times we have wished for all the tea in China that someone else could just climb it for us and we could stay warm and snug in front of the fire. But hey, where’s the fun in that? So, join us! We are running a series of community consultations in the second week of February to discuss all the plans and hopes for the future, and we would love to see you there.

Dates for the consultations are on the poster here:

To find out more about the development, click here

Here's a short film we made about the development; Click here

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