Geoffrey Bowden, the Brighton and Hove City Council cabinet member for culture, is possessed of an easy charm. But he is not without a glint of steel.
Today (Tuesday 25 October) he would have needed all the charm that he could muster for one of the most important meetings of his stint in office so far.
He may have hoped to convey the impression that if his courteous manners fail to win the day then he has other ways of cutting through a tangled situation.
He held a meeting about Saltdean Lido with the leaseholder Dennis Audley.
And he may have had a message for Mr Audley that could spell the start of hostilities.
Mr Audley took over the lease from the council in 1997. Recently he has managed to unite the people of Saltdean. Unfortunately for Mr Audley, they are united in wanting the council to revoke the lease.
It is the sort of step that most councils are reluctant to take, not least because of the potential legal costs and the prospect of paying compensation.
Mr Audley upset the lido’s neighbours – and the wider community – last year when he announced plans to redevelop the site.
So great is the concern that Brighton Kemptown MP Simon Kirby took the unusual step of speaking about it as a member of the public at a council meeting last week.
Mr Kirby, a former member of the council, said: “The leaseholder has publicly stated for well over seven years that his desire is to build flats on the site.
“Last year he presented plans and held a public exhibition attended by many local people where he proposed filling in the pool with concrete and building some 102 flats over five levels high.”
Mr Kirby noted the rundown state of the lido and praised the work of campaigners trying to save it.
He outlined the Acts of Parliament that give the council power and influence in this sort of case.
The council can, for example, require repairs and maintenance to be carried out on the Grade II* listed lido. If the leaseholder fails to do the work, the council can carry out the work and bill the owner.
Given the building’s listed status, the prospect of compulsory purchase is a little less difficult than in ordinary circumstances.
The council’s hand was strengthened further last week when English Heritage added the lido to its register of buildings considered to be “at risk”.
Mr Audley is a property developer and may well be able to afford any repair work required. But given the age and condition of the building – and its status – it could turn from an asset into a liability.
He may be reluctant to surrender the lease but he is also likely to be reluctant to rack up costs that he can’t recoup.
Because let’s be clear: the council has stated unambiguously that it won’t allow the lido to be concreted and built over – either as the landlord or as the planning authority.
The message was unanimous, backed by all three political parties and with the support of the key community organisations.
And it has also now stated its will to address the risks highlighted by English Heritage.
If Mr Bowden set out the council’s position in his customary clear and pleasant manner, Mr Audley should be in no doubt that he may do well to cut his losses.
The alternative is likely to be a protracted and potentially costly wrangle.
Having aroused the wrath of the lido’s neighbours and its owner, it is hard to see a profitable way forward under the present arrangements.
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