Among the facilities on offer at local landmark function and conference centre, Thornton Manor, are three marquees sited on the estate. They are known as the Waterside Pavilion, the Lakeside Marquee and the Walled Garden Marquee.
A document just published by Wirral Council, written for the Planning Committee by Assistant Director of Environmental Services, David Ball, reveals that an administrative foul up has placed the Planning Department and the Manor’s owners tent poles apart. There is even a possibility of legal action.
Back in 2010, on April 9, a planning application seeking permission to erect three marquees was received by Wirral Council, stating that they would be used for private functions and conferences.
Council planning officers concluded that the proposed development “constituted inappropriate development which is by definition harmful to the openness of the green belt.”
However, at the time, Thornton Manor’s registered historic park and gardens and the lake were considered to be at risk, and a case was presented that the creation of an income stream would enable their restoration. In other words, profits generated by the new facilities would be reinvested in the future wellbeing of the estate.
This case found favour amid consideration that there were “very special circumstances necessary to overcome the presumption against inappropriate development.”
However, the Council also believed that consent should be limited to a period of five years. This would “enable realistic monitoring and review of the financial situation and prevent the establishment of inappropriate structures in the green belt for longer than necessary.”
The application was first reported to the Planning Committee on 21 July 2010 but was deferred to allow for a formal Members Site Visit to take place. Ultimately it was approved by a vote of 7 to 5, with the five year period beginning on the date of the issue of the Decision Notice.
The next step was for both the applicant – Thornton Holdings Ltd – and the Council to negotiate something called a Section 106 Agreement. This would oblige Thornton Holdings to carry out restoration work in a financially transparent manner.
On 27 May 2011 a draft Decision Notice was prepared and sent to the applicant, and uploaded to the Council website. On November 11 of that year, the 106 Agreement was sealed and issued.
“This,” says the Council, “is the date that the Decision Notice should have been dated and issued to the applicant releasing the grant of Planning Permission. However, for reasons that is has just not been possible to understand, a decision notice was not produced or issued on 11 November 2011. A Decision Notice was produced on 20 December 2011 that was also published to the Council’s web[site] and issued to the applicant’s agents at that time.”
And here lies the rub: “This Decision Notice was issued to the applicant without any conditions listed on the document.”
In other words, there was no mention of a five year period. In fact, as far as this Notice was concerned, the marquees were here to stay for as long as the owners wished.
The other conditions missing from the document included a requirement to build noise limiters and restrictions on the use of fireworks.
It seems that no one at Wirral Council was aware that this condition free Notice had been issued. Believing the time limit was in place and would lapse on November 11 last year, the Council advised Thornton Manor that a new application would have to be made to continue the use of the marquees.
Whereupon: “At a meeting on 5th May 2017 with the applicant, his agent and legal representative, the Decision Notice dated 20 December 2011 was produced which had no conditions on it. The Council were informed that this was the first and only decision notice that had been issued to them and that they were seeking to rely upon this Notice as being the lawfully issued decision. This, in effect, granted a completely uncontrolled grant of planning permission subject to no conditions. The Section 106 Agreement, signed on 11 November 2011, however, was still valid and in place.”
On the subject of the Decision Notice the Council had quickly conceded defeat.
However, the purpose of the 106 Agreement is to guarantee that earnings from the marquees fund the restoration of parts of the Thornton Manor estate. This included accounting to the Council for event income on a quarterly basis “to enable the Council to monitor the event profit and the proper application of the event profit to the work programme as required by the planning permission.”
The Council reports that, “Thornton Holdings Limited have to date not complied with the obligations. The Council is actively pursuing remedy of the contractual breaches and will, if necessary, issue appropriate legal proceedings to ensure compliance.”
Heswall Today spoke to Tania Steel, Commercial Director of Thornton Manor Estate Ltd. She sees the situation differently: “Thornton Manor have on file the specific and most importantly currently dated, written confirmation from the Council (July 2017) stating that we are legally operating in full compliance outlined in the agreement.”
When asked about accounting to the Council for event revenue on a quarterly basis she replied: “Thornton Manor is a responsible business and operates accordingly. Monthly accounting practises are in place and Thornton Manor takes its contribution to the wedding and hospitality industry very seriously. Its profitability allows us to continue to employ and invest in all its employees. The ongoing success and reputation of Thornton Manor is critically linked to so many, that we take every possible precaution to operate within the full extent of the law.
“In addition the ongoing investment in the repair and maintenance of the Manor and Estate is foremost in ensuring that Thornton Manor remains a thriving historic Wirral landmark. The legacy of the former Leverhulme family is truly embedded in the walls and we are proud to continue to open our doors to both the local community and all our guests.”
We asked how much revenue generated by the marquees has been reinvested in the historic parks and gardens as required by the Section 106 Agreement.
“Investment is ongoing and anyone visiting the venue will experience the ongoing benefit of its upkeep.”
Given that the Decision Notice without conditions issued in December 2011 was a mysterious mess up, and that Thornton Holdings knew this to be the case, would it not have been better to acknowledge the mistake and make a new planning application?
Ms Steel stated: “Thornton Manor is a responsible business and takes its reputation and compliance with utmost integrity and sincerity. We continue to work closely with the Council.”