Published: 06:00, 09 June 2021
Multi-million-pound plans to transform Canterbury’s oldest sites into a “pollinator park” and amphitheatre have moved a step forward – despite concerns the project isn’t viable or realistic.
KentOnline revealed a fortnight ago that the city council is preparing a bid for £20 million of government cash to help breathe new life into some of its most important historical assets.
Supporters of the scheme - called Canterbury’s Tales of England - believe it will rejuvenate the ancient attractions, which the local authority has struggled to maintain in recent years.
But sceptic Cllr Dave Wilson has branded the proposals “nonsense” as he doubts whether they are actually achievable.
At a meeting of the authority's policy committee, the Labour leader explained: “What we have at the moment is a title in search of a concept.
“We have a whole bunch of buildings stuck on top of car parks and impossibly shoe-horned into tiny grounds around buildings.
“We’ve got a cemetery to be built on, a Guildhall that’s going to be renovated – this is great, but it’s nonsense.
“When you look through the criteria for the funding, it’s got to be viable, achievable, realistic – I don’t think it’s any of these things. We need to do better than this. It looks more like buying votes from another levelling up fund.
“If we were serious about levelling up, we’d be reinstating Sure Start and spending more money on education because that’s how we level up people’s abilities and opportunities.”
Turning the city wall into a green haven of wildflowers akin to Manhattan’s High Line Park, transforming Canterbury’s crumbling castle into an amphitheatre, and renovating the Dane John Gardens are among the city council’s aspirations.
Other aspects of the scheme include creating a square close to Westgate Towers by turning the area into a space used by pedestrians and motorists and transforming the Guildhall into a visitor attraction
The council is also considering turning the under-used top deck of the Castle Street multi-storey car park into a visitor attraction such as a museum or rooftop restaurant with views across to the Cathedral.
Cllr Wilson said he would support the proposals because they are “the only show in town” and urged planners to pay greater attention to detail, pointing to papers which used population figures for Canterbury, New Zealand.
“If that’s the level of research and detail we’re going into, I’m really, really worried,” he added.
“We need to do better than that.”
Responding to the Labour leader’s concerns, council leader Ben Fitter-Harding said: “I don’t think it’s a reflection of the work that’s still to come.
“This is a vision and it’s come together at breakneck speed.
“It’s so sad we don’t have the resources to be able to look after this incredible history and heritage in our city.
“Finally, we have an opportunity to address that and deliver a heritage offering that’s truly of a global appeal and is significant and lasting.
“It’s something that will benefit all residents in our district.”
Council spokesman Rob Davies has since told this website that the authority has not contacted Historic England about the project – even though it includes listed buildings and scheduled monuments.
He says this is because these are “very early plans and contact would be made at the appropriate time if this element of the project moves forward”.
The potential funding comes from a £4.6 billion Levelling Up Fund aimed to boost often-overlooked places.
Canterbury has been ranked by the government as a high-priority location, meaning it stands a good chance of claiming the cash.
Members of last week’s meeting unanimously voted in favour of spending £125,000 on devising an official bid for the funds.
Cllr Louise Jones-Roberts (Con) told the committee: “I think this could be the difference in 20 years’ time between Canterbury just plodding along doing its own thing and it being a vibrant hub attracting tourists from all over the world.”
The authority will finalise its application over the next 12 months, ahead of bringing the draft back for councillors to consider and then submitting its proposals for the money.
Due to the scale of the developments, the £20m will not cover the full cost of the project, with hopes the remaining money will be raised from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and other investors.