When Sir Roger De Haan unveiled his latest plans for Folkestone seafront and harbour, he was left shocked by the fierce backlash.
Speaking to reporter Rhys Griffiths, the businessman reveals how his team have gone back to the drawing board to alter the proposals – while he remains as determined as ever, working 12 hour-days, to see his ambitious vision to completion…
“Brutal.” That’s how Sir Roger De Haan describes some of the most vitriolic reaction, particularly online, to the latest plans for the redevelopment of Folkestone harbour.
When the detailed designs were unveiled to the public as part of a consultation in the summer, the response was instant, widespread and scathing – with the tower blocks described as “like something out of The Flintstones”.
The intensity of the feedback certainly came as something of a shock to the design team behind the plans, who were tasked with talking locals – many of them irate at the proposals – through the vision for the seafront site.
Although Sir Roger – who, along with brother Peter, features in the 2023 Sunday Times Rich List with an estimated fortune of £851 million – is reluctant to dwell on the details of some of the more offensive correspondence he has received since, he does admit some of the communications have been “horrible”.
It has also surprised him how intense the reaction has been to what was, after all, a third round of consultation over the long-standing plans for the harbour.
“Suddenly there was this outcry from many people who I think didn't realise we already had planning consent,” he said when asked about the furore in the summer, which was so great it was even picked up by the national press.
“They objected to the size of the buildings, the density of the buildings, some of them objected to there being buildings at all.
“But we’d already got planning [permission] and what we were going through is a consultation on the reserved matters, which is some of the detail, not the height, the massing, the quantity of housing that was going to be there. So that was disappointing, but we have responded to all those comments and we're now presenting a fourth scheme.”
Sir Roger invited KentOnline to meet at Shoreline Crescent, the first housing development in the seafront masterplan, to see how work is progressing on the high-end flats and townhouses which make up the development overlooking the English Channel.
His enthusiasm for the scheme is evident – he bounds ahead, with the energy of an estate agent many decades his junior, excitedly showing off the gleaming new homes which are now hitting the market with eye-watering price tags. The 84 properties making up the development range from smaller apartments, right through to extensive townhouses with prices reaching as much as £2.15 million for the grandest homes.
He is clearly extremely proud of the project, pointing out design features and tiny details with every turn. Our guide is particularly keen to point out how the work has been carried out to higher specifications than laid down in standard building regulations, and materials have been sourced specially to ensure the homes – exposed to the elements – do not weather and tarnish in decades to come.
It has been almost two decades since Sir Roger, who made his fortune when he sold the Saga group of businesses founded by his father Sidney, purchased Folkestone harbour, which was lying derelict and decaying following the closure of the ferry port.
Although his plans for the area may have an air of inevitability today, there was a time when things could have turned out very differently.
Jimmy Godden, the local entrepreneur behind the much-missed Rotunda amusement park and arcades, had drawn up proposals for the site of the demolished funfair – featuring homes as well as plans for a supermarket, casino and cinema. There followed a period of negotiation between Godden and Sir Roger and eventually a deal was struck for Godden to sell up.
After securing the land, 75-year-old Sir Roger has led the effort to regenerate the quayside and the seafront. Initially, there were visions of a university campus being created on the site, and then a succession of evolving masterplans detailing how new life could be injected into an area which was falling into decay.
Perhaps the most notable achievement has been the revitalisation of the former railway station and harbour arm, which have become a thriving destination filled with bars, restaurants and other attractions which now draw millions of visitors to the town every year.
But the harbour arm was always just one part of the final masterplan for the entire seafront which was finally granted planning permission by the district council. As well as the transformation of the harbour, it also includes the building of anywhere up to 1,000 new homes, revamped public spaces and new commercial properties.
The first phase of the housing development at Shoreline Crescent is now nearing completion – but there have been complaints from some quarters that these houses are priced beyond the reach of the majority of local people, sparking accusations of a project that is simply about ‘gentrifying’ the town.
It is an accusation Sir Roger refutes, as we sit down over coffee at the harbour arm and discuss the reaction to his ambitious plans for the transformation of the seafront.
“It's going to have a considerably positive impact on the economy,” he said. “People say ‘these homes are not for us, they're not for our children’, but the jobs created might be for them and their children.”
Does he find the criticism of the seafront scheme hurtful on a personal level?
“The only thing that I find difficult to cope with is when people are challenging [my] motivation,” he said.
“I've been working on this for 19 years and then when people make statements about you, they think they have a licence to say the most horrible things.
“Yes, this seafront development is commercial. You couldn't do it if it wasn't commercial. If you're doing it as a charity how would you pay for all the infrastructure and so on?
“The chances of me getting my very considerable investment back from this is fairly remote, I should say. But I'm hoping it'll be a glorious success, from a development point of view, and for Folkestone.”
Through the work of the Roger De Haan Charitable Trust, much has already been achieved in parts of Folkestone beyond the seafront. The redevelopment of the Creative Quarter, the founding of the Folkestone Academy school and the delivery of both the Three Hills sports complex and the F51 skate park – all are projects which have benefited from funding from the Trust.
When asked about the many challenges presented along the way, Sir Roger notes there have been objections and obstacles at almost every step. But only once – when the Creative Quarter was struggling with footfall in the aftermath of the financial crash – did he ever waver in his determination to keep going.
“There was a point when I thought, you know, is this just the greatest folly there’s ever been? But we gradually got there.”
“It's not just some rich git writing a cheque to make it all happen...”
What, I wonder, does he consider the proudest achievement of all the work put in by so many people down through the years?
“It gives me a lot of satisfaction to see the old town of Folkestone so lively and such a bustling, successful place now,” he said. “It’s still got a long way to go but it's well on track.
“I think education in Folkestone is an awful lot better than it was when we started 20 years ago. Sport is fantastic, the arts scene is incredible. There are masses of places to eat, lots of music going on.
“It's taken 20-odd years and it's not 20 years of spending money – yes, we have spent a lot of money – but 20 years of hard labour. I work 12-hour days; it's very, very, very hard work. It's not just some rich git writing a cheque to make it all happen.”
Following the summer’s outcry at the latest harbour plans, the team behind the redevelopment have gone back to the drawing board to make modifications it is hoped will dampen opposition to the scheme.
Sir Roger says he has been presenting the refined plans to local community groups – including campaigners leading the opposition to the proposals – and he says feedback has been encouraging.
“I've presented it to some politicians, I’ve presented it to Go Folkestone, to the New Folkestone Society and the Bayle Association, and it’s getting a rather positive response,” he said.
“I absolutely agree with public consultation, it's an incredibly important aspect of planning and we don't treat it as a tick-box exercise.
“We have responded, and I think local people will be really pleased with the way we've responded to the last consultation.
“We've reduced the density by 20%, which is an enormous drop in density. We have changed the colour of the scheme, people didn't like the colours, it's now white.
“We've broadened the streets and the alleyways and we've tapered the buildings so they bend inwards, so as you approach the site you get better views of the sea and the sky and so on.
“It's much less dense and it feels less dense. The architects have made their design slightly less cutting edge. People thought it was too cutting edge for Folkestone perhaps, so we've made the buildings more conventional.”
Whether tweaks to the plans will be enough to win over all the critics, we shall see.
But there is no doubt that, even at an age when most would be slowing down, Sir Roger’s work is not finished yet.