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Developer blocks town centre car park at former Buzz Bingo site off Chatham High Street throwing future of Spotlites Theatre in doubt

The owners of a disused bingo hall earmarked for flats have blocked off a public car park – without notifying the council or businesses.

Donard Living, which wants to build 231 flats on the town centre site, has erected fencing to the entrance of the Union Place car park off Chatham High Street.

Barrier prevents access to council car park
Barrier prevents access to council car park

The move comes just a week after the Belfast-based developer submitted plans for two blocks of apartments and Medway Council made a u-turn on a decision not to sell the 49-space pay and display site.

The car park had formed part of Donard Living's planned housing scheme. In any event, the developer says it notified the council of its intention to block off access more than a year ago - via an email.

Since workers installed the barrier on Monday morning, it has already impacted on those who regularly parked there including members and staff of the neighbouring Spotlites Theatre Company.

It's feared the not-for-profit performing arts school, which has been there for 26 years and is a lifeline for thousands of youngsters and disabled adults, could now fold.

Kieron Riddell, director, said "I'm genuinely shocked by this and surprised the developer has not contacted us to explain,

Kieron Riddell, Spotlites director
Kieron Riddell, Spotlites director

"We were led to believe by Donard that we would have access throughout the development which would not be completed until 2025.

"The first we knew about it was when our disabled patrons said they had difficulty parking."

Mr Riddell said the nearest current alternative was at Slicketts Hill, but this was steep and dangerous for wheelchair users.

He added: "I hope that, if this goes ahead, Donard go back to the drawing board and include an access to the car park. That would be the only community-based option.

His wife, Aimee Riddell, assistant director, described the company's actions as "very targeted and aggressive".

"The whole time we have said we are working with Donard and they have made it publicly known that they are working with us.

"Yet they have taken this action without notifying us. It has already caused us problems for people to get here for our Monday session because they could not find anywhere to park.

"We had foreseen problems with this development, but we did not expect it to be happening now."

Buzz Bingo in Chatham. Maxim PR
Buzz Bingo in Chatham. Maxim PR

A questionnaire carried out by Mr Riddell showed 77% of members said that if the car park was not accessible they would not continue attending Spotlites.

Meanwhile a fundraising campaign has been set up in a bid to secure the theatre's long term future and fund any possible legal challenges.

Others were alerted to the road closure when Cllr Vince Maple, leader of the council's Labour group, posted a picture and comment.

He told KentOnline: "It is disappointing that Donard went ahead with this in the way they did without notifying the council, businesses and others.

"The way people found out was as it was happening. It would have been neighbourly and a common courtesy to let me know, even if it was the day before.

"This is not a good way to build community consensus for any planning application."

Cllr Vince Maple, Labour group leader
Cllr Vince Maple, Labour group leader

Medway Council has been made aware of the prevention of access to its car park.

A spokesman said: "We are liaising with the developer to see if access to the car park can be maintained."

It is also looking into an alternative route to the car park.

The planning application is due to be discussed by the council in April.

A spokesman for developer, said: “Now the outline planning application for the redevelopment of the former Buzz Bingo in Chatham is live, we are required by our insurers for both security and health and safety reasons to secure the site.

"This will enable our contractors to undertake the necessary technical surveys and monitoring required for development and planning process.

“The council’s property team were notified 14 months ago of our intention to close access to the Buzz Bingo car park by email on November 8 2021.

“The hoardings will make the site safe and secure, which is of particular importance given recent incidents of anti-social behaviour in the area.

“In relation to the situation of the sale of the car park, Donard’s management has not received a formal notification from the Council’s property team of its decision to no longer sell the car park and so we are unable to comment at this time.”

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