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Coronavirus Kent: Caravan owners refuse to leave Sheppey holiday park

Holiday park bosses on the Isle of Sheppey have told residents to "go home" after Prime Minister Boris Johnson put the country on lockdown yesterday.

Residents, many of whom only returned to their caravans or chalets three weeks ago, must be off the sites by 5pm today, but this evening, it was still not clear if they had left because the office at the park has closed now and could not be reached by phone.

Caravan owners are refusing to leave Elmhurst Holiday Park on the Isle of Sheppey
Caravan owners are refusing to leave Elmhurst Holiday Park on the Isle of Sheppey

But some, like retired newspaper photographer Bob Kitchen, are refusing to go, but Kentonline could not reach Mr Kitchen on his mobile phone this evening to find out if he had left or not. His phone went to voicemail.

Mr Kitchen, 70, splashed out £55,000 on a new caravan which he is using as his permanent home.

He said: "Since my divorce my intention was to spend six months on Sheppey and six months in Spain. But I haven't got round to buying my home abroad yet so for now, this is my only home. If I have to leave the park, I will be homeless."

He moved onto Elmhurst Holiday Park, Eastchurch, three weeks ago and then the coronavirus epidemic hit Britain.

He said: "The park has a new owner. I believe he should be fighting our corner. Boris probably doesn't even know there are owners like me who have nowhere else to go.

Self-isolating caravan owners have put posters in their windows at the caravan park
Self-isolating caravan owners have put posters in their windows at the caravan park

"This is not a holiday break. I am self-isolating.

"For me to go anywhere else at this time, and at my age, would be extremely dangerous. I can't stay with my daughter in Maidstone because she has seven children."

Residents are normally entitled to stay at Sheppey's holiday parks for up to 10 months of the year. Mr Kitchen added: "I am like many on this site. We are at the age when the virus is very frightening.

"I don’t think the government meant to throw people who are in isolation onto the streets.

"It is up to the owners of the site to judge who is in isolation and who is bringing children down for a holiday. Closing the sites would be very dangerous for people like me."

Sittingbourne and Sheppey MP Gordon Henderson
Sittingbourne and Sheppey MP Gordon Henderson

Sittingbourne and Sheppey MP Gordon Henderson waded into the row today.

On his Facebook page he wrote: "There has been much controversy locally about whether or not caravan sites should close during the present Covid-19 crisis.

"Many people wanted them shut, while others, who live on the camps, were worried they would be made homeless if they had to leave.

"I know this was causing distress so last night I checked with the government and can now confirm all caravan parks will be expected to close.

"However, the guidance goes on to state that where people live permanently in caravan parks, or are staying in caravan parks as interim abodes where their primary residence is not available, they may continue to do so.

New owner Henry Cooper at the park
New owner Henry Cooper at the park

"I hope this clarifies the situation."

Previously, he had said anyone being evicted should phone Swale council for emergency housing.

But his latest advice did nothing to help holiday park boss Henry Cooper.

Mr Cooper, who bought the 18-acre park in a multi-million pound deal last November, said: "I am between a rock and a hard place. The Government has told me to close and send all my staff home. And my insurance company has said if I keep the park open I won't be covered.

"I can't let these people stay on the park on their own.

Caravans at Elmhurst Caravan Park, Second Avenue, Eastchurch (32262229)
Caravans at Elmhurst Caravan Park, Second Avenue, Eastchurch (32262229)

"Under health and safety we have to sort out any water or electric problems and change their gas bottles. I'm going to have to cut off all electricity and water supplies.

"I don't want to make anyone homeless and I feel terrible asking them. It's not their fault, either, but I don't have any choice. It is dire. I may have to terminate their contracts if they don't leave.

"It's like a Mexican stand-off with some refusing to go. It's like a lynch mob. And what Gordon Henderson has said doesn't make it any better.

"I have had councillors screaming at me and I've been speaking to Swale council's planning, housing and homeless departments but none have been able to help. It's like I've been left holding the baby. Yet I am still expected to pay-off my loans.

Empty: the swimming pool at Priory Hill Holiday Park, Wing Road, Leysdown
Empty: the swimming pool at Priory Hill Holiday Park, Wing Road, Leysdown

"I was really looking forward to my first Easter here. Now it looks like I will be losing hundreds of thousands of pounds.

"Once we come out of this, the economy will be in tatters. It's absolutely ridiculous. But it is what it is. There's nothing any of us can do. It's affecting the whole world.

Before the lockdown was announced on last night, Swale Cllr Cameron Beart (Con, Halfway and Queenborough) said: "I understand there is a real and genuine concern among local residents that the seasonal influx to the holiday homes is continuing as normal.

"The concerns, in particular, are over those coming from the capital where the spread of Covid-19 is considered to be weeks ahead of the rest of the country."

He added: "The concerns are not just around potential spread of the Covid-19 virus but also how our retail infrastructure will cope. We have already seen shops stripped bare through unnecessary panic buying."

He said: "I understand a number of the parks, while open, have already followed government advice and closed all communal areas such as a clubhouses and swimming pools. That will certainly help with social distancing."

Owners of second homes and caravans in other parts of Kent such as The Foxhunter in Monkton, near Ramsgate, have already been asked to pack their bags and leave.

Last night Priory Hill Holiday Park in Wing Road, Leysdown, said: "We are advising customers currently on site that they should start making arrangements to return to their primary residence while it is safe to do so.

"If we are ordered to close by HM Government, we will have no choice but to close the gates.

"Our main concern is the safety of our customers and staff.With the country on lockdown we possibly cannot get to work so we cannot provide gas bottles or deal with water or electric issues."

The park had already closed its clubhouse and pool but had been serving takeaways.

One of it residents complained on Facebook: "Think we should get some compensation from the club due to everything being closed. No one is going to want to go down there to just stay in and order food. Might as well just stay at home and do that."

But another said: "Lack of club/swimming pool is not a problem in the current circumstances. I am continuing to buy from the local stores as I am sure they need the trade."

And one added: "Absolutely 100% the right decision. Very responsible of you guys even though you will suffer financial loss."

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