A way forward?


A rendering of how the sheds could appear from the promenade.

As of today, November 18th, the Maltings planning application is still undecided. The planning website is still accepting comments, more than a month past the closing date. Although many of these support the plans on the basis that there is no alternative, the official consultees, which include planning officers from the council, have serious reservations, with clear objections from the Urban Design department, the Conservation Officer, and Burnham Town Council. The “Planning Policy” comment is long and technical: it does not make clear recommendations but appears to be a guide to relevant planning law, and observes that the application is counter to at least two important parts of planning policy.

Robin Prior’s principal argument, and one which is cited by many of the supporters making comments on the application, is that he now wishes the boatyard to continue trading, but that it needs significant investment, which investment would come from the proceeds of the sale of the Maltings sheds. This new commitment to the future of the yard is extremely good news.

We at Maritime Burnham have made an offer to buy the Maltings sheds from Priors. Under this exciting proposal a newly formed company will purchase and stabilise the buildings, continuing to offer boat storage for Priors and third parties, and pursue a sensitive development within the existing sheds, to add leisure uses such as catering and retail.

The architects Long and Kentish, who designed the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth, have prepared these drawings and photomontages of what the development could look like: the new jetty is not in our initial plans, but could provide a fabulous extra dimension.

This is how good those sheds could look.

Who are we?
Maritime Burnham is an informal group of people interested in enhancing Burnham’s maritime life. We will form a Community Interest Company to own and manage the project. The CIC will be designed to benefit the people of Burnham-on-Crouch by protecting, enhancing and exploiting the maritime heritage of their town.

How much will all this cost? 
The purchase price is a matter for negotiation, and is dependent on the cost of building works necessary to stabilise their fabric at the value of their existing use. We are preparing a building survey to try and establish how much will need to be spent on the first phase.

Where will the money come from?
We have already received substantial pledges of funding for the project from private individuals.  CIC’s are allowed to return capital to their investors and to pay interest on loans, and our business plan will take this into account, but this is not a conventional investment. This project could play a really significant role in arresting the decline of Burnham as a maritime town: there is a lot of negative sentiment about the decline of sailing here, and this is in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. We are particularly concerned with addressing the lack of understanding between river users and the rest of the town. The simple addition of windows to the river facing wall, so that promenaders can see what goes on inside would make a great difference.
The project would be potentially attractive to external funding bodies such as the National Lottery, and we will pursue these avenues.

How does this relate to the planning application for housing?
If the site is granted planning permission for housing this will almost certainly push the value of the buildings beyond the abilities of this project. It has been widely said that there is no feasible alternative to housing for this site: we believe our project is both feasible and desirable.

Is this a development plan on the sly?
No. Community Interest Companies must apply an “asset lock”, under which their assets may only be transferred to another CIC, or a charity. Additionally, we will offer R.J. Prior Ltd a clawback on the sale, so that if, after unforeseen circumstances, the land is sold for housing.

From earlier on.

Maldon Council have received a planning application, from R.J. Prior Ltd., to build housing on the “Maltings” site, which comprises the two low red sheds at the left end of the photograph above.

At the Burnham Town Council Meeting on September 18th the Council voted by six councillors to two against recommending the application.  Their role is only advisory to Maldon District Council, and it is important that people with opinions on the issue should forward them to Maldon District Council Planning – planning@maldon.gov.uk

Please note – Maldon Council didn’t put up the site notices at the same time as they put up the website planning application, so it appears that the deadline for comments has been put back to October 6th. It seems likely that the issue will be discussed at the SE planning meeting on October 9th.

It is important that anyone with opinions on the matter should express them now, which you can do by conventional letter, email, or through the system on Maldon’s website.

To view the application and its many associated documents, (please note that there are three pages of documents) click here:

  1. The proposed development is counter to both
    1. The Burnham-on-Crouch neighbourhood plan:
      “Land and building in primary or directly related river employment uses will be safeguarded. Insofar as planning permission is required their conversion to residential use will not be supported. Proposals for the retail, leisure or tourism uses of the buildings concerned will be supported where they would comply with other policies in the development plan and where they would not change the overall character of the riverside”.
    2. The Maldon Local Plan: “The historic and built environment of the District is distinctive in character and diverse in its location across towns and villages in rural, coastal, and estuarine environments. However, there are concerns that the unique character of some parts of the District is gradually being eroded by insufficient and inconsistent design principles. When located close to, or in the setting of a heritage asset, new development should respect the importance, character and local context of that asset. Good design should seek to positively respond to the important features of the asset, and enhance its overall setting and function.”
  2. The applicant claims both that the entire business is no longer viable, and that the Maltings shed is redundant. “Formerly a focal point for boating activity on the River Crouch, this commercial boatyard & associated storage sheds have been in steady decline, victims of commercial inertia & changes in boat production, scale, maintenance & repair alongside changes in boating fashion.” and “Plastic yachts do not require the extensive annual fitting out maintenance program of their wooden forebears, and as these boats have slowly disappeared so too has the demand.”
    We dispute both aspects of this: as of December 2015 (the last figures available at http://www.companieshouse.gov.uk) the firm was profitable with a robust balance sheet showing no debt and cash balances of £378,652. In the sales documentation when the yard was offered as a going concern, a gross profit of £160,000 p.a. was mentioned. Boat storage in the Maltings shed has been run at 100% capacity for as long as anyone can remember, and has only recently begun to empty, as the yard has begun to deliberately run the business down, turning business away.

    The “redundant” sheds in February 2016. Full, as in every winter. Photographs by Michael Woolley.

    Prior’s planning application refers to the Maltings as ‘Dilapidated sheds’ and claims that there is rot in the timbers that would make them dangerous. The sheds are only dilapidated because Prior’s has not maintained them, despite clearly having the means to do so. When a building has rot, it is not necessary to destroy it but the rot can simply be cut out and replaced with good timber. An example is The Crooked Cottage at 1 The Quay where the present residents found considerable rot in the front of the house when it was surveyed but rather than pulling down this characterful building (or burning down, as was suggested at the time, or letting it fall down, as happened to the small building by the entrance to Prior’s main building), the rot was repaired and the problem solved. The Maltings sheds could easily be repaired and repainted and look as smart as they have previously.
    The business environment in many sectors is difficult, but there is little evidence that the demand for wooden boat services is in a steep decline: in fact it is one of the few relatively buoyant areas of an otherwise commercially dull yacht world. Both in East Anglia and further afield there is a long list of boatyards specialising in wooden boat restoration, who all seem to be busy, including those who have no travel-hoist; the only East Coast sailing event that has seen booming numbers in recent years is Suffolk Yacht Harbour’s Classic Regatta; there are now three specialised centres for teaching wooden boat building in Britain. Any “commercial inertia” has come from within the firm, not from external influences: in recent years this has very sadly been exaggerated by Robin Prior’s ill-health which is of course a matter of great sadness. He is a good and kind man, but personal sympathy for his problems should not impinge on decisions concerning the long term planning for the benefit of the town.​

  3. During 2015 Prior’s announced that the yard would be closing, and that the site would be sold for housing. There is no evidence of any attempt to market the yard as a going concern before that announcement, and when Prior’s did engage an estate agent to offer the business as a going concern, the proposition was confused by the fact that there was already a plan for residential housing, and by the fact that the sales documentation offered by the agents did not in fact include the Maltings sheds.
  4. The proposed development is within the Burnham Conservation Area, which mentions this part of the Quay: “For much of its length, the waterside walk is exposed to the wide estuarine views. This is a firmly defined edge, between man and nature that is the essence of a marine location. The short length near Priors Yard (fig.9) is a pleasing contrast as a safe and protective alley between variegated structures” and also writes of the importance of the vernacular marine industry structures: “The solid, utilitarian character of the buildings of the boat building industry and related trades provides a sturdy and complementary contrast with the light-weight character of the yacht clubs. Buildings date from the 19th Century to the early 20th Century. Forms are simple . . . Weatherboard and corrugated metal sheeting prevail, often painted red or dark green, but red brick is also present . . . These buildings have a strong aesthetic and clear functionalism which provides contrast and variety.”
  5. Housing should not be considered for this site but even if it were:
    1. The designs fail to fulfil the Maldon Local Plan’s requirement that “When located close to, or in the setting of a heritage asset, new development should respect the importance, character and local context of that asset. Good design should seek to positively respond to the important features of the asset, and enhance its overall setting and function architecturally”.
    2. The drawings supplied are inaccurate and misleading, with the effect of making the existing sheds appear much higher than they really are and so​ minimizing the increase in bulk of the new building compared with the existing sheds.
      1. In the drawing titled “Proposed riverside elevation (south-east)” the dashed line representing the existing shed shows its ridge line at the same height as the ridge line of “The Crooked Cottage” where it is clear from Illustrations 3 & 7 in the “Design and Access Statement” that the shed’s actual roofline is much lower than that of the Crooked Cottage.
      2. In “Proposed Courtyard Elevation (north-west) viewed from within the courtyard” the height of Residential units Five to Seven (those facing the mud dock) is given as 10.315 metres, (measured from the courtyard which is in fact lower than the Quay path or indeed than the garden of the Crooked Cottage) while the ridge line of “The Crooked Cottage” is given as 11.27: despite that, the ridge line of units five to seven shown in “Proposed Riverside Elevation (south-east view)” is clearly higher than that of the Crooked Cottage.
      3. In “Proposed Schematic Section” the height of units one to four (those facing out to the river) from ground floor to ridgeline is measured at 4.55 metres plus 7.13 metres totalling 11.68, which is contradicted by the representation given in “Proposed Riverside Elevation (south)” where the ridgeline is exactly on a level with the first east-west ridge of the Kings development which is measured at 13.75 metres on “Site Block Plan”.
      4. The designs are an improvement on those previously shown in the first draft of the plan, with some change of roof line for the houses facing the mud berths, but they would nevertheless render a distinguished, varied and attractive landscape into an identikit one, simultaneously harsh and bland, and the architect’s statement that the proposal maintains “the ‘urban grain’ presented by the storage sheds, but with increased porosity & subtle interaction with immediate neighbours” is puzzling. The intimidating aspect this development would have on the Crooked Cottage, which dates from at least 1620 and may be the oldest vernacular building on the waterfront, can only be imagined, and to describe it as a “subservient composition when related to the existing properties to the east of The Dock” (“Design and Access/Heritage Statement”) is incomprehensible: if this plan were built The Crooked Cottage would have the demeanour of a startled rabbit faced with an oncoming four-wheel drive car, and the delightfully varied riverfront properties between it and Prior’s main building would be significantly devalued. Even if this phrase is held to refer only to the main Prior’s boatyard building, it is patently untrue, since they are significantly higher than it. The most obvious comparison is the effect that replacing riverside activity with housing development has had at Brightlingsea, compared with the admirable diversity of the waterfront at, say, West Mersea. The above images show a before and after view illustrating the lack of sensitivity (let alone “subservience”) to the townscape to its east: the scaling of the proposed new housing is taken from the “Proposed riverside elevation (south)”
    3. Parking and access: planning permission has already been granted for a new development of 7 apartments within King and Hines’ building at the entrance to the lane leading to the Maltings shed. This is a sympathetic development which respects the site, and does not raise the above objections, but it already increases the difficult parking problems in this part of the High St. Moreover their access to the 5 parking spaces available opens onto the narrow lane that leads to the Maltings shed. This will already be difficult and will frequently lead to people parking in the High St where there is already a major parking problem. Adding 7 more houses with 14 parking spaces that require access via this small laneway is clearly completely impractical. Moreover all of this additional use of the laneway would be shared with pedestrians with no separate pathway possible as the lane also leads to the pedestrian right of way to the Quay.
    4. Notwithstanding the ambiguity about the actual height of the proposed building, the rooflines facing the river are much too high being up to twice the height of the present roof line and in no way reflecting its attractive and unusual shape. Any building replacing the sheds should be within the size of the present building and reflect its shape as far as possible. The Burnham Neighbourhood Plan states: “New buildings should be sensitive to the height and character of existing buildings along the riverside which are generally no taller than 2.5 storeys ….”. The proposed houses facing the river are 4 storeys high (or perhaps 3.5 in the terminology of the application). The comparison to 5 High St (the building containing the Helen Rollason Charity Shop) is entirely inappropriate. Firstly this building is the tallest in the area and so not typical and also it stands well back from the Quay, facing the High St, with a large tree filled garden between the house and the river frontage. Moreover the application also compares the proposed buildings to 1 The Quay (known as “The Crooked Cottage”) which is 2 storeys (plus pitched roof) but standing below the level of the walkway of the Quay and so in fact standing less than 2 storeys above Quay level.
    5. The houses facing the river are also too close impinging on the width of the walkway. The Burnham Neighbourhood Plan also states: “Any development must retain and improve the setback distance from the water’s edge to improve the promenade and walkway adjacent to the riverside.” The small area with two benches is a token offering.
  6. Other considerations.
    1. Tourism is an important part of the economy of Burnham and the major attraction is walking along the Quay with its many and varied interesting buildings. Tourists do not come to admire modern housing developments. If we allow the interesting character of the riverside to be further eroded, the attraction of Burnham for tourists will also be eroded.
    2. Burnham’s boatyards were a byword for quality, and the names of Stebbings, William King’s, Petticrows, Rice & Coles, Tucker Brown and Prior’s feature prominently in the history of small boat building in the twentieth century: a Burnham-built boat was a by-word for quality, and this heritage should be celebrated. Petticrows, who have moved out of town, are the only of the yards still building yachts – it is they surely who are referenced in the Design and Planning document with the phrase “remote industrial estates with improved facilities, access & infrastructure”, although as active boatbuilders their operation is completely different from Priors: the last yacht built by Prior’s was launched in 1997. Since then Prior’s and Rice and Coles have repaired, stored and moored boats.
      Riverside activity is still an essential part of the economy of the town where sailing and its associated activities bring considerable finance into the town. If this development were to go ahead it would almost certainly mean an end to Prior’s mooring business (which is at least partly dependent on the availability of winter boat storage). Burnham with no moored yachts at its Eastern end would be a lesser place.