Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
Unlike Bletchley Park, home to now famous code-breakers and revolutionary computer technology which played a vital role in winning World War Two, the public knows little about Bawdsey Manor in Suffolk.
Its claim to fame is its role as the world’s first operational radar station. Sold to the Air Authority in 1937, it was a key player in research and radar development throughout the war, eventually closing in 1991. It was subsequently sold into private ownership, becoming a language school.
Built by Sir Cuthbert Quilter, a successful businessman and MP for Sudbury between 1885 and 1906, it also has a range of outbuildings and cottages. Dating from the late 1890’s and Listed Grade II* it stands in about 150 acres, with the formal gardens also listed. Architecturally it is a bit of a hotch potch, borrowing from Gothic, Elizabethan and Jacobean styles, nevertheless it creates an imposing landmark on the River Deben.
However, erosion along Suffolk’s heritage coast now threatens its very survival, and it is estimated that this important historic asset is likely to disappear within the next 20 years, without a sustained management plan to upgrade the sea defences.
For sale again, with an asking price of £5m, bidders face demands to fund such improvements and their upkeep. Unsurprisingly, this is putting off potential investors, whose plans for a hotel or apartments, combined with restoring the cottages and converting outbuildings, cannot support the additional commitments, as well as the extra costs of complying with the listing, improving access and the usual Section 106 requirements.
Suffolk Coastal District Council’s planning chiefs have, however, indicated that they could entertain developments contrary to policy, to ensure the site is protected, stating that, “we would be pleased to enter a pre-application discussion with any interested parties, but must be clear that any discussions cannot be at the cost of the importance of the heritage asset.”
Local groups welcome the implied greater flexibility on planning, recognising that there are precedents: a nearby Martello Tower was saved by permitting some new housing in a protected area, and working with a luxury developer provided funding for a museum at the wartime Fighter Command HQ at Bentley Priory in Stanmore.
Bawdsey Manor can only be regarded as a prime development opportunity, with new homes likely to attract retirees and second home owners with an interest in sailing. But planners and councillors will want to ensure that any development contributes to the local economy, and benefits the local community, so affordability is essential for a successful and cohesive plan.
Consequently, this could be an opportunity to emulate councils in the West Country, where Lynton and Lynmouth in Devon have already blocked development of new second homes in their Neighbourhood Plan. A recent referendum in Cornwall, backed by 83 per cent of voters, also proposes restricting second home ownership in St. Ives and the surrounding area by requiring that new build properties be made available to full time locals only. On resale, these properties could only be offered to locals.
Such an approach would be popular in Suffolk, where average salaries cannot compete with Londoners, whose second homes have forced up prices in prime areas, especially along the coast. This leaves young families forced to rent, and contributes to hidden deprivation in some of the most desirable locations where High Streets have been taken over by estate agents, restaurants and coffee bars, art galleries and gift shops; day to day essentials at reasonable prices are hard to find. It also means that some employers simply cannot recruit the skilled staff they need.
One solution for Bawdsey would be for a mixed scheme, including a retirement village with 9-hole golf course and tennis courts open to everyone, alongside a range of 1-3 bed homes specifically for locals to purchase for their own occupation. Enhanced museum and ferry facilities, together with small retailers and restaurateurs, could sit alongside a converted Manor, creating jobs as a major destination for education, tourism and simple enjoyment.
The extra income from property sales, combined with external funding from the Lottery, LEP (Local Enterprise Partnership) and potentially the Crown Estate (which I’m told owns the coastline between high and low tides) could enable Bawdsey’s survival for another 100 years.
This is one of those occasions when historic sites have to be compromised, in planning terms, if they are to be saved for future generations. Such decisions are never easy, but this is an instance where the council is prepared to work with organisations and communities to find solutions, encouraging partnerships between developers with particular specialisms in designing and delivering appropriate new homes for such a sensitive site.
But time is running out, so we can’t afford unnecessary delays in developing a business plan.