Friday, 11 September 2009

£15m price tag for Groats vision

by Jean Gunn
Published 11/9/09

THE owners of the John O'Groats House Hotel have welcomed news of a masterplan for the area which, if completed in its entirety, could cost in the region of £15 million.

Speaking to the John O'Groat Journal following the unveiling of the blueprint, Allan Leech, chief executive of Heritage Great Britain Plc, stressed that if the development was to work everyone involved needed to "stand shoulder to shoulder".

He said: "You have to see complete solidarity – everyone has to get behind it."

Referring to the new summit visitor centre at Snowdon, where the firm runs the mountain railway, Mr Leech told those at Wednesday's public meeting that the Welsh venture went ahead after all the interested parties joined forces. He said the finished development had brought huge benefits.

He confirmed that Heritage GB's next step would be to meet with staff of HIE Caithness and Sutherland to discuss preliminary ideas, which include self-catering accommodation. Mr Leech explained that this type of service had a much stronger existing UK market and was less of a risk.

Mr Leech added: "The good news is, it really is possible – we have a target." He felt consultants had understood the project and had provided a plan which had lots of character.

Richard Slipper, planning consultancy director for GVA Grimley, the company which was commissioned by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) to develop the masterplan, pointed out that if the improvements were completed, visitor numbers at John O'Groats had the potential to double.

Presently 112,000 visitors are recorded at the local attraction every year. The consultant added that the aim was for a development like the House of Bruar, but on a smaller scale.

Shaped by the views of residents, businesspeople, tourists and public agencies, the masterplan has various design options.However, they all feature the creation of a destination focal point which will help draw visitors into the area. The start and finish point for "end to enders" is likely to be marked by an archway.

Four development phases have been identified, with phase one described as the "most critical" and costing in the region of £3 million to £5m. The first stage of the plan incorporates the restoration or replacement of the hotel, a new harbour square, refurbishment of the Last House Museum and improvements to coastal paths to Duncansby Head and the John O'Groats mill.

The preferred option involves the formation of a market street with retail outlets built along each side, and a main square, with car parking arranged around the periphery. Additional phases would see the possible relocation of the craft village and the building of a new hotel.

Carol Gunn, of HIE, said: "This masterplan gives John O'Groats the opportunity to offer visitor facilities that will match its iconic status, a transformation it has long deserved. It is an important step forward – for the first time there is a plan for the whole site rather than piecemeal development ideas. The potential of this shared vision will be key in attracting private investors.

"One of the aims we had in creating this masterplan was to look to the future of the community, but not to lose sight of its past. We have a masterplan that can allow us to retain a local identity but also respond to the various needs of the community, our visitors and potential investors."

GVA Grimley consultants have prepared a detailed plan of how the five-hectare site at John O'Groats can be developed, incorporating good-quality building design from locally-sourced natural materials.

GVA Grimley's planning consultancy director Richard Slipper said the agency had tried to address the key issues across the wide range of interested parties to create a long-term plan.

He stated: "This has been a healthy challenge for our planners, designers and tourism and energy specialists. We have focused in on the key requests, to address the core harbour area and on a physical masterplan for a new spatial layout which addresses realistic long-term market and business capacity.

"Many hours of people's time have contributed to a 12-week consultation process and we have been greatly encouraged by the level of enthusiasm from consultees and the many good ideas which have helped to shape the masterplan."

Mr Slipper added: "We are positive about our final proposed masterplan which is shaped to maximise the tourist and visitor experience and to be supported by tourism and business interests, and also to provide for positive local impacts."

On the whole, comments from those present at the meeting, including local residents and business owners, were favourable. However, the planners took on board concerns expressed about access to the harbour for heavy goods vehicles.

Chairman of Dunnet and Canisbay Community Council John Green questioned how the plan would be taken forward and was told that some form of partnership would probably need to be set up between individual property owners, HIE and the Highland Council.

On Wednesday night, HIE attended a meeting of the local community council to discuss the new masterplan.

Also present at the unveiling of the plans was John Groat (87), who can trace his ancestry back to Jan de Groot, the 15th-century ferryman, who John O'Groats is said to be named after. Born in Orkney, Mr Groat served in the navy and then worked in the lighthouse service before taking up employment at Dounreay.

Mr Groat, who now lives in Thurso, thought the plans were good and said he would be pleased to see the area improved as he felt some places were an "eyesore" at the moment. Mr Groat would particularly like to see the eight-sided design of the hotel retained.

Welcoming the masterplan, Highlands and Islands Labour MSP Rhoda Grant said: "The proposals put forward are a huge step forward in the redevelopment of the village.

"John O'Groats is one of the North's most recognised villages, and we should be proud of that.

"There's still a long way to go before any bricks are laid but, hopefully, many local people and businesses will be actively involved and will engage in the process."

North SNP MSP Rob Gibson said: "This third attempt to get a viable plan for John O'Groats seems acceptable but ambitious. I believe that step by step its recommendations can be developed.

"However, I fear we will not see immediate progress if there is no compulsion on the owners of John O'Groats House Hotel to modernise it.

"The council and HIE need to act in the interests of the local community by placing developments into local and committed hands."

In 1989, Michael Courtney sold John O'Groats House Hotel to tycoon Peter de Savary, who already owned Land's End at the time.

But his plan to spend £4.5m on redeveloping the Caithness site came to nothing and both properties were sold in 1991 to a New Zealand company, City Realties of Auckland.

In 1992, HIE pledged £800,000 for a project forecast to create up to 100 jobs. Plans for a £2.7m revamp of the Caithness landmark were frozen in 1995 after legal action taken in the USA against the owners of the John O'Groats House Hotel.

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