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Taking a positive view of saving Folkestone's Leas Lift

I spy a spin. The idea Folkestone "Cliff lift repairs could cost £1 million" (This is Shepway, 8 April, page 3) is simply wrong. This figure is drawn from a Shepway Council draft report in 2004 which was discussing placing a Lottery funding for that amount - to renovate, renew, redevelop enhance the Leas Lift.

That's the nature of funding Lottery bids - to make things better. To suggest that the Council would have to spend that much to simply keep the lift running is deceptive - the real figure would be fractions of that amount: and what's more, the Council know it. To even allow the suggestion out that the cost could be £1 million is scaremongering and irresponsible.

What is also a crying shame is that in the last five years no actual funding bid has even been submitted - not for a penny. It's good to know Shepway's leaders know the minds of the lottery so well that they could know that the lift wouldn't have received funding. Perhaps they could share their mystical secrets before I buy a lottery ticket this weekend...

However, let's look at the real, honest picture surrounding Folkestone Cliff Lift and where we can go from here. The overwhelming view of local people is that want to keep the Leas Lift running, and to see it properly promoted and a well used part of our town.

It's public information (I checked!) that Shepway Council terminated its lease on the lift on 1st April, giving the required three months notice to the owner, the Radnor Estate. Shepway Council therefore continue to hold the lease on the lift until the end of June.

We don't need to discuss the lease at all. Any question of costs raised from that lease are therefore no longer material. Shepway had a lease with the Radnor Estate, with commitments. The lease has been ended. The question of who owes how much to who will doubtless run and run, but makes not a jot of difference to the ongoing operation of the lift.

There is absolutely no reason that the lift cannot be kept running during that period - Shepway will still hold the lease until that time and will be paying rent for it. The running costs to do so are in the budget.

Therefore from 1st July, Shepway will then have no lease. Does that mean the lift has to stop running then - just at the start of the Summer season?

NO.

The Radnor Estate have stated its their intention to keep the lift running. It's in their interests to do so. A closed lift earns no money, and will quickly seize and decay making it less and less likely any other operator could take it on. The Radnor Estate needs someone to run it.

So, there are two possibilities here. Either Shepway agree with the Radnor Estate to run the lift on licence for a period of time, or the Radnor Estate makes that agreement with someone else to start in July. Three months is a very short period of time for another potential operator to start in July - there will need to be Health and Safety licences, funding sought, staff found and an agreement drawn up with the Radnor Estate. Shepway could do that - it has trained staff, licences and funding: they would simply need to agree a very simple licence agreement. And again, the running costs to do so are in the budget.

A licence could be simple: the operator pays X pounds per week to run the lift, with no dilapidation or other risks. It's the basis on which many businesses rent property etc - there is no need for a full new lease at this stage.

And Shepway running the lift even for a few months under licence would give other operators a chance to look at taking the lift operation (under licence or lease - that would be for them to agree with the Radnor Estate). Currently, the council is spending around £40,000 a year net on operating the lift (which is no surprise - it was costing the Council money when they took it on in 1968 and has done every since - that is the nature of services!). Shepway could offer to other potential operators at least some funding for the first few years to take on the responsibility of running the lift - and removing that long term cost from the Council.

There is no need for the lift to be run long-term by Shepway Council - they don't need to be in the lift business, which is just as well, because they seem fairly uniquely bad at it.

The new operator could then concentrate on ways of getting the lift to break-even - or even a profit - as quickly as possible. How could they do that? I'm sure others will have their own ideas, but if it was me, as a starting point I'd look at:

  • Raise user numbers by promoting it better
  • Put up more visible, better signage
  • Sell souvenirs of the lift from the office at the bottom
  • Open a cafe
  • Add to the attraction of lift with the restored step lift
  • Do a deal to include "Park and Lift" from the parking at the bottom of the lift
  • Offer walking tours of the town, including a trip in the lift
  • Offer tickets for sale from other points in town
  • Offer combined tickets with other attractions like the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway
  • Run "Up and Down" festivals with events happening at both ends of the lift
  • Tie in with bandstand and Ampitheatre events and ensure the lift is open at event times
  • Open the lift for longer during the year, especially over all holiday periods

Not all ideas will work, but some will. There will be other, better ideas to try as well (please send me your thoughts!). But it's a great asset to Folkestone, and will be a critical link between up-town Folkestone and the Harbour when the Harbour re-development kicks off.

So lets look at the positive options. Shepway had no need to threaten the immediate closure of the lift - there were many other options. Now that's clear, they should work keep the lift running and start discussions with others about taking it on in future - fair, open, honest discussions. This can work. It can be made to happen.