I’ve always supported Dreamland. Planned, developed and managed properly it could, along with the Turner, have played a critical role in reviving Margate and Thanet’s fortunes by attracting more visitors, encouraging more investment in the area and creating more jobs and training opportunities. But it hasn’t. Instead its been an unmitigated fuck-up . Less than a year after opening the park operator, Sands Heritage, is in administration and having to borrow £600,000 from an offshore investment fund to keep afloat. Should, as many believe it will, Sands goes under then the leasehold of Margate’s Dreamland Amusement Park, will become the property of a Cayman Island registered company to dispose of as it wishes.
This appalling situation is, in my view, a direct result of the serious mismanagement by senior council officers and politicians who over the past 3-4 years, have together messed -up a project which had massive potential for success.
The fundamental fault was that senior Thanet Council officers and the then Labour cabinet agreed, despite several warnings, on a totally unrealistic time table for the Dreamland opening, resulting in the farcical situation whereby the park’s major attraction, the iconic Scenic Railway, was not operational until 4 months after the opening.
There was also a culture of massive secrecy surrounding the management of the Dreamland project. Most councillors, myself included, were excluded from any oversight of what was happening. We were not provided with a full and accurate picture of how the project was progressing. We were misled by senior officers and Labour Cabinet members. We were provided with only partial information or flatly refused information for no good reason.
Project management arrangements were chaotic. There was a high staff turnover and some key team members were alleged not to have the experience and skill sets necessary for running a project as complex and demanding as this. I’ve heard suggestions from several trusted sources that because of a lack of experience, rapid staff turnover and absence of robust project management arrangements, some Dreamland contractors and suppliers were able to significantly overcharge for their services and get away with shoddy work.
It was also the case that relations between Thanet Council, the Dreamland Trust and the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) were toxic. From some of the documents I have read and the “insiders” I have spoken to, it appears that Thanet Council deliberately cut the Dreamland Trust out of most of the important project decision making processes, even though the Trust was the recipient of, and technically accountable for, the £millions of lottery and other funding intended for the project. Indeed I witnessed at first-hand how some councillors, with the consenting silence of top council bosses, rubbished and character assassinated the Trust. If this wasn’t bad enough we now know that that Thanet Council totally failed, contrary to the terms of the HLF grant, to keep the funder up to date on progress with the project. So arrogantly dismissive of HLF was TDC that it misapplied/ misappropriated almost £500,000 of the HLF grant and it forgot to tell the HLF that it had selected Sands Heritage as its park operator. So bad did the HLF/TDC relationship become that just a few months before the park was due to open HLF threatened to withhold any further grant payments!
Next we have the saga of the appointment of the Park operator. Many people have asked why TDC suddenly decided to move from its position of passing the management of park on to the not-for-profit Dreamland Trust and opting instead for a competitive procurement process. I recall at the time that TDC kept referring to EU legislation as the reason why there had to be a procurement process, but to my shame and regret I must fess up to not having asked council officers for a full explanation of what EU regulations applied and whether there were exceptions to it. Co-incidentally, the bad mouthing of the Dreamland Trust began about the same time as the competitive procurement exercise was being talked about.
Then of course we have the question of why a company with no previous experience of managing an amusement park was selected as the park operator. Why, following the first abortive procurement exercise, the operator agreement was massively changed to include a 100 year lease with a long rent free period and a rent payment kick in clause which meant in effect that no rent would ever be likely to be paid to the Council. Most mysterious of all is why, during the second park operator procurement exercise, was Sands Heritage’s application rejected on legal advice and why was the selection panel told it could only consider the application put forward by Sands during the first operator procurement exercise?
Although this is only a brief, non-detailed, account of some of the major issues surrounding Dreamland it’s clear that there are some very serious matters which need to be looked at. If it wasn’t for the brave actions of a growing a number of thoroughly pissed-off people close to the Dreamland project, we would not know about these things. Also if wasn’t for the tenacious and determined actions of Louise Oldfield in holding TDC and HLF to account through Freedom of Information requests, we would not be able to see some of the key documents which clearly establish mismanagement and incompetence and unacceptable secrecy in the management of the Dreamland Project.To date about £18 million of public money has spent on opening Dreamland. £8million of this has been paid by the people of Thanet – that’s about £60 per man, woman and child. So serious is the mis-management of this project; so damaging the incompetence, secrecy and misinformation which were, and still are, a feature of Dreamland project; that there should be a independent public enquiry into how it was run. Those responsible must be named and shamed and lessons for the future learned.
Perhaps a petition calling for an enquiry should be launched? Please contact me if you think this is a good idea and want to help. Also if you have any Dreamland related information you wish to pass in anonymity please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 07866588766 strictest confidence guaranteed