What lies behind the National Trust's extensive applications for entertainment, food and drink sales at Avebury?
The National Trust (NT) have won permission to make the Coach House - next to the Red Lion pub and right in the heart of the Avebury World Heritage Site (WHS) - into a more permanent café with outside seating in front and behind it. Wiltshire councillors' decision by five votes to three came at a meeting of the Eastern Planning Committee (April 21).
Since 2010 the Trust has had permission to open a café in the Coach House for such occasions as solstice celebrations and Bank Holidays, but has rarely been used. Now it can open throughout the summer season between 10.00am and 5.00pm.
The main dispute was between the Trust with support from Wiltshire Council's planning officer and the objectors over whether the seating could be seen from part of Avebury's Henge. The Council's WHS officer had stated that the area for the new outside seating was 'concealed from view'. This had been denied by objectors.
Following their denial, the WHS coordinator for Avebury, Sarah Simmonds, went to check the claims. She found it would be possible for the three tables behind the Coach House to be seen from the henge, but that they “would not have a significant impact on the henge monument and the wider WHS and its Outstanding Universal Value”.
Councillor Dobson was worried the tables could be seen from the henge and told the meeting: "I have no idea why in 2010 this café was granted permission. Avebury is so special that that everything should be looked at very carefully." And he was very critical of the Trust's lack of consultation with the village.
The fact that the new tables will be cheek by jowl to the Coach House's public toilets was glossed over. Indeed one councillor said that as public toilets were now "like gold dust", the café would help to keep these toilets open.
Avebury Parish Council's suggestion that the café should be opened for a twelve month pilot followed by a review involving all sides, was studiously ignored. More details of this application can be found in the earlier Marlborough.News report.
As it happens, unsafe masonry at the Coach House has meant that it and its toilets are now closed to the public.
In parallel with this application Wiltshire Council's Eastern Area Licensing Sub Committee has been considering an application from National Trust (Enterprises) Ltd for a licence to cover twelve NT Avebury premises (including the Manor and its gardens and parkland, the dovecote and the Great Barn.) ['National Trust (Enterprises) Ltd' is the NT's trading company and is not a charity.]
Some of the buildings in this application were already authorised to sell alcohol. But this licence application includes plays, live music, recorded music, dance performances and films - as well as the sale of alcohol - between 10.00am to 11.00pm every day of the week. Understandably, these licences are described by the Parish Council as 'blanket licences'.
There was some confusion as the application appeared to include the sale of alcohol in the Coach House as well as on the part of the Henge behind - although the planning application for the Coach House said it would only be serving soft drinks.
The Parish Council was horrified by this request for 'blanket licences' and objected strongly - as did many residents. Wiltshire Council's Environmental Control and Protection Team objected saying the application lacked detail notably about "the prevention of public nuisance".
And the police were unhappy about permission for crowds of "up to 4,999 persons, to be on the licensed premise, at any one time, having consumed alcohol and there being no demonstrable managements plan...to control incidents of crime and anti-social behaviour."
All that might have sunk the application, but negotiations continued with the NT's solicitors. The councillors agreed the application, but with conditions spelled out in a five page Decision Notice.
No licensable events will be allowed on the area of the 'Henge and Stone Circle' that had been included on the application's maps. Risk assessments of licensable events must be made.
Only two outdoor amplified live or recorded music events with audiences between 500 and 1,000 will be allowed in a year. Attached to this condition are various orders about submitting plans, noise monitoring and maximising an events distance from homes.
The councillors on the committee had heard about the NT's need for 'flexibility' in putting on large events. But, as one villager told Marlborough.News, it is still unclear why the NT wanted such blanket licences or why the committee granted them - let alone why they had not properly consulted with the villagers beforehand.
Those who live in Avebury village have a continually nagging dread that recent history will try and repeat itself and ruin their village. In 1988 Ken King bought Avebury Manor for a million pounds and began to turn it into an Elizabethan Theme Park.
Without planning permission, he had gone ahead with plans for his entertainment-based Manor, which would employ 30 local people (in costume) and bring in 70,000 paying visitors. A campaign led by Avebury resident the late Sir Ludovic Kennedy and a strict council planning committee were set against him. And King soon went bankrupt.
The Manor was bought by the National Trust. And residents breathed a sigh of relief. The word then was "You can trust the Trust". Today, some residents are wondering whether they can now that commercial events are being introduced to make the site pay for itself. You do not have to get planning permission to dress employees in Tudor costume...
Summer Solstice 2016
Slightly better news for the village has come with the NT's change of mind about closing the Ridgeway at the solstice to cars, vans and caravans. Avebury residents expected that this would simply divert these vehicles into the village itself.
Instead a partnership of the police, various Wiltshire Council departments, fire and rescue, the National Trust and others will "be politely but robustly managing the Ridgeway this year". And roads in the village will be closed to waiting and parking.
Although police numbers for the period are expected to be reduced, officers will be on point duty at the entrance to the streets which attract parking by those going to observe the solstice.