The future of the Harrison's Rocks toilet block has become a hot topic for southern sandstone climbers. BMC access officer Rob Dyer reports back from an initial meeting held last Monday between all stakeholders in the Harrison's car park/toilet block/campsite. Can the future of the toilet block be secured?
The meeting was held to discuss the toilet block at Harrison's Rocks, near Groombridge on the Kent/Sussex border.
Harrison's Rocks is owned by the BMC Land and Property Trust, ensuring access for climbers in perpetuity.
The toilet block is currently closed because the building is unsafe. The campsite relies on these facilities and so it is also currently closed. The land on which the car park, toilet block and campsite stand is currently leased from the Forestry Commission by Sport England and managed on their behalf by the BMC Harrison's Rocks Management Group.
This lease expires in November of next year and Sport England will not be renewing it. The Forestry Commission does not want to take on the cost of maintaining the toilet block and planned to demolish it when the lease expires, close the lower half of the car park and increase the capacity of the upper half.
Whilst 1,000 local climbers signed an online petition, BMC access officer Rob Dyer represented the BMC at an initial meeting this monday with Withyham Parish Council, Forestry Commission, Sport England, and local interested resident Richard Fox. The meeting was very positive and it was clear that everyone wanted to find a viable future for the toilet block.
In the short term, it was agreed that Sport England would carry out repairs to the block to make it safe and usable for the public. This will involve significant investment and the work is planned to be completed by January 2014.
In the longer term, the Forestry Commission agreed that it would be able to grant a lease of sufficient time (likely to be around 20 years) at a peppercorn rent (i.e. for free), to a capable body able to maintain the facility. This would exclude any commercial operation, as the Forestry Commission want to maintain Birchden Wood as a low key recreational area.
If a capable body cannot be found, the Forestry Commission is still unable to commit its resources to running the block and would be forced to demolish the block at some point after the expiry of the current lease.
So, the crux of this clearly is finding, or forming, a body which is suitable to look after the block in the future. The main issue comes down to funding: facilities such as these cost money to maintain, clean and pay for services such as electricity, water and cess pit emptying. Grant funding can be applied for from Sport England for capital works (such as one-off improvements to the block) but not for long-term maintenance and management of the facilities.
This was just an initial meeting and all the answers weren't found to this issue, which is clearly an emotive one for sandstone climbers. However, the block will be repaired in the short term and focus now needs to be turned to finding an organisation to run the facilities which is acceptable to the Foresty Commission for the future.
The BMC is as supportive as ever of keeping the block and campsite open, and will be working with other stakeholders to try to find a long-term future for the facilities.
Climbers finally own Harrison's Rocks
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