The first action of the committee was to manage a consultation on the views of the community and visitors about what they wanted to see happen to the Park. This was done so we could speak on behalf of the community – our key role. The tremendous response of 747 completed questionnaires gave a clear direction for the ongoing maintenance and improvement of the Park as a ‘quintessential seaside park’.
Between March and July we attended meetings of the CTC Committee. We did try to help by making suggestions and asking questions but it was not an easy relationship. Possibly there was some confusion over the role of the Friends which may have caused some of these difficulties. Fundamentally we were anxious to ensure the Council was fully prepared to take over the running of the Park. The way procedures were used also made it very hard for the Friends to contribute effectively, for example, there are still some unresolved issues such as disputed minutes. One result of these difficulties was that this committee was put on hold while negotiations continued between CTC and North Norfolk District Council (NNDC).
As we had tried, unsuccessfully, to get underneath what was causing the delay (negotiations had been going on for over 15 months) we asked for clarification from NNDC and for an end to the stalemate. The Friends have always said they were happy to work with whoever owns the park. NNDC then set a deadline for completion. Cromer Town Council missed this deadline and so the ownership of the Park remained with NNDC.
We met NNDC immediately to explore next steps and were not a little surprised when in response to our question about the cafe we were given the keys to run it! With tremendous support from the committee, the donation of furniture and crockery and cutlery from the community and inspiring creative direction from Emma Dale, Vice-chair of the Friends Committee, the cafe was open!
NNDC were very helpful in providing all materials and covering costs of utilities and rent. In return, as part of the reciprocal arrangement, the Friends also started to tidy the gardens around the café. The rose garden has been transformed. While there is still work to do on the wooden pergolas, the whole area looks so much better. The 15 months of stagnation had left this part of the Park in a very sorry state. Thanks should recorded for the volunteer gardeners, especially the regular few that have given hundreds of hours to the Park. In addition, a small bed in the rose garden is now being tended by children from the nursery in the Park.
The café has gone from strength to strength. It has been open at least 6 days a week and throughout the whole winter. It has received much praise from locals and visitors, some travelling many miles to sample our cake, crepes and coffee. It has certainly brought more visitors to Cromer. But it does much more than this. It has created a community hub where everyone feels welcome – on both sides on the counter. In addition, it has raised not insignificant funds for the Friends to use for the Park.
It must be stressed that all has been possible only because of a huge commitment by some of the Friends. Many members of the committee giving up weeks of their time to ensure the cafe is open for all. Several members also have created hundreds of cakes – which have often been declared as being the best ever tasted! As a result of this success it became increasingly clear that we needed a co-ordinator to run the cafe and that there should be some financial recompense for the hours this takes. After much discussion with all involved we appointed a co-ordinator as a trial until the end of March. This has worked very well.
The Friends have also managed several very successful events in the Park all centred around the cafe. There has been a jazz afternoon, boat building on the boating lake, French speaking afternoons, special afternoon teas and performances by singing groups including carol singing. The next event is on Good Friday when we will assemble the picnic benches purchased with funds raised by Budgens sale of books. We are very grateful to Budgens for their support and also to Cromer Trophies for supplying the plaques.
Since August members of the strategy group have met with NNDC, both councillors and officers. These meetings were very helpful and led to very quick responses so that, for example, speed signs and ramps were added in the main drive and a new window fitted in the cafe. In our second meeting the Friends were asked to come up with some more detailed ideas for the Park. This fitted very well into our plans to hold a second survey – as stated in our first survey – and so the Friends moved very quickly on this. We shared our ideas with NNDC and then published them.
Unfortunately, following the publication of our ideas we were called to a meeting at which it was very clear that some councillors were very unhappy that we had included all our proposals as some did not fit with their plans. Most significant of these being the use of the concrete area for car parking. The Friends were aware of this possibility and thus included a question in the survey specifically about parking. However, on the basis of all that we know about the community’s views about the Park we did not feel that we could include car parking as one of our proposals.
More recently it has proved difficult for these councillors to find a time to meet us and so we met with officers to explore how we could continue to work together in the best interests of the Park. This was a very helpful meeting.
However, the next thing we heard was that we would have to bid for the cafe in an open tendering process. We had agreed to take over the costs of the utilities after March this year but it was a shock that at the eleventh hour we would also have to bid for the cafe for a new licence to start in April – and, if successful, pay the rent of £3,500. We accept and understand the need for an open tendering process but it would have been helpful to have had this notification earlier.
Putting aside the issue that this was a tenfold increase from what had been calculated in 2013, and the fact that we would be paying for the privilege of raising money for the Park, we thought long and hard about the viability of the Friends being able to continue to run the cafe in the way it had evolved. It is clear that cafe is at the heart of the work of the Friends and so explored several options. In the end it was agreed that Emma Dale would run the cafe as a non-profit making social enterprise on behalf of the Friends. We have just heard our bid was successful and so we look forward now to our next challenges.
Overall everyone should all be very proud of what has been achieved so far. The Park is coming back to life and many new friends have been created through working together and sharing hopes for the future.
However some things may not have gone as well as they could. We may have been too strong, or not strong enough, in some meetings. We may have been too naive about how local democracy works and our immediate concerns about the cafe may have taken our eyes off the bigger picture – it certainly left the gardeners working on their own. The enthusiasm and energy of the Friends committee meant that we may have wanted to move things along more quickly than was always possible although we have been surprised how quickly things can happen when there is a will. The fact that we have constantly represented the views of the community even when that may have created extra conflict may also have some bearing on the current situation.
Next year will be another interesting one! We will now need to build on the good relations developed with officers at NNDC and with Tim Adams Cromer Town Major and some other Town Councillors. We will also need to keep our eyes on the whole Park – which has always been our main focus.
Finally sincere thanks should be given to all those that have worked so hard to make everything we have done such a success. In particular, thanks go to Barry Meadows, secretary, who has done more than anyone. Thanks to Rosemary Price for her work as treasurer at the start of the Friends and to Samantha Annison for joining the committee as a co-opted member (and thanks to Matt her husband for his help with signs and notice board). Also we express our best wishes to Carole Ormrod and wish her well and to Sylvie Kilshaw for her help on the committee. And, last but certainly not least, to everyone who have contributed so much to make all this possible.
Chair of the Friends of North Lodge Park