Morecambe ‘Frontierland tax’ row and Eden Project’s future following the general election

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The debate over Morecambe Town Council raising its local tax by 230 per cent to potentially regenerate Morecambe’s former Frontierland theme park site and, separately, the Eden Project’s progress under the next government have formed part of the general election campaign.

In 2023, Morecambe Town Council made headlines when it significantly raised its precept, the local town council tax, to create a £1million reserve fund to potentially develop the empty Frontierland site. And some of the other town council plans have split opinion too.

The Frontierland site is actually owned by Lancaster City Council, which bought it in 2021 after it was derelict for years. The city council hopes to regenerate it with private developers. It has sought expressions of interest and public views, and formed a special working group.

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But Morecambe Town Council’s 2023 raised precept and other activity have sparked criticism by some at Lancaster City Council, including Independent councillor Roger Cleet, and at Westminster by David Morris, where he was Conservative MP for Morecambe until recently.

Protest banner regarding Morecambe Town Council and the 'Frontierland tax'. March 2024. Pic: Roger Cleet.Protest banner regarding Morecambe Town Council and the 'Frontierland tax'. March 2024. Pic: Roger Cleet.
Protest banner regarding Morecambe Town Council and the 'Frontierland tax'. March 2024. Pic: Roger Cleet.

Mr Morris had accused Morecambe Town Council of ’empire-building’, called on the last Conservative government to investigate it, and continued his criticism in the general election campaign.

However, Morecambe Town Council has always defended its conduct, its right to set a precept, its motives and ambitions. It says some traditional council services have been reduced through years of government cuts and it might be able to carry out some of these differently.

Conservative criticism

David Morris raised the Morecambe precept issue in his general election campaign. In a Facebook video, he spoke outside the Queens Hotel where a Frontierland protest banner was fixed, attacking the town council.

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A view of Frontierland in Morecambe when it was open.A view of Frontierland in Morecambe when it was open.
A view of Frontierland in Morecambe when it was open.

The banner stated ‘Morecambe Town Council – give us our Frontierland tax money back. You’ve robbed us! To buy the Queens Hotel is madness!”

In the video, Mr Morris said: “This is a very good reason why you shouldn’t be voting Labour or Liberal Democrat. They voted to take your money. And they are not giving it back. That’s Labour and Liberal Democrats for you.”

In an written text with the video, Mr Morris stated: “Labour and the Liberal Democrats voted to increase your council tax to Morecambe Town Council. This is an extra tax just for living in Morecambe. I want to get your money back. If re-elected, I will lead the petitions to the relevant authorities to have the council abolished and get your money back.”

The town council has been consulting about empty Morecambe buildings and the former Queens Hotel could be the focus of a future bid to make it a community asset. The town council says public responses highlighted the hotel more than any other building.

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Eden Project Morecambe.Eden Project Morecambe.
Eden Project Morecambe.

Meanwhile regarding the Eden Project, Mr Morris said he had played a key role in promoting it to the last government, which granted £50million in levelling-up funds to it.

In a video, Mr Morris stated: “I brought you the [Heysham and Morecambe] link road. I brought you Eden, I brought you countless millions to this area.”

And in written election comments he stated: “Don’t put Eden at risk. The only way to guarantee Eden being built is to vote for the man who delivered it… David Morris.”

In the spring, Mr Morris and fellow Conservative Esther McVey took part in an Eden Project update meeting and Morecambe promenade walkabout. They also unveiled the then government’s local transport fund too, which came after the HS2 high speed railway to the north was cancelled.

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‘Town council decisions were within the law'

The Local Democracy Reporting Service asked Mr Morris and other Morecambe general election candidates for their views on the Frontierland precept issue and also Eden Project.

Peter Jackson, the Liberal Democrat candidate who is also a Lancaster city councillor, said: “The Morecambe Town Council decisions regarding its desire to have involvement in the redevelopment of the Frontierland site, and raising its council tax precept to fund that, were made by a democratically elected body – a third-tier local authority.

“They were within the law and motivated by an understanding of the importance of this site to Morecambe people, which was informed by a wide-ranging consultation.

“The Conservative party does not stand for election to Morecambe Town Council. I think that tells us all what they think of the people of Morecambe.”

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He added: “The town council in recent years has been at the forefront of tidying up Morecambe, and Liberal Democrats on that council have led the efforts to improve the look and feel of their town by the council employing town rangers. That should be applauded by all, including David Morris.

“Instead Mr Morris appears to be using the council as a political football by calling for its abolition, which is a ridiculous and undemocratic suggestion.

“Lancaster City Council has established a project board to take forward the redevelopment of the Frontierland site, with six cabinet members and outside stakeholders including the town council chairperson.

“The views of the people of Morecambe, expressed both in the town council consultation and the city council’s own consultation, are guiding the board’s objectives as it goes forward to seek a preferred developer. I am not aware that Mr Morris has engaged with this process or expressed a view about the development of the site.

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He added: “Frontierland and the Eden Project are central to the vital regeneration of the town as a tourist destination and its future prosperity. Contrary to the impression that Mr Morris likes to give, it is also Lancaster City Council which leads the partnership of local stakeholders bringing the Eden Project to fruition.

“David Morris has been a valued part of that partnership, of course. But his habit of claiming all the credit for every project he has any association with causes people to shake their heads in disbelief very regularly. I and the Liberal Democrats are committed to Morecambe and Lunesdale, I value every voter and listen to every opinion.”

Labour dismayed by false rumours about the Eden Project

Lizzi Collinge is Morecambe’s new Labour MP, but speaking in recent days just before the general election results were known, she said: “I have always opposed Morecambe Town

Council raising a precept to try buying part of the Frontierland site. I have lobbied town councillors on this.

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“I believe precepts should now be reduced to ensure people get their money back. Morecambe Town Council has not been under Labour control at any point during this saga so I’m puzzled by any attempt to link voting Labour at the general election and this policy.”

She added:”Labour fully supports the Eden Project and, as confirmed again by Rachel Reeves in Morecambe recently, we will honour all funding commitments to the project. I’ve been dismayed to see false rumours that Labour would pull funding. I hate to see local people played with in this way. It’s unfair to subject Morecambe people to shallow political games just to try to score points.

“Early on, I secured a firm commitment to the project from the Labour Party nationally and this has been confirmed multiple times by senior Labour shadow cabinet members.”

Labour would also make good on the government’s stalled investment projects and end wasteful competitive bidding and the ‘begging bowl culture’ that had cost UK councils millions of pounds in failed bids for government funding in recent years.

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Poor governance at town council

Roger Cleet, an Independent Lancaster city councillor, was not a general election candidate but he has regularly raised Morecambe Town Council issues at the city council.

He said: “David Morris spoke during his election campaign and published material against the 231 per cent precept rise by Morecambe Town Council to create the Frontierland community action fund.

“As he has been the MP, it’s not surprising he has championed returning the Frontierland fund back to the people.

"It’s possibly a vote winner when the million pounds has been put into reserves at Morecambe Town Council."

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Coun Cleet added: “The town council has constantly failed with poor governance and financial regulations. In a report regarding its delayed 2022/23 internal audit, a report by JDH Business Services Limited concluded that internal controls were not in place, adequate for the purpose intended or effective.

“At a Morecambe Town Council meeting in March this year, I submitted a freedom of information request for proof that all legal avenues had been investigated into returning the Frontierland community action funds.

“The National Association of Local Councils, where Morecambe Town Council designated proper officer Luke Trevaskis sits on the management board, has suggested that the funding can be used by the town council in how it deems fit. That includes refunding. But if that was to happen, the town council would be bankrupt, based on page 10 of the internal audit report.”

Coun Cleet said the new precept remains high despite the town council’s latest budget.

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Town council reply

Morecambe Town Council has defended its decisions and motives.

Speaking just before the general election results were known, a spokesperson said due to the election period, the council was unable to provide any additional comment. But pre-existing public statements are on the council’s website.

In one website statement, the council said the current band D precept of £97 marks a significant year-on-year reduction of £48, rolling-back 48 per cent of last year’s precept increase. The current 2024-25 budget provides a clear direction for the reallocation of the community action fund – the sum raised through the 2023 precept linked to the Frontierland site.

The town council said £150,000 has been used to subsidise the current budget, reducing the precept paid by residents. The remainder will be held in reserves to safeguard delivery of existing services and help deliver any new community priorities as they emerge. Town councillors will consider whether any further funds should be returned via similar subsidy in future.