Monday, 8 July 2013

Polzeath beach Licence Update

We've ummed and arrrred about this one, me and the curly cheese head. Janey's not sure. My position is that we've had so much support that really we should just keep you in the loop. The fear is that you'll be bored of it all!! Bores me I know that much. Okay, here we go. One last time. In summary, re. the beach and the licence etc... we're not going anywhere. Surf's Up! is going to rock and roll into our 19th year and beyond. Whether that's with the council on side or not, we'll have to see. Today was the day though, pay or go.... so I've written a final letter to the council officers. Have a read. If you love Polzeath the changes will affect you, no question. It's a big day for us... I'm sure you'll get that. 19 years in and we feel like we've been treated really badly. Really badly. 

Dear Mark, (legal services)

As we have not heard from you re. a meeting, we have laid out our position below.


We started operating at Polzeath in 1995 with the help of a Princess Youth Business Trust loan of £2k as a start up fund to purchase equipment such as boards, wetsuits, trailer etc and to print a few leaflets. Myself (two years) and Janey (six years) had prior surf coaching experience working up at Bude. In that first year, we parked where we are to this day but we weren't allowed to take money on the beach. We had to walk our clients across the road to the entrance of the Valley Caravan Park where we lived in a static. There were no computers, no mobile phones, and we responded to enquiries by hand written letter. In that first year, we set out our store that this was to be our livelihood. We'd been on a government business course where the tutor had told us, "if you want to be successful, don't chase the money, focus on the quality of the service." 

To this day the objective of Surf's Up! has never been and never will be about chasing money. We used to hear it, particularly a few years ago prior to the Wave Scheme, when we were very busy, we were an easy target.. that we were just doing it for the money. We took it as a huge compliment. We've never had a large marketing budget. It was then, as it is today about doing a good job for our students, providing a personal service, exceeding their expectations and it was these students that spread the good word. It hasn't been rocket science. We worked incredibly hard and made the most of our limited skills. As we've grown we've remained true to the philosophy that surfing is a positive life experience and knowing the impact that surfing has had on our lives, we feel a weighty responsibility to ensuring that our clients get that same opportunity. We've also felt that our pricing of lessons should be set at a level that's affordable to all. 

In 1996 following support from the Parish Council, clients and local residents we approached Noel Harradine, Bruce Tyzer and Bob Pyman at the NCDC for a licence to trade in the car park. There wasn't one, so they put one together for us. The same one we now find ourselves being at odds with the council over.

A lot has happened between then and now, but in summary surfing grew to such an extent that safety in the water, particularly the white water beginner area, was being compromised with no controls in place. Following a lengthy and often heated consultation period between the NCDC, the BSA, the RNLI, Prof Green and surf schools, the Wave Scheme was put in place. It was recognised that surf hire could not at that time be controlled, however, surf schools could be. It was not seen as the perfect solution, more a good place to start. The Wave Scheme at Polzeath has been effective, very effective. It has controlled the numbers in the water and prevented accidents. Limited to just two surf schools, with restrictions in place we've been able to operate side by side with our competitors in a healthy and safe manner. When Animal / Wavehunters joined the party, of course, no-one wants competition, but their arrival was the best thing that ever happened to us. It was sink or swim. We chose to swim by focusing on getting better. Growing a business is not easy. There are challenges. Try as we might we don't always get it right. But we do our very best. We're incredibly proud of our business, it's history and we work conscientiously to maintain our reputation. 

With the new restrictions in place we had to make big changes to our operation. Cutting student numbers by 75% at high tide, for example, impacted our business massively, but we took the long term view that maintaining Polzeath's reputation as safe family surfing destination was and always will be of paramount importance.

The restrictions came hand in hand with having to tender for the first time for the our surf school licence in 2006. We bid £20k on the basis that there were to be only two surf schools at Polzeath. At that time, Polzeath was booming and we could justify the tender sum. We could run a safe and sustainable business at that price. And we knew what we were bidding for. James Ortiz, in particular, was always very transparent and open with council direction. He always kept us informed and was always very quick to address any issues that we had. We always knew where we stood, even if we didn't always agree.

On a final point, during the evolution of Surf's Up! it should be recognised that in many areas we've led the surf school industry. Our Boardriders Club for example has provided cheap after school surfing lesson for an average of 150 kids a week for the past eight years. We've taken some of them on surf trips to France, Portugal and Bali. Ground breaking. And we've taken four of them from complete beginners through to the GB team where they've competed at the World Games. Ground breaking and inspirational. 


We understand that our licence has to go to tender. We get that. We also recognise that the council has a duty to maximise revenue from it's assets to pay for services. Of course. However, we fail to understand why other CCC owned car parks with beach access are not subject to the same revenue maximisation as Polzeath. The value may not be as high as, but there is still value. With the demise of the Wave Scheme, tendering trading spots on CCC car parks might go some way to filling the pot required to pay for services such as life guarding and beach cleaning. Seems pretty obvious.

Listed below are a few key dates that bring us to where we are now:

09/03/12 letter from council finance department completely out of the blue saying that we owe £9,000 on back tax as Vat should have been paid on the licence fee from April 2009 to March 2012. Our accountant writes by return to say this is incorrect and Vat is not due - he lays out the reasons why and awaits a reply (he waits 378 days!). Every subsequent quarter in 2012 we receive an invoice for £5k + VAT, I ring the council accounts dept and explain that our accountant has written re. the VAT issue and that we're awaiting a response and that we could not pay an incorrect invoice. On each occasion we were assured of a quick response.

16/08/12 Wave Scheme withdrawn mid licence term, changing the terms and conditions of the licence without notice. Other surf school groups started arriving and using the beach. Up to this point we had restricted our business and group sizes under the terms and conditions of the licence. The fee of £20k had been based on the protection provided by the Wave Scheme.

06/03/13 We learned from our competitor Andy Cameron (who subsequently went on to be the only one to tender for Pitch B) that there was to be a tender process for two surf schools on the beach. This came as a surprise as we had been the lease holder since 1996, adhered to all of it's conditions and paid in excess of £150,000 for the privilege. 

07/03/13 David Attwell writes to apologise that we heard the news in that way

07/03/13 Phil Jones writes to apologise for not getting in touch sooner.

09/03/13 we receive a copy of the licence application form - tenders to be in by 3pm on Friday 29nd March

11/03/13 I write to Mr Sharpe, Attwell and Jones highlighting the safety issues and asking relevant questions. 

13/03/13 Advert In Cornish Guardian - tenders to be in by 3pm on Friday 22nd March

Prior to 29/03/13 the council receive many letters of objection to the proposal, question the tender process and highlight safety concerns both in the car park and in the water

Prior to 29/03/13 Councillor Brian Gisbourne made enquiries to David Attwell re. the licence and was informed that an application had been made by a non - surf school business. He reported this back to the Parish Council. This proved to be untrue.

Prior to 29/03/13 spoke to Phil Jones where he concurred that without additional information, it would be very hard to value Pitch A. The specific information that we required was:

1) Will Pitch B be a surf school or provide surf services that may impact on our business. 
2) Will there be any restrictions on other surf schools operating at Polzeath

These answer to these two questions were absolutely essential for us to make a valuation on the Pitch and therefore to make a tender application. Without the definitive answers, valuing would be impossible. We never received an answer.
29/03/13 Date of tender submission - office closed, bank holiday! We submitted the tender by hand on the 28/03/13, the three officers were on holiday.

05/04/13 Formal interviews scheduled in the time table did not happen. Instead I rang David Attwell to organise a meeting to discuss the licence issues that we had.

10/04/13 Meeting at the council officers between ourselves and Mr. Jones, Sharpe and Attwell. This was more like an interview and yet we'd requested the meeting. We were promised a copy of the Minutes asap.

10/04/13 Informed that Vat was indeed not payable on the licence fee and that the £9,000 bill was incorrect. This response came over a year after our accountants highlighted the issue and asked for clarification.

26/04/13 letter from Karen Jackson to our solicitor has so many inaccuracies which I address in a reply on the 03/05/13

21/05/13 Our instructors save the life of an elderly gentleman who was enjoying a day out with the family, highlighting some of the safety issues at Polzeath.

02/05/13 onwards - letters from Karen Jackson, CCC legal team make no sense and conflict with letters we'd received previously from Phil Jones.  

03/06/13 Following seven requests, we finally receive a copy of the Minutes - they are incomplete and make no mention of the comments made by Jolyon Sharpe. 

24/06/13 letter from Mark Pearce sent to our general e-mail rather than my private e-mail. Incredibly unprofessional. The details in the letter reference licence fees due are inconsistent with the finance department. There is also a claim on the licence fee for this year. We are requested to pay £20k by the 5th July or vacate the pitch.

During the period of 11/03/13 to date: letters from the council officers, legal and finance department have been conflicting; replies to e-mails have taken two weeks; council officers often on holiday or unobtainable; Jolyon Sharpe has picked up the phone only once, I phoned him, he was on a day off and would not discuss the licence.

We also during this period employed the services of a solicitor. This was because the timescale of the tender process etc led to the council giving us a ultimatum, pay the £20k or leave. We felt that we were unfairly being pushed into a corner. The process was neither transparent, open nor fair. Following the lack of information and misleading information; the lack of consultation with the RNLI, surf schools, Surfing GB and the stake holders; it felt that this was being pushed through too quickly without proper reflection on a change that was so fundamental to safety of beach users at Polzeath, we had no option but to seek help.

We have copies of in excess of 500 letters written to the council to object to the new tender proposal and support for Surf's Up!

In Summary

The timeline of events clearly shows service failure by the CCC. There was no tender process that was followed. And as a result there have been considerable personal injustices caused to us, our business and our staff. We were not given the opportunity to value the site because key information was not forthcoming and in some instances information that was provided was deliberately misleading. As you are aware, we have asked the Ombudsmen to look at this... they await a conclusion from your own findings. 

It is quite clear that now that the beach is open to anyone to operate, Polzeath is no longer the safe surfing destination it once was. This is down to a change in council policy. You had control and you had revenue. Now you have no control, and it remains to be seen if the extra revenue (if indeed there is any) was worth the risk and fundamental change to the beach. In our opinion it will get worse as the new operators strengthen and grow their surf schools over the seven year term. It is also quite clear that with a new surf hire outfit soon to be located right next to us in combination with an open house policy on operating surf schools, £20k is not viable, sustainable or realistic. We stated this in our tender application and our position has been strengthened by witnessing the beach over Whistun. 

I wonder who's experience you've leant on to make the changes and wonder whether in the event of an incident (there will be one) who stands up and takes ultimate responsibility. We all know the RNLI position on this and that the lifeguards were forbidden to make personal comment!

We will continue to be at Polzeath. As the one of the most established surf schools in the UK with an unrivalled reputation, we don't fear change or sustainability. Obviously, we'd like to remain where we are... but only if it's at the right price. So our position remains the same, to get around the table and discuss where we go from here. We're happy to pay, we think we should pay... but not £20k. Not now that the goal posts have been moved. I understand that we tick all the boxes as far as what you require regarding experience of Polzeath, community value, safety record etc..... and this would be our 19th year on the same patch of sand! It would be such a shame that what has had such a huge positive impact on the success story of Polzeath should not have the support of the CCC.

Yours sincerely
So there you have it. I'm guessing this will fall on deaf ears but we've tried our best. Forecast is looking awesome, so I'm going to slip on the speedos and work on the white bits!! No peeking now!

Update: Monday morning!! I've read the letter quite a few times and there's so much I've left out... ho hum, I'll keep that back for another time. I wish the council had done all of this over the winter rather than three weeks before the start of the season and followed a proper process of tender and consultation. The council are forever chasing instructor and life guard certificates (no need as a Surf GB Centre of Excellence) but I wonder who in the council has the qualifications and experience to make these massive decisions that affect the beach, not just for a year or two, but for the long term... 

Many many thanks for all the e-mails of support and encouragement over the weekend. Hope you had a good one - was pretty awesome!!