Andrew Lloyd Webber is complaining bitterly that public money has been wasted. Not that this is quite how he puts it but this is indeed the underlying essence of his case about Hadlow Tower. Nice old building, no one wanted it. So, public money was poured in and joy was to be had. No one is interested in it now as that public building that the public money paid for. So, all that public money was wasted, wasn’t it?
Sadly, very sadly, that isn’t the lesson being learned here, that our collective wealth, shaken out of our pockets by the tax system, is wasted if we spend it on something no one is interested in:
When the 175ft high gothic Hadlow Tower was bought last year for just £425,000, it was an undisputed bargain. More than £3million of taxpayers money had been ploughed into the restoration of the majestic, Grade I-listed folly, considered the tallest of its kind in the world, and the buyer became custodian of a vertiginous landmark.
But the historic property near Tonbridge in Kent has been put up for sale for £2million, prompting fears that the public will lose access to the tower and anger that a private individual will reap the financial rewards of a building project brought to fruition by the hard work of a local community group.
Lord Lloyd-Webber is among those to express grave reservations, warning that the sale could undermine everything the tower, in all its majestic glory, represents.
“A huge amount of public money was spent on this project,” he said. “If it’s going to be sold, it should be returned to Historic England and the Heritage Lottery Fund. It can’t go into the pocket of a private person.
“I don’t think the public purse should be used to speculate – this seems to have slipped through the net.”
All of which is an irrelevance. There are two facts and only two facts which need to be considered.
Built in 1838, the tower was the brainchild of Walter Barton May, a wealthy merchant. It was used as a lookout post during the Second World War, but fell derelict before being rescued by the artist Bernard Hailstone.
It changed hands several times before a compulsory purchase order was served by the local council in 2010 and it was sold to the Vivat Trust, a charity that preserved historic buildings, for £1.
More than £3 million of public money was then ploughed into the tower, including more than £50,000 raised by community campaigners.
The tower action group designed, financed and staffed a visitor centre on the ground floor, and from 2013 it was open to the public weekly in summer.
Taxpayers’ money was used to restore something that absolutely no one – given that £1 price – had any interest in. There is, of course, an argument that there are public benefits which cannot be captured by a private economic actor and perhaps that is the case here? Which brings us to our second fact:
In 2016, the Vivat Trust went into liquidation and Hadlow Tower was put on the market for offers over £1 million, as a four-bedroom home set over five of the tower’s eight storeys. It was eventually sold to Mr Tym, who is married with four sons, who said he was attracted by “the novelty factor”. “However, the stewards decided to discontinue working there, the visitor centre closed and the number of visitors dwindled to zero.”
Caroline Wetton, one of the organisers, said: “We raised a huge amount of money for this project and put in a lot of our own time. We are deeply disappointed it has come to this.” She said that 800 people visited the tower in 2017.
It appears that no one is interested in it now either, even after the taxpayer’s forced largesse. That’s if we believe the no visitors number. But perhaps we believe that upper bound one, 800 people?
So, we’ve stuck £3 million of capital in. Discount that at say 5% (don’t forget, maintenance will have to be done again at some point) that gives us £150,000 a year. 800 visitors in a year? That’s £190 per visitor. Without even considering running costs, that’s just the capital cost. No wonder no one was interested in the place at a price of £1 then, eh?
£190 per visitor, each visitor turning up for, what, say 2 hours? Disney doesn’t cost £95 an hour, does it, and that includes going on the rides.
The lesson from this is that the restoration of Hadlow Tower was a pissing away of the nation’s wealth, it shouldn’t have been done in the first place. The value created is massively lower than the value expended to do it. That is, this makes us poorer. But then that’s true of so much of what government does, isn’t it?