Save Our Sidmouth

Knowle is part of our heritage – says John Govier

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An  interview with John Govier in the Sidmouth Herald 21st September. Reproduced with permission

The last living member of Sidmouth Urban District Council says development must be resisted

 THE last living member of the former Sidmouth Urban District Council has issued a plea for developers to keep their hands off the Knowle – telling the Herald: “It’s part of our heritage”.

John Govier is also one of the few remaining founders of East Devon District Council (EDDC) and has reminisced on how the headquarters were bought for just £65,000 – and a covenant was placed on the land.

Sidmothian Mr Govier, 72, who served the town as a councillor for around 20 years, has also branded refurbishment figures for the Knowle as a “hype” and “softening up” process for the ratepayers as EDDC looks to relocate to Honiton.  

“The Knowle site is unique in Sidmouth and any attempt to develop it should be firmly resisted,” he said.

In a three-part special beginning in today’s Herald, Mr Govier recalls his memories of local government and how they relate to hot topics today.  

Here he explores the Knowle since the war and its future.

“The Knowle Hotel continued after the war as a British Rail hotel. Situated near the railway station, it occupied an unparalleled view down the Sid Valley to the sea and has some of the most beautiful, mature parkland grounds in Sidmouth – and still has,” said Mr Govier.

“The Knowle Hotel itself in those days had a certain grace and style about it. It had one of the best ballroom dance floors in the west of England, and was popular with both holidaymakers and locals. I, personally, can recall many a happy Boxing Night and New Year’s Eve spent at the Knowle Hotel.

“It was sold with the Beeching railway axe and the Knowle Hotel Co acquired it and ran it very successfully until it was purchased by Sidmouth Urban District Council (SUDC) in 1971.

“The SUDC council offices were then at Norton Garth, next to the putting green.

“The deal was virtually done overnight and Norton Garth was sold for about £22,000 and the Knowle Hotel purchased for £65,000, as I recall.

“Very few councillors at the time knew what was going on and when it came before the SUDC it was a fait accompli.

“Sidmouth UDC was aware that changes were coming to local government and that the Radcliffe Maud report was adopted and that local authorities, urban district, rural district etc would be amalgamated forming district councils. What our precise area would be, we did not know then.

“Ted Pinney (former SUDC leader) had in mind the Knowle becoming the headquarters for the future East Devon District Council (EDDC). This, we know, is what happened – but Sidmouth had lost the first of its major hotels, and a good one!

“A good step or a bad step, I don’t know, but at least Knowle was safe from developers and its unique grounds would be cared for. I recollect that we put a covenant on the grounds.

“The Knowle building was far too big for the SUDC’s needs and so roughly half the building was turned into council flats.

“So EDDC duly came about in 1974. After a while more office space was needed and EDDC bought the Brinkburn Hotel (opposite the Manor Pavilion), turned the Brinkburn into flats and moved the Knowle flat tenants to the Brinkburn.

“Sidmouth is fairly central in East Devon and its acquisition by EDDC from SUDC has probably saved ratepayers thousands, if not millions, of pounds over the years, and, as we all know, the capital cost of building new council offices would run into millions after they acquired it for nothing. And why build new council offices now? What guarantees are there that the EDDC will still be there in 10 years.

“To be absolutely blunt, the seemingly undemocratic way that the EDDC is being run at the moment, I don’t see many ratepayers, especially in Sidmouth, losing any sleep if EDDC were to be succeeded by a better council.

“How I wish we still had SUDC – we could look after ourselves and be masters of our own destiny again – and we understood Sidmouth and made it what it is.

“My verdict on the proposals for Knowle is as follows:

1. Firstly, the future of any successful local government lies in doing things in a democratic way; and that the elected members are seen to be running the councils – not the officers – and the Knowle is a typical case in point;

2. The Knowle site is unique in Sidmouth and any attempt to develop any of it should be firmly resisted;

3. Should the EDDC depart from Knowle, then it is vital that the car parks are retained for public use – Sidmouth is desperate for more car parking;

4. The parkland and many exotic trees in Knowle must be retained and cared for – it is part of Sidmouth’s heritage, and our own councillors must protect our heritage; it is their duty to do that.

“The figures coming out of Knowle at the moment for “refurbishment” are a hype, and I see them no more than a “softening up” process for the ratepayers. Are they saying that every door needs replacing? If Knowle was in private hands now, and run by businessmen, it would be a different matter. In business you do things when you can afford them – but, of course, with councils they are not spending their own money, because it is all of us, the ratepayers, who foot the bills.”

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