Jim Parker: ‘Is it time to be bold and brave with sites like Living Coasts?’

I remember saying at the time that it was a defining moment in Nick Bye’s political career.

Torbay’s first directly-elected mayor had come up with his controversial ‘vision’ for the Bay. It went down like a lead balloon in some quarters which is somewhat ironic looking back as an array of the developments and projects on Mr B’s wish list back then are virtually the same as those hopefully being delivered now.

‘Bold’ and ‘brave’ were some of the words he was using to describe what had to be done to take Torbay into the 21st century.

But there was one project, in particular, which proved to be his un-doing. A restauranteur by the name of Nigel Bloxham had come up with an eye-catching plan for a swanky fish restaurant on Babbacombe Downs.

The only stumbling block was that it was earmarked to replace a viewing platform (as well as an old toilet block) on the Downs and the locals were soon on the warpath.

I remember reports of a packed public meeting at the Babbacombe Theatre where residents tore into the then mayor. Instead of sticking to his guns in the name of a new future and refusing to bow to the pressure of the protesters Mr Bye withdrew his support and the restaurant plan fell.

So, what would Mr B make now of the waterfront Living Coasts site? Be bold and brave?

The iconic site is soon to be emptied of its birds, penguins, seals and fish after the Wild Planet Trust and owners of Paignton Zoo decided they could no longer afford to keep it open – the pandemic was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

There has already bags of interest in the site, including hotels and restaurant operators. It would appear, however, that the Torbay Council site owners would rather retain its current use for the future.

A council spokesman said: “The council’s preferred option for the future of the Living Coasts site is for it to ‘continue in its current or similar use’.

“We have received a good number of expressions of interest, from continuing its current use as a wildlife centre, using the restaurant as a stand-alone offer, to the complete redevelopment of the site.

“With the zoo, we plan to test the viability of expressions of interest so that it can continue its current or similar use.

“We will not actively be seeking a complete redevelopment of this site unless the preferred proposals are not possible.”

The council says the Lib Dem-Independent coalition will continue to work with the Wild Planet Trust to ensure their core offer of conservation work and local attraction has long-term viability.

Swithin Long, the councillor in charge of regeneration, says: “There has been some interest from businesses and organisations including the marine animal sector.

“A lot of people have been saying they would like some sort of continuation there especially if there is a continuation of the marine work they do. We would like that if that is possible. “

He confirmed: “Some of the interest has been from hotels and restaurants.”

But he added: “We have to give the zoo space and time to breath. We would like to make sure there is a link to the zoo if that is possible.”

Cllr Long said it was fairly well-known that Living Coasts had struggled with visitor numbers in the past and he said the council didn’t want to be faced with a similar situation in a few years’ time.

And therein lies the bold and brave bit. If the Wild Planet Trust couldn’t make Living Coasts work how can a similar venture succeed?

There are already several top-class restaurants in that area including The Elephant and Number 7 Fish Bistro. How about a swanky restaurant overlooking a reinvigorated Beacon Cove below with a bit of residential thrown in? Bold and brave. Are you there, Mr Bloxham?