Frustration as council keeps silent on Wigan hall campaigners' questions in access row

The locked gates at Haigh Hall
The locked gates at Haigh Hall

Council bosses have dodged seven key questions campaigners have raised in a major dispute over open access to a jewel-in-the-crown site.

The Friends of Haigh Hall Heritage and Open Access for All group demanded answers from Wigan Council over serious concerns about possible breaches of the lease and the spirit of the agreement for unrestricted public visits to Haigh Hall not being followed.

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However, the local authority said it would not respond to each of the campaigners’ individual points and has instead provided a general statement.

Public anger around Haigh has been rising since Contessa Hotels, which runs the building as a boutique getaway destination, began locking the gates during events.

Residents say this is not permitted under the terms of operation.

They also criticised an alternative panoramic path laid out for access at such times, saying it prevented many people, including those in wheelchairs, children in prams or buggies and residents with mobility issues, getting into the grounds due to the dangerous state of it.

The Facebook group also has questions for the council to answer over communication, saying it has submitted official complaints about the town hall’s handling of its Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, and over the general level of public engagement.

Here are the issues submitted by the group:

1. The town hall appears not to have followed the advice it paid its own consultants, Five Lines, for in 2013.

The Haigh Hall and Country Park Option Appraisal published in June of that year said: “Given the sensitives associated with this project - and in the light of the opportunities presented by engaging the local community - it will be necessary to have a communication strategy which will guide community activities over the duration of the project.”

The document goes on to refer to explanations of key messages around the challenges at Haigh Hall and the opportunities of redevelopment, audience analysis and “arrangements for more comprehensive engagement with local communities” including putting an advisory group together with representatives of community groups on board.

A spokesperson for the friends’ group said: “A lack of engagement is certainly a theme from the 2,500 people who have signed up to supporting our right to open and unrestricted access to date.”

2. The council is ducking attempts under FOI laws to get it to lay out its engagement strategy.

The spokesperson said: “The council has been asked to demonstrate their engagement via an FOI request. Unfortunately they have been unable to respond within timescale which has meant that a formal complaint has been logged by a group member.”

3. The group wants answers on how Contessa Hotels was chosen to renovate Haigh Hall in the first place.

The spokesperson said: “For some unknown reason all meetings associated with he detail of Haigh Hall have been held in private, and many undocumented. The council decided to terminate the open tendering process in search of a suitable partner and instead chose to directly approach Contessa Hotels.

“We have asked for the reasons why this happened and also asked them to confirm if this was a legal approach. To date, we have not had a response.”

4. There is a contradiction between the lease, which says nothing shall be built “which shall prevent, hinder or restrict pedestrian access” and the schedule for Contessa which puts two conditions in to allow restrictions.

The spokesperson said: “It looks like the council is trying to confuse the residents of Wigan - being very clear in the lease and then slipping in sections in the schedule.”

5. A lack of clarity from council officers over access is fuelling suspicions about the relationship between the town hall and Contessa.

The spokesperson said: “Penny McGinty said in April that: ‘Maintaining public access for visitors whilst preserving the hall has always been a key priority’ but by the end of May the council had changed their tune and a joint statement was issued saying ‘access still had to be restricted on occasion’.

“We want to know why this change in view occurred and why a tenant seems to hold so much power with its landlord. There is no public record of a change in position.”

6. The council has failed to act on a promise from March 2018 to do something about the unpopular white road markings after 2,102 people signed a petition demanding their removal.

The spokesperson said: “The white lines are designed to give priority to traffic and there are no alternaive paths in place from Mowpin Lodge and no plans for continued access from there when the planned electric gates are installed.”

7. The council is not documenting complaints properly. The group says internal audit report and peer reviews have highlighted shortcomings in this area.

The council stressed the positive aspects of the redevelopment and says it is listening to those worried about what is happening and finding ways to tackle issues.

Penny McGinty, assistant director for corporate contracts and assets, said: “Haigh Woodland Park has been transformed thanks to £3m in investment to create a premier destination for families from the borough and beyond.

“The park complex goes from strength to strength and we are working on plans to improve it further. We have regular dialogue with residents and tenants like Contessa to make sure we resolve issues where they appear and seek solutions which will help people continue to enjoy the fantastic facilities on offer.

“We have recognised concerns raised by residents around the gate access. The lease does allow these if an alternative route is provided, but we have also agreed with the hotel these will only be closed when there is an event. The gates are just one of a number of routes for people to take to enjoy the park and all its facilities and there is alternative access in place for those who want to enjoy the views.

“We have been open about the redevelopment of Haigh Woodland Park throughout the process while taking into account any commercial sensitivities.

“We have received so many wonderful comments from park users who have been impressed by Haigh Woodland Park and visitor numbers show how successful the investment is proving to be.”