Ho, Ho, Ho v No, No, No - garden centre in Christmas Wonderland wrangle with council

Tom Bowden, owner of St John's Nursery, Clacton

Tom Bowden, owner of St John's Nursery, Clacton - Credit: Archant

The manager of a popular Christmas Wonderland in Clacton has hit back at Tendring District Council for threatening to shut down his festive attraction.

St John's Nursery Christmas Wonderland attraction

St John's Nursery Christmas Wonderland attraction - Credit: Archant

St John’s Nursery on Earls Hall Drive in Clacton has been embroiled in a dispute with Tendring District Council since last December over highway safety and traffic issues.

St John’s Nursery, which also has retail nurseries in Woodbridge and London, employs about 120 staff in Clacton, and Mr Bowden claims that all the uncertainty over the fate of its Christmas attractions is “very stressful” for them.

“We have spent about £700,000 on Christmas stock, which will all be wasted if they shut us down. We have our two reindeers who are ready to arrive, and our new cafe will be opening in the next two weeks.

“We don’t want the council to end up being the Grinch that stole Clacton’s Christmas.”

St John's Nursery Christmas Wonderland attraction

St John's Nursery Christmas Wonderland attraction - Credit: Archant

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The crisis reached boiling point last December when the nursery was shut down for a day when the council issued a stop notice. The council took the nursery to the high court to get an injunction against it, which St John’s Nursery won, but at a cost to them of £20,000.

Tom Bowden, who runs the Christmas attraction, is concerned that the council will again try to do the same again this year. “I feel incredibly frustrated because we have been trying to work with the council since last year. As well as costing us £20,000 to fight the case, it cost taxpayers money, because it cost the council £7,500 in legal action costs - that’s money that could be much better used in the local community.”

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The case has attracted substantial publicity in the national press as well as locally, but Mr Bowden claims all the attention has been detrimental to business. “All that publicity last Christmas dropped our trading by 20%,” he said.

The nursery claims to have the support of most local people. When the nursery was shut down for a day last December, thousands turned up to show their support. The nursery started up an online petition on Facebook four days ago, with 1,400 people coming out so far in their favour.

“Grandparents bring their grandkids down here, we are a very family freindly attraction,” said Mr Bowden. “We work with a lot of local disabled schools, like Shorefields in Clacton, who come every year with their kids for free.

We’ve all heard about Winter Wonderlands elsewhere that have been a disaster, but we’re trying to create a magical experience and in the fifth year we’ve been running it, everyone says its value for money.”

The council claims that the nursery only has planning permission to operate as a wholesale outlet and says the business must stop trading as a retail garden centre, as well as hosting its Wonderland event.

The nursery put in a planning application last year which was refused, and then put in amendments and held a meeting with a planning officer in May regarding the widening of the access road.

“The application was under appeal, which the planning officer didn’t realise at the time of our meeting - that’s absolutely crazy,” said Mr Bowden. “Its been under appeal since then and we are still waiting on them to come back to us with amendments.”

Mr Bowden describes the council’s allegations that they have been trading illegally for a number of years as “absolutely bonkers.”

“We’re allowed to legally trade directly to customers on the St John’s nursery site. We’ve been doing retail here for 25 years.

“We even let Tendring District Council come to our nursery to promote their Christmas panto at the Princes Theatre here three years ago.

“It seems that the council are more interested in building houses than they are in helping businesses to create jobs.”

A spokesman for Tendring District Council said the application to improve the access road was acceptable from its position, and the only thing denying it planning permission was the fact an appeal was pending.

“The council was minded to approve the application, but the nursery appealed before the decision was issued,” he added.

“However these improvements, while welcome, would not address the bigger issues around access, such as widening or the junction with St John’s Road.

“There are also land ownership issues – namely that the applicant does not own the road, which is private and unadopted – therefore in addition to obtaining planning permission the applicant would require landowner consent, which is outside of the council’s control.

“We are not against business success, and do a lot of work to support businesses in Tendring. What we are against are businesses operating outside of planning permission.”

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