Sunday, 10 May 2009

Fight to Win Back Northern Landmark

Scotland on Sunday
-By Tom Peterkin, Scottish Political Editor

A LITTLE piece of England that stands on the very edge of Scotland's most famous promontory is to become the scene of an ownership battle that will see locals attempt to repatriate the dilapidated Victorian hotel which overlooks John O'Groats.

A campaign has begun to wrest the John O'Groats House Hotel from English hands after years of neglect have seen the once handsome Gothic building fall into disrepair.

Leading the charge is Rob Gibson, the SNP MSP for the Highlands and Islands, who claims the owners, Liverpool-based Heritage Great Britain Ltd, have allowed the landmark to deteriorate so severely.

Photo: Rob in front of the derelict building.

Gibson is now lobbying locals and councillors in an attempt to get Highlands and Islands Council to buy the building by means of a compulsory purchase order, the legal mechanism that allows bodies to purchase property without the consent of the owner.

"The idea would be to get it into local hands," said Gibson last night. "It has lain derelict for years and the people responsible for it are watching it go downhill.

"The council should compulsory purchase it. It is far more likely to succeed, if it is owned by locals."

The hotel has had a chequered history and was last owned by people from the area back in the 1980s. Towards the end of that decade, it was bought by the America's Cup entrepreneur Peter de Savary, who at that point also owned Britain's southernmost extremity Land's End in Cornwall.

In 1996, it was sold to a company which is now part of Liverpool-based Heritage Great Britain Ltd, whose portfolio includes Land's End, the Snowdon Mountain Railway and Needles Park on the Isle of Wight.

"The company owns a whole lot of other things," Gibson said. "But this doesn't seem to be a priority. Perhaps a compulsory purchase order would persuade them to do something about it. But eventually it would be far more likely to be sustainable if local people owned it."

Trudy Morris, the chief executive of Caithness Chamber of Commerce, was sympathetic to the idea of a compulsory purchase order, which would cost between £500,000 and £1m.

"Obviously something needs to be done." she said.

"The John O'Groats name is iconic. Yet nothing has been done about it and the ownership has been an issue. We would be happy to get involved in that. However, we would need to make sure that people were not forced out and that there was going to be an overall benefit on all counts."

Ian Ross, the Lib Dem chairman of the Planning, Environment and Development committee, did not rule out Gibson's suggestion.

"If someone approaches us with proposals, I would be very happy to discuss them. We have done compulsory purchases before, but we would need to very carefully consider the full range of legal implications," he said.

John O'Groats is a Mecca for the 4,000 people who make the gruelling 874-mile traverse of mainland Britain each year and is visited by a further 170,000 tourists. Among its more unusual visitors have been Ian Botham on his charity walks and a rather chillier Naked Rambler.

But more often than not they are disappointed when they arrive. The Lonely Planet guide to Scotland describes the scattered village with the shabby hotel at its heart as the country's "worst and most embarrassing tourist attraction".

The hotel has not taken guests for around a decade and its bar closed last summer.

"The roof has gone and water is pouring through it," said David Body, the owner of the nearby John O'Groats Pottery.

"As far as the hotel is concerned, it is just dragging us all down. It is possible that a compulsory purchase order would force the owner's hands.

"It could be quite a prestigious hotel, but it is in such a poor state that it is basically unusable. It is an iconic building and other hotel groups would die for a brand and a location like this."

Heritage GB declined to respond after they were contacted by Scotland on Sunday.

But the company has given its backing to a recently launched plan by Highlands and Islands Enterprise that aims to regenerate the area and transform the economy by attracting new investment to the famous Scottish village overlooking the Pentland Firth.

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