The Upper Reaches Hotel
The freehold of the whole site is owned by the Vale of White Horse District Council, having been transferred from Abingdon Borough Corporation as part of the local government re-organisation in 1974. The whole site is within the Abingdon Conservation Area and the parts of the building nearest to Thames Street are Grade 2 listed.
The area occupied by the hotel buildings and its immediate surroundings is on a 125-year lease from 1969 and since 2004 the lease has been held by Contemporary Hotels Ltd (CH).
Contemporary Hotels closed the hotel in June 2015. Since then, there have been numerous incidents of vandalism and antisocial behaviour – some of them very serious and posing threats to local residents’ properties and the adjacent medieval Abbey Buildings.
CH have not made any formal planning applications in relation to the site since then. (Prior to that they were given permission in 2009 for alterations to the modern part but did not proceed with the work).
In early 2017 the Oxford Mail reported CH Director Ambar Paul as saying he would be putting in an application in 4-6 weeks for a hotel and 10 houses. No such application was made. In March 2019 an article in the OM said that another hotel company was interested in taking on the lease. That also came to nothing.
Other rumours have circulated since then but VWHDC response to requests for information was always along the lines of “discussions with the leaseholder are ongoing and commercially confidential”. A Freedom of Information request from local residents in July 2021 was refused on similar grounds. The Civic Society suggested in summer 2021 that VWHDC take action under the Town and Country Planning Act (TCPA) to require the leaseholder to improve the condition of the site – we did not get a reply. Similar representations were made by local residents, the police and the Town Council.
In January 2022 we wrote to the VWHDC to express our concerns and ask for a meeting to discuss a way forward. The main points of their reply were:
- The lease was set up in 1969 by Abingdon Borough Council and runs for 125 years till March 2094. There are no break clauses so it can only be terminated by mutual agreement between the two parties.
- The leaseholder (Contemporary Hotels) has made a number of proposals for redeveloping the site which involve restructuring (presumably extending) the lease or buying the freehold. The Council does not believe any of those proposals are in the best interests of the Council or the community so it has not so far been possible to reach agreement.
- The Council has tried to persuade the leaseholder to either re-open the hotel or re-assign the lease to another operator, but they do not have the power to insist on that.
- On the question of the condition of the site, the leaseholder has full responsibility for repairs and maintenance. The Council’s legal advisers say there is no scope within the lease for them to do more to force them to take action. They have considered taking steps either under the TCPA or via a Community Protection Notice but did not believe either of those would be effective at that stage.
We did not understand why they thought the TCPA route was inappropriate so wrote again in February, repeating our request for a meeting, to discuss this and other possible ways to break the deadlock.
Update – June 2022
In spring of 2022 VWHDC wrote to the leaseholder requiring him to improve the security arrangements and the appearance of the site. Some such improvements have now been made, but the site is still an eyesore. VWHDC agree that the steps taken are not sufficient and are pressing for further action.
In March we launched a petition addressed to both Ambar Paul (CEO of Contemporary Hotels) and VWHDC urging them to take action to break the deadlock. The petition attracted over 2500 signatures.
In April we met Ambar Paul who told us that he had 3 alternative schemes for the site and would be presenting them to VWHDC in early May. As of now, he has not done so.
Following our February letter, we, together with representatives from the Residents Association and the Town Council, have had two meetings with senior VWHDC officers to discuss how matters can be moved on. We will be contacting Mr Paul again shortly for an update on his intentions and will continue to press the Vale to require him to considerably improve the condition of the site.
One positive development is that the Central Abingdon Regeneration Framework (CARF) proposals for the site include clear statements about its future public use. If these are incorporated into the Neighbourhood Plan they will strengthen the Vale’s position in respect of any future development proposals.
Update – April 2023
In the autumn of 2022 Ambar Paul told us that he had submitted a pre-application enquiry to the Vale about a proposal for a mixed development of a small hotel and some houses. (This was very similar to an idea he had submitted a few years previously but which had not got past the pre-app. stage). We understand that he met officers to discuss it early in 2023 but such discussions are confidential so we have not heard how they went.
After continued pressure from us and local residents, the security measures put in place around the building were upgraded during 2022 and so far appear to have largely prevented the vandalism which had been a major problem. However the site remains an eyesore, ruining the appearance of one of the main visitor routes in to town.
A further barrier was erected in summer 2022 on the bridge to the car park: this was very unsightly and we discovered that it breached planning regulations so pressed the Vale to require the leaseholder to replace it with something more appropriate. This has now been done.
We are also concerned about disrepair to the millstream bridges and retaining wall. The Vale have confirmed that this is the leaseholder’s responsibility so we are urging them to press him to take action before the damage becomes catastrophic.
We are due to meet the VWHDC soon and will update this page then.