New setback for plans to transform Folkestone's former Debenhams building

The former Debenham's building in Folkestone town centre, now known as FOLCA
-Credit: (Image: Folkestone & Hythe District Council)

Plans to turn Folkestone's former Debenhams store into a huge medical centre are said to be "no longer viable". The proposals for the town centre site - now known as Folca - are facing a complete rethink.

The medical facility was originally intended for the Edwardian section of the site facing Bouverie Place and known as Folca One. It is now set to move to another part of the building, known as Folca Two, which faces Sandgate Road.

The switch means the timeline for the proposals is now uncertain - and fresh ideas are also needed for the original floorspace earmarked for the medical centre. Folkestone & Hythe District Council (FHDC) purchased the building which formerly housed the now-defunct department store in May 2020.

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It was later announced as the site for a new medical centre, with FHDC working with two local GP practices and NHS Kent & Medway. The council estimated that the project for the new surgeries would be an investment worth £16m to Folkestone, and the NHS said it would open in 2025 if approved.

However, at a meeting of FHDC’s overview and scrutiny committee on May 28, members were told the part of the building originally earmarked for the GP provision could not in fact take them, a council officer explained to members. He said the Kent & Medway Integrated Care Board (ICB) needed 3,000sq m of usable floor space in its design standards but surveys revealed that part of the building had only about 2,000sq m.

“In order to meet those standards, they would have had to put in a planning application and demolish Folca One, which was going to be costly,” the officer said.

However, the giant town centre building covers so much floorspace, another section of the building known as Folca Two, could instead host the GP practices, according to the FHDC officer.

He explained: “They believe that the construction costs will be a lot less because they don’t have to demolish Folca Two, the actual construction of that particular building as well is a bit more sympathetic in terms of NHS design standards, it’s a much more square and uniform plan compared to the Edwardian building.”

He added “there was no alternative Plan B” for Folca One, as it was earmarked for the medical centre, and as such the authority needs to decide what to do with it. A survey of Folca One found that the building needs work, which “came to about £3.8 million in terms of bringing the building back to a shell and core ready for fit out, so quite a substantial cost”, the officer said.

When asked what the possible uses of Folca One are now the medical centre won’t be there, the officer explained: “We need to understand what’s the appetite of the market out there in terms of commercial activity and who might go in there. There’s talk of boutique hotels and things like that that might be interested.

“But until we go out there and explore the market it’s going to be difficult for us to make a judgement because at the end of the day, we’ve got some responsibility in terms of the finances that we will spend on that particular building."

'A tricky game of solitaire'

The former Debenham's building in Folkestone town centre, now known as FOLCA
The former Debenham's building in Folkestone town centre, now known as FOLCA -Credit:Folkestone & Hythe District Council

Some councillors however raised concerns that the whole project needs a rethink. Cllr Alan Martin (Con) said: “It sounds like you’re playing a really tricky game of medical centre solitaire, I just wonder at what point do we need to take a bit of a step back and review it?

"Clearly there was a firm plan to put a medical centre in Folca One, you had other plans for Folca Two, including maybe moving the civic centre into there. It sounds like Folca One is quite complicated whatever you try and put into there.

“I just wonder through a process of elimination if we’re getting to a stage, or might get to a stage at some point later this year, where we realise we’re grappling with a difficult puzzle and maybe there’s a different way out rather than trying to put things into a space that we own."

The officer explained: “There will come a time where we need to cut off and make a decision absolutely and that time will probably come towards the tail end of this calendar year.”

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