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Letter: Our Burchatts Barn Bid Was a Tangled Tale of Twists and Turns

Published on: 20 Nov, 2020
Updated on: 20 Nov, 2020

Name and address supplied

In response to: The KPMG Report Does Not Tell the Whole Burchatts Barn Story

I am writing to The Dragon to detail a slightly different side to the Burchatts Barn story, that of one of the unsuccessful underbidders in both rounds of bidding.

We first came across the opportunity of potentially leasing Burchatts Barn in April 2017 when The Dragon ran a short story about the council inviting “expressions of interest” through their commercial agents, Owen Shipp.

At the time, my business partner and I had been looking for a venue to open a cafe, similar to the one she had opened at Waters Edge on Horsell Common. We hoped to replicate that success at Burchatts Barn.

It really was the perfect venue with thousands visiting the park every week, including the regular park runners on Saturday mornings.

The Barn was already fitted with a commercial kitchen and we were confident of creating a really attractive catering facility, even expanding out into the garden during the warmer months, serving everyone. We were also hoping to host functions as had been held there for years.

From our first viewing, it was clear the agent had not been given clear instructions from the council about what use they were seeking. All expressions of interest were being put to the council for consideration.

We felt fairly confident our proposed catering use would be seriously looked at because the need to improve catering at Stoke Park had been highlighted in the infrastructure review for the Corporate Plan in 2014.

At the time (June 2017), Mark Appleton was the GBC asset manager and I think Geoff Davies was lead councillor for asset management.

Obviously, we were disappointed when we found, through the agent, that a doctors’ surgery was the successful bidder but we had to accept it. A “virtuous cause” was the wording the agent used and their rent offering was the highest.

From discussions with the agent, we got the impression there had been very little consideration, other than financial, to the expressions of interest but were given to believe we were the second-highest bidders and the doctors’ surgery had many hurdles to overcome, so to stay in touch.

There was never an opportunity to meet the decision-makers at the council, to discuss our proposals and we got the impression the decision was made between Geoff Davis and the asset manager, obviously subject to Executive sign-off.

We did stay in touch and continued to quiz the agent and lead councillors for more than a year about whether they were going to review their decision. Every time we were told the doctors’ surgery was proceeding but needed more time to get NHS funding approval.

Fast forward to 2018 and the second round of bidding. We did submit another bid for the Barn, but we were concerned about Brexit and, in particular, its effects on wage costs. So our bid was not as high and again was unsuccessful, this time by more of a margin.

Obviously, it was this second round of bidding which became very political even though the Barn had been under contract, so to speak, for more than 18 months and we lost interest.

I believe real mistakes were made right back in the beginning in 2017 when the council asked for initial expressions of interest.

Someone should have given the agent more of a brief prepared sensibly in line with what would benefit the Park, as highlighted in the Stoke Park infrastructure review from 2014.

When all the expressions of interest were received in April 2017 the proposed uses should have been thoroughly discussed at council level in line with what the Park actually needed, before either a decision was made or taken back to the bidders to firm up on proposals.

This did not happen. The decision-makers went for the money and 18 months were wasted waiting for NHS funding to back the doctors’ surgery bid.

During this period, the council commissioned a public consultation on Stoke Park to inform their Stoke Park masterplan and a report from the director of the environment was presented to the Executive in 2019.

Once again, this report highlighted that the Park needed to improve its catering and yet again this seemed to be totally overlooked by the process. Why commission reports and hold public consultations on what would benefit the Park if the results are completely ignored? We feel Guildford BC missed an opportunity.

We have obviously followed the story since and feel the chiropractors have been very harshly treated. A great deal of time, money and emotion goes into growing a business and we feel they have been dragged through hell chasing their dream. We genuinely wish them all the best at Burchatt’s Barn.

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