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Comment: Burchatts Farm Barn, Lessons to be Learnt

Published on: 22 Apr, 2020
Updated on: 25 Apr, 2020

By Gavin Morgan

Guildford Borough Council has appointed KPMG to make an internal investigation into the previous council’s decision to close Burchatts Farm Barn. This is very welcome. The Barn was among several buildings that GBC wanted to close or get rid of between 2015 and 2019.

Guildford Museum was almost closed, West Lodge was nearly sold, the 13th-century barn at Wanborough was considered for disposal. The Chantries Campsite was almost closed.

Many questions could be asked about the handling of these, but I hope this review will be enough to learn valuable lessons and put in policies and safeguards for the future. Many of us wonder why Burchatts Farm Barn had to be closed to the public. As Diana Pollock wrote in the Dragon on December 19, 2019: “Guildford is losing a beautiful community hall. At a time when people are trying to reshape and support town centres and looking to enhance heritage, creative and social hubs, we are disposing of ours.”

Burchatts Barn

In December 2017, Cllr Geoff Davis told the Dragon: “Burchatts Barn has been used for event hire for private functions and has supported some major events on the park such as National Armed Forces Day. More recently, these bookings have reduced, affecting the economic viability of the building for the council.”

So my questions are, why did bookings fall, what criteria did the council use to assess the “economic viability” of Burchatts Farm Barn, will the lease make any money for the town and was “economic viability” the correct criteria for deciding the future of what is a community asset?

See more Burchatts Barn articles here.

First, the bookings fall. Did the previous council manufacture a situation that caused the fall, as has been suggested? As Gordon Bridger states: “…. rentals were trebled so that it lay unused for years”. Apparently, they were raised to £145 an hour, making the barn unaffordable to its traditional user base of weddings and parties.

No wonder bookings fell. Why did the council do nothing to reverse this trend? Then, having closed the Barn how did the council assess its economic viability?

Did the council wildly overestimate the running costs? During one debate about the Barn someone stated the annual cost of running the barn was about £70,000. I checked the council website and found the 2017 General Fund Outline Budget and its appendix all about proposals for savings. This quotes a figure of between £40,000 and £70,000 for running the Barn.

This seemed an awful lot to spend on a closed building. I asked a few parish councils and discovered that busy village halls across the borough cost between £20,000 and £40,000 to run. Some cost less.

So, will the town make any money out of the leasing of Burchatts Farm?

This is another question I hope is investigated. The council’s Proposals for Savings document claimed in 2017 that letting the building “should derive a saving of £70,000 – £100,000”. Was this figure accurate? If the council was planning on letting the Barn for £36,000 and had running costs of between £40,000 and £70,000, I cannot see how these figures add up.

Of course, councils must be mindful of costs and open to income-generating opportunities, but I am interested to know if the emphasis had swung so far towards profit and effective property management that public service was forgotten.

So, my final question is, was it appropriate to close Burchatts Farm Barn on the grounds of “economic viability”?

The council has a multi-million-pound investment portfolio and for some reason, it includes heritage and community assets. But they are not financial assets in the same league as the Tunsgate Shopping Centre. That is not their purpose and not why they were acquired.

Burchatts Farm Barn is a community asset. As Mr Plumridge points out in the Dragon, a lot has been made about it being “left to the community in perpetuity”. As he correctly explains: “Lord Onslow confirmed that it was sold to the Guildford Corporation in 1925 for £42,500, and although safeguarded under the Guildford Corporation Act 1926, that safeguard was repealed under the Surrey Act 1985.”

But just because the later Act gave the council a loophole that does not mean it should use it. The Barn was acquired along with Stoke Park at a time when the growth of the town was swallowing up countryside. It is part of a public park which is one of the lungs of the town.

Surely, we should be wary of allowing parts of our public parks to gradually turn into business parks. Westminster appears to agree. In the National Planning Policy Framework (paragraph 92) it advises that planning authorities should “guard against the unnecessary loss of valued facilities and services”. Historic England, in its guidance on the disposal of heritage assets (section 8.6), warns against the temptation to “to ‘pick off’ the most profitable elements”.

So, I hope this council will learn from this saga and put some safeguards in place for the future. I would like to see community and heritage assets separated from commercial assets so they can be assessed for their community value as well as their ability to generate income.

I would like to see parks and open spaces protected so profitable elements cannot be creamed off or gradually commercialised in inappropriate ways. I would like assessments of the financial viability to be accurate.

Finally, I want this council to get the balance right between its desire to be commercial and the need for public service.

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test 2 Responses to Comment: Burchatts Farm Barn, Lessons to be Learnt

  1. Paul Spooner Reply

    April 23, 2020 at 6:55 am

    KPMG are the council’s auditors and they have been asked to review the process from an officer’s perspective, not political.

    The recommendations to the current administration were very similar to the previous administration with similar concessions being sought by the politicians of the time. The result was the same with R4GV in control of Assets and Finance but this time without a party making promises to overturn and deliver a different outcome to achieve electoral success.

    Shameful really. I feel for Mr Morgan.

    Paul Spooner is the Conservative borough councillor for Ash South & Tongham

  2. John Perkins Reply

    April 23, 2020 at 11:58 am

    Cllr Spooner continues to try to convince us that R4GV are in control rather than the Lib Dems, supported by his own rump group.

    On the subject of promises, it’s less than a year since he informed The Dragon that he would “not be commenting going forward”.

    Surely, even for a politician, that’s an easy one to keep.

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