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Letter: Guildford’s Heritage Treasures Are Not Money-makers For Asset Managers

Published on: 22 Nov, 2020
Updated on: 22 Nov, 2020

From: Gavin Morgan

Founder of the Guildford Heritage Forum

In response to: Former Leader Claims Council Officers Anti-Tory Over Burchatts Barn Leasing Report

Burchatts Farm Barn’s future should not have been decided by the council’s asset managers. The KPMG draft report examined the process for disposing of assets and identifies many problems.

But, from a heritage point of view, the big problem is that the asset management team was allowed to decide the future of community and heritage buildings.

That they wanted to clear their books of unprofitable buildings is understandable, but the Executive should have taken a broader view.

Indeed, one of the major failings identified by the draft report is the council’s failure to consider its own “robust Asset Management Strategy and Framework that outlines value to the community should be considered alongside financial viability when making decisions about the future of assets”.

The report says, in January 2014, the lead councillor for asset management set a strategic priority to improve the return on assets. The Property Review Group then identified assets that were not making a return.

And so it began. One by one, the council started to pick off heritage buildings around the town. It was very clear to those of us who protested that the Executive did not want to understand the value of heritage or want to listen to people who did.

Even the Guildhall was not immune. Rentals were hiked, preventing its use for arts and charity events that could have made it a flagship for the town (see Gordon Bridger’s excellent article in The Dragon).

The big irony is that the asset management team do excellent work raising money for the town through investments. Previous councillors for asset management were regularly in the news, not usually commercial successes.

Some people may remember an article on the Odeon was acquired to allow the town to open up the riverside. But this, to my knowledge, was a rare article compared with the dozens and dozens of articles and letters about heritage.

Remember the plans to close Guildford Museum? What about the shocking and unwarranted legal action against the Surrey Archaeological Society? The pointless removal of their library to create a room that’s been almost continuously empty for three years?

The decision to sell West Lodge that would have inevitably led to its demolition by a new owner? West lodge was claimed to be not very historic, despite council-commissioned reports stating it was an “integral part” of a scheduled monument?

Then there was the decision to “privatise” the Chantries Campsite. Thankfully, plans to dispose of the medieval Wanborough Barn were headed off internally by officers before the issue blew up in the council’s face.

No wonder people rallied round over Burchatts Farm Barn and thank goodness a report officially recognises what went on. And thank goodness we have The Guildford Dragon which provides a record of everything I have just said.

On Thursday, at the Governance meeting, Cllr Paul Spooner blamed officers over Burchatts Farn Barn. Some poor practices are indeed embedded in the council but it was his Executive that railroaded the decisions through.

The Executive were not puppets of the officers. They could have stopped all of the above. They just had to listen to the factual arguments and logic of campaigners who addressed them at council meetings.

In their single-minded determination to monetise the asset management’s list of properties, the Executive allowed unacceptable behaviour (eg legal action against a valued charity), to severely damage the reputation of the council and shame our town in the eyes of heritage bodies and others around the country.

The present council must listen to its auditors. There is too much information in the public domain for this to be watered down. They must ensure this can never happen again.

There were some excellent comments on Thursday about creating lists of heritage and community assets across the borough in council and private ownership.

But the council must also ensure buildings owned for their community or historic value are managed by the right people. Surely, it is unfair to ask the asset management team, charged with maximising income, to also manage a few unprofitable, possibly time-consuming heritage assets.

How the council prevents political parties with a majority putting political and personal agendas before the interests of the town is a more complicated problem, but tighter governance over how decisions are made is definitely needed.

So where does that leave us? Luckily, the damage to heritage was limited. The council decided to review the future of the museum but, despite a valiant attempt to invest in it, the future now looks uncertain and needs clarification.

West Lodge survived and the present council is talking to the community. Wanborough Barn is safe and was well-attended with visitors last Heritage Weekend, despite Covid-19.

The future of the Chantries Campsite is still uncertain. The biggest tragedy was the loss of the Surrey Archaeological Society, which turned to Guildford Museum from the headquarters of one of the most active archaeological bodies in the country to an old building with dated displays.

We need to quickly learn these lessons and get on with the job of ensuring heritage contributes more to the town.

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