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Opinion: Burchatts Barn – Three Principles the Council Must Acknowledge

Published on: 6 Apr, 2021
Updated on: 8 Apr, 2021

By Gavin Morgan

founder of the Guildford Heritage Forum

I am not interested in the political tit for tat over Burchatts Farm Barn. But there are key lessons to learn from the KPMG review into the barn’s closure and lease.

Attempts to rubbish the report by those who have a vested interest in doing so must be ignored. At the Governance and Audit Committee meeting (March 25) councillors from different parties made some important points. Their words should be heeded.

Between 2015 and 2019 the council pursued a vigorous policy of trying to dispose of assets that it considered a financial drain. These included Guildford Museum, West Lodge (Chilworth Gunpowder Mills), 13th Century Wanborough Barn, the Chantries Campsite as well as Burchatts Farm Barn.

See also: The Troubled Trail of Bitter Words Over Burchatts Barn

The policy would have decimated the town’s heritage service but thankfully it was successfully resisted. Burchatts Farm Barn turned into a long saga. Questions were asked about the policy and the analysis used. KPMG was commissioned to draw some conclusions and the following are top of my list.

We need to identify buildings that are of value to the town

Cllr John Redpath (R4GV, Holy Trinity) called for a review of the way assets are categorised. The disposal of Burchatts Farm Barn was justified by the council on the grounds it was categorised as a core operational asset. Categories, however, are not reality.

See also: Opinion – How a Community Asset Lost Its Name

The Guildhall and Guildford Castle are treasured town icons but are also core operational assets. Guildford House, Guildford Museum and 13th Century Wanborough Barn are integral parts of our heritage and tourism service. They are also core operational and in the last couple of decades all were considered for disposal.

There is no consistency in the council’s approach or official definition of a building that is of value to the town. We must identify assets of value to the town and put them one step away from closure or disposal.

Financial analysis needs to be accurate, open and unbiased

Cllr Maddy Redpath (R4GV, Holy Trinity) pointed out that costs quoted for the running of Burchatts Farm were all over the place. The council convinced itself that Burchatts Farm Barn was losing the town money but KPMG identified flaws in the analysis.

Figures quoted by the council for the cost of running the barn ranged from £18,000 a year to £70,000 a year depending on the argument being presented. Clearly bad decisions can be made if the financial analysis is poor.

And it was not just Burchatts Farm Barn. Figures for West Lodge, Guildford Museum and Wanborough Barn were equally loose. Current figures for the heritage service and Guildhall are distorted by shared costs or salaries for staff who work somewhere else.  The council needs to properly understand the costs and value of buildings so that sensible decisions can be made.

The Council needs to run our heritage properly

Cllr John Redpath, with his experience of running the Spike Community and Heritage Centre, has always maintained that Burchatts Farm Barn could have been run efficiently and covered its costs.

The Guildhall

At the Governance and Standards Committee Cllrs George Potter (Lib Dem, Burpham) and Ramsey Nagaty (GGG, Shalford) both highlighted council halls and properties that were very hard to book unless you knew where to go on the council website. There have been articles about making better use of the Guildhall (See: Opinion – Open Up Our Great Guildhall to the People, Says Former Mayor).

Guildford Museum, after years of effort has hardly changed and draws very few visitors. The town needs a strategy that ensures our heritage assets are run in the most efficient and effective way possible.

So in conclusion, the KPMG Burchatts Farm Report really matters and we must recognise the improvements that can be made. The current council is taking a far more enlightened approach and is working with the heritage community.

It is identifying ways in which heritage can be used to support our struggling town centre post-Covid-19. However, it needs to show leadership, and publicly acknowledge the key learnings voiced by councillors.

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