Fringe Box



Opinion: How a Community Asset Lost Its Name

Published on: 29 Mar, 2021
Updated on: 31 Mar, 2021

On Thursday (March 25), the latest episode was revealed of the long-running controversy over GBC’s decision to let Burchatts Barn to a commercial organisation.

Martin Giles reflects further on what it means.

You may feel you know the buildings that serve your community, be they a village hall or a pub, a Scout hut, a doctor’s surgery, a theatre or a convenience store.

Alas, nothing is as simple as it seems.

When the copious volumes of hot-air created in the debate over the council’s decision to let Burchatts Barn to an innocent commercial enterprise are distilled, we are left with its classification: is it a “community asset” or an “operational asset”?In 1925, the historic barn was purchased by the council as part of Stoke Park, to be used as a public amenity.

But in 2015, with cuts in government grants for local authorities looming, the then council leader, Stephen Mansbridge, appointed new councillor Geoff Davis, a chartered surveyor with an extensive knowledge of the town’s commercial property market, as the lead to oversee asset management.

Mr Mansbridge made clear he wanted to “sweat the assets”.

This appeared to mean he wanted council properties, wherever possible, to make money for the council rather than drain resources in continuous maintenance or sit idle, generating nothing.

But perhaps seeds of this policy had taken root years earlier, and greed had devoured commercial sense and any sense of community? In 1995, the hire charge was about £25 an hour. By 2016-17 this had swollen to £140 an hour.

Those responsible might have said they were simply charging a realistic rate if the hall was to pay for itself but of course, bookings vanished, leaving the council with an even bigger deficit.

Was this intentional to help make the case for disposing of the Barn? We can all make up our own minds, but obviously the council did not feel the Barn was important as a community asset.

GBC’s very able director of resources, Claire Morris argued defensively, in her letter of response to KPMG’s report, that the Barn had been correctly designated an “operational land and buildings asset (community facility)” because it was “used by the parks department for letting as a hall for hire (event facility) to generate income for the service, as well as being used by the Council for various council meetings and events”.

During the Planning Committee debate on a proposed change of use, no-nonsense former councillor Nils Christiansen cut through the detailed technical definitions and argued that if it walked like a duck and quacked like a duck, it was a duck.

Burchatts Barn, to those in the Guildford community, was a historic building available for hire as an excellent venue for events, looking so much like a community asset that it was. But, through cock-up or design, that community asset has been lost.

The call from Cllr Maddy Redpath (R4GV, Holy Trinity) for the list of community assets to be further reviewed should be heeded. But through much more effective engagement, the community of Guildford itself should have a major say about which buildings are designated “community assets”.

We have all seen in recent times, and regretted, what can happen when we trust our council to do so alone.

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