One million pound price tag hung on old town hall

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IF YOU have a spare £1 million you could buy the freehold of the old town hall in Horsham.

The historic Market Square building is on the books of Crickmay and Davis Coffer Lyons, with offers around a million for the freehold or guiding rent in the order of £65,000 per annum.

But the move has prompted further court action by arts charity The Blue Flash Music Trust, which has a longheld dream of community use for the historic building and has already taken Horsham District Council to a judicial review over its handling of the change of use of the building to turn it into a restaurant.

In the particulars, Adam Walker, of Crickmay, states: “Interest in part of the building will also be considered on a floor by floor basis.”

Crickmay has been instructed to market the grade II listed building by Horsham District Council and the chartered surveyors say it is in the ‘heart of the town centre’ which has seen ‘considerable investment in recent years with the likes of Cote, Wagamama, Strada, Giraffe and soon ASK opening in the area’.

The building, with accommodation in the basement and at ground and first floor levels, is ‘considered suitable for a wide variety of uses and expressions of interest are invited by April 13’.

Acting council leader Ray Dawe said: “I believe removing restrictions on the possible use of the building and allowing bids both on a leasehold and freehold basis will be in the best interests of the town and of the district’s council tax payers.

“We hope to become aware of any organisation interested to re-activate and make positive use of the town hall.

“When making a final decision, the council will of course also need to take into account local sensitivities that surround this historic building.”

Treasurer of The Blue Flash Music Trust, Robert Mayfield called it a ‘cut and run attempt to beat the Localism Bill’, which could soon require the council to allow the community first bid.

“In my view, Horsham District Council looks to be denying its residents the very opportunities that its own government says that they should have in the Big Society,” he said.

“We have thus far delayed bringing a further High Court case in order not to influence the Warnham by-election.

“We were keen to demonstrate this is predominantly an issue of council ethics rather than politics.

“However in my opinion, ‘the out of town’ council cabinet are adding a political dimension by unashamedly attempting to sell town assets and making the money available to the rural areas.

“They can only do this so effectively because they undemocratically cling to disproportionate power in denying a Community Governance Review and the chance for the town to form parish councils for example; councils that widely exist in their own patches.                                        

“I will invoke the necessary legal process, starting with the pre-action protocol in the next week and the council will have 14 days to respond before the claim needs to be filed by March 21.”

He said the legal arguments were complex but summarised them as follows:

 1) The Duke of Norfolk donated the building (i.e. not at market value) as a charitable act. This can be demonstrated by its conveyance to the three nominated trustees. Legal precedent would seem to indicate that:

a) Residents of the town, as recipients of that charitable act, would need to be consulted prior to a sale or leasing of the old town hall. The council papers of December 21 make clear that no such consultation took place.

b) There would need to be conditions placed upon any income from the building; to ring-fence that income for the benefit of the intended recipients and give them a direct say in how the money should be spent. 

2) The basis of the council change of policy was a ‘review’. That review did not meet the required standards in that:

a) It did not address the issues raised in the District Auditor’s letter of the previous year. The District Auditor will be named as an interested party in any court proceedings.

b) The review did not examine sufficient options and alternative business cases and therefore the council acted unreasonably and inconsistently (as can be seen from the Broadbridge Heath debate at the same meeting). 

3) Various, specific aspects of alleged unethical behaviour by the council (departing from required standards) concerning the old town hall will likely require intervention by the court to correct.

At the December meeting the council said there would be subsequent criteria attached to the disposal.

“The only criteria would appear to be £65,000 for the leasehold and one million for the freehold which obviously favours the commercial sector,” he said.

“It’s worth pointing out that £65,000 per annum is £7,500 less than what was previously offered by Gondola on behalf of Ask Ltd.

“Nobody except the cabinet knows why the council turned this superior offer down.

“Selling the old town hall as a result of a ‘fit of pique’ in a depressed property market also makes no commercial sense.

“The council would probably get more in two years’ time after the community had chance to prove its superior business case or otherwise.

“Community plans for the building as approved and recommended by the original advisory group would benefit tourism for the area, residents and businesses.

“Instead the council seems to be determined to follow the destructive path of simply ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’.”