Discussion Paper for PC on Methodist Church

Methodist Church and Hall Options Paper

Prepared by Chris Stevenson, Chairman West Bergholt PC

Methodist Church

1. Introduction and Synopsis

This paper puts forward some broad-brush options for consideration of whether the Parish Council should renew its interest in acquiring the Methodist Church and Hall. These range from doing nothing at all to placing a bid Subject to Contract (STC). The paper is put forward to inform the discussion but does suggest in its recommendation the need to ascertain public opinion.

2. Background

In 2020 the PC considered the acquisition of the properties and carried out some initial assessment of possible usage and improvement costs to bring the properties up to a lettable standard.

A STC bid was made at the lower end of the range being considered by Boydens on behalf of the Methodist Trustees, which was unsuccessful. Following this a sale was agreed with another party at an undisclosed price and detailed discussions took place between the would-be purchaser and the Methodists.

Since that time the original purchaser has dropped out of the sale and the buildings are back on the market at a reduced price. Particulars are available and circulated separately. Being an interested party, the PC has been informed by Boydens the agents.

3. Acquisition Route

The buildings are being marketed at £300K. Any refurbishment costs would be on top of this. For the purchase and refurbishment of the Church and Hall a loan would be required which would be a Public Works Loan (PWL), the maximum of which would be £500K. Grants may be available from other bodies outside of the PWL loan, but these funding opportunities change quickly. The PWL application must demonstrate that the community supports a project seeking funds by meaningful consultation and an appreciation that the precept would rise. As an example, the John Lampon Hall was built with such a loan some years ago.

4. Options

In simple terms the options appear to be

  1. Do nothing at all: effectively where we are at present. In time the buildings will be sold and then the PC may be able to comment on their use if a Planning Application changes their use outside of the existing use class order
  2. Hold a stage one consultation with the public to establish the appetite for acquisition, establish the principle of the precept rising by an appreciable amount. Such a consultation could also help update the uses that were put forward by the open days held in 2020
  3. Further research.  Carry out further research to see whether there would be a principal tenant available, which may be able to assist with running costs and maybe capital contributions to the principal sum. Also establish what can be afforded via the PWL for initial upgrades outside the purchase costs
  4. Put forward a bid. Subject to the original caveats in previous letters

Several permutations and combinations are possible from the above of course including taking initiatives forward in parallel.

5. Rationale

It is suggested by the author that the site is in a unique setting, vulnerable to unsympathetic development, but which over time could be brought into use gradually and to fulfil a number of community and PC uses which inevitably would come into being over a 50 year plus period.

Chief amongst these is a community hub, coffee meeting place, hire of halls, sub-letting to a longer-term tenant etc. Although other buildings exist notably the Orpen Hall, this has some inbuilt inflexibility including when the Playgroup are using it, and a Social Club not best suited to being open to the public during the daytime and unavailable in the evenings and weekends. It is acknowledged that the OMH is being gradually developed and improved but has it the capacity to fulfil all future needs way beyond what might be termed adequate for today’s uses. Indeed, asking the community this very question could and should be a key component of any initial consultation.

6. Uncertainty and Risk

Previous discussions have sought to fine tune a number of imponderables whilst at the same time placing a bid.

  • Cost of purchase in a specialised market for buildings of this nature
  • Refurbishment costs to a high standard which seemingly push the envelope of consideration way beyond the funding available
  • Picking winners from a list of possible uses
  • The appetite of the public for the venture
  • Business cases bordering on commercial return on investment as the sole determinant of whether the venture is well founded
  • Establishing a day one principal tenant

In a bidding process there is always the possibility of not being agile enough to secure a successful purchase, through uncertainty and by being out manoeuvred by another bidder or interested developer. Given the time already elapsed, it is thought that we have time to consider, without undue pressure, to move precipitately, demonstrate our continued interest in purchasing the assets whilst at the same time determining the appetite of village taxpayers to developing community growth for medium and long term.

7. A word on Business Cases (BC)

In previous discussions much has been spoken about these. Public Sector BCs are not the same as private commercial ones. In the latter “return on investment or ROI” and “payback period” are important for investors before money can be pledged for a project. These are hard-nosed cash or value-added considerations, since investors’ money could be used elsewhere.

Public sector business cases are different. Costs are treated in much the same way as in commercial BCs, but return is not cash based and will involve public benefit accrued typically over 60 years. There may be some cash-based return where an asset accrues revenue or appreciates in value, but public benefit is nearly always judged on a more qualitative scale which does not lend itself to traditional return on investment. The return is thus impossible to value and includes enjoyment and social capital derived from usage of a facility or amenity, pretty much priceless if you were to think of the use made of our existing facilities held in Trust.

Trying to ascertain the uncertainty and risk stated in point 6 above leads to the conclusion that there are quantifiable risks in choosing to rebid for the property, and that establishing a business case in terms of what would be expected by a private business operation is commercially difficult if not impossible or inappropriate for a public sector body such as the Parish Council. 

Our purpose is to maintain a satisfactory service for our residents and to plan for the village future needs, growth, and aspirations.   We are after all the only collective body with the capability and purpose to meet the villages needs for the future.  Put simply, the Parish Council is the only body that can replace the immensely important contribution to the village made by Mr Lorkin and Mr Orpen, when they bequeathed the land and monies to build the Orpen Hall.  At stake is again the opportunity for the Parish Council to provide immediate and long-term public benefit.  Public benefit is what the PC must try to establish for all its residents and being a public body, it has a ready-made route for acquiring most of the financing to back up a bid via a PWL and the precept generating powers for paying back the principal.

8. Conclusion and recommended next steps

Separate but of interest is the deliberations into providing a Clerk’s Office at the Orpen Hall premises. Whilst this could provide much needed premises for the Clerk and some storage rearrangements in the main hall, it cannot of itself provide the potential of a community hub, and whilst it is of considerable merit in its own right, it shows how the needs of the community cannot be met in total by the Orpen Hall complex. Both projects acting together would give the community and the PC a much-needed public face and space for all manner of interaction during the working day especially when the Orpen Hall site is nearly wholly occupied by the Bluebells.

In my opinion and based on the objective that the Parish Council’s remit is to provide service for the community both immediate, medium, and long terms, that we should not shut down all interest in acquiring these premises without seeking views from the public through an appropriately developed village wide consultation programme. 

To this end I recommend options b and c above, especially consideration for using an on-line poll or similar.  This may not be the final consultation needed by the Public Works Loan Board in any subsequent loan application, but if not then it would enable Cllrs to have some appreciation of residents’ views of the building acquisition to address the needs of our village for the future.

If the PC opts for option a the minutes should state amongst other matters that the PC does not consider it appropriate to consult with the public and the reasons for it.

Chris Stevenson, Chairman West Bergholt PC February 2022

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