Saturday, 21 November 2015

In defence of the Charles Burrell Centre

On Friday, at NCCs ETD meeting, a leading member (former Deputy Leader of the whole Council if I recall correctly) - Councillor Ian Mackie, criticised for the second meeting running, the Charles Burrell Centre in Thetford. Apparently if the County had not "given away" the "asset" then we could have done something better with it and the County would not be so strapped financially. He clearly doesn't understand the background to the project or understand what's currently being achieved, so I thought best to email him the below.

Dear Ian,
I hope you are well.
At two ETD meetings in a row you have felt the need the criticise the Charles Burrell Centre in Thetford – today you outlined with a bit more detail why you thought this was a bad deal for NCC, and as a result, it occurred to me that you are either unaware of the detail of this matter or have forgotten.
In short, in 2009 NCC decided to close one of the two High Schools in Thetford, the site earmarked for closure was Charles Burrell High School towards the south of the town (in an area of entrenched deprivation and already bereft of many services). As a Town Councillor at the time I wrote to then Leader of NCC, Derrick Murphy and urged him to ensure that consideration was given to usage of the site once it closed, particularly given that it was located in a deprived area and the venue was relied upon by numerous organisations. NCC ‘slept-walk’ into the closure of the site and in 2013 it closed without no plan put in place for its future use. At the time of its closure it was costing NCC £2,000 a week to remain shut (security, utilities, rates etc) – I understand that in total this cost in excess of £100,000!
The site is constrained in that it is within the 1500 metres ‘stone curlew buffer zone’ and therefore no development (e.g. housing) would be permitted making alternative uses of the site limited.
Any commercial use of the site was clearly limited and in any case, this had not been developed over the two years that it had been known that it was closing. The danger of course was that the longer you left the building empty, the harder it would be to bring it back into use – it could become prone to vandalism and issues with damp etc. Considerable equipment and furniture had been left on the site and NCC would have incurred costs dealing with this.
Thankfully when the administration changed at NCC a different tone was taken and NCC agreed to lease the site to Thetford Town Council for a peppercorn rent - resulting in NCC no longer incurring the costs that it was.
From 1st April this year the site has been run by Charles Burrell Centre Ltd – a new organisation set up as a ‘co-operative’ with exempt charity status granted by HMRC.
There’s something like 30 permanent tenants on site now ranging from Thetford Toy Library and Thetford Foodbank to commercial tenants including ‘Hertz’ (car rental) and Recruitment Zoo (a recruitment agency) and Zebra TM (call centre).
In addition, there’s around 40 weekly sessional hirings including Slimming World, Zumba etc (all your usual’s).
We’ve also managed to get West Suffolk College to invest in the site, becoming one of the major tenants by opening a ‘Thetford Campus’ and providing more than 200 courses which were previously not available locally (enrolment has been significant).
A soon to be announced tenant will be the NHS. Co-locating services has brought significant benefits, particularly considering the diverse mix of voluntary and commercial – the centre truly ‘adds value’.
In short, what this decision has done has enabled jobs to be created, new services to be provided, training courses to be undertaken and people’s lives improved – this is something I would urge that all NCC councillors should be proud of, and something the Council should be proud of.
Quantifying these outcomes is a clear task that needs to be completed.
In addition, we’re close to the end of signing a deal with Norfolk Energy Futures for them to install solar panels on some of the roof space which will generate a significant return for NCC (and assist the Centre with reduced electricity and of course there are environmental benefits).
There is a NCC rep on the CBC Ltd board in the form of Cllr Ian Monson – who’s contributions are most valued. (there’s 11 Board members: 3 Town Council reps, 3 Tenants reps – elected by all tenants on site, 3 co-opted for specific skills and expertise, 1 NCC rep and 1 local resident rep).
I’d urge you (and anyone else interested) to visit the site, either with myself, or with the Centre Manager, and gauge for yourself if this is indeed a good investment for the Council.
Best wishes,

Obstinate for the fun of it.... the NCC Tory Group

It's Friday.... I need to rant... particularly when it's a Friday and it includes an Environment, Transport and Development (ETD) Committee meeting at Norfolk County Council, of which I am a member.

I know I have not been in this politics world too long, OK - (I've been a Town Councillor for 8 years, on the District for 5 and on County for 2), but I remain shocked on occasions at the way in which decisions are made and the way in which people (Councillors) conduct themselves. (Remain shocked and at times want to rip my own head off).

I wish more people would get involved and take an interest in local government, their eyes would be well and truly opened and a great many Councillors would never be elected again.

Today's a good example which is typical of the behaviour of the Tory group at Norfolk:

Proposal 1 - to reduce the amount of cutting of grass verges around Norfolk. This applies in rural areas, it's something that would increase bio-diversity, help wildlife, improve the landscape etc - environmentalists are (largely) in favour of it and it's generally a good thing. Road safety people at County Council been consulted and no concerns. I spoke in the debate and and said all fine, crucial however is flexibility in the approach - some areas it will not be appropriate (sharp bends etc) and other areas would be delighted. 8 Tory members of the Committee vote on block not to support. 9 'Others' do support - motion carried. (Committee is balanced with 8 Tories, 3 Labour, 3 UKIP, 2 Lib Dem and 1 Green).

Next, a discussion about incineration. We are currently sending tonnes and tonnes of waste to landfill in Norfolk. Ever since the failed incinerator project, the fault of the previous Tory administration, (costing £30+million to terminate the contract with nothing to show for it) the County has been in a mess on dealing with waste and it's been costing taxpayers dearly. Proposal was to send a large amount of waste to incineration in Germany and the Netherlands. I'm ideological opposed to incineration, but, this proposal would save £2million a year (£2million!) and the burnt material would generate electricity and heat. The incinerators were not objected to by residents in these areas (as far as I can tell) and there are not the environmental concerns that the Norfolk incinerator generated (as far as I am aware). So, you'd think the Conservatives who led the previous incinerator proposal, and ideologically in favour of incineration would support? No. Voting against en block - for what reason other than to be obstinate, I really don't know.

Finally... recycling centres.... sadly the County Council has voted to close the recycling centre at Docking. It's the least used recycling centre in the whole of Norfolk and there were clear alternatives for residents within a reasonable travelling distance. As the Chair of the Committee said a number of times, "given the scale of the Government funding cuts, if you're merely inconvenienced by cuts to services at this present time, then you've got off lightly".

And there's the rub of the matter - every single one of the proposals was primarily driven by money - no wonder when Norfolk County Council is having to try and provide services when the Conservative Government is allocating it hundreds of millions (!!!) of less funding at a time when costs and demands are increasing.

When I challenged the Tory position on opposing these matters, and explained that should they not wish to cut these services (neither do I!) then what are their alternatives proposals, i'd love to hear them. "It's your problem, you sort it out" - is so often the reply. One of them couldn't wait to have a pop, for the second meeting in a row, about the Charles Burrell Centre and how it's a "waste" and that it should have never of been given away - clearly forgetting that under the Tory controlled Council they allowed it to edge towards closing whilst doing nothing about it - despite me warning them - and it ended up costing them over £100,000 to keep it SHUT! (Hey, that £100k could have kept Docking open for a while bit longer), and whilst CBC is not paying them for the privilege of saving them a tonne of money, it is helping to create jobs, provide services and all the rest of it - but as usual, these numpties open their mouths and criticise something before they've even had the decency of researching it. So I shall be writing to said 'numpty' and asking if he'd like to come round CBC for a tour, so he can properly evaluate what they've "given away".