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.
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.