What price a park?

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Town Councillor Rob Kenney sees ways for Stone to reclaim some of its community land and buildings.                       Interview by Christine Conlin

 Would you put your hand in your pocket to help Stone Town Council buy Westbridge Park?   This option is now on the table with the council having agreed at its May 15th meeting to nominate the park as one of Stone’s assets of community value (ACVs).  Under the Localism Act 2011, ACVs are pieces of land or buildings (not residential properties) which further the interest or well-being of a local community.

Town Councillor Rob Kenney outlined the process. An asset can be nominated by a parish council or a group with a local connection to it.  Once an asset is approved and registered by the local authority, nominators have a window to bid for it should the owner decide to sell. They then have six months to raise the money before the property is put on the open market.

But crowdfunding need not be the only way of buying ACVs as government grant funding is available towards mounting and financing a bid.  The Department for Communities and Local Government’s £3 million ‘Community Right to Bid’ fund currently offers grants of up to £500,000.

The ‘Community Rights’ website www.pinterest.com/communitiesuk/community-rights/ lists some of the 1700 parks, pubs, stadia, theatres and churches up and down the country which have been already declared ACVs.

Stone’s other proposed ACV is the free public car park in Northesk Street. The Town Council fears it will lose the use of it now that its owners, the police, have confirmed plans to downsize into Stone Town Council’s Station Road Building, sell their Radford Street station and the Northesk Street car park along with it.

But Cllr Kenney thinks Stone’s list of ACVs should be longer.

“We should nominate all the parks in Stone, Stone Library, Stone Youth Centre and even the Crown Hotel,”

he told the Gazette.

“Though the Crown has only recently changed hands, who’s to say this will not happen again?”

Another site the Town Council aspired to own and transform into a public open space is the canalside carpark at Crown Wharf.  In 2009, the council even raised £100,000 towards its purchase through a one-off £17 hike in its Band D Community Charge precept. But the then owners British Waterways withdrew the site from sale leaving the £100,000 sitting in council coffers.

But in early June, builders McCarthy and Stone unveiled news of their contract with British Waterways successors, the Canal and River Trust, to build a block of retirement homes at Crown Wharf, subject to their obtaining planning permission.

Was there still time to nominate Crown Wharf as an ACV?  Cllr Kenney made rapid enquiries but the answer was sadly no.  The site was already up for sale and had been for a long time.

But registering an ACV is one thing; buying and then successfully operating it is something else entirely. In an online article in the ‘Publican’s Morning Advertiser’, CAMRA member Roger Protz, who ran a beer tasting at Stone Food and Drink festival some years ago, celebrates the successful, if costly campaign to save a south London pub.

While campaigners were successful in obtaining two grants for the £810,000 purchase price, they still needed another £100,000 to refurbish The Ivy House in Nunhead which opened as London’s first community pub in August 2013.   A success story indeed – but at what price?

Perhaps numbers were not uppermost in the mind of Town Councillor and Keep Westbridge Park Green campaigner Jill Hood when she mooted a public purchase of Westbridge Park at the May 15th meeting.

“The whole of Stone would give money to pay for Westbridge Park,”

she claimed.

“The Town Council would be at the front of the queue to buy it.”

Councillor Tom Jackson disagreed:

“It is a sweeping statement when you say the whole of Stone would consider it an asset and would pay to keep it.”

A more cautious argument for registering the park was made by fellow KWPG campaigner Councillor Kenney:

“If we don’t put Westbridge Park forward, we are telling the town we don’t consider it an asset.”

The aspiration to take ownership of Westbridge Park is to fight the Borough Council’s 2012 proposal to sell the tennis court area to a supermarket chain and use the proceeds to rebuild the leisure centre next door.  But that project is currently on hold given widespread public opposition and objections from Inspector Stephen Pratt who adjudicated the Borough Local Plan at public hearings last autumn.

Two controversial modifications concerning Westbridge Park. which the Borough had wanted to include in the Local Plan are deleted from its final version which the Council finally adopted on June 19th. The boundaries of Stone’s Town Centre, zoned for retail trading cannot now be extended to include part of Westbridge Park.

The park itself cannot be designated as suitable for ‘mixed-use’ development, which many feared would pave the way for a foodstore on the tennis courts area.

But the ruling still leaves the way open for them to be redeveloped as a community amenity, such as a health centre, Cllr Kenny continued.

“If the development were in keeping with the recreational character of the park, KWPG would not necessarily be opposed.”

Call it blue-sky thinking, but let’s consider the options if Stone Town Council were to bid for Westbridge Park.  Firstly, as it is nominating the whole of Westbridge Park (not just the green areas) as an ACV, would the leisure centre be part of the package?

In Cllr Kenney’s view, this would be no obstacle. The Localism Act also grants a ‘Community Right to Challenge’ under which communities can bid to take over local services if they can demonstrate they can run them better, he explained.

“I would like to see Stone Town Council running both the Westbridge Leisure Centre and Alleynes Pool.”

Stone Town Council already runs and maintains the Frank Jordan Centre and Stone Station Community Centre, but given that the bottom line on its 2013/2014 balance sheet is £262,792, how realistic is that?

Alternatively, SBC might be persuaded to part with just Westbridge Park’s green spaces to the Town Council.  As a purely recreational space, the cost of purchase and maintaining it might be within the Town Council’s reach.  But if the Borough Council cannot develop it and there is no other interested buyer, why should the Town Council buy it at all?

In fact, does the Borough Council even have the right to sell something back to the community which originally gave it to it? “Stone Urban and District Council gifted Westbridge Park to the newly-formed Stafford Borough Council in the local government reorganisation of 1972,” Cllr Kenney explained.

The way out of this impasse might be yet another provision of the Localism Act – Community Asset Transfer.  This allows local authorities to transfer the ownership of land and buildings to communities for less than their market value, Cllr Kenney explained.  The DCLG website ‘My Community Rights’ also mentions that capital grants up to £500,000 are available to communities wanting to take over the ownership or management of a building or land of community value.

Could Community Asset Transfer point to a solution to satisfy all sides? The Borough could transfer ownership of Westbridge Park’s green spaces to the Town Council for a nominal sum.  It could then sell the tennis courts for redevelopment as a small-scale community facility compatible with the park’s recreational character and use the proceeds towards rebuilding the Leisure Centre.

Could this be a way forward?  Get in touch and tell us what you think!