Bid to buy may be campaigners’ ACE

CORN Exchange campaigners in St Ives may bid to buy the disused listed 19th century building to return it to community use. Nick Dibben, co-chairman of Action Corn Exchange, which has lost its fight to dissuade the town council from selling the historic b

CORN Exchange campaigners in St Ives may bid to buy the disused listed 19th century building to return it to community use.

Nick Dibben, co-chairman of Action Corn Exchange, which has lost its fight to dissuade the town council from selling the historic building to the highest bidder, said the group could seek backing from a local business to restore the structure for a combination of commercial and community use.

The council decided on May 2 to put the Corn Exchange on the market - it claims it would fetch nearly £1million - rather than give it to a trust, along with more than £500,000 already collected from Council Tax payers for its restoration.

And a new move by Communities and Local Government Secretary Ruth Kelly yesterday (Tuesday) gave ACE new hope that the fight was not yet lost.


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Under the scheme, disused public buildings owned by councils could be sold off for as little as £1, with central government providing additional funding to restore them to community use.

It would also give councils a new responsibility to identify unused property which could benefit the community. Ms Kelly is to set up a £30 million fund to support pilot projects.

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Ms Kelly was speaking on the publication of a report by Lewisham Council chief executive Barry Quirk, which argues that transferring public assets to communities not only leads to more responsive services but also promotes strong communities with a confident civic spirit.

Local authorities already have a duty to look after their own estate and have powers to sell or lease assets at below market prices, compulsorily purchase derelict property or require landowners to clean up sites that are adversely affecting local neighbourhoods.

"Potentially, this helps to transfer assets from local authorities to community groups and reduce the risks to both sides," Mr Dibben told The Hunts Post.

"It's early days yet," he said yesterday. "But we expect it will offer new guidance on what councils can and cannot do. The Government has said there will be a fund to help restore out-of-use buildings, but we don't know how much money will be there in future years."

ACE is also considering demanding a public vote on the town council's decision - the Local Government Act 1972 makes provision for a "parish poll" if sufficient parishioners demand one. St Ives Town Council is technically a parish council.

The group could ask the council to publish its proposals and ACE's, including the town council's still incomplete planning brief for the building, side by side for townsfolk to judge whether or not they backed the decision to sell to the highest bidder.

"We are not giving up," Mr Dibben added. "Although the ACE proposal was to work with the town council, there's nothing to stop us putting in a bid ourselves.

"It would seem odd for the community to buy a building that technically it already owns. But would the council give us the half million pounds?

"There may be other groups in the town that would be interested in part-commercial/part-community uses."

But St Ives's new mayor, Councillor Deborah Reynolds, said she would oppose any move for a parish poll. "If you took a poll on every decision the town council makes, we would be having polls all the time at huge cost," she said.

"The council is up for re-election next year. That's the time for a poll. But you can't stand on just one issue in politics. You have to have a bigger picture.

"I know they are unhappy and feel we haven't listened to them. We really wanted them to come back with a really good business plan. But what we got was a wish list, not what I would call a business plan. It didn't add up.

"I could not give them £650,000, a building worth £1million and a grant year on year. What would I say to other taxpayers in the town? We would have been open to legal challenge."

She said that half the town's residents north of Houghton Road knew nothing about the Corn Exchange, and those who did would not favour having their Council Tax increased.

She said the council had been turned down for grants in the past because St Ives had an abundance of other community halls.

As to the next owner: "I would dearly like it to go to somebody local, because most St Ivians would do something sympathetic with the town centre," she said.

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