Corn Exchange future decided behind closed doors

IAN MacKELLAR CAMPAIGNERS trying to save St Ives s historic Corn Exchange have reacted angrily to the town council s decision to hold a meeting on the building s future behind closed doors. Action Corn Exchange, which last week indicated its intention to


CAMPAIGNERS trying to save St Ives's historic Corn Exchange have reacted angrily to the town council's decision to hold a meeting on the building's future behind closed doors.

Action Corn Exchange, which last week indicated its intention to bid to buy the building, is outraged that the public is barred from a meeting this evening (Wednesday) to discuss a briefing document outlining options for the future of the building, which the council decided last year to "dispose of".

It says the "planning brief", prepared by St Neots-based chartered surveyors Barford and Company, should not contain confidential information and should be discussed in open session.

But the town's mayor says it does contain commercially sensitive information about properties owned by other parties, and it would be quite improper to discuss it in public.

The mayor, Councillor Deborah Reynolds, could not say when even a sanitised version would be published, because of "negotiations" that would follow today's (Wednesday) extraordinary meeting of the town council.

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The 19th century listed building is at "high risk" of being lost to Huntingdonshire's built environment, according to a report to be presented to the district council's cabinet - of which Cllr Reynolds, wearing another hat, is also a member - tomorrow (Thursday).

Nick Dibben, ACE's co-chairman, said on Monday: "ACE has consulted a good practice guide on producing planning briefs, issued by the Government, and cannot find anything in the guidance that suggests that any part of a planning brief should be confidential. In fact, the guidance suggests that public consultation should be undertaken and copies of the planning brief should be available in local libraries.

"The decision to keep this secret is outrageous. It also contradicts concerns in the council's own minutes acknowledging secrecy in the past and statements made by the town mayor last week on the need to be more open.

"The town council has completely lost it. Councillors appear determined to ignore the wishes of local people. I don't understand what they have to hide unless they intend the site to be another theme pub, which was suggested as the most viable option by their advisers a year ago.

"If the council approves the planning brief on Wednesday and then it is found not to contain the right level of information or has ignored the district council's wishes (that there should be some element of community facility), the town council would be at risk from claims by the developer for misleading information."

ACE is demanding to know why the brief is being kept secret, whether it reflects HDC's community requirement, whether it excludes the theme pub option, and whether it includes an asbestos report for potential purchasers, as it says the law requires.

"Financial issues concerning the site should be covered in separate documents," Mr Dibben said.

Even though exchanges between the group and the council have become increasingly acrimonious since the council rubbished ACE's rescue proposals a month ago, Cllr Reynolds said she was "surprised" by the outburst.

"I can't imagine why they would be outraged. It's a draft document that has not yet been adopted by the council. There's commercially sensitive information in it that relates to other properties not in our ownership. That's why it's not in the public domain.

"As soon as it can go into the public domain, I will put it there," she promised. "When that is depends on negotiations that I can't go into for the same reason.

"Different people want different things for the Corn Exchange, and we have to do what's best for every one of the 17,000-plus people in St Ives.

"That's the way business is done in St Ives. I'm going to be as open as I can be, but I'm not going to be bullied or intimidated into the town council changing its mind. When the brief is out in the open, it will be obvious why we have had to hold it back.