Residents have been outraged yet again at the latest pawn shop move to flog off public property by the wide boys who control Croydon Council, following an advertisement appearing in the local press offering the old Ashburton Library building for sale.
The disused former Woodside Convent building is the latest piece of public property that Croydon’s Conservative-controlled council has put up in a fire sale, following the Riesco Collection of precious Chinese ceramics and the proposal to build on Queen’s Gardens’ open space.
Ashburton residents fear that the council, which has been under Tory control for seven years, is flogging off the library to help pay-off the near £1 billion of debt that has been built up since 2006. They point to record levels of uncollected Council Tax; the building of “Mike Fisher’s Folly”, the £140 million new council HQ; and the failed multi-million pound gamble on the property market with the urban regeneration vehicle, CURV, in partnership with builders John Laing, whose losses are among the Conservative administration’s most closely guarded secrets.
The decision to flog off the elegant Ashburton building looks to have been taken in a hurry: last month, Dudley Mead, the deputy leader of the Tory group, made no reference to any plans to sell the building when answering a Town Hall question.
In response to a Freedom of Information request dated July 17, 2013, the council went on the record to state that “formal marketing of the building for community use is due to commence on 20 July 2012 [sic]” (though if they are not even sure what year it is, how can our council be relied upon to provide reliable information on any subject?).
Even last week, in a further FoI response, dated August 7, the council reiterated, “The building is currently being marketed for community use and the Council will consider applications arising from this (the deadline for applications is 6th September).”
Yet before that process has been allowed to run its course, Croydon Council has placed ads with an estate agent offering the badly vandalised building on a 125-year lease.
Local residents have described the council’s failure to use the building or properly maintain it over the past seven years as “a disgraceful waste of a beautiful resource”.
Even Ashburton ward Tory councillor Eddy Arram – who stood for re-election in 2010 promising to bring the building back into use by the local community – has admitted that, “It’s a phenomenal waste of a building”.
The two-storey building had been in use as a library until 2006. From 2006 to 2010, it stood empty, at the disposal of the Oasis Academy Shirley Park.
Then the school opted not to make use of the building, handing it back to the council. A Croydon Council press officer claimed at that time that, “A covenant attached to the building means it can be used only for education-related purposes.”
Last month, in a Freedom of Information response, the council changed its story: “We are not aware of an educational covenant attached to the legal title of the building.” But then, this is the same Croydon Council which claimed it could not find the full legal deeds and inventory for the priceless Riesco Collection.
Since it was passed back into council control, the building has been ill-maintained and badly vandalised, and it now could cost up to £1 million to repair and bring back into use, according to the council’s own estimates. English Heritage was due to visit to consider whether the brick Victorian building, built in 1897, is worthy of listed status.
Local campaigners are saying that they have been deliberately misled by senior councillors such as Mead, and that Tory councillors in Ashburton ward – Arram, Avril Slipper and Adam Kellett – have broken another election pledge.
On their website, the Conservatives stated, “The people of Croydon returned a Conservative council in May 2010. In Ashburton we promised to: Work to bring the old Ashburton Library building back into community use”.
Andrew Rendle, recently selected by Labour as a candidate for Ashburton in next May’s council elections, said, “The sale of the old Ashburton Library is just another example of this Conservative council disposing of Croydon’s cultural heritage.
“You just have to look at the demise of the Warehouse Theatre, David Lean Cinema and the unpopular sale of the Riesco collection to see nothing is safe in our borough. I do hope that this sale will be subject to public consultation. This is a council-owned building, and therefore it is our building.”
Rendle and others fear that if the old library is allowed to rot further, it could also be vulnerable to fire, even arson.
Many locals supported an outline plan from the much-respected Croydon Natural History and Scientific Society, which wants the building to be listed to ensure its proper preservation, and to use it to house a local history exhibit. Some believe that, after years of do-nothing inactivity, the council is rushing through a sale of the building deliberately to undermine such a community-led scheme.
“I hope the building can be brought back into community use,” Rendle said, “but I’m concerned that in the particulars on the council’s website it uses the phrase ‘with residential upper parts’.”
What is unexplained by the council’s sales particulars is why the old library has not – like so many other council properties and buildings – been put into the CURV “pot” for Croydon’s “partners”, Laings, to redevelop. Certainly, the high cost of repairing the buildings may deter other developers from coming forward to take up the leasehold.
- Inside Croydon: Croydon’s only independent news source, based in the heart of the borough – 262,183 page views (Jan-Jun 2013)
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- Riesco objections: Croydon Council’s squandering our heritage (insidecroydon.com)
- Should museums ever sell off their prize pieces? (telegraph.co.uk)
- Council confirms ceramics sell-off (bbc.co.uk)
- Coulsdon residents complain over dangers of CURV scheme (insidecroydon.com)