There are calls for the deal to sell the council-owned old Ashburton Library at a “discount” of more than £400,000 to be referred to the district auditor for investigation, after the aborted sale was the subject of further acrimonious exchanges across the Town Hall chamber floor last night.
Despite strong opposition from local residents, the previous Conservative council had tried to flog the building, which they had left neglected for eight years. But the contract for the sale was only signed on May 21 – the day before the local elections, which saw the Tories lose control of the Town Hall.
The incoming Labour council blocked the Tory deal, which would have seen two individually named members of a Thornton Heath-based church acquire the premises, valued as worth £500,000, for £85,000.
Until recently, Croydon’s Tories on the council were led by Mike “Show Me The Money” Fisher. Before May’s local elections, they refused to divulge any of the sale details for the former Woodside Convent building, which dates from 1897. They refused to say who was buying the building, nor how much was being paid for the public property.
Documents seen by Inside Croydon show that the blocked sale was not with the His Grace Community Outreach Church, as the Tories claim, nor with a trust established on behalf of the church.
In fact, the Tories wanted to sell-off the public building to two named individuals, Pastor Bola Thomas and Pastor Kayode Thomas. The plans submitted for refurbishing the building indicate that while the ground floor would have been used for public activities, the first floor would be converted into a private residence.
“You can’t buy a bedsit in Croydon for less than £200,000 these days,” one outraged Labour councillor told Inside Croydon.
“It is scandalous,” another Katharine Street figure said. “Someone needs to get to the bottom of this whole business. The district auditor should be called in to investigate who authorised selling £500,000-worth of public property for just £85,000.”
At last night’s council meeting, Fairfield Conservative councillor Vidhi Mohan – the Tories’ choice to stand for parliament in Croydon North – stood up and proposed that the council should now compensate His Grace Community Outreach Church. According to local MP Gavin Barwell, the church had been given the keys to the building in January, at least four months before the contract was signed, and they had started renovation work.
Labour, Mohan claimed, had “kicked this group in the teeth”. Mohan continued, “I have no idea why they did this,” apparently ignorant of the £415,000 difference in the property’s valuation and what the Tory-run council was prepared to sell it for.
Responding to the motion, Timothy Godfrey, Labour’s cabinet member for arts and culture, claimed that the sale would have gone through had Pastor Bola Thomas not protracted the negotiations by trying to get the building for nothing.
“We have been clear and consistent that privatising a key asset in this park at a knock-down price was not acceptable,” Godfrey said. Godfrey had held meetings with the church and sought agreement on a support package, he told the council.
“Pastor Thomas comprehensively turned down all the help I was trying to offer,” he said. From the public gallery, someone shouted “Liar!”
Godfrey continued: “It is not possible for me as cabinet member to provide a £500,000 building for £85,000 or less. It is not possible to gift public money and assets as ‘compensation’ for the deal not completing. It is also not possible to meet the demands of Pastor Thomas to meet compensation demands such as giving the upper floor for free.”
Despite continued heckling from the gallery, Godfrey was able to goad the Tory opposition about Fisher: “Your former leader clearly had a different view of how he viewed public assets and money.
“Quite frankly, the whole sale process is a disgrace that is not worthy of our borough council.
“This sale would have completed prior to the election if Pastor Thomas had not kept coming back to the council seeking a lower and lower price. The final delay in signing was because Pastor Thomas was trying to obtain the building for zero consideration. A £500,000 building in a public park to be handed over for 125 years. For free.”
Godfrey called the church’s continued campaign, egged on by local Tories, “Yet another Gavin Barwell dead end”.
Given that earlier in the evening the Tory group had applauded enthusiastically the award of an aldermanship to a man who had his evidence at an official inquiry characterised as “another example of institutional racism at work”, it was perhaps ill-judged of them to play the race card on the Ashburton issue.
But then, given her previous examples of lack of good judgement, it ought to be of no surprise that Sara “Book Token” Bashford should endeavour to do so.
“Why are they so anti a black church group?” Bashford asked, playing to the gallery audience from Pastor Thomas’s church as the mood of the meeting turned ugly.
The attempt to stir up racial tension could prove to be counterproductive for Bashford, whose day job at present is working as an assistant to Barwell, whose mismanagement of the Croydon Conservative local election campaign saw his party fail to win back Addiscombe and, crucially, lose Ashburton. Both wards are in his Croydon Central constituency.
Stephen Mann, one of Labour’s new Ashburton councillors, accused the Tories of “pure opportunism” by “…dragging a community group into your fight”.
Comparing the Conservatives’ insistence on consultations on all matters in the true blue south of the borough with an attempt to impose this deal on Ashburton, Mann said, “You show complete contempt for our residents.”
The Tories’ estimates of the refurbishment costs of the building – now to be paid for by the council if it is to be brought back into community use – varied greatly. Mohan said £700,000, Steve O’Connell said between £1 million and £1.5 million, and Bashford reached for £2 million. So it’s fair to assume that none of them have much of a clue really.
But Labour risk the accusations of racism being raised again. The church’s Twitter account – grand total of five followers: the Croydon Gospel Festival, plus Barwell, his gobby fac totum Councillor Mario Creatura, Mohan and the Croydon Conservatives – this morning sparked up with the claim, “Treated like slaves.”
Pursuing the matter creates a number of risks for the local Conservatives, and especially Barwell. An investigation of the failed sale of the old Ashburton Library can not reflect well on the Croydon Tories, especially so soon after Fisher’s #WadGate revelations.
And introducing the race card into Croydon Central may only benefit UKIP, the third challenger in Ashburton, a ward where Nigel Farage’s party took 14.7 per cent of the vote at the recent local council elections.
- Secrecy surrounds council’s sale of old Ashburton Library
- Ashburton residents firmly oppose sale of old library
Coming to Croydon
- The Goon Show, Spread Eagle Theatre, Oct 8-11
- David Lean Cinema: Boyhood, Oct 9
- Upper Norwood Library meeting, Oct 13
- David Lean Cinema: Grand Central, Oct 14
- Norwood Society Talk: From Fire Station to Theatre, Oct 16
- David Lean Cinema: Finding Vivian Maier, Oct 16
- Cinema Ruskin film show, Oct 18
- South Croydon business breakfast, Oct 18
- Purley War Memorial Hospital health fair, Oct 18
- David Lean Cinema: Mood Indigo, Oct 23
- This Was The World and I Was King, Spread Eagle, Oct 23-25
- Upper Norwood Library Book Club, 2.30pm, Oct 25
- David Lean Cinema: Ilo Ilo, Oct 28
- CODA’s Wind In The Willows, Charles Cryer, Carshalton, Oct 29-Nov 1
- David Lean Cinema: Belle, Oct 30
- NHS free health fair, Central Parade, New Addington, Oct 31
- St Giles School opening morning, Nov 5
- Albert Einstein – Relativity Speaking, Spread Eagle, Nov 12-15
- South Croydon business breakfast, Nov 15
- Norwood Society Talk: Lambeth’s Archives, Nov 20
- Choose Your Own Documentary, Spread Eagle Theatre, Nov 21-22
- The Last Sense of Sudden, Spread Eagle Theatre, Nov 27-29
- Ghost Stories for Christmas, Spread Eagle Theatre, Dec 3
- Fog Horn Funnies, Spread Eagle Theatre, Dec 6
- South Croydon business breakfast, Dec 13
- South Croydon business breakfast, Jan 24
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