That “ambition” thing we were told so much about in 2013 and 2014, before the last Town Hall elections? It seems that if you want to turn it into the “delivery” thing, it can take a long time and a lot of public cash.In 2014, soon after Tony Newman’s Labour group took office, they blocked a very questionable deal which Tim Pollard and Croydon Tories had agreed on the day before the local elections. That deal would have handed over the old library in Ashburton Park, reckoned to be worth at least £500,000, to a church group that wanted to convert the building into some nice apartments for their pastor, with a bit of a church hall use, and all for a bargain purchase price of £85,000.
The new Labour-run council would not allow such a deal (“close to a scandal”, they said at the time), and insisted that the important local building needed to be put into proper community use. Children’s groups could hire it for their activities, it was suggested, there might be a park cafe perhaps, toilets for park users, or some of the space might be taken as a repository for museum collections which do not get displayed elsewhere.
As recently as last August, the council was still saying they wanted the building as “a community hub to attract more visitors to the park, as well as creating flexible spaces for use by the community and small businesses”.
Alison Butler, the council’s deputy leader, was supposed to have said, “We want to re-open this well-loved and historic building and make it once again an important focus for community life.”
And now, after three years and after 40 groups, we are told, expressed an interest and 22 organisations actually put in bids to run the place, the council has today announced that the old library in Ashburton Park “will re-open this summer as a combined community space and an education base to support young people with medical or behavioural needs”.
The old library will be leased and run by the Harrow-based company Nisai Group. They will be working in partnership with Fit 2 Learn, which was founded five years ago by Charlotte Davies and John Clingan, the long-time chair and secretary of the South Croydon Community Association.
Davies was also involved in the establishment of the Paxton primary free school which opened in Portakabins on a rugby pitch in Thornton Heath in 2014, though she is not listed among the school’s current governors and directors.
Having stopped the sale of the building going through for £85,000, the council today failed to state what the financial terms of the lease arrangement would be, though the council are spending “in excess of £1million bringing it up to modern standard before the opening in the summer”. It’s reasonable to assume that Nisai and Fit 2 Learn probably won’t be contributing much, if anything, to those costs.
Nisai is an online school that provides interactive classes for students who are not able to attend mainstream schools. In partnership with Fit 2 Learn they will, according to the council’s press release this morning, “provide services focussed [sic] on students with special educational needs and who face other barriers to learning”. It’s so reassuring when a public body issues a press statement about education which contains spelling errors.
“The goal is to build soft skills and achieve vocational training and recognised qualifications,” they say. Nisai will also be offering skills training courses for adults in the building. “We intend to create a centre that will be a real asset to the local community,” Dhruv Patel, the chief executive of Nisai Group, said.None of which sounds very much like the old library building will be very open to broader community activities or access.
Nor are the new leaseholders providing much insight into what they intend to do in the building. “Feel free to get in touch if you have any ideas for courses, events or activities that could take place in the building or park,” Fit 2 Learn said today, wiithout giving away any idea of what they have lined up.
The council does say, “There will be spaces for local community groups to hire during the week and at the weekend.” The council failed to make clear whether the hiring fees would be payable to Nisai, or the council.
They did say that, “A full-time café will also be run from the building, within which Nisai will secure apprenticeships and training for young people.”
And nearly three years on from the blocked sale, only now has the council obtained planning permission for its £1million renovation and extension works to go ahead.
As recently as six months ago, Timothy Godfrey, the cabinet member responsible for culture and parks, including disused library buildings in public parks, was still saying, “This council has big plans for Ashburton Park.”
So what’s happened to those “big plans”?
In today’s council press release, Godfrey was supposed to have said: “We set out a promise to turn this beautiful but neglected old building into a vibrant community hub to benefit the local community – and we’re delivering on that promise.
“The council is now investing a significant sum of money to ensure the space is fully refurbished to a high standard so everyone who uses the park can enjoy the new facilities.”
And after three years and “in excess” of £1million, the council is going to be placing the old library in Ashburton Park into the hands of a couple of private businesses. So much for “ambition”.
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