CROYDON IN CRISIS: The cash-strapped council’s efforts to reduce its operating costs could see up to seven public-owned assets transferred to community groups, including a much-loved garden centre in the town centre that was under threat of closure.
EXCLUSIVE by WALTER CRONXITE, political editor
Faced with a petition signed by thousands of angry residents and the possibility of a protest at tonight’s council meeting over his plan to close a council-owned garden centre, Tory Mayor Jason Perry is expected to announce that he has found a “solution”.
The cash-strapped council announced last year that it was to close the Cherry Orchard Garden Centre in central Croydon, as part of its cut-backs and closures caused by the borough’s bankruptcy. The centre has provided valuable occupational therapy for local people with learning difficulties for more than 30 years.
Perry was accused of a “cynical ploy” over the closure threat, after the council exaggerated the cost of renovations required at the centre to allow it to continue to operate.
The garden centre is part of the council’s Cherry Hub, a council-run centre for people with disabilities to use as part of their activity programmes.
The petition being presented at tonight’s meeting states, “This much-loved local institution does not cost much to run but is a precious public asset that is valued by many people in Croydon. The closure will save the bankrupt council hardly any money but will devastate the lives of the people who work there.”
Inside Croydon has discovered that the council is considering a plan to offer the garden centre under a Community Asset Transfer.
Community Asset Transfers, or CATs, are devices where local authorities can get properties or assets off their books, transferring them to community groups or trusts, often for nothing more than a token, peppercorn rent. Once transferred, all maintenance, repairs and energy bills then become the responsibility of the tenants, rather than the council.
According to a response by Croydon Council to a Freedom of Information request, the Cherry Orchard Garden Centre is one of five properties which are being actively considered for such an asset transfer.
Two other CATs have already been approved and are “currently in solicitors’ hands”, according to the council: Harlow Hall in Norbury, where a 25-year lease to a H3 Hub at a peppercorn rent appears to be a done deal, and the Shoestring Theatre in South Norwood, which is being handed over to its long-term tenants, CYTO, the Croydon Youth Theatre Organisation, on a 30-year lease at a peppercorn rent.
In the case of H3 Hub, the group was formed specifically to put together a bid to take over the running of Harlow Hall from the local Darby and Joan club, which had operated the venue for many years. The council says that H3 Hub were chosen from 24 different applicant groups.
According to the council, “Awarding this type of lease means the hall will benefit from significant investment. Not just from the charity itself, but also… from the ability to bid for and hopefully secure external funding to improve the fabric of the building enabling it to continue serving the local community for many years to come.” Which is more than a tad disingenuous, because there’s never been anything to stop Croydon Council for itself bidding for any number of a range of grants that are available – it’s just that the council has never been very good at doing so.
If these transfers go through, they will be the first to happen in Croydon since 2019.
In its FoI response, the council said that it had also received “initial applications” for Cherry Orchard Garden Centre, as well as the Waterside Centre adjacent to South Norwood Lake, the former Wayside CALAT in New Addington, the Shirley Community Centre, and even a cricket pitch at Sanderstead Recreation Ground.
Other possible transfers have not progressed so smoothly, however. Sources suggest that one major council property in the south of the borough, which has been run by a community trust for several years, has rejected the terms being offered by the council until officials agree to carry out long-delayed repairs and renovations to the building which might otherwise cost the community a six-figure sum.
Today, one of the Cherry Orchard Garden Centre petition supporters welcomed the asset transfer move, but with an air of caution. “If it means keeping the garden centre from closing, then of course it is something that will be welcomed,” said the supporter.
“At least they are not flogging the site off for development – which was a real fear at one point.
“We are losing so many council services and facilities, so this is a bit of welcome news. But there’s still much to be discussed about the various, continuing costs of running the centre, and also how the centre’s volunteers can continue to be part of the council’s vital workplace scheme.”
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