Sale of the Conservancy

It’s no secret that Rochester is a town utterly obsessed with Dickens. Despite the author not really liking the place very much, half the shops along the high street are made up of dodgy Dickens puns. We have several festivals each year based on his work. The high street is littered with a level of beggars that wouldn’t seem out of place in his novels. He creepily overlooks the high street, in the most literal of senses. Even with all this though, the one thing Rochester no longer has is a Dickens related museum.

Because Medway Council sold the building that housed it. Or they didn’t, if you believe their words.

The saga of the Rochester Guildhall Museum began back in the summer when Medway Council proposed selling the Conservancy Building, which acted as a second half of the Museum. While the main Guildhall Museum houses, well, a guildhall, a giant interactive boat, and a few other things, most of the actual artefacts and educational content came from this second building. Despite this, Medway Council insisted that the sale was necessary so that the money raised could be used to refurbish the Corn Exchange after the council failed to find a private tenant willing to take on that building in it’s run down state.

This is not an article about the rights or wrongs of that sale. It’s an article about procedure, perception, and potential conflicts of interests, all of which surround the sale.

Interlude: A brief Rochester Conservancy Building sale timeline

14 May: Cllr Stuart Tranter, Rochester West ward councillor, emails residents to tell them a sale is being considered.
10 July: Medway Council Cabinet agrees to sale of building.
23 August: Following the Labour group ‘calling in’ the decision, it is discussed at Overview & Scrutiny, with no further action deemed necessary.
29 October: Conservancy Building sold at auction for £590,000.

In the lumbering world of council operations, the process of sale took a little over three months, which is almost a whirlwind as these things go. Those opposed to the sale had very little time to organise and voice their discontent. A petition was organised, which collected nearly 900 signatures, a large amount for the council’s petition system, but unsurprisingly it made very little difference.

Subplot: Heritage Lottery Funding

The public questions at the 11 October full Medway Council meeting raised a fascinating new element that could have potentially complicated the sale. Alan Wood, a local resident fighting the sale of the building, submitted the following question to council:

A recent FOI request to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) has shown that in 2012 a grant of £50,000 was awarded to Medway Council for the Guildhall Museums Opening the Doors to Access and Learning project, part of which was for the creation of the learning zone in the Conservancy Board Building which is now being sold.
As part of the FOI request, HLF have stated that the following terms are still in force for this project until 1 June 2019.
“You must continue to own the Property (if any) and keep exclusive control over what happens to it. Other than as permitted under paragraph 11, you must not sell, let or otherwise dispose of the Property or any part of it or interest in it without getting our permission first. We may add certain conditions if we give approval. If you do dispose of the Property you must receive the full market value for it.”
Therefore, if due diligence has been performed and HLF have officially been notified of the sale, can the Portfolio Holder for Resources categorically confirm that there have been proper independent valuations undertaken to assess the building’s full market value, no conditions imposed or financial claw-back liable to the tax payer?

Note: The Political Medway has since seen the FOI response from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which does say what is set above.

The council’s own minutes report the response from Cllr Gulvin as follows:

Councillor Gulvin thanked Mr Wood for his question. He stated that, for the sake of clarity, the Council was not selling the Guildhall Museum nor any part of it. It was selling the adjacent Conservancy Board building.
He advised that Council officers had been asked to make arrangements for the “discovery zone” to be re-located at the Guildhall and EastgateHouse now that the Conservancy Board Building was closed, pending its sale at auction later this month.
Councillor Gulvin stated that sale at public auction was the tried and tested method of demonstrating that a sale had taken place at market value.
He did not anticipate any claw-back by the Heritage Lottery Fund, who had been notified of the imminent sale of the Conservancy Board Building.

Taking aside the somewhat questionable response to the thrust of the question, the fascinating part comes right at the beginning, where Cllr Gulvin claims that ‘the Council was not selling the Guildhall Museum nor any part of it’. Which is an interesting way to describe the sale of a building that had this sign on the outside of it:

Of course, there was no consequence of Cllr Gulvin making this claim in the council chamber because apparently you can just say whatever you like to suit your own narrative.

Potential conflicts of interest

This is where the whole story gets really murky, with not just one, but two potential conflicts of interest coming from the sale. The first signs that something might be up came in August when Cllr Maple, leader of the Labour group, tweeted this:

This led to days of slightly unpleasant discussions about accusations being thrown around, and more staggeringly, whether or not there would be a conflict of interest if a Medway councillor were to be involved in the bidding on a building that they were involved in the decision to sell. It seems difficult to imagine anyone not seeing that as a conflict of interest, but certain members of the Conservative group failed to see the problem.

In the end, it seems Cllr Maple may have had good reason to raise the alarm, with a known business associate of a Medway Council cabinet member placing bids on the building when it came to auction. While those bids were unsuccessful, it still raises serious questions about whether or not councillors should be able to invest, directly or otherwise, in public buildings that they have voted to sell.

This was not the only potential conflict. Another organisation that Medway councillors are involved with have previously sought to purchase the building, and were interested in bidding for in this case. Though they eventually chose not to, given the history, shouldn’t the councillors involved have declared an interest in the sale of the building.

Least worst option

In the end, the Conservancy Building sold to an unexpected bidder, local arts charity Nucleus Arts for £590,000. They quickly declared they intended to use the building as a community arts space, which was broadly welcomed. As well it should be, but reaching the least worst option on the sale hardly seems like a victory when so many murky elements led us here in the first place.

What do you think? Do you agree selling the building is good for Rochester? Should councillors be able to vote to sell a building they might want to buy themselves? What other buildings should Medway Council sell for relatively small sums? Let us know in the comments, on Facebook, or send us a tweet.

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