A plan for the Leyland Freemasons to take control of Worden Hall has been put on hold amidst a row between the current and last administrations at South Ribble Borough Council.
The Conservative former council leader Margaret Smith accused her Labour successor Paul Foster of jeopardising the “best opportunity we have” of securing the future of the historic building.
However, Coun Foster blasted the Tories for “pressurising” council officers to conclude the deal in the days after they lost control of the authority in May – but before a new Labour cabinet had been installed.
The Grade II-listed building was advertised by the council as an “investment opportunity” earlier this year in an attempt to restore it to its former glory. It has been largely disused since 2012.
The then Conservative cabinet authorised negotiations to begin with an unknown preferred bidder back in March. Shortly after the local elections in May, the masons revealed that they were the group interested in taking on the site.
The organisation said it had offered to “invest significantly” in the building and open it up to community groups and for functions – as well as it becoming their new base in the borough.
But the now Labour-controlled authority has called a halt to discussions about a 25-year lease while it considers whether the facility should remain under the council’s control.
“I think it would be inappropriate to do anything with this building without speaking to residents first,” Coun Foster said.
“It has huge social value and I want to put all our efforts into finding a community use for it. I don’t like the way the outgoing administration tried to put pressure on officers into signing off this decision after the elections.”
But Coun Smith told the new leader not to “imply that our group put pressure on anybody, because we did not”.
“The building has to be looked after and [the masons] were prepared to put that investment in. We could be missing the best opportunity we’re going to have to make sure that this building has a long-term life.
“You could be depriving a wide-range of people in the community [who use the mason’s existing] facilities…and whom they expected to come with them [to Worden Hall].
“It also doesn’t look very good when we pull back from a process in which people have invested time and money,” Coun Smith added.
In testy exchanges, cabinet member for finance, Matthew Tomlinson, thanked Coun Smith for “her impassioned defence of the masons”.
“I wasn’t defending the masons, I was defending the fact we had a bid,” Coun Smith replied.
The negotiations were given the go-ahead by the Conservative cabinet before a feasibility study which they had commissioned into the future of the hall had been completed – and Coun Tomlinson said that was the reason for the new adminstration’s caution.
“It’s not about the masons – they insisted on a termination clause in the contract which said they could walk away having just given us written notice. So our officers insisted on [the same].
“There’s no loss of faith, these are two grown up organisations used to dealing with this type of negotiation,” Coun Tomlinson said.
A report to cabinet members revealed that an assessment of the historic hall in 2016 calculated that £172,000 worth of repairs would be needed to bring it back up to an acceptable standard – a figure which is likely to have risen in the meantime.
Liberal Democrat group leader David Howarth called for the building to be run by a group which “reflects the values of this council”.
“I have some difficulty with an organisation which meets in secret and from which women are excluded…running a community asset,” Coun Howarth said.
Conservative councillor Alan Ogilvie warned that the council could delay the process only to find “none of the new bids [that are received] are better than that made by the masons”.
Cou Foster said he was willing to take that risk “in the interests of transparency and the borough”.
A fresh report will be brought back to cabinet in September.
‘THE MASONS WERE COMMITTED FOR A GENERATION’
Mike Pinkard, group vice-chairman of the Leyland Freemasons, said he was “hugely disappointed” by the decision to pause the negotiations.
He said: “We had made good progress with the council’s team and had a clear shared vision for the future of the hall. We have done everything asked of us to meet both the community use and commercial aspirations of the council.
“The necessary investment funds had been allocated and a blueprint developed by architects to help show our long-term commitment to bringing Worden Hall back into use as a focal hub in the borough.
“After leaving the hall to stand for so long with no real prospect of effective development, the council had the potential for a community partner in Leyland Freemasons which was prepared to invest hundreds of thousands of pounds to refurbish the hall to a high standard and give a generation-long commitment to looking after it.
“The people of South Ribble would have had a beautiful place to meet and celebrate and be proud of.
“We do hope the council’s review can be concluded swiftly and that the change of strategy does not delay the investment required to bring the hall back into use.
“Leyland Freemasons remain committed to Leyland and the community and hope their aspirations can be brought to fruition in the future,” Mr Pinkard added.