Dealing with complicated issues can be difficult and town councillors — who are unpaid volunteers — can find themselves out of their depth.
Congleton town councillors lost £20,000 when they tried to buy a digital display unit and found it was harder than just nipping round to Curry’s for a telly.
Now Sandbach town is bringing a new meaning to being out of one’s depth: they’re below periscope depth and sinking.
For non-Sandbachians, the tale in a nutshell is that Cheshire East Council, in its Government-driven haste to divest itself of expense, gave Sandbach Town Hall to the council.
The council then found itself owning a historic building — the town hall and market hall — that is much-loved by Sandbachians, greatly valued, and home to a number of businesses, but losing lots of money.
The market hall is an obvious source of revenue and the council had several reports prepared, one of which we print in full in this week’s Sandbach edition.
The most important paragraph is the one that bluntly says of the market hall: “The reality is that the existing facility has commercially failed.”
The surveyor didn’t really dwell on any other option, and after that it discussed ways to maximise revenue, the expert’s view being that the market should be leased out as a complete unit to a company such as M&S.
To save money on its existing rent, the council wanted to move its own offices in and build a mezzanine-level office space but the surveyor said this would lower the value of the hall, and as office space was cheap, the council should just find itself offices elsewhere.
With hindsight, the council at this point should have gone to Sandbachians and told the citizens that it could either get rid of the much-loved market hall, or increase their council tax by a fair chunk to underwrite the losses. (It’s complicated by the fact that it appears the markets make a profit but the town hall loses money like there’s no tomorrow, but that’s another matter).
Instead, the council ignored the experts and pressed ahead with plans of its own, possibly because its members could not face dealing with outraged townsfolk; to repeat, town councillors are unpaid volunteers.
To give them their due, one Sandbachian told us this week that prior to the current leadership, “for 80 years they saw improvement as a coat of whitewash”, and at least the current council was trying something.
The council settled on four options: small retail units with an open space for catering and a mezzanine for office accommodation; flexible open space on ground floor with a glazed high-level mezzanine for office accommodation; ground floor redevelopment of market hall providing some open space alongside office accommodation, and to let to private enterprise.
Three of these options had been dismissed by an expert, the whole markets and small units idea being one that had “commercially failed” and did not offer anything that businesses would want. Moreover, office space in Sandbach is cheap and plentiful, so the council can rent cheaper elsewhere and won’t rent out any space it has left.
Option four was to let to private enterprise but on its consultation the council said “the choices for tenants may not suit Sandbach’s independent identity, for example budget-end retailers” — despite the fact that the surveyor in the report had specifically mentioned M&S and not a budget retailer.
Rather like Congleton and its DDU, the councillors have pressed ahead with a complex job and not been as open as they might. The decision was more difficult in Sandbach but the councillors had expert advice telling them they were wrong.
Since we picked up the story, there have been a number of twists and turns, not least this week’s release of the report. The council’s own accounts on the markets (indoor and outdoor) appear to have been misleading and unclear. A market trader’s national leader came and gave advice and then said his comments were misquoted. The Deputy Mayor, a fine example of a young person getting involved in politics, has decided not to take up the post. A questionnaire on the issues was not delivered to everyone and, to add a dash of the surreal, a punter turned up last week to change the locks on the town hall, saying it belonged to the people and not the council. (Oddly, he has got a point – The Commons escaped parking charges because it is common land).
The council has got itself in a pickle, with a public meeting calling for greater clarity and questioning the figures — though the latter seems academic when a surveyor specialising in commercial letting has said the market hall is a failure anyway.
The council has agreed to undertake a review of its governance procedures after being heavily criticised over its handling of the market hall consultation.
Transparency is always the key to good government: any time there is a feeling of matters being hushed up, people lose faith.
In the short term, the sensible thing would appear to be to scrap the consultation, which misleads people as to the viability of the scheme and the options on offer, and start again with a clear budget, with the cost of subsidising the town hall and market hall made clear.
By subsidy, we mean the direct cost to taxpayers of supporting the town and market halls. The unwanted new houses in Sandbach will at least spread the cost of this; every cloud and all that.
But we’ve it said before and we’ll say it again: with all the extra work being dumped on them, it is unfair that town councillors are still just unpaid volunteers.
If the Government wants town councillors to do more, it should consider rewarding them more.