No more cash for community centre

Honiton Town Council denied �140,000 to carry out groundworks at proposed site.

East Devon District Council has declined a request for it to gift a further �140,000 to the proposed Honiton Community Centre project.

The council’s cabinet rejected Honiton Town Council’s plea at a meeting last week, saying the centre’s business plan needed to be more robust and stress tested.

The town council was advised to consider down-sizing its ambitions and was offered fit for purpose space in the district council’s proposed new offices at Heathpark.

Cabinet members heard �833,000 is available to the community centre project from the district council, including �500,000 in Section 106 monies.

The council is also offering land for the centre.

Councillor Paul Diviani, the council’s leader, chaired the cabinet meeting. He said: “There is no question that Honiton deserves a community centre.

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“It is a major town in East Devon. They need our assistance.

“Is it the right place, is it the right structure and is it the right business plan?”

Councillor Diviani said the Business Improvement Group is “very professional” and could help Honiton Town Council firm up its business plan.

He added: “We haven’t got any more money to give.

“A third of a million (�333,333 already set aside for the project by the district council, in addition to the Section 106 cash) is quite sizable.

“However, the plan should not fail on the basis that we are not prepared to help.”

Town and district councillor Mike Allen said all five of Honiton’s district councillors supported the plan - so long as the site next to Honiton Magistrates’ Court was suitable for development and the business plan for the project was “sound”.

“The site does not appear to be suitable,” he said, pointing out the requested �140,000 was needed to deal with ‘soft spots’ and contamination issues identified during a ground survey. “The other issue is the business plan. There has been no fund-raising of any significance.”

Councillor Allen accused Honiton Town Council of providing inaccurate information over levels of support for the community centre.

“Frankly, I don’t believe it,” he said, calling for “a proper referendum” to be carried out to “tidy up whether or not the town wants to proceed”.

Councillor Allen said the town council was submitting a planning application for the centre without knowing the costs involved. Nor did it know the costs of legal fees and the tendering process, he claimed.

He urged the cabinet not to support the bid for �140,000 and to think again about its support for the project.

Richard Cohen, the district council’s deputy chief executive, said issues identified at the site would entail piled foundations, increasing costs.

He talked cabinet members through a report and said the extra cash was on top of the projected �1.8m cost of the project.

Councillor Phil Twiss said: “This conversation is only about money. We live in hard times and this issue is split into two things for me.

“One, the town council offices (in New Street) are unfit for purpose. I would like to see the offices and community centre split.

“The town council should consider sharing fit for purpose, brand new, state of the art offices in the town.

“Secondly, and this is a thorny subject, EDDC has been very generous with grants and help so far and the project should be in a scale that is more in keeping with the economic times.

“I am very concerned about the level of support. We have a hard core of 100 people for and 100 people against.”

Councillor Twiss added: “The building will have to wash its own face - the project has got to be strong and sound.

“I would suggest we stop the clock and I seriously urge Honiton Town Council to consider sharing offices with EDDC.”

Councillor John O’Leary said people he had spoken to in Honiton were “against the cost” of the community centre project.

The cabinet heard that costings may have to be reviewed and Honiton Town Council accept “a more modest building”.

Councillor Roger Boote said: “Most people have told us they don’t want their money to be involved.”

He suggested Honiton Town Council be offered help towards finding new avenues of grant funding and urged the council to put off making any decisions until the cost of the project was known.

Councillor Ian Thomas said he had “a great problem” with the project.

“If this was a business, would I want to invest in it?” he asked, adding he found it “always worrying” when a business plan appears to have been drawn up to “fit the result”.

Councillor Ray Bloxham said the district council was “still at a place when its members are very much in support” of a community centre for Honiton.

But he warned: “I don’t think we are going the right way about it. If a town the size of Honiton was wholly supportive of this project, far more money would have been raised by now.

“It is about getting the project right and marketing it to the town.

“The business plan doesn’t stack up, in my view.

“The way the community feels about this has got to be tackled. We have an obligation to work with the town council and the town to get it right.”

NEWS SPECIAL: Two-page report in tomorrow’s Midweek Herald. What the Mayor told the cabinet meeting and why the chairman of the district council had some harsh words for cabinet members.