Fresh twists in Holt Hall saga ahead of meeting calling for closure u-turn

Holt Hall environmental and outdoor learning centre has been much-loved by families for generations

A special council meeting seeks a u-turn over the closure of Holt Hall. - Credit: Archant

Council bosses have admitted they had been approached by organisations who wanted to buy Holt Hall - before councillors made the decision to close it.

Yet there was no mention that parties were interested in buying the historic hall in council reports drawn on to decide the historic building's fate, leading critics to question the "lack of transparency".

A special meeting of Norfolk County Council will be held today over the hall's future.

Last month, the Conservative-controlled cabinet voted for the council to cease providing outdoor learning services, which it had run from Holt Hall - and to make the building available for sale.

Today's meeting, triggered by Labour and Liberal Democrat opposition groups, aims to convince the council to think again.

And a Freedom Of Information Request to Norfolk County Council has revealed at least two parties had expressed an interest in buying the hall, before the councillors made their decisions.

This newspaper requested copies of all correspondence to the council or councillors relating to expressions of interest in buying Holt Hall.

The council refused the request on the grounds of commercial confidentiality, but said there had been expressions of interest before the decisions were taken.

The council said: "Norfolk County Council has been clear with any prospective bidders who have approached it that the site would be openly marketed, if we decided to dispose of it.

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"Any prospective bidders were also informed that the council would require a formal decision the future of the service and that the site was declared as surplus to the council's requirements as set out in the constitution, prior to undertaking any more detailed discussions."

The documents presented to councillors when they made their decisions made no reference to any prospective bidders.

When asked whether the council had acted properly, a spokesperson said: "The review into outdoor learning and the future of Holt Hall has been widely publicised and there has been engagement taking place with key stakeholders.

"This has led to a number of parties contacting the council asking for more information and expressing an interest in buying the building.

"However, the details of this are commercially sensitive.  As the site was formally declared as surplus in December 2020, no detailed work has been done to bring the site to market.

“No diligence has been undertaken on the unsolicited bids other than to acknowledge the interest and to inform them that the site had not, at the time, been declared as surplus and that the council would not get into detailed discussions.

"We have acted appropriately and followed all of the correct procedures throughout the review."

Nic Hopkins, a trustee of the Friends of Holt Hall group, which has been campaigning to retain Holt Hall for outdoor education, said: "I think this could all have been a lot more transparent. We have always felt that while there might not have been a predetermination to this process, there was certainly a preferred option in mind."

Nic Hopkins, A trustee of the friends of Holt Hall. Picture: Nic Hopkins

Nic Hopkins, from the Friends of Holt Hall. - Credit: Archant

The Friends group has been handed a boost in its efforts to find a way to work with partners to retain the hall's use for outdoor learning, after North Norfolk Council designated Holt Hall as an asset of community value.

That means the group is given time to come up with a case to bid for Holt Hall when it is put on the open market.

Steve Morphew, Norwich. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Labour group leader Steve Morphew. - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2018

Steve Morphew, leader of the Labour group at County Hall, said: "Special council is an opportunity for the Conservative administration to decide whether they want to work with the supporters of Holt Hall positively or ignore them.

"I cannot understand why it is proving so difficult to extract information about what’s going on.

"Commercial confidentiality is being used as a cloak to restrict even the most basic information."

Steffan Aquarone, Lib Dem group leader, said the fact expressions of interest had been received should have been disclosed in council papers.

Steffan Aquarone, Liberal Democrat group leader at Norfolk County Council. Picture: Alex Broadway

Liberal Democrat group leader Steffan Aquarone. - Credit: Alex Broadway

He said: "As an asset of community value designation has been made, my hope now is that we will really get to expose just how bad the decision and the process leading up to it were.

"I think we need to air those concerns and the best possible outcome is that there will be a delay to allow creative exploration about the future of the hall."

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