'Have faith' - Mayor's message ahead of Green Britain Centre takeover decision

The Green Britain Centre, Swaffham. Picture: Ian Burt

The Green Britain Centre, Swaffham. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: IAN BURT

A mayor has encouraged residents to "have faith" in their town council as it decides if it will take over a former environmental centre.

Swaffham Town Council (STC) is set to decide if it will take over the town's Great Britain Centre (GBC) in an asset swap with Breckland Council.

The Green Britain Centre, Swaffham. Picture: Ian Burt

The Green Britain Centre, Swaffham. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: IAN BURT

STC will be meeting on Monday, December 14, to decide whether to move ahead with a proposed asset swap with land at Days Field.

The GBC centre, which closed in 2018, is part of a five-acre site formerly used as an educational facility which also gave the public a unique opportunity to climb to the top of its towering wind turbine.

Mayor of Swaffham Jill Skinner. Photo: Richard Bishop/Swaffham Town Council

Mayor of Swaffham Jill Skinner. - Credit: Richard Bishop/Swaffham Town Council

Jill Skinner, the mayor of Swaffham has now written a letter to residents and businesses in the town to redress some "misinformation" that was circulated recently and encourage them to "have faith in their council".

She said: "I want to try and redress some misinformation that tries to scare people into thinking that your town council would push ahead with a hare brained scheme, at all costs and at the expense of the council taxpayer, without consulting first with the town.

"I must assure you all that this is not the intention, however as with any acquisition of a potential community asset, there are complexities that cannot be discussed in public until the appropriate time."

Behind the scenes, Swaffham Town Council has been carrying out its due diligence in regard to the building and a working group of five councillors will bring their deliberations back to the extraordinary meeting next week.

The council have discussed the possibility of turning the centre into a leisure facility for the town, but don't want to put "all of their eggs in one basket".

Breckland councillor Ian Sherwood said: “This once in a lifetime opportunity could see the Green Britain centre become the property of Swaffham residents through the town council."

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Norfolk County Councillor Ed Colman added that the plans are "potentially transformational" if approved.

Now the council is asking it's residents to "have faith" in them, just as they did two years ago when they purchased and refurbished the community centre to Iceni Partnership.

Councillors will then speak in private, before returning at the end of the meeting to make their decision in public.

Jill Skinner's full letter to residents in Swaffham:

To all who live, work, and regularly visit our Town of Swaffham, I have decided to write this open letter to you all, to explain some of the background of what work has been going on behind the scenes with the Green Britain Centre (GBC), as we are meeting on Monday 14th December next week, to decide on whether we move ahead with a proposed asset swap with Breckland Council who currently own the GBC, as we have made it well known that our proposal is to swap land at Days Field, for the GBC.

We have of course been carrying out our due diligence as you would expect of us, your Town Council, including valuations and rectification costs. We do not want to take on a liability, we do want to fully explore this interesting proposal though, as the GBC building is itself iconic and the 5-acre site abuts 2 acres the Council already owns, purchased some time ago as a site for a future swimming pool. This is not sadly about the possibility of a pool, that project and discussion is for another day.

I want to try and redress some misinformation that has been circulated recently, that tries to scare people into thinking that your Town Council would push ahead with a hare brained scheme, at all costs (millions of pounds) and at the expense of the Council Taxpayer, without consulting first with the Town. I must assure you all that this is not the intention, however as with any acquisition of a potential community asset, there are complexities that cannot be discussed in public, until the appropriate time. This is not hiding information from the public that they are entitled to, it is working within Data Protection law and respecting contractual details, that must remain confidential. When the time is right, all details that can be shared with the public, will be shared and we value the public opinion. No self-respecting Council would just forge ahead without having that important conversation as part of public consultation.

This meeting is taking place now, as Breckland Council have been waiting some 15-months for the Town Council to carry out their checks and balances, we have also had Covid-19 to contend with, otherwise a decision would already have been reached. It has not been an easy task, nothing of this nature is straight forward and the subject of the GBC certainly provokes strong opinion, both for and against. We know that projects have failed in the past at the GBC, we know much more about the building than we did 15-months ago. In March of this year the Town Council very publicly unanimously agreed to go ahead with the asset swap if the GBC was ‘fit for purpose’ and it is that we are revisiting at the meeting. Councillors need to decide whether we now know enough whether we have done enough or can mitigate any financial risks and whether we are ready to proceed, or to walk away.

If we choose to proceed, we will pull together all of the available detail that we can share publicly and check with the public before we sign on the dotted line and go ahead. Unfortunately, if we dither about and procrastinate further, then Breckland Council themselves will quite rightly go elsewhere to dispose of the GBC, as they have made it clear to the Town Council, that they would much prefer that the GBC remains with the community, but if the community does not want it, they will find another suitor and the window of opportunity, currently open will be closed.

Alongside these discussions, we have also been discussing sport and leisure provision in Swaffham, and we believe that a good ‘sport and leisure’ option can be offered from the GBC building and the surrounding land. It is ideally situated, and we are exploring with a potential anchor tenant, the possibility of a really exciting project at that location. This project could also retain many of the environmental principles and benefits that were lauded when the building was first launched in 1999. Again, more checks and balances,
as you would expect. We are not putting all of our eggs in the one basket, as much as the potential tenant may have the drive, enthusiasm, and skillset to deliver such a project at the GBC, if this does not work out, there are other sport and leisure providers who can equally be considered as an anchor tenant.

Just as your Town Council made the right decision almost two decades ago to purchase a dilapidated Community Centre, immediately agree to demolish it and lease a rebuilt modern Community Centre and refurbished Assembly Rooms to Iceni Partnership. No-one questions the wisdom of the Town Council to spend £55,000 on the old building, before committing £115,000 to the larger project, that generated £4.2 million in grants to benefit the Town. Please have a little faith in your Town Council, to do the right thing this time round too!

Notwithstanding all of the above, my concern is that we your Town Councillors are allowed to have that debate and can respect each other’s opinion, with democracy taking its course. That is what you elected us to do, to represent you and do our best for this Town. There is a public section of the meeting, to take questions, this is limited on this occasion to just 30 minutes, but please do ask your questions in advance.

We will need to have some discussion in private, before returning at the end of the meeting to make our decision in public. You can login by using the Zoom link details advertised on the agenda for the meeting on our website www.swaffhamtowncouncil.gov.ukWe also plan to release a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) page on our website as soon as it can be produced after the meeting.

Cllr Jill Skinner, Swaffham Town Mayor December 9, 2020

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