Hope to keep site for community

Rye and Battle Observer letters
Rye and Battle Observer letters

Cllr. Mooney seems to be trying to sit on both sides of the fence regarding the efforts by Northiam Parish Council (NPC) to purchase the Blue Cross site, which is expected to be auctioned in the Spring (‘Problems with plan to buy land’ – Letters, February 17).

Following our initial consultation with residents last November, which included a public meeting on the 24th of that month (as reported in the Rye Observer), he wrote to the Parish Council stating that he was fully supportive of our plans and wished us well. Furthermore, we are perplexed as to why his letter published last week makes no mention of the highly-publicised village referendum that we held on this issue. In fact when the voting count took place on Thursday, February 16, he stated publicly in front of many Northiam residents that he supported the project “in principle”.

It therefore came as some surprise to the Parish Council that he published his “disapproval” in the Rye Observer the next day.

The closure of the Blue Cross Centre in Northiam has been an enormous loss to the village in employment, animal welfare, community events and involvement.

Local resident Kitty Comport bequeathed the original site to the charity and we had hoped this was to continue in perpetuity.

Sadly this proved not to be the case and as Councillor Mooney correctly says, the charity are obliged to sell to the highest bidder.

The plan to try and buy the site came about because a large number of residents asked the Parish Council to try to preserve the site in some shape or form for the community. Many residents are also concerned that the site will be purchased by speculative builders willing to ‘land bank’ it for several years until such time as the development boundary might potentially be moved to meet Government house building targets.

The precedent for this has already happened in the village at the ‘Donsmead’ site where 66 houses are currently being built on land that was purchased 20 years ago.

There is also concern that the site might be purchased by individuals who will choose to move in and start development while ignoring the current planning regulations, as is currently happening on fields recently sold at Northlands Farm on the Northiam/Beckley border.

Following the Blue Cross announcement to finally close and sell the site last November, the NPC immediately surveyed the bulk of households in the village asking for residents’ views on this idea. We received 149 replies of which 121 were supportive, 25 were ‘maybe’ and just three objected. It is not unreasonable to presume that those who did not reply were ambivalent. We also held a public meeting, which was well attended and supportive.

Our prime objective is for the village to attempt to acquire the freehold of the site so that the residents will have total control over its future use. In the absence of any local benefactors we decided to follow the only other option permitted to Parish Councils, which is to apply for a ‘fixed interest’ Government loan, which has to be secured by the precept.

This unanimous decision was not taken lightly; the Parish Councillors are also residents and share the same financial pressures and concerns as everyone else. Because of concerns expressed to the NPC we then decided to hold a referendum to explain the likely financial consequences and asked households whether or not they supported this. The vote was counted at extraordinary meeting on 16th February which went narrowly in our favour (218 for / 204 against). This represented about 45 per cent of households in total.

Should the Parish Council be successful in this bid, they are obliged to set up a ‘Community Interest Company’ (CIC) which will operate on a ‘not for profit’ basis and will manage the site on its behalf as the Parish Council itself is not allowed to operate as a business.

The CIC will engage in all kinds of community fundraising activities, together with applying for grants and building partnerships with local agencies and interested parties to make the project a success. We see it being a multi-purpose amenity for the village for generations to come. Various ideas and business plans are being developed including small affordable workshops, equine and canine facilities and events, a small development of genuinely affordable housing for local people, a much needed cemetery, even potentially a community pub and micro-brewery.

All off these things will create employment and community involvement and over time monies generated will be fed back into the village. Furthermore, if at any point in the future it should be decided to sell on or lease off any of the land, then the village would be able to set conditions as to its use and so retain control of the local landscape.

The Parish Council, backed by a large number of residents considers that this is a ‘once in a lifetime’ chance to ensure that this site remains a focal point in the village and benefits future generations.

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