Agenda item

Call in: The Long Term Future of the Corn Exchange, Enhancement of the Guildhall Museum - Sale of the Former Conservancy Building, 17 High Street, Rochester

This report advises the Committee of a notice of call-in received from seven Members of the Council of the Cabinet decision to delegate authority to the Chief Legal Officer, in consultation with the Portfolio Holder for Resources, to declare surplus and dispose of the Conservancy Building on n the best terms reasonably obtainable.





Members considered a report regarding a call-in received from seven

Members of the Council of Cabinet decision 96/2018 to delegate authority to the Chief Legal Officer, in consultation with the Portfolio Holder for Resources to declare surplus and dispose of the Conservancy Building as shown edged black on the plan, as set out in Appendix 1 to the report, on the best terms reasonably obtainable.


The City of Rochester Society and the Friends of the Guildhall Museums had been invited to address the Committee on this issue. As noone from the Society had been able to attend the meeting their written representations had been circulated to the Committee. In addition, a letter from a member of the public, Mr Froment, had also been sent to Members.


The Committee was requested to consider the Cabinet decision and decide either to take no further action, refer the decision back to Cabinet or to refer the decision to Council for reconsideration.


The Chairman then invited Mr Richard Moss from the Friends of the Guildhall Museums and Mr Froment to speak.


Friends of the Guildhall Museums – Mr Moss stated that the Friends of the Guildhall Museums were opposed to the sale of the Conservancy Building. More than 7,000 people visited the Guildhall Museum each year, more than half of whom visited the Conservancy Building. The building was an important cultural hub and the Discovery Zone was the only step free accessible learning place in Medway, used by many community groups including disabled and aged persons groups.  Mr Moss questioned whether the sale would affect the reputation of the Council and make it more difficult for the authority to attract external funding. It could also lead to the loss of National Portfolio Status from the Arts Council and a loss of funding of £200,000.


The building provided space for visitors to examine its artefacts and such space would have to be found elsewhere if it was sold. The building also housed a large safe which contained valuable civic artefacts and storing and insuring this elsewhere could be expensive as well as the Dickens Country exhibition and it was inconceivable that free public access to this could be lost.


The Friends had been involved in recent plans to expand and enhance the museum only to find that half of the museum would now be closed. This brought into question whether the same commitment from voluntary groups would be found in the future if it was sold.


Mr Froment was then invited to speak and read out a letter circulated to Members setting out his reasons why the Conservancy Building should be retained, the key points of which were:


·         The Conservancy Building was important in its own right and was Grade 2 listed. Although the Council had said the facade would be protected, a range of uses may be permitted which could imply conversion and loss of the internal features, including the staircase. If sold for private use then, even if these features were retained, they would be not visible to the public.

·         Moving artefacts to Eastgate House would effectively create two museums and there would then be an admission charge, unlike at the Guildhall Museum. If the museum was restricted to the Guildhall building it would become a very small museum. The Conservancy Building housed the Dickens exhibition, a popular tourist attraction.

·         The Council should first apply for a Heritage Lottery grant to pay for the repairs needed and see if that was awarded before using part of the sale proceeds to maintain the Corn Exchange.

·         The Rochester Riverside development and new hotels should soon generate considerable additional tourists and revenue for Medway and some of this could be used to retain the Conservancy Building.

·         The Conservancy Building was used for educational activities by local schools and for visits from researchers.

·         The e-petition the Council received had 869 signatures, showing the strength of public opinion in keeping the building.


The Chief Legal Officer and the Head of Sport, Leisure, Tourism and Heritage advised that the officer response to the reasons for the call in were set out in the report. The suggestion that the capital receipt from the sale would be “ring fenced” for capital works at the Corn Exchange was unusual. The costs of moving the civic silver would not be significant and there was provision elsewhere to store this.  The Chief Legal Officer did not accept the decision would affect the Council’s reputation as the Council’s record in attracting investment and grants was strong. The Council remained committed to a positive relationship with the Friends of the Guildhall Museums and other similar groups. Heritage Lottery funding could not be awarded for repairs and maintenance works. The Council was developing a strategy for making the artefacts in the Conservancy Building available, some may be exhibited at Eastgate House. Grade 2 listing meant the façade would be protected but listing did not relate to public access. The Rochester Riverside development did not present an opportunity to fund other services, apart from the S106 contributions. The Council was committed to educational activities continuing. Officers were looking at the most appropriate location to house the Dickens exhibition where there were no admission charges. As to whether the sale could affect the museum’s accreditation, the Arts Council were responsible for the latter and had made it clear that their interest was in collections and learning and not the building which housed them.


Some Members spoke in support of the Cabinet decision. A Member commented that he had initially not supported the proposal but as the proceeds of the sale would be remaining within Rochester and extra grant funding may be available then he supported the sale, provided the money raised was sufficient to facilitate the opportunity that existed to integrate the tourism and heritage offer in Rochester. There was the potential to improve the Guildhall Museum and use rooms not currently open to the public. Another Member stated that the artefacts were more important than the building and he therefore supported the sale.


Some Members opposed the sale of the Conservancy Building and made the following points:


·         The proposals to invest in the Corn Exchange by using the proceeds of the sale were vague and before agreeing the sale should go ahead Members should scrutinise the full plans for repairing the Corn Exchange and transferring the artefacts elsewhere. Cabinet should therefore reconsider its decision after considering these details and there was no urgency preventing that from happening.

·         The report did not in fact say that the capital receipt would be ring-fenced, only that a significant part of it would be used for the Corn Exchange and the Guildhall.

·         Artefacts in the Conservancy Building were accessible to all at no charge and were stored in an authentic environment which 80% of visitors to the Guildhall Museum also viewed. Moving them to Eastgate House where an admission fee was charged meant local people would have to pay to see their own collection of civic objects.

·         There were few museums where the building in which the artefacts were held was not an important factor in the whole experience.

·         Once the property had been declared surplus to requirements then the process was irreversible.

·         No assurances had been given that the proposed investment in the Corn Exchange would improve its profitability or sustainability and no guarantee had been given the Corn Exchange would not be sold.

·         Reference was made to a communication from a Councillor to Rochester residents saying the Council’s approach to a joined up heritage and tourism offer could be explained. If these details were available then they should be shared with all Members and it was questioned how selling a part of Rochester’s heritage could amount to improving the heritage offer.

·         The response from residents and interested parties to the sale had been unanimously negative.

·         The Dickens exhibition was housed appropriately in a Victorian building, showing that the building itself did have a role to play.

·         The sale would damage the Council’s reputation if Medway, whose ambition was to be a university city, could not support Rochester’s town museum.

·         The sale represented a piece meal disposal and was not part of a joined up strategy.

·         What would happen when the capital receipt raised by the sale was exhausted was questioned as well as the apparent lack of any masterplan underpinning the decision.

·         The Friends of the Guildhall Museums should be involved in the decision making process.

·         The decision had lacked transparency and justifying it by reference to the Council’s Property Strategy was questionable as the strategy was not in itself a reason to sell a property. Although the sale met the criteria in the Strategy the maintenance costs were only £25,000 pa which represented good value for money for the second most popular visitor attraction in Rochester and offered better value than the TV screen at Chatham bus station.


The Chief Legal Officer advised that the plans for the Corn Exchange were being formulated and when completed could be shared with Members. The building would be sold at auction and the amount raised would determine how much could be spent on the Corn Exchange and the on the Guildhall Museum.


The Chief Finance Officer clarified that any decision about the use of the capital receipt raised from the sale of the building was a matter for Council.


It was then moved that in the light of the concerns raised in the call in and also expressed at the meeting by both Members and the public that the decision be referred back to Cabinet for reconsideration.


The motion was put to the vote and was lost.


In accordance with Council Rule 12.6 the following Members asked that their votes in favour of the proposal be recorded: Councillors Maple, Murray, Paterson and Stamp.


It was then moved that the decision be accepted and therefore no further action be taken. This was carried.


A Member asked if an update on the timescales for the sale could be provided.




The Committee agreed to accept the Cabinet decision and take no further action.

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