Uckfield Civic Centre “services” could in future be outsourced and run by private enterprise.
The town council has agreed to spend up to £6,200 to progress a tendering exercise for the services, which includes the hire of the Weald Hall and other rooms and the Luxfords restaurant.
At the moment the services are provided “in-house” by the town council which already contracts out a number of other functions it provides, such as grave digging and grass cutting.
It was emphasised that this was not putting the Civic Centre “up for sale” but to provide services at the least cost and get the best value for the council taxpayer.
Any discussions with regard to the Civic Centre do not affect how the town council is run and operates.
Long history of Uckfield Town Council trying to decide what to do with the Civic Centre
The problem of “what to do with the Civic Centre” has concerned the town council for more than a decade.
In 2011, UckfieldNews.com reported that Freedom Leisure had taken over running events at the centre for a trial period but they had not been viable. It had expressed an interest in taking over the running of the centre. Report from 2011 here.
This year the council used consultants and contacted companies which could be interested in running services at the centre.
‘Prefer to work in partnership with council and staff’
Fifteen companies were sent briefing documents but only one “positive” response was received.
A report to town councillors said: “A positive and productive meeting was held with the company who explained that rather than ‘take over’ the Civic Centre, they would prefer to work with the council and staff to improve the offer currently being provided.
“Whilst the overall response was disappointing, the consultants felt that the response illustrated the difficulty in finding a suitable partner to take on the risk of what is a low value business.”
In the comprehensive response by another company it was stated that: “What was very clear from our site visit was that the way the centre is currently operated is not on a commercial basis.
“The reason from this is the two-tiered charging structure, non-commercial and commercial, and how the proportion of bookings is divided between the two.
‘We were told that 80% of the bookings are non-commercial and 20% are commercial.
“If we look at the difference in rates supplied in the document, non-commercial rates are at least 41% less than commercial, and as much as 58% (which is the Weald Hall, the centre’s biggest opportunity in terms of large groups). “
This company summarised their response: “We are of the firm belief that a decision needs to be taken to, either continue in this way and fund the centre accordingly, or to change its use to a commercial venue which will take substantial investment and a significant change of offer.
“Only a complete transformation of the centre is likely to bring about the much increased turnover which a private partner would require to make a success of this opportunity.”
The council’s consultant summarised:
“A decision needs to be made as to whether the centre will remain as a public facility for community use.
“If so, it will be unlikely that a suitable business model can be found to make this a viable proposition for a commercial enterprise to undertake full running of the facility as the risk is significant and there is unlikely to be a satisfactory return on investment.
Restaurant leased or contracted out to a third party
“Alternatively, if the Luxford’s restaurant could be leased or contracted out to a third party to be operated as a commercial venture, the rental income could be used to support the management of the other facilities within the building.
“However, this leaves the Civic Centre with the challenge of promoting and managing the functionality of the rest of the building.”
The report from the town clerk to members gave a brief history
“Members will be very aware that for over a decade they have been considering improving the usage and income for the Civic Centre through establishing a project board from around 2004 to a number of subsequent Luxfords Working Groups and finally to the Civic Centre Working Group which was set up in its present format in August 2012.
Almost every councillor has been involved
“Almost every Member of the Council has, at one time, sat on one or more of these groups looking at ways of improving the overall position of the Civic Centre.
“The competition for the same services as provided by the Civic Centre has increased significantly with considerably more food outlets opening in the town and only sometimes closing soon thereafter.
“A new hotel with conference and catering facilities has opened in recent years and even church halls are being advertised more widely and used more often.
“In addition, as perhaps can be expected during difficult economic times, organisations have less to spend on training and where training does occur, refreshments are no longer provided and packed lunches are the order of the day.”
Before agreeing to progress the tendering exercise, councillors debated the issue.
Cllr Jim Molesworth Edwards argued the council should delay making a decision until after next month’s election when all the new members could be furnished with a full background report.
“Eight of us here at the moment will not be councillors by the time the next meeting comes up and I think it should be held over for the new council to make the decision,” he said.
Cllr Mick Harker said there was a vast amount of information available yet a conclusion had been made, and published on Facebook, that the council was selling the Civic Centre.
Social media allegations of a Civic Centre sell-off: A ‘completely awful statement’
“This is a completely awful statement . . . making something which is not even true into a truth.
“It is not new. It is not selling off the Civic Centre. It never has been,” he said.
“In a normal business approach, you do look at all options to see what is the way forward.
“Luxfords and the Civic Centre has been losing a lot of money for a large number of years.”
Cllr Harker said much effort had gone in to see how Luxfords and the Civic Centre could support the community.
“There never has been a question about selling off anything.
“We are looking to see whether others can provide some of the services in a more cost-effective manner; just like a normal business does.
“Unless you go down this route of actually going out to the market and saying ‘are you interested in running some of the services at the Civic Centre such as Luxfords, such as cleaning and other services’, we will never know if anyone is interested.
Civic Centre is valued as a community building
“That is the state we have got to. We have got to the point where we have tried everything in-house to make sure we can become as efficient as possible and we still lose money at all these things.
“I have always said this is a community building. We value this as a unique point.
“No-one has ever said we sell it off. It is just scurrilous that people suddenly pick up a report which doesn’t even mention it and suddenly make this into a fact which is extremely disappointing.”
Cllr Harker said the time was right to establish whether anyone was prepared to run the operations at no cost to the taxpayer but with the community still having the benefit of the facilities but at a lower cost.
“That’s absolutely what we are driving at,” he said.
Cllr Paul Meakin said the report showed what difficulties the council had in running the whole Civic Centre on a commercial basis.
Council contracts many services to private businesses
Town clerk, Ashley Serpis, said it was important to ensure everyone understood that many services were provided externally by private businesses for the council. It did not just relate to the Civic Centre.
He said every three to five years the council went through a process to ensure they were getting the best deal.
Services provided externally included grave digging, grounds maintenance, accountancy and internal audit. “There are lots and lots services that are provided by contractors and we go out on a regular basis to make sure the prices that we pay these various contractors are competitive because that’s what we do,” Mr Serpis said.
Cllr Alan Whittaker said: “This has been a very long and very slow process. If we were a commercial organisation we probably would have gone bust by now.
“As representatives of the public we have to husband our resources,” he said.
Cllr Whittaker pointed to the report from consultants which said “standing still was not an option”.
Cllr Jeremy Hallett said money should be spent on gathering the information so that the new council had all the facts to be able to make a final decision.
Delay would be unfair on council staff
Cllr Paul Sparks said delaying even further would not be fair on council staff who had been subject to uncertainty in recent years.
Cllr John Carvey said getting work done outside did work sometimes. He pointed to Wealden District Council contracting refuse/recycling collections to Kier which was now saving a lot of money.
He recognised it went wrong at the start of the contract but said every ward in the council’s area benefited as they all “got a little pay-out from the fines”.
Cllr Louise Eastwood said she was very reluctant to spend any more money on the project.
A lot of money had been spent on a consultant to give the council “quick wins” but Cllr Eastwood did not believe it was “executed properly”.
“We had some really good information but I would have liked to have seen these quick wins – the money that we put to consultants go towards the quick wins so we would have made this Civic Centre look more attractive and appealing to members of the public. I don’t believe we have done that.
“I cannot support any more money being spent on outsourcing or consultations,” she said.
From November last year: Future management of the Civic Centre in the melting pot
Need a service. Check the Uckfield Directory first