The recent public consultation on the Council Tax threw up some questions that are best answered here. Geoff Clarke of the Parish Council and Pat Dines from the Gotham Community Hub Ltd answer the main issues that were raised.
Are the Parish Council exceeding their authority to propose such a Council Tax rise?
GC: No. Parish Councils have the power to raise their Council Tax levy as they think fit. Moreover, they are not capped unlike District or County Councils. The level of your Council Tax is shown on your annual Council Tax bill. You are not able to pick and choose what you pay for and what you don’t. Adjusting the precept is what Parish Councils everywhere do annually. Ultimately Parish Councils like all councils are responsible to their electorate at the ballot box.
Were GPC acting illegally in trying to raise the Council Tax in this way and were they possibly corrupt in doing so?
GC: Parish Councils are advised to behave in exactly the way GPC did on this occasion and seek a public consultation for a particular rise such as this. They were acting in the village’s interest and were certainly not corrupt. As explained above they could have imposed this rise without consulting at all.
The plans for the shop and cafe were the wrong idea: wouldn’t the site be better developed to provide starter homes or sheltered housing for the elderly?
GC: I don’t think anyone would argue that there is a need for just this type of housing in Gotham: indeed the housing survey that is reported on elsewhere in Gotham News makes that point. However this type of housing does not come about on the free market as developers will seek to maximise their return on the land and will always choose ‘market’ housing. With the Royal British Legion seeking market value for the site the only way that this type of social housing could have been achieved was, seemingly perversely, to support the Hub idea. Then the land would have been in village ownership and any housing in the future could have been planned based on local need.
PD: The conception of the Community Hub evolved from the Gotham Annual Parish Meeting held 28th April 2015 when 81 attendees voted “This Meeting believes the British Legion Site should be developed in such a way that will benefit our village and recognise that an enlarged village shop and post office is vital to the village community”.
This proposal was again endorsed at a Public Meeting on 4th June. Other uses were explored ie bungalows for the elderly but the minimum area required was 1.5 hectares for such a project. The British Legion site at 0.24 hectares is considerably less than this. The first flyer delivered to all households brought no further suggestions from the public.
As Individuals were involved in both the Parish Council and GCHL were they therefore too close?
GC: It is not unusual in a village of the size of Gotham that individuals will be involved in more than one of the voluntary organisations. This is recognised by Parish Councils and there is a strict Code of Conduct that all Councillors sign on taking office that involves making appropriate Declarations of Interest and specifies conduct such as leaving the room when matters are discussed. The two Councillors who were involved on the Hub Management Committee strictly adhered to this Code of Conduct and were not present in the room and did not vote in matters concerning the Hub. For members of the public to assert that there was anything improper in the behaviour of the two councillors privately is one thing: to assert this in an anonymous flyer pushed through doors with no evidence to back it up is in the opinion of some both cowardly and disgraceful.
PD: The Parish Council need to be involved and work closely with all major village projects to be an effective council. They were in a better position to nominate the site ‘an Asset of Community Value’ to halt the early sale of the site and give the Hub Steering Group time to seek assistance and advice in particular from the Plunkett Foundation. The ‘flyer’ indicating ‘vested interest of a few’ was deeply offensive to all endeavouring to obtain and safe guard this valuable asset for Gotham Village.
Is it not morally or ethically wrong to make investment in the project compulsory when a voluntary way is available?
GC: This is probably the key question in this debate and many well argued responses made the case that it was wrong. The Council took a different view that the provision of the Hub facility was part of village infrastructure that should be contributed by everyone in the same way that everyone pays for the dog bins even when they do not own a dog.
PD: The money raised by the Precept was vital to the initial investment but the eventual profits would have been put back into village via the Parish Council.
Was it right for the Parish Council to have expended costs on meetings, posters and the other literature some of which was of high quality with no accountability?
GC: All the literature and Hub costs were met by the Hub themselves and not by the Parish Council.
PD: The materials were funded either by a grant from the Esmee Fairbairn Trust or from donations from individuals. Nor were any costs incurred from Parish Council funds for meetings held either for the Public or Steering Group as these were held mainly in the Memorial Hall, free of charge, deemed by the Trustees to be for the public benefit.
Would raising the Council Tax have meant that the general public would be forced into subsidising private businesses?
GC: I can understand why this seems to be the case. Members who voluntarily invest in the Hub would have received an interest payment: those contributing compulsorily via the Council Tax would not. Also the public would be seen to help the tenants of the building run profitable businesses and make money. However the tenants would have been there because the villagers at public meetings said that they would be providing the facilities that they wanted.
PD: They tenancy agreements would have been at market rates. Excess income from the Hub can only be spent on the community of Gotham and is not paid out to members/share holders. A modest interest is paid out to members that is comparable to equivalent investment such as Building Society savings accounts. The whole principle of a Community Benefit Society like the Hub is for the benefit of the whole community and not for the members who invest.
Why was no mention of the possible Council Tax rise made at the public Share Launch meeting on 28th January?
GC: At the time of the Share Launch the Council believed that an ‘on lend’ arrangement could be made that meant the Hub would meet the loan costs and nothing would fall on the precept. We had been advised by bodies set up to help us that that would be true. Subsequent to the meeting of the 28th this turned out to be wrong and the Council made the decision then to seek to raise the precept instead.
Does the village really need a larger shop or another cafe?
PD: The Hub Management Committee were guided in the first instance by the business plans of the potential tenants and encouraged by the support of the villagers at public meetings. Visits to other Hub developments showed that these developments work and that the market for cafes is flourishing. The majority vote at the Public Meetings was in favour of a larger shop and the amount of financial input from local residents reflected this.
After several sites were visited by the Hub Steering Group to gather ideas, the Community Café was to be a separate tenancy and would incorporate initiatives to encourage more visitors to the area ie hikers/cyclists. Wall displays of local artists, of which Gotham abounds, local History archive storage/exhibitions. Encouragement to young entrepreneurs wishing to advertise their own products/designs ie wedding/party goods/jewellery/xmas goods and increase local part-time employment. The Memorial Hall is not suitable for all of these issues as it is closed except for bookings whereas users of the shop and café, other than locals would be able to access these.
Why was there no mention in the literature of the Spar shop owners investing?
PD: The Spar shop owners would have been faced with a significant investment of their own in refitting the premises. That was a significant risk for them and they ultimately felt the risk was too great. The Hub business was first and foremost about owning the site.
Why do we not house a visitor/information centre in the library?
GC: That is a matter for the County Council who run the library service. It is only open for very limited hours.
Could the Memorial Hall coffee shop extend their hours, then cafe would not be needed?
PD: The Memorial Hall Coffee Shop is now in its 6th year and is operated by four teams of 4/5 volunteers (including Trustees) on a rota basis. We have a small list of reserve volunteers for cover. To operate one extra session would require a further 20 extra volunteers. All profits are for further refurbishment and long term investment for the Hall. Due to the enormous efforts of Trustees/Volunteers past and present it does not require financial assistance from the precept.
Now it has been extended, surely the present shop and Post Office is adequate?
PD: If the present shop/post office closes the village will have no alternative site. Had this move to the Royal British Legion site been accomplished the Hub committee would be able to seek new tenants.