“Does the leader share my concern that despite interest from several local service providers, his Cabinet appear to be prepared to allow Friendship House to remain empty and unused, at a time of increased need in the community while it considers options around how to maximise revenue from an important community asset?”
The Leader asked Councillor D.Bell (Executive Member, Resources), to answer:-
“Thank you Councillor Thorpe for your question.
Hatfield and District Age Concern have made a difficult decision to close Friendship House. I agree with Councillor Thorpe that this is an important community facility and this is why Cabinet has made a commitment to retain a community facility under any of the options considered.
I disagree with Councillor Thorpe’s statement implying that we are trying to maximise revenue from this asset. This is far from the truth, if we were to do that, we would have agreed to sell off the site and not have committed to the retention of a community facility.
All we are trying to do is to take some time to carry out an options appraisal to ensure that the asset is used in a way that secures the greatest benefit for the residents of the borough as a whole and this includes social benefit. This is particularly important as the building is over 50 years old, and consideration needs to be given to the sustainability of the building in the future.
Due to the current COVID pandemic, Friendship House will remain empty and unused for a period of time anyway and as agreed Cabinet will be considering a report in the summer to agree the outcome of the options appraisal. This is the fairest and most transparent way to decide the future of the site. I must stress that one of the options to be considered will include agreeing a new lease for any charity or local service providers.
But I do not believe that agreeing to an assignment of the existing lease, which has 76 years to run, and carries significant lessee obligations, is in the best interests of either the borough, or potential lessees.”
Councillor Thorpe in a supplementary question asked: “Does Councillor Bell agree with me that it is accurate to say that the Council does not currently have ownership of the lease or the building and this is slightly presumptuous of the Council to talk to the media about the options it is going to be looking at in the future and talking about repairs that may need to be made in 2098 given that this was not an issue when his party cut funding for Friendship House in 2012 and 2014?”
Councillor Bell said that the Council is the lessor and up to now Age Concern have been the lessee. We have to give permission if someone wants to sign the lease and we have decided it is not in our interest to do so. Any lessee taking on the existing lease will have to take on the repair obligations, which up to now Age Concern have met. It will be quite onerous to take on. It is not just about what will happen in 76 years’ time, it is also about what will happen every year from now. As I have said, we have not excluded granting a new lease. The Council may not own the building as such but it is like any leasehold situation.