A motion will go to full council next Thursday evening for a three month delay to the process of putting the running of Lydiard Park into outside hands.
The motion has been proposed by Councillor Garry Perkins, Cabinet Member for Economy, Regeneration and Skills .
It reads: “This Council requests that the Board Director, Service Delivery ensures that the report scheduled to go to Cabinet in February sets out a timetable allowing a further three months for all proposals to be developed more fully so as to reflect the Council’s goal of securing a sustainable future for Lydiard House and Park.”
This comes after Councillor Perkins was asked by the Friends of Lydiard Park at a packed meeting on Tuesday night to consider the delay to the process so that a staff community trust would have time to put together a detailed bid to take over the park. The meeting was organised to discuss the future of Lydiard after a petition to keep the park in public hands gained nearly 10,000 signatures.
A motion will also be put forward by the Labour Group that reads: “This Council believes Lydiard House and Park should not be transferred to the commercial sector and urges Cabinet to reconsider its plans for this heritage asset.”
More than six hundred residents attended the meeting on Tuesday 12 January to discuss the future of Lydiard House and Park.
The final speaker of the evening was Lord Joel Joffe of Liddington, who lives in Swindon, who was a member of Nelson Mandela’s defence team in the 1960s and later was instrumental in bringing Allied Dunbar, now Zurich, to Swindon.
Held at Lydiard Park Academy, the meeting was called after Swindon Borough Council revealed in the autumn that they were looking for expressions of interest from commercial businesses, voluntary organisations, not-for-profit charities and social enterprises to take over the lease of the site as they can no longer afford the £450,000 subsidy due to Government cuts.
Swindon Council’s cabinet was due to be meeting on Wednesday 10 February to decide whether to put the bidding process out to formal tender, what the deadline will be and what the criteria will be. The council had confirmed that, even if no expression of interest has been made by the cabinet meeting, organisations will still be able to put in a formal bid after that time and they will let people know the process for that.
A timetable for the process to include the three month pause will be worked out at the council meeting on Thursday evening.
So far it is understood that nine different organisations have come forward to run the park and house in whole or in part including a bid by its current staff, which The Friends revealed that they will be supporting at the end of the debate.
The Tuesday meeting was chaired by Mike Bowden, the chairman of The Friends, and the panel included Sarah Finch-Crisp of The Friends, who used to be the keeper at Lydiard House, Councillor Garry Perkins, Cabinet Member for Economy, Regeneration and Skills and Prospective Labour council candidate for Freshbrook and Lydiards Matthew Courtliff.
Chair Mike Bowden said: “It has become obvious that Swindon Council see Lydiard as a financial liability and not the asset that it most certainly is. It is one of the premier heritage sites in our town. I get that the subsidy has to be reduced to zero and that 92% of the council budget will end up being allocated to vulnerable adults and children. I get that. But what I don’t get is the lack of engagement from the council with the residents of the town on how we come up with a solution.”
The Friends were formed in 1962 and are an independent charity dedicated to supporting the conservation and continued enhancement of Lydiard. The house and park was originally bought by the Swindon Corporation after it was bought and gifted to the people of Swindon by Francis Akers, whose great granddaughter Gina attended the meeting, in 1943.
Councillor Perkins, stated that he would discuss the delay and other points with the rest of the cabinet in the next week as he did not have the authority to make decisions at the meeting. He said: “As a council we are having to make some very difficult decisions as we simply do not have the money any more to carry on as normal. The austerity measures being imposed on us means that 92% of our funding will be going to social care leaving only 8% for us to carry out the rest of our duties.
“Let me just make it very clear. We are not putting Lydiard up for sale. It will still be owned by the people of Swindon. Everyone will still have the same access to the house and gardens and the heritage will be preserved but it needs to be made financially viable by a third party for it to continue. There are no plans for a hotel to be built on the site.
“If we decided to go forward with the bidding process, there will follow a period of public consultation. We are doing this to safeguard the future of Lydiard Park and we have to do this in a realistic way and look at every bid in detail. No decisions have been made yet.”
Closing the meeting Lord Joffe said: “As a resident of Swindon for 45 years, Lydiard Park is something that is close to my heart and I believe we need to find a way forward. This is not a political issue. This is about Swindon as Lydiard is part of the make up of our town.
“It’s important to be a realist though in this instance as well as an idealist. Both parties in this instant, the council and The Friends share the same goal and that is safeguarding the future of Lydiard. I believe that a solution can only be found through co-operation between these two groups working together and not by meetings like this but buy small groups of people sitting in a room discussing the issues and coming to a compromise that everybody is happy with. Lydiard Park is the jewel in the crown of Swindon and working together we can make sure that its future is in good hands.”
Lydiard House & Park background and context
In 2013 the Council commenced a programme of work aimed at removing, over time, the subsidy for its Leisure and Cultural assets through working with alternative operators with a more commercial focus.
The first part of this programme focussed on Leisure provision which resulted in the leasing of the borough’s leisure and golf facilities last year. This secured a sustainable future and significant investment for these important facilities, which are no longer reliant on subsidies from the Council.
The next phase of the work is looking at the cultural assets like Lydiard House & Park and our country parks. The primary objective of this work is to ensure that all of the facilities and assets have a long term sustainable future, which, given the scale of the demand on Council finances, must include removing the need for Council subsidy.
Last year the park cost the Council £458,000 to run and projections for this current year (2015-16) show a subsidy of around £420,000.
The Council, which owns Lydiard House and Park, appointed independent property advisor GVA Bilfinger to invite expressions of interests. Nine organisations have responded to a marketing exercise to identify joint venture partners for Lydiard House and Park.
Adverts were placed in trade journals and newspapers to invite proposals from national, commercial and not-for-profit organisations as well as local community groups.
Following the deadline for expressions of interest, nine organisations have contacted GVA Bilfinger to declare an interest in the site. As the process is commercially confidential no details of any of the interested parties will be made public. The Council’s Cabinet will be asked in February whether they wish to invite formal bids for the operation of the site.
Before submitting an interest, organisations were advised that the freehold of the site was not for sale and that any offer including the sale of all or part of the site would be rejected.
Other conditions included maintaining access to the site for the people of Swindon, as well as ensuring proposals are sustainable in terms of the heritage value of the site and from an economic and environmental perspective.
Any proposal must also generate income for the Council and not require any on-going financial support from the local authority.
The Council has already leased part of Lydiard to tree top adventure company Jungle Parc and regularly hires out the park for events, while the Lydiard House Conference Centre could also form the basis of potential proposals with the current lease due to expire next year.
Late last year, more than 300 people attended two public engagement drop-in sessions at Lydiard to share their views on what elements of the park are important to them.
No decisions have been made and what there is at this stage are potential suggestions. The Council’s cabinet will decide at their meeting which will take place in three months’ time whether they invite formal proposals as a result of this exercise. If the decision is made to invite formal proposals there will also be a public consultation.