Three questions for Stroud’s councillors about the Subscription Rooms sell-off

If you’re from Stroud, you probably know two things about our concert hall in the centre of town, the Subscription Rooms. Number 1, the Beatles allegedly played there in 1962, and your neighbour definitely saw them. Number 2, it’s currently up for sale.

This post is about the sale. Stroud is selling off assets to compensate for funding cuts, and the Sub Rooms is for the chop. Unfortunately, it seems the council is trying to push through a quick sale with little scrutiny. So, Stroudies who love the Sub Rooms, please read on.

The Sub Rooms. Once played in by the Beatles, now up for sale. Photo by bazzadarambler

What’s the problem? In summary: a tiny, secretive group of Stroud councillors has reviewed the bids for the sale in private. In a few weeks, the final decision will be made, at a meeting where the public may not speak (UPDATE: the council tell me the public may read out questions submitted 5 days in advance in writing). There has been no public consultation. The council may sell the forecourt too, despite saying it would only sell the building—so it could one day be fenced off. It’s all… not very open. Not very friendly. Not very Stroud.

So, here is a quick recap, and three questions for Stroud District Council about the sale of the Sub Rooms. Then a timeline of the crucial next 5 weeks. Finally, some suggestions on how Stroudies (never shy to come forward) can make their voices heard.

Background

The Sub Rooms was built by public subscription in the 1830s, and is now owned by SDC. It went on sale this summer, and SDC has received two public bids:

  • One from the Stroud Trust, which proposes to transfer the freehold to from SDC to Stroud Town Council. This would keep the building in public ownership and let Stroud Trust run it as a venue.
  • One from local green energy firm (and big employer) Ecotricity, a private limited company (I’m a customer). Rumour has it that they want to buy the building to use as their staff canteen during the day, letting it be used as a venue in the evenings. This bid is the bookies’ favourite.

SDC is now considering whether to accept one of these bids, or keep the building in public ownership. The eight councillors on the Task & Finish Group (T&FG) have written a recommendation, not yet published. (UPDATE 1/10/17: the local press is reporting that Ecotricity is the recommended bid.) This report now goes to the 13 councillors on the Strategy & Resources Committee (S&RC). They will make the final decision at a meeting on Tuesday 5th December.

I have no involvement or view on either bid: no dog in this fight. But I’ve been following the council’s process with difficulty and alarm. If the process in Stroud is representative of how public assets are being sold off across the country, it is very troubling.

Three questions SDC must answer, for the long-term good of Stroud:

  1. Is the forecourt included in the sale of the Sub Rooms, and will it be protected for public use?

Local activist Kate Kay spotted that although SDC’s decision in January 2017 was to ‘invite bids for the acquisition of the freehold or leasehold interest in the building’ (my emphasis), the site plan in the official sale brochure also included the forecourt in front of the building.

The site plan in the sale brochure, which suggests that the forecourt is included in the sale.

As we all know, the forecourt is the heart of Stroud’s public space, and is its unofficial town square — most of us walk across it at least once a day. It would be horrible if it was taken out of public ownership and fenced off.

The forecourt — Stroud’s best public space. Photo by Julie Kertesz.

It’s not clear how the forecourt came to be included in the sale: was it a policy change, an oversight — or in response to quiet lobbying from one of the bidders? Because the process has been so opaque (see below), we may never know.

SDC needs to clarify:

  • Is the forecourt included in the sale, and how did this come to happen?
  • Are there covenants requiring the new owners to keep the forecourt open to the public?
  • Are those covenants permanent and binding — so that when the new owners sell on, it remains public space in perpetuity?
  • Is SDC confident that it is legal to include the forecourt, given that SDC’s original decision was only to sell the building?

The new owner may fully intend to keep the forecourt in public use, but future owners may not. And Stroudies need their people-watching, hanging out, wassailing, and general frolics on the forecourt.

The forecourt on a Saturday market morning: always something going on! Photo by melmoththewanderer, used with permission.

2. Will the building be protected for public use?

We also need to know if the building will be protected permanently for public use. The Stroud public overwhelmingly wants to keep the building as a community venue — see the petition with 1700 signatures from April.

So we need to know:

  • Are there covenants requiring the new owners to keep the building open to the public, if it is sold off?
  • What exactly do these say? When will it be open, and what does this mean?
  • Are those covenants permanent and binding — so that when (not if) any new commercial owner sells on, the building remains available in perpetuity?

The last point is key. The new bidders may have the best of intentions, may well run the building better than the council have in recent years, and may make all the promises in the world. But without permanent legal restrictions, when the building is inevitably sold again, there’s nothing to stop it being removed from public use forever.

3. How will the public now be consulted, and is the council’s process legal?

SDC has been remarkably secretive throughout this process; and it is still unclear how the people of Stroud can have a say on the final decision.

I made an FOI request to SDC on 7 August asking for the dates of the T&F’s meetings, and the documents they would use to decide their recommendation. SDC referred me to its website, which does not contain this information, so on 10 September I requested a review. On 9 October (the last legal date for a response), SDC replied, refusing to release any of the documents, or even the dates of the meeting! Thanks, guys.

SDC’s handling of the Sub Rooms review: hidden agendas? Photo by melmoththewanderer, used with permission.

So, the public cannot see the agendas or the minutes of the T&F’s meetings, or the recommendation. And T&F seems to have had no written criteria for deciding on its recommendation.

There is also no clear way for the public to have any input. The final decision will be made on 5 December, at a meeting at which the public may not speak (UPDATE: the public may speak, but only if they submit written questions in advance). We may submit questions a week (UPDATE 31/10/17: five days, see below) in advance, but according to the response to my FOI request, the T&F Group’s recommendation may not be until published “a week before” the meeting. Right.

SDC should tell us:

  • Is it planning to hold any public consultation on its decision? If so, how will stakeholders’ and the public’s views be included?
  • When will SDC publish the T&F Group’s recommendation? If not immediately, why not?
  • When will it release minutes and documents on how the bids were evaluated and the recommendation was made?
  • Why is the final decision to be made solely by the councillors on the S&RC, not the full Council? And given that the sale involves withdrawing a public service, is SDC confident that the S&RC has the legal remit to decide this matter?

It’d be bad enough if the council’s process was simply opaque. But leading bidder Ecotricity donated £250,000 to the Labour Party in 2015 (and has paid Stroud’s Labour MP, David Drew, thousands as a consultant). Meanwhile, SDC, which will decide the winning bid, is controlled by a Labour-led coalition. The potential conflict of interest is obvious.

In all seriousness, and writing as a long-standing Labour party member: an open and transparent process is vital both for SDC’s public reputation, and to protect the long-term interests of Stroud.

Balloons and music on the steps of the Sub Rooms. Photo by melmoththewanderer, used with permission.

Timeline: developments over the next few weeks

So: what happens next, and what can Stroudies can do to answer some of these questions? True to form, the council’s Sub Rooms Review page contains zero information. But here’s everything I’ve been able to piece together on what happens now.

Date TBC — release of T&FG recommendation:

The T&FG’s recommendation is complete, but not yet public. Surely it should be published now? Certainly well in advance of the public’s only real opportunity to engage, which is…

Saturday 18 November 2017, 9.30am-1pm, Sub Rooms (map):

“Public information update drop-in event” at the Sub Rooms, hosted by SDC. I can’t find any information about this online: this is what I’ve been told verbally. Note, this is not an official consultation event. That’s all I know.

Thursday 23 November 2017, 6pm-7:30pm, Council Chamber, Ebley Mill:

An information meeting for district councillors. Not open to the public. You may be able to persuade your district councillor to ask questions as this meeting (see below).

Monday 27 November 2017, 12 noon, online:

Deadline for members of the public to submit questions for the final S&R Committee meeting, below. I can’t see any information on the SDC website on how to send questions: I will phone the council tomorrow and update this section. UPDATE 31/10/17: SDC’s Democratic Services team say that you can email up to three questions to democraticservices@stroud.gov.uk, by noon on Thursday 30th December. You will be asked to read them out at the meeting, and may then ask a follow-up question. If you can’t attend the meeting in person, you can nominate someone to read them on your behalf. They advise waiting to submit your questions until the agenda is available, which seems sensible.

Tuesday 5 December 2017, 7pm, Council Chamber, Ebley Mill (map):

The final meeting where the S&R Committee will vote on the decision. Members of the public may attend this meeting (though not speak, except for questions as above). The agenda is not yet online, but will be published here.

What you can do:

First and foremost, write to your district councillor. Ask them to raise the questions above, and others as you see fit, at the meeting on Thursday 23 November, on your behalf.

To recap, the key questions:

  • Is the forecourt included in the sale of the Sub Rooms, and if so, are there legal covenants to protect its public access, in perpetuity?
  • Are there legal covenants to ensure the building is available to the public, in perpetuity?
  • When can the public see the T&F Group’s recommendation, and these covenants, and how can they have a say on the final decision?
  • Why is the decision being made by the S&R Committee only, not the full council?

You may also want to raise these questions directly with the members of the T&F Group. The members: Doina Cornell (Chair), Martin Baxendale, George Butcher, Gordon Craig, Jonathan Edmunds, Keith Pearson, Nigel Studdert-Kennedy, and Chas Townley. Find their email addresses here.

You can also write a letter to the Stroud News & Journal, to let others know. And please share this post.

Stroudies, time is running out: please help protect the Sub Rooms for Stroud.

The Sub Rooms at twilight: kids having an evening kickabout on the forecourt. Photo by me.