Councillors Question Legality of Historic Building Disposal

SG
3 Nov 2023
A crowd of people standing in front of the council offices in

Rothwell’s Liberal Democrat Councillors accuse Leeds City Council of potential maladministration through the ‘indecent haste’ in auctioning off the town’s most iconic building.

 

Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group on Leeds City Council, Cllr Stewart Golton has written to the Chief Executive of Leeds City Council asking for a halt to the auction of the historic Rothwell Council Offices to allow for the decision to be reassessed legally.

 

“There are serious questions for Leeds City Council to answer about the route they have taken to get this building on the market. This is a valued historic local asset that the community have been trying to get handed over ever since Leeds City Council mothballed the building seven years ago. The community deserved to be consulted and warned the Council was planning to sell our heritage off. Instead, we effectively got a ‘no fault eviction’ notice to clear the building of any historic items of local interest within days before the building was handed over to the auction house.”

 

The same week the Council decided to sell Rothwell Council Offices, the ruling Labour Administration published an Executive Board report highlighting other buildings that the Council was considering disposing of. LibDem councillors have questioned why Rothwell Council Offices did not feature in that report.

 

Cllr Diane Chapman said “It made no sense to specifically leave out our building from the official paper, especially since they knew how important it is to the local community. The only conclusion we can come to is that they deliberately did so to undermine the ability of the community to acquire the building.”

 

Because the building’s sale was not included in the Executive Board report, there was no right to ‘call in’ the decision to delay the sale and challenge the grounds for disposal. The short notice for the handover to the Auction House and the setting of the Auction date for December 6th also meant the Friends Of Rothwell Civic Enterprise (FORCE) group didn’t have time to apply for funding to allow them to buy the building at a reasonable price.

 

Leeds City Council have justified their ability to sell the building without notice based on the fact that it appeared on a list of buildings the Council was considering closing in Executive Board reports in 2016 and 2020, so the ‘decision’ had already taken place then. However, Cllr Golton’s letter points out that the ‘list’ in the 2016 report wasn’t even available for public view or comment, and the 2020 report made no reference to the building other than its inclusion in a list considered for disposal.

 

Cllr Conrad Hart-Brooke added “The Council has been in discussions with FORCE to achieve a community asset transfer for seven years, and throughout that time the Council assured us that the building’s consistent appearance on the asset disposal list did not mean the Council wasn’t taking the asset transfer seriously. The Council’s indecent haste at this late stage to dismiss seven years of discussions with local stakeholders without explanation is against all the ethics the Council says it stands for, and they should be ashamed.”

 

Council officers have justified the need for speed of sale as they don’t want to ‘flood the market’ all at once. Rothwell councillors are sceptical of this response:

 

Cllr Diane Chapman added “The Rothwell Council Offices are unique. They have huge cultural value for the people of Rothwell, and the buildings rebirth as a community enterprise and cultural centre was to be the beating heart of the future vitality of Rothwell Town Centre. In contrast, the Council have valued it at £340,000 – little more than the national average house price. It is nothing like the modern city centre office blocks the Council hope to sell for £millions, and attracts a completely different market. The only way they could ‘flood the market’ is if they sell off more ex-town halls, and if they get away with selling this one, the ones in Morley and Pudsey are more at risk.”

 

Cllr Golton’s letter asks for specific information to understand what decision making took place behind the scenes to allow the building to be released for sale.

 

He concluded “There’s a huge difference between doing the right thing, and doing what you can get away with, doing the responsible thing, or doing the legal minimum. The Council is a politically accountable organisation that needs to demonstrate how the decisions it takes respond to the needs of the city now. Most of the Executive Board members in 2016 are no longer there, and a lot of those sat round the table now weren’t even elected then. To justify the disposal of such a significant building by referring to a decision taken then is non-sensical. For a regime that celebrates being a ‘Compassionate City’ and basing it’s decisions on Asset Based Community Development, to blindside the community the way it has done in this instance is shocking. My questions are intended to shed some light on how the Council has allowed itself to get into this position, and hopefully for them to recognise their failure of duty, and reverse the decision.”

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