Council Delays Cost Community A New Hall

Residents report Merton to Local Government Ombudsman over Memorial Hall sale

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Wimbledon Park residents have reported Merton Council to the Local Government Ombudsman after a long-running saga over the sale of the area's Memorial Hall and the lack of a replacement community facility.

Wimbledon Park Memorial Hall, which was built in 1926 and bought by then Borough of Wimbledon Council in 1949, was closed by the council in 2003 and put up for sale. The site was not sold to developers until 2008 and the hall was demolished soon afterwards.

But the area is now a pile of rubble and Wimbledon Park Residents Association (WPRA) claim the sale proceeds of around £1.1million should have been 'ring-fenced' to allow funds to be made available for a replacement community facility.

WPRA has submitted a 50-page document detailing its complaint against the London Borough of Merton, including that it failed to proceed with due diligence and care over the sale of the hall to an approved developer and grant the required planning permission for a mixed development, including a community facility.

The WPRA report states that the minutes of a meeting arranged and chaired by the then council leader Andrew Judge (now Labour's general election candidate for Wimbledon), in 2003, recommended: "We should try to achieve a solution that made a positive contribution to the street scene, provided a new community facility that met local needs and made a contribution to the wider unmet need for community/public hall facilities in the area."

In 2004, tenders were invited for redevelopment of the site and, according to the WPRA document, a council meeting that year accepted officers' recommendations that the capital value of the site should be used to provide new community facilities within a redevelopment scheme.

The preferred tenderer was picked later that year, but negotiations broke down in 2005. The report states that site was eventually sold to another tenderer, Ibex Investments Limited, in 2008 for nearly £1.1 million. A few months later the hall was demolished.

Iain Simpson, chairman of the WPRA, said the country then went into recession and funding was no longer available for the redevelopment.

He said: "It was taken so long to reach the various points that the main opportunity line was missed and then we came into the recession. There are now heavily increased costs and the banks are not loaning."

He added that the council were "ignoring its undertakings". Representatives from WPRA met the council last year to try to make progress, but later the council told WPRA that the capital from the sale had been used for the council's debt repayment programme.

The WPRA complaint concludes: "The residents of Wimbledon Park are therefore left in the position where they have no community facility whatsoever and, subject to the outcome of this complaint, no possibility of one being available for the foreseeable future.

"This situation could have been avoided had the LBM stood by their original undertaking to use the proceeds of the sale of the Hall to secure a replacement and to have efficiently and effectively handled the whole matter over the last seven years."

Merton Council director of environment and regeneration Chris Lee said: “The council went to considerable lengths to ensure the contract for the redevelopment of this site met both the needs of the Wimbledon Park Residents’ Association and the council. Adamant that the developer should provide a community hall, we even accepted a lower price for the site in 2004.

"We stipulated that a community facility should be built to a standard and size to suit local needs and that the new development would be completed by 2012. Unfortunately the collapse of the financial and property markets delayed the construction process but we continue to work with the developer to deliver a sustainable community facility and hope the Wimbledon Park Residents’ Association will be supportive of this.

"In the meantime I am pleased that they are using the beautiful new Wimbledon Park club house built by the council and opened by the Duke of Gloucester just last month, and hope that other groups will enjoy this facility too.”

Shaukat Hussein, director of development company Ibex, said it took two years before the original plan to build 14 flats with a community facility underneath was given planning permission by the council, and this followed lengthy contract negotiation.

He said: "We've not been able to move because the project is now not viable as the margin of profit is very tight. The profit from the upstairs flats was to finance the whole building, but by the time they gave us planning permission the recession had come.

"It’s sad as I thought I was doing a good thing for the community that would uplift the area. We can't leave it like that - it's frustrating to see a pile of rubble. There is a lethargy in the council and we are in this position because of inefficiency".

He is now seeking permission to build 17 or 18 flats and reduce the construction costs on the community development. But he may face £6,000 in architects' fees after already paying around £300,000 to get his proposal through the original tendering and planning permission process.

The Local Government Ombudsman is expected to come back with her findings before the end of May.

April 26, 2010