Saturday, 08 May 2021

Villagers in dark over parish hall extension

RESIDENTS were “kept in the dark” on plans to extend Benson parish hall, it has been claimed.

The parish council was granted planning permission for a ground floor and roof extension in July following years of debate about the building’s future.

The redevelopment, which will cost up to £700,000, will see the parish office enlarged from 8.8 sq m to 20.87 sq m and moved to the front of the building.

A lift will be installed and the kitchen and toilet facilities will be refurbished to make them “fit for purpose”.

About 30 residents tuned into a virtual council meeting last week where the council was accused of lacking transparency and having failed to consult the community on the plans.

Jon Fowler, a former council chairman, said: “I submitted a question to the chairman of the council late last year, asking what the budget for this project was, and was told in response that there was no budget.

“There should have been an estimate, otherwise how do you know the project is financially viable? There should also be a business case supporting a project of this size.

“A key part of project management is keeping stakeholders informed. In this case, stakeholders — the residents of Benson — have not been informed and have been kept in the dark.

“The lack of accountability and transparency when spending £600,000 of public money is surprising to say the least.”

Alice Jones-Evans said: “Communication hasn’t been there. Extending the village hall should be an exciting project, it should be about celebrating community life.”

Residents were also concerned that the council has said it is unsure as to whether it can claim back the VAT on the project.

Frank Farquharson said: “I think people have the right to know, it’s a lot of money. The village should be consulted and have the chance to be on board.”

Councillor Tom Stevenson acknowledged that the council should have done more to keep the public informed.

He said: “We’ve not been taking the parish along with us. We should pause and have a meeting with the parish, explaining what we intend to do.”

Teresa McTeague, who chairs of the halls committee, said: “The parish hall extension is a very long, ongoing saga with many stops and starts going back over many different chairmen.

“Over the years the plans have been amended in response to parishioners’ comments. Our hall is absolutely fantastic, it’s one of the biggest ones in the area and used to be a venue for big parties and weddings.”

She said the work would bring the hall back to its original glory and it would be used fir big events again.

Council chairman Bill Pattison said: “I haven’t heard anyone saying they don’t want this to happen, we’re just trying to get this to go ahead and to get it done in a way that everyone is content with.”

The council will now hold an extraordinary meeting later this month ahead of appointing a contractor to start the work in April.

A public consultation on the redevelopment of the parish hall was first discussed in 2013. Planning permission for an extension was granted in 2017 but, having gone out to tender, the council thought the project was too expensive so did not go ahead with it.

Meanwhile, in 2019, a community space was included in a development in Littleworth Road and so this was removed from the parish hall design, making it more affordable, and this was resubmitted for planning permission, which was also approved.

Speaking after the meeting, Cllr Pattison said that consultation was carried out in 2013. The project was further discussed at a public meeting in March 2016.

“A bit of a gap I know but I was not a councillor then.” he added.

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