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Is £5.6m on hall a sensible spend?

By The Cornishman  |  Posted: February 07, 2013

Comments (4)

MILLIONS of pounds of taxpayers' money will need to be pumped into a listed Penzance building to ensure its survival.

A feasibility study has been looking at using St John's Hall to house Cornwall Council staff and services currently based at St Clare.

Although details of the study have until now been unknown, a Freedom of Information request by The Cornishman has highlighted some of the proposals for the site.

If approved for redevelopment by Cornwall Council it could become home to St Clare staff, a full one stop shop service and a registrars' service.

It will also house an updated main public hall alongside Alverne Hall, two committee rooms and a number of smaller meeting spaces.

But with a £5.6 million price tag, questions are being raised about whether this would be money well spent at a time when County Hall faces drastic spending cuts.

Keith Shilson, spokesman for campaign group Penwith Anti-Cuts Alliance, said: "I think most people would be shocked that Cornwall Council thinks it is acceptable to spend that amount of money at a time when ordinary people are being asked to tighten their belts and seeing cuts to all manner of services."

Plans from the feasibility study, also released on request from The Cornishman, show that the building could be converted to include a ground-level entrance as well as lifts to each of the floors.

Visitors to the grade two listed building would be welcomed in at an 'entrance terrace' with council office space in the east wing and extra meeting rooms in the west, which is currently home to the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall. The society's base at the Alverton Road building has been boarded up for years and many of the group's collections moved elsewhere.

The Cornishman has also been told that cash troubles have left the concrete plasterwork, woodwork and flooring all in need of attention.

"St John's Hall is an historic building that should be preserved," said Neil Plummer, president of the society.

Under the plans, the organisation would still have a presence in the building with a store room and display area.

Mr Plummer, who is also a Cornwall councillor, said he believed any investment in the town should be celebrated.

Fellow Cornwall councillor Mario Fonk raised concerns about the development bill but said he hoped money from the sale of St Clare would be kept and used in Penzance.

"This building belongs to the people of Penzance and we want to make sure that the future is safe and this is one way of doing that but maybe not at such a cost."

Cornwall Council's property services department said it was working with potential partners to find funding.

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  • mygodlesslife  |  February 08 2013, 9:30AM

    I certainly agree with you gibbo1949, that those demographics you mention should be the utmost priority, but this not negate the other responsibilities the council has to bear. St Jon's Hall is a grade II listed building, and the council has a responsibility to maintain it to a minimum level where it does not begin falling down. That time has come, and whatever they end up doing with it, it will surely be a loss to one group or another. Local authorities, the nation over, are spending silly amounts on puff projects. Look no further than the money 'invested' in bus shelters that inform you how late your bus is going to be. This service cost Cornish tax-payers £5.5 million, with little or no regard to how much it would cost in the long run. The money is there, it is just badly managed. How often do you read on this website of one warm and fuzzy project funded by the council, interspersed with cuts in necessary services and increased costs to tax-payers? I am confident that - judiciously managed - the St Clare site could prove to be a veritable cash cow for the council, whilst confronting many of the issues you yourself raise. Yet I don't hear a peep from anyone even putting any robust or coherent plans for it. To me, this is a desertion of duty by the council. They are sitting on two prime sites (one protected in law) both of which they are utterly incapable of even a cursory glance at a possibly profitable and sustainable long-term future. Over the years, I have noted that governments that resort to cuts as an economic panacea tend to fail in their objectives. Yes, we'll have a more stream-lined civil service, but it will have no money for investment. It is a downward spiral of poverty from top to bottom, with no hint at how things are going to improve because of them (the cuts). Penzance needs reinvigorating. Very few people will disagree with me there, but how if this is to be palmed off onto the private market - as it has been before - we should not be surprised when we are confronted by wholly unwelcome additions to our towns. All of this lies squarely with our local authorities, and their blinkered determination to slash and burn at any cost will leave us with the smouldering and charred remains of what we presently call our community. We need - and I can't stress this enough - some visionaries on our councils, to not only stop the rot, but to find methods by which our community actually prospers through their investment. Those we have now are too weighted down by electioneering and politicking to bother. I suggest a clean sweep.

  • gibbo1949  |  February 08 2013, 7:25AM

    I fully understand the feelings my godlesslife has. But we need to put the wellbeing of the people of Cornwall before anything else. Many of us have paid into this country with tax's of all sorts over the years and seen many a project started and much money wasted . In the time of plenty or the good times then projects like this one are fine. They keep telling us there is no money in the kitty we must tighten our belt and cut back on this and that. In my book that means we look after the old, sick, unemployed and the less well off first. Get Cornwall back as a caring county looking after the above. Then when there is SPARE money then do the projects like this one.More employment, real jobs is the key to the future of Cornwall.

  • mygodlesslife  |  February 07 2013, 5:22PM

    I appreciate that the price tag concerns people - I am one of the 25,000+ people gibbo1949 speaks of that may have to magic money from somewhere to pay 25% Council Tax benefit - but we should think if the consequences of not moving to St Johns also. St John's is, without doubt, one of Penzance's most iconic buildings, and decades of neglect have brought us to this situation where $5.6 million needs to be spent to make it viable for Cornwall Council to take residence there (something I like the idea of, at least in principle). If we turn down this opportunity to at least entertain the idea, we are admitting that nothing can be done to save St John's. The only other possible way I can see any money being spent on the building is if it is sold to the private market. Some may well think this a good thing, but I am confident that when push comes to shove, those that hurrah private ownership are faced with it being turned into a 'super-Wetherspoons, a casino or an old folks home, those same people will be the first to throw their voices into the fray, demanding that councillors have been derelict in their duty. It smacks of NIMBYism, if you ask me. I don't know how much could be salvaged from selling St Clare to help fund such a move, but it is certainly a prime location for a thoughtfully planned and economically sympathetic housing development, and with the economic climate as it stands today, a capital investment on would undoubtedly return more money than the selling off of an eyesore on a prime brownfield location. Like most of the inhabitants of Penzance, I would firmly oppose further retail development outside of the town centre proper or more residential homes for a specific age group. It is our town, and any move by either Penzance Town or Cornwall Councils must reflect the wishes of those that that elect them. There has been little evidence to suggest this has happened in the past, and by electing the same come the local elections in May, we are committing ourselves to further abuse of our trust. Yes, the costs involved here may appear unrealistic to many, but if the will is there, anything is possible. We just have to fight for it. Make sure come May you elect someone that is committed to rejuvenating Penzance and will be vocal about the further procrastination that will undoubtedly still be present because voters like a certain colour. If we do nothing now - as our local authorities so often do - what is the future to hold? Let's be resolute in how our town is presented. Vote for what you want for Penzance, not who represents a national organisation that has no interest in local affairs.

  • gibbo1949  |  February 07 2013, 7:35AM

    Roll on MAY when we can vote this council OUT. They are making the less well off pay 25% tax is this to fund things like this. It is fine to spend money on buildings if you have the spare cash and you have nothing more important.

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