There are key lessons to learn from the KPMG review into the closure and lease of Burchatts Farm Barn. At the Governance and Audit committee on the 25th Match Councillors from different parties made some important points. Their words should be heeded.
Between 2015 and 2019 the Council pursued a vigorous policy of trying to dispose of assets that it considered to be a financial drain. These included Guildford Museum, West Lodge (Chilworth Gunpowder Mills), 13th Century Wanborough Barn, the Chantries Campsite as well as Burchatts Farm Barn. The policy would have decimated the town’s heritage service but thankfully it was successfully resisted. Burchatts Farm Barn turned into a long saga. Questions were asked about the policy and the analysis used. KPMG were commissioned to draw some conclusions and following are top of my list.
We need to identify buildings that are of value to the town
Councillor John Redpath called for a review of the way assets are categorised. The disposal of Burchatts Farm Barn was justified by the Council on the grounds it was categorised as a core operational asset. Categories, however, are not reality. The Guildhall and Guildford Castle are treasured town icons but are also core operational assets. Guildford House, Guildford Museum and 13th Century Wanborough Barn are integral parts of our heritage and tourism service. They are also core operational and in the last couple of decades all were considered for disposal. There is no consistency in the council’s approach or official definition of a building that is of value to the town. We must identify assets of value to the town and put them one step away from closure or disposal.
Financial analysis needs to accurate, open and unbiased
Councillor Maddy Redpath pointed out that costs quoted for the running of Burchatts Farm were all over the place. The Council convinced itself that Burchatts Farm Barn was losing the town money but KPMG identified flaws in the analysis. Figures quoted by the Council for the cost of running the barn ranged from £18,000 a year to £70,000 a year depending on the argument being presented. Clearly bad decisions can be made if the financial analysis is poor. And it was not just Burchatts Farm Barn. Figures for West Lodge, Guildford Museum and Wanborough Barn were equally loose. Current figures for the heritage service and Guildhall are distorted by shared costs or salaries for staff who work somewhere else. The Council needs to properly understand the costs and value of buildings so that sensible decisions can be made.
The Council needs to run our heritage properly
Councillor Redpath with experience of running the Spike Community and Heritage Centre has always maintained that Burchatts Farm Barn could have been run efficiently and covered its costs. At the Governance and Standards Committee Councillors George Potter and Ramsey Nagaty both highlighted council halls and properties that were very hard to book unless you knew where to go on the Council website. There have been articles about making better use of the Guildhall . Guildford Museum, after years of effort has hardly changed and draws very few visitors. The town needs a strategy that ensures our heritage assets are run in the most efficient and effective way possible.
So in conclusion the KPMG Burchatts Farm Report really matters and we must recognise the improvements that can be made. The current council is taking a far more enlightened approach and is working with the heritage community. It is identifying ways in which heritage can be used to support our struggling town centre post Covid 19. My hope is that we will see a new approach from all councils in the future