Police "threat" row between councillors over plans for former Penwortham library
An extraordinary row broke out as councillors debated the future of the former Penwortham library - with one threatening to call the police about the actions of another.
It happened at a meeting of South Ribble Borough Council’s planning committee, where members considered an application to turn the landmark Liverpool Road building into an arts centre.
That conversion actually took place more than a year ago when the property was reopened as “The Venue”, but it is understood that the operator of the facility - Penwortham Town Council - only later learned that permission would be required for the change of use.
South Ribble’s planning officers recommended that the bid for retrospective approval should be granted, but the substance of the issue was soon overwhelmed by clashes between councillors over declarations of interest - and whether the library itself should be resurrected to form part of the arts centre plans.
The original library closed in 2016, one of more than 20 shut by the previous Labour administration at Lancashire County Council, which offered to transfer the facilities to community groups for any purpose they saw fit.
Penwortham Town Council took up that offer and took over the library two years later - with its plans finally coming to fruition in September 2019 when The Venue opened its doors, providing a space for clubs, talks and exhibitions.
However, South Ribble’s planning meeting descended into acrimony when Conservative committee member Barrie Yates said that a fellow member, who is also on the town council, should have declared a financial interest in the matter.
“[He should have] left the meeting, he shouldn't be speaking. He’s gone against the rules of [South Ribble] Council - but let’s say no more about it and just remove that person,” Cllr Yates suggested.
It was unclear as to which of his colleagues Cllr Yates was referring - even after clarification was sought from a council officer - given that three South Ribble planning committee members also sit on Penwortham Town Council. Cllr Yates described the individual whom he initially alighted upon only as “the councillor [who] spoke before and said he was on Penwortham Council, but didn’t declare a pecuniary interest”.
At the point of that intervention, all three town council members had already spoken - Liberal Democrat Harold Hancock, who declared a personal, non-prejudicial, interest at the outset of the meeting; Labour’s Will Adams, who acknowledged the same interest immediately before he addressed the committee when the item was being considered; and his Labour colleague James Flannery.
Legal services manager Dave Whelan told the meeting that the trio “arguably,,,have a personal interest”, but that he did not consider any of them to have pecuniary interest - and that there was nothing to stop them “from taking part and voting on the application”.
Cllr Yates said he disagreed with that advice - and added that the matter should be reported to the police after the meeting.
Later in the discussion, Cllr Flannery addressed the issue directly, telling Cllr Yates: “If you want, I'll give you my address and you can go and do it...and I don’t want to hear that kind of threat again.”
Cllr Yates declared: “It’s not a threat - I’m doing it now” - before briefly being seen to produce a mobile phone during the hybrid meeting, which saw some members present at the council’s headquarters and others, including Cllr Yates, dialling in remotely. He did not appear to go on to make a call during the meeting.
Committee chair Caleb Tomlinson said that Cllr Yates’s actions were “unbecoming” of him, while Cllr Adams branded the situation “ an embarrassment” to South Ribble Council.
“We have legal professionals in the room and they are there for that very reason [to offer advice],” Cllr Adams said.
Conservative committee member Mary Green called for a library to be incorporated into The Venue, describing its loss as a “disaster” and criticising a replacement community facility - also operated by Penwortham Town Council - which opened on Priory Lane last year.
She said it amounted to “a couple of shelves with the IT equipment shoved in a cupboard”.
However, Cllr Adams condemned the Conservative comments.
“I think it’s quite rich for a Tory councillor to tell us [about] the effect of closing libraries, It’s due to austerity over the last ten years that we have had to close certain facilities - so I’m not going to be lectured about losing local facilities in this area,” Cllr Adams added.
Cllr Flannery said that The Venue was already a “much-loved community facility”.
A condition suggested by environmental health officers will require the windows and doors of the building to remain shut, except for entry and exit, during any performances or entertainment - although the meeting heard that the town council would be free to apply for an amendment to see if would be agreeable for them to be opened on those sides of the building which did not face residential properties.
The change of use application was approved by a majority, with Cllrs Adams and Flannery amongst those voting in favour.
Cllr Hancock abstained after stating that he wanted to seek advice from the monitoring officer following the comments of Cllr Yates - who himself voted “reluctantly” to refuse the proposal.
‘OUR PLANS ARE STILL IN PLACE’
Penwortham’s new arts centre had been open barely six months before it was forced to shut by the onset of the pandemic.
However, town manager Steve Caswell says that the vision for The Venue remains undimmed - with exhibitions, art classes, live music, poetry recitals and comedy nights all amongst the planned line-up of events whenever the building can reopen.
“It fits in with everything Penwortham is aiming for - the hope is that it will be an attraction for people to come into the town, without taking trade away from existing businesses. So people can come into Penwortham, see whatever is on at The Venue and have a drink or a meal somewhere before or after,” Steve explained.
He said that the flexibility offered by the “tiny stage” at the 80-seater facility - which also has a licensed bar - allowed it to offer a wide range of activities. The newly-granted planning permission means that The Venue can open until 10pm.
Steve admitted to being irked by the comments made about the Penwortham Town Council-managed community library on Priory Lane during the South Ribble planning meeting.
“We have a number of volunteers who give up their time regularly to help run that library and for someone to dismiss it like that is a little bit disappointing.
“It’s open three days a week, with hundreds of books - lots of people use it and we do have IT equipment that is made available.”
Penwortham was one of only a handful of locations across Lancashire where the process to transfer closed libraries to the community continued after the current Conservative administration - of which Cllr Yates is a member - took control at County Hall, with an overarching policy to reopen them in their previous guises. Seventeen county-run libraries have been reopened by the authority since 2017.