Worden Hall is set to be converted into a council-run community and events venue after residents gave their verdict on the future of the historical Leyland landmark.
But councillors in South Ribble clashed over whether a previous plan to lease the Grade II-listed site to the masons would have offered the same opportunity at less cost to the borough authority.
READ MORE >>> These were the options put to the public for the future of Worden Hall
More than 500 people responded to a public consultation which set out three options for reopening the facility, which has lain largely disused since 2012.
A tick-box survey found that almost two thirds favoured opening the Grade II-listed building to the public once again and retaining it exclusively for community use. The option of creating a high-end wedding venue, which would have seen the site permanently closed to the public, was “unequivocally” rejected.
But a meeting of South Ribble Borough Council’s cabinet heard that written feedback was more “nuanced” about the possibility of smaller-scale events being hosted in the hall.
“[The public] said they wanted there to be space for birthday parties and small weddings – and it is evident that they are delighted by what we are doing to bring the hall back into use,” Coun Matthew Tomlinson, cabinet member for finance, said.
But he added that respondents to the survey had also stressed that there should be no ongoing cost to the council for the day-to-day running of the venue.
Upfront investment of between £1.3m and £2.1m is estimated to be required to bring the building up to the standard required for the uses now being proposed – only essential maintenance has been carried out since it shut its doors.
Consultants who devised the options suggested that community use would notionally run at an annual loss of £15,000, while small events would need a £40,000 yearly subsidy. A hybrid of the two proposals is now being drawn up by council officers, with a final decision due in the new year.
However, members of the previous Conservative administration questioned why negotiations which council officers had begun with the masons before the local elections in May had been abandoned by the Labour group when they took control of the authority.
“[The current proposal] is exactly what Leyland Masons were offering,” Coun Alan Ogilvie said.
“The really disappointing thing is that it could take two years to get this work done. The masons could have been in there and getting on with it as of now,” he said, adding that a council-run option would come at a cost.
Negotiations with a then unidentified preferred bidder began in March after six expressions of interest were received to an invitation for a third party to take on Worden Hall on a 25-year lease. At that time, the consultants had yet to deliver their report on a list of options for the eighteenth century site.
The Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) revealed the masons as that bidder following the change of administration in May – along with the fact that the organisation had pledged to invest in £250,000 in refurbishing the building which would be used for its own purposes and hired out for events and local groups.
The LDRS now understands that the group’s application also included the suggestion of a revenue-sharing arrangement with the council for non-masonic activities and details of how the Leyland Freemasons’ commercial arm had 30 years’ experience of running events – turning an annual profit of over £500,000.
Conservative councillor Caroline Moon told the cabinet meeting that she supported the ambition of the authority’s new in-house plans – but called for the Labour group to be “realistic” and keep an open mind about the mason’s bid.
“There’s a reason why it has been empty for seven years – it’s been quite exhaustive to try and get people interested.
“The public were clear that they don’t want any [ongoing] cost to this council – and that seems a tall order,” Coun Moon added.
But Liberal Democrat group leader David Howarth accused the Conservatives of having “an obsession” with the masons.
“The previous administration commissioned a report and then just poured that money down the drain by handing this over to an external body, before we even had the results. Why did you commission a report and then be doing a deal in the meantime before you even knew what the contents of the report were?” Coun Howarth asked.
Council leader Paul Foster said it was “like comparing apples with pears” to draw a comparison between the masons’ proposal and what was currently on the table.
“The masons’ offer was a very small investment and did not consider the full estate. I have no personal gripes with the masons, they do some great work in our communities.
“We’ve been given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put this hall into proper use,” Coun Foster said.
His Conservative predecessor as leader, Margaret Smith, denied her group were fixated on the masons.
“When the advert was put out for disposal [of Worden Hall], they showed an interest – it could have been anybody,” she said.
WHAT THE MASONS MAKE OF IT
Mike Pinkard, group vice-chairman of the Leyland and District Freemasons, said that the organisation was “hugely disappointed by the abrupt ending of negotiations which resulted from the change in political leadership last May”.
“Our organisation sustained a considerable financial loss due to the costs incurred in survey and consultancy fees and having plans prepared to illustrate – at the council’s request – our vision for the development of Worden Hall.
“We would however, be happy to resume talks with the council if the opportunity arises.
“Having sold Wellington Park in May, the Leyland Freemasons, although having resources set aside for securing premises, currently remain without a permanent base in South Ribble from which to continue their fundraising and charitable-giving which so hugely benefits the surrounding community.’
FORMER CABINET MEMBER CLARIFIES HIS ROLE IN MASONS’ BID FOR WORDEN HALL
A Conservative former cabinet member – who is also a member of a masonic lodge in Chorley – told a meeting of the current South Ribble Council cabinet that he was unaware that the Leyland Freemasons were the unidentified preferred bidder with which the previous administration decided to negotiate over the future of Worden Hall.
Coun Colin Clark was the member for corporate support and assets when he presented a report which recommended an organisation, known only as “Bidder A”, as the more favourable of two shortlisted options from a total of six expressions of interest.
He asked to make a statement to the meeting, during which he stressed that he had always “openly declared” on the register of interests his membership of the masonic lodge based at Chorley Masonic Hall.
“Shortly after I became [the cabinet member] in November 2018, I was approached by a representative of Leyland Masonic Properties. He informed me that they were looking at a number of possible locations in the Leyland area for use as a meeting venue, because they wanted to stay in the Leyland area – and these included Worden Hall.
“I agreed to arrange an introductory meeting with officers and took no part in negotiations after that point. I was subsequently informed by officers that six initial expressions of interest had been received by the council for the use of Worden Hall and I was informed that one of these was from Leyland Masonic Properties.
“The list of six initial expressions of interest subsequently became two bidders. I did not know that Leyland Masonic Properties was ‘Bidder A’ when I presented the report to cabinet in March.
“However, I now recognise that – while I had no direct relationship with Leyland Masonic Properties – from a public perception point of view, some people may think that I had an interest in decisions being made at the time.
“In hindsight, given my earlier involvement in the matter, I now accept that it would have been sensible for me to have taken advice from the council’s monitoring officer at the time, which, regretfully, I did not do.
“During my 22 years as a member of this council, I have always endeavoured to act in the best interests of the council and its residents and I will continue to do so,” Cllr Clark concluded.