Lambeth council’s preferred “community partner” to take over Herne Hill’s Carnegie library has accused the council of “political expediency” in a bid to get the building open again before local elections in May next year.
And in an open letter to council cabinet member Sonia Winifred, who is responsible for equalities and culture, the Carnegie Community Trust (CCT) says that it is finding it “very difficult” to get through to the council “the need to work in partnership with us and the community”.
It says that “Instead of co-operative working we are continually being presented with fait accompli”.
And it says a “side deal” between the council and GLL means that a charity could not run the building without contravening charity law.
The CCT, which had opposed the plans of the council and its leisure provider GLL for a gym in the basement, warns in its letter: “A gym would sit nicely within a development of luxury flats”.
The Defend the Ten Campaign, which supported a rival community organisation to take over the library, described the council’s plans as “insane” and said: “We thought Carnegie library situation could not get more crazy, but … this is what the council’s intimate friends are saying – and in public”.
The letter from CCT trustee Phil Isaac says that, despite thousands of hours of volunteer time and about £100,000 of council grant funding: ”We are sorry to report that we are still not on the same page as the council”.
In CCT’s plans, the excavation of the basement was seen as an unwelcome necessity that would provide a sustainable income stream, “although our preferred use for it would not have been a gym” because, CCT said, its consultation results showed local opposition to this use.
But, given the council’s commitment to a gym run by GLL, CCT felt that this could be an acceptable compromise ensuring an income stream that could sustain the community building as a whole.
But the letter raises three key issues:
1. It says that, because of a “side deal”, GLL and the council are insisting that no rent be paid for the basement until 2022, after which a rent “well below the market value” is offered. The letter say CCT has been advised that such an arrangement would contravene charity law; be likely to make capital funding for the restoration of the building impossible to secure; and leave a significant shortfall in the anticipated revenue stream.
2. A cheap “off the shelf” scheme for a proposed ancillary building and curtailment of space in the garden is “entirely out of character with a listed building”. This would “deter funders and restrict the use of the outside garden spaces” by the community and residents of the flats already contained in the building.
3. The letter says the council is determined to begin work as soon as possible, spending £1.2m of public funds that, CCT says, “could leverage in considerable match-funding”. This “undue haste”, CCT says, “is jeopardising future funding for the Carnegie in both revenue and capital terms”. CCT says that if its plans for a £5 million investment in the building are not implemented, the building “would continue to be gradually degraded by neglect and inappropriate alterations and inevitably end up in the private sector. A gym would sit nicely within a development of luxury flats”.
CCT says many decisions have already been taken by the council “that jeopardise not just our but any community bid”.
It asks that the process be slowed to allow time for proper consideration and consultation on plans for the future of the building.
CCT says Lambeth councillors “seem fixated on getting the library open before next May’s elections”. Although this approach might be politically expedient, “it is ultimately endangering the future of the building and any community project”.
Urging Cllr Winifred to intervene, CCT says: “There is nothing that cannot be solved with sensible dialogue. Although the re-opening of the library may be put back a bit, it is better that there is a plan that is acceptable to everyone and that the community has had an opportunity to contribute to it.
“We only have one shot at this. Let’s get it right.”