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Parish council to close 'money trap' office to cut spending

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Lyndhurst Parish Council's office in the High Street
Lyndhurst Parish Council's office in the High Street

Lyndhurst Parish Council is to close its "money trap" office in the village high street to save cash.

The facility at 13 High Street, is open to members of the public for two days a week and is manned by parish clerk, Margaret Weston. It is also used to store important files.

The rent is £9,900 a year and the council also has to pay £6,000 in business rates plus the utility bills. The council would also have apply for planning permission to continue to use it as an office as it is designated as a retail unit.

At the parish’s March meeting, council vice-chair, Cllr Rev. Caroline Wilkins, said she had been asked to read a statement from chairman Cllr Mark Rollé, who had been unable attend due to work commitments.

In it he said: “I agree that we should be constantly looking to save money or effectively use what we have got.

"[Parish clerk] Margaret [Weston] and I have looked at the viability of several other premises including the community centre in the last two years, but nothing has been viable and even if it was, would need to be part of a longer term plan.”

Cllr Rollé explained that he had discovered the council had been paying too much in business rates as the building was still classed as retail space, which was set at a higher value than an office.

The chapel at the village cemetery near Boltons Bench was also subject to business rates of around £2,500, which he claimed it should be exempt from.

He said: “If this is challenged we should be able to get a rebate for the last two years [for the office and chapel]. We could get back at least £8,000 which in itself would massively off-set the costs of the office.”

“We will be shortly coming into the third year of a four-year lease, which had a break clause at two years. If we had wanted to break the agreement we needed to have done so last year.

"Instead, we opted to continue with the office and made provision for it in the precept for the coming year. That decision was virtually unanimous.

“What I am suggesting is that time be spent on matters that we can affect and that will make a financial difference. Simply closing the office will not save any money at all at this time.”

Cllr Pat Wyeth told the meeting she had been in talks with the village community centre, which had offered three possible alternative options.

The first would be for the council to rent an office space in the centre, which would cost £4,000 per year for two days a week from 9am to 1pm.

However, this would involve “hot desking” and there would be no facility to leave anything at the office in between these sessions.

The second option would be to create a secure office space in the north west corner of the centre’s library with a separate door and access to the car park. This had an estimated cost of around £5,000-£6,000. However, this would be unlikely to be ready until January 2020.

Cllr Wyeth explained that the third option was to have a purpose-built parish office as part of a “significant upgrade” to the centre.

However, this would cost around £50,000-£60,000 and would be likely to take several years to gain the funding.

Cllr George Bisson said he felt that a decision needed to be made on the existing office before the new offers could be considered.

He added: “I think we were all slightly misled over the finances of the office, although I don't think it was done deliberately. We had an amount in the precept but it's become evident it's not enough to pay the rent and the ancillaries.”

Cllr Adrian Wiltshire said that he felt whatever the decision was, the council should try to get some of the money back from the business rates.

He added: “It's nice to have [an office], but if you can't afford it, you have to cut your cloth.”

Cllr Chris Willsher said: “We went in to it thinking we were doing the right thing, but it is a money trap. We can probably get the rates lowered, but that should have been done two years ago.”

He also claimed the council had until 17th May before the break point in the clause expired, but that it also had to give three months’ notice and the council would only be giving two.

A proposal to serve notice on the landlord to withdraw from the contract at the earliest agreed time was approved by five votes to two with one abstention.

Members agreed unanimously to look at all other options for an alternative office.

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