THATCHAM’S Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have again clashed in a dispute over selling the Priory at a time of making drastic cuts to public services.
The Liberal Democrats planned to use the Priory as a focal point for community groups and bring the town council closer to the community. The plan was to use any rent from leasing the Priory to pay off the 25-year loan on the building.
However, the Conservatives argued that the project was a colossal waste of taxpayers’ money and voted recently to sell the building.
All this is being played out against a backdrop of sweeping cuts, to the tune of £17.5m, being made to public services by West Berkshire Council. As part of the proposals, Thatcham Library is facing closure.
Speaking at a meeting to decide on whether the town council should take on services facing the axe, Mike Cole (Lib Dem, Thatcham North) said: “I’m looking at the library going and thinking: ‘We had something that could provide that and it’s called the Priory’, which we are now selling, which seems a bit odd if we are in a period of transition.”
Dismayed by what he heard, town and district councillor Dominic Boeck (Con, Thatcham South and Crookham) said that contrasting the “difficult situation” of council cuts with borrowing public money for the Priory was ridiculous.
West Berkshire Council, which has been criticised by campaigners for not providing a breakdown of costs for running Thatcham Library, has also failed to release information regarding the number of people using the library service.
It has only said that it would save £730,000 by closing eight of the district’s nine libraries.
Town council leader Richard Crumly (Con, Thatcham Central) said he would be in favour of supporting the library. He suggested opening negotiations of “easing the pain of having a library to not having one” with West Berkshire Council, either by taking on the service or contributing towards the cost.
Liberal Democrat town and district councillor Lee Dillon (Thatcham North) suggested using council reserves to fund services. The town council currently has £507,205 in its reserves, but identified outgoings leaves a predicted £426,766. However, the council does not know what the extra costs for the Priory would be and is predicting a worst-case scenario of £327,889.
When asked by the Newbury Weekly News whether the Priory saga had weakened the town council’s ability to take on services, Roger Croft (Con, Thatcham South and Crookham) said: “The whole Priory project was a huge vanity project and financial mess which has impacted the town council’s ability to take on other services.
“If we operated it for another 25 years we would be paying for council offices rather than residents’ services.”
Unsurprisingly, Mr Dillon disagreed, saying that the Priory would have helped to provide services being cut by West Berkshire Council.
“The town council should be about helping to enhance the community and providing community spirit.
“What West Berkshire Council is doing is cutting statutory services like libraries and bus services when they have already pushed enough services on to parish councils, like the toilets, which we were able to provide while having the Priory.”