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Legal and financial problems looming over Thatcham's Priory

Contractual conflicts over project

Legal and financial problems looming over Thatcham's Priory

THE political wrangling over the future of the Priory may have died down but a financial and legal wrangle looms on the horizon.

Having bought the Priory from West Berkshire Council in 2009 for £400,000, the then-Liberal Democrat group on the town council wanted to use the building for a community centre.

However, its plan was dashed when the Conservatives took control of the town council and voted to sell the building last year, describing it as a financial burden on taxpayers in the town.

A buyer has now been found for the Priory, a former pupil referral unit, who wants to convert it into a house.

However, the impending sale for a ‘non-community use’ has triggered a clawback clause, which means that the town council will have to pay more than £100,000 to the district council.

Town councillors asked whether the fee could be waived, but West Berkshire Council said it was inappropriate given the financial challenges it is facing. Instead, it has offered to spread the cost over five years, with an interest rate of 4.5 per cent.

Repaying at a rate of £21,430 a year plus interest, the total amount the town would be obliged to pay is £116,000.

Speaking at a recent meeting, the chairman of the Priory committee, Roger Croft (Con, Thatcham South and Crook-ham), said he believed that the district council would be flexible with the repayment.

He suggested that the town council could pay back the loan in its own time and that it inform the district council of its intentions.

However, the town council will not know the eventual state of its finances, which will affect how it repays the clawback clause, loans and legal fees, until its year-end audit.

Mr Croft suggested deferring the decision over paying the clawback cash and asking West Berkshire Council for flexibility in repaying the sum.

The town council is also in a legal wrangle with contractors over spiralling costs. It had budgeted £747,000 to renovate the building, but this quickly soared to £830,000.

Councillors were then rocked to find that the bill had shot up by another £50,000, despite the Conservatives stopping all work on the project and agreeing to cease payment while querying the rising costs.

Now the town council is disputing the terms of the contract, with the architect’s solicitors saying that it will take action over non-payment.

Discussing the town council’s options, Dominic Boeck (Con, Thatcham South and Crookham) said: “Our choice is to pay or go to court.”

“And incur more expenses, unless we are on firm ground,” added Sheila Ellison (Con, Thatcham North).

An application to convert the Priory from office to residential use has been submitted by Thatcham residents Mr and Mrs Little. Thatcham Town Council, which owns the building, raised no objections to the plans at a recent planning meeting.

None of the town council’s three Liberal Democrats were present at the meeting.

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