THE future of Thatcham’s divisive Priory looks set to have been resolved as Thatcham Town Council could lease the Grade II-listed building to mental health charity Response.
The Oxfordshire-based charity provides housing and support to people with mental health problems, with the aim of making them more independent and working in the community.
Town councillors voted to negotiate with Response at a meeting on Tuesday, which would see the charity pay more than £34,000 in rent to the council.
The lease agreement looks to calm the bitter feud between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats over the future of the building.
The Conservatives view the Lib Dem plan to purchase, renovate and use the building as a community hub in the town centre as a waste of taxpayers’ money.
The Tories voted to sell the building for £850,000 to reduce the “colossal debt to residents” in December last year.
But the sale fell through at the 11th hour and the Conservatives have since been advised that they would be unlikely to achieve a £1m sale price.
It was no surprise then that town Conservatives expressed their delight over the 30-year lease to Response at Tuesday’s meeting.
Town council leader Jason Collis (Con, Thatcham North) said the offer “meets the requirements of minimising the financial cost and assisting the community by helping people in vulnerable situations”.
He added that Response had a wonderful track record and that the charity would be recruiting 15 to 20 local people.
The considerable costs of finishing the refurbishments to the Priory will be met by the charity.
The leader of West Berkshire Council, Roger Croft (Con, Thatcham South and Crookham) expressed his delight at welcoming the charity to the town and West Berkshire, adding that the town council had held on to the Priory for far too long.
The jibe was aimed at the Lib Dems, who purchased the building from West Berkshire Council for £400,000 in 2009.
However, work did not begin until last year and more than £800,000 has been spent on renovations.
Referring to the Lib Dems’ intentions for the Priory, Mike Cole (Lib Dem, Thatcham North) said that Response’s offer was his second best option.
He added that the Conservatives’ “desire to rush to sell at all costs”, at a loss of around £600,000, was “never actually going to provide the best outcome for residents”.
However, Mr Cole said that the “pretty good second option” would create jobs and bring additional income to the town centre, while the town council retained the freehold of the Priory.
Lee Dillon (Lib Dem, Thatcham North) added that his preferred option would be one that “residents were consulted on”.
He added that the rental from Response was similar to the calculated income from the Lib Dem scheme.
Concluding the meeting, town mayor Ellen Crumly said: “I think it’s an excellent option.
“I hope we can put this all behind us and I believe we have a solution that all of us mostly support.”
Response’s use of the Priory will be subject to planning permission.
The lease also means that the town council will not now have to pay West Berkshire Council a £100,000 clawback clause.