Feasibility study into controversial ownership transfer of Falinge Park not completed

Date published: 24 September 2018

A feasibility study which could see Falinge Park leased to a development trust has still to be completed.

The feasibility study was originally due to be taken to the Council cabinet on 30 January, with a further report to be presented by the Council's Director of Neighbourhoods. However, almost nine months later, according to the council, the study is still being developed and has not been finalised.

The possibility of a transfer of Falinge Park was first raised behind closed doors at the cabinet meeting dated 1 February 2017, after the press and public had been excluded.

It was decided to lease the park in phases, or a series of separate leases, to Vintage Worx Community Development Trust, subject to the outcome of a detailed feasibility study.

Vintage Worx, which hopes to raise funding to refurbish and regenerate Falinge Park, describes itself as a ‘charitable not-for-profit’ organisation.

A recommendation was also made, following the secretive cabinet meeting, to appoint both Mark Widdup, Rochdale Borough Council’s Director of Neighbourhoods, and Spotland Councillor Cecile Biant, to the Vintage Worx Board.

Councillor Biant was appointed as a director on 9 May, whilst Mr Widdup does not appear to be listed as a director.

Falinge Park is protected by a restrictive covenant, which preserves the value and enjoyment of the land, which would still apply if leased out on a community asset transfer.

If a council property is transferred to a voluntary sector organisation by a lease and the organisation folds, the lease will contain a clause ensuring the land returns to its previous owner.

According to Historic England, the land was first donated for use as a public park in 1902 by Alderman Samuel Turner, along with £3,628 towards the laying out of the grounds, which were designed by Thomas Mawson. 

In 1911 Alderman Turner donated a further five acres on the occasion of the coronation of King George V, and the grounds were further extended in the same year.

The park has remained in public use ever since, yet no public discussion of the plans have taken place, causing concerns over the park’s future to be raised, should a community asset transfer go ahead.

The topic first reached the public at the Spotland and Falinge Forum in February after a local resident asked what safeguards were in place for open spaces, such as Falinge Park.

Carl Faulkner, who stood as an independent candidate for the Spotland and Falinge ward earlier this year, raised concerns over transparency after the February forum.

Speaking at the time, Mr Faulkner said: “Falinge Park was donated to the people of this town over a century ago. It therefore belongs to the people of this town. It is not a council purchased capital asset. It is for the people of this town to have a say in how it is managed and whether or not its legal status should change.”

Following the May Spotland and Falinge Forum, local resident Mick Coats wrote to Rochdale Online, saying: “It appeared to me that the issue of Falinge Park could have been dealt with in a more even-handed way. 

“People had differing views, but I felt that the views of one member with regards to transparency were aggressively and excessively criticised by some members and one of the councillors.”

Rochdale Online asked Rochdale Borough Council why press and public are being excluded from meetings regarding the transfer of Falinge Park: “Why are the press and public being excluded from council meetings when the transfer of Falinge Park is being discussed?

“This is not one of those cases where secrecy might be justified on the grounds that a company’s finances are being discussed, for instance, in the course of bidding for a contract. Nor are private details of a member of the public being aired. It is a matter of importance to local people.

"Holding such meetings behind closed doors raises suspicion and is the opposite of open and transparent as the council claims to be.”

A spokesperson for the council replied: “Exclusions are made in accordance with the provisions of Section 100A (4) of the Local Government Act 1972 – ‘a principal council may by resolution exclude the public from a meeting during an item of business whenever it is likely, in view of the nature of the business to be transacted or the nature of the proceedings, that if members of the public were present during that item there would be disclosure to them of exempt information, as defined in section 100I.’

The Council has given no indication of what 'exempt information' it fears may be disclosed.

Vintage Worx has been contacted regarding the community asset transfer and the feasibility study.

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