The Public Gallery: Ashburton library is back in the news


By - Thursday 10th July, 2014

An old issue has returned to the front line this week, and both parties are on bullish form, writes Tom Black


Conservatives criticise Labour’s reversal of Ashburton library deal

Veteran readers of the Citizen will recall that the disused Ashburton Library building has been the centre of some controversy over the years. It became a major election issue in the eventual swing-ward of Ashburton, and was the first topic that prompted a string of back-and-forth argumentative response pieces here on the Citizen.

This week, it’s back in the news. Gavin Barwell, MP for Croydon Central, has heavily criticised Labour’s decision to reverse a deal with a Thornton Heath church to take over the building. The deal was made in the final months of the now-former Conservative administration. In a press release circulated via Barwell’s website, his version of events was laid out:

His Grace Evangelical Outreach, currently based in Thornton Heath, were planning to spend at least £700,000 on bringing it back into use. The Council took their money and gave them the keys to the building. Despite this, within days of taking control of Croydon Council, the Labour Party decided to renege on the deal.

“We just can’t understand why the Labour Party are trying to stop us from bringing this beautiful building back to the community,” was an evocative line from Pastor Thomas. It was also a sentiment that would be shared by those who have followed the Ashburton Park saga over the years.

Labour’s then-candidates for Ashburton ward were instrumental in setting up the Friends of Ashburton Park, and the profile and authority that this gave them in the local community has been credited with their success in the May elections, where they won the ward from the Conservatives in a shock result.

It was Labour who brought Arnie Graf, an early mentor of Barack Obama from his Chicago days, to a meeting of the Friends of Ashburton Park. The party, and its now-councillors, have placed “a community use” of the old library building at the centre of their campaigns in the ward. Pastor Thomas and his church wished to turn the building into “a church, nursery and community centre.” So why has Labour axed the plan?

Labour: Reversing the deal was in our manifesto

I sought out comment on this subject. One of the aforementioned Labour councillors for Ashburton, Stephen Mann, was quick to open his remarks by saying Labour “welcome Gavin finally agreeing with us that this building should be back in use following eight years of Tory neglect.” Explaining further, Mann claimed that the Labour group had made it publicly known via their manifesto (published before the election) that the sale would be prevented by an incoming Labour administration.

Why? Mann said that it was the impression of Labour’s Ashburton team and of the group as a whole that the residents concerned about the former library’s disuse wanted to see “a Friends group (such as the Friends of Ashburton Park) or the council” take over the building. Pastor Thomas’ church, noble though its intentions may be, does not apparently fit these criteria.

Responding to the allegations that the council gave the church the keys to the building in January, Mann counter-claimed that the Conservative administration knowingly “pushed the sale through the day before an election,” despite, in Mann’s words, “knowing full well” of the probability of the decision being reversed the day after the election.

Accusing the Conservatives of selling the building for “well below the market rate”, Mann expressed sympathy with the church group, but blamed the Conservatives for entering into “an unworkable contract”. He also reiterated Labour’s commitment to “getting the building back into use for the local community” – something that the Conservatives believe was already underway thanks to the now-reversed deal with the church.

Labour’s main line of defence on this issue is the fact that their manifesto for May’s election declared their intentions to stop this sale. “The people of Ashburton overwhelmingly voted against this proposal,” is a line you can expect to hear more of if this issue continues to snowball. With the Conservatives saying that Labour don’t appear to have “an alternative plan” and the church seeking to overturn the decision, we can expect it to.

Unreturned election expenses paperwork could leave BNP candidates facing jail 

It has been confirmed that British National Party candidates in New Addington, Fieldway and Heathfield in May’s elections failed to submit their post-election paperwork, including election expenses (how much was spent on the campaign) and the declarations of agents and candidates. An independent candidate in Selhurst has also failed to submit said paperwork.

The deadline having passed, this is now a criminal offence, carrying penalties including a large fine and a potential prison sentence. No longer a matter for the council, the Metropolitan Police have confirmed that they are investigating.

Tom Black

Tom Black

Tom is the Citizen's General Manager, and spent his whole life in Croydon until moving to Balham in 2017. He also writes plays that are occasionally performed and books that are occasionally enjoyed. He's been a Labour Party member since 2007, and in his spare time runs an online publishing house for alternate history books, Sea Lion Press. He is fluent in Danish, but speaks no useful languages. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Anne Giles

    Glad to see that the police are investigating the BNP here.

  • David Callam

    Would we still regard a church as community use in a post-Christian society? Even the major denominations – CofE and RC – are becoming more marginal by the month, let alone a fringe church.
    The building would make a wonderful Beefeater Restaurant, which would generate regular income for the council, some of which could be used to fund community activities elsewhere in the immediate vicinity.
    I think it would weaken the new council’s case substantially if there were no immediate alternative proposal for the use of the building.

    • Anne Giles

      But we are a Christian society.

      • David Callam

        All the statistics are against you Anne, particularly the attendance figures. There are loads of so-called Christians who only go to church for hatchings, matchings and despatchings.

        • Anne Giles

          Nothing wrong with that. I am one of them. It is a Christian country. Doesn’t mean that we have to go to Church every Sunday rather than have a nice long lie-in after a late night of partying on a Saturday.

          • David Callam

            There are none so blind as those who will not see.

          • Anne Giles

            In that case, might I politely suggest that you go and see your optician urgently.

          • Stephen Giles

            Many as well argue with a brick wall!

          • David Callam

            Ah, the second member of the dynamic duo! Couldn’t find a wit so sent two half-wits instead!

          • Anne Giles

            Your ignorance shows there. We are not a duo. We have different ideas and different ways of doing things. I rarely agree with any comments he puts on this publication, on Facebook or on Twitter. In fact, on many occasions I have asked him to please delete a comment because there will always be a stupid person who thinks we work together. We are two individuals. I can’t help it if he chooses to butt in on a conversation I am having. I don’t own him.

  • Sean Creighton

    Given the very late action by the outgoing Conservative administration the church should not be surprised at Labour’s action. With a growing diversity of faiths and a large number of people who regard themselves as secular or not attached to particular faiths, it is better to have broad based community controlled centres. An asset transfer to a community trust could be the answer. Let’s look at the model at Stanley Halls and the Old Clapham Library in Lambeth.

    • David Callam

      Sean: A community trust sounds like a good idea, but who in this age of austerity would provide the money for the initial repair and subsequently for the upkeep?

  • Sean Creighton

    There are sources of funding. The Government has an asset transfer advice unit, and the two activists in the two examples I mentioned can be asked for their advice.