A cash-strapped council is proposing to sell off its stock of windmills in a desperate bid to claw back money.
Kent County Council (KCC) is looking at options for the future of the windmills, including ones in Meopham and Sevenoaks, after estimating maintaining the historic buildings cost them almost £890,000 in the last four years.
The plans, which would need to first go to public consultation, would see the grade I and grade II listed buildings available for anyone to purchase – provided they can keep to the stipulations attached.
In papers seen by Kent Online the proposals have been laid out based on costings predicting future expense still to be incurred by the council from the windmills, which has been estimated at a staggering £850,000 over the next six years.
The authority cites its need to “limit spending to balance the council’s overall budget position”.
It adds: “...keeping capital spending to a minimum is vital and the level of spend on windmills in comparison to all other assets, must be questioned.”
KCC currently owns the freehold of eight historic windmills, located in eight different districts and boroughs across the county.
They are Chillenden Mill, in Goodnestone, Dover; Davison’s Mill in Stelling Minnis; Drapers Mill in Margate; Herne Mill in Herne Bay; Killick’s Mill in Meopham; Stocks Mill in Wittersham, Ashford; Union Mill in Cranbrook; and West Kingsdown Mill in Sevenoaks.
Bought by KCC between the late 1950s and the mid-1980s, the council has maintained the windmills in good condition in order to protect the historic fabric of the buildings and their machinery.
The papers state: “The ongoing costs of maintaining the windmills in a safe structural and mechanical condition adds to the financial challenge faced by KCC.”
For seven of the eight windmills, management agreements are currently in place between KCC and individual ‘Friends’ groups comprising local volunteers.
The arrangements in each case are similar, whereby KCC is responsible for maintaining the buildings and sites in good condition.
In return, the volunteers are permitted to staff and operate the mills, making them accessible to the public on scheduled open days and charging a small entrance fee or collecting donations to cover their costs.
Meopham Windmill Trust volunteer Andy Parker, said: “I understand times are hard for the council and I must admit I cannot disagree with all the people who are disappointed at the lack of council funding on various services.
“To maintain the windmills is a huge undertaking. KCC have put a lot of money into restoring the windmills and I think they have done an unbelievable job but I understand they cannot afford to do it anymore.
“If someone else buys it we can hopefully just continue administering it for them. We are hoping to have it open to the public again next year.”
Monica Blyth who represents the Herne Mill Committee said: “It is very disappointing that KCC are proposing this.
“They are iconic buildings and part of Kent’s Heritage. It’s a difficult decision I know. KCC are almost bankrupt and there are difficult decisions but hopefully they can find some funds for the mills.”
KCC Councillor Barry Lewis (Lab) is desperate that Margate should not lose its historic mill.
He said: “This is another example of KCC not understanding the value of the beautiful edifices of Kent. They are potentially going to destroy our unique heritage and landscape.”
The council says it has been assured there is a niche market for selling this type of heritage asset.
Any buyer wishing to purchase their own windmill would be under strict rules on any changes made to the property as “significant changes to the external appearance, internal layout or historic setting of these historic assets are unlikely to be permitted under the planning process”.
The public consultation document says: “For Meopham Mill and West Kingsdown Mill, which have long-term leases, we are proposing to offer to transfer/sell them to the tenants in the first instance.”
It added: “Most of the windmills are now, or soon will be, in a good state of repair which makes this the right time to pass them on to new owners.
“We are considering finding alternative arrangements for each windmill site separately given that the current arrangements vary from site to site.
“We would explore various options including whether existing local voluntary or community groups would be interested in taking on responsibility for ownership of the windmills. If a local group is interested in acquiring a windmill, but doesn’t have funds available to acquire it, they can make an application to have the site registered as an Asset of Community Value (ACV).
“They will need to show that they have the financial resources to buy and maintain the windmill. Local voluntary or community groups would be eligible to apply for a wider range of grants than those currently available to the council. It is therefore not just in KCC’s interests that the windmills find new owners but potentially in the best interest of the windmills themselves.
“The data currently available nationally indicates that windmill sites such as these can be equally well cared for by groups based in the communities in which they are located, as they can by local authorities.
“If there is no interest or a sale cannot be agreed, then KCC would consider other options such as private sale if that is considered appropriate in each case. If a windmill cannot be sold or transferred, the council will review how it is managed and look for ways to make it more sustainable.”
A decision on whether to go ahead with a consultation will be discussed at a committee meeting on Wednesday (November 15).