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Council prepares for difficult choice over Heather House

Maidstone council will decide in December what to do about the only "village hall" it owns in the borough.

Heather House in Bicknor Road, Park Wood, has been living on borrowed time since November last year, when officers ordered its permanent closure after serious problems emerged with the building.

Then a campaign by the Park Wood Residents Association and ward councillor Matt Burton (Con) - which included a 758-signature petition - succeeded in persuading the council to carry out immediate emergency repairs that enabled the hall to be re-opened in April, while investigations were carried out into its potential long-term future.

Heather House
Heather House

Members of the council's communities, housing and environment committee meeting on Tuesday heard part of those investigations. An independent surveying company had been commissioned at a cost of "a couple of thousand pounds" to carry out an assessment of the repairs needed to the hall. They found problems with the heating boiler, roof, external cladding, doors and windows and estimated that to bring the building back into good enough repair to last another 15 years would cost £765,000.

Cllr Burton said the report was "very painful reading."

Cllr Patrik Garten (Con) was concerned that some aspects of the hall - the heating boiler and electrics needed repair immediately.

Cllr Daniel Rose: We have a responsibility to Park Wood
Cllr Daniel Rose: We have a responsibility to Park Wood

Cllr Daniel Rose (Con) said: "Heather House is the only village hall that Maidstone Borough Council owns and looks after. We have a responsibility to the people of Park Wood who more than most really need something like this.

"There's the boxing club that uses the site, the mosque, the various bowls clubs. If we as a borough council can't make this work, what can we achieve?"

Referring to earlier discussions about the wording of a new borough "vision" paper, Cllr Jonathan Purle (Con) said: "We keep moving words around on strategic plans about deprivation and so on, but this is something that's real and concrete where the council has the potential to actually do something real about some of the inequalities that exist in the borough by actually having a community centre in an area that is - let's face it - dirt poor.

"If we are going to bleat on about inequality and deprivation, this is the sort of thing we should be doing, trying to keep a functioning community centre open."

Cllr Jonathan Purle: Real opportunity to tackle deprivation
Cllr Jonathan Purle: Real opportunity to tackle deprivation

But Councillor Denise Joy (Lib Dem) warned that the committee should be cautious. She said: "We keep putting a sticking plaster on it, but sticking plasters don't last very long."

The council will be presented with a further report in December that will outline options for the potential demolition of the hall and its replacement with a new community centre, part-funded by selling land for housing, as an alternative to repairs.

Cllr Derek Mortimer (Lib Dem) wanted the report to contain a business plan for any new hall and a list of potential clients.

William Cornall, the council's director of regeneration, warned: "It's a low value area. What we can do in terms of housing development on part of the site isn't going to generate major revenues. There is going to be a funding gap.

"You are going to have a difficult choice to make."

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