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KCC rejects an offer from West Malling to build a community hub in favour of a higher offer from a private developer

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A town's bid to buy a disused former Age Concern centre to bring it back into community use has been scuppered by the intransigence of Kent County Council.

The building in Norman Road, West Malling, known as Rotary House, has stood empty since May 2019, when Age Concern, which had got into financial difficulties, was no longer able to afford the lease on the property from KCC.

The former Age Concern Malling building, no empty
The former Age Concern Malling building, no empty

West Malling Parish Council had approached KCC with an offer to buy the building, but the council heard on Monday that KCC had rejected the parish in favour of an offer from a private developer at a higher price.

The decision was taken by KCC's head of property, Rebecca Spore, using delegated powers.

The parish wants to build a new Community Hub for the town in place of the existing building, which is now in poor shape and too costly to repair.

Cllr Trudy Dean, chairman of the parish council, said: "Small parish councils will never be able to match the bids made by commercial companies, particularly house-builders who are making huge profits in this area.

"But KCC is able under its constitution to choose a lower bid from groups for projects which have a community value."

Parish council chairman Trudy Dean
Parish council chairman Trudy Dean

She said: "We feel our bid was extremely strong, but instead KCC has chosen to sell to the highest speculative bidder.

"That bidder has not even revealed what they intend to build."

Many in West Malling feel they have already paid in part for this building. It was constructed 30 years ago through public subscriptions organised by West Malling Rotary, hence the building's name, and supported with generous donations from the local NatWest bank. Since then, the public have twice chipped in again to pay for extensions to the building as well as regularly contributing to the running costs when it was operated by Age Concern.

Rotary House overlooks the town's historic cricket ground, owned by the parish council, on which the first recorded cricket match in Kent was played in 1705.

The site also commands the only surfaced road access to West Malling Primary School, the Betty Lewis pre-school, the ball park, and Macey’s Meadow Community Orchard, all of which makes it in ideal site for a community hub, says the parish council, but conversely puts those other community uses at risk should the site falls foul of an inappropriate development

The site's only planning permission is for a community use
The site's only planning permission is for a community use

Cllr Dean said: "If it were used for offices or industry for example, it could be that would result in tenants parking on the access road, which would be harmful for everyone else."

Cllr Dean said: "That's the reason why the primary school, Town Malling Cricket Club and Kent County Cricket Club, all supported the parish’s bid."

There is said to be still a lot of distress among the older members of the community since the closure of the Age Concern Centre.

Age UK has stepped in to offer some residents alternative services, but their centres are in Sevenoaks and Maidstone, too difficult a journey for many.

The hoped-for new Community Hub would have gone some way to relieving that shortfall by providing activities to improve physical and mental health, with Age UK agreeing to deliver a range of services from the new community hub, including Meals on Wheels.

The Old County Ground, home to Town Malling CC, off Norman Road, West Malling
The Old County Ground, home to Town Malling CC, off Norman Road, West Malling

It was also hoped to provide a home base within the town for the West Malling Scouts and Cubs, who currently have to meet in Offham because of the want of a decent site in West Malling.

When KCC first said it would look to sell the building in January last year, West Malling Parish Council moved swiftly and successfully to have it listed as an Asset of Community Value. That gave them a breathing space of six months to prepare an offer during which time KCC could not sell the building.

The parish spent £10,000 having the site surveyed and developing their plans.

They carried out a door-to-door poll of the town's residents, in which 98% of those who responded to a questionnaire said they supported the parish's bid to buy the building.

But now that the six-month respite has ended, KCC has still rejected their offer.

'It feels very unfair'

Cllr Dean said: "The members of the parish council feel very angry and let down by the county council’s decision.

She said: "It feels very unfair that all the community activities which could have been delivered from this site have counted for nothing alongside a higher bid for a completely unknown proposal."

But all hope is not lost.

The site falls within the Green Belt and the West Malling Conservation Area, both of which should make it unsuitable for new housing.

It addition the site's current planning permission is for community use only.

County Hall: It's all about the money
County Hall: It's all about the money

West Malling will be hoping that Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council, which is the planning authority, plays hard-ball with any planning application for a non-community use from the new owner, perhaps leaving the way clear once again for the parish council to step in.

Cllr Dean said the parish would organise a public meeting in the town to ask for views on what the council should do next, once it became clearer what the new owner intended.

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