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Council seeks church as 'hub'

09 November 2012

After 14 years as a busy venue, our church now finds that its main user-group has gone bankrupt. The problem it faces is mainly continuing bills but drastically reduced income. The local council wants to close a number of community buildings, and use our church as a hub for voluntary groups. What are the issues we should check?

COUNCILS are badly strapped for funds. A great deal of their "kindness" to voluntary groups - helping them to find working space and revenue funding - will disappear, as they are not statutory provisions, unlike schools, highways, and social services. They will look for cheaper alternatives that could meet needs in the area without completely cutting off the groups on which people depend. To use your building as a hub will allow them to sell off other premises.

Begin by deciding what is essential (access, programmes, funding) and what is desirable, but not so essential. If your church, for example, is to continue to use part of the building for worship on Sundays, what would you like to have available on non-Sunday festivals such as Christmas and Easter? At what times of the week would noise in the building (from a dance or exercise class, for example) be a problem? Who would use the main front door and other circulation space? And who would have parking access and rights, noticeboards, and so on?

The council will almost certainly want a fairly long lease on space in the building, as this would enable it to project services and costs into the future. The terms of that lease are critical to the long-term good working of the building. You should not try to negotiate this yourselves; you will need an experienced lawyer to represent your interests, and to interpret the implications of the council's requests. The upside is that the council will expect to pay well for the use of a good building.

Consider, with your lawyer, who will have responsibility for maintenance and repair of the building and for utility bills. The council should pay a market rent plus a service charge if you continue to look after utilities, repair, and maintenance.

The opposite could be true: the council could, in its lease, become responsible for bills - but be careful, as it could happen that, if the council failed to pay its bills at some time in the future, the utility company could come after you. The diocese may be able to recommend a chartered surveyor or legal company who would help you to negotiate and come to an agreement over the lease.

The council may wish to make alterations to the building, in order to serve the groups that will use it. It is probably best that the lease does not allow them to make changes, but that all changes (and faculty applications) are submitted to the PCC for approval and onward transmission to the necessary authorities. This will act as a double check that those representing the council in the development of the hub do not, incrementally, take over power, space, and responsibility from the PCC.

While the church was letting space to various user groups, it probably was able to consider taking back space from time to time, or altering how space was used. This will be far less easy once you become a hub; so use the lease to safeguard the medium- and long-term interests of the church. Good relations between people, church, and community will happen when the lease is in place and is safeguarding everyone's interests.

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