Tonbridge community centre was sold at half-price but NHS rent is doubled
by Andy Tong | 21st February 2019
THE site of the Teen and Twenty Club in Tonbridge was sold to the developers of the new Medical Centre for almost half of its market value by the council.
And the NHS will have to pay more than twice as much rent to run the new facility as it had done in occupying the two surgeries the centre is set to replace – without ever owning the premises.
A Freedom of Information [FOI] request by Green Party campaigners has shown that Tonbridge & Malling Borough Council sold the former community centre on River Lawn Road to Assura for £750,000 – with a covenant that it can only be used as a surgery.
The council-owned asset was valued by property consultants Hartnell Taylor Cook at £1,435,000 in January 2017 if there was no restriction on use – for example, to be developed as residential accommodation.
Assura will own the site and lease it to Tonbridge Medical Group, which will use it to replace two surgeries on Higham Lane and Pembury Road which have been deemed unfit for purpose.
Meanwhile the NHS will have to pay annual rent of £245,450 to run the medical centre – an increase of £180,440 including VAT on the current rent of £114,100 for the two existing surgeries.
Tonbridge & Malling Green Party co-chair Mark Hood, who made the FOI request, said: “There is a legal requirement for councils to maximise the return on the sale of assets unless there is a significant benefit to the community.
'Had it not been for the perseverance of the Green Party, nobody would be aware of the huge loss which this council has incurred'
“While we welcome the provision of a new medical centre, this project will see the closure of two surgeries, one of which serves an aging population in Higham Wood.
“It is hard to see how the wider community will benefit by having to travel much further when they once had a surgery on their doorsteps.
“The only people winning in this saga are the developers, Assura, and the owners of the three surgeries which have been or will be sold.”
He added: “Our MP, Tom Tugendhat, tells us that he doesn’t support PFI [Private Finance Initiative] projects yet he has claimed credit for setting up this deal which is much worse than PFI.
“Tonbridge Medical Group will never own the property and the NHS will pay double the rent previously paid for the original surgeries. This deal is bad for Tonbridge taxpayers and for the NHS.”
Mr Hood also chairs the Keep River Lawn Green protest group which is trying to stop the council from selling the half-acre plot of public space next to the medical centre.
He believes the council is selling off publicly owned assets in order to balance its books after recording a budget deficit of £1.6million in the last financial year.
The £750,000 proceeds from the sale of the Teen and Twenty Club have been ploughed into three investment funds, Local Authorities Property Fund, Lothbury and Hermes.
The Green Party believes that the council should be following the example of neighbouring authorities in Tunbridge Wells and Sevenoaks.
They want the money reinvested into properties within the borough to earn rental rather than trying to fund services from interest returns.
Mr Hood said: “They needed to sell and they figured a medical centre was more palatable than more flats, even if it would raise a below-market-value price.
“What they hadn’t bargained on was the secret of the huge discount being leaked by a councillor, allowing the truth to surface.”
An initial Freedom of Information request made by Mr Hood in 2017 was turned down on the grounds of commercial confidentiality.
“Had it not been for the perseverance of the Green Party, nobody would be aware of the huge loss which this council has incurred because it is unable and unwilling to develop its own properties and to invest in its own community, pumping money into property assets in other parts of the country instead,” he said.
'My understanding is that the project would not be financially viable without the discount'
Cllr David Lettington, Cabinet member for Street Scene and Environment Services, told the Times that the Teen and Twenty Club was sold ‘at below the market value to ensure that the funding for the new medical centre is viable’.
He added: “My understanding is that the project would not be financially viable without the discount.”
Councils have a duty to deliver the best return they can on the sale of public land under Section 123 of the Local Government Act 1972.
However, Cllr Lettington pointed out that there is an exemption ‘where they can achieve an improvement in the social wellbeing of the area [General Disposal Consent 2003] if they accept a reduced value. I believe that this is demonstrably true here’.
The council’s Director of Central Services, Adrian Stanfield, pledged that any sale of the River Lawn site to private developers would not be at a discount.
He said: “It is envisaged that the sale would take place via tender or public auction, so as to achieve the best price available on the open market.”