Garioch Area Committee decision on community bid for former Market Place School

Members of the Garioch Area Committee today ruled on an application for a community group to take over the running of the former Market Place School in Inverurie.

Under the Community Empowerment Act, groups now have the right to apply for a Community Asset Transfer, or CAT. If successful, that would mean that the running of facilities in the Aberdeenshire Council portfolio would pass to the community group. 

Today, Area members heard the case both for and against the transfer of the former Market Place School in Inverurie town centre. The building has been vacant since it was declared “surplus” following the construction of Uryside Primary in the town. Since it was closed to pupils, the school has fallen into significant disrepair and would require around £146,000 to bring it back up to a useable standard.

The Garioch Partnership submitted a bid to take over the running of the building, for use as a third sector hub. Today, councillors decided to reject this application, in line with officer recommendations. They voted 9 to reject, 2 for an amendment to defer the decision.

During the debate, members expressed that this decision was being taken because they felt the business case was not robust enough, that what the Partnership were prepared to pay was too low compared to the value of the estate, and the model by which they proposed operating it was not financially sustainable.

Some of the reasons given are summarised below, with the full officer recommendations in the report:

• Although the application says there is a need for a third sector hub in Inverurie, there was very little to support this assertion. The Garioch Partnership have been unable to prove whether the wider community and the third sector are equally committed to this. No guaranteed user groups have been identified nor potential customers seeking a lease. Those user groups who have expressed a general interest do not look like they would be financially strong and may well rely on donations etc for their own funding.

• The application makes certain financial assumptions which officers did not believe to be factually correct, and as such do not think that the business case is robust financially. It was deemed to not be a financially sustainable model.

• Responses to an online survey set up by the Partnership to get community feedback on the proposal highlighted a few issues were factually incorrect (for example a perceived affirmation that the Inverurie Campus will not be accessible and affordable to all) and the Partnership has not undertaken any robust analysis of feedback. As a result, the petition generated adds very little in terms of the robustness of the business case.

• There is a general lack of information in terms of how the Partnership plans to deliver on key aspects of the project.

During the extensive debate, Members were open with the Partnership that this was not a straightforward decision, which was given the correct amount of scrutiny as a result.

The debate referenced an amount of misinformation locally about the Community Campus and what it will provide.  They stressed that the new facility will add more community space to the town, which can be used alongside the school, not in isolation. The perception that the community will only get access out with school hours is not the case, and the facility has been designed to ensure the community and school will use the premises side-by-side.

Speaking after the meeting, Garioch Area Committee Chair Cllr Fergus Hood outlined the reasons why the committee felt they could not support the application. He said: “Committee took this decision today based on the application before us. The application and business case we scrutinised did not fully articulate either the community or financial benefits of this transfer. It is our view, and that of officers in their recommendations, that this application was not detailed enough, not fully thought-out and placed a number of expectations and burdens on Aberdeenshire Council. The offer from officers and members still stands, we would like to work with the Garioch Partnership to find them a more suitable location for a third sector hub. We support the aspiration behind this application but we do not think that this application we saw today will fulfil this need.”