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Community | 8th July 2021

Community purchase of school on Knife-edge


THE future of Langholm’s former primary school as a vital community asset hangs in the balance this week.

In January the Langholm Alliance put in a transfer request with Dumfries and Galloway Council, which owns the school, but progress has stalled, complicated by a private bid.

Six months on, the private bid is still not resolved and the alliance is pushing for a decision so it can apply for funding for a business plan.

It is believed this stalemate has set a precedent in the region with regard to a community asset transfer seemingly being blocked for this length of time by a private bid.

Denis Male, alliance chairman, has now written to the town’s three councillors, Ronnie Tait, Archie Dryburgh and Karen Carruthers, along with Oliver Mundell, Dumfriesshire MSP, and David Mundell, Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale MP.

Describing the asset transfer as “protracted”, Denis said: “Shortly after our request, a private bid was made to buy the school. Six months later that is still the situation.
“At a recent meeting with Fiona Lees, acting council chief executive, at the school she supported our bid.
“The advice we have been given by the council and South of Scotland Enterprise (SOSE) is to press on with a business plan.

“The problem is that, until the issue of the private bid is resolved, we can’t get funding from organisations which have said they want to support us in putting together a business plan and get a full survey done.
“The school buildings will allow several of the projects in our community plan to be achieved in a much shorter timescale than expected.
“These buildings are the only ones in public ownership in the town.

“The project will involve working with several other organisations in the town.
“We would obviously accept and support the private bid if it was going to create a large number of jobs.

“But if it is to landbank the site, this would be a real body blow to the development of services in Langholm.
“Any help you can give to bring this protracted matter to a conclusion will be greatly appreciated.”

A community asset transfer means the site is acquired from the council for a public-serving purpose.

The alliance sees the potential of the site to meet several of the needs in its community plan.

These include a small business hub, dedicated youth space, heritage hub and an outdoor recreation centre with bike hire, trail information and possible bunkhouse accommodation in the upper floors, with the potential for a café/bar in the former dining room.

Most of these needs are outlined in the plan, built over an extended period of public consultation so the alliance hoped a proposed secondary consultation would prove strong support for community ownership.

A week after the expression of interest was submitted, it was accepted by the council.

This effectively sealed the Stage 1 application for the transfer.

Stage 1 acceptance does not guarantee that the council will not sell the site to another bidder if the requisite conditions are met;

Only days after the Stage 1 acceptance, the alliance was told of the private bid.

The alliance doesn’t know who the bidder is or what it intends to do with the site.

During this period the advertised asking price for the school dropped from £130,000 to £100,000.

With the right business plan in place, the alliance could pay only £1.

The council advises that the best way to a successful transfer is through the Scottish Land Fund (SLF).

With an SLF Stage 1 application, a community organisation could get a technical assistance grant (average £12,000) to do a feasibility study and build a business case from a community consultation.

However, the SLF is clear that the only circumstances in which it entertains a funding bid is if the community organisation has a clear path to ownership.

In the case of the alliance, it was felt that, given the private bid, it could not prove this.

The private bidder has “qualified acceptance”. This means the council will accept the offer if the bidder meets certain undisclosed criteria.

The alliance again approached the SLF which said it had never dealt with a situation in which a Stage 1 acceptance of a community asset transfer had been gazumped by a private bid.

As such, it could not offer support. This tied in with what the council said in January.

While a Stage 1 acceptance did not mean the school would be taken off the market, there was no precedent for a private sale to trump it.

The alliance continues to press for a resolution with the council’s property services team.

The alliance believes it would be a public relations disaster to build up hope of a new future for the premises without having any control over that future.

However, it is engaging with a surveying firm about undertaking a vacant and derelict land audit in the community to outline all available options and the opportunities and limitations.

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