The people of Shaftesbury could be given the legal right to bid for the Westminster Memorial Hospital building if it is put up for sale in the future. Shaftesbury Town Council is applying for an asset of community value designation for the hospital.
Councillor Lester Taylor put forward the idea, but he says there’s currently nothing to suggest that the NHS is intending to close the hospital. “There are no plans that I know about suggesting that the hospital will stop operating or be sold in the very near future,” Lester said.
Last September, a community campaign successfully challenged proposals to remove the hospital’s beds as part of health care reorganisation. “We’ve had the ‘Save Our Beds’ campaign, which has secured the hospital for the near to medium future,” Lester added.
Cllr Taylor says the Council is being prudent in trying to get the hospital building registered as a social resource now. When a building is granted asset of community value status, it can still be sold on the open market but, importantly, the sale process must be put on hold for a while. The community is allowed time to consider putting in an offer and to arrange its funding.
“It doesn’t give us any rights over the property or how it is used. It gives us a right to bid for the hospital grounds if they come up for sale. We would have six weeks to decide whether we wanted to pursue it and a further 4½ months to raise the capital and to arrange the business plan. It doesn’t mean that they have to hand it over to us or anything like that, or at a reduced price,” Lester said.
Shaftesbury Civic Society recently followed the same procedure when they tried to have the Cattle Market recognised as an asset of community value. Their application was lodged after North Dorset District Council’s plan to sell the site to a supermarket was made public. The District Council also decide on whether ‘asset of community value’ requests should be granted. They didn’t believe that there was a strong case for listing the Cattle Market as a social resource.
“It was very difficult for them to argue that a cattle market, which is mostly empty with a car wash and a car park, is offering any socially interactive benefit to the community at all. It’s a pity that it failed but I can see the legal reasons for it,” Lester said.
Cllr Taylor believes the hospital’s situation is different. “Other hospitals have been successfully nominated as assets of community value. The first test you have to pass is whether the building is currently offering a social value to the community,” said Lester, adding, “It is.”
Lester explained that the next test considers whether the site’s future use would also bring social benefits. Lester says that Shaftesbury Town Council believes it is better to get this special status applied to the hospital sooner, rather than later. “With the Cattle Market we realised that putting an asset of community value nomination in place at a very late stage was difficult. I thought it was best to get a designation made earlier. If anything happens in five or ten years time, then we will be in a position to talk to the town and decide what we want to do,” he said.
So if the hospital was ever put up for sale, how could the site potentially be used? “We’d maintain it as a community asset. We wouldn’t be looking to take it on and sell it off for flats,” Lester advised.
He says there would be a community engagement exercise to develop ideas and a business plan. “It could be a leisure centre run by the community. It could be a community-led cafe or gardens – somewhere that people could go and, for a low price, enjoy an afternoon. Having it designated as an asset of community value early might also give people an idea of how to build something, so if it does get sold off in ten years, someone can dust off that old plan, update it and make it work,” Lester said.
So why doesn’t the Town Council apply for this designation for all of the buildings in Shaftesbury that perform important social functions? “I would much rather leave it to the Neighbourhood Plan group, because they were set up to look at issues like this”, Lester said.
Shaftesbury Town Council could have to wait up to eight weeks to hear whether their application has been successful.