Friendship House – a considerable sized building in the heart of the Hatfield community currently stands empty following the closure last December of the Charity that ran it.
Hatfield Central Councillor Glyn Hayes explains what is, and what isn’t happening…
I believe this unfolding saga shines a light on several crucial questions about the society we want to live in.
Following the decision by a handful of Conservative Councillors on the Councils Cabinet that they would prefer to see the current lease including its affordable levels of rent quashed – I called for further scrutiny of the issue. At a meeting lasting over 2 hours, a committee recommended the Cabinet members re-consider their decision noting a lack of detail backing up why it had been made. Sadly, only days later the cabinet decided to uphold their original decision.
Friendship House is a vital community asset that Welwyn Hatfield Council does not own. The lease is currently held by an organisation that Welwyn Hatfield Council – at least the Conservatives who run it – has cut funding to in recent years, and it has sadly had to close. The organisation still retains the lease however, and within this lease, they have the right to transfer it to another suitable organisation.
The Council is fully aware that there are other community organisations interested in filling the considerable gap this has left, but the Conservative Cabinet are refusing so far to permit this. It is quite clear that the potential for higher rental income is the driving reason for this, along with the prospect for re-developing the site into housing, removing green space and leisure facilities enjoyed by neighbouring sheltered housing.
The history of similar assets in Welwyn Hatfield is littered with casualties from this same profiteering approach, Douglas Tilbe House in Welwyn Garden City the most striking example. We do not have the services for older generations as is, and it is shameful to see the Council’s intent to reduce them further.
Friendship House is a building with no serious structural issues, and if the previous provider had been able to continue (a prospect that would have been more likely without Council funding cuts) the current lease would have nearly 80 years left to run.
This is therefore, a purely opportunistic “asset grab” exercise by a Borough Council that has got its priorities grossly confused between profits and people.
Instead of licking their lips at the prospect of being able to increase rents by eye watering levels and fundamentally damaging the viability for anyone to deliver the critical, lifeline services Friendship House is universally known for, the Conservatives should quickly realise how badly this looks to everyone else, how unfair and damaging it is to those need these services.
It is quite outrageous that an asset they declined to fund, that they do not own, and that has others willing to take on should be allowed to stand empty simply because of the avarice of 7 Conservative Cabinet members who do not represent the local area. This is an issue affecting residents across Welwyn Hatfield, and it is fundamentally wrong that it has so far played out in the shadows in this grubby way.
The Labour Party is calling for this situation to be resolved immediately and for the Conservatives to drop their opposition to a suitable organisation taking on Friendship House on the same, community focused terms that still has 80 years left to run.