DARTMOUTH Town Council is a step nearer taking back control of assets from the district council, subject to agreement on the final details of the handover.
It has agreed to accept an offer in principal from South Hams Council which will give it responsibility for land and buildings such as Coronation Park, Royal Avenue Gardens and public toilets.
In return, the district authority has agreed to give the town council £150,000 in the first year – reduced pro rata to zero over five years – to help with running costs, along with a Section 106 payment of around £40,000 towards Coronation Park.
Town councillors are anxious to pursue the assets transfer project in order make sure there is no further decline in the upkeep of buildings and open spaces in Dartmouth.
But the decision will mean a large hike in the town precept – possible in the region of 70 per cent - which the town council has yet to decide for the coming year.
At a meeting on Monday, mayor Cllr Rob Lyon said he had concerns over the quality of services that would be provided in the future if the town council did not take back control of assets and believed the offer on the table was the best they would get.
‘It will be difficult if we go ahead with it, but I am confident we will make a good job of it,’ he said.
Cllr Francis Hawke said the town council could miss out by not acting now.
But it was a question of having the courage to take it on while at the same time balancing the books.
‘We have to get it right and any plan should include work schedules,’ he said.
But Cllr Steve Smith said he feared the council was leaving a deficit for the future and ‘shouldn’t touch it with a barge pole’ – unless the deal included the money making Mayor’s Avenue car park and Lower Ferry.
He was supported by Cllr Sue Thomson who said she felt passionately that those people who voted them in were not ‘sold down the river’.
Cllr Tony Fyson said it was clear the council was split down the middle over it and he would be happier if such a big decision could be postponed until the summer for further information, possibly from outside consultants.
‘Such a compromise would still keep the ball in play,’ he said. ‘If we do this now we will have to take some flack because everybody hates a council tax rise but everybody also hates having a rubbish town.’
Cllr Tessa de Galleani said: ‘Dartmouth needs to be pretty and clean and beautiful and South Hams is cutting back and back.
‘The parks and the assets are the window dressing to this town and if people see it’s slipping and not as pleasant as it used to be, we will lose everything,’ she said. ‘If we don’t grasp this opportunity we will never see it again.’
Cllr Brian Harriss added: ‘If we don’t take control of our town it will go downhill.’
Cllr Paul Allen said the deal had to be right ‘and the devil was in the detail’.
Cllr Richard Rendle said the district authority had no choice but to reduce its spending because central government was removing all funding by 2020.
‘They don’t want to put us down but they have no choice,’ he said.
He said he passionately agreed with the devolution of services but warned that Dartmouth could find itself out on its own if it ‘jumped out of bed’ with what other towns were doing, such as Totnes and Kingsbridge. ‘We have to be careful we don’t shell out our money so others can keep their assets,’ he said. ’This has to be across the district.’
As an example of what the town council would be taking on, he said he had counted 370 wooden benches in Dartmouth.
‘Overnight they will be transferred to Dartmouth Town Council and will become our responsibility,‘ he said. ‘What other obligations are there we don’t know about?
‘I think it’s far too dangerous for us to do with the skills we have. If we take it on, this council to have to make these decisions and everything we fail to do will come back to the detriment of all of us.’
As debate lengthened, Cllr Rendle eventually suggested the town council accept the district’s offer in general terms, subject to final details being agreed.
‘But we need a period of about six months for further negotiations before signing if off,’he added.
Cllr Richard Cooke said the motion showed the town council’s commitment of intention to South Hams Council.
Cllr Rendle’s motion read: ‘That the town council accepts the offer in principle from South Hams District Council of £150,000 in year one (£120,000 in year two, £90,000 in year three, £60,000 in year four and £30,000 in year five) plus the balance of Section 106 monies from Coronation Park for the freehold transfer of Coronation Park, the Royal Avenue Gardens, including the toilets and greenhouse site, and the Castle Estate.
‘That the town council wishes to firm up the details through negotiations with the district council over the next six months, taking advice from outside sources or whatever maybe needed to clarify all the implications.
‘The town council will meet to agree the final position when all the details are known.’
The proposal was agreed by 11 votes to three.
Afterwards, district councillor Jonathan Hawkins said it was a brave vote by the town council but one he believed would be good for the future of Dartmouth.
And Cllr Rendle said after the meeting that it was such a momentous decision and at least gave the town time to breathe.
I suspect the community will have a lot of questions about this decision. These are just some of them:
1. How many new employees will be needed to manage and maintain this vast estate?
2. Will SHDC transfer staff to DTC to fill these positions?
3. As the support from SHDC reduces from £150,000 to zero over 5 years how will the Council fill that gap?
4. Can we assume there will be no increase in Council Tax (we already pay through our tax for SHDC to maintain these assets so shifting responsibility to DTC should make no difference to our Council tax)
5. Why will the precept increase by 70%?
6. Why was this discussion taken in committee when it will effect all residents of Dartmouth?
7. When will the public see the financial justification for doing this. Is it available on the DTC website?
8. How happy are SHDC to get rid of this responsibility?
9. Is this decision part of the TIC rescue plan?