Residents furious after Panshanger Community Centre closed over rent row

Carol Allen, who runs a dance school at Panshanger Community Centre. Picture: DANNY LOO

Carol Allen, who runs a dance school at Panshanger Community Centre. Picture: DANNY LOO - Credit: Picture: DANNY LOO

Welwyn Hatfield Council has infuriated hundreds of residents after its £15k rent demands caused a vital community centre to close.

Residents outside Panshanger Community Centre. Picture: Diana Walsh.

Residents outside Panshanger Community Centre. Picture: Diana Walsh. - Credit: Archant

Panshanger Community Centre in Hardings was shut this week after the charity running it was forced to dissolve and all activities were cancelled.

Kate Whiteland, who runs pilates sessions at the facility, was left red-faced when she turned up on today (Tuesday) for a 24-person class and the locks had been changed.

“The council had my information, they could have called me, but they didn’t,” she told the WHT. “It’s very embarrassing for me and I’m going to have to refund people – it’s just terrible.”

The closure comes after a long-running rent dispute with Panshanger Community Hall Trust Ltd – which ran it for the council – and following a court hearing ended with annual rent demands of £15k rather than £200.

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The charity subsequently disbanded, but a borough council spokeswoman said it declined to enact a three-month notice period, or accept financial support.

However, charity trustee Nick Evans told the WHT that it would have been illegal to continue trading, as the company had become insolvent the moment the judge determined the rent was £15k and backdated to 2012.

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Carol Allen, who runs a dance school, said: “I was shocked – there was no time to prepare. We heard on Monday morning that they have closed it right through the week, so we had to cancel all the classes.”

Dorothy Smith, 67, added that residents were left “shocked and disgusted” as many have limited mobility and need the classes to treat pain.

“I assume they are trying to drive people out of the facilities so they can sell them for a few bob,” she added.

“It’s so short-term, destroying the community facilities that get people together.”

The hall is used for numerous activities, including a Parent & Toddler group, fitness classes, food bank collections, coffee mornings and wellbeing programmes.

Salmon Close resident Caroline McNeil, who attends badminton sessions with several elderly residents, said: “It’s the highlight of their week really and they have been thrown out.

“To turn up today [Tuesday] to find a letter on the door and the locks changed is ridiculous really.”

The borough council spokeswoman confirmed it is “actively working with an organisation” which has expressed interest in managing the property, adding: “We will do everything we can to ensure all users can continue running their activities at this facility.”

Liberal Democrat county councillor Barbara Gibson, whose ward covers the centre, blasted the council for using it as a “cash cow” rather than a public asset.

“These buildings are owned by the tax payers and should be serving their local communities,” she added. “The council should be investing in and supporting these groups, not hiking up their rent to commercial levels.”

The WHC spokeswoman said that, in line with government guidance, all rents are set at market value to ensure tenancies are fair and transparent, and no preferential treatment is given to any organisation.

She added: “We hugely value the contribution voluntary organisations make in our communities and offered the trust financial support through our Rent Relief Grant Policy, which unfortunately was not pursued.

“Following the judge’s assessment of a £15,000 market value in April, a three-month notice period could have been enacted by the trust to allow sufficient time to ensure alternative arrangements were in place for all hirers.”

Although a sign on the building says otherwise, the centre will still be used as a polling station for Thursday’s council elections.

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