The Vale of White Horse District Council (the Vale) announced earlier this month that: “The district council no longer needs the house in Abbey Close and is looking for a new owner. The council will test the property market to see if there are likely to be any potential buyers and, in parallel, is in discussion with local group the Friends of Abingdon Civic Society to see if there are any suitable community uses that could give the building a new lease of life.”
We have now been told that:
- It is being marketed by local agents VSL – you can see (very brief) details on their website
- Site visits are being arranged for the last week in August/first week in September.
- The agents are telling people that the guide price is £1m
- The garden is not included
- The Vale Cabinet will consider a report on this “market-testing” phase on 9 September, then decide the way forward. The Civic Society and other community groups can submit proposals for consideration as part of this process.
Our priority at this stage therefore is to prepare such a proposal. We have had help with this from a well-respected Heritage Asset Development Consultant, who is already working on the Abbey Buildings Enhancement Project and have had expressions of interest from a number of potential users.
Our proposal will have two elements: a) a case for why creating a community facility in OAH would be good – both economically and socially – for Abingdon and the surrounding area and b) a broad brush proposal for what such a facility might include, how it would finance itself and how it would be run.
Given the size of the building and the fact that it can quite easily be divided up for different uses, we will propose a multi-use facility, combining some or all of the following
- a café,
- arts/craft/music studios and workshops,
- Etsy type craft shop
- display/exhibition spaces,
- rooms for use by counselling/support services
- meeting and small function rooms for hire
- tourist information
- office space for local start-ups/small businesses/hot-desking for home-workers
- Air-BnB type rooms
It would be necessary for some of these activities to generate sufficient revenue to subsidise those facilities which would be made available at low cost to community groups and to cover ongoing running costs, including staff.
The proposal will also have to give an indication of how we would put together the funds to acquire the building and bring it into a usable state of repair. (We would of course prefer the Vale to retain ownership, but at present that is not what they want to do).
Asset of Community Value nomination
This has now been submitted. If approved it will mean that, before selling OAH, the Vale would have to allow a moratorium period for a community group to work up a more detailed proposal – a full business case – which they would then have to consider seriously before deciding whether to sell it commercially or to the community.
We are applying for a grant from the Architectural Heritage Fund to cover the costs of a professional feasibility or project viability study. This will be an essential step in determining whether our aspirations are realistic and it will feed in to the business case.
Recruiting new team members
The Civic Society has brought the project to this point and we are happy to take forward the actions set out above, but we have always been clear that as an organisation we are not equipped to take on and run the building. Unless the Vale agrees to retain ownership, that will require a dedicated body – either a Trust or a Community Interest Company – so we are looking for new people to join us initially and then take the project on from there. We will need people to lead it, including taking on legal responsibilities as Trustees/Directors as well as people to plan and run the various activities which will go in OAH. Many people have expressed interest in the latter roles, which is great, but we are still looking for people for the leadership roles, so would very much like to hear from anyone who is willing to take these on. There is an advertisement for them on the Reach Volunteering website, where you can see more details, but feel free to contact us directly.
It is essential that Vale councillors understand how important Old Abbey House is to Abingdon people and what a valuable asset it could be not just for our town, but also the surrounding area. We need enough councillors (and especially those in the Cabinet) to be persuaded that there is sufficient energy and enthusiasm in the community to make this project succeed. Letters to the councillors will help them to stand up for a community use for OAH in discussions with their colleagues from further afield.
A petition has been started, calling on the Vale to
1. Keep Old Abbey House in public or community ownership/use for the benefit of the growing population of Abingdon.
2. Support the creation of a mixed usage, flexible community facility which could include space to host art, cultural and musical events, a restaurant, room hire for start-ups/community groups/societies and help attract residents and visitors to the historic heart of Abingdon.
It can be found here.