The battle to safeguard St Mary’s Social Centre, Lewes, from the district ‘regeneration strategy’ was given a major boost this week when Lewes District Council voted overwhelmingly to protect it in any contract with a developer.
The vote is not binding, but as the Lib Dem motion had the support of the ruling Conservative group – no councillor opposed it and just two abstained – it sends a very strong signal that the centre in Christie Road is likely to have its future guaranteed, if only because it will be a major climbdown for the council to develop it without local support.
The site on which the centre stands is part of the council’s ‘regeneration portfolio’, a collection of 48 council-owned sites that is being offered to a private partner for possible development or sale.
The council will announce which bidder has won the right to be its partner on the regeneration strategy later this year, and the winning bid could include plans to redevelop the Christie Road site.
This has led to uncertainty and anxiety about the future of the St Mary’s Centre, prompting a 4000-signature petition that was presented to the district council in February.
Lewes’s independent councillor Ruth O’Keeffe put a motion to Wednesday’s full district council meeting, asking for the site to be withdrawn from the portfolio.
This gained support from the Lib Dem and UKIP councillors, but was defeated by 19 votes to 17.
Anticipating this would happen, four Lib Dem councillors – Michael Chartier, Amanda Dean, Ian Eiloart and John Stockdale – had submitted an alternative motion.
It called for the centre to be removed from the list, but if this was not possible, for the council to make it a requirement of any contract with a developer that the St Mary’s Centre must be retained in its existing or an improved form, and without any interruption to the functioning of activities at the centre.
This motion was overwhelmingly approved.
Because decisions on the regeneration portfolio are taken by the council’s cabinet, the vote is only advisory, but the cross-party support will make it hard for the council to allow any development of the Christie Road site that negatively affects the centre.
The new leader of the district Lib Dems, Chris Bowers, said: “The St Mary’s site should never really have been on the regeneration strategy list, but because the tendering process for the strategy is well under way, we knew it would be legally difficult for the council to remove the site from the list at this stage.
“So the Lib Dem group set about securing as much of a guarantee for the centre as the full council can give, and we’ve achieved that.
“It’s not quite the full security that all the centre’s users were looking for, but it’s as good as it gets at this stage.
“We wanted to make it clear to any developer that doing anything to the site that adversely affects the running of the centre would be such a hot potato that it wouldn’t be worth trying to handle it, and I think we’ve succeeded.
“In time, I hope this will prove to be a great day in the centre’s history.”
The next step in the process is for the council to announce the winner of its tendering process to be the council’s private partner on the regeneration strategy.
This announcement is expected in late summer.