This page is going to be about voluntary sector premises issues in 2017- 2018. Newest items are posted at the top of the page.. For background information on our premises work including last years premises forum meetings, the council's Community Buildings consultation and the working group and consultancy we ran, see our archive page.
VCS Premises Policy: Update complete
Following the last Premises Forum on 15th November 2017 (notes available here) and subsequent survey response, the council has now finalised its draft guidance on Proposed Revisions to Arrangements for Leasing Premises to VCS Organisations. This document will be presented to Cabinet in March.
New Premises Policy and Consultation
On 27th October 2017 LBTH emailed all organisations in council owned premises with the following information:
"In November 2016, after a review of its community buildings and consultation with the voluntary sector, the Council agreed that all VCS organisations which occupy its buildings must have a lease or hiring agreement and are charged a market rent (with some specific exceptions). Alongside this, the Council agreed a scheme to reduce the rent payable for organisations which meet specific criteria relating to the community benefit of their activities and their organisational governance and management.
Initially these new arrangements only affected organisations in buildings in the Council’s community premises portfolio. The Council has now decided the arrangements will apply to all VCS organisations using its buildings. It has also decided to review the rent reduction scheme in the light of the wider scope of the community buildings policy.
The Council began the review of the rent reduction scheme drawing on the feedback received since the scheme was agreed last year and an assessment of the impact of the extension of the scope of the scheme, and it is now putting forward some suggestions to revise scheme. The Council welcomes your views on the proposed changes which are set out in the attached discussion document, including any alternative suggestions, and is inviting your response through:
- Individual contact with organisations leasing premises from the Council;
- An open VCS Premises Forum meeting on 15th November (2pm at Oxford House)
- An online survey [Now Closed] https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/DZ8DLFG."
For background, the Council reports where the premises policy and rent reduction scheme were agreed and where the scope was extended are listed below:
- Cabinet 1st November 2016 – Community Buildings Report , and
- Grants Determination Cabinet Sub Committee 10th July 2017 – Community Buildings Review - Extended Scope
The documents relating to the redevelopment of the Community Buildings Policy which set out the detail of the rent reduction policy, the criteria and exclusions from the scheme are:
We strongly recommend that you read through all of these documents and discuss them with your colleagues and contacts as part of the review process.
Discussions were held during November and the survey for individual responses closed in December. The revised proposals will be presented to Councillors for decision in the New Year.
Update, autumn 2017:
A meeting of the Premises Forum took place on 18th September 2017. Download the minutes here.
This meeting mostly focussed on the council's plans for new Community Hubs.
The new Community Hub at Christian Street in Whitechapel is now open to the public and is taking bookings for space. The new hub is a large, well furnished space that will enable community groups and individuals to hire space on an hourly basis and can accomodate multiple bookings at the same time.
For a full guide to the facility including prices and pictures check out the council website: www.towerhamlets.gov.uk/lgnl/community_and_living/Community_Hubs.aspx
The hub is in council property and the council are handling all bookings and enquiries. You can book a place at the facility by phone: 020 7364 0888 and by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Update, summer 2017:
In June 2017 a group of organisations with concerns about their premises arrangements with Tower Hamlets council met to share their worries, questions and experiences. We collated a summary of the issues raised at this meeting (download here) and circulated key points to the council so that they could be addressed at the Voluntary Sector Premises Forum.
A Premises Forum meeting took place on 27th June 2017. Notes from the meeting are available here.
Key points raised at this meeting covered two main areas:
1.) Rents and leases
Colleagues from Tower Hamlets Council presented a draft paper, which proposed three key changes to current Premises policy:
“1. Agree to extend the scope of the review of Council owned community buildings occupied by voluntary and community sector (VCS) organisations agreed by Cabinet on 1 November 2016 to include all Council owned buildings occupied by VCS organisations;
2. Agree that the process and criteria for reduced rent agreed by Cabinet on 1 November 2016 be extended to apply to all Council buildings and reviewed to ensure they are appropriate in the context of the wider review of Council support to the VCS; and
3. Agree that further work is carried out to explore the potential unintended consequences for local services of implementing the new arrangements and ways of mitigating the impact, including exploring possible transitional arrangements for organisations affected by the changes, where appropriate.”
This paper was subsequently approved by the 3rd July meeting of the Grants Determination Committee,
2.) Community Hubs
Attendees expressed concern about the lack of detail around the council's new Community Hubs. It is unclear which buildings are earmarked for hub usage, how they will be managed, and what the hire costs are likely to be.
It was agreed that THCVS should develop a separate strand of the Premises Forum to focus on Community Hubs. The intial meeting of this group will take place after the launch of the first hub later in the summer.
The Christian Street Community Hub is now open. You can find full details including room hire rates here
Presently there are three main issues relating to premises that seem to be affecting voluntary organisations:
- The council's plans to implement a new Community Buildings policy, including the creation of Community Hubs and the introduction of new leases, rents and a rent offset mechanism for organisations that can demonstrate community benefit.
- Business rates;which are disscussed on our premises resources page.
- The wider need for affordable, appropriate community spaces; our venues directory might be useful for this in the short term, but more longer term work is needed and will form part of our premises forum discussion later in 2017.
Council Community Buildings
The cabinet paper included the following recommendations:
1. Agree that a network of community hub buildings be established throughout the borough;
2. Agree the key terms for leases as set out in paragraph 5.3;
3. Agree that where community groups are to remain in existing accommodation, that this occupation will be on the basis of a formal lease with a community rent;
4. Agree that in some cases, THH-recognised TRAs, who can demonstrate intensive use of the property, may be issued with a lease based on a peppercorn rent for their TRA activities;
5. Agree the community benefit rent reduction policy, which affords eligible organisations a subsidy of 80% of their market rent, as set out in section 13;
6. Agree the proposed criteria, independent assessment tools and process and the monitoring and reporting arrangements for the community benefit rent reduction policy as set out in paragraphs 13.8 to 13.24;
7. Agree the proposed plan and approach for implementing the community benefit rent reduction policy, working with THCVS to support the voluntary and community sector organisations;
Progress and issues in 2017
One major concern for organisations in council owned premises so far has been the link between leases and grants. The condition of the council's Mainstream Grant state that:
"2.1.1 Council Premises - If the organisation becomes an occupant of premises owned by Tower Hamlets Council, the organisation must enter into a formal agreement within 3 months in order to formalise occupancy arrangements or the awarded grant may be witheld or terminated
2.1.2 Council Debtor - If the organisation becomes a debter to the Council at any time during the term of this Grant Agreement, the payment of any grant which is due will be witheld until such time as the debt has been cleared or satisfactory agreement reached in relation to repayment of the debt.
2.1.3 All necessary licences, premissions, certificates or consents relating to premises, equipment, machinery or services must be in place and up-to-date at all times"
Over the past few months the council's Property team have been visiting and assessing all their buildings in order to find out how regularly they are used, which organisations are using them, and to decide what the rent should be. Through this work it has become apparent some of voluntary organisations (both MSG funded and not) have only limited leases/licence arrangements with the council and/or are paying rent that is lower than the rates recommended in the Nov 2016 Cabinet paper. The council are keen to rectify this and to ensure fairness in the allocation of and payment for usage of community space; however the shift from (in some cases) peppercorn rents to market ones has resulted in some organisations seeing significant, unexpected increases in their rent, which in MSG holders' case is happening part way through a budgeted project. Whilst usually any lease negotiation would take some time, those groups with Mainstream Grants have felt pressure to reach agreement quickly as a delay of more than 3 months could cause their grant to be stopped.
One further stumbling block around the agreement of new leases has been the rent offset. The mechanism for assessing whether an organisation is entitled to the 80% community offset has not yet been fully established or tested, so it is not yet clear at the point of seeing the lease and the rent figure whether organisations (in most cases charities, where trustees have a duty to act prudently) are likely to be taking on the full rent or will only be required to pay 20%.
The issues around grants and leases have mostly come to light through dicussions at the Grants Scrutiny and Grants Determination Committees (in the very early part of 2017 it was at the Commissioners meetings) THCVS therefore wrote to the Commissioners and Mayor in January and February 2017 to raise concerns about the way the new implementation of the new premises arrangements were affecting organisations.
There have also been concerns about the issue of classification. At present, it is only buildings that are on the Community Buildings List (in the yellow section) that are eligible for the 80% rent offset outlined in the Cabinet paper. The buildings on the list are not the only council-owned premises that are currently being used by voluntary organisations, but they are the only ones that are officially classified as 'D1 Community Use' (explanation of planning classifications here). Our view, expressed throughout the development of the premises work last year, was that any access to discounted rent should apply to the organisation rather than be restricted by the designation of the building.
(We'll be updating this page regularly; more soon)