A community group in South Bristol was shocked after Bristol City Council tried to hike up their rent by more than 5,000%. The Redcatch Community Garden group, in Knowle, currently pays the council £300 a year in rent, but were asked to increase this to £16,000 a year.
Five years ago the volunteer group began transforming a derelict bowling green in Redcatch Park into a community garden. They are asking the council for a ‘community asset transfer’, but have faced obstacles with questions over money. Initially the council appeared keen to carry out the community asset transfer, but almost three years later no deal has been signed off.
Now the latest obstacle is a row about how much the community group should pay the council each year in rent. Bristol mayor Marvin Rees faced questions from the community group during a full council meeting on Tuesday, March 14. Councillor Ellie King, cabinet member for public health and communities, promised to meet with the group next week to discuss options for the rent increase.
Lesley Powell, from the Community Garden group, said: “Five years ago we took over the derelict bowling green and turned it into a successful socially valuable community space with personal funds and crowdfunding. The same space stood empty and barren is now hugely valuable in the community yet costs the council nothing.
“We cover overheads with income from events and the cafe so that we can subsidise projects which the public sector struggles to deliver. We are also subsidised by around 250 volunteer hours per week. “So here we have a not-for-profit organisation that has little in reserves, has created 16 jobs, provides an estimated £1 million per year in social value to the community, and is now being asked to increase its rents from £300 a year to £16,000. “Our current licence runs out in December as the council failed to renew it last summer, which means that some funders will not consider us further. We have no draft lease and time is running out. 16 people could lose their jobs in the next few months because of the council’s greed and inability to respond timely to support such a valuable asset.”
Council chiefs have since halved their offer from £16,000 a year to £8,000 — but that’s still 26 times what the not-for-profit group is paying for rent now. The cabinet member said she regretted that the community group had to speak to several different council departments, and added that she hoped to reach an agreement on a new level of rent. Cllr King said: “Both me and Marvin have visited the garden, I visited it last month, and I have had several conversations with the leader of that group since. It’s a conversation that’s open and I’ve asked [them] to come in and meet with us. They’ve had several different lines from several different officers, and that’s something that I regret and I’m keen to resolve. “
So the idea is we get everyone in one room and we try to work through solutions and different options that are available to them and us. We can hopefully come to an agreed amount that we can go to.” Mr Rees added: “Ellie is scheduled to come and meet with some of the organisers from Redcatch Park to talk through the situation and work out a way of finding a fair resolution — one that enables people to keep doing what they’re doing, and enables the city to keep benefiting from the work that’s going on there, but allows us as an authority to be financially responsible with council land and council assets.
“We’ve not necessarily been fully satisfied with multiple lines of communication and the approaches that have been had. The truth is that as political leaders, we sometimes wrestle with the organisation ourselves, to make sure it responds to people in a way that we think is a good reflection of how we want to be interacting with the city.”
Alex Seabrook – Local democracy reporter