An Open Letter to Councillor Sonia Winifred

Dear Councillor Winifred,

Thank you for your recently released statements regarding the future of Carnegie Library. It is heartening that you are taking such an interest in the future of this landmark heritage building.

As you know, the Carnegie Community Trust (CCT) and its precursor organisations have since 2012 been working on bringing the building into community ownership. This work has involved thousands of hours of volunteer time and about £100,000 of Council grant funding to see the project through the various stages of consultation, conservation planning, architectural work, business planning and asset transfer, which has eventually led to CCT being selected as Lambeth’s preferred community partner.

However, we are sorry to report that we are still not on the same page as the Council. The problems started in 2015 when the ‘Culture 2020’ report was published and we discovered that, despite the initial commitment and investment from Lambeth, the building was to be handed over to Greenwich Leisure Limited (GLL) for use as a gym with some minor library provision. At this juncture we decided that in those circumstances our project could not continue.

The project was given a reprieve after CCT appealed to councillors who then amended the Culture 2020 cabinet recommendations. This eventually led to Lambeth agreeing to excavate the basement to house the gym, allowing a community project to proceed as planned on only the upper floors.

In our plans, the excavation of the basement was proposed as necessary in order to provide a sustainable income stream, although our preferred use for it would not have been a gym. This was because our consultation results showed local opposition to this use. But, given Lambeth’s commitment to going ahead with a gym run by GLL, CCT felt that this could be an acceptable compromise given that GLL could be the reliable anchor tenant we were seeking, so ensuring an income stream sufficient to sustain the community building as a whole.

Having said that, there remain three main problems with the Council’s position:

1.  Due to a ‘side deal’ in the leisure contract, GLL and Lambeth are insisting that no rent be paid for the basement until 2022, after which a rent well below the market value is being offered. As charity trustees, we have a fiduciary duty to ensure that we are receiving best value from the rental of space. We are advised that such an arrangement would contravene charity law and likely make capital funding for the restoration of the building impossible to secure, as well as leaving a significant shortfall in the anticipated revenue stream for that space.

2.  Although the basement excavation is accepted in principle, the proposed ancillary building and curtailment of space in the garden is not. This is a cheap ‘off the shelf’ scheme that is entirely out of character with a listed building. Again, this will deter funders and restrict the use of the outside garden spaces by the community and residents of the flats.

3.  Lambeth is determined to begin work as soon as possible, spending £1.2m of public funds. This money could leverage in considerable match-funding if it were to be considered as part of an overall capital funding package. The undue haste with which the Council is now pursuing its agreement with GLL is jeopardising future funding for the Carnegie in both revenue and capital terms.

Obviously a joined-up approach is required. We have a unique opportunity to secure the long-term future of the building with a heritage regeneration project providing investment of £5m or more and completing a Community Asset Transfer guaranteeing that this precious building will stay as a public building with a library in it for the use of everyone in the area. Without this investment and community ownership the building could survive in the short-term, but would continue to be gradually degraded by neglect and inappropriate alterations and inevitably end up in the private sector. A gym would sit nicely within a development of luxury flats.

CCT is finding it very difficult to get through to the Council the need to work in partnership with us and the community on the long-term future of the Carnegie.  Instead of co-operative working we are continually being presented with fait accompli. Many decisions have already been taken by the Council that jeopardise not just our but any community bid. Accordingly, we now request that this process be slowed down in order to allow time for proper consideration and consultation on plans for the future of this landmark building to take place.

Lambeth councillors seem fixated on getting the library open before next May’s elections. Although this approach may be politically expedient, it is ultimately endangering the future of the building and any community project.

We do not have much time; work is about to start. We urgently request your intervention.

There is nothing that cannot be solved with sensible dialogue. Although the re-opening of the library may be put back a bit, it is better that there is a plan that is acceptable to everyone and that the community has had an opportunity to contribute to it.

We only have one shot at this. Let’s get it right.

Carnegie Community Trust CIO