THE organiser of local charity, Melksham Community Meals, has expressed her disappoint- ment at the amount of rent the town council is charging to use the Assembly Hall.
Currently, the town council is charging Sue Mortimer and her team £95 per day to use the kitchen and bar area to provide a lunch service on Fridays and Sundays, offering a place for people to meet and socialise – including those in the community that are vulnerable, lonely and isolated.
The rate of £95 is discounted from the usual charge of £160 – but Sue says that this is not enough.
At the beginning of the year Sue led a successful campaign to save the service, originally called the Melksham Lunch Club, after it was axed by Wiltshire Council in December last year. The town council supported Sue’s campaign by waiving the rent for the first three months at the Assembly Hall and offering a reduced rent for the following three months. And at last week’s Melksham Town Council meeting, councillors unanimously agreed to continue the subsidised rent until the end of September, to allow for Sue’s application for a town council grant towards the rent to be assessed.
“I’m not jumping for joy,” Sue told Melksham News. “I appreciate that we can use the Assembly Hall for an additional month at a discounted rate and that the town council is being asked to subsidise another service cut by Wiltshire Council – but charging us £95 is disappointing. It seems like they are using us to make money. If we weren’t there, there would be nothing going on in the Assembly Hall.
“When Wiltshire Council ran the service, they were paying £104 a session – initially when I approached the council in January for help, I budgeted to be paying a third of that amount. So £95 was a surprise, and it does make it difficult to run the service effectively.
“It is not costing them much more for us to be in there – I estimate it costs them about £6 for gas and electricity each session.”
Councillors also expressed concern that the community meals project was preventing the Assembly Hall from being used for other events – with some councillors highlighting criticism that the Liberal Democrat controlled council runs the Assembly Hall at a loss.
In response Sue said, “If they did have a function, we would be happy to not use the hall and cancel the meals service for that day. We are not standing in the way of them making money.
“It felt like the real reason we were there got lost – at one point the discussion got quite political with the Liberal Democrats on the offensive because the Lib-Dem controlled council has been criticised for the Assembly Hall making a loss.”
During the meeting, cllr Tony Watts praised Sue and the service, suggesting that the town council should let the team have the Assembly Hall for free.
“To have the hall free would have been a lifeline,” said Sue, “I was disappointed that no one backed him. I’m sure no one in the community would begrudge us having the Assembly Hall for free – so many people have told me that they really appreciate what we are doing.”
In addition to the subsidised rent, the town council offered support to Sue to find alternative premises for the service in preparation for when the Assembly Hall is closed for refurbishment after the Melksham Campus project is completed and the Blue Pool building knocked down. Suggestions made for alternative premises included the Rachel Fowler Centre, which would need funding to install a suitable kitchen. The council resolved that their community engagement manager, Debbie Bentley, would work with Sue to investigate possible solutions.”
In response, mayor cllr Jon Hubbard said, “The Town Council is pleased to be able to continue to support the Community Meals project but we do have to ensure that, in line with all of the decision that are taken by the council, public money is being appropriately spent.
“The Community Meals team have applied to the Town Council for a grant to support the delivery of the service from September and came to the council to ask for additional funding to help them through until then. This was agreed unanimously by the council.
“During the debate a number of supporting statements for the valued work of this project were made by members and it was clear that the council supported this initiative. However it was also noted that there had been some concern expressed previously by some members about the level of subsidy given to the Assembly Hall and members were asked to remember that such subsidies included helping initiatives such as this.
“There was also concern expressed that it could be harder to hire out the Assembly Hall for the remaining parts of the day with the lunches happening. It is helpful to see the constructive response to this issue from the Community Meals Team, although the council would be reluctant to see them having to cancel sessions piecemeal as this would be very disruptive to their clients.
“The support of the Community Meals project is not a political issue and I would like to stress that the support for continuing the subsidy was unanimous. The council is committed to helping the Community Meals project find long-term alternative premises for delivering the service which are best suited for this important project.”