ORGANISATIONS seeking to take over the ‘internationally important’ Priory Visitor Centre axed by the council are being invited to bid to run it for THREE YEARS only, raising further alarm that it may never re-open.
Coventry City Council on Monday opened a formal Expressions of Interest process for potential takeover parties to apply to manage the city centre tourist and culture venue – home to the remains of the city’s 1000-year-old, Lady Godiva-founded, first cathedral and priory.
But sources have expressed surprise and disappointment that bids are only being sought to operate the centre on a three year lease, rather than a ‘standard’ 50 or 99-year lease on a peppercorn rent.
The Coventry Observer’s #SaveThePriory campaign has called on the council to ensure the ‘city’s birthplace’ venue is re-opened urgently, with community group takeovers only being one potential solution.
Our campaign call has been echoed by prominent figures including the Bishop of Coventry the reverend Dr Christopher Cocksworth; TV Time Team presenter and ‘Blackadder’ actor Sir Tony Robinson; eminent medieval historian Dr Jonathan Foyle; and Coventry South Labour MP Jim Cunningham.
The council’s budget last year enforced the centre’s closure – implemented in February this year – to save the council £100,000 annually – less than half the remuneration of the council’s chief executive.
Yet the Expression of Interest documents – now available on the council’s website – appear to cast doubt on whether even £100,000 was being spent on the Priory Visitor Centre.
Figures show £16,200 was the total bill for maintenance and utilities, while other sources claim staffing costs were negligible.
The documents also state: “The Council is inviting community groups and organisations to take on the operational management of the Priory Visitor Centre and Undercroft, including maintaining a level of public access.
“The successful group/organisation will be awarded a three year lease for the management of the Centre and Undercroft.”
Two potentially interested parties have told the Coventry Observer the very short three-year lease terms, although on terms of zero rent, could make delivering a sustainable business plan difficult, not least because it could make it harder to attract grant funding and other revenues.
We reported last month that interested parties would have until the end of this month to bid, and that Coventry businesswoman Carole Donnelly was among potentially interested parties.
The Chapelfields ‘social entrepreneur’ told us last month she would seek to acquire a ‘community asset transfer’ before potentially bidding for Lottery or heritage funding to help re-open the venue as a non-profit multi-purpose social enterprise, staffed by community volunteeers.
Other community organisations – from a cafe company to local creative and artistic organisations – could potentially get involved, she had told us.
But the three-year lease terms contain no mention of any potential for an asset transfer.
The Bishop of Coventry described the remains and artefacts housed at the Priory Visitor Centre in Priory Place, city centre, as “one of our city’s great treasures”.
He added the original St Mary’s cathedral and priory ‘played a very important role in the early life of our great city’ and was part of the city’s heritage and story, which the world ‘urgently needs to hear’.
Sir Tony Robinson, whose Time Team twice visited the site uncovered during Millennium excavations, described the treasures as being of international significance, while Dr Foyle said Coventry should be doing more to show off its unique medieval treasures to the world.
Treasures include a glorious Chapter House wall painting, carved sandstone gargoyles, medieval glass and 14th century tile floors.
In response to our enquiries, a council spokesperson said although expressions of interest were invited for ‘a proposed three-year lease term’, the council would be ‘open to considering a proposition for a longer term.’
They added: “The panel will consider a request to negotiate a longer lease term where a supporting, sustainable business case shows the need for this.”
Yet nowhere in the bidding documents are bidders informed of this.
Asked about the running cost figures, it said: “The council previously allocated and provided a grant of £85,702 for the staffing and operational management of the centre.”
How YOU can support our #SaveThePriory campaign:
Our letters page.. Share your thoughts and experiences, in words or pictures, and say what Coventry’s proud medieval history means to you.
On Twitter @covobserver. Using the hashtag #savethepriory to pledge your support.
On Facebook.co.uk/covobserver. Keep up to date, and share your thoughts.
Head to our dedicated #savethepriory web page, and get the latest on the battle to Save the Priory Visitor Centre