Keith Kerr, Aspire CIC chair

The dispute between Reading’s Afro-Caribbean communities and Reading Borough Council (RBC) over a bid to acquire the old Central Club on London Street and its ‘black history’ mural led to a public demonstration through the town centre on 25 September. Keith Kerr, the chair of the legal entity set up to manage the bid on behalf of Reading’s Afro-Caribbeans, the Aspire Community Interest Company (CIC), talked to the Whitley Pump about what he intended for the site, how much he was willing to pay for it and how he feels the bid has been mistreated by RBC.

[Adam] The council said that Aspire have not offered them any money to buy the Central Club.
[Keith Kerr] The council is dissembling. The truth is we have £10 million to buy the site and erect a landmark building there. We offered the council a ‘fair market price’ for the site; at the time we could only have guessed what that fair market price would be. I think the council are used to bullying community groups. I’m telling you categorically that we made an offer to the council for a fair market price and we’ve put aside a six figure sum to acquire the site. We’ve also said that we’d expect our historical association with the site and the maintenance of the mural to be taken into account when we agree to that fair market value.

The land has to be commercially valued, and when that price is agreed, it will be paid to the council. What proportion of the £10 million goes to the council for the land and what proportion goes on construction of the landmark building depends on how the land is valued. Any commercial developer would do the same thing.

Are you proposing a tower block? Your website suggests it.
We’re not proposing a tower block; we’re proposing a landmark building. The website picture is just a concept that a visualisation engineer put together. We’re proposing that we acquire the land and then we’ll get an architect to design the new building. We want three floors for a community hub and the rest would be student accommodation.

The old Central Club

The old Central Club is in a conservation area, so you’re very limited about what you could build there.
We’re all aware of that. We won’t offer a million pounds if we can only put a £250,000 building on it; that wouldn’t make sense. We need to have a conversation with RBC about what we want, what can be done and what price would be paid for it. We have written to RBC several times requesting a meeting to discuss the issues, but they have steadfastly refused our overtures.

Councillor Sophia James suggested up to £600,000 for the site. [ “… estimates of bringing the building back into use range from £200,000 – £600,000 … ” *]
She has misrepresented the situation. That’s the cash required to bring the current site back into public use, and our plan is to raze the current red brick building to the ground, except for the wall with the mural on it, then erect a landmark building on the site.

The council have rejected two bids from the not-for-profit sector, including yours. They say they will offer the site to commercial developers. Will Aspire bid again?
I am not aware the council has started any new bidding process and we have no plans to bid again because we’ve already put in a winning bid that no commercial developer could beat. We’ll pay a fair market price for the site as well as provide strategic services from which the council is retreating due to budget austerity.

But aren’t you going to have to bid again if the council have rejected your first bid?
No. We could go to law and seek a judicial review of the council’s decision. The reason we don’t want to go into a second bid round is that we don’t believe the first round was properly concluded. We would be legitimising the council’s decision and agreeing that the result of the old bidding process was null and void. The council could then legitimately say “oh, a commercial developer has won it now”, and we’d have no recourse because we’d freely joined the new bidding process. We won the current bidding process. Aspire obtained the score sheet from the council that showed Aspire had won the bid.

The ‘black history’ mural

At the meeting in August at RISC, you said that Reading’s Afro-Caribbeans had a ‘birthright’ to the land, which sounded like you meant you already morally owned the land.
That’s exactly what I was saying. The Reading taxpayer already owns the site and buildings, and they are being asked to pay the commercial market rate for something they already own.

The council’s tender document said that it was for the Afro-Caribbean diaspora. We have an historical association with the site through prior use and the mural, so why shouldn’t we have access to it if we’re going to pay a fair market price? The council do not have to pay a penny towards the project, now or in the future. I think RBC have lined up a favoured commercial developer to whom they want to give the site, and we are an inconvenience because we made a full, robust, compelling and fully funded £10 million bid and they don’t know what to do with it.

I heard Councillors Page and Lovelock say in the media that “the community haven’t been able to raise the money.” I think this is how they’re deceiving you; they are talking about the failed bid by ACCG [the African & Caribbean Community Group] a couple of years ago. If the council only wanted a cash sum up front, why did they put in the bid document that bidders could make either a freehold or a leasehold offer? Why did the council offer £220,000 towards capital investment?

They’ve since withdrawn that £220,000, I believe.
That’s what I’m saying; they put all these terms and conditions in the bidding tender document without any reservations or rights to stop or change the process, and then moved the goal post after the process had closed.

Do you think the problem might be that the council are overwhelmed with budget and accounting problems?
So why then did they save South Street Arts Centre? We’re not asking a for a penny piece from the council now or in the future, but next year South Street Arts Centre will need the council to plug a funding gap with further grants. We want to take over grant funding to the diaspora by using our profits.

We have never, and will never, ever ask the council for money!

Are you going to make the details of your bid public as the council have been pressing you to do?
No. RBC is involved in obfuscation and deception. We cannot allow RBC to make our bid public whilst commercial developers and other community groups are still putting their bids in. If we did, the Aspire bid would be the only bid of which our competitors would know the entrails. RBC keep putting this nonsense in the public domain because they want to give the impression that there is something secretive about our bid. How can it be secretive if RBC already have the entire bid in their possession?

Councillors have suggested they can’t defend their position because they can’t explain problems with your bid.
There is no problem with the bid. The council have said our bid doesn’t include a cash figure; the easiest way for them to get a figure is for them to say they want £200,000 for the site. That’s a drop in the ocean for us, which is why I get frustrated about making it public. The council are hanging on to that claim because what they really want is to give the site to a commercial developer. Councillor Sophia James said the diaspora should socialise at ACRE or the Apollo Club; she’s now mellowed her position by saying we should share the space. The only reason we alighted on the Central Club site is that the council invited us to bid for it because of its historical association with the diaspora. Now that we’ve come along with a bucket load of money, it’s not good enough.

One of the reasons Aspire was established was to assist the diaspora to find project funding. We said we weren’t interested in the council’s £220,000 capital investment because we didn’t want to take any grant from RBC, and this may have backfired because the council appears to find our level of independence difficult to cope with as a CIC; they are left with nothing to control the group.

How likely is it that your bid will be successful?
100%. We’re in the court of public opinion, and I imagine the Labour Party doesn’t want to alienate a large number of constituents who usually vote for them by asking them to disproportionately bear the cost of closing the council’s budget gap.

Is that what the 25 September protest was about?
The protest was about the diaspora being angry that if a commercial developer came along, they would lose a piece of their heritage and a piece of their history.

The protest poster said that RBC were threatening to knock down the wall, but councillors have said many times that they don’t want to do this.
The council also said the land would be worth more without the mural. The language the council uses is that they want to “protect the future of the mural”. They want to digitise the mural and knock the wall down; having the mural inside a board room or the reception atrium of a corporate company is not the same as having it on a wall outside. I don’t think this will happen now because the community has firmly said they want the mural where it is.

The message from community groups is that they feel pretty hurt. For the first time in their lives, they’ve come together as a single voice and have found the funds with which they can control their own future. This is being frustrated by the council who have responded with a desire to find an alternative, more dependant, community group to talk to.

The council want to set up a new round of smoke-and-mirrors bidding so they can give the site to their favourite commercial developer. The money is already assured; the council just have to make sure there’s no covenant on the wall and mural. The council are talking about percussive tests on the wall; they want to take a pneumatic drill to it to test if the render is blown, and they’re going to clean it with chemicals. They’ve said they can’t guarantee that the mural won’t be damaged.

We’ve put a lien on the mural by asking RBC to designate it an asset of community value which means they would have to consult the community before they do anything with it. We’ve had no response since we asked in July 2017.

All that’s protecting the mural at the moment is people marching on the streets, saying “we value this and you knock it down at your peril”.

The council started a bidding process restricted only to community groups and the not-for-profit sector, and then said they had decided to do something else because they hadn’t got enough money from the community groups. What makes them think that shouting loudly that they have no intention of knocking over the wall is credible? They might just change their mind again.

I care about Councillors Sophia James and Glenn Dennis and would expect them to support a community bid like Aspire’s in this densely populated, ethnically diverse area. We want their help and would welcome their support, but they seem to be trotting out the Labour Party’s mantra. That means we’re in a difficult position with no councillor to support us except the Green Party’s Rob White. I guess the community’s mantra must be “no representation, no vote”.

Alan Howard, artist facilitator of the black history mural

Would your new community hub be an asset to the whole Reading community?
If the diaspora raise the money for it, why can’t they focus on themselves? Why can’t it be principally to the benefit of the under-served diaspora? Reading’s sikhs own their gurdwara, and Reading’s muslims own their mosque. We are using our own hard-earned cash and taking on the financial risk to own our community hub, so why do we have to be mealy-mouthed and say it’s got to be for everybody? There’s no council grant associated with it; they’re not giving the land for free and the burden is squarely on the diaspora to finance the community hub and maintain the mural forever, which is what we want to do anyway. Would RBC burden a commercial developer that way?

Aspire want to deny, once and for all, that we want something for nothing, that we are freeloaders. We are proud of the community and this project, and we are not defensive that the project is provided principally for the diaspora.

This is why we insisted we didn’t want the £220,000, because it would have come with strings attached. Aspire does not want anything to be granted for free by the council; Aspire wants to pay its way. Our fear is that whatever we offer the council, we will be told we have been outbid in the next phase, no matter what we do.

How will you address that?
We have clarified in a letter to RBC that our ‘fair market price’ for the Central Club site and buildings is £371,000 and that figure remains our formal bid from the original bidding process.

Mill Lane mural ‘livication’

* edit added 8 October

  1. Katesgrove councillor Sophia James talks about the future of the Central Club and the Black History Mural
  2. ‘Black History’ mural march delivers petition to council
  3. Reading’s Caribbean groups ‘demand their birthright’ with the Central Club
  4. Council attempting to “erase” Reading’s Afro-Caribbean history
  5. Aspire CIC website and Facebook page
  6. Do not sell the Central Club to commercial developers petition
  7. Reading’s list of assets of community value
  8. RBC feasibility steering group report into the former central club