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Town council to debate ‘tenancy’ and ‘debt’ issues at Wisbech Castle

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‘Tenancy issues’ and the ‘future of the role of volunteer caretaker’ will be debated by a  town council committee next week as they struggle to resolve an issue at Wisbech Castle.

For the past two years former town councillor Dave Topgood has lived at the castle in an official capacity as caretaker.

But a carefully worded item on the agenda for next Monday’s meeting of the town centre committee will hear all is not well with the role.

Wisbech Castle: Doing well for weddings and paranormal events but rarely open to the public. Finding more volunteers is an issue.

Wisbech Castle: Doing well for weddings and paranormal events but rarely open to the public. Finding more volunteers is an issue. Pictured: Cllr Steve Tierney, chair of the town centre committee. 

The item has been marked ‘confidential’ and the small committee – chaired by Cllr Steve Tierney in recent months since Cllr Andrew Lynn stepped down – will consider the topics listed, briefly, by town clerk Terry Jordan.

Under the heading ‘Wisbech Castle’ the clerk says the committee will need to consider:

1: Any tenancy issues

2: Delegation of authority to the town clerk to take action, if necessary, to address any such issues

3: The future of the role of volunteer caretaker for Wisbech Castle

4: The potential operation of a café in the Pump Room, including the associated tenancy arrangements.

At a town centre committee meeting earlier this year “members considered an issue in relation to the collection of a debt associated with use of Wisbech Castle and agreed a course of action to address the situation”.

Last November the town council accepted the resignation of Mr Topgood from the council, although he remains on Fenland District Council.

Wisbech Castle: Doing well for weddings and paranormal events but rarely open to the public. Finding more volunteers is an issue.

Hidden in the centre of a Fenland Town Wisbech Castle, Town Centre, Wisbech 
Picture by Terry Harris.

Mr Topgood did not given a reason publicly for his decision to quit, but with May elections looming his resignation did not force a by election.

However he decided not to quit his other role –  as a Fenland District Council councillor for the same ward – continues to draw his £5,000 a year allowance. He was elected unopposed in 2019.

Cllr Topgood, who gives his home address as The Castle, Museum Square, on his register of interests offered no reason for his sudden departure from the town council, but he has recently taken up a management role at a Wisbech pub, The Globe.

Wisbech Castle: Doing well for weddings and paranormal events but rarely open to the public. Finding more volunteers is an issue.

Wisbech Castle: Doing well for weddings and paranormal events but rarely open to the public. Finding more volunteers is an issue. PHOTO: Richard Humphrey 

When the town council offered him accommodation at the castle, Mr Jordan said his presence provided “additional security for the building and also generates a rental income for Wisbech Town Council (and, hence, of benefit to the local taxpayers).”

Mr Jordan has always declined to comment on how much rent Mr Topgood was asked to pay in rent, but it is believed to be around £100 a week inclusive of utility bills.

“I can, say, however, that the tenancy is subject to a ‘market’ rent,” he said.

Wisbech Castle: Doing well for weddings and paranormal events but rarely open to the public. Finding more volunteers is an issue.

Wisbech Castle: Doing well for weddings and paranormal events but rarely open to the public. Finding more volunteers is an issue.

Ironically at the meeting which allowed him to continue living there, and on the proposal of Cllr Steve Tierney and seconded by Cllr Billy Rackley, Cllr Topgood was elected chair of the (now disbanded) castle management committee.

Mr Jordan had also penned a report which felt that renting a room was a good idea “to generate an income for the council”.

When Mr Topgood’s resignation was announced at Wisbech town council last November, Cllr Tierney said he was “sad that, for health reasons, Mr Topgood had found it necessary to resign his membership of the council”.

Minutes from that meeting explain that Cllr Tierney “expressed the opinion that everyone should condemn the actions of those persons who had treated Mr Topgood in ways which had impacted adversely upon his health.

Wisbech Castle: Doing well for weddings and paranormal events but rarely open to the public. Finding more volunteers is an issue.

Wisbech Castle: Doing well for weddings and paranormal events but rarely open to the public. Finding more volunteers is an issue.

“Councillor Tierney expressed the opinion, with which there was concurrence by others, that Mr Topgood had been a good councillor and had contributed significantly to the operation, maintenance and development of Wisbech Castle as a community asset.

“Councillor Peter Human expressed his disappointment that Mr Topgood felt that he could not continue as a member of the council.”

‘Steady stream’ of inquiries 

Last August the town council was told by the clerk that numerous pre-booked events (including paranormal evenings, escape room events, weddings etc) are taking place at Wisbech Castle.

He said there was a “steady stream” of enquiries for holding events and activities at Wisbech Castle.

The council was told that having regard for the level of volunteer capacity to “staff” events, a couple of months for the calendar year were deemed to be fully booked.

Wisbech Castle: Doing well for weddings and paranormal events but rarely open to the public. Finding more volunteers is an issue.

Wisbech Castle: Doing well for weddings and paranormal events but rarely open to the public. Finding more volunteers is an issue.

However when asked the mayor, Cllr Susan Wallwork, whether Wisbech Castle would be holding open days for the public, she was told by Cllr Tierney that the venue was busy with other bookings.

He told her that with the current level of volunteer capacity, that would not be possible.

In a separate report, the council has been told by the clerk that Wisbech Castle continues to be extremely successful in attracting bookings for paranormal events.

Mr Jordan said operation of the site “is generating a good level of income for the council”.

Cllr Tierney also told councillors before Christmas of the challenges faced by the number of bookings at Wisbech Castle and the level of volunteers’ capacity to support such.

He  suggested that the council may need to consider “buying in” staffing resources to provide the additional capacity as and when required.

This would, obviously, incur additional cost to the council, he suggested could, man suggested could, if necessary, be met through an increase in fees and charges.

Wisbech Town Council was granted a lease (with a duration of 30 years) with Cambridgeshire County Council in respect of Wisbech Castle since February 2018.

Fees and charges

Last May the town council agreed that given the experience of operating, managing and developing Wisbech Castle since July 2018, it was now felt to be the appropriate time to review the fees and charges.

The council felt it appropriate to increase the fees and charges for the use of Wisbech Castle, to achieve:

!: A level of income which would reflect the “historic” and “cultural” value of the building and its grounds

2: Sufficient additional income from bookings to be able to fund professional cleaning before and after a large event, such as a wedding, of the areas used.

Hire charges for now include Medworth Room (pre ceremony) and Fendick Room (ceremony) at £600 with an extra £156 for using the gardens for photographs.

If the grounds are used for the reception, too, the overall cost is £1,110.

Other charges include hiring the scullery for an hour (£20) or £50 for three hours, the gardens for £50 an hour or £120 for three hours  and £100 to erect a marquee.

 

 

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