Bernie Muir, Epsom West Division’s current county councillor and Conservative candidate, talks about her position on the Wells Centre and Wells House (Karibu)

EWCA contacted each of the four Epsom West Division candidates in the upcoming 6th May SCC elections, to ask their views on the Wells Centre and the future of the Karibu children’s home.

I have been asked to confirm my position on The Wells Centre (owned by EEBC) and Karibu House (which sits within the Wells Estate and is owned by Surrey County Council). In this lengthy missive I seek to outline my involvement, my stance and debunk the endless erroneous claims of the RA. Before I do that, I think I should lay out my commitment to Epsom. 

Some history in my support for Epsom & its Residents regarding The Wells Centre

I ran for the County Council’s Epsom West Division in 2017 because, having moved to Epsom, I saw so much that needed powerful intervention both in Epsom and at County and I believe that residents who have had dealings with me and my County Council colleagues, from all parties, would confirm that I have done exactly that.  As an outlier, Epsom being the most densely populated Borough in Surrey, it is especially important that Epsom’s unique position is understood at the heart of decision making.

I gave up my job, and could ill afford to do so, to ensure I could be fully committed and available for resident issues, attend all briefings, site visits, training sessions and officer meetings in order to effectively address issues, scrutinise policies and be at the heart of the discussions involved in developing the wholesale 4-year transformation programme.

My support for the Wells Community Centre can be in do doubt as, from the start, I actively set out to research the background and the potential of the Centre.  I went door to door in Epsom West, and wider, to establish the prior usage and the potential demand for such a facility. I did many Freedom of Information requests and trawled through acres of data which revealed systemic failures which you can read about in my blog on the EWCA site (Wells Centre – Past & Future).

The Epsom & Ewell Conservative Assoc produced thousands of letters supporting my efforts on The Wells Centre (unbranded to avoid politicising such an important issue) and our volunteers distributed them so that all residents would understand what is going on.  I met with Wells activists many, many times and organised a number of public meetings, followed by extensive surveys. The results of one survey we handed to Borough officers at a protest I organised on the Town Hall.  In addition to face-to-face meetings, I organised an online “Talking Heads Session’ which was seen by more than 3K people, demonstrating the prior use and future need for The Wells Centre. Outrageously, during the first Lockdown the RA set up at the lastminute a Special Planning Committee regarding their new proposals for the site. Within days of the announcement, I organised an online protest seen by more than 3K people and distributed the link to that meeting to a vast portion of Epsom residents, to enable them to attend the online Committee Meeting.  I’ve raised the issues with officers, RA Councillors and at the relevant committee meetings in the Borough, including Full Council, many times.  I have been working with the Epsom Wells Community Association (EWCA) from its inception and kept them posted of my findings and advised on future actions and perspectives.  I worked with them on a totally new proposition for the centre which was developed over many meetings.  They now have robust service and business plans, and the next step is to get the RA to look at it and give it serious consideration.  To date, they have yet to explain how the Borough benefits from the demolition of a community asset and the wholly inappropriate proposals for the site.  This has nothing to do with housing targets as 3 successive Minister for Housing have confirmed that no inspector would require the destruction of a community asset to meet housing targets.  I actively believe we need affordable and social housing but, as the population increases, we need such community assets more than ever, especially with the rapid increase in agile working and thus the emergence of the ‘15-minute neighbourhood’.

It would seem to this day the RA continue to demonstrate they have yet to recognise their failures re The Wells.  Their task group to review the future of the centre was bound to come to the wrong conclusion due to the failed Terms of Reference (ToR) that determined the group’s activities.  Had the ToR required a full post-mortem into their past methodologies they would have recognised that their strategy, remit and management were the cause of the centre’s demise. Furthermore, a radical rethink of how this building could serve the community would have driven a very different result.  But, no post-mortem or rethink was in the ToR.  Thus, they just took the lowest revenue resulting from their failures to advise closure. By the way, it would seem that no Conservative Member was on this task group.  The members were 4 RA Members  (Clive Smitheram, David Reeve, Robert Foote and Tony Axelrod) and 1 Labour (Kate Chinn).

Had the Task Group looked at the vast user numbers (not the much smaller membership numbers) they would have had a clue to its potential.  Added to which, had they fully consulted the wider Epsom West & Epsom Town and Downs Divisions, it would have been apparent what the real need and likely much higher revenue streams would have been. As this was not in the ToR they were working to woefully inappropriate data.

They ignored the repeated resident requests for alternative services and latterly put in a manager who never left the office and did next to no marketing. Indeed, attendance fell away due to dissatisfaction with the service provision.

Had they looked at a model where EEBC received all the revenue and not hiring it out for the majority of time at £10 per hour, sought strategic financial partners and an entirely different remit the outcome would have been very different.  There are countless examples of how using parts of the building in radically different ways would have secured a financially viable outcome.

In relation to Surrey County Council who the Residents Association erroneously persist in including in this conversation, there is much I could say and can evidence if anyone wishes to request sight of my extensive archive. In short, SCC has no responsibility for a Borough’s community asset. However, the true exchanges between SCC and the Borough, on investigation, do not fit the RA narrative. Here are just 3 quotes from SCC arising out of my investigations: –

  1. “E&EBC have been receiving Personalisation, Partnership and Prevention funding (PPP) from ASC (Adult Social Care) and could have used this to continue to run the Wells. However, through Linda Scott’s conversations it appears they were not pursuing approaches that could build up a viable centre in the Wells. Linda did discuss with ASC ideas she had for the Wells Centre to increase attendance but we understand she struggled to engage with the Wells Centre Manager around using the Centre for clients with care and support needs.”

“At the time of closing The Wells Centre, Adult Social Care were not consulted and we only found out about it after the closure had been agreed.”

2. “The Wells Centre is one of two day-centres in Epsom and Ewell Borough (E&E), the other being the Longmead Centre. We have worked closely with E&E Borough Council (E&EBC) around the Longmead Centre and providing services there, but the Wells Centre has never been funded by Adult Social Care. This is largely because it did not offer any support to people with care or support needs and Epsom & Ewell Borough Council did not ask us for funding at any time to provide services at the Wells Centre.” 

3. “The Wells Centre however is under Andrew Lund, a facilities officer at E&EBC and he is not engaged with ASC.”

I spent a vast amount of time looking at the past failings and the Centre’s potential and was alone, in Councillor terms, for the bulk of my 4-year tenure.  An RA Councillor’s apparent, recently declared, concerns about their own proposals were never declared to me or indeed to the Wells Community so it is interesting to see them expressed at the 11th hour.

Indeed, I was elected to the Borough Council in 2019 with the support of The Wells Community due to the absence of the other parties in their fight. 

In addition to working for The Wells Centre campaign, I spent my Members Highway Allocation twice on this community, firstly on repairing the end of Woodlands Road and secondly to install safety measure at the junction of Dorking Rd with bollards, flashing speed signs on the Dorking road on both approaches to the Wells Rd junction and negotiating with Epsom Common to regularly cut the vegetation at the junction to improve visibility.

I have also dealt with a significant number of Wells Residents’ issues.

As an aside, Neil Dallan claims that SCC is ignoring Climate Change yet SCC declared a Climate Emergency after commissioning the University of Leicester to do a thorough analysis of Surrey in relation to climate change.  It would seem from much of the election literature that Candidates have failed to investigate the body they seek to be elected to as the vast majority of their declared aspirations are already in the County’s 4-year transformation plan which has 2 more years to run to fruition.

Developments in Epsom and Ewell

Again, I believe my actions over the last year show that I am actively involved in opposing inappropriate developments.  We do urgently need affordable and social housing and I have put forward my thoughts on how this could be achieved.

I and our MP have been vocal and active in seeking the Government to revise its methodology in calculating housing targets as it is clearly the case that what is being proposed is far too numerous for Epsom and its infrastructure to withstand.

Even so, there are ways to deliver increased housing but the Residents Association Councillors failure to produce an up-to-date local plan (Epsom’s dates back to 2007) and their piecemeal and reactionary approach to development has meant we are wide open to developers.  It is a developers’ charter and a total derogation of a key function of any Borough. We are in a moment of real opportunity and I see no sign of them rising to the occasion.

Our current Epsom & Ewell Borough planning rules are wholly inadequate and particularly in relation to tight rules tailored for each area to ensure sympathetic construction.  Our Conservation Rules are not fit for purpose. The public must be encouraged to hold their Borough leaders to account on this.

They blame Government targets for their failure to update their plan, yet every Borough in the land has had Government housing targets and yet produced Local Plans that are significantly newer and more robust than Epsom’s dated 2007.  Indeed, weeks ago, the Borough’s Licensing and Planning Policy Committee voted to defer a new plan for another 2 years.

I have actively and visibly opposed the tower blocks in Stoneleigh, West Street and the hospital site, the disastrous proposals adjacent to Clayhill Green and others.  I have met with stakeholders and delivered thousands of leaflets on the subject and repeatedly raised these matters with the Borough, whose succession of Chief Planning Officers seem more in tune with modern urban development rather than the needs and identity of a sub-urban market town.

Karibu House

Bearing in mind what I have written above, it is clear where I stand and that I am willing to act.  As I write this, no decision has been made as to whether the building will be used by children’s services, or if not children services, for any other Surrey County Council services.  I have asked to be informed the moment a decision is made.  And, if the land is to be sold, I will be closely watching what is proposed regarding the sale and what any purchaser does with the land and put forward my opinions on these.

I will of course ensure that residents are consulted on any new proposals.

Whatever happens, I am acutely aware of the frailties of the site:

  • Spa Drive is prone to subsidence and is a narrow road that cannot support the building traffic, increased resident traffic or additional parking pressures especially as many Spa Drive residents do not have off-street parking
  • there is only one way into the Estate and any danger of road damage would be disastrous
  • Negative impacts on the bridge would be catastrophic if it could not withstand pressures due to large scale development.

I would actively oppose any development detrimental to the Wells Community or unsympathetic to the unique nature of The Wells Estate.

My ability to act on residents’ behalf

If history repeats itself, and the dominant group at County is the Conservative Group, I would be at the heart of that Group.  There is no barrier to me fighting for my Division and would be free to oppose developments and actively work on any such opposition.

Anyone who knows me cannot argue with the fact that I have actively shown my commitment throughout my term, not just approaching an election, and if elected I know they are sure of my ongoing commitment and abilities to support them.  I have no other personal agenda.  My only aim is to use my extensive experience, my passion to improve peoples’ lives, my drive to reduce health inequalities and use my transferrable skills to serve our Borough’s and Surrey’s residents.

Please note all opinions are the author’s own and are not those of EWCA. If you would like to submit a blog outlining what the centre meant to you, or how it could be used in the future please contact us.

Epsom Wells Community Association

To find out more about EWCA and our campaign to reopen The Wells Centre, please send us an email or join our email list.

Published by epsomwellscommunityassociation

The Epsom Wells Community Association (EWCA) was set up by Epsom Wells residents committed to reopening and running the Epsom Wells Centre.

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