A north-east community group is taking over an old school – despite failing to dash lingering doubts over whether they can afford it.
Aberdeenshire councillors were divided on handing over the keys of the former Fife Street School to Banff, Macduff and District Men’s Shed.
Some suggested the move would be a “risk too far” for the local authority.
It was only after the Men’s Shed explained plans to recoup some money by renting out the building that the community asset transfer (CAT) was rubber-stamped.
The local volunteers are “over the moon” to have finally passed the final hurdle in their search for a new home.
And, under the terms of the freshly agreed lease, they will pay just £100 to the council per year.
As well as a new base for members, it will be open to use for other groups as a community hub.
Financial picture ‘unclear’
However, the decision came against the recommendation of council officers who were unconvinced the group could afford to look after the building.
They urged elected members to refuse the scheme after a business plan presented by the Men’s Shed offered an “unclear picture of both current and future viability” of the project.
Speaking at the meeting, group member Lynne Rae said the Men’s Shed had run out of space at its current location on North Castle Street in Banff.
And she tried her best to allay any doubts over the outfit’s finances as she pleaded for the 99-year lease to be granted.
‘It’s been a long wait…’
Lynne said: “The additional space at the Fife Street School will allow them to undertake a greater number of projects.
“It’s been a long wait for these members, they have waited and looked for a long time for premises…
“Fife Street School which is sitting empty is ideal for the Men’s Shed.
“They have occupied their current premises for almost four years with an annual rent of £4,800, managing the finances comfortably using monies raised by members and donated by individuals and organisations.”
And she explained that Home-Start Deveron and Macduff Market have already expressed an interest in renting office space within the new premises.
Lynne added: “The business plan shows that the rental income derived from the community hub can cover most of the costs of the Fife Street School.”
Reward ‘outweighs risk’
Following debate councillor Mark Findlater urged his colleagues to go against the officers’ wishes.
He said: “The benefit to the community of Macduff’s well-being, the potential of a community hub that will benefit hundreds of people’s lives and the potential loss of this building to the community far outweighs the risks that have been given by council officers and a small financial receipt if it were sold.”
Mr Findlater added that it would be a “real tragedy” if the building was not reused and noted that there was a “fairly real risk” that it faced demolition.
Rejecting Fife Street School request would be ‘a real shame’
Gwyneth Petrie said: “I think we just need to consider that they really want this to work as a good community resource.
“If there were any shortcomings or difficulties then hopefully we could find a way to work through them.
“It just seems a real shame for the opportunity to be missed on the basis of a potential risk.”
‘It’s a risk…’
However councillor Jim Gifford was less optimistic.
He said: “If you’re not set up in a sustainable way there are challenges that come down the line that you may not be able to deal with.
“I think it’s a massive, massive challenge for the group and I think that it’s a risk that is just too far for the council.”
Councillor Isobel Davidson also asked the committee to knock back the application.
She said: “I think that the evidence that we have for success is the business plan and it simply doesn’t stack up.”
Councillors ultimately voted 10-4 in favour of handing it over.
‘It has been a long struggle’
Speaking after the meeting, Lynne said the Men’s Shed was “absolutely over the moon and delighted” to have had their CAT granted.
She added: “It has been a long struggle for them and they are grateful for the support that they have had from councillors and local groups.”
The former Fife Street School building was built in the 1930s and was used by North East Scotland College following its closure to pupils.
The building was put up for sale in 2020 and was considered for use as a COVID-19 vaccination and testing facility however those plans were later withdrawn.
The application was initially considered by the Banff and Buchan Area Committee in December.
You can watch the full discussion, which lasted more than an hour, here: