Calls for rethink after sale of Holt Hall falls through

Holt Hall environmental and outdoor learning centre

Norfolk County Council has agreed to sell Holt Hall to a mystery bidder. - Credit: Archant

Council bosses are facing calls to rethink their plans for the future of a former outdoor learning centre, after its sale fell through.

Norfolk County Council reached an agreement earlier this year to sell Holt Hall to a mystery buyer for an undisclosed sum.

But it emerged this week that the authority had pulled out of the sale after growing frustrated with delays over its completion.

County Hall announced its intention to close the site in late 2020 as a cost-cutting measure, arguing it was in need of £600,000 of maintenance and had already cost £270,000 over its last three years in use.

But this was met with fierce objection, with campaign group the Friends of Holt Hall and opposition councillors leading calls for it to continue in community use.

The campaign group succeeded in having the site declared an asset of community value and put forward their own bid to take over the property.

However, in March a deal was struck to sell the property to an unidentified buyer, who planned to turn it into a residential home.

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Leading councillors have described the collapse of the deal as "frustrating" and plan to restart the sale process.

But they are now faced with fresh calls to reconsider using it as an outdoor learning facility.

Nic Hopkins, A trustee of the friends of Holt Hall.

Nic Hopkins, A trustee of the friends of Holt Hall. - Credit: Nic Hopkins

Nic Hopkins, of the Friends, said: "We as a group will now have to consider our position. This process and the pandemic has meant that for the best part of 28 months the site has not been used, which is two-and-a-half years of benefits lost at a time of great need for outdoor learning and for our children to gain understanding of the natural world.

"Serious conversations need to be had on its use and we were incredibly willing to help for 18 months."

Mike Smith-Clare

Mike Smith-Clare, Labour county councillor. - Credit: Labour Party

Mike Smith-Clare, the Labour group's education spokesman, said: "Holt Hall was and still could be an asset for providing essential outdoor learning to Norfolk's youngsters.

"It was carelessly sold off by a wrecking crew of an administration without the slightest consideration of any possible impact - yet another rash 'quick buck' Tory decision.

"Surely now is the time to make Holt Hall a centre for learning opportunities again. Our children and young people deserve it."

Steffan Aquarone, Liberal Democrat group leader at Norfolk County Council. Picture: Alex Broadway

Steffan Aquarone, Liberal Democrat group leader at Norfolk County Council. Picture: Alex Broadway - Credit: Alex Broadway

Liberal Democrat councillor Steffan Aquarone added: "I'm delighted that there is the potential to keep Holt Hall for outdoor education, hopeful that the bidders whose proposals included this are still willing to talk, and shocked that the Tories got taken in by the big money.

"Will the county council put the substantial deposit that the 'winning' bidder paid into helping the new owner establish outdoor education provision?"

The authority looks unlikely to reconsider running the site for educational use itself, having long argued that it was used by only three per cent of Norfolk's children.

But since the property still has 'community value' status, the collapse means local groups have a fresh opportunity to come up with their own bids in the next six months.

Should a suitable offer from a community group not come forward, the property would be placed on the open market again.

The council will then be required to consider each bid on its own merits, but in the event of significant disparity between bids, it would be legally obliged to accepted the highest offer.

Greg Peck, Conservative candidate for Reepham. Pic: Norfolk Conservatives.

Greg Peck, Norfolk County Council member for asset management - Credit: Norfolk Conservatives

Greg Peck, the Conservative-led council's cabinet member of assets, said: "It is always frustrating when a deal falls through, as I am sure many people may have experienced if buying and selling their own home.

"Legal contracts were finalised, however the purchase was not in a position to proceed.

"All due diligence was undertaken, the bidder was credible, and we are disappointed that we are not able to proceed.

"Norfolk County Council wanted to complete on the sale and the prospective purchaser was not in a position to proceed, so we have reluctantly had to take the decision to withdraw from the sale.

"However, I am keen for us to bring the site back to the market to ensure a long-term use for the building can be found."