Somerset County Council to end operations at Dillington House

Somerset County Council is to end its operations at Dillington House in a bid to prevent further losses for taxpayers.

The council has run adult education courses from the 16th-century venue near Ilminster for decades, recently diversifying into weddings, conferences and other corporate events.

The venue has been struggling to make ends meet for more than a decade, predicting to lose more than £500,000 over the current financial year and struggling to regain much of the pre-coronavirus business that it enjoyed.

The council’s executive has now decided to break away from the venue, seeking to end its lease and remove all of its operations on the site by the end of 2023.

Here’s everything you need to know:

Where is Dillington House, and what does it do? 

Dillington House is a grade one listed manor located between Ilminster and the A303, boasting 43 en-suite bedrooms across three buildings and 13 meeting rooms of various sizes.

It was once the home of Lord North, who served as Prime Minister between 1770 and 1782, and was used as a vaccination hub during the earlier stages of the coronavirus pandemic.

The site has historically focussed on adult education, and is the home of the Somerset Centre for Integrated Learning (SCIL), whose courses are accredited by the University of Worcester.

In recent times, the site has attempted to diversify its income by hosting weddings, conferences and providing bed-and-breakfast accommodation on-site.

The wider Dillington Estate has also recently become the chosen venue of the Shindig Festival, which used to be held at Gilcombe Farm near Bruton.

How much money is the council losing by keeping Dillington House?

It costs Somerset taxpayers around £2M a year to run Dillington House, which has struggled for many years to turn a profit.

Between 2009/10 and 2019/20, the venue accumulated a deficit of £1.8M, and is forecast to run a deficit of £502,000 in the current financial year.

The coronavirus pandemic had a “significant impact” on the venue, with £1.84M of central government grants being needed to replace lost income over the last two years.

In addition to these revenue costs, the council also has a duty to maintain the structure of the listed buildings, with a 2020 survey identifying “significant liabilities” which will need to be addressed.

On top of all this, the council is still repaying a loan it took out to construct the Hyde building within the estate in 2009 – a loan which currently stands at £1,665,000, with average repayments of £170,000 a year.

In short, the venue is losing a lot of money very rapidly – and at a time where significant savings need to be found ahead of moving to the new unitary Somerset Council, that is the last thing that Somerset can afford.

What is the council going to do about this?

The council pays £1,435 per year to rent the site as part of a 99-year lease with the Cameron Estate, which will officially end in 2062.

As part of this lease agreement, there are ‘break clauses’ available, allowing either party to get out of the lease early if the arrangement is no longer financially beneficial to them.

The next break clause point will be on March 25, 2023, with the council having to give six months’ notice before this date if it wants to end the lease.

If it does nothing, the council would have to wait until March 2043 – more than 20 years – before any further such discussion regarding the lease could take place.

A study carried out for the council by the Local Government Association (LGA) said the return of the lease was the best option, with the council’s own social care team confirming that the buildings would not be suitable for any alternative use.

How soon will the council be pulling out?

The council will be formally giving its six months’ notice to the Cameron Estate that it wishes to end its lease on Dillington House.

On the surface, this would suggest that all councils operations on site – including weddings – would cease in March 2023. But it isn’t quite that simple.

In practice, the council would have to cease offering courses and all other activities by late-January 2023, allowing two months for its staff to leave and all buildings to be cleared out, at a cost of around £53,000.

There are already 18 weddings booked to be held at the venue up to March 2023, with a further 16 due to take place there before September 2023.

A rapid closure would result in all of these bookings, and others, having to be cancelled – resulting in a “significant reputational [sic] and operational impact” for the council.

Instead, the council will seek to change the terms of the lease – known legally as a deed of variation – to allow bookings to be honoured until September 2023, with all staff and property to be removed by November 2023.

While this will prove more expensive – around £81,000 – it will reduce the long-term damage to the council’s reputation, allow an alternative venue for its adult education courses to be secured and prevent weddings – many of which were already delayed by the pandemic – from having to be cancelled.

How have councillors reacted?

The issue was widely debated by the council’s executive committee when it met at County Hall in Taunton on Wednesday morning (September 21).

Councillor Sarah Wakefield, associate portfolio holder for development and assets, said she was confident that the council would be able to continue delivering adult education provision at other venues.

She said: “I think this has been a very difficult decision to come to, but I do think it is the right one. We do not need to run a wedding venue in my view, and I’m comforted that the other services can be moved to other venues.

“If we can’t agreed a variation in time, then we will serve the break notice and have further discussions. It’s comforting that the landlord is willing to have further discussions – I don’t think he’s willing for us to high-tail out of there.”

Councillor Ros Wyke, portfolio holder for development and assets, concurred: “Over the last ten years or so, the previous administration worked very hard to find a viable and effective solution to running this house and the courses. I’m totally convinced we can find alternative locations for these courses.

“Life has moved on. The family is very happy to take back the building and no doubt will have plans for the future. I have no doubt that the building and the landscape will be cared for.

“We’re not in the business of running wedding venues and estates. We will leave graciously from the house – we have met our commitments to the wedding parties, we will support the staff through a very difficult process.”

Councillor Gwilym Wren, who chairs the council’s policies and place scrutiny committee, criticised the lack of progress that had been made since the previous review of Dillington House’s operations in 2020.

He said: “This is a few days before the deadline – we’ve been herded into a corner, and if you’re up against a deadline it does weaken your negotiating position.

“Overall, we are where we are. Had we stayed for another 20 years, we might be in the hole for a lot more money.”

Paula Hewitt, the council’s acting chief executive, said the various additional pressures on council staff had made it difficult to bring forward a proposal any sooner.

She explained: “This has been very compressed. There were a whole load of mitigating reasons for this.

“We’ve had covid, we’ve had elections, we’re in the middle of transformation and local government reorganisation, we’ve had the Ofsted inspection, and we needed to get communications right to the staff before they came out in the public forum. We will ensure this is slicker and smoother in the future.”

Councillor Hazel Prior-Sankey welcomed the change but said the wedding operations had successfully help to subsidise adult education for several years.

She said: “Using Dillington for weddings has been a good way to put money into the coffers and making the important education offer that Dillington has more viable.

“They are secondary to the primary function of this amazing adult education college. Anyone who thinks a residential course at Dillington can be replaced by an event at a village hall is frankly wrong.”

Councillor Mark Healey urged the council to get the very best deal for taxpayers from its negotiations with the landlord.

He said: “Business is not run from the heart, it’s run from the head. We’ve got to be robust in our negotiations – we must not go weak at the knees and just give in to a very clever businessman.”

What happens next?

The executive voted by a majority to back the proposals, with officers now moving forward with the negotiations.

Ian Rowswell, the head of Support Services for Education (SSE – which runs adult education courses in Somerset), said he had been having “positive discussions” with the landlord, stating they were “very open to having Dillington back and may fit with other operations and ventures”.

Once the lease has been formally exited, SCIL may still be offered the opportunity to lease rooms at Dillington House for up to one year as part of a transition period.

Efforts will be made to “redeploy” the existing 32 permanent staff based at Dillington House (along with 25 casual employees), though Mr Roswell said he could not rule out redundancies.

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