Whitchurch charity HorseWorld’s commitment to animal rescue and working with disabled children will continue regardless of the future of the visitor centre, it has been confirmed today.
Statutory consultation over redundancies has begun with its 62 staff (42 fulltime equivalent) as the charity looks to cut costs following the decision last November by B&NES Council not to allow planning permission for a new visitor attraction, funded through the building of 125 new homes on its land.
But Managing Director Mark Owen is adamant that whatever the outcome of any restructuring, the care of horses and its Discovery courses will continue at Keynes Farm. The trustees are currently considering a range of options for the future sustainability of the charity, including the closure of the present visitor centre which has reached its capacity and proving costly to operate.
HorseWorld is currently the fourth largest visitor attraction in B&NES and last year, welcomed over 100,000 people through its doors. The visitor centre has become an increasingly important source of funding in the last 12 years for HorseWorld’s charitable work as the amount of charitable donations has dwindled during the same period. However, the trustees believed the only way to increase tourist revenue for future years was a new visitor centre at Keynes Farm which would offer additional attractions and realise higher yields.
To enable the redevelopment, it was proposed to build 125 new homes the site of the existing visitor centre on Staunton Lane. While the land currently lies within the Green Belt, it has been identified by B&NES Council as one of the areas to be removed and given over to housing as part of its efforts to have its planning blueprint to 2029 (the Core Strategy) agreed by the government. Notwithstanding the council planning officer’s recommendation to accept the proposal, B&NES Development Control committee decided to turn down the application at its November meeting after some extraordinary scenes during the debate in which one committee member claimed he couldn’t understand the business plan so was voting against.
At that time, HorseWorld managing director Mark Owen said it would signal the end of the visitor centre as the charity would need to pursue other cost cutting measures in order to maintain its rescue work.
Commenting on today’s announcement of staff consultation, he told us: “This is a very sad day for HorseWorld. Our staff are incredibly dedicated to HorseWorld. They all do a fantastic job and I’m extremely grateful and proud of them all.
“We have made huge strides over the past few years – culminating in the plan to build a new visitor centre, which would have secured HorseWorld’s future for generations. But sadly, the members of Bath & North East Somerset Council’s planning committee didn’t agree with their officers.
“The current visitor centre is not only too small and outdated to accommodate enough visitors, but it is also separated from our much larger equine rescue and rehabilitation facilities. Keeping both these separate operations running is simply not a financially sustainable long-term option for the charity. And now we have to take some tough decisions to bring our losses under control.
“The consultation process is a difficult time for the whole team. We will try and keep redundancies to a minimum.”
The charity has been caught in something of a perfect storm in recent years with spiralling demand for its services and falling revenues. The green belt situation is somewhat ironic too with B&NES committed to building an extra 200 houses in Whitchurch in order to get its Core Strategy approved and HorseWorld’s visitor centre identified by the council as one of the possible sites. However, the Core Strategy has yet to be adopted and in planning law, that means it is still in the Green Belt. Notwithstanding that fact, there are two other large scale housing developments for Whitchurch currently in progress. Both are on green belt land and neither in areas identified by B&NES in its Core Strategy proposals. One on Sleep Lane has been granted permission after an appeal to the planning inspector. The other, for 200 houses off Orchard Lane was rejected but is currently at appeal.
Mr Owen said that no further decision could realistically be taken over the housing proposal until B&NES’ Core Strategy had been resolved. “Without knowing whether the land (on Staunton Lane) is to be removed from green belt control or the Core Strategy approved and adopted by the council, HorseWorld is in limbo. We have to take decisions now if we are to reduce the deficit and the staff consultation is the first part of that process.”
No decisions will be taken until the statutory consultation period has concluded and in any event for the next 5 to 6 weeks.