It’s been an interesting time for Philip Hehir and Annie Colman, the owners of Guildford Chiropractic Centre. If you’re not a patient and their names ring a bell, it’s because you’ll recognise them from the Burchatt's Farm Barn debacle back in March…
After entering a bid to Guildford Borough Council (GBC), their planning permission was later rejected. That doesn’t sound too unusual, however they found their planning permission became marred by local elections and local political campaigners, some even sending inappropriate messaging via social media and other groups launching a media campaign. They’d unfortunately found themselves part of a landscape they never dreamt of being a part of.
But like all people who find their lives at risk of complete devastation (loss of business, their life savings gone and risk of homelessness), they couldn’t just give up. They’re still fighting for the future of their business and their need to support the clinic’s patients. It’s commendable to say the least. And so the story continues just 3 months later.
Here we find out exactly what happened with Burchatt’s Farm Barn back in March, and what the Chiropractors will do next…
Can you tell us why you’ve both decided to speak up now, and why in this way?
Annie: Excitingly, we’ve finally been able to take action after the rejection and wanted to share the news with our patients, and anyone else that’s been following Burchatt’s Farm Barn since this all began.
Philip: I think by being able to explain in our own words we’ll be able to take back the truth, and hopefully by opening up, more people can understand our position. There’s a saying that a lie gets half-way around the world before the truth has had a chance to get its pants on. In this case the lie seemed to make its way round Guildford twice before we even knew what was going on, and so we felt like now is our time to tell the truth.
OK, so how did all this start?
A: It’s a really long story! As you know, Burchatt’s is owned by GBC, and it’s been closed to the public since early 2016 because it was losing up to £70,000 annually. We all know from the news that our local councils are under huge pressure, so it’s not surprising that there was a directive from central government to make their assets more financially stable. Our understanding is that they’d been hiring it out to the local community and businesses for a long time, but due to a lack of use they’d had to increase rates to try and cover the costs needed to run it.
P: Knowing they had to do something, GBC decided to take a new course of action.
A long term plan to maintain Stoke Park was formulated which included finding alternative uses to ensure the future of the barn. Historic England actually states that the best way to protect a building is to find a long term sustainable economic use for it and so the decision was made to find a local business who could take the building on and look after it properly – financially (rent) and physically (repairs).
A: That’s where we came in – we were one of the local businesses who put a bid together.
Tell us more about the overall process…
A: We had to put together an incredibly detailed proposal with all our plans, which included the way our clinic works, our current lease situation and information about the small changes to the interior we would need to be able to run a clinic there, and comply with modern health and safety standards. We know that 11 other local businesses also bid for the space in the first round, who were then shortlisted down to three for a second round where the more detailed information was submitted. The process was remarkably thorough, and we had no knowledge of who else had bid until things were put out in the media.
We couldn’t believe it when we were successful, we had been under so much stress and pressure for so many months and finally we thought we were saved!
P: We knew we then had to apply for planning permission to change the usage of the building. As far as we have been made aware, all of the other companies that bid would have also needed to apply for a change of use before they could have officially leased the building too.
After submitting planning for change of use as per the council’s instruction, local commentary was taken as part of that official process, the same council’s planning committee then voted and rejected our plans.
A: During the whole process we found everyone we dealt with at the council to be very helpful. We have no issues with the way the planning officers dealt with our application and were pleased that the planning and conservation officers recommended our application for approval to the committee.
We are just very unclear as to why the committee, some of whom had been part of the decision-making team who awarded us the lease, then voted against our planning application.
We had been advised independently by several sources that our planning would go through as we complied with all the regulations we needed to and we’re only asking for very minor changes. The change of use from D2 to D1 should have been granted. The councils planning team and conservation officers must have agreed with this as they had recommended our planning for approval, which apparently the elected committee should then adhere to but it seems they had other pressures.
We completely understand that planning, and the inner workings of the council, are very complicated which is why we thought there was more to it. We have since become more enlightened to the depth of manipulation occuring behind the scenes and it is frankly very disappointing and quite concerning.
Some have said, why Burchatts? Why not hire another property?
P: Good question. The high street has been suggested but the high street is not the only problem for Guildford independents, many of us just can’t operate on a high street but we have property issues of our own. If only it was that simple, we certainly wish it was. We are fully aware, like everyone else, that there is an oversupply of A1 (shop space) in Guildford but that is irrelevant to us as we can’t use it. There are many reasons why the high street is 100% not an option for us. A1 rent alone is usually three times more expensive per square foot than D1, we just can’t afford it and anyway change of use is usually not granted. We also need desperately to have good access and parking very close to the building for those who are elderly or in pain and enough floor space for our way of working. Just like you wouldn’t find a GP surgery on a high street, we have similar needs.
A: We love our current building and personally, at this stage in our lives we wouldn’t have been considering moving if we didn’t have to. We’ve already had to put off our wedding and delayed buying our own house because we feel a huge pressure that this historic clinic could go under on our watch and the implications to all the people that affects. I know it’s frustrating that we can’t be more specific on our property issues than this due to confidentiality reasons.
P: We could create an amazing health hub providing a wider range of health and rehabilitation services, interesting and educational evening talks and workshops, and eventually we hoped classes such as Pilates. We believe the council saw what a perfect fit we were for the site and how this would benefit the local community.
A: We have identified around 10 other local health professionals who are also having property issues and this can’t be right when we have buildings standing empty and we need more health services. We need the help from our community to ensure that Guildford can provide the right kind of commercial property in the right places for our local businesses to survive and thrive in these changing times. We are all out there but we need the right kind of space to be able to do our good work.
P: In regards to other businesses using it, no matter which business were to take over the lease a change of use would have needed to be agreed with the council. The campaigning from local fractions initially didn’t make sense to us, it was hard for us to fathom as we only do this job to help people. One can assume from the evidence that they weren’t against the change of use really, but that they were supporting another bidder– and that’s what we found to be so upsetting. Because we support our community too and would have had the amazing space opened up to so many more people, we just all support our community in different ways. Us small independents support each other so we can only imagine it was others that were behind this.
A: And so it came down to a small group of people who were essentially risking the wiping out of a long standing clinic that help’s and serves people who are suffering with what can sometimes be debilitating pain. We are a 65 year old multidisciplinary clinic with an amazing team of long standing local staff who do this job because they love helping people. We only provide well recognised services by highly qualified practitioners and help around 250 local patients a week, which also helps take pressure of our local NHS services.
What do you mean by ‘small group of people’?
P: Well it seems that this small group who supported an alternative outcome were able to create a false narrative regarding the process which was then spread throughout the wider community. It felt like we were cast as a faceless outsider rather than the long-standing, multi-disciplinary health clinic we are and it was also spread that we were competing with just one other well loved local company and that we planned to do much more extensive work to the building that we actually were. So many people were misled into being fearful for the future of the barn, which is completely misplaced. Yes technically our clinic is run commercially as we do have to charge for our services, but we really couldn’t be more part of this community.
A: There was clear campaigning to garner objections, all using this same false narrative. At no time during the whole media storm did anyone ask us for a comment or come to us to fact check information. No one contacted us at all, even though they were publishing completely biased pieces of news with only comments from those who supported one specific alternative outcome. We find the whole thing very curious, as it seemed after it was all over that they were fully aware of who we were and could have picked up the phone at any time to talk to us – they were certainly able to contact us after the rejection.
P: No one wants to lose community facilities and local halls. Interestingly however, we recently looked into it and Guildford has over 100 village halls for rent which is higher per capita than any other local borough. Guildford, in fact has an oversupply of D2 meeting space while there is a huge lack of the D1 space that most of the companies who bid on the barn need. It’s odd that even though this information is available some objections from the planning committee stated the opposite as a way to reject our planning – yet when you look at the facts and figures – that simply isn’t true.
A: We also received a private message online from a political party associate warning us to “leave the barn alone” on the day I had to go and speak at the terrifying planning committee meeting, as well as a member of the same party encouraging as many people as possible to turn up to the meeting in person on social media. To me this all felt quite threatening and very intimidating. How could it have all turned so political? But of course local elections were just around the corner and we think certain people used that to get the outcome they wanted, by creating a certain pressure on their candidates, or using the story to build their own political narrative to help their campaigning.
Will you tell us who these people are?
A: We decided very early on that this is not who we are and we will continue to do our best to be positive and not be dragged into the negativity. Now the dust has settled and the situation has diffused we want to explain our situation to our patients and those following and to try and make those who were involved think of the real consequences of their actions. We had to gather evidence to put forward for our appeal which will be published by the relevant authorities but we’re not looking to continue this any further, there has been enough upset. We just need somewhere for this clinic to survive and we are so grateful for the support we have been shown so far.
Then what most people want to know now is, what are you doing after the council rejected your proposal?
P: After much soul searching and consideration, we have decided to appeal the council’s decision. We still truly believe that we could use the barn to benefit our local community in so many ways.
A: We bid in a confidential process on this space with what we now know to be 11 other companies out of necessity. It took us over a year to find Burchatts Farm Barn and nothing else has come up since. Unfortunately, Guildford has a serious problem brewing with lack of space for healthcare clinics like ours.
P: We’re going to keep searching for alternative options of course – it’s the only thing we can do at this point in time.
We think the fact that so many companies bid for the barn also shows the healthy number of local businesses, who are raring to go and benefit this community and economy but are struggling to find the right property to succeed. That needs to change so we want to make sure that message is heard.
Lastly, is there anything else you think people should know?
P: Firstly, we really hope all the other businesses that bid find what they’re looking for too. We want to see local businesses like us thrive in Guildford. Small, local businesses are so important.
A:The only people in a position to make a fair decision and who had all the facts regarding each of the twelve businesses were those few members of our elected council who were tasked with choosing the best fit for the site. It was confidential so no one else would have the facts. But other individuals who had very little or no information still managed to manipulate the outcome to their own agendas and that just doesn’t seem right. Our local planning system has really let us down personally and as a business and the appeals process will still take many months to hopefully put right these wrongs.
We’d also like to say having experienced being part of a stream of “fake news” for the first time in our lives, please don’t believe everything you read, even in your local newspapers, opinions are not truth.
P: Lastly, we want to say a huge thanks to everyone and anyone that has emailed us, mentioned us on social media, or simply called and wished us well.
It’s easy to see all businesses as just financially motivated entities but most small independents are just a small group of local people like us with a dream, trying to do their best and provide a service. Most small business owners like us live and breath it, the clinic is so much more than a place of work to us and we put our everything into making it work, we also know how much it means to so many others in this community.
A: We’re now waiting to hear back about our appeal, so as soon as we know anything, we’ll let you all know. And if you were of the persuasion that we may not have been the right people for the barn, or if you have any questions about what we want to do, then please do get in touch. We’re just two very normal people, doing our best trying to support our community, staff and our clinic. Feel free to pop in and talk to us, we’d be very happy to chat.
And for our supporters, please keep your fingers crossed for us! And thank you again.
If you have any questions for Philip or Annie, then feel free to contact firstname.lastname@example.org. In the meantime to stay in the loop with regular updates about their appeal and the future of the clinic, follow them on Facebook, Instagram or email them to ask to be put on their mailing list.