Test Valley Borough Council (TVBC) has approved plans to convert The Rendezvous into a therapy centre following a vote.

Councillors debated plans that would see the community hall given over to the I Can rehabilitation charity; the organisation moving from its current base at the Salto centre in Charlton. This follows a motion regarding the centre having been brought to TVBC’s full council meeting on Wednesday.

Those against the move argued that the plans had not been properly consulted on, and that the hall should be given over to Andover Town Council. Others disagreed, saying that the plans would be of “absolute benefit” to the town.

The Rendezvous was opened as a community centre following the closure of the facility in the lower Guildhall, which was subsequently taken over by Zintino’s. It offered space for a range of activities to take place, including classes, meetings and charity nights.

However, TVBC said that the building ‘sat empty for a vast majority of the time’, having been used 15 times in the last financial year before the pandemic. The majority of these bookings were by the Andover Crisis and Support Centre, which has since moved its activities to the upper Guildhall.

As such, plans to change the building from community use to a therapy centre were presented to the Northern Area Planning Committee on Thursday, January 28.

Andover Town Council had previously objected to the move, raising concerns about the lack of affordable community meeting spaces in St Mary’s Ward.

Cllr Christopher Ecclestone, who also sits on the town council, queried whether proper procedures had been followed under TVBC’s local plan, which states that community facilities which could be lost must be marketed for six months.

Michael Lowe, from TVBC, said that the rules were not relevant in this instance.

He said: “That doesn’t apply here because we are not losing a community facility, the nature of the community facility is changing from the Rendezvous Café into a therapy centre. Because we are not losing the community facility, there is no need to market the property”.

Cllr Ecclestone disputed this, noting that the planning document before the committee stated it was a “change of use from community use to "I Can" therapy centre”. He added that the facility should have been offered to Andover Town Council.

Cllr Carl Borg-Neal, the chair of the planning committee, said that such an offer was not a planning matter, but a commercial one, and that the building would remain in community use. He said that “not all community uses are of advantage to every sector of the community,” noting facilities aimed specifically at children as an example.

The proposal was subsequently opened to debate, with Cllr Ecclestone speaking first. He claimed there “had not been adequate consultation” on the plans, and that it could face appeal.

He said: “I think that really, as an interested party, Andover Town Council should be looking at appealing this matter because it’s quite clear that there’s quite a matter of predetermination going on here.

I am not persuaded at all that it is anything more than a whim by the officers that I Can, which I regard as a commercial organisation despite the fact that it’s a not for profit, is running a business for a select group of clients, not the general public, so that’s not a community activity.”

His assertion that I Can was not a charity was disputed by other members of the council, and also by the fact it is registered with the charities commission.

Cllr Tony Burley spoke in favour of the application, saying he had “first hand experience of the benefits I Can therapy can offer.”

He said: “My late mother in law used the centre on numerous occasions and I feel it’s an absolute benefit to the town centre. It’s going to bring people, it’s going to bring footfall into the town. It can only add benefit to the town centre.”

Cllr Iris Andersen, who represents St Mary’s Ward, concurred, saying that The Rendezvous was “the right location” for the rehabilitation centre.

“It’s near a carpark, it’s in the centre of town,” she said. “There are a lot of elderly complexes in St Mary’s ward and for instance, I can give an example of one lady who stopped going to the Salto Centre because it was too far for her to go in her motorised wheelchair. She’s now so pleased something like this is coming to the town centre.”

Cllr David Coole then spoke, having previously brought a motion before TVBC’s full council on Wednesday, January 27, to suggest the conversion of the facility into a youth club.

At that meeting, he said: “We could use it for a much-needed youth centre in Andover. We lost The Junction years ago, and the Little Junction struggled as it was not properly funded.

“My recommendation is that Andover desperately needs a Youth Centre, and I would like it being proposed to be taken on by many of the outreach services that we currently have in Andover, or offer it up to a community centre who would take it up as a youth centre and see if that works.

“I want to give a chance for the youth in Andover to have a place they can call their own and get advice they used to get from the Junction.”

At the planning meeting, he said that TVBC had “continued to disregard the residents of the parish of Andover and Andover Town Council” on the matter, and suggested I Can could instead occupy a unit in the Chantry Centre.

Cllr Nick Matthews spoke last, saying that he found it “very difficult to see how you can lose something you don’t have.”

He said: “The building is empty, and has been so for a significant amount of time. To be able to provide a community therapy centre is an exemplary idea, and I can’t think of anything better to utilise that building for that purpose.”

A vote was then held on the issue, with only Cllrs Coole and Ecclestone voting against the move. As a result, planning permission was approved, and I Can will relocate to The Rendezvous in due course.