With a new Rating List coming into effect in 2017, Grand Superintendent of Works John Pagella explains why masonic centres and halls could end up paying more
The financial pages of the popular papers may not be everyone’s idea of bedtime reading, but you will have been hard pressed not to have noticed articles predicting the consequences that might follow the recent revaluation of commercial properties for business rates.
In the public mind, businesses occupying property with a high value are assumed to be better able to make a greater contribution to the total tax take than those whose business is run from more modest premises. The logic behind this is difficult to challenge, provided that revaluations are accurate and are carried out regularly. This will mean that changes in relative value between different areas of the country and property types are picked up as changes in value occur.
Unfortunately, that continuous process of revaluation has not happened. Business rates payable in the current fiscal year are based on the 2010 Rating List, which was prepared by the Valuation Office Agency based on values on 1 April 2008. Many changes have taken place since then. It should not therefore come as a surprise that, in many cases, substantial increases in rateable value will form the basis for the payment of business rates from 1 April 2017 when the new Rating List comes into effect.
The Government’s position is that the total revenue raised under the new list will not increase as a direct result of the revaluation, and those facing a steep rise in business rates payable will be helped through transitional relief. The options being considered for transitional relief include capping the year-on-year increase for ‘large properties’ at between 33 per cent and 45 per cent, rather than 12.5 per cent in real terms under previous Rating Lists.
As the definition of ‘large properties’ is likely to be those with a value in excess of £100,000, the majority of masonic centres and halls may not be affected. However, for those that are, a steep increase in business rates could become payable in 2017, with little opportunity for forward planning.
What does this mean for masonic centres and halls generally? They are classed as ‘business premises’ and all will therefore have been included in the revaluation. While it is always dangerous to generalise, it is highly likely that many will face an increase in assessment that will carry though to an increase in business rates payable.
Faced with this unwelcome prospect, the first step is to check the new entry in the Rating List, take specialist advice in relation to the valuation and then ascertain whether the Small Business Rate Relief or other similar scheme might apply.
I cannot emphasise too strongly that rating valuation and practise is a specialist area of expertise. Challenging the Valuation Officer’s assessment and investigating possible reliefs requires knowledge and experience of property valuation, as well as the complex legal implications.
The challenge ahead
While there will be many firms offering to help on a no win, no fee basis, it is important to bear in mind that those offering this service are likely to be interested in the straightforward cases that can be challenged quickly and easily. Retail shops and offices, as an example, are let on a day-to-day basis. Evidence of value is easy to obtain, and the valuation process for rating purposes for these types of property is not unlike market practise.
Valuing masonic centres and halls is, however, more complicated. Open market transactions occur infrequently, and to cope with this the methods of valuation adopted can be complex. By way of example, particularly difficult cases could well involve a valuation approach that aggregates land value and the cost of rebuilding adjusted for age and obsolescence, before decapitalising to arrive at an annual rent.
If this all sounds confusing, you will understand why I am encouraging those responsible for managing masonic centres and halls to check their rating assessment and take advice. Don’t delay. Although there is no time limit at the moment for challenging valuations, if a saving can be made, the sooner the process is started the sooner overpayments will be returned.
Finally, do use the Improvement Delivery Group at Grand Lodge as a point of contact to put appointed surveyors in touch with each other to share knowledge and experience.
‘Valuing masonic centres is complicated. Open market transactions occur infrequently, and to cope with this the methods of valuation adopted can be complex’
When a group of lodges in Kidderminster wanted to relocate from the cellar of a hotel, joining a local cricket club proved to be the perfect solution
In December 2015 the Membership Focus Group launched a strategic paper that identified masonic centres as a key area for improvement in the organisational development of Freemasonry. With many centres not considered fit for purpose by the members who meet in them, the challenge for lodges is how to turn a legacy problem into an opportunity.
‘It is not uncommon for lodges to find that their existing premises become unsustainable owing to lack of critical mass if membership levels fall, or simply because of the structural integrity of the building itself,’ explains Provincial Grand Master for Yorkshire, North and East Ridings, Jeff Gillyon, who heads up the Masonic Centres Study Group.
For a group of lodges in Kidderminster, Worcestershire, this was particularly true when their 44-year tenure at The Briars pub came to an abrupt end. With the brewery selling up, the lodges moved to a local hotel’s cellar for four years while considering a new meeting place.
‘It certainly wasn’t ideal,’ says Peter Ricketts, a Past Master of Lodge of Hope and Charity, No. 377, which was among those affected. ‘The cellar was small and the walls were covered in mirrors because it was planned as a nightclub. But for four years it was home to three lodges, a chapter and a Knights Templar unit.’
With so many members under one roof, amalgamating with a lodge in another property was out of the question, so the board considered buying a property of its own. ‘Then somebody suggested partnering with the local cricket club,’ says Peter. ‘It was perfect really, because the cricket season starts in summer just as the masonic season ends.’
With two bars and a large car park, the Chester Road Sports and Social Club easily catered to the social aspect of Freemasonry, but it clearly couldn’t provide a masonic temple.
So, after prolonged talks, it was agreed that the Freemasons could build one adjoining the club.
Work started on the new temple in September 2011 under the careful watch of Mike Langdon of Old Carolian Lodge, No. 7599. As the retired owner of a construction company, Mike drew on his industry contacts to source supplies at cost. Mike, together with fellow Old Carolian Mick Insull and Martin Lawrence of Lodge of Hope and Charity, completed most of the building work themselves over six months.
‘Until that point, my construction credentials extended to the wooden shed in my back garden, and that was a bit rickety,’ says Martin, a retired police officer from Aldridge. ‘But within a couple of months we’d laid the foundations and completed most of the brickwork.’
Progress was so quick, in fact, that by 3 April 2012 the first lodge meeting had been held in the custom-built premises. Staggeringly, the entire project cost just £150,000 – with key savings being made by Martin, Mike and Mick providing labour at no cost. ‘While quality was paramount, we made savings wherever possible and brethren helped tremendously,’ says Martin. ‘When we said we needed to insulate the loft, one brother went to B&Q and emptied the store of fibreglass rolls using his pensioner’s discount.’
A willingness to adapt traditional ideas of how a temple room should look, while not compromising on quality, also helped to keep the project on budget. For instance, Martin explains, ‘It would have cost £15,000 to have a masonic carpet woven, but a brother footed the bill for a magnificent marble and granite floor, which was a fraction of the price.’
The project is a great example of the flexible approach lodges need to start adopting to meet the changing landscape of Freemasonry. As the Masonic Centres Study Group’s Jeff Gillyon remarks: ‘This is a good example of how innovative thinking can solve the problem, but it is only one solution.’
For John Pagella, Grand Superintendent of Works, while the history and familiarity of a lodge room is important, ‘what’s essential is that Freemasons can still meet, regardless of where that may be’.
If that means relocating to a more affordable property, John says the first port of call should be a qualified adviser to get an idea of the full value of the property being vacated: ‘Consider the property’s potential as a commercial building. As a masonic hall, it may no longer have value, but as a hotel or a restaurant it could have enormous potential.’
Should lodges decide to capitalise on the commercial possibilities themselves, John advises taking a serious look at the standard of competition, and considering how commercial facilities would sit alongside masonic purposes. ‘Only then should you consider any refurbishment works. You need to approach the running of your centre like a business – balance cost against income.’
For those staying where they are, John says looking after the fabric of the property should be the priority. ‘Keep an eye on the building’s condition to avoid any major expenditure further down the line, and consider establishing a contingency fund,’ he says.
Ultimately, every lodge is individual – what may work for one may not work for another. The key is to take a proactive approach, says John, and to think practically about future-proofing your lodge. It’s a sentiment Martin agrees with. ‘Looking back, I can’t believe we stayed in our room at the pub for so long. There was no heating, no space and no funding to maintain it. Now we have a custom-built temple with the lowest capitation costs in the Province.’
While Martin appreciates the prospect of change can be daunting, it is necessary to ensure that Freemasonry keeps pushing into the future.
‘If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from this experience it’s that when it comes to the crunch, Freemasons pull together. We didn’t make it through the past 300 years without adapting.’
‘It was perfect, because the cricket season starts in summer just as the masonic season ends.’ Peter Ricketts
PLAN AHEAD: If your building is rented, start thinking now about alternative meeting places and set up a contingency fund by adding an extra £1 to capitation.
REACH OUT: Invest in your connections with the local community to keep your options open.
SCALE BACK: Charity starts at home, so if you’re struggling to cover costs consider reducing your charitable giving for a short while until the lodge is back on a stable footing.
Just like moving home?
Can personal experience of selling a house equip people to deal with what selling a masonic centre involves? Grand Superintendent of Works John Pagella notes the similarities and differences
Moving house is said to be one of the most stressful experiences in life. From the large sums of money involved through to unfamiliar legal issues, the process can be highly traumatic. The same could be said of the challenges that masonic halls and centres face should an existing building no longer serve the needs of Freemasonry today.
Successfully relocating is a subject all of its own, but the starting point is realising the full value of the existing building. Masonic halls and centres are commercial buildings and their use is regulated by planning laws. You might think the laws and regulations are no different from those affecting residential property, but while the underlying principles are the same this is not the case once you look at the detail.
In relation to commercial buildings, planning use rights frequently embrace a range of business types within the same planning use category – planning is not directed towards preserving individual businesses or protecting their value.
A shop can fail in the hands of one business, but succeed in the hands of another with a different business model. As a result, the market value of a commercial building can be quite different from its value to the owner or occupier. Understanding this is particularly important where a business has run into financial difficulty, and managing a masonic centre is running a business. It therefore may not always be the building that explains the problem.
The next consideration is whether the building or its site has a higher value to a purchaser contemplating a change of use with or without refurbishment, adaptation or redevelopment.
Spotting this takes both knowledge and experience, and missing it can lead to underselling. The numbers can be substantial.
‘You might think the laws and regulations are no different from those affecting residential property, but this is not the case once you look at the detail.’
Recognising that a building or site has development potential is of fundamental importance. However, it is only the first step in a complex process that can all too easily lead to frustration and regret if experienced developers and their advisers are allowed to dictate the agenda. Is an option sensible, or should a conditional contract be considered? If a conditional contract is the right approach, should the vendor have an element of control over the timescale and planning agenda? If the answer to that question is yes, how can this be best achieved?
Proceed with caution
In some cases the answer could be for the vendor to explore the planning potential and obtain an outline or detailed permission before selling. Obvious though that might seem, it may not always be appropriate if, for example, there are a number of development options. I pose questions rather than offer answers for the reason that each case will be different, and what works for one may be quite wrong for another.
As to the question of whether experience of house sales can equip someone to manage commercial property transactions, I would suggest that proceeding without any guidance would be most unwise. Informed, experienced and independent advice from qualified advisers is essential. It will cost money, but provided you have the right adviser it will be money well spent.
Keeping the doors open
Grand Superintendent of Works John Pagella looks at the challenge of maintaining masonic centres and halls in modern times
Freemasonry is by no means unique in finding that as times change, and the needs of its membership evolve, buildings once well suited to their function become too expensive to maintain. We need to ensure that if masonic use declines, our buildings adapt to attract outside interest, generating income and strengthening their connection with the local community.
While individual circumstances vary widely for each masonic hall and centre, the first step is to examine the potential for introducing outside uses. This is not achieved by simply advertising availability and hoping for the best. It requires analysis of the type of users for whom the building might be suitable, and consideration of whether what is needed can be managed while retaining masonic use.
London’s Surbiton Masonic Hall is a positive example of what can be achieved. Glenmore House was built as an imposing Italianate-style private villa in 1840 at a time when residential development was extending out from London into the surrounding countryside. By 1920, it had become one of the many houses that were too large and expensive to run as private homes, so was put up for auction.
It was purchased by four local masons, becoming known as Surbiton Masonic Hall, and was dedicated as a peace memorial.
For much of the 1900s the house flourished as a masonic centre, but as the century drew to a close it became clear that, once again, a change was required. Masonic membership was in decline, with fewer people attending meetings and a number of lodges handing in their warrants. A decrease in income meant that without a radical change in the way that the building was used, closure was inevitable.
Fortunately, the board of directors of Surbiton Masonic Hall included people with experience in building and development, as well as running commercial companies. They recognised that managing a masonic centre today is no different to running a hospitality company. Freemasonry is a craft but running masonic halls and centres is a business, requiring the same commitment, financial skills and disciplines.
Although the property’s design, finishes and furnishings were dated, the potential for creating a self-contained hospitality suite was recognised. The building included a large ballroom with its own independent bar, but while the existing kitchens had coped well for many years, they were not suitable to support the standard required for outside events. Complete modernisation was therefore needed.
Even if the refurbishment had been confined to these areas, much would have been achieved, but it was felt that the contrast between the facilities available to outside users and those offered to Freemasons would have been all too obvious. Furthermore, the loss of the ballroom for masonic dining would have reflected badly on the centre’s continuing commitment to its Freemasonry.
With this in mind, dining accommodation at first-floor level was also refurbished and moveable dividing partitions erected to permit two units to dine simultaneously. The adjacent bar was modernised to the same high standard as the bar in the hospitality suite.
A new lease of life
The revenue generated from opening Glenmore House up to outside use has been vital. It has not only secured its future as a financially viable masonic centre, but also enabled the centre to become more of a focal point for the local community. ‘Far from losing identity, the changes we made enabled the community to identify the values that Freemasonry actually represents today,’ said Robert Dobbie, Managing Director of Glenmore House. ‘For the past 10 years we have participated in the Heritage Open Days, we are used as a local polling station, we host a twice-weekly bridge club as well as monthly lunches for Barclays bank and the BBC.’
Masonic centres and meeting halls are all individual, and it would be wrong to suggest that what worked in this case would always be successful elsewhere. However, there are some general principles. First, masonic buildings exist to serve the needs of members, but that purpose can only be sustained if they are managed in a way that is financially viable. In many cases this will mean shared use, which must be approached with the needs of the outside user in mind. The competition can be fierce and that means adopting a more proactive strategy than just advertising accommodation for hire.
One final thought: those who take their own advice will in most cases have no recourse should things go wrong. If a masonic centre or hall has professional expertise within its members, by all means use it, but always consider the value of using outside consultants as well. Their more objective approach might be beneficial, and those giving outside advice may also have a legal liability.
‘Masonic buildings exist to serve the needs of members, but that purpose can only be sustained if they are managed in a way that is financially viable.’
Letters to the Editor - No. 32 Winter 2015
As Superintendent of Works for the past 40 years, I read with interest the article in the autumn issue by John Pagella, the Grand Superintendent of Works. I totally agree with him that because of rising costs it is a challenge to maintain masonic halls, especially old ones.
Ours was built in 1860. Fortunately, like Surbiton Lodge, we have members who are experienced in the building trade and have contributed to the maintenance of the lodge buildings, not taking any remuneration for their work. Also, we have a good social committee that provides us with funds to help pay for the work we cannot do and for materials.
I joined Freemasonry in 1966 when we had a lot of members who were textile business owners employing maintenance men to look after their buildings. I have always wondered why the lodge building was nearly in a state of dereliction when I became Superintendent of Works in 1975.
At that time we had retired members on fixed incomes and my thoughts were that if we can keep the costs of running the lodge low there would be no reason to increase subscriptions. This worked and still does. Our subscriptions are among the most reasonable in the Province of Yorkshire, West Riding.
I have read of many fine old masonic buildings being closed and sold, and most have accommodated multiple lodges. Big is not always good. We have only one Craft lodge and three side Orders meeting at our building, yet our subscriptions are among the lowest in the Province. I have noted some of the outside users John Pagella writes about who use their building and I will suggest to our lodge committee that we could do the same thing.
L R Hirst, St John’s Lodge, No. 827, Dewsbury, Yorkshire, West Riding
What’s the use?
How a local council values a masonic centre or hall can have significant financial implications. Grand Superintendent of Works John Pagella scrutinises the fine print
One of the more significant elements within the overhead costs of occupying and running a non-residential property is business rates. While economies can be made in managing most day-to-day expenses, the payment of business rates to local councils is a legal obligation over which there is no direct control.
Business rates are calculated by reference to values entered in local rating Valuation Lists. The rate in the pound is not something about which anything can be done, making it all the more important that every care is taken to see that the property is correctly assessed in the rating Valuation List as this can be challenged.
The recent experience of Freemasons in Bury St Edmunds offers an example of how important it is to look carefully and, if necessary, challenge individual rateable values. When local Freemasons decided that their masonic centre was no longer fit for purpose, they decided to relocate to a more suitable property that had previously been used as offices and as a warehouse. The building had been assessed by the valuation officer as having a rateable value of £52,000. Currently, rateable values are assessed on the basis of the annual value at which the property would be let as at 1 April 2008, broadly as it stands for its current use.
Planning permission was needed to change the use of the property to a club to be used for masonic purposes. The application was made and, in anticipation of permission being granted, the property was acquired. It was decided that, amid the many things that needed attention during the move, advice was required about the property’s rating assessment.
Rating valuation involves a complicated interaction between commercial reality and a complex area of law and regulation, so a local firm of chartered surveyors with a specialist rating valuer was instructed to advise. With years of experience in valuing properties used for masonic purposes, the firm investigated and then challenged the rating assessment.
Despite every effort to resolve the case by negotiation, the matter ended up in the Valuation Tribunal where the key issue was whether the change of use from offices and warehouse to a club required adjustment to the rateable value, despite the initial absence of works of adaptation. Significantly, there was no dispute over the fact that the annual value of the building when used as a club for masonic purposes was considerably less than for its former commercial use.
The decision of the Valuation Tribunal was that the rateable value should be reduced from £52,000 to £16,500, backdated to August 2011. The saving in business rates payable by the Freemasons was in the region of £16,500 per annum.
The Bury St Edmunds case illustrates how the valuation officer can unreasonably resist requests to alter the rating list. In seeking to convince the officer otherwise, one needs to delve deep into rating statute and case law, and also have an appreciation of how the Freemasons operate and how this impacts upon their property requirements.
The lesson Freemasons can take from this is the importance of being aware of the process that is available to challenge assessments in the rating list, and the need to seek specialist advice when doing so.
It is worth noting that the valuation supporting the revised assessment of £16,500 was based upon local rating schemes for clubs, but also a comparison with the rateable value of other masonic centres across the region. Most masonic centres and halls are owned rather than leased, and for that reason evidence of rental values available from open-market lettings is limited. Despite this, the hypothesis underlying rating valuations has over the years been accepted as requiring valuations by comparison wherever possible – even where the evidence base is narrow.
Clubs come in many guises, some of which are commercial and profitable, while others such as masonic halls may not be. This case shows that for rating purposes, a distinction between use as a commercial club, or indeed for any commercial use, and use as a club for masonic purposes is accepted.
‘Be aware of the process that is available to challenge assessments in the rating list, and seek specialist advice when doing so.’