Where will the buck stop for Ludlow’s collapsed town wall?

Arguments rage but nothing is being done other than pass the buck. That’s the current story of Ludlow’s collapsed town walls. Eighteen months after the walls collapsed, eighteen months after Shropshire Council promised that money was no object in securing a repair, we are rapidly approaching stalemate.

140822_SSJ_Outrage_as_wall_collapse_exposes_graveyard_bonesSouth Shropshire Journal 22 August 2014

I can’t get involved in deciding who might be responsible for the repair bill. That’s a legal matter. But I have raged against Shropshire Council which made political capital on promises to repair the wall a year-and-a-half ago, and has treaded bureaucratic water since.

Last Friday, Shropshire Council leader Keith Barrow tweeted that the buck rested with Ludlow Town Council:

Keith Barrow Tweet (5)Keith Barrow 22 August 2014

The letter published by Barrow dates to July 2000. Ludlow’s town clerk Gina Wilding said in yesterday’s Shropshire Star, it was referring to a contractual arrangement for maintenance.

140828_Star_Church_wall_repairs_rejected_by_councilShropshire Star 28 August 2014

Whatever the precise meaning of that letter, which was sent to a third party, it seems clear that in 2012, responsibility for the graveyard was transferred to Shropshire Council.

This was a two stage process of buck passing under the Local Government Act 1972. On 8 August 2012, the Parochial Church Council for St Laurence’s served notice that it was transferring responsibility for maintenance of the graveyard to Ludlow Town Council. It was entitled to pass the buck in this way under Section 215, subsection 2 of the 1972 Act.

Ludlow Town Council quickly passed that buck on. On 3 September 2012, the town council resolved to pass on the liability to Shropshire Council. It was allowed to do this under subsection 3 of Section 215. On 28 September, the then town clerk Veronica Calderbank said in a letter to Shropshire Council:

Calderbank letter raggedVeronica Calderbank 28 September 2012

“As you are aware we have received a Section 215 notice from the PCC of St Laurence’s in Ludlow. The Town Council has resolved on the 3rd September 2012 to pass on all liability relating to maintenance to Shropshire Council. Please accept this letter as formal notice under Section 215 of the Local Government Act 1972 that you are now responsible for the said closed churchyard.”

Shropshire Council now pays Ludlow Town Council an annual fee to maintain the Garden of Rest (the closed churchyard).

So that’s it then. The buck for the repairing the walls rests with Shropshire Council.

Except that I doubt it is that simple. There is the lingering issue of whether responsibility for the wall is distinct from that of the churchyard. And is the wall principally a churchyard wall or a town wall? I think it’s self-evident it is both a town and a churchyard wall. Arguing the difference is no more useful than the medieval pastime of arguing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

I haven’t seen all the historic paperwork so there may yet be further twists and turns to this tale of pass the buck.

This is not a victimless story. All the time these walls are decaying. All the time these walls are in danger of further collapse. Churchyards are inherently unstable. I’m not claiming that the cracks appearing the tower of St Laurence’s are related to the wall collapse, but it does show what a fragile heritage environment we have around our historic church.

My view remains that Shropshire Council should take the lead and repair the wall as it publicly promised to do. If it then needs to recover monies from other bodies, it can try do so. The alternative route is mediation but I fear attempts to reach a consensus are unlikely to succeed unless each of the parties accepts that they have some degree of responsibility in repairing the wall. At the moment, Shropshire Council, the town council and the Parochial Church Council all deny any obligation towards repairing the wall.

We need to act. That means that Shropshire Council needs to act. It will shortly be commencing archaeological surveys. It should also be getting detailed estimates for repairs and be sounding out how much grant might be available from heritage bodies.

Further falls will show that this town and county cannot look after its heritage, because it’s only neglected walls that collapse.