I was not expecting this. South Shropshire Housing Group and its successor Connexus had ruthlessly driven through the application for five bungalows on the much loved green at the bottom of Charlton Rise. The housing association had felled one tree, planned to fell another, and take up half the green with bungalows.
But Connexus has had a change in attitude. We heard this at Ludlow Town Council last night. Driving schemes through against the wishes of the community is no longer on the agenda of this housing association. The officers from the housing group said they needed to hear local views to make a reasonably informed decision about whether they should take this development forward or not.
That’s a change of tune and it’s very welcome. We are a long way from halting the unwanted development but just when we thought there was no hope at all of saving this community green space, we have renewed hope.
There was a surprise at Ludlow Town Council last night. Vicky Tomlinson, the new in post Director of Development at Connexus came to talk about the five bungalows approved for Sidney Road. I had thought, and I am sure that other councillors did, that she had come to explain the next stages of the scheme which was recently approved on appeal. The scheme has been controversial from the outset because of the loss of valued green space at the bottom of Charlton Drive and Sidney Road and the need to fell two Norway Maples, one of which was felled in October 2016.
Addressing the town council, Vicky said she was hadn’t come to give a presentation. She had seen press coverage about the council’s dissatisfaction with the scheme. She wanted to understand the council’s viewpoint. “I want to hear your thoughts and understand what your objectives were at the time.” It was a conciliatory tone and refreshingly different from the “we don’t care what you think” attitude that Connexus and its predecessor South Shropshire Housing Group have taken in the past.
Vicky said the council has suggested some other sites in Ludlow that many have been more suitable for development for social housing. [For the record, it was us unitary councillors that had proposed alternatives, not the town council.] She wanted to know the council’s view so that she could make a “reasonably informed decision about whether [Connexus] should take this development forward or not.”
My ears pricked up at that. The development, approved by the planning inspectorate just a month ago, was not a done deal as we had all thought.
Nicky then spoke about the way the scheme had been put forward:
“I think it is fair to say that some of the approaches that have been taken by the organisation in the past are not in line with the current culture we want to take forward in the future… We are keen to understand your thoughts.”
The chair of the Representational Committee, Councillor Glen Ginger, said that Vicky was “incredibly brave” in coming before the committee. She responded that she wasn’t expecting a welcome. Councillor Robin Pote asked: “Are you saying that there is a possibility of this development not going ahead?” Vicky responded:
“Yes. I have to make up my mind. I have to weigh up the housing need versus what the community feeling is. And then look at other options. So if we didn’t go ahead with this, we need to look at where else we would deliver those homes. I’m undecided at the moment… I would rather deliver schemes that the community are on board with otherwise we are bringing new tenants into those homes that aren’t going to be met with open homes and that is not my objective.”
Councillor Tony Mahalski said: “You have acted something like an iron rod with a blatant disregard for [our and Shropshire’s views]. Don’t you take local people into consideration?” He then asked questions about the number of executive directors and board members on Connexus. He spoke about its 34.5% operating margin. “That’s huge. Would you not consider reducing the rents for tenants?” Vicky responded that the surplus goes into the new build programme. There are three sources of funding for new homes. Borrowing. Grant from local government. And surplus, which include Right to Buy and receipts [rent].
Councillor Colin Sheward said that Ludlow has very little green space for the town. “We are not rich in green and amenity areas.”
Asked to comment by the chair, I said:
“This site has an unfortunate history where a Norway Maple was chopped down without notice. That led to a huge amount of distrust because Ludlow is a community. We work together. We don’t always agree with each other but that’s the nature of communities. Those two trees, there is still one standing, were planted by the community fifty years ago when Sidney Road was first built. The money was paid for by the residents. They have always had a sense of ownership of the green… We love this green… It is part of the fabric of our community. We would plea for its preservation.”
Councillor Glen Ginger then said that is the green was built on Connexus would never have the trust of the community.
This was a frank and very welcome discussion. We are used to developers presenting with the aim of persuading councillors that they have the best scheme, in the right place at the right time. Connexus didn’t take that angle. I do believe that it wants to listen.
The next steps are uncertain. We unitary councillors are due to meet up with Connexus in coming weeks to discuss opportunities for social housing in the Ludlow area. It is desperately needed. But housing associations and commercial developers need to work with the grain of the community. That way we will get the housing we need in the locations and styles that work for Ludlow.