It is no surprise that the price of renovations to Ludlow Assembly Rooms has soared over budget. Costs have hit the ceiling requiring an extra £1.3m from Shropshire Council. That funding is welcome. In a private session before Christmas, the council’s cabinet reluctantly agreed the extra money.
Cabinet members also decided that the agreed transfer for the Assembly Rooms to Ludlow’s community will be reduced from a period of 125 years to just three years. This will allow Shropshire Council take over the facility in 2023. It can then flog it if wants to. The council is also to negotiate repayment of some or all the £1.3m from Ludlow & District Community Association (LDCA).
Unsurprisingly, the council has not made this information public.
The paper on the future of Ludlow Assembly Rooms was discussed in a private session of Shropshire Council’s cabinet on 19 December. The paperwork is watermarked “restricted” and headed “not for publication” but the public interest in the content overrides this.
Shropshire Council has strutted its rescue across the front page of local newspapers.
But Steve Charmley, the deputy council leader, makes no mention of the intention to negotiate with Ludlow Assembly Rooms for a “suitable mechanism for the LDCA to repay some or all of the additional capital investment.” Neither does he mention in the council press release the council’s intention to hack the CAT lease back from 125 years to just three.
Politicians have short memories. A few years back, when Keith Barrow was leading the council, the costs of converting the Music Hall in Shrewsbury spiralled upwards. But when Steve Charmley was challenged on this by Eric Smith on BBC Radio Shropshire, he said the project had come in within budget. That’s absolutely correct. But he didn’t say that budget had been increased year by year as problems were uncovered. The redevelopment began in 2009. By 2016/17, the cost was up to £4,723,000. I don’t begrudge that spending one jot. The venue and the museum are superb. It is what civic authorities should spend money on.
But this doesn’t apply to Ludlow. There is an extraordinary sentence in the council papers:
“Given the lack of maintenance of the building, it is advised that the future leasing options for the building are amended, to ensure that the Council protects its investment and ensures the future viability of the building.”
Given the lack of maintenance? Shropshire Council and its predecessors have always been responsible for the upkeep of this building. As landlord, the council had responsibility for repairs and maintenance. But the council neglected the building. It was out of sight. Out of mind. Destined for decay.
Ludlow Assembly Rooms has been kept alive by volunteers, donations, fundraisers and grants. But we all knew that the building needed a major overhaul. It was always going to be a big ticket item to ensure that a building dating the 1840s thrives as a cultural venue for decades to come.
Discussions on funding were lengthy. It would be fair to say, tortuous. But hard work by Shropshire Council the and Assembly Rooms team secured the grants.
The EU chipped in £759K through the ERDF. Shropshire Council put in £676K. Arts Council England paid £676K. The Assembly Rooms (LDCA) contributed £320K. But the now decades of neglect of one of Shropshire’s premier cultural buildings has come back home to roost. Shropshire Council must either halt the project or pay another £1.9m. It has agreed to the extra money taking its contribution from 32% of the cost to 58%.
The additional funding is very welcome indeed. But the clause that restricts the lease to three years is horrific. (Technically, it’s a community asset transfer.) No organisation can plan for a long term future with a lease that is that short.
Regrettably, this decision is part of a trend in the council. In a paper published in July, Shropshire Council set out proposals to sell off any of its assets that do not make sufficient financial return. If it doesn’t make money, get rid of it.
The confidential paper discussed by the council cabinet gave the Director of Place authority to negotiate with LDCA for repayment of all or part of the £1.7m. This is nonsense. Even if the money could be found, it would undermine the future of Ludlow Assembly Rooms. We’d always be paying back the £1.75m loan. Volunteer fundraisers would be shaking buckets to bail out Shropshire Council’s struggling finances. That will be at the expense of moving forward towards new cultural and community adventures.
Shropshire Council underwrote the cost of the Music Hall. Its leaders have guaranteed that council tax payers will cough up for any overrun of costs for the North West Relief Road. The council leader splashed out £51m on Shrewsbury’s shopping centres. Money galore but only grudgingly given to Ludlow.
The alternative to selling Ludlow Assembly Rooms in 2023 is Shropshire Council taking direct control. That would undermine its future. It is a local resource that should be locally run. Direct control from Shirehall would be a disaster.
The extra money for Ludlow Assembly Rooms is essential and welcome. But the sting in the tail will be a disaster for our town.