It is always worth listening to what politicians say. And listening to it twice. This morning, Shropshire Council leader Peter Nutting was questioned by Eric Smith on BBC Radio Shropshire. He said that reports of Shropshire Council selling Ludlow Assembly Rooms (LAR) were “tosh”. There is no intention of selling. Fair enough and good news. But “no intention” is not a guarantee. Shropshire Council has backed itself into a corner over LAR. It has only two options that will not cost it more money. Flogging the premises or allowing Ludlow to run South Shropshire’s premier cultural centre as agreed.
Eric: What’s the thoughts about the fact that you might sell the Assembly Rooms in Ludlow in due course?
Peter: That’s complete and utter tosh.
Eric: Right. That’s fine. You deny that completely. That’s fine.
Peter: There is no intention whatsoever to sell the Assembly Rooms.
This is a politician’s promise akin to “Read my lips: no new taxes”. No intention is not the same as a guarantee that a sale will not take place.
Shropshire Council should now come clean and set out what its options are for the future of Ludlow Assembly Rooms. It needs to explain why it wants to restrict the initial community asset transfer (CAT) to three years. And what it will do when that CAT ends.
This should not be debated behind closed doors. LAR is a community asset with widespread financial and volunteer support from the community. But it is not Shropshire Council’s style to be open about its discussions. It slaps the label “confidential” on anything where it is running scared about community reaction to its decisions. That’s why Councillor Steve Charmley closed Ludlow’s Coder Road recycling centre in a private session from which the public and media were excluded. Steve is now the councillor who is driving forward plans for Ludlow Assembly Rooms.
Shropshire Council has agreed to pay £1.3m to finish the works need to bring the Assembly Rooms up to contemporary standards. That’s good. Despite the reluctance of the council pay the money, as landlord the council has always had responsibility for upkeep and repairs. These costs should not be borne by Ludlow’s community. But the council is to renegotiate repayment of some of all the £1.3m.
Imagine. You sign a lease for a house. The landlord is responsible for repairs. You find are significant problems with the property. The landlord agrees to get repairs done. Then, thwack! That landlord lands you with the bill. Nonsense.
The council has put additional pressure on Ludlow Assembly Rooms. The reduction of the CAT to three years can only be designed to get the management to kowtow to Shropshire Council’s demands of repayment.
The final factor we need to consider is there is agreement among all parties that Shropshire Council’s subsidy of £74K will end once the work is complete.
That leaves Shropshire Council with not many options. I see them as this.
1) Shropshire Council takes control. In 2023, as the short CAT transfer ends, Shirehall takes direct control. That will be an anathema to our community. But it will hike the costs of running LAR. Staff will need to be employed on the council’s rates. LAR will need to pay a chargeback just for being a Shropshire Council operation. All corporate buildings must pay part of the costs of running the team at Shirehall. It is probable that volunteering will decline. LAR can’t survive without the stewards and everyone that helps. Who wants to donate to a Shropshire Council operation? Prices will increase as the council struggles to balance the budget. Higher priced films and events. Community activities will be priced out. Shropshire Council will have to pay more for running LAR in conflict with its strategy to reduce its expenditure to zero.
2) Transfer management to a third party. The outcome will be as in Option 1. But it is not clear that EU and other grants will still be applicable if a leisure company took control of the building. Shropshire Council could have to repay a lot of money. It would still have to pump money into running LAR.
3) Selling to a third party. A clean option for the council. Newly refurbished, the council could get a lot of its money back. Its future financial responsibilities will be zero. This option is not ruled out despite Peter Nutting’s comments. Whether any commercial operation will be viable would not be considered if the council decided to sell. It’s off the council’s hands. Off the books. Out of sight and out of mind. The capital receipt is banked. Just as it banked the receipt from the sale of the former district council offices at Stone House without any plans to invest the millions back in Ludlow.
4) Just getting on with it. This is the best option. Peter Nutting and the cabinet have always found money for shopping centres, schemes in Oswestry and new roads. The cabinet should pay the money our town is owed to make good its years of neglect of the Assembly Rooms. Then it should hand it over to Ludlow on a 125 year lease as agreed. The building will be in good order. It will then be up to everyone in Ludlow to make a success of it. We will make a success of it!
The underlying problem is Shropshire Council trusts no one. It won’t let go. Like a property company, it views everything as a line on a spreadsheet. The bean counters dominate. And its investment policy has long been to favour Shrewsbury and Oswestry. It is time for a change in that attitude.
In the interview this morning, Peter Nutting complained that the Conservative government was ignoring the financial needs of rural counties. I hope he will take some time to reflect on the way he is neglecting rural Shropshire. He should invest in Ludlow without so much as a caveat.