On 18 February, it will be eleven years since a section of the town walls bounding St Laurence’s churchyard collapsed. Some maintenance has been done to prevent further decay. Consultants have reported on the work needed to repair the scheduled monument to a heritage standard. Archaeological surveys have been conducted. Beyond that, years have passed by without the repairs beginning.
Yesterday, Ludlow Town Council issued a statement on progress on repairing the walls. This tells us little beyond the statement it made in April 2022, except that it is once again engaged in a legal argument on who is responsible for the repairs. The Diocese of Hereford does not have responsibility. Closed graveyards become the responsibility of the local authority. Ludlow Town Council has always been reluctant to take on responsibility for the repairs. For the last seven years, the town council has accepted responsibility for “leading on the repairs” but it has always denied it is responsible for the costs. Now it has gone beyond asking St Laurence’s and Shropshire Council to contribute to the costs, is trying again to pass the buck to Shropshire Council.
I would be astonished if it succeeded in that.
While legal arguments are going on, the town council is still responsible for the maintenance of St Laurence’s churchyard. The area beyond the heras fencing is unsightly. It should be managed for wildflowers and wildlife. Mowing or scything once, or twice a year, would improve the look of the area and increase biodiversity in the town centre. This work should be undertaken before the spring using the town council’s direct labour force or volunteers.
If, as expected, the town council will bar the sole responsibility for repairing it will need to borrow money.
Any loan will come from the Public Loans Board (PLB). The interest would be at fixed interest rate, currently 5.55%. For example, at the current rates, the repayments on £3 million would be £102,563 a year over 30 years (1). That would add £29 a year to the current precept of £231.95.
There are ways to reduce the cost to council ratepayers.
End the legal quagmire
The route the council seems to be pursuing is to prove that Shropshire Council is responsible. It hasn’t set out what grounds it has for that challenge but the renewed dispute has already added another two years to the long running saga of the fallen walls. The wheels of the legal process are turning slowly and my concern is the council is yet again bogged down in a legal swamp. It has already spent years on this and it should aim to close down discussion before the end of the year. Every month of delay just adds to legal costs and rebuilding costs.
The other way is to reduce the cost of the work. Heritage is expensive to repair but the estimate of more than £3 million seems rather high. The cost of repairs will not be cheap but the council should be trying to get the cost to around £2 million. It would be well worth the council retaining another heritage repair specialist to scrutinise the current estimate with a view to reducing it.
The council estimate of more than £3 million was first made public in April 2022. Since then, the cost of labour and materials in the construction industry has risen much more than the general rate of inflation. Labour costs have risen due to the pandemic, Brexit and improving economies in countries in eastern Europe.
Extend the loan period. It would be unusual for a ‘small’ loan like this to be repaid over 50 years (‘small’ here is in the context of broader council borrowing from the PLB). If the loan was repaid over 50 years, the addition to the precept would be lower – £89,405, £25 not £29 a year. The total repayment would of course be higher – £8,940,527 compared to £6,256,357 for a 30 year payment.
Cut council staffing. Ludlow Town Council employs 19 full and part-time staff in administration, event management and maintaining grounds, the cemetery, toilets and buildings. It is not unusual for councils facing financial challenges to cut their staff. I am not advocating this at all as it would lead to a reduction in the services the council provides.
Town Wall Statement from Ludlow Town Council
Shropshire Council took the emergency response lead at the time of the collapse. A legal debate between Shropshire Council, the Town Council, and Parochial Church Council concerning liability commenced in 2015, and Ludlow Town Council agreed to lead those looking for a way of funding the necessary repairs to the collapsed section of the Ludlow Town Wall, next to the Garden of Rest.
It was recognised that this would be a large project, involving commissioning and agreeing a full specification for the repair works contract, working out an accurate estimate of the likely cost of those works and getting all of the necessary permissions. The wall is owned by St Laurence Parochial Parish Church (PCC). Ludlow Town Council looked to Shropshire Council and St Laurence’s Parochial Church Council to do whatever they can in support of the project.
Early in 2016, the first meeting between Ludlow Town Council and the Parochial Church Council liaison group had taken place, and project stages were agreed in outline; and discussions with statutory bodies were begun.
In 2017, the tenders for the preliminary works were undertaken and the cost for the preliminary works was £38,550. The town council made an application for borrowing to the Secretary of State’s office, which was approved in 2019. The preliminary works required a Faculty, and Scheduled Monument consent and the works were delayed by the pandemic.
The detailed report and recommendations for the final stage repair works was presented to the town council’s legal advisors in 2022. It is estimated that the cost of the repair works will exceed three million pounds. Ludlow Town Council is researching all available information to seek further advice from a barrister. We are aware of the concerns of the people of Ludlow but until our legal team is in a position to advise us further, we cannot issue anything further.
(1) The estimates used in this article are based on a fixed interest annuity from the Public Loans Board (PLB). Interest rates are high at the moment due to the price of the gilts which the government issues to finance loans by the PLB. Gilts are expected to fall when the Bank of England base rate falls and the council may be able to obtain a lower fixed rate. Repayment costs are calculated using information from the government Debt Management Office.
 Estimates are based on current housing numbers in Ludlow Town parish. There is potential to increase housing stock by about 250 homes.