As you will no doubt be aware the Reuben George Hall has now been opened, as an office for Council staff, and the old Co-op site has been covered in tarmac. You will probably agree that it’s a big improvement on a boarded up building and what looked like a derelict building site.
How did this come about? Apparently, some people are saying that the Council decided to tarmac the site because they were opening up the Reuben George. This isn’t true. The fact is that the changes are the result of a community campaign, initiated by Parks & East Walcot Forum, and supported by SWAP, and the local Councillors. If we had not campaigned for something to be done, then the old Co-op site would probably have remained as it was for years more.
We decided that the situation was unacceptable – the ‘regeneration’ left the site a mess and dragged the area down. We started collecting signatures to a petition demanding that the Council pressure the owners of the old Coop site (Leehampton) to resurface it.
“We the undersigned consider that the condition of Cavendish Square makes a nonsense of the promise of ‘regeneration’. Reuben George Hall has been boarded up for a long time. The decaying base of the old Co-op site makes the square look like a derelict building site. It is dusty and dirty and floods when it rains. It does not encourage people to use the facilities available.
In the absence of more retail units we call upon the owners to resurface the old Co-op site and call on the Council to press them to rectify the condition of the square.
Local people should not be expected to suffer these conditions indefinitely. ”
We raised the issue in the local media (the Advertiser and local radio) and invited over one of the leaders of the Council to come and have a look at the condition of the square. He agreed that the condition of the area needed improving. We then had a series of meetings with the Council and their officers to discuss exactly what needed doing. We got their agreement that a bond worth £120,000 (originally intended to pay for the building of a roof and gates on the square) should be used in part to pay for the old Coop site, to be covered in tarmac. Given the fact that Phase 3 of the project (more retail units on the site) were not going to be built any time soon, in the absence of any interest in them, we felt that the money might as well be used to rectify the condition of the square as go to waste. There was in any case a time limit on the use of the bond. If it had not been called on by the end of June then the money would have been lost.
Originally we pressed the Council to resurface the site immediately after the Reuben George Hall was finished. However, one of the officers suggested that the work might be done, so to speak, on the back of that work. Otherwise, a planning application would have been necessary and the work would have been delayed. Fine, we said, let’s get it done.
Since the old Co-op site belongs to Leehampton it was necessary to reach a legal agreement between the Council and them, and to get the agreement of the Company which now owns the shops (Leehampton sold them on) that they had no objection to the tarmac as opposed to a roof.
So the improvement in the situation is the result of community campaigning and a lot of hard work. We have secured the £120,000 and what is left after the cost of tarmacing (roughly £85,000) will be put aside for future use for the square, be it drainage, or towards the cost of roofing the area, if Phase 3 building ever takes place.
We have also raised the question of flooding in the square when it rains heavily. Since there isn’t going to be a roof built – at least not in the near future – there needs to be some drainage. Council officers are checking out how much this is liable to cost and will report back to us.
There are other problems with the ‘regeneration’ which have yet to be resolved. For instance, since the Council gave away the land it does not control it. The REIT (Real Estate Investment Trust) which owns most of the shops, doesn’t appear to give a damn about the interests of local people. They are responsible for the fact that the Cafe will close shortly, despite our efforts to get them to renegotiate a more realistically priced lease. The danger is that we will end up with more empty premises.
We are also looking at the possibility of a market on the old Co-op site.
In conclusion, then, we have been able to improve the environment in the square though we have more work to do. However, local people should be aware of the fact that unless we had organised the petition and campaigned to get something done to improve the square, then the chances are that it would have continued to look like a building site for years to come. Without the bond being brought into play then no money would have been spent on resurfacing the old Coop site.
One of the things we were concerned about was the fact that many people in our community have an air of resignation – that nothing can be done. Even some people who signed the petition expressed the view that it probably wouldn’t achieve anything. But the peition gave a focus to the campaign and we managed to get things moving. The lesson is that the more we organise, the more people stick together and fight for their interests, then we can achieve things. If we don’t stick together and fight for our interests who else will?
Chair, Parks & East Walcot Forum