On Tuesday 20th February Guildford Borough Council passed a resolution to sell West Lodge in Chilworth. West Lodge is a grade II list building attached to the Chilworth Gunpowder Mills Scheduled Monument. It is also part of the Gunpowder Mills Conservation Area set up by the Council.
For a quick summary of the issues with images and plans click here
To view the letter of objection by Gavin Morgan click here
The argument for selling is financial. Previous Council administrations have neglected West Lodge since it ceased to be occupied in 2008. There is now a large repair bill which the Council hopes it can pass on to someone else and make a profit of £175,000 in the process.
The disposal process will be complicated because it involves a public open space, scheduled monument and Grade 2 listed building. The Council laid out its plans in the Executive Report for the meeting on 20th February. It intends to ask the Secretary of State for permission to dispose of the property. “The Property is subject to restrictive covenants that restrict the development of the land. Section 104 of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 (“the 1949 Act”), requires that in order to dispose or appropriate the land to a different statutory purpose, the Council must first obtain the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government’s (“the Secretary of State”) consent. The land is partly held by the Council as public open space and, by appropriating this part for planning purposes, the restrictive covenants will be overridden”.
The main arguments against selling are as follows:
The rest of this page outlines the issue in great detail. I have collated all the information I can find. The evidence for my opinions is provided further down. My conclusion is that the Council must review this decision and work interested parties to find a solution that keeps West Lodge in public ownership along with the rest of the Chilworth Gunpowder Mills. My observations are:
My conclusion is that the only viable option is for Guildford Borough Council to take responsibility for the care of West Lodge. It should pick up the cost but at the same time it should investigate how much the community can help with fund raising and what grants are available. It should also ensure that the town gets value for money in terms of the building’s use. A lock up for forest schools, events and the volunteers who save the borough money by caring for the woodland are obvious uses. It is hard to think of commercial uses but these can be investigated.
At the end of the day it is about choice. The Council should choose to live up to its responsibilities. Running a town is not cheap and sometimes it is necessary to spend money. The Council felt It was necessary to spend £4 million on the revamp of the Council chamber and offices. It felt it was necessary to spend £100,000 on the toilets in the Council offices and £1.2 million on “The Village”. It has budgeted to spend £250,000 on 48 Quarry Street. It is therefore not out of the question to spend some money to restore West Lodge and care for our parks and heritage.
The Council does not appear to have looked at all options. I have asked to see the detailed reports and discussion that was documented but this has been withheld by Guildford Borough Council on the grounds of confidentiality. However, it appears that the Council passed the responsibility for exploring options to St Marth Parish Council. This was a big ask of the smallest parish in the borough with 300 dwellings and just over 600 residents. The Executive Report (20th February) claims “A project group was set up by St Martha Parish Council to look at all future possibilities for West Lodge”. However, it appears the Council ensured that it was not possible to look at “all possibilities”. It insisted that the Parish Council lease the building and pay the £100,000 or so needed for its restoration. The Parish was also not allowed to recover this money by subletting. Options were limited and definitely not explored in full.
The heritage argument for West Lodge is clear and strong and is explained Guildford Borough Council in its Chilworth Gunpowder Mills Conservation Management Plan.
Section 1.1.1 states “The Gunpowder Mills at Chilworth in Surrey is a Scheduled Monument (No.31397) and a site of national importance in the history of gunpowder manufacture.”
Section 2.2 says “The scheduled area covers virtually the entire GBC owned land but one small area (the West Lodge: see Gazetteer No.46) is excluded. This was because the West Lodge was an occupied dwelling and is listed Grade 2. The entire GBC owned site, including West Lodge, is within the Chilworth Gunpowder Mills Conservation Area”.
Section 4.5.38/9 states “Policy 5.1: Retain West Lodge: The West Lodge is a key part of the Gunpowder Mills and should remain a part of the site in order to promote the wider understanding of the complex as well as potentially providing a facility at the site.”
Section 4.5.41 says “Protection of Setting: The setting and wider landscape of the Gunpowder Mills is of considerable significance and enhances the value of the site.”
In the Executive Meeting on 20th Feburary 2018 the Council confirmed it had concerns about a proposal from St Martha’s for more visitors because of the “effect on the preservation of the natural and cultural heritage of the site” (See Executive Summary Section 3.2).
The decision to sell West Lodge unwittingly sets a worrying precedent that should be opposed. The Council is, in effect, creaming off a slice of a public open space and selling it for profit. Section 104 of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 prevents Council’s from doing this without permission from the Secretary of State but that is what Guildford Borough Council plans to do.
The Council laid out its plans in the Executive Report for the meeting on 20th February. It intends to ask the Secretary of State for permission to dispose of the property. “The Property is subject to restrictive covenants that restrict the development of the land. Section 104 of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 (“the 1949 Act”), requires that in order to dispose or appropriate the land to a different statutory purpose, the Council must first obtain the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government’s (“the Secretary of State”) consent. The land is partly held by the Council as public open space and, by appropriating this part for planning purposes, the restrictive covenants will be overridden”.
An attractive option is for the Council to uphold the “preservation of the natural and cultural heritage of the site” and insist that any buyer restores West Lodge, with perhaps minor additions, to turn it into a modern home. However, this is not practical as the building is not a good investment.
The plot is narrow (about 5meters wide) and the building is in poor state. There is hardly any room for parking at the front and no direct access to the back (i.e. it is only accessible across the scheduled monument). It is more likely that an investor will want to make drastic alterations and the Council is currently considering removing covenants that restrict building.
Let’s imagine the Council does the unthinkable and allows the demolition of part or most of West Lodge. This is their intention as they believe (inaccurately) that only the front building is original to the Gunpowder Works. Demolition would definitely have an “effect on the preservation of the natural and cultural heritage of the site”. West Lodge introduces the scheduled monument and is a visible sign that this is an historic site. It needs preserving and better interpretation but if it were to go then there would be no sign that this is an important historical site.
However, from an investor’s point of view this is still not a good option, in my opinion. Yes, we see people build on awkward sites in Grand Designs on TV but there are presumably plenty of other interesting challenges an investor with money could choose. Access for building is still difficult. Permission would need to be sort for construction vehicles to cross the scheduled monument via the original gates. The plot is still narrow with no direct access to the back. There would be regular visitors down one side and the neighbouring house is jammed against the other side. The potential for disputes during building and afterwards is immense.
Above all, this raises worrying ethical issues. By going to the Secretary of State to reverse the protection under Section 104 of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 the Council is selling off part of our public open spaces for profit. This is a principle that should be opposed.
This has not worked so far. St Martha Parish Council has spent the last two years trying to find a solution but the Council has virtually made this impossible.
But let’s imagine the Council changed its policy and worked openly with the community to find a solution without any self-imposed restrictions. Could West Lodge be restored with grants and public money and then put to commercial use as an office or holiday let? It is a nice idea but does not seem possible. With a precept of around £12,000 per year St Martha Parish Council does not have the budget to support a building like West Lodge. It would not be possible to make up the different with grants or fundraising. They could contribute but would not be the entire solution. The biggest issue I can see is the fact that West Lodge is two buildings awkwardly joined together. An amount of sensitive rebuilding would be required to turn it into a building that can have commercial potential.
Looking at all the options I come back to the start and believe the Council should take responsibility for West Lodge. It should pay for its restoration and get some use out of it. It could be an office or store for use by the Parish Council, forest schools, or the volunteers who save the borough money by caring for the woodland. The Council should apply for grants and work with the community to get extra money (even if modest) through fundraising activities. We should, of course, be mindful of the cost and get some perspective from how money is spent elsewhere. These are just examples at random but if the Council can spend £4 million on the revamp of the Council chamber and offices, £100,000 on the toilets in the Council offices, £1.2 million on “The Village”and £250,000 on 48 Quarry Street then restoring West Lodge is not necessarily out of the question.