Many of you have asked me for updates on the situation with Ravens Court, the decaying, derelict shopping precinct that lies deserted in the centre of Brownhills – you’ll remember that way back in November 2014, Walsall Council issued an ultimatum to the owners that if they didn’t submit a planning application within six months, they’d initiate legal proceedings to force the landlords to tidy it up.
The precinct – which is owned privately by a Mayfair-based company called Lightquote Limited – is in a shocking condition, and has slowly continued to decay since Tesco pulled out of a plan to build a new store here in 2012. Lightquote fully expected to sell Ravens Court to Tesco and make an effort-free killing – but were left with an unfortunate white elephant when the retail behemoth’s economic fortunes went south.
At the time that Walsall Council issued the ultimatum, officers and other interested parties were at the end of their tethers, as being in private hands, there is very little the authority can do to force the owners to act. Legal action is expensive and lengthy, and there’s no guarantee of winning. Such action can only force a tidy up.
In more jovial humour at the time, Brownhills UKIP Councillor Steve Craddock, naiveté dripping from behind his ears, followed the owners down to the Fearie Glen and swallowed the story that there was some kind of plan, and that all would be revealed if we sat tight and trusted him and his oppo, Tory group regeneration wonk Adrian Andrew.
The hapless kipper went to the press and announced jovially that they’d all been working together and things were being pushed forward. Forward so far, they appear to have fallen off a cliff without trace.
Since then, nothing has happened in the ground except more ASB, more break ins, and more decay. We had an election, after which the Tories regained control of Walsall Council, winning back control following the loss of outgoing Brownhills Councillor Barbara Cassidy’s seat to a tory, who’d been campaigning on the street by telling everyone the Tories were sorting out Ravens Court.
This must have particularly stung UKIP, who appear to have been nothing more than useful stooges to restore the Mike Bird status quo.
I had periodically reminded readers that the clock was ticking for action on Lightquote by the Council, but the current position seems a little uncertain. Naturally, I think the Authority is still hoping a deal can be sought.
I had been alerted through various contacts that action might be imminent on the part of developers, so I hung on and gave them time. Six months was up in May. I gave it until June. Another whisper. Nothing.
Since then, I’ve had contact from the only politician seemingly happy to speak frankly on the matter, Brownhills Labour Councillor Steve Wade. Steve has issued the following statement, on several issues:
I have a statement from the council with the very latest update of four major issues that relate our area. As you can see, and contrary to what other ward councillors have recently advised the community, these are still very much active and are ongoing.
Regarding Ravens Court and The Warrener’s Arms, I and ex councillor Cassidy, have battled to keep these issues at the top of the regeneration agenda for a number of years in an effort to get the council, owners/developers to the table to try and thrash out some viable proposals for development. I will continue to do this for as long as I am a councillor, and indeed beyond.
I’m also trying to get the council to obtain the land owned by Tesco for community activities and the possibility of a return of Brownhills market in some guise.
Unfortunately, the wheels of local government run extremely slowly and this is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of trying to get things resolved. I will keep you posted on any developments.
The statement from Walsall Council Steve cites is as follows:
As promised, an update on the matters you requested.
No further update has been received since officers from the Planning Department provided comments to the agent on the draft scheme that was submitted earlier in the year. In contacting the agent to seek an update and remind them of the six month date that Cabinet agreed to hold off from serving a S215 Notice, it was confirmed that the agent/contact no longer works on this scheme – an alternative contact is therefore being sought.
[So, there has been a ‘draft scheme’m of some kind submitted by the owners, which hasn’t been made public. I’ve heard it wasn’t very detailed. Planning – as is their job – advised upon it, to no avail. Now the people who were dealing with it for the landlords are no longer concerned with it. Sounds just topper that. – Bob]
No further progress has been made by the land owner since the sale of the land to the former proposed developer fell through in 2014. As Planning Committee resolved that the planning application – demolition of the former PH and construction of 58 flats – be granted subject to conditions and a S106, officers will need to report back to a future Committee to recommend for refusal as the S106 remains undetermined.
[So, no change at the Warreners then – despite rumours. Thanks for clearing that up – Bob]
Land fronting High Street (Tesco)
This land is owned by Tesco and it is understood that they have identified this parcel of land surplus to their requirements and available for disposal/sale. Officers therefore continue to endeavour to make contact with Tesco to progress the proposition of the Council negotiating acquisition of this land to provide a civic space on the High Street for events and market opportunities. The progress of engaging Tesco has been hampered by continuing changes in personnel, which we understand is the result of recent redundancies within the organisation. A new contact has been provided by the store manager which officers are pursuing, together with other potential avenues of contact that others hold for Tesco.
[This came as a bit of a surprise, and I support this wholly – Bob]
I thank Councillor Wade here and now for his openness and honesty on this matter – it’s nice to see someone trying to push things along. Thanks for keeping us informed, please stay in touch. I like the idea to get that waste ground into some kind of use; it’s long been needed.
Back to the matter in hand, I think it’s quite clear Lightquote are stalling, and the agents who were representing them are no longer doing so. This reeks of commitment, I must say: in my continued research I can find no evidence that Lightquote are anything more than a land banking operation with no obvious evidence of previous development experience.
I have repeatedly requested Lightquote issue a statement. Why on earth would they not do so? They own a large, crumbling edifice in our town (miles from their registered offices) – and even if they bought in good faith, hoping for a quick turnover and commercial gain – they owe it to Brownhills to at least show good intention. That they seem unwilling to do even basic clean-up tasks is quite shocking, really.
So, where does this all go from here? I wish I knew. The Council has not the money to compulsorily purchase Ravens Court; the £3 million this is estimated to cost is just not available in these times, although I’m sure Walsall would facilitate a deal if one was on the table. Purchasing the site speculatively would be hugely costly and not solve the issues.
With the owners seemingly unwilling to develop, I think the only likely outcome right now is demolition – and I’m not sure that would be a bad thing. The site is an unfortunate shape, and marooned by surrounding car parking. It’s long and narrow, and about the only thing I could see it practically hosting would be some kind of drive through – but the cost of the land to do that would seem prohibitively expensive. At least demolishing the place would remove the blot on the landscape, and make the High Street less dismal. But it’s a long shot, and would require action on the part of the owners.
Don’t hold your breath.
Walsall Council can only – and I hope they do – press on with court action to force the precinct to be cleaned up; but even that, if successful could take a year or more, and will to actually solve the problem.
I doubt Brownhills is unique in this position – I think this situation is being repeated up and down the land in unremarkable towns like ours, where property speculation has failed and left communities with vacant, derelict sites money can’t possibly be made back from. All we can hope is that the Walsall Housing Group projects locally generate more trade and drive some degree of investment.
If they don’t, we’re stuffed.