At the heart of the Community or heartless?

A week has passed since our appearance on BBC Coventry and Warwickshire, and there was a lot of interest in local media too. Both local newspapers, the Observer and the Advertiser, covered the story with the latter also having managed to garner an uncharacteristic response from the Co-op. We read those comments with great interest and have made the following observations…

The Co-op has reportedly claimed “We have never received a formal commercially-viable offer from Rugby Borough Council in respect of the land”, although the Rugby Advertiser has confirmed that it seen correspondence between the Co-op and the Council. The Co-ops statement would perhaps suggest that they would be happy to negotiate and that this is simply an issue with the perceived value of the land.

Head of Council, Councillor Stokes, states “offers to discuss a deal have been dismissed by the Co-ops solicitors. I would welcome the opportunity to enter formal discussions with the Co-op regarding the future of Oakfield”. Councillor Stokes comments confirm that the Co-op have never had any intention even entering into a negotiation which may result in an outcome which would suit all parties, as otherwise there would be no reason to avoid entering formal discussions.

During their planning application, the Co-op would not divulge any figures regarding their proposed development cost. It claimed that figures were commercially sensitive and would not allow any social housing to be factored into their scheme. Since the land is an asset, it is difficult to understand where the costs fall down.

We speculate that the Co-op’s poor performance and vote of no confidence back in March is providing more economic sway and is causing them to completely abandon their stated principles.

Since their initial threat to fence off Oakfield, the Co-op has maintained that “The Society can no longer take on the legal responsibility for public access”. This is very strange because Rugby Borough Council has confirmed to Save Oakfield Group that it has been providing public liability insurance as part of an all-encompassing Council policy.

Despite the Co-op not formally renewing the Council’s lease back in 2013, the Council has had a rolling tenancy on the site. The Council was only given formal notice to vacate the site a week ago, with a deadline to dismantle and remove the children’s play equipment by 22 June. Only from this date will the liability transfer back to the Co-op, so their insinuation that they have been taking on the legal responsibility for public access since the lease ended in 2013 is completely inaccurate and misleading.

When the Co-op was challenged about the hypocrisy of its slogan “We’re at the heart of the Community”, a spokesperson said “As part of our planning application we had committed to a planned investment of more than £100,000 in play and sports facilities for the town coupled with a pledge to create a new multi-use games area on the ground and to upgrade the children’s play equipment”.

On closer inspection, the Multi-use Games Area was under regulation size to be used as either a basketball or a 5 a side football pitch as they had claimed to would be. They also incorrectly stated that it would meet the standard NEAP requirements, which was completely inaccurate for a number of reasons, not least of all because of its close proximity to neighbouring properties. Most importantly, it wouldn’t come close to offering the variety of uses that Oakfield Rec currently does.

Introducing a ‘pay to use’ artificial pitch at Kilsby Lane at the expense of losing Oakfield Rec is not in the interests of the community. Such an approach only serves to make sport an exclusive pastime, by focusing on and favouring only those that can afford the hourly fees. Besides, the Kilsby Lane football pitch is already under construction right now even without the Co-ops investment.

Right now the Co-op has started actions to remove a children’s playground immediately before the summer holiday, promising some investment that is neither needed nor wanted by the community affected.

There is no need for the Co-op to dismantle the park. It won’t affect the result of the appeal, and there is no legal responsibility for the Co-op should they continue with the lease rolling over as it has been for the last three years. There can be no doubt that this does not fit with the Heart of the Community slogan and it is quite clear that the Co-op do not care one iota about this community and are prepared to act in a childish manner because they did not receive a favourable outcome when their planning application was considered and formally decided upon.

Whatever happens, the Co-op seems insistent that they will deny the local community this valued amenity green space. Firstly by a planning application to raze the green space; and now that they have been rejected, a seemingly spiteful campaign to punish the local community by fencing off the site.

There is a reason why their planning application was unanimously rejected; it was massively flawed from the start. It failed on so many aspects. There wasn’t any social housing, no contribution to local infrastructure and schools was offered. There was no acknowledgement of the local planning framework, and the Co-op massaged acceptability threshold standards for green space. No viable alternative amenity green space or outdoor sports facilities were offered… the list is extensive.

Since 1962, the Co-op has tried to develop Oakfield Rec four times. This has been rejected repeatedly, and even an appeal was rejected in 1975. Even with central Government ambitions to generate more national housing, it is clear that this green site in a densely-populated area of central Rugby is far too important to destroy.

The community, the Planning Committee councillors (across all political parties), the local MP and the Head of the Council are all very clear about the proposed loss of Oakfield Rec – it is simply unacceptable.

The Co-op needs to wake up and listen to what everyone is saying. You only have to look at social media to see the battering their image is getting. Has it really come to this churlish and spoilt behaviour by them to take it out on the children of New Bilton and deny them a future where they can exercise and play?

This is not and has never been a case of Nimbyism. There is not one organisation, other than the Co-op, prepared to argue and justify the mean-spirited and callous behaviour over Oakfield Rec’s future.

Let’s hope the Co-op wakes up before 22 June and sees the poor judgement it’s been exercising, before we’re down the path of no return. There has been a lot of damage made to the Co-ops name and reputation in the last year and a half. A U-turn at this stage would be welcomed by the community and reverse some of that damage. We truly do hope that they enter into a meaningful conversation with Rugby Borough Council to draw a line under this whole unsavoury affair.

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