Head of the Council talks about Oakfield

The Head of Rugby Borough Council, Michael Stokes, gives his personal thoughts on Oakfield Rec:


Here is the text in full:

My personal thoughts on Oakfield Rec.

In ten years as a politician and two years as Leader of Rugby Borough Council, it is rare that I am shocked by some of the actions I witness. Furthermore, it becomes a constant theme of ‘blame the council’ when anything goes wrong. Quite often, this is plausible, sometimes local councillors and councils have difficult decisions to make. It also makes the phrase ‘you can’t please all the people all the time’ a constant reality.

Yet, there are times when the council and councillors are trying to do the right thing. When, politics is put aside, we stand shoulder to shoulder with local residents in their support and passion for something that means so much to them. This is one of those times.

Oakfield Recreation Ground is a small patch of land near the town centre, just off Bilton Road. It has been a recreation ground for a least 35 years where it has been rented by Rugby Borough Council and maintained as a recreation ground for all of those years. To most Rugby residents, this patch of grass won’t even appear on their day to day radar. They’ve probably driven past it on their way into town, or for the longer term Rugbians, they might remember when it was Rugby Town Football Club.

This seemingly insignificant small patch of grass, albeit an oasis to hundreds of local families in an otherwise densely populated area, is under siege from an organisation whose slogan is “We’re at the heart of the community”. Whose mission statement says “We will always seek ways to share our success with our members and the local communities in which we trade”. This organisation, a cooperative; The Heart of England Co-Operative.

In 2014, Rugby Borough Council was notified that the Co-operative had ‘decided’ they were going to build around 60 house on this land. Yes, they do own it, but it has been used as public open space for over three decades. At a meeting at the Co-operative’s HQ in Nuneaton, I, along with Mark Pawsey MP, met with Ali Kurji, the CEO, Stephen Slater, the Company Secretary and representatives from their appointed planning consultants. We made the case for the residents – we wanted Oakfield Rec to remain as public open space. I offered to buy the land on behalf of Rugby Borough Council (an offer that had been made in writing on at least two occasions before), I was told it would be considered. We even stated that residents were minded to join the Co-Operative as members to vote against the board. Mr Kurji’s response was that an increase in membership was always a good thing! The meeting was polite, but our views fell on deaf ears.

Since then, the siege has continued, but not unopposed. Local residents are organised, they are passionate about this grassed area, and they are ‘Save Oakfield’ Group. The campaign has been successful with massive local support, weekly press, radio and TV coverage and campaigns to ensure the cause wasn’t forgotten.

Then earlier this year, the Co-operative carried out their threat to apply for planning permission on the site. The application did not meet local or national policy requirements and was rejected unanimously. But what did the Co-operative’s planning consultant say to the planning committee? They warned, at that public meeting, that if planning permission was refused, they would fence off the site so no one could use it.

If nothing else, the Co-operative have made every effort carry out their threats and penalise the local community. They have ordered Rugby Borough Council to remove all play equipment by June 22nd, which was done – just before the summer holidays. Today, Thursday 23rd June, the lorry turns up, loaded with heavy duty fencing to secure the site as also threatened.

But why? We don’t actually know, because as well as the Co-operative, (a public company run by its members), avoiding any press questions, they’ve also refused to engage with the council. We know they’ve received our letters offering to continue to rent or buy the land, but they have been rejected or ignored. Most recently, I wrote directly to Mr Ali Kurji, the CEO requesting a meeting. I know he received it as his office confirmed he was ‘considering the offer’. But to date, as usual, no response has been received.

Is it too late? Is it all over? I don’t think so and neither do the local community.

So I call upon the residents of Rugby; help out the Save Oakfield group. Is your local shop a Heart of England Co-operative? If so, I ask you to reconsider spending your money in that store. Make contact with Mr Ali Kurji’s office, ask them directly why they are doing this?

But I also call upon the membership of the Heart of England Co-operative in Coventry & Warwickshire; I know this green space maybe completely unknown to you, but you can make a difference for the people it means a lot to. Call upon the board of directors to overturn this decision and re-enter a constructive conversation with Rugby Borough Council to secure this open space for the long term. Do you really want to be part of an organisation that is led by a board who are ignoring the very people they claim to support?

The irony is, Oakfield Rec was a site that made money for the Co-operative, it didn’t cost them a penny and Rugby Borough Council covered all costs as well as paying rent. Now the Co-operative have evicted the council, the rent immediately stops. They now bear the cost to insure the land, secure the land and maintain the land. In desperate times when the co-operative seems to be slashing and burning, they’ve been tempted with the unrealistic promise of income on the back of a small development by a small development company who are no doubt in line for payment if successful. As I understand, with this recent attempt, at least three planning applications have been refused on this site. Is this a sound business decision for the benefit of the members or a spiteful act of revenge?

My final appeal is to the Heart of England Cooperative Board themselves; You may feel this is a sound decision and a worthwhile fight, but the reputational damage this is doing to the Heart of England Cooperative far outweighs the perceived earnings from this site. Are you aware of this?

Earlier this year a vote of no confidence was passed at an extraordinary meeting because of decision to close stores, we are moving to call another meeting over this matter. This can be avoided if you engage – it is no too late.

Useful Information;

Heart of England Co-operative Annual Report, including Board Members; http://www.heartofengland.coop/pdf/report-and-accounts-2016.pdf

Vote of no confidence; http://www.heartofengland.coop/pdf/Press-Statement-Directors-response.pdf

Heart of England Co-operative’s response to the above; http://www.heartofengland.coop/pdf/Press-Statement-Directors-response.pdf

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