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Melksham House will become a ‘flexible working space’ for local businesses, as part of controversial new plans by Wiltshire Council.
But the plans have come under fire from local people who wanted to see the building returned to community use and want a say in how it should be used.
And there are worries that the town will be ‘held to ransom’ with one Melksham councillor saying that the opening of the campus could be put on hold by Wiltshire Council unless it gets its way.
“My reading of the situation was that Wiltshire Council is saying, ‘this is what you’re going to get whether you want it or not’, said the councillor, following a behind closed door meeting between Wiltshire Council and Melksham town councillors.
“Melksham House is destined to become a profit- making venture to cover running expenses and offset any losses on the campus, the ‘public’ won’t get a look in,” the councillor told Melksham News.
“Whatever happens to it (Melksham House), it has to pay its way – and I know that’s not what the community is looking for. Most people will be expecting Melksham House to be returned to public use in some form, as it was before.”
Wiltshire Council has to get approval for its plans about the future use of Melksham House from its own planning department before the campus – which is expected to be opened by autumn 2022 – can be “brought into use”.
Wiltshire Council has confirmed to Melksham News that they are intending to submit a planning application in the coming months, to use Melksham House as a “flexible working space’.
They maintain they are “committed” to Melksham House being used “as effectively as possible to meet the needs of the local area.”
The council says they are “exploring options” to use the hall at the rear of the building as a “multi-purpose activity space” that could be used by the community and also as additional bookable space for businesses/workers using the main house.
Wiltshire Council also say that additional community space will be available at the new campus, currently under construction, and at the existing Assembly Hall.
The plans are a change in direction from those proposed in 2019 when Wiltshire Council said it was considering using the main part of Melksham House as residential care facilities for people aged 10–18; and the former dance hall at the rear of the house as a community resource centre.
The future use of Melksham House is expected to form part of Wiltshire Council’s bid to the government’s ‘Levelling Up Fund’, which is designed to improve local infrastructure, develop town centres and help local businesses.
Local MP Michelle Donelan and Melksham Town Council are both involved in the work behind-the-scenes for Wiltshire Council to prepare the bid for funding, which has to be made before the deadline of 18th June.
A statement from the leader of Wiltshire Council, cllr Richard Clewer, to Melksham News, said in full, “Melksham House is an historical building in a prime location and we are committed to it being used as effectively as possible to meet the needs of the local area.
“In the coming few months we are intending to submit a planning application, that, as it stands, will seek approval for a mix of flexible working and multi-purpose space on-site. This will be subject to the standard planning processes, and people will have the opportunity to submit representations.
“We’re doing preparation work with an intention to bid for an allocation of the government’s Levelling Up fund, should it meet the criteria. If we do bid, it’s likely our plans and ambition for Melksham House will form part of that submission.
“Any successful bid will need the support of both Wiltshire Council and local MPs. We are also considering making bids for funding for Salisbury and Trowbridge and if we do we’ll speak to relevant stakeholders in due course.
“Given the impact of the pandemic, our primary focus is on the business community and its needs as part of our recovery for our high streets which have been severely impacted.
“However, the hall to the rear of the house is due to be retained and this will provide multi-purpose activity space and we’re exploring the options on this. Community space will also be provided at the new campus and at the Assembly Hall.
“Our previous proposed plans, which included the option of on-site facilities such as residential care, were always subject to further review and the emergence of a viable business case. It’s vital that as a council we react quickly and decisively if circumstances and needs change, particularly as they have done over the last year or so.
“It’s important to note that plans are at the early stages of development and with options still being considered, we will ensure to keep people updated on the ongoing progress and any developments.”