Register office move - strong opposition

In response to the letter from Belinda Chapman (16 November), we believe the people of Lewes and the surrounding areas need to be clear about issues concerning the future of Southover Grange as a Register Office.

East Sussex County Council, which runs the registration service, is moving out at the end of February 2013 because it has been forced to do so by Lewes District Council, the owner of Southover Grange.

It was not the wish of ESCC – as Ms Chapman suggests – to bring registrations to a close at the Grange: LDC would not grant a secure enough lease to allow the registration service to plan for weddings next summer and beyond.

Neither would LDC engage with ESCC when it offered the necessary plans and the funding to move ahead on the building works to make the Grange properly accessible for disabled people.

The people of Lewes and districts might wonder why LDC has behaved like this. Last month on Rocket FM, LDC leader James Page said that he is looking for joint ventures with partners for the Grange and other LDC land and buildings, and to minimise financial risk.

We would suggest that a long term lease with a solid financial partner like ESCC, where the county also improves and maintains Southover Grange, is the best way to minimise risk.

We are disappointed that LDC has chosen not to respond to our request to identify these potential partners for the Grange.We have asked them to furnish the people of Lewes and district with more details concerning the likely options that these potential partners are presenting. We ask again: who are they? And what are their plans?

James Page has also said the prospect of the Register Office taking over the ground floor of the Grange would prevent community use. But the Registrars simply need two of the ground floor rooms – one to conduct marriages (in other words an accessible ceremony room) and a further room to register births and deaths which would be accessible to the elderly and disabled and parents with pushchairs.

The remaining space on the ground floor could remain as community space and the Registrars can continue to use the first floor for administration and record keeping.

If the Register Office does move out of Southover Grange, it has been suggested by some that weddings and civil partnerships could still take place there. But this is missing the point. At the moment the maximum it is possible to pay at Southover Grange is £180. That cost includes the use of the Grange’s beautiful gardens for photographs.

If a venue is treated as just a licensed premises, rather than the register office, the costs soar. The registrar automatically charges £450 to conduct a marriage in these cases, plus there is the hire of the room for the ceremony. Elsewhere in Lewes (Lewes House, Lewes Castle and Anne of Cleves House, for example) the total combined cost of a marriage ceremony only is around £900 to £1,000, because of this reason.

If Southover Grange joins the same category it will be out of financial reach for most and the alternative will be the very much less attractive, though cheaper, town hall. The town hall is obviously a busy municipal building rather than a straight register office – and it is without gardens. The enormous level of feedback that we have already received on this matter leads us to conclude that the people from Lewes and district view the option of the Town Hall as vastly inferior.

If the closure of the Register Office at the Grange goes ahead, the people of Lewes and district will lose the much loved and traditional place for the most significant ceremonies and registrations in their lives. Many of them – and many from elsewhere in the county, country and abroad who come to Southover Grange specifically – will simply take their weddings out of the district.

This leaves the area much less rich in terms of community as well as in terms of vital wedding and ceremony-related business and jobs. Is LDC really willing to risk all this?

Meanwhile the registration service for births and deaths will be carried out at the back of Tesco for the foreseeable future. This is a soulless and inferior provision of services.

If the people of Lewes had to name half a dozen or so iconic places from the county town then we believe Southover Grange would be firmly on that list.We are constantly coming into contact with people who are full of memories about the place.

The LDC should not underestimate the strength of feeling and emotion surrounding this issue. If they do then they risk being dangerously out of touch with their local electorate.

The e-petition (to find it online, search ‘East Sussex’ and ‘petition’) is gaining support apace: so is the paper petition that has been circulating in Lewes. We hope that the discussions now kick-started between LDC and ESCC will gain serious purpose as a result.

Karen Miles, Catherine Grace and Sarah Pearson

‘Save the Grange