Public outcry as council off-loads historic Heathfield House

CROYDON IN CRISIS: The future of a long-established ecology charity has been placed under threat, as well as hundreds of school visits conducted annually, by a council plan to lease out a publicly-owned listed building.
By our environment correspondent, PAUL LUSHION

The listed Victorian Heathfield House in the Addington Hills could soon be taken out of public hands

The council has caused another public outcry over proposals to dispose of public green space in a scheme to lease Heathfield House and fence off land around it, potentially breaking previous promises about the use of the building and forcing a local ecology charity to close.

Heathfield House is the former home of Raymond Riesco and his family, which was acquired for the people of Croydon after the industrialist’s death in the 1960s.

The Victorian villa-style house in the Addington Hills has been poorly maintained and neglected by Croydon Council over the past couple of decades, during which time it has been used by the authority for staff training and meetings, and the gardens and surrounding fields have been well used by charity the Croydon Ecology Centre.

During the past year, Heathfield House has been used by Cressey College, a special educational needs school, and they have applied to lease the building longer term. To facilitate that, the Labour-controlled council wants to fence off parts of the listed building’s Italiante terrace and sunken gardens to create a boundary.

Red lines: council plans to fence off public open space at Heathfield has caused a public outcry

According to an email from a senior council official, Heathfield is now being looked at among “a series of proposed asset disposals to generate both capital receipts and operational cost saving”.

While leasing the building for educational purposes might at least protect Heathfield House from itself being sold off immediately by the cash-strapped council, the fencing of packets of land around the building is seen by concerned members of the public as being an unwanted incursion into a much-valued piece of public property.

There’s growing suspicion too that, after the angry complaints that the sale of public parkland in Thornton Heath created, the council’s plans for Heathfield House were kept deliberately low-key.

The council did the bare legal minimum, posting a notice in a little-read and badly distributed freebie newspaper last month. But their propaganda department failed to send any statutory notice on the matter to Inside Croydon (average daily readership in 2020: 8,219), and local environmental groups maintain that they only discovered the looming deadline in the past week.

In the latest example of a bungled public consultation by Croydon Council, there was originally confusion over the deadline for public responses (which was later confirmed as yesterday, Friday, July 9). But even then, some who tried to send their concerns to Stephen Wingrave, the council’s head of assets and estates, say that their emails “bounced back”, unread.

It was Wingrave who also oversaw the sale of the lodge and land surrounding it at Grange Park in Thornton Heath – after two previous attempts failed because of the public outcry that scheme provoked.

In a recent email to Lorraine Chatfield, the long-serving Ecology Centre’s warden, Wingrave wrote, “Given the historic links and importance of Heathfield House to the borough I have not included this within the sales programme but am looking at letting the House to generate savings.

The stunning views from Heathfield’s terrace would be lost if the council gets its way

“We have been working with Cressey College who used it temporarily whilst they were having repair works to their main building. Following this they enquired about the possibility of leasing the premises and we have now provisionally agreed terms subject to any comments that we may receive.”

Wingrave offered assurances that any scheme to lease or alter Heathfield House would be subject to consideration by the council’s planning committee and cabinet.

But this now appears to be untrue.

Sarah Hayward: former Camden Labour politician will decide Heathfield’s fate

In an undated council report recommending the disposal, the paper recommends that the decision on Heathfield House should be delegated to Sarah Hayward, recently promoted to interim exec director Place, and council deputy leader Stuart King. It has been questioned whether Hayward, a former Labour council leader and resident in north London, has ever actually visited Heathfield House in her two years working for Croydon.

Chatfield says that if the lease is agreed with Cressey College, “it will drastically impact the viability of Croydon Ecology Centre as a working small charity, after 24 years of service to Croydon residents, Croydon schools, visitors to the borough and indeed, to Croydon Council”.

The council already has a well-deserved poor reputation for abusing solemn agreements over the Riesco estate.

One of the pieces of porcelain from the Riesco Collection that the council flogged off

Under the Tories, in 2013 the council flogged off a large part of Raymond Riesco’s historic collection of Chinese porcelain from the Museum of Croydon, ostensibly to fund repairs to the Fairfield Halls. The collection had been gifted to the people of Croydon by Riesco “in perpetuity”.

But instead of the £13million valuation placed on the 24 pieces from the collection, the Tories managed to raise barely half that amount, yet managed to see Croydon stripped of its accreditation with Arts Council England.

More recently, in 2016, with the council now under Labour control, the Ecology Centre was “given absolute assurance that once we gave up the use of the Heathfield House basement, that we would never again be asked to move or give up our office space on the first floor, nor the two small store rooms where we store our exhibition boards, photographs and items for the Christmas bazaar and catering equipment”, according to Chatfield.

Any change in use of Heathfield House would put an end to the Ecology Centre’s major activity, hosting visits of hundreds of Croydon school children each year, where they undertake field lessons about the natural environment, something they have been doing for more than 20 years.

Other volunteer groups who use the facilities would also be forced out by the changes as proposed. Those affected have been critical of the council’s plans, for the simple failure to consider providing alternative facilities which might allow the groups to continue their activities in the grounds, alongside the school using the house.

Uncertain future: Heathfield House could be the latest casualty of the council’s mismanagement under Negrini and Newman

“Most of our volunteers have been with us for many years, freely giving of their time and effort at the ecology centre, the grounds of Heathfield and in and around Heathfield House,” Chatfield said. “This amounts to tens of thousands of man hours over the years.

“It will also be an end to the many corporate workdays we hold, where local firms and government departments are encouraged to show their ‘green credentials’ by sending their staff to us for a day of environmental work.”

Chatfield describes the plans to fence off parts of the gardens and terrace as “an incongruous eyesore”.

The local branch of  Friends of the Earth, who use the grounds around the House, have also lodged strong objections, not only to the proposal but to the shoddy way the consultation has been handled.

“The whole world knows that the council’s finances are in a parlous state so it seems that every Tom, Dick and Harry is now chancing their arm and offering to take assets off the council’s hands,” Lucia Briault, Croydon FoE’s  Treasurer, told Inside Croydon.

“There is a discernible pattern that is all too familiar to those of us who have been following the Brick by Brick debacle. The council restricts use of publicly-owned assets and fails to maintain them properly. Over time, these assets fall into disrepair. The council then says ‘we’ve got these under-utilised assets we can’t afford to maintain, best if we get rid of them’.

“Too late or expensive at this point for the community to step in, yet the council realises very little value from selling these assets.

“The Heathfield House proposal is another example of a poorly-considered, knee-jerk reaction akin to the proposed fire sale of Brick by Brick.”

Read more: Cash-strapped council to sell part of Grangewood Park
Read more: Government-appointed advisers pulled plug on BxB sale
Read more: Council handed biggest bail-out in history
Read more: Croydon tops the table for flogging off public assets

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13 Responses to Public outcry as council off-loads historic Heathfield House

  1. mikebweb says:

    Well that comes as no surprise considering the current state of the place – grounds and building. Windows and doors are boarded up and the once immaculate gardens are a disgrace. The ecology centre seems closed and unwanted and a phone call to the mobile number got no assurance or information. This could be a good move if the gardens are to be maintained, properly, in future and the fencing is of low height to give the lease holder a boundary and may be for security of the users. Any form of 6ft high fencing will TOTALLY RUIN THE PLACE and surely be against the intended listing building status – but there again who cares in Croydon Council

    • Annette Carter says:

      How is this allowed to happen without any consultation with the people of Croydon? This corrupt council are deliberately leaving places to deteriorate so that they can raze the buildings to the ground and build more and more flats. They are selling off land, Croydon Park Hotel, College Green, part of Grange Woods Park, basically desecrating all of our town to build more and more concrete blocks and now Heathfield House which is part of our heritage is next on their list. Why is it we get no say in what happens in our town.? This council has bankrupted itself with all its dodgy deals with Brick by Brick who are never held to account and are tearing up our town. I think its time this labour council was run out of town.

      • But Annette, there was a consultation (of sorts). It says so in the article you have just read (or get someone to read it to you).

        And there is no suggestion, not yet anyway, that Heathfield House is to be demolished or turned into flats. Certainly, that’s not the intention of the SEND school which wants to lease it. And in any case, as noted in the report (which you must have read very carefully), the building has listed status, so demolition might not be a realistic option.

        Unsure, also, how selling off the empty Croydon Park Hotel site is in any way “desecration”.

        Perhaps you can enlighten us?

    • Bev Smith says:

      No … Heathfield House has beautifully painted, new (or restored?) windows.. grounds and gardens are immaculate…
      But I agree, hopefully will still be access to the public. Rhododendrons were beautiful this year as usual

  2. There is no part of our town that our council is not prepared to trash.

  3. Ian Kierans says:

    May every philanthropist take note. In fact every honest charitable person take note of how assets in trust for the people of Croydon are misused, abused, neglected, and ”legally” pilfered by non elected officials.

    I am sometimes amazed at the delusions developers have when they state they are supporting the locality. As if payments of £10,000+ to this Council are of charitable benefit while they take local amenities away, as granted by this Council as legal planning permission.

    I really wish anyone thinking of donating to this area stops and takes note. Then donates to those Charitable institutions and Foundations that do keep things in trust for the people of Croydon and where this rapacious unethical and immoral council are unable to profit or misuse those assets.

    The people of Croydon need regulatory assistance and nationwide public support to curtail these actions

    King John was in the end restricted by Magna Carta – the modern rape and pillaging of this Borough desperately requires legislation and independent enforcement that is capable of preventing these underhand unethical and immoral activities along with the denigration of people reliant on good administration and local services.

  4. In 1948 Nye Bevan, the Labour MP who founded the NHS, said in a speech “What is Toryism but organised spivvery? … No amount of cajolery can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party … So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin.”

    Croydon Labour are sinking ever lower than the Tories that Bevan despised, and for the same reasons. A clear out of Newman’s toxic legacy is long overdue.

    Back in 2013 Tony lamented Croydon Conservatives sale of parts of the Riesco collection, saying “this scandal has left us without the boroughs treasured Riesco collection and with a Fairfield Halls in a state of disrepair. In a word, Croydon Tories act of cultural vandalism is now complete.”

    It wasn’t complete then. But it’s getting awfully close now.

    Borough of culture 2023 my arse. I’ve seen better on a petri dish.

    • moyagordon says:

      It’s sad to see members of the Labour Party getting things so wrong. It seems to me that the Labour Party has been hijacked by people who are very far from being socialists.

  5. Lorraine Maskell says:

    I agree this is absolutely shameful at a time when both green space and ecology have become so important. But what do we do to stop it? I am heartily sick of a local authority who forget they work for us and these are assets of the people of croydon not the council. But if they refuse to listen or even give you a right of objection what can we actually do? I really want this to be the next step – we all spend too long moaning about it, what can we actually do to stop it now. Do we have to take over the council or something?

    • Jay Beck says:

      The only thing we can do is all withhold paying our council tax, that is THE ONLY thing that will make any difference, to cut off the supply of OUR money that they have pissed up the wall for the last few years. However, it will need everyone to do it collectively, if it is a half-hearted attempt, those poor few will be penalised financially to the hilt by the Croydon Council bullies!!!!!!

  6. Lewis White says:

    The important thing surely must be taking action to secure the integrity of the house and grounds, and ensure that the building, its gardens, and its landsape setting are not allowed to fall into decay, nor be cut up with ugly dividing fences etc. The original designers would have used a “Ha-ha” to avoid the need for spoling this lovely view.

    My main concern is about integrity and long term protection of the incredibly beautiful landscape seen in the photo of the Inside Croydon article, both the garden (a gem) and the wider rural landscape (the crown)

    and–if the wider landscape setting is accessible to the public via paths-, that these are maintained open. Is this area threatened in a fundamental way eg.. by removal from the Green Belt ? That would lead the way open to building. I suspect that I am right in thinking this?

    Could the nature centre be transferred to another appropriate site where it would be close to wilder habitats? Or keep it where it is, if its main use is educational with school visits. This sounds entirely compatible with a school taking over the house. Suerly the host school could allow group visits from other schools? These will be supervised visits.

    There could be great sense in the council setting up a long lease, as long as there are genuine safeguards about the house, proper repairs, and the preservation of the design and proper maintenance of the gardens. Maybe public access to the gardens could be maintained in some way–with open days?

    Money is the key to keeping such houses and gardens and landscapes in being, let alone in good condition. If the council can do a good deal with the school, and it allows the building and site to “wash its face” in terms of proper maintenance for the next 50 years, why not, as long as there are rent reviews every 10 years.

  7. miapawz says:

    the only thing we can all do is NOT vote for this labour council again at the next election and totally hold the other lot to account (preferably with the fraud squad on speed dial) for the next period. I don’t know what else to suggest. Apart from standing myself.

  8. MR100 says:

    Cressey College (the SEND school for excluded mainstream children in question) has been in the former CALAT council-owned property at the top end of Park Hill Park for a good many years now. When they first moved in there it was a disaster – teenagers running through the park being pursued by staff, dreadful language in front of small children using park and playground, public being accosted by them and generally a free for all the Cressey pupils within the public park. The only way it improved was by fencing them in, in this case by a very tall green ring fencing outside the school building which has since solved the problem. I am sure this is what they will have to do at Heathfield. In that setting it will be very invasive and spoil the place completely. Why can the public not enjoy these listed historic buildings instead of giving them to a load of dreadful kids who frankly will just ruin them. I cannot believe that no one in this council seems to be being held accountable for any of the current sad situation they are in, it is just one bad decision after another.

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