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 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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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Read more: Croydon tops the table for flogging off public assets
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