Great North Wood under threat from holy order’s £3.5m scheme

‘Generic and lacking character’: the terrace of eight houses for private sale did not draw compliments even from Croydon Council’s usually undiscriminating planners

A holy order of Catholic nuns wants to hack down mature and healthy trees in a specially protected site, part of the ancient Great North Wood, and then use the timber to build a “visitor attraction” to commemorate… the Great North Wood.

And all this is to be done to allow them to build a terrace of eight houses in Upper Norwood, all destined for private sale, with a potential value of more than £3.5million.

The planning application for the eight homes was submitted to Croydon Council in March on behalf of the Congregation of Our Lady of Fidelity, the holy order that founded a girls’ convent school on the site in the 1850s.

The application seeks to use part of the grounds of the Virgo Fidelis girls’ secondary, which closed in July last year when the holy order managed to stiff the borough’s Council Tax-payers with an estimated £4million bill for the former school’s over-budget spending.

Upper Norwood’s Hogwarts: Virgo Fidelis’s imposing 170-year-old landmark building

The school’s closure came after several years of falling rolls, mounting financial problems and what had become a poorly maintained, Gothic main school building that was eventually deemed “not fit for purpose”.

Planning application 22/00278/FUL is “for 147 Central Hill And Site Adjoining 39 Hermitage Road, Upper Norwood, London, SE19 1RS…”, and seeks the “Erection of a three-storey terrace of eight homes with access from Hermitage Road on a present area of woodland, the proposed ‘gifting’ of land around the new housing site to the council, the construction of a themed visitor centre within the Virgo Fidelis site and the planting of trees and shrubs within the Virgo Fidelis site”.

By proposing only eight homes, the developers have no legal requirement to deliver any social or even “affordable” housing.

According to the latest planning documents, the applicant says this is “a windfall residential development” and they “do not consider the small part of the site where trees are to be removed” is of particular local significance as a local green space designation.

So that’s alright then.

Except that even the usually developer-friendly Croydon planners have sniffed out a wrong ‘un here.

They say that the proposed architecture for the houses “is generic and lacking character”, and that they “have significant concerns with the scheme”, not least with the breaking of the conservation protections in place on what is called Convent Wood.

Sketchy: this is one of the maps submitted with the planning application, with houses to be built in the south-eastern corner of the school site, close to Convent Wood

The money-spinning housing development project has been worked on by the holy order for at least three years. The planning application is based on a tree survey conducted in February 2020, and this followed a pre-application meeting held with the council’s planning department in September 2019 – well before the decision was taken to close the school.

Missing: MP Steve Reed is not listed under the consultees as lodging an objection

The planning application was put out for public consultation this spring, but there were no registered objections against the proposal from the local MP, Steve Reed OBE [Editor’s note: Reed says that he did object; if that is the case, it is not recorded on the planning register as being from an MP, which would obviously carry additional weight].

Only one local councillor lodged an objection – and that was Stephen Mann, who’s not even a councillor any longer.

According to Croydon’s planning department, “The application is comprised of several elements on open land designated as Locally Listed Historic Parks and Gardens, a Site of Nature Conservation Importance and Open Space. The southern part of the site is included within the Great North Wood.”

The housing would be built at the south-eastern corner of the school grounds, off Hermitage Road. The proposals include some new tree planting, as well as gifting a slither of land to the council (though as correspondence from the planners points out, the actual value of what amounts to a grass verge is, at best, moot, and is probably just a burden on the public purse).

Following that September 2019 pre-app meeting, on October 17 that year planning officer George Clarke wrote to the applicants’ agent, stating, “On the basis of the information provided at this stage we have significant concerns with the scheme.”

Clarke listed a series of potential policy breaches with the proposals, advising, “When considering whether a development is acceptable, substantial weight will be given to whether it conserves and enhances landscape features or planting that makes a positive contribution to the special historic character and original layout of the Locally Listed Historic Park and Garden”.

Clarke writes of the status as a Site of Nature Conservation Importance: “Policy DM27d of the [Croydon Local Plan] states that development proposals should ‘have no adverse impact on land within biodiversity or geo-diversity value as designated on the Policies Map’…. [and] that ‘proposals that affect such sites will need to be carefully assessed.

“‘Any assessment would take into account both operations during construction and the changes likely to be brought about by the new use’ and that ‘an ecological assessment will be required for developments which will impact land with biodiversity or geo-diversity value’.

Hind sight: Drake’s flagship was built with Great North Wood timber, and now the nuns want to chop down some more

“The pre-application material states that ‘it is not considered that the proposed housing site forms a vital element of the local nature site, or that harm would result from its use for housing development, as this area is not demonstrably special’.”

But Clarke notes that, “No ecological assessment has been submitted alongside to substantiate this statement.

“An Ecological Assessment is required and should, at a minimum, consider how the proposal would impact protected species and sites, wildlife corridors and important habitats, and how biodiversity may be limited or enhanced by the proposals.”

Clarke also warned that even the relatively tree-less open space where the houses are to be built is protected by London Plan Policy 7.18 which states “the loss of protected open spaces must be resisted unless equivalent or better quality provision is made within the local catchment area”.

And while the council welcomed the provision of a new visitor centre – through the conversion of a storage hut – there was more than a sense that they remained unconvinced of the value of the “attraction”: using felled timber from the Great North Wood, and themed around the Golden Hind, the ship sailed by Sir Francis Drake 600 years ago, which itself was built from wood felled from the Great North Wood.

“There is concern about the removal of mature trees and the impact upon biodiversity,” Clarke wrote.

“The area provides a clear visual link to the Great North Wood, directly visible from the streetscape. This also provides a visual amenity within the streetscape more generally.

No objections: ex-councillor Pat Ryan (left), with MP Steve Reed, was silent on the Virgo Fidelis plans

“The proposed new area of woodland is much less easily visible in the streetscene and thus does not provide such a direct [or] clearly visible historic link within the streetscape nor such a clear visual amenity. The woodland therefore has the potential to become more hidden to surrounding communities…

“The provision of eight family-sized three-bedroom homes would aid the council in providing much-needed family accommodation, however a new design approach is required. There is presently no frontage and the relationship with the street is awkward. The architecture is generic and lacking character. The character and architectural expression should respond better to ancient woodland with regards to materiality and form.

“A level of spaciousness may be required to allow trees to be retained and opportunities to retain a woodland character should be embedded in the proposal.”

The applicants were advised to contact the London Wildlife Trust, who run the Great North Wood Project whose principle aim is to avoid the destruction of any further remaining pockets of the Great North Wood.

The applicants were also warned that should their planning application “receive 12 or more objections or be required to be called in by a local councillor, it would then go before the planning applications committee for determination”.

Of the 536 public comments filed to the council’s planning portal on the proposals, 506 raised objections to the nuns’ scheme.

Updated: This report was updated to include reference to MP Steve Reed OBE’s statement that he did lodge an objection, despite his not being listed as an MP on the planning register’s record of consultee objections.

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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