9ft fence for special school could ruin listed Heathfield House

Our south of the borough correspondent, PEARL LEE, on the disposal of another of Croydon’s heritage assets – with a listed building being rented out on the cheap to a multi-million-pound education company that charges its pupils up to £81,000 per year

Fenced off: the council is considering a planning application to build 9ft-high security fencing around the Heathfield House terraces

There’s growing fears that Croydon’s cash-strapped council is about to agree to a set of works, including ugly prison camp-style fencing, which will shut out the public from one of the borough’s long-cherished gardens – and all done on the cheap for the benefit of a multi-million-pound education business.

Heathfield House, in the Addington Hills, was bought by the council in the 1960s upon the death of its owner, Raymond Riesco. Riesco also left to Croydon his collection of priceless Chinese ceramics, some of which remain on display in the Museum of Croydon.

But it was an act of blatant Philistinism by the Croydon Tories when they were last in control of the Town Hall that saw them flog off a valuable selection of the Riesco Collection (they didn’t even get best price for the precious pots, at the cost of millions of pounds to the people of Croydon). The sale led to the Museum of Croydon being stripped of its accreditation with Arts Council England.

Now, the council appears poised to cause further damage to another valuable Riesco relect, the house.

Heathfield House is a Grade II-listed Victorian villa on Coombe Lane that sits on a high point in the hills, with dramatic views southwards down Gravel Hill across farm fields towards New Addington.

While the building has been under-used by the council, mainly as a training centre for council staff for much of the last 60 years, the building has been poorly maintained and neglected.

In contrast, the formal gardens and plant and trees collection have been well cared for and much-enjoyed by residents for afternoon strolls, and by local ecological groups for fund-raising fetes and other events.

Rooms with a view: if Cressey College takes over Heathfield House, Croydon residents fear that they will no longer be able to enjoy these kind of views from its terraces

But an application currently out for public consultation – until the end of this month  – threatens to fence off large parts of the terraces and Italianate sunken gardens, excluding the public from much of the grounds, and has raised fears that the fabric of the building might also be altered, damaged permanently.

There’s also a strong suggestion that, while the cash-strapped council needs to muster its resources as carefully as possible, a deal has been struck which will provide the new tenants of Heathfield House with a long, rent-free period.

“The lease will be a long one and a renewing lease,” one concerned source told Inside Croydon. “This is not a short-term arrangement at all. If it goes through, we’ll be as good as losing Heathfield House forever.”

During lockdown, as an emergency measure, the council agreed to lease the building on a temporary basis to Cressey College, a special school for children aged up to 19 with special educational needs.

Now, prior to placing the Cressey tenancy on a more permanent basis, a planning application is being considered for some significant changes to the gardens and the building to make it more suitable for the 50 pupils proposed.

Some within the council appear quite relaxed about the changes suggested.

“This is a solution to a problem for the council which brings us in some money, and which might even see Heathfield House undergo some repairs that it has needed for many years,” a Katharine Street source said.

“But it is a listed building, and there’s a limit to what the council, or the tenant college, is allowed to do as far as alterations are concerned. Yes, the fencing does appear to be huge and ugly, and yes, there are issued about access to parts of the garden and parking spaces for the disabled which need to be looked at.

“But the outcome could be good for Cressey, good for the council and good for Heathfield House.”

There have been other, more business-like, reservations raised, though, about how thorough the council has been in seeking a tenant for the building.

There is some suggestion that Cressey, operated by Horizon Care and Education Group (a company with a £31million annual turnover, according to their latest Companies House records), have been given preferential treatment and that there has been little, if any, effort by the council to tender a lease for Heathfield House competitively.

According to the school’s most recent Ofsted report, Cressey charges between £38,000 and £81,000 per year per pupil.

Flogger-offer: Peter Mitchell

Yet Croydon Council appears prepared to let them have use of Heathfield House on the cheap – or for nothing whatsoever for at least the first 12 months of their tenancy.

According to one source, Cressey have been encouraged to take on the Heathfield House tenancy with a generous and long introductory rent-free period, followed by a charge of just £5,000 per month from the council.

Inside Croydon has seen a copy of a letter from Peter Mitchell, the council’s relatively new “director of commercial investment and capital” – in other words, the chief flogger-offer at Fisher’s Folly. It is Mitchell’s task to “sweat the assets” of the bankrupt borough.

“The council have recognised the importance of this asset as an important part of Croydon’s history and therefore, rather than selling the asset, we have… agreed terms to let the premises and some of the surrounding gardens to Cressey College,” Mitchell writes, adding that one of Riesco’s grandchildren supports the move as it is “in line with the uses within the original property transfer to the council”.

The letter continues: “It is proposed that the property will be let on a full repairing lease and therefore the structure will be maintained by the college once the lease has been completed.”

Heathfield House’s wooden panelling and fireplaces are to be covered in Perspex or boxed in “to preserve the original features”.

Mitchel wrote, “Other alterations will be sympathetic and not damage the original elements.” But Mitchell does admit in his letter that Cressey, in their first year in Heathfield House, has already caused some damage to the building.

“The initial damage caused by the school’s use,” Mitchell wrote, “was in part due to the short-term nature, so less protective measures were put in place… The College have already agreed to carry out any of the repairs either as part of their fit-out works under the lease, or… will repair as part of the earlier licence agreement.” Mitchell failed to describe what damage had been caused.

Campaign concerns: the leaflet that has been circulating since the weekend, opposing the changes to Heathfield House

In his letter, Mitchell is promising that the Croydon Ecology Centre, previously based inside Heathfield House, will get new toilets and storage space, as they will now be locked out of the main building. “We have agreed and included within the proposed lease terms a right for [Croydon Ecology Centre] a right for them to use the house at times to be arranged with the tenants for fundraising events. They have been consulted throughout this process.”

Regular visitors to the House and gardens have raised serious reservations about the loss of car parking spaces close to the building, which have been reserved for wheelchair users. Cressey College wants to take over the use of both existing car parks for its 25 staff.

And there remains deep suspicions about the 9ft-tall prison camp-style fencing being proposed, and the loss of access to sections of the terracing around the house.

The fence “is inappropriate for this listed building,” one objector has written to the council.

“Excluding public enjoyment of the gardens and compromising disabled access should also be planning grounds for dismissal.”

A leaflet has been in circulation since the weekend says that the fencing will see the entire top terrace and sunken gardens will be removed “completely” from public use.

“If this scheme goes ahead, residents stand to lose the access, enjoyment and scenic beauty of all these areas of the gardens,” the leaflet states, with photographs of the affected parts.

“The best views of Heathfield are from the terraces and they are essential for disabled and elderly access to the rock garden.”

They describe the fencing as “an ugly and depressing eyesore” that will be visible from all around the nearby parkland.

In council director Mitchell’s letter, he says, “Undoubtedly this proposal will lead to some changes around the use and enjoyment of the House and Estate, but given the mitigation works that we are looking to put in place and the financial position of the council, this is believed to offer a fair compromise and ensure the building continues to be well-maintained and used for beneficial purposes.”

While the fate of Heathfield House ought to provide another thorny conundrum for the new council’s planning committee – the application, after all, has been made by a client of the council – it might also be enlightening if Mitchell is called before the council’s scrutiny committee and asked to explain the commercial details of his deal with Cressey College, and what kind of commercial tendering was undertaken by the council before offering them the tenancy.

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About insidecroydon

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 inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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7 Responses to 9ft fence for special school could ruin listed Heathfield House

  1. Donald Trump would be proud of that fencing.

    I fear that the council is not getting best value.

  2. Ann Young says:

    Will this remove disabled access to the gardens? If people with mobility difficulties cannot access the disabled parking adjacent to the house they have no access to these beautiful gardens let alone the other people of Croydon no longer having their car park!
    Beautiful gardens and views I visited with my grandparents and still regularly visit today need preserving in their entirety for the people of Croydon.

  3. Lewis White says:

    I went–for the first time ever- to this interesting, time-warp of a house and its rather sad, but still beautiful (if in a melancholy sort of way), gardens, last Summer. The upper terrace around the building would once have been the place where elegant the owners, family and guests would come out from the house to take in the fresh country air of Addington, and enjoy the extensive bucolic view, and maybe take tea or wine while doing so.

    I gained the impression of a once-much loved private villa (the very rich person’s type of villa, not the ubiquitous Victorian artisan dwelling) that is now suffering from neglect and vandalism to both building and gardens.

    I tried to envisage a landscape and management scheme that would magically allow public access to the building and upper terrace while both are in use for a school. The verdict ?

    Impossible. Impossible for the public to share with a school. Safeguarding. Vandalism.

    soooo……What about reservng these areas for the school, but keeping open public access to the the lower terrace and adjacent gently sloping gardens with their specimen conifers, and retaining views to and from the house?.

    Verdict–very very difficult. A tall fence would be needed–a really robust fence. A mesh fence to allow views through, and to allow storm winds to pass through without blowing down the fence.

    But…….. would the school be happy with the potential (very sad but a real worry) for unsavoury people to pry on the kids through the mesh ?. Would the fence have to be located well away, and a line of evergreen shrubs planted next to the fence to deter pry-ers? I am talking pyracanthas, not Leylandii

    The uninterrupted views concept then dies a death !

    It is also very obvious and also very sad that the gardens which once would have had maybe a dozen gardeners and a forester, then council gardeners and keepers, now had perhaps 0.20 persons per day doing the looking after.

    I cogitated and came to a terrible solution– sell the whole lot off to a rich oil sheikh or Russian Oligarch (this was months befoe Putin’s invasion of Ukraine) , someone with the cash to look after the house and gardens, just as it was in the Victorian era.

    Had it been the 1950’s or 60’s , the house could have become the HQ of Croydon’s Parks and Leisure department, with admin and technical staff located there instead of at the Town hall or Taberner.

    A pipe-smoking Chief Superintendent of Parks, Cems and Crems, and Leisure centres would have had their office in the study of the original owner, while the typing pool would be located in the old billard room. The top people could motor down the hill to the Town Hall to see the Chief Exec and troublesome councillors.

    Outside, carpet bedding, razor-cut lawns and rhodendrons….. and many gardeners plus Atco mowers (with grass boxes) and not a strimmer in sight (edging shears still being the tool)

    But that was 1960, not today and the cash-strapped, deeply cut and de-staffed world of local Govt.

    I think that a school could be a good use for the building, but combining public access to the gardens and private main use of the house is not easy to design for, if open views are to be retained to and from the house.

    I must open up the plans and see what they have come up with.

    Oh dear, just hours left to do so, and make consdered comments.

    Bang goes another day. But thanks Inside Croydon for alerting us.

  4. Last week Croydon Tories were trumpeting their “we say no to bad developments” policy.

    When this ill-conceived application comes before Councillor Michael Neale and his Planning Committee, will they turn down this one too?

    Given that the Conservative sold off bits of our Riesco collection (at a loss), it’s not looking good for Heathfield House and Gardens.

  5. Winque says:

    Is this the same company under this Guardian report of ‘Revealed: scandal of England’s ‘inadequate’ private children’s homes’? https://www.theguardian.com/society/2022/jun/26/england-private-childrens-homes-inadequate-ofsted

    If the pupils are at risk from the public, the building at risk from pupils and vice versa, and the only ‘solution’ is to manifest a prison-like segregation for both pupils & public, with both made to feel unwelcome to the other, then is the site really ‘appropriate’? What other uses have been considered?
    The council persists in an almost frantic short-term approach to ‘assets’ which rarely puts them out to tender appropriately to even consider the options. With things as they appear financially surely Horizon could literally build a more fit-for-purpose building on an appropriately secluded site without the multiple issues of the inconvenient public and heritage protections. Along with the massive for-profit turnover Horizon’s two directors are director of a total of *37* companies between them. Why are organisations like this being handed important local spaces with no open tender process whilst so many organisations run by the local community – so many working with vulnerable groups – are desperate for space? As with multiple previous asset ‘disposals’ it feels like there’s a lot going on under the surface. Wouldn’t be surprised at all if sale is the long game with an argument of the tenant’s ‘investment’ under their lease arrangements.

    • The 2018 Ofsted report into Cressey College, when it was using Coombe Cliff on Coombe Road – the building they had to vacate in a hurry during lockdown – refers to the school seeking an alternative location.

      Might they have had an eye on Heathfield House four years ago?

      Perhaps someone in Croydon Labour, who was around at the time, can enlighten us?

  6. Lewis White says:

    It is very clear that this Grade 2 listed building — a rather quirky design witha definite Italian feel– — needs saving, and needs a proper use. A school could do that–and have the resources to spend on the building and grounds to maintain and–this is very important– restore the declining landscape which has been neglected and spoiled by default, over perhaps 60 years.

    I really think that –if the landscape around the house were designed to provide them visual calmness and yet, stimulation, the children, and the staff, would benefit from being in such a nice building with level easy access to the open air.

    The disappointing things about the proposals are not so much what they do (although a better fence design should be possible) but what they don’t do.

    The level of landscape thought, beauty and creativity evidenced by the application is more or less– zero. I pity the kids and staff when I look atbnthe paucity of design of the outside spaces.

    I think that Riesco himself, had he decided to open a school on the site, would have got on the phone to a decent firm of Landscape Architects, and arranged for their Principal to come up and meet him and the Head of the School to look at the grounds, and come up with some proposals in keeping with the building, the fit with the wider landscape, and how to let the public enjoy the wider grounds while keeping the children and building safe. There were several great female landscape architects then, as ther are indeed today. I treasure a book I bought remaindered in the 1980’s in Banstead Library–a book called “Planning for Play” by Lady Allen of Hurtwood. She would have set Riesco on the right design path.

    My guess is that they would have thought seriously about creating comfortable and quietly inspiring outdoor spaces for the chidren to enjoy– the philosophy of the times was to let them play in the open air (soooo unlike the poor kids of 2022 who go to pre-schools with tiny tarmacked outdoor spaces (if they are lucky) — primary schools like the Harris one on the Purley Way, and Heathfield Academy in South Cryodon where the amounts of open space outside are pathetic–derisory in fact. No grass — lots of tarmac- more like sensory deprivation areas than school grounds fit for children. I blame the Government for such paltry legislation and space / design standards relating to provision of play space for education at all ages.

    But that is an aside……

    Back to Heathfield, if a decent use is not found, now, the building will be neglected and suffer a progressive nibbling away — a death by a thousand cuts- a curved window here broken and never replaced– a york stone path there ripped up and tarmacked. Progressive decline. Plus vandalism, and -a dramatic possibility– it might well get torched…….

    In my view, as a retired Chartered Landscape Architect, this site deserves a “wholistic view” leading to a landscape design, and resulting in a landscape overhaul, to include restoring the walls of the terraces, and the paths. How about taking the opportunity to rip down the 2oth centrury accretions such as the lock up garages on the North side?

    Do the lawns on the upper terrace really need to be replaced by rubber? Does the wear and tear warrant removaing real, green grass ? I don’t think so. That will deprive the children from cionact with real grass and mother nature. Do decorative urns really need to bve placed in the basement for safekeeping ? (yes, that is mentioned)

    Do the fences have to be those used round high-security premises like airports and detention centres, and do they have to be 3 m high ? . I am assuming that they will be located on the very edge of the upper terrace, so they will loom about 4 m high above the lower terrace. That is quite big.

    Is the fenced area in the right place?.

    In the Planning and Access statement it says that hedges to screen the fences would be inappropriate, but I am wondering just how a 3 m high security fence would look unadorned?

    I personally would rather see a 3 m evergreen hedge masking the fence, with the building visible (albeit not fully) over it, than masked behind a flat-topped mesh fence. It might sound a bit naff, but one can buy security grade mesh fences with a scalloped top.

    The sort of mesh proposed would not stop “peeping Toms” who would be peeping in, but the close mesh apperture would make it hard for staff inside the enclosure to see out.

    A design for a fence for this split-level historic site would not be easy, but, ironically, would not cost the earth.

    The major challenge, which the current proposals avoid, is the continued admission of the public to the lower terrace area and the adjacent grasslands. There is a weird rose garden fenced in with bow topped railings, which is not at all in keeping with the design of the gardens as whole.

    The real problem is that nice old houses like this, surrounded by parklands, need a purpose, and need staff to look after them and need funding–but above all, they need a sensitive re-design to meet the needs of the current day–just as Riesco would have realised, and no doubt, implemented.

    Finally, I would like to see the Council appoint the 21st century equivalent of my notional early 2oth Century Landscape achitect. It is not called an Architect, nor an Urban Designer. It is called a Landscape Architect .

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