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
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.
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.
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.
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.
- To view the planning application and post your own comments on the proposals, click here. Public comments are open until June 30.
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