A planning application from a private education business to make extensive alterations to Heathfield House, a listed building owned by Croydon Council, has been refused.
As Inside Croydon reported in June, Cressey College has been renting the building from the council since the first covid lockdown in 2020, initially on a temporary basis.
But as they seek to extend their tenancy with a longer lease, they wanted to make a number of adaptations to the grand, Italianate villa on the top of Gravel Hill, including erecting a nine-foot security fence that would have blocked access to the gardens that have been enjoyed by the Croydon public for decades.
As well as concerns over the building works proposed, there were also questions raised over whether Cressey, part of the Horizon Care and Education Group (a company with a £31million annual turnover), had been given preferential treatment over the lease proposal, and accusations that the council’s commercial property officials had made little, if any, effort to put out a competitive tender for the lease for Heathfield House.
Sources suggested that Cressey, which charges local authorities up to £81,000 per year per pupil for educating children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities, were to be given a generous rent-free period under their lease for Heathfield House, and then pay the council just £5,000 per year in rent.
With the new school terms just a fortnight away, that cushty deal must now be under threat.
This week Nicola Townsend, Croydon Council’s planning department’s “head of development management” notified Cressey’s agents that their planning application for Heathfield House had been refused, citing inappropriate development in the Green Belt and insufficient benefit to outweigh harm to heritage assets.
Did Cressey approach its planning application to Croydon Council thinking that it would go through on the nod because the local planning authority – the council – are also their landlords?
It would certainly seem that way, judging from this passage in Townsend’s letter: “The scheme does not comply with [Croydon planning] guidance and no pre-application discussions were entered into… The local planning authority’s suggested improvements were not adopted by the applicant,” the council chief noted, sniffily.
In her letter, Townsend wrote, “The proposed development would constitute inappropriate development in the Green Belt causing harm to the openness and visual amenities of the
“No very special circumstances exist to clearly outweigh the harm by reason of inappropriateness and other identified harm. As such, the proposal is contrary to the provisions of Policy G2 of the London Plan 2021, Policies SP7 and DM26 of the Croydon Local Plan 2018 and the provisions of the National Planning Policy Framework 2021.”
And secondly, Townsend wrote, “The proposed development by reason of its siting, scale and appearance would result in less than substantial harm to the setting of the Listed Building, known as Heathfield House as such the proposed development fails to meet the statutory test set out in Sections 66 and 72 of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990.
“The proposed development fails to deliver sufficient public benefits that outweigh the harm to heritage assets contrary to the National Planning Policy Framework. The proposed development is thereby contrary to Croydon Local Plan 2018 policies DM15, DM18 and DM38 and London Plan 2021 policies SD1, D9 and HC1.”
The scheme had drawn objections from hundreds of residents, as well as from Croydon Central MP Sarah Jones.
But the initial refusal of planning permission doesn’t stop Cressey trying again.
“The council is ready to enter into discussions with the applicants to assist in the preparation of a new planning application via the council’s pre-application process,” Townsend wrote.
Perhaps while Cressey consider their options, MP Jones or local councillors can use the time to get to the bottom of quite why a large private education business has been offered such preferential terms on a very long lease for a piece of the borough’s public heritage.
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