Residents’ anger over the disappearance of large pieces of masonry in Park Hill Park over Easter weekend has forced the owners of a struggling special school business to issue a series of conflicting statements. By our Town Hall reporter, KEN LEE
There were serious concerns and outright anger expressed by residents over the weekend as a special school based in Croydon town centre was accused of “vandalising” and “stealing” from the council-owned Park Hill Park.
Josi Kiss, from the Friends of Park Hill Park, was first to raise the alarm, after large granite rocks went missing from walls that support the steep-sided banks on the approach road from Coombe Road, while at the same time, piles of very similar-looking rocks began appearing in the college’s car park.
Horizon Care and Education Group, the owners of Cressey College, issued a series of confused statements at the weekend in which they denied any involvement, while “offering” the rocks to Croydon Council to make repairs to the previously undamaged walls.
The contractors must have been on double, perhaps even triple, time as they worked to finish erecting a 10ft-high fence around Coombe Cliff by Easter Sunday – getting all the work done, perhaps, while council planning and enforcement officials were away over the four-day bank holiday weekend.
Cressey have occupied Coombe Cliff, an elegant Victorian building, for around 20 years, the school saying that it acquired the building from the council in 2019.
Horizon Care and Education Group is the same company which wanted to takeover Heathfield House, another heritage Croydon building, and surround that, too, with an ugly wire fence – to keep their pupils in, perhaps, rather more than to keep the public out.
Horizon were denied planning permission for the Heathfield fence – it would not suit a site in the Green Belt. And despite the very low rent they were offered, they lost interest in that Grade II-listed building, which those who have managed to visit, since Horizon’s one-year stay during lockdown, have reported has suffered some significant damage.
Neither residents nor councillors have been able to discover any planning application from Horizon to erect the fence around Cressey College, where the school property borders the public park. And no one was aware that Cressey’s contractors ever obtained permission to help themselves to the stonework from the surrounding parkland.
“Cressey College’s builders erecting a 10ft wire fence around historic Coombe Cliff, using as a base unique granite stones which they have stolen from supporting walls from the original gardens of the Victorian mansion, leaving them in danger of collapse,” Kiss tweeted on Good Friday.
Ownership of the rocks, and where the boundary to the school’s property lies, proved to be difficult to establish while the council offices were closed for the bank holiday.
“Even if they owned the stones – and presumably they don’t – it seems a ludicrous approach to building a wall,” observed one concerned resident.
“Why are Cressey College… yet again vandalising and stealing from a public park?” asked another. “Why is no one charging them with criminal damage.”
According to Kiss, the builders were using granite stones, ranging in weight from 20lb to 40lb, “as a decorative baseline at the bottom of the wire fence they are erecting”.
She said, “Destruction of the park walls for a neat finish of a modern wire fence. I’ve never seen planning permission for the fence.”
According to Jade Appleton, the local councillor, there is a site meeting taking place later this week with the council and the friends of Park Hill group “to address and follow up further”. Appleton said that council officials had been in contact with Horizon, though she did not say what the nature of those conversations had been.
Over the weekend, Horizon issued a series of contradictory statements in response to the fury that they had attracted. There was nothing resembling an apology.
Their estates team, Horizon said, “are communicating with relevant parties to ensure appropriate measures are in place”. Which you might have hoped would have been what a responsible business might have done before commissioning the effective vandalising of a public park.
“The stones have been safely stored on-site ready to restore once site improvements have been made,” Horizon tweeted, seeming to suggest that they might be replacing the rocks… hopefully before any of the hillside banks collapse.
On Saturday, they then issued this statement: “Our contractors have moved a small number of stones from around the fence line, which is within our own boundary at Cressey College, in order to replace the fence as a matter of urgency, for safety reasons.” Ahhh. Safety reasons. Of course.
“These stones will be stored on site there and offered to the local council to repair walls where existing stones are missing outside our boundary.
“Far from causing any damage, we are doing the complete opposite by offering these stones, which are not connected to the important retaining walls on the access road, to enable the repair of them, which we are aware are very much part of the local heritage.”
Funny how they only got round to mentioning this to the council, and the park friends group, after the stones were suddenly removed from the walls…
And then, they added this: “We stress that we have never removed stones from supporting walls.”
By Easter Sunday, Horizon’s position had shifted once more, attempting to pass the buck for the stolen rocks on to “others”.
They said that they would work “to ensure the granite stones are protected”. Protected from whom? Themselves? They didn’t say.
“We reiterate we have not taken any granite stones, or any other stones in fact, from the walls outside our boundaries.”
Despite the photographic evidence of great, rock-shaped holes in the bankside walls, Horizon tried to claim, “These are stones that had been lying on the ground inside the fence and have been stored for safe reuse.
“The wall leading to the school site is open to the public, and does not sit within our boundary, and we have no control if stones are removed by others.” Hmmm.
Kiss, for one, was unconvinced.
“Your builders have conveniently finished using all the granite today (Easter Saturday). The friends group will be taking this further. Park Hill Park is not a spare parts yard. It’s a historic part of Croydon, forgotten by the council for 20-plus years, but not by local residents old and new.”
Horizon and Cressey College, meanwhile, appear to have other problems to deal with.
Cressey’s business depends on receiving fees from local councils of up to £81,000 per pupil per year, to provide education and care for youngsters with special educational needs.
Cressey, and another Horizon special school, Denmark Hall in South Norwood, are undergoing a re-branding and re-naming process, to become “Aspire Learning”. Which sounds nice…
This erasing of the long-established Cressey College name might not be entirely unconnected with a dreadful Ofsted report from May 2022 in which inspectors found the school “Inadequate” in four of the five categories (they rated Cressey as “Requires improvement in the other).
Cressey had previously been rated as “Good”.
The headteacher has been replaced since last May, but there’s clearly a business issue here for Horizon, which is estimated to receive more than £10million per year of public money to educate the 188 SEND pupils on its roll at Cressey.
Few local councils, though, will be prepared to pay anything to an establishment which is reckoned to be “inadequate”.
Presumably, the management at Horizon and staff at Cressey College will soon be saying that they will… leave no stone unturned as they seek rapid improvement.
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Coombe Cliff was left to the people of Croydon by one of my forebears a century ago. Croydon Council, in whose care it should have resided safely, paid such little regard to it that they virtually trashed the place to the extent that the historic wrought iron and glass summer house – or what was left of it – had to be removed to be reinstalled and restored at Hornimans Museum; another family home, where it can be now seen in its glory.
It is depressing to note that Croydon continue to this day with their disregard for public generosity and benefaction. But that is what Croydon do.
The removal of the rocks forming the driveway-edge low retaining wall is either just stupidity on behalf of the builders ( if done without approval of the school managers) or deliberate vandalism.
The Easter holidays, along with Christmas, are the favoured time for developers and others to carry out architectural and landscape vandalism, like knocking down Art Deco factories, and erecting fences 2 m high or more across the landscape without planning permission. And the traditional time for fly tippers to start their summer season too.
The Coombe Cliffe house and grounds clearly need to be rescued and used well.
Could not the Whitgift Foundation buy it, take it over and restore it as student accommodation?
Then they wouldn’t have to keep building all over their South Croydon schools still beautiful but increasingly less verdant landscape.
There is a good case, I really believe, for heritage (but not the most attractive) buildings like this to be evaluated for appropriate redevelopment. maybe keeping and converting / extending for residential or sheltered / nursing use…. maybe demolition.
Local councils are not often the best custodians.