Our Borough South correspondent PEARL LEE on the disposal of another of Croydon’s heritage assets – with a listed building let at low cost to a multi-million pound education firm which charges its pupils up to ‘at £81,000 a year
There are growing fears that cash-strapped Croydon council is set to agree to a package of works, including an ugly prison camp-style fence, which will prevent public access to one of the borough’s best-loved gardens – and all 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 on the death of its owner, Raymond Riesco. Riesco also left Croydon his collection of priceless Chinese ceramics, some of which remain on display in the Croydon Museum.
But it was an act of blatant philistinism on the part of Croydon Tories when they were last in control of Town Hall that saw them whipping a valuable selection from the Riesco collection (they didn’t even get the best price for the precious pots, at the cost of millions of pounds to the people of Croydon). The sale led to the withdrawal of the Museum of Croydon from its accreditation with Arts Council England.
Now the board looks set to do further damage to another treasured Riesco relect, the house.
Heathfield House is a Grade II listed Victorian villa on Coombe Lane which sits on a high point in the hills, with spectacular views south down Gravel Hill across agricultural fields towards New Addington.
While the building has been underused by the council, primarily as a training center for council staff for much of the past 60 years, the building has been poorly maintained and neglected.
By contrast, the formal gardens and collection of plants and trees have been well maintained and much appreciated by residents for afternoon strolls, and by local environmental groups for fundraising parties and the like. events.
But an application currently in public consultation – until the end of this month – threatens to fence off large parts of the terraces and sunken Italian gardens, excluding the public from much of the land, and has raised fears that the fabric of the building could also be altered, permanently damaged.
There is also a strong suggestion that, while the cash-strapped council must marshal its resources as carefully as possible, a deal has been struck which will give new tenants of Heathfield House an extended period of rent-free time.
“The lease will be long and renewed,” said a concerned source. Inside Croydon. “It’s not a short-term arrangement at all. If it works out, we’ll be as good as losing Heathfield House forever.
During the lockdown, as an emergency measure, the council agreed to temporarily rent the building to Cressey College, a specialist school for children under 19 with special educational needs.
Now, before placing Cressey’s tenancy on a more permanent basis, a planning application is being considered for significant changes to the gardens and building to make it more suitable for the proposed 50 pupils.
Some on the board seem quite relaxed about the suggested changes.
“It’s a solution to a problem for the council which is making us money, and which could even see Heathfield House undergoing repairs which it has needed for many years,” a Katharine Street source said.
“But it’s a listed building, and there’s a limit to what the council, or the tenants’ college, is allowed to do in terms of alterations. Yes, the fence appears to be huge and ugly, and yes , there are issues with access to parts of the garden and parking spaces for the disabled that need to be considered.
“But the outcome could be good for Cressey, good for the council and good for Heathfield House.”
However, other, more professional reservations have been raised about the thoroughness of the council in finding a tenant for the building.
It would appear that Cressey, operated by Horizon Care and Education Group (a company with an annual turnover of £31m, according to their latest Companies House records), were given preferential treatment and that the council made little, if any, effort to offer a lease for Heathfield House competitively.
According to the school’s latest Ofsted report, Cressey is charging between £38,000 and £81,000. per year per student.
Yet Croydon Council appear ready to allow them to use Heathfield House on the cheap – or for nothing at all for at least the first 12 months of their tenancy.
According to a source, Cressey was encouraged to take Heathfield House to let with a generous and lengthy introductory rent-free period, followed by a charge of just £5,000 a month from the council.
Inside Croydon saw a copy of a letter from Peter Mitchell, the council’s relatively new “director of business investments and capital” – in other words, the head of the flogging bid at Fisher’s Folly. It is Mitchell’s job to “sweat the assets” from the bankrupt borough.
“Council recognized the significance 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 gardens surroundings at Cressey College,” Mitchell wrote, adding that one of Riesco’s grandchildren supports the move as it is “in keeping with the uses under the original transfer of ownership to the council.”
The letter continues: “It is proposed that the property be leased under a full repair lease and therefore the structure will be maintained by the college after the lease ends.”
Heathfield House’s wooden paneling and fireplaces are to be covered in Plexiglas or wrapped “to preserve original features”.
Mitchel wrote: “Other edits will be nice and won’t damage the original stuff.” But Mitchell admits in his letter that Cressey, during their first year at Heathfield House, has already caused damage to the building.
“The initial damage caused by the use of the school,” Mitchell wrote, “was partly due to the short-term nature, so fewer protective measures were put in place… The College has already agreed to carry out any of the repairs either as part of their fit-up work under the lease, or…will repair under the prior license agreement.Mitchell did not describe the damage that was done.
In his letter, Mitchell promises 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 in the terms of the proposed lease a right of [Croydon Ecology Centre] a right for them to use the house at times to be agreed with tenants for fundraising events. They were consulted throughout this process.
Regular visitors to the House and Gardens have had serious reservations about the loss of parking spaces near the building, which have been reserved for people in wheelchairs. Cressey College wants to resume use of the two existing car parks for its 25 employees.
And there remain deep suspicions about the proposed 9ft high prison camp style fence and the loss of access to sections of the terraces around the house.
The fence “is inappropriate for this listed building”, wrote one council opponent.
“Exclusion from public enjoyment of gardens and restriction of access for disabled people should also be grounds for dismissal.”
A leaflet has been circulating since the weekend that the fence will see the entire upper terrace and the gardens below removed “completely” from public use.
“If this program continues, residents risk losing access, enjoyment and scenic beauty of all of these areas of the gardens,” the leaflet reads, along with photographs of affected parties.
“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 fence as “an ugly, depressing eyesore” that will be visible from anywhere in the nearby park.
In the letter from council manager Mitchell he says: ‘This proposal will undoubtedly result in changes to the use and enjoyment of the house and estate, but given the mitigation works we are seeking to put in place place and financial position of the council, it is believed that this offers a fair compromise and ensures that the building continues to be well maintained and used for beneficial purposes.
While the fate of Heathfield House should provide another thorny conundrum for the council’s new planning committee – the request, after all, was made by a council client – it could also be illuminating if Mitchell is called before the planning committee. council’s review and asked to explain the commercial details of its agreement with Cressey College, and what type of commercial bidding was undertaken by the council before offering the tenancy to them.