Looking for a saviour: St Osyth Priory, Essex

St Osyth Priory, Essex (Image: Stephen Dawson/geograph.co.uk)
St Osyth Priory, Essex (Image: Stephen Dawson/geograph.co.uk)

Of the phrases most likely to cause concern for those who love our country houses, up there with ‘dry rot’, ‘water leak’ and ‘death duties’ has to be ‘enabling development’.  Originally designed to protect heritage assets by permitting limited development to fund repairs, it appears to now be used to circumvent local and national planning guidelines to facilitate inappropriate development where it otherwise ought to be refused.

In Essex, perhaps one of the largest examples of its kind was submitted by the Sargeant family who bought St Osyth Priory in 1999 through their development company ‘City and Country Group‘ (CCG) .  The company applied to build 190 houses as part of an enabling development to fund repairs to the main house and the other 22 listed buildings in the complex claiming that some £30m-worth of repairs were required (and personally I doubt the cost would be that high – happy to be proved wrong by an independent survey from a SPAB scholar).   This number would naturally bolster the calculation for the total conservation deficit (that is, the amount by which the cost of repair (and conversion to optimum beneficial use if appropriate) of a significant place exceeds its market value on completion of repair and conversion, allowing for all appropriate development costs, but assuming a nil or nominal land value).  But is this a case of a developer using the provisions of enabling development to gain permission regardless of the consequences for the house – and the local area?

After passing through various Royal hands, it was sold to Lord Darcy in 1553 and remained the home of various Earls, Viscounts, Lords and Baronets until it was eventually bought in 1954 by author Somerset de Chair who, in 1974, married Lady Juliet Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, daughter of the 8th Earl Fitzwilliam of Wentworth Woodhouse. The couple lived in the gatehouse, with much of the valuable Wentworth Woodhouse art collection, but de Chair died in 1995, so in 1999 Juliet married Dr. Christopher Tadgell and sold St Osyth to CCG and went to live in Bourne Park, near Canterbury.

CCG have a track record of taking on historic houses and have recently restored Balls Park, Hertfordshire and Herringswell Manor, Suffolk and previously Cheverells and Gilston Park – but these were easier to convert as they had all been used for other institutional or commercial purposes rather than as a family home.  St Osyth Priory and related buildings have sad recent history of insufficient maintenance over many years and have been included on the various buildings at risk registers and undoubtedly needs significant work – but can the repair bill really be £30m (by comparison, the whole of St Paul’s Cathedral was recently restored for £40m)?

To play Devil’s advocate, perhaps this figure might be explained by the provisions of ‘enabling development’ which require that;

It is demonstrated that the amount of enabling development is the minimum necessary to secure the future of the place”
– ‘Enabling development and the conservation of significant places‘ English Heritage (2008)

…so to secure a development of sufficient size to make it profitable for CCG, it would need a suitably large repair bill to justify this (see letter from local resident).  It has been suggested on the St Osyth Parish Council website that offering the house for sale (with just 20-acres rather than the full estate) is merely part of the process of proving that no-one is willing to take on the house and restore it and therefore the enabling development is the only option.  In reality, for someone to invest that much in a house (purchase+restoration) they would expect an estate of at least 100-acres, if not two or three times that.  The plans also seem inappropriate with regard to other provisions of the English Heritage guidance:

  • It will not materially harm the heritage values of the place or setting.
  • It avoids detrimental fragmentation of management of the place.

This all seems depressingly familiar where a developer ignores what’s best for the house, and, in this case, what seems to be determined to bloat the size of the local village in pursuit of this unpopular and out-sized scheme.  An active and well-supported local campaign has been highlighting the various flaws of the scheme and the potential damage to the setting and the village if the scheme were to go ahead, but of course, it’s the house which is continuing to suffer.

In an ideal world, the house would be restored for much less than £30m thus showing that the scale of development proposed was unjustifiably large. This again would show that ‘enabling development’ is apparently being used as a means to try and circumvent the usual planning restrictions which are there to protect our heritage and countryside. Then perhaps one day the house with the full estate (hopefully once CCG realise they won’t get permission) will be offered for sale and someone will get the chance to take care of this important house and estate without sacrificing it for housing.

Property details: ‘St Osyth Priory, Essex‘ – Bidwells

More details:  ‘Priory battle gathers pace‘ [Daily Gazette]

Minister ignores good advice: Scraptoft Hall

Scraptoft Hall (Image: wikipedia)

John Denham, the Secretary of State for Communities, has overruled the experts at English Heritage and approved the view of a local planning inspector which will see Scraptoft Hall forever compromised as a country house and reduced to a mere architectural footnote of a massive retirement village.

As had been previously reported (‘Scraptoft Hall at risk from ‘rescue’‘) a developer had used the standard excuse of ‘enabling development’ to propose building a massive 103-unit retirement village with the restoration of the house as a ‘reward’ to the council for this vandalism.  The house, although in a serious state of disrepair, is an important local house largely built in the 1720s but with a core dating from the 1500s.  A period as accommodation for Leicester University ensured that, although not ideal, the house was in use and maintained.  Once the university had left, the vandals and thieves moved in leaving the house as a juicy target for the developers.

It seems that the entire concept of ‘enabling development’ has been seriously compromised to allow councils (sometimes with the connivance of central government as in this case) to get around inconvenient restrictions on building houses.  Although it’s obviously of some social value to provide housing, it seems crass that the price to be paid for new homes is the irrevocable loss of important local buildings, and particularly country houses which are designed to stand proud in their settings.  Consider the English Heritage guidance on the appropriate extent of ‘enabling development’:

“English Heritage believes that ‘enabling development’ to secure the future of a heritage asset is unacceptable unless …it is demonstrated that the amount of enabling development is the minimum necessary to secure the future of the heritage asset, and that its form minimises harm to other public interests.” – emphasis mine – quoted from pg 9-10 of ‘Enabling development and the conservation of heritage assets‘ [PDF])

Reading that it seems incredible that the minister thinks a 103-apartment residential development is the ‘minimum necessary’.  I imagine that if there was a comprehensive review of the use of the ‘enabling development’ excuse many councils would be found to have waived through inappropriate schemes to meet ulterior motives.

So unfortunately Scraptoft Hall is to be sacrificed with the acquiescence of not only the local planning department, the local council, the local MP but also the minister who should ultimately be the last line of defence against these highly damaging schemes.  A further problem is that each time one of these schemes is approved it creates a damaging precedent which is then used against other houses which sadly find themselves the target of the rampaging developers.  If only English Heritage had a legal right to veto schemes which, in its expert opinion, were a gross abuse of the spirit and letter of the planning legislation.

More details: ‘Villagers hail ‘yes’ to plans for historic Scraptoft hall‘ [Leicester Mercury]

Ury House restoration project still in doubt a year on

Ury House, Scotland (Image: Geograph)

When the developers FM Developments went into administration in 2009, it put in jeopardy a huge development scheme which was to fund the restoration of the historic Ury House.  The size of Ury House meant that any scheme was going to have to be ambitious to provide sufficient funding and this one involved the building of 230 homes and the creation of a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course.  The developers had been praised for consulting with local residents and had the full support of the council for bringing jobs and no small measure of glamour to Stonehaven. Now, a year after the collapse, it’s still not clear if the scheme will proceed at all, leaving the spectacular ruins of Ury House at further risk of decline.

The first house had burnt down in 1645, and the second house was subsequently completely rebuilt as the Ury House we see today in 1855 for Alexander Baird in a fine Elizabethan style by the architect John Baird.  Baird was one of the most successful of the architects working at this time even if he rarely followed fashion.  His work at Ury was a continuation of the style of Wilkins and Burns they had developed 40 years earlier but was of a high quality which is still visible even today in the shell of the house. As a first stage of the work of the restoration, extensive scaffolding had been erected around the house in January 2009.

The proposals for redevelopment of the 1,500-acre estate included the conversion of the house into nine townhouses.  Unlike in many other cases of ‘enabling development’ where the setting of the house is compromised through the encroachment of the housing, the plan put forward placed the residential estate well to the east of the house, thus protecting it.  With the bankruptcy of FM Developments these plans have  been thrown into doubt and local planning officers are now working on the assumption that the development will not go ahead – despite local councillors being determined to resurrect the scheme.  Unfortunately the danger is now that another, less sympathetic, developer will take on the project but may try to cram more houses in or extend the area of the estate taken for housing. This would be a real shame. Although the ideal but unlikely outcome would be the restoration of the house as a single family home, this project had developed as a good example of enabling development practiced in the right way, with sensitive restoration of the main house, protection of the setting of the house, and productive use of the estate.

More details: ‘Future of Ury mansion site in doubt‘ [The Press and Journal]

Future of Ury mansion site in doubt