Beacon School Plans

You will be aware that McLean Homes Midlands Ltd. have notified the District Council of its intentions to demolish Beacon School and have at the same time submitted an application for the building of two storey dwellings on the land.

The school is a building of considerable stature and as such is a landmark in, and an important contributor to the quality and character of the local environment. It was built in 1893 as the Midland Truant School and the "Renaissance - style buildings, in brick with Bath stone dressings, were designed by R. Stevenson of Burton". The Civic Society has objected to the demolition of the building and has expressed its positive support for the endeavours of both the District and the City Councils to preserve it. Much has been written and said, including the compilation of a public petition, about the demolition of the school but little attention has been paid to the development, which is intended to take its place. The proposals in themselves speak volumes about the attitude of the applicants - one no doubt shared by many representatives of the house building industry as a whole - to the treatment of what is arguably on of the FINEST remaining potential development sites in the City. Little regard is paid to the physical characteristics of the site and its setting, to the Development Plan, the provisions of which for approximately 75 dwellings on the land are ignored in favour of 59, to the overriding need for the building of small units of accommodation and to the desirability of creating housing schemes which are less profligate with their provision for the private car especially in circumstances, as in this case, where the land in question is close to shops and services and is easily accessible by public transport. The overriding aim of the developers appears to be to build a scheme which is the most straightforward, the most saleable and, above all, the most profitable. In that sort of scenario, the Council's approved planning brief for the site with its policy objective of retaining the school for its visual contribution to the townscape and for its potential to provide small homes is an encumbrance and cannot be entertained, being dismissed merely as a preference of the Local Planning Authority.

The outcome is a bland and unimaginative layout consisting of straight lengths of conventional road along which are strung out 44 conventional four-bedroom houses and 15 two-bedroom dwellings. In a letter supporting their proposals, the applicants write "careful siting and arrangement of the different house types proposed visually subdivide the housing into a series of distinct visual groupings each with its own sense of place, thereby achieving a high quality residential area". This is a masterpiece of self - delusion. For 'high quality' read 'expensive'. There is little sense of enclosure within the layout. Where the provision of the small units offers an opportunity to create an interesting discreet development, perhaps in the form of an enclosed courtyard, they are haphazardly located at the extremity of open ended cul-de-sacs on the eastern boundary of the site adjacent to Safeways. It is very much a case of 'out of sight, out of mind'. The layout contains within it no landscaped open areas and scope for the planting of substantial trees is limited. Where open space is provided on the western side adjacent to the golf course in Beacon Park - in my opinion the wrong place - it is not possible to gain access to it because it is proposed to totally enclose it with a fence.

Members will recall talks earlier this year given to the Society by Jo Rose of ASHTAV and Dr. Peter Larkham, Reader in Conservation and Planning at the University of Central England. Their message was similar - change is inevitable but what is important is the management of that change and the pursuit of high quality. It would be interesting to know what they would think of McLean's proposals. How does one resist the mediocre? The answer is 'with difficulty'. The odds are heavily in favour of the developer. In 1980 the Department of the Environment issued circular 22/80 which virtually said that market forces would be the sole arbiter of design. As one commentator has put it "Local Authorities could refuse permission on 'planning grounds' - i.e. the suitability of the site for development - but not on grounds of ugliness".

In recent times Government Ministers have tried to distance themselves from that Circular by pronouncing that design and layout are material planning considerations and by stressing the importance of planning briefs. It remains to be seen if in practice they are merely fine words. The proposals for Beacon St. School do not deserve the approval of the Council but, if they are refused, it would be interesting to find out whether or not the actions of the Local Planning Authority in the event of an appeal against such a decision would command the support of the Inspectorate. Don't hold your breath!

Mike Tole
May, 1998