Controversial demolition of the former Whitcliffe Mount School site began last Friday, and campaigners who have tried to prevent an Edwardian building being destroyed as part of the process are considering their options as to how to react.
The fate of the 108-year-old Foundation building at Turnsteads Lane is at issue following a complicated and at times controversial series of arrangements in which ultimately a clause including the phrase “unfettered by buildings” when a parcel of land is transferred from trustees to Kirklees Council is part of the agreement, meaning the site will be cleared.
The land swap takes place at the end of the contract when all former school buildings have been demolished and landscaping completed. Planning permission to do this was approved by councillors after an application had been submitted by construction company Laing O’Rourke following a public consultation in December 2014.
Spen Valley Civic Society, which tried to have the building listed by English Heritage early in the process, is to meet today to decide what action it might take now that demolition - initially scheduled for late last year - has begun. Campaigners are not concerned about the 1960s buildings but have fought to save the Foundation Building, which dates from around 1910.
In September a petition signed by more than 3,000 people opposing the building’s demolition was received by Kirklees Council in a debate which revealed some of the twists by which the current situation has been arrived at.
Under a Department for Education - through its Education and Schools Funding Agency (ESFA) - scheme, a new Whitcliffe Mount School has been built and opened next to the old school, clearing of the old site being part of an agreement with trustees, the meeting of full Kirklees Council heard.
But Paul Graves, of the Whitcliffe Mount Petitioning Group, speaking at that meeting, said only the council’s decision was driving demolition as no options for retaining or changing use of the building had been considered when that process began in 2013. He said the building was structurally sound and at a meeting with Kirklees Council leader Coun David Sheard, the latter had tasked the group to find developers to utilise the building.
Mr Graves said the group had found five developers, all experienced in converting heritage buildings, a number valuing the site at more than £500,000. The building was originally funded by Cleckheaton people and the people should have equal value in deciding the future of the building - “the best value for all is to keep the building and develop it,” he said.
But Coun Sheard told the meeting the building had never been owned by the council but of five parcels of land the school had been built on three were owned by trustees and two by the council. The council had agreed to swap a parcel of land at trustees’ request as a favour and only part of the building was on the land trustees intended transferring.
The council had made clear from day one that it did not wish to take on a building it had no use for, or budget for upkeep. The ESFA had warned that if the council delayed the planning and demolition process which had been approved it could be liable to pay a sum to the contractors unspecified but likely to run into hundreds of thousands of pounds - money it did not have and a risk the council should not take. The planning permission had been granted three years earlier and interest in saving the building had only grown more recently in part because of an open day held by the petitioning group, said Coun Sheard.
Chief excecutive of the council Jacqui Gedman said it would be possible for officers to try and broker a late deal but warned members they needed to be realistic. The petition was received and noted.