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Exclusive: No child cruelty charges after two-year police investigation into special school St Christopher’s

Two years after the school for vulnerable children closed, the valuable site has been sold and now local residents are raising concerns about plans to redevelop it into a care community for older people.

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A two-year police investigation into child cruelty at a privately-run school for vulnerable children has concluded without any charges, the Cable can reveal.

The school and care home in Westbury Park was for children with severe and complex learning disabilities, with placements costing local councils hundreds of thousands of pounds. It was run by The Aurora Group, a private company owned by an investment fund that manages billions of pounds of assets.

In July 2019, the residential part of St Christopher’s closed down and a number of staff were suspended after Ofsted discovered serious safeguarding concerns and the police launched an investigation into child cruelty.

Then in March 2020, the Cable revealed the day school, Grace House School, was also closing its doors, due to a falling number of students. St Christopher’s had been run as a Steiner school since being founded in 1945, until 2016 when it was taken over by the Aurora Group. 

Over two years, Avon and Somerset Police investigated 30 incidents, most of which were not criminal offences, obtained witness statements and interviewed 10 individuals under caution.

An Ofsted inspection of the home just before it closed found children being restrained inappropriately, an over-reliance on agency staff, poor record keeping, insufficient training and supervision of staff. Ofsted blamed poor management for the systemic failings, which had not been addressed since being identified at previous inspections, and were putting children at risk.

The police said they had sought advice from the Crown Prosecution Service, but concluded there wasn’t enough evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction. The investigation has been officially closed and police said they would take no further action.

Senior investigating officer Larisa Hunt has written to the families of all the children whose cases were investigated to explain the decision and offer to meet them.

The police also said the investigation’s findings have been passed to Bristol’s Local Authority Designated Officer to consider the concerns raised and ensure vulnerable children are safeguarded in the future.

Detective Chief Inspector Hunt said: “This has been a complex and lengthy investigation and I wish to thank the children and their families for their patience.

“I understand that they may feel disappointed by the outcome but would wish them to be reassured that while there may not be any criminal prosecution we will always work with our partners to ensure children and vulnerable adults are safe in residential care settings.”   

The closure of St Christopher’s left Bristol without sufficient placements for children with the most complex needs. In response, Bristol City Council announced plans for a new council-run care home to avoid the need for expensive and sometimes inappropriate placements outside of Bristol. 

Meanwhile, Aurora have recently opened a new special school in Berkeley in Gloucestershire. Aurora Severnside School is open to up to 60 children aged 11-16 with social, emotional and mental health needs, including autism spectrum conditions.

A spokesperson for the Aurora Group said: “Our thoughts and best wishes have been, and continue to be, with our former students and their families.

“The school rightly raised safeguarding concerns in 2019 with the relevant authorities. We did all that we could to support families during a difficult time and cooperated fully with a subsequent police investigation. The safety of the young people in our care always comes first.”

Controversial redevelopment of the site

After the school’s closure, it was announced in May this year that Aurora had sold the five-acre site including a Grade-II listed building to self-described ‘ethical investor’ FORE Partnership and care provider Amicala, which planned to invest up to £80 million in an extra care community for older people. 

The extra care model provides independent living for older people, who buy their own home, but have access to communal facilities and care based on their need, which can be increased over time. 

The planned development was also marketed as net-zero carbon and prioritising social value by supporting the community with local issues. The initial response was positive from local residents, who were told developers wanted he new development to be seen as an extension of the local community. 

But when local people were shown initial sketches at a community meeting in September, they were shocked by the density and height of the plans for new buildings. Initial plans, seen by the Cable, show nine buildings of at least four storeys. It is expected that the site will include at least 100 units.

An aerial view of the site next to the Downs

“We are appalled,” Jeff Bishop, the planning officer of Westbury Park Community Association (WPCA), told the Cable: “This is massive and completely unacceptable over-development beyond our worst expectations. 

“Residents were promised their views would be taken on board by the developers,” he said. “But the community is shocked that initial designs show multi-storey blocks packed into what is a green site. This is denser and higher than even the Harbourside Wapping Wharf development!”

More than 40 households and local businesses have now formed St Christopher’s Action Network (SCAN), a new group to represent residents’ views in talks with developers and prevent the site from being ‘overdeveloped’. 

Local resident Francesca Kay, who is a member of SCAN, told the Cable: “As a community we are in favour of sensitive and appropriate development of this very special green space next to the Downs. 

“The initial plans are shocking,” she added. “Cramming large numbers of people into multi-storey blocks is not the way forward and will only create more traffic, pollution and parking chaos. 

“This doesn’t look like the ‘eco’ project that was promised by developers only a few weeks ago. If they genuinely want to have the support of this community, they need to listen to local people and understand our concerns.”

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A spokesperson for the St Christopher’s project said the plans were still at an early stage. 

“We recently undertook two workshops with neighbours where we discussed ideas for the initial masterplan for this important development site and what the massing and scaling could look like. We are reviewing the feedback from those sessions alongside feedback received from other stakeholders, the City Council and groups such as Design West as we develop our plans further. 

“We will continue to consult closely with the local community and key stakeholders. Further sessions with the community will be held later this year where residents will have the opportunity to provide feedback on the design proposals. 

“We are committed to delivering a considered extra care development that will retain and enhance existing heritage buildings, will be beneficial to the environment, and will provide a range of benefits to the local community as well as Bristol as a whole.”

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