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Updated plans to redevelop St Christopher’s into retirement community have been unveiled. But some locals still need convincing.

The debate rages on about the future of the site of St Christopher’s, a former residential school for vulnerable children that closed amid a police investigation in 2019.

Reports

Local residents have given their views on updated plans to redevelop the former St Christopher’s school site into an ‘extra care’ retirement community for older people. 

The residential school in Westbury Park for children with severe learning disabilities closed down after Ofsted discovered serious safeguarding concerns. The Cable recently revealed that the two-year police investigation, which looked into as many as 30 incidents, has now concluded without any charges. 

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. Earlier this year it was bought by self-described ethical investor FORE Partnership. An £80 million investment in a sustainable extra care community for older people was announced. 

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. 

But local people raised concerns when initial plans were unveiled at a community meeting in September, including about the density and height of the buildings. In the context of Bristol’s housing crisis, this is the latest flash point in the wider debate on what kind of development should be prioritised – this time in a leafy, affluent part of the city.

Meanwhile, others want to preserve the historical use of the site – providing care for vulnerable children. The closure of St Christopher’s has meant children have had to be sent out of the area for residential placements at extra cost to the council, which has prompted Bristol to work towards opening a new care home, to provide more stability for local families and save money along the way. 

Responding to concerns

Now, the developers behind the ‘St Christopher’s Square’ project have updated their plans and launched a public consultation process ahead of submitting a planning application in early 2022. 

Luke Martin, project manager at developer First Base, told the Cable they had responded to “legitimate concerns” by reducing the number of apartment blocks, and moving higher blocks from the site boundaries to the middle of the site so they’re further from surrounding residential streets. 

The total number of units has been reduced to 125 to 120, which are made up of a mixture of cottages and apartment blocks. But Martin said this total can’t be reduced further, because otherwise the care model won’t work, as residents will have to be charged more for their service charge. 

Other elements of the scheme that First Base were keen to highlight were powering the site with zero-carbon energy, converting the former school into a cafe and leisure facilities that will be open to the general public, providing 65 parking spaces on-site and giving Westbury Park Primary School access to a small area at the edge of the site.

How locals reacted

More than 200 local people attended drop in events over the last week to see the updated plans. One of them was Peter Lord, who told the Cable: “If there must be development, and I think there must, then I think this is quite good.” 

But some scepticism remained: “I can’t help noticing that there’s a lack of detail in this presentation. The heights of different buildings weren’t evident. 

“There’s a lot of idealistic language here about how great it’s going to be, so I hope they deliver on all that. 

“I’m glad they’re doing consultation, it’s really important. It mustn’t just be a token. That’s the anxiety. Are they going to do what they say they are? One is sceptical.”

Another local resident, who didn’t want to be named, said: “This will provide no affordable housing. I’m not a NIMBY. I’d rather have something smaller, affordable, a genuinely integrated mixed-community.” 

While the developers stressed the need for high quality specialist housing for older people, it remains unclear how affordable the cottages and apartments will be. 

She added that local people having access to some facilities wasn’t important to her, and there was “no guarantee” that they would be delivered. 

An aerial view of the site

The site which provided education for children with learning disabilities for decades is seen by some as a community asset that needs protecting. Anita Bennett, a former trustee of St Christopher’s, has this week submitted a question to today’s Full Council meeting calling on planning officers to block the development plans by rejecting a change of use, so that the site can be preserved for education for children with complex needs in future. 

However, First Base said that a change of use wasn’t required, as the current use class – C2 Residential institutions – would cover the proposed extra care community. The Cable has asked Bristol City Council to confirm this.

The Westbury Park Community Association strongly criticised the first plans unveiled in September, but have not commented on the updated plans. 

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A spokesperson of newly-formed residents’ group St Christopher’s Action Network (SCAN) told the Cable: “We remain supportive of the concept of extra care, but believe the plans are still an overdevelopment of the site. While they have been revised, the overall number of units has only been reduced by five. There are still too many blocks that are too high and too dense, and out of keeping with this special conservation area. 

“Concerns about road safety, traffic and parking remain. SCAN will be pushing for assurances on these and other issues our community tells us matter, like trees and wildlife. Despite raising concerns over aspects of the consultation process, we still encourage everybody to continue to have their say. We look forward to seeing how developers respond to community concerns.”

On the charge of ‘overdevelopment’, the developers have pointed out that the proposed 120 dwellings across 5 acres is higher than the minimum density and lower than the optimum density recommended in council urban planning policy. 

Lucinda Mitchell, director of developer First Base, said: “These carefully considered plans provide for a scale and density that strikes an appropriate balance between optimising this important site for much-needed homes for seniors, while delivering designs that are environmentally friendly and sensitive to the local area.

“The development will also generate wider social and community benefits; helping address the shortage of specialist accommodation for older people in the city, alleviating pressures on the NHS and social care systems, and freeing up local homes for families looking to up-size.”

“The plans remain at an early stage of development and have already evolved following feedback from the community, demonstrating we have listened to people at the countless meetings, workshops and site tours we’ve held since the summer. Following the consultation period we will continue to explore how we can respond positively to feedback from the community as well as key stakeholders as the designs evolve.”

The developers’ own consultation period ends on 19th January, and a planning application is expected in early 2022. If approved, building could start in early 2023, with a completion date in late 2025.

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