PRP’s design centred around a retrofit of Grace House, a 1960s Alec French-designed detached teaching block, which was to be converted into a 166-home retirement and community centre for developers FORE Partnership and Socius.
The practice had revised its initial plans, submitted in 2021, for the now-closed Steiner school in St Christopher’s Square, which they hoped to turn into one of the UK’s first net zero retirement communities.
But in a series of heated speeches made to Bristol council’s planning committee, critics from various local groups accused the developers of having ‘failed spectacularly to understand Bristol’s values, needs and priorities’. One speaker described the revisions as ‘no more than a desperate attempt to rearrange the chairs on the deck of the Titanic’.
The committee’s eight councillors voted unanimously to throw out PRP’s designs on Wednesday afternoon (9 August).
The vote confirmed planning officers’ recommendations to refuse the application on the grounds of its ‘overbearing’ nature, which they said would be ‘harmful’ to the site’s existing green space, heritage, and identity, and would ‘fail to provide a high-quality living environment for future occupiers’.
The officers’ reasons for rejection were described as ‘compelling’ by one councillor. Another agreed the ‘harm outweighs the benefits’ of the scheme while another called it ‘unfortunate’ that ‘the developer has tried to work the existing landscape in a very late stage … rather than taking a landscape-layered approach from the start’.
The St Christopher’s Square application garnered more than 1,300 public comments over the course of its submission, ‘the vast majority of which are objections’, the planning committee was told. By the time the scheme went to committee on Wednesday, 1,235 parties had objected.
Historic England, the Twentieth Century Society, local MP Darren Jones, and myriad local groups were also among the objectors to both the original and revised plans.
Objectors bemoaned the scheme’s ‘dense overdevelopment’ of the land, as well as its proposed destruction of 38 trees, and its lack of affordable housing.
A speaker before the committee accused the developer of having ‘wriggled out of’ the provision of both affordable housing and SEND [special educational needs and disabilities] space, which they said had been existent on the site since the Second World War.
The private boarding school was founded in 1945 and at its peak had 50 students, before closing in 2020. The developer, FORE Partnership, said in its revised planning statement that it ‘[remained] in conversation with the council regarding the potential provision of SEND pupil spaces as part of the proposals’.
PRP’s plans would have revamped five Victorian lodges on the site, converting them into flats for retired people. Meanwhile two 20th-century buildings – Harwood Lodge and Konig Lodge – were set to be demolished.
PRP also proposed building four new apartment blocks, and a number of cottages, for the 2ha site. It had reduced the number of homes to 116, down from 122 in the original proposals, and cut the size of the tallest building down to five storeys, from six, after consulting with local residents and council planners.
None of the flats were designated ‘affordable’. The developer said in planning documents that Bristol City Council had told them there was no need for affordable housing.
PRP’s original plan was to add a spa extension onto the Brutalist Grace House, but it later made the spa a separate facility on the north-east border of the site.
FORE claimed the scheme would have been ‘one of the only integrated retirement communities in the UK to be net zero’, and would alleviate the strain and demand for age-appropriate housing in Bristol.
But in February, the government’s heritage watchdog wrote to the local authority saying that, despite the revisions, it continued to be concerned over the application and advised that the ‘overall height is reduced, so that the harm is minimised’.
‘We’re deeply disappointed the full benefits of this development were not fully recognised’
FORE Partnership managing partner Basil Demeroutis said: ‘We’ve worked hard on this scheme for two years and still believe in its core strengths, which were acknowledged this afternoon by a number of the committee members.
‘We are deeply disappointed that the full benefits of this much-needed development – which tackles the climate crisis head on, supports Bristol’s net zero targets and provides urgently needed housing for the city – were not fully recognised.
‘While we do not believe that the refusal accurately reflects the true potential and merits of our proposal, we respect the process and will now take time as a team to consider our next steps.’