Derbyshire council could buy arson-hit school site by force as talks with developers collapse
A Derbyshire council is pushing ahead with plans to buy a derelict former school off a developer by force, after failed negotiations over the selling price.
Heanor Grammar School has been vacant for the best part of a decade and unsuccessful proposals to develop the site were last debated three years ago.
It has been hit by arson on multiple occasions over the years and is the frequent subject of anti-social behaviour and attempted break-ins, Derby owners, Vale Property Limited have said.
Amber Valley Borough Council, through millions of pounds in Government grant funding, is seeking a compulsory purchase of the site so that it can redevelop it – with the project valued at more than £8.5 million.
Cabinet papers discussed on September 8 say “unfortunately, it has not proved possible thus far to reach a negotiated acquisition as there remains a significant gulf between the council’s valuation and the current owner’s expectations”.
The council cabinet have agreed to appoint specialist company Gateley Hamer to investigate the use of a compulsory purchase order on the grammar school, with a further report to be brought to the council in due course.
Council plans for the site, though Future High Streets funding, are to turn the main school building into community and business space, while the former science block may be demolished or turned into a cinema and food and drink outlets.
The authority says it has already received interest in companies and groups looking to run the cinema and outlets and to move into and manage the main building.
In a cabinet meeting today, Cllr Tony Harper, cabinet member for regeneration and community safety, said the total value of the proposals for Heanor is more than £17.8 million, with the grammar school plans comprising just under half of that.
He said the council was now investigating the purchase by force of the grammar school, but warned there were risks with the project.
Cllr Harper said: “This is a once in a generation opportunity to regenerate Heanor town centre.”
Cllr Ben Bellamy, leader of the council’s Labour Group, said: “We are absolutely delighted, not just the members representing Heanor but members across the borough.
“This will fundamentally change Heanor, the way it is perceived, the way it looks and the future of Heanor – forever.”
Cllr Harper said that while the focus was currently on Heanor “we have got our finger on all of the town centres”.
Cllr Kevin Buttery, Conservative leader of the council, stressed that the Government’s deadline for the work to be completed is March 2024, with the money given on the basis of work being completed by then.
He said : “We want to ensure the team is concentrated on getting the Heanor project through. Let’s make sure that it happens and is completed, let’s take the politics out of it.
“We can both (Conservatives and Labour) put it on our election leaflets.”
Vale Property Limited bought the site for half a million pounds in 2016 and it planned to invest £5 million into its redevelopment.
It told the Local Democracy Reporting Service last year that security and repairs were costing the firm £100,000 a year.
The council is said to have offered market value for the former school and the owner is said to have asked for £1 million – double the price it bought it for.
Vale has been approached for comment but has not yet responded.
Cllr Paul Jones, leader of Heanor and Loscoe Town Council, said: “The town council welcomes the decision for the compulsory purchase of the grammar school as it is a pivotal part of the proposed Future High Street Fund proposals.
“Indeed, the town council has committed £300,000 of its own money to help with redeveloping the grammar school for community use.
“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity and we must not miss it. Hopefully, the timescale for going through the compulsory purchase process will not be too drawn out and meet the Government deadline conditions on the Future High Street Funding.”
Leonie George, chair of the Heanor Grammar School Action Group, told the LDRS: “It is brilliant from our perspective that the council is moving forward with the compulsory purchase.
“It is definitely the right thing to do and we need to move forward with that quickly.
“The owner has been approached by the council and our group but it has not properly engaged with us.
“It is the centre of the Future High Streets project and as a group we are really pleased.”
Vale, speaking to the LDRS last year, said there had been five attempts to burn the property down and it was under “virtual constant attack from vandals and thieves” which had sparked the large annual spend on security.
In September 2018, the firm saw its plans to turn the Grade II-listed building into 24 apartments, the former science block into a further nine apartments, and to build 19 houses in the college grounds, refused by the council. No further plans have since been put forward.
The site operated as Heanor Grammar School from 1912 until 1976.
It ceased to be a school in 1976 when it became an annex of the then South East Derbyshire College, before being taken over by Derby College in 2010.
It had been due to become a studio college but insufficient numbers led Derby College to pull the plug on the plan and the building closed in 2013 and it has been vacant since.