The Gower School House, in St Georges, was built in 1873 and is Grade II listed. Nuplace Ltd, a housing company owned by Telford and Wrekin Council, plans to refurbish the building, adding three flats and building two rows of terraces behind it.
Residents and local groups objected to the proposal, complaining new homes would create extra traffic and put more pressure on school and GP surgery places and said keeping the Gower Street venue wholly for community use would be better for the area.
But, in a report for Telford and Wrekin’s Planning Committee, council officers said financial analysis found “a standalone conversion to community use would not be viable” and, despite the reduction in floorspace, the new facility would be of better quality than the building in its current condition.
They recommended approval, and the committee voted 5-1 in favour.
Alan Gaut, a resident of nearby Albion Street, said the area was “already overcrowded” before the arrival of 13 new homes and an estimated 33 residents.
“No consideration other than the monetary value has been placed on this,” he said.
Council Development Management Service Delivery Manager Valerie Hulme explained that more members of the public, including those representing local organisations, had applied to address the committee, but published rules limit the number of speaker slots to four: one each for the ward member, a parish council representative, an interested member of the public and the developer.
Ms Hulme said the public slot is allocated on a “first come, first served” basis, so Mr Gaut was awarded it for that application. Neither of the St Georges ward councillors, a St Georges and Priorslee Parish Council delegate nor a representative of Nuplace applied to speak, leaving Mr Gaut as the sole speaker.
Area Team Planning Manager Andrew Gittens said the Gower Heritage Enterprise Foundation and the St Georges Community Group were among those who applied but were excluded under that rule.
Summarising their views for the committee, he said: “GHEF objected to the scheme on the following grounds: The Gower would be better suited as a community facility without housing. This would have social and economic benefits, reduce traffic and provide a fully-fitted play park.”
He said SGCP had also objected, claiming “the community have been excluded from basic planning engagement, with key stakeholders not invited to parish council meetings”.
Committee member Nigel Dugmore said the building, owned by the borough council, is “in a parlous state” having suffered years of “vandalism and neglect”, and said action was needed to save it.
However, he criticised the design, including the fact that the houses come within two metres of the site boundary at the closest point.
He welcomed the promised £50,000 contribution to play facilities and the fact that a new children’s play area, to replace the one behind the Gower, was proposed, but was concerned about the distance.
In a separate application currently under consideration, Telford and Wrekin Council has applied to demolish the disused Women’s Institute building at the junction of Albion Street, Station Hill and West Street, to make way for a new playground.
“The kids who used the play area at the Gower will have a bit of a schlep to get three quarters of a mile, so really there is going to be a loss in that part of St Georges,” Cllr Dugmore said.
Councillor Kuldip Sahota asked whether all avenues of obtaining funding to restore and preserve the building without adding housing had been exhausted.
Mr Gittens said: “GHEF have been trying to raise money, but my assumption is that the level of funding has not been reached. Otherwise an offer would have been put forward to do so.”
Councillor Janice Jones said she used to take children to the youth club that was held there, and “thought it was an amazing building”.
“Something needs doing, and it needs doing now,” she said.
“We can’t go on like we’re waiting for some decision or for several million pounds to arrive.”