Heritage, Community and the Longmead Dilemma

On 4thJune, Surrey County Council were notified that an application had been made to Historic England to ‘spot list’ the Longmead Adult Education Centre, a historic building in Redhill that has been the centre of local protests over the past few months. The application, which would mark the building out as a site of special historic interest, is the culmination of efforts, including a petition of over 1,000 signatures and an in-person protest, to preserve it from demolition by Surrey County Council. The application has halted plans by the council to use the site temporary relocation of an activity centre run by Surrey Choices, a charitable organisation centring around those with additional needs, such as autistic people and the elderly. To do this, it was decided that demolition would be cheaper than the costs of refurbishing the building and making it safe to use. 

The day the blog you are reading first went live, and some weeks afterward, I put some of my fairly inconsequential weight behind the campaign via tweet, which culminated in a letter to county leader Tim Oliver. However, upon further research into the reasons for the demolition – to house a charitable organisation which helps vulnerable people – my views became more complex. It was hardly Arthur Dent’s house being removed for a road; this was, by all accounts, a noble cause. 

Surrey Choices is an organisation that runs a range of activates centring around support for those in need, such as autistic people, disabled people, people with mental health issues and the elderly. Launched in 2014 as a Local Authority Trading Company (LATC), it is now wholly-owned by Surrey County Council. It runs community centres across the county, providing activities such as bowling, sports, gardening and art classes, alongside assisted living services, such as shared lives (in which a person who needs support moves in with or regularly visited a carer) and short breaks (a respite service where those with additional needs can go to stay a few nights). Additionally, it provides help for its clients in the sphere of employment, with tasks such as CV writing. The centre that would be moved to the site that Longmead currently occupies is the Noke Drive Activity Centre in Colebrook. Providing horticulture, craft sessions, and IT lessons to prepare its clients for work, it is a varied and valuable centre for those who need it. As well as this, such close proximity to Redhill that the site provides would benefit those making use of it greatly. 

All this is, of course, incredibly valuable to the community. But there are two sides to every argument. Surrey Choices isn’t proposing to use the building permanently, but for a mere six months, until which time that the centre in Colebrook has finished its current development. Tearing down a building with a rich history, and angering a local community, seems a steep price for a six-month usage. After Surrey Choices are done with it, what would happen? Affordable housing is planned, but this is not something that the Longmead building itself cannot be used for. A refurbishment of the building may be economically foolish in the short term, but the long-term rewards could very well be worth it, giving the building the ability to be made more permanent use of. 

The building is indeed a valuable heritage site, having been around for over a century. Built by architect Thomas Rowland Hooper, it was originally Cromwell Road School, which opened in 1910 and served generations of children. After its closure in 1987, it became the Longmead Adult Education Centre. However, for over a decade, since 2007, it has been empty and unused. The council claims that vandalism has made it unsafe, despite a 2014 survey which resulted in the building being deemed to be in sound structural condition, making it safe for use.

This poses an interesting dilemma: how much is heritage really worth? On the one hand, the building has been an important fixture of Redhill for over 100 years; many residents value its architectural beauty, and there are a host of memories bound up in the very brick and mortar of its structure. On the other hand, the demolition could make way for immensely important community services, albeit a temporary one that could easily be located somewhere else. Is respect for the past, however valid, really worth getting in the way of council initiatives that could provide housing to the vulnerable and activites to the learning disabled? It’s rather odd to see so much weight from the left – including the local branches of the Green and Labour parties – being put behind a campaign that puts heritage front and centre in the face of community outreach programmes. Nostalgia and preoccupation with, even romanisation of, the past is generally a conservative notion; shown perfectly at a more macro level by the recent national and now worldwide arguments regarding statues. 

I’m not going to say conclusively which side I’m coming down on, but it goes without saying that research about the matter has made me think about the whole issue in a less black and white way. It seems like a waste to wantonly destroy such a beautiful and historic building just because it’s the easiest and cheapest option. But on the other hand, campaigning so fervently against the destruction of property and “heritage” becomes questionable when the reason for this destruction is to make way for charitable causes, those that have a direct bearing on the here and now. 

After a meeting on 23rd June, the council have expressed doubt that the application to Historic England will make a dent in their plans, so the demolition is expected to go ahead. For now, all there is left to do is ponder whether the demolition is necessary, whether it will impact more lives negatively or positively, and whether there are ways to make everyone happy. 

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