Developers say they want to tear down the remaining St Peter's building in Gainford.
Developers say they want to tear down the remaining St Peter's building in Gainford.

A VILLAGE “eyesore” that county planners consider a heritage asset is to be demolished if developers have their way. Plans to build homes and convert the remaining frontage at St Peter’s, in Gainford, into flats were approved earlier this year, but now the two companies involved say the scheme is unviable.

They blame St Peter’s School’s past for hampering plans and they want it removed. Last week’s parish council meeting was told that villagers had heard “harrowing” stories about St Peter’s.

The building has stood empty for decades and has been plagued by vandalism. In 2016 arsonists destroyed one the buildings at the former borstal. Ruttle Plant and Kebbell Homes, which own different parts of the site, want to change tack. Justin Stannard, representing both companies, told the parish council that plans to develop the site were “one thing, but actually being able to deliver it is something else”.

He added: “One of the biggest hurdles we have been experiencing over the years is the history of the old school and how that taints any potential investment into any development schemes. People are uncomfortable with the past of the building itself.

“On a viability basis, and indeed, on a delivery basis, we would like to look at a slightly alternative scheme whereby we get rid of the old school.”

Mr Stannard said the owners could also not sell the property on to other developers while the school still stood.

Cllr Linda Britton questioned why the developers were wanting to change the scheme since they were aware of the site’s history from the outset.

She added that it may be difficult to get approval for demolition.

She said: “One of the things you must be aware of is that Durham County Council made it a non-designated heritage asset and had very strong views on that. Indeed, in Kebbell’s planning process the chief conservation officer said he welcomed the retention of the building.”

Cllr Sarah Hannan suggested the developer look at an alternative scheme for the building and consider turning it into a commercial or retail centre as part of a mixed-use development scheme.

She said: “I have heard stories, and quite some harrowing ones, about St Peter’s, so it does have a history, but perhaps one of the ways of mitigating it might be to use it for a commercial purpose, rather than residential. In other areas that type of building has been turned into retail.”

Mr Stannard welcomed the councillor's input and said a mixed-use development might be an option.

However, Cllr Britton, along with Cllr Andy Smith, said the parish council did not have a mandate to talk about the development until the village’s neighbourhood plan has been adopted.

She said feedback from a consultation is still being put together with the hope of holding a referendum on the plan in September.

The council also urged the companies to consult with villagers on their plans.

Cllr Simon Platten, referring to previous public consultations, said: “There was a lot of feeling in the village that we just needed something doing, At that time, I don't think people cared too much about the bricks.”

County councillor for Gainford George Richardson said he would welcome the St Peter's being torn down.

He added: “I did voice the opinion [at the planning meeting] that all of it should come down because I didn't like it. In my eyes it is an eyesore.”

Built in 1899, St Peter’s School was initially an orphanage and then became a residential school until it closed in 1983. In 1986, it became a nursing home but this closed in 1998. It has remained empty ever since. A total of 57 homes are planned for the site.